Vampire class is in session! A brief history of blood suckers

The "vampire prof" Peter Gölz chronicles the origins of society's beloved blood suckers.

Professor Peter Gölz teaches a crash course on vampires at the University of Victoria

The highly influential silent horror film Nosferatu revolves around the mysterious Transylvanian Count Orlok (portrayed by Max Schreck). (FICG.mx/Flickr)

From the haunting Nosferatu to the widely panned Dracula Untold, blood-sucking vampires have been a cinematic hallmark for decades.

And if you're one of those people who never skips out on a vampire flick, maybe it's time to consider a major in vampire studies.

Peter Gölz teaches a class on vampires at the University of Victoria. The course dives into the rich history of the blood suckers, which spans over many centuries.

"The Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians — they all had vampiric mythological creatures that came out at night and drained their victims of bodily fluids," he toldNorth by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

Gölz says the earliest interpretations of the creatures in pre-Christian times were almost exclusively female, and they would attack their own family members.

While these "blood-sucking demons" shared many similarities to the modern vampire, it wasn't until the 18th century that European folklore began reporting on the existence of literal vampires.

The legendary Count Dracula emerged as a literary character after the 'vampire frenzy' swept through Europe in the 18th century. (Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal)

A 'proven' vampire

Gölz traces the modern vampire frenzy back to a peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg Monarchy, signed after centuries of war.

"That's when the stories of eastern Europe made it into western Europe, when the stories of vampires were first popularised," he said.

After the signing of the treaty, vampire folklore that had been brewing in rural eastern Europe quickly spread. The rumour-mill swirled as tales about blood-sucking vampires terrorizing small villages travelled across the continent, eventually making their way into Germany and England.

Shortly after, a whole slew of vampire sightings were being reported.

One of the most notable reports was of a Serbian militiaman named Arnold Paole, who lived in a small town called Meduegna.

"He told the villagers that he had been attacked by a vampire and tried to fight it off but couldn't," said Gölz.

Paole died in 1727. But a few weeks after his death, a group of curious villagers opened up his grave. They found a relatively undecomposed body with fresh blood flowing from his ears and mouth. They drove a stake though his heart, and he groaned as it bled, according to an investigation commissioned by the court of Vienna.

The investigation, conducted by military officers, two army surgeons and a priest, concluded that Paole was indeed a vampire.

Poor knowledge of body decomposition contributed to belief in vampires in the 18th century, says Golz. (The British Library)

Gölz is fascinated by the history of the Paole investigation and says it helped craft the modern incarnations of the monsters that soon began appearing in poems, short stories, novels and eventually films. 

But he's still not buying the report's conclusion.

"At that point, a lot of vampires were used as scapegoats because there were a lot of medical conditions that couldn't be explained, and vampires were an easy target."

With files from CBC's North by Northwest


To listen to the extended interview, listen to the audio labelled: Vampire class is in session! A brief history of blood suckers