Why a Stake Won't Kill a Vampire

by JoHarrington

It's the mainstay of many a movie and literary plot, but a stake to the heart makes no sense. Find out why all you know about protection against vampires may be wrong.

In the movie 'Interview with a Vampire', Daniel Molloy outlines various vampire protections to his interviewee. The Vampire Louis dismisses them all as the ravings of a 'demented Irishman'. He referred to Bram Stoker and his comment held more truth than you might imagine.

So much of what we take for granted as vampire lore was invented by that genius author in 1897. It's since been developed, expanded and adapted for each new decade. But none of it is very old, certainly not as ancient as the creatures in our path.

In reality, a stake in the heart would do nothing much to Dracula or Louis, at least as Hollywood would have us believe.

Read It and Sleep Reads Out This Article

The wonderful YouTube narrator has taken this Wizzle and rendered it verbally. It's meant to pan from ear to ear, as part of the audio experience. Enjoy!

A Vampire Stake is One Big Mistake

It all depends upon how you're actually using it. Following the lead of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be even more dangerous than it seems.

The scene's been made famous from Dracula to Buffy, through Being Human and Blade

The vampire hunter prepares a stake and awaits the coming of the monster. A dramatic bit of dialogue ensues, before our hero or heroine plunges the stake into the creature's black heart.

It writhes in agony or turns to dust. Finally dead and defeated.

Name any contribution to the vampire genre during the last hundred years.  If a stake's not used, then it's been mentioned.  It's fundamental to the plot. It's the last hope of humankind.

There is even that veneer of antiquity.  Vampire historians can point to a long tradition of staking the undead in their graves.  Bram Stoker didn't pull this stuff out of his backside, when he included it in his novel Dracula.

But no-one is looking closely at the small print.  Medieval East Europeans did indeed take a stake to a suspected vampire's grave, but it was only one of a whole box of tricks.  It wasn't even the thing which may kill the beast.

Nothing in that tool-box did that.  Vampires can't be killed. They're already dead.

The Vampire Diaries: A Homecoming Staking

This is the stereotypical pop culture staking, but how would it even work? The vampire isn't staked TO anything. She'd simply pull it out and go on.

Replica Vampire Stake Props

These would look good with your Buffy cosplay, but don't expect them to do much against real vampires.

A Graveyard Stake-Out

You can't kill the undead (the clue is in the name), but you can stop them leaving their graves. That's how stakes were originally used.

Image: GraveyardYour average medieval vampire slayer would take one look at the modern day stakes and laugh in your face.

Their stakes had a cross bar near to the top.  It served the dual purpose of pinning the corpse to the ground beneath and invoking the protection of Christ.  The point of a stake was to stop a vampire from being able to rise from its grave.

Imagine it like a tent-peg.  Would you bother attaching your guide-rope to any peg without a hook on top?   No, because it would just slip off and your tent would collapse.  

A medieval vampire encountering a modern day stake would just rise off it.  There would be no cross bar pinning them to the Earth.  There was no pain, no hurt. They were already dead.  What's one more hole in their body compared to decomposition and being buried six feet under?

Some vampire hunters didn't bother with a stake at all.  They simply turned the corpse over.  When it reanimated, it wouldn't realize it was now face down.  It would dig and dig, but instead of reaching the surface, it would merely be going further underground.

Other experts advocated dismemberment. It would be difficult for a vampire to walk in search of its prey, if its feet had been severed.  It couldn't eat the flesh and blood of the living, if it had been decapitated.

When a vampire scare hit New England, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the terrified population took this option.  Graves have been exhumed in Rhode Island and Connecticut (with isolated cases as far west as Minnesota), where the thigh bones had been crossed Jolly Roger style over the skeleton's fractured chest.  The skull was placed on top.

Nothing could kill them, but certain things could keep them in their graves.  The stake was just one part of this.  Bram Stoker only elevated it above all else, because he was trying to hammer home the link between his Count Dracula and the historical Vlad the Impaler. 

Now that was a man who knew how to kill with stakes.  Only his poles were several feet high and his victims were human beings.  The true horror was in the reality, not Stoker's literary fiction.

Learn More About the Historical Dracula: Vlad the Impaler

Vlad Tepes was not a vampire. He was a real Romanian ruler, who held back the Ottoman Empire. But he did it in probably the most brutal way possible.

Warding Away the Vampire Menace with Vegetables

Of course, trapping the monsters in their tombs only works if you know where they go to rest. That wasn't always the case.

Image: StaredownUsually the villagers and/or families in peril knew precisely where their vampire's grave was located.  It was generally (and tragically) a deceased family member.

Occasionally an area would be threatened by an unknown blood-sucker. Steps could be taken to locate the grave (like releasing ravens to find it), but in the meantime, the best that the people could do was hope to keep the creature away.

Much of our modern vampire lore comes from Bram Stoker.  He did his research too.  He took reams of disparate folklore from around the world, then picked and mixed what would ultimately end up in Dracula.

He enriched it with several inventions of his own.  Vampires have no reflections in mirrors, because Bram Stoker wanted something to indicate visually that they had no soul. 

He also took a brief mention of garlic and made it the vegetable weapon of choice against the vampiric undead. He could just as easily have gone for turmeric.  That herb was mentioned in the same Roma folklore from which he lifted the notion of garlic. 

But then garlic was more common in both Britain and Ireland, while turmeric (aka Indian Saffron) could be expensive to acquire. Maybe Stoker wanted to give his human readers a fighting chance!  Yet it's never explained why garlic (or turmeric) would repel the undead.

A clue could lie in the fact that garlic is a very healthy food to eat.  Its properties render it a strong favorite for nutritionists today.  Historically, it was also viewed as a kind of 'cure-all'.  If it was that good for the body, then it could be great for the soul too.

For that reason, the Classical Age Greeks left cloves of it at cross-roads, so that the Goddess Hecate could snack on it.  Shop-keepers in India would hang it up to ward off evil spirits.  And, if Pliny is to be believed, the ancient Egyptians worshiped garlic and onions as practical deities.

These traditions trickled into Europe with the Roma, then attached themselves to warding away vampires too.  But, in truth, garlic would have to be a pretty good cure-all to combat actually being dead.  I doubt a single clove is going to cut it.

Turmeric and garlic were just a couple amongst a myriad of protections to ward away vampires. Another included giving them a mirror.  The creatures were so self-absorbed, they'd become enthralled by their own reflection.  Their erstwhile victim could then make a clean getaway.

Alternatively, rice could be scattered on the floor.  The vampire would become overcome by the need to count them.  A whole night could pass in safety, if you just kept adding more dried rice to occupy the undead.

I don't recall any of this turning up in Twilight.

Garlic Has No Effect on the Vampire Lestat

This was a deleted scene from 'Queen of the Damned'. Vampires aren't unduly worried about any particular vegetables.
Loosely a dramatization of the second and third books in Anne Rice's 'The Vampire Chronicles', it is universally hated. Almost. Tear me to shreds - I loved it.
It's one of the classic vampire movies of all time. The dramatization of the first in Anne Rice's 'The Vampire Chronicles' series set the standard.

Vampires and Christianity: Crosses Won't Help You Here

There has been a very unhappy reaction from the Christian Church on the subject of vampires.

The good people of Medieval Europe were very firm on their notions of what happened when you died.  You went to Heaven or Hell.  There might be levels of purgatory or limbo along the way, but ultimately you were in the hands of deity.

What you were not supposed to be doing was knocking on the door after a bite to eat. Vampires didn't sit well with the teachings of the church at all.  No soul should have been left behind.

The first vampires were deities or demi-gods.  For the early Medieval Church, belief in them was very much seen as a residue of Pagan times.  It should be noted that blood wasn't always a factor in these reports.  Often the victims slowly had their vitality or life drawn out of them.  They were losing their souls to the other side.

There were also unwelcome parallels to be drawn between the Christian tradition of consuming the blood of Christ, and the monstrous blood-sucking of the Undead. Priests counseled their congregations about turning away from the love of God.  Disbelief would dissipate those heathen horrors.

However, the Middle Ages also saw several outbreaks of plague.  Vampire tales always erupted alongside pestilence (not least because there was an increased chance of people being prematurely buried in the belief that they were already dead).

By the Vampire Epidemic of the 17th and 18th centuries, church leaders gave up trying to banish the menace as superstition.  Instead they incorporated it.

An important blueprint for the religious reaction came from a two-volume study, written by Dom Augustin Calmet.  The French monk and scholar published his Treaty on the Apparitions of spirits and Vampires, or ghosts of Hungary, Moravia, & c in 1751.  It collected folk tales and legends together.  While never expressly stating that vampires were real, it did provide instructions on how to deal with them.

If vampires existed, then they belonged to the Devil.  Christian faith, as represented by all of the symbolic tools, could repel it.  Suddenly exhumations of suspected vampire corpses required a priest in attendance.  Crosses, holy water or a prayer could ward off a vampire at your door.

It's a trope which has very much carried into the modern vampire lore, as evidenced by these clips from Hollywood movies.

Christian Symbolism in Vampire Films

However, as the late 20th and early 21st centuries evolved their vampire mythology, the Christianity defense began to be eroded.

Increasingly vampires began to laugh in the face of God.  A vampire hunter in Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers was thwarted in his cross wielding, when it transpired that his assailant was Jewish.  By the time we get to True Blood, vampires like Bill Compton are able to stride into an actual church to present a talk on the American Civil War.

It's a trend which has worried today's church leaders.  Publisher Thomas Horn worried in the Christian Post that things had gone too far.  He warned, "Mass media... (has) traded Bela-Lugosi-like vampires of former years..., which could be vanquished with Christian symbols, for monsters of profound demonic character depicted as impervious to Christ’s power."

All the wrong messages were being given.  People were being seduced by the dark side. It began with vampires and ended in wearing pentacles and calling themselves witches. His advice was for clerics to give sermons addressing the issue.  Good Christian folk should move away from vampires again, before it erodes their own faith. 

But that's a real world debate for Christians.  How about the rest of us?  Will a decent cross and a sprinkling of holy water save us from the Undead? 

No, not really.  They existed in folklore long before Dom Augustin Calmet's treatise, and continued on afterwards.  His aim was a kind of damage limitation for the Church, in which he could present the salvation of Christ as if it had always been a protection against vampires. 

He never once put it to the test.

Incidentally, the whole sunlight thing?  It's just another metaphor for the light of God.  Bram Stoker added that one in.

Blade and Deacon Frost: Vampires in the Sun

One can survive happily in daylight and the other uses sun block. What happened to vampires fearing the dawn? (NB Strong language warning.)

Christian Writings about Vampires

Read these books to enter into the Christian debate about the vampires. Does Twilight reaffirm God's love or deny it? Dom Augustin Calmet would rather we looked away.

What Will Protect You from a Vampire Attack?

We've discounted weapons, sunlight, garlic and crosses. It's all looking a bit grim in the old vampire protection stakes.

Stakes only work if the vampire is in its grave.  Even then it has to be the right sort of stake and it doesn't kill them.  It merely pins them to the Earth, to live out eternity unable to leave their coffin.

Dismemberment and decapitation do the same thing, but condemns our sentient vampire to remain in pieces in said state.

Crosses, holy water, sunlight and prayer are merely the attempt of an 18th century monk to shepherd an old superstition into the Christian fold. 

Garlic is merely a half-understood borrowing from the ancient world.  It sustained Hecate, yet we expect it to defeat modern vampires.  If anything, they'd welcome it to feed to their victims.  It would make the blood much more tasty.

And no-one has fully explained the rice.

So what are we left with?  In truth, there's nothing at all in our arsenal.  If a vampire has you in its grasp then you're pretty much done.  The only possible protection left is the simplest  and one which Dom Augustin Calmet would applaud.  Assume that they are fictitious - the panicked imaginings of ignorant minds or a thrill sought at the theater. 

Then hope that they never come for dinner.

You May Also Enjoy

The legends go back even further than you may think. They are one of the most enduring monsters in our world. So what makes us so afraid of vampires?
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, New England suffered a vampire epidemic. At least some thought so, and Connecticut was a hotbed for this belief.
In Ancient Sumer and Babylon, this dark goddess was known as Dimme. Memory of her terrible legend formed the basis for all vampire tales to come.
Throughout the 1700s, a vampire epidemic overtook Europe. Clerics, monarchs and even the cynical philosopher Voltaire had their say, before the panic finally abated.
Updated: 04/28/2015, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/02/2013

Nice one! I will check that out. Thanks!

Kari on 04/02/2013

It's a book series. If you like it I suggest buying the three novels in one books. I did because it saves a lot of money all things considered.

JoHarrington on 04/02/2013

XD I like it! I've not read that series, so thank you for alerting me to it. Are they novels or a TV show? I could just go and look this up, couldn't I?

Kari on 04/01/2013

One of my favorite vampire series, The Vampire Files by P.N. Elrod, goes into this the first time the two main characters meet. One had just recently been made a vampire but before he was he met another vampire who became his sire so to speak. Before they exchanged blood he did a lot of research into vampires and asked his sire what was real and what wasn't. When the two main characters meet later on they go over what he had learned. One funny part that stood out to me was after the vampire had explained why garlic was suggested it could be used, since it was a sort of cure-all elsewhere, he said something like, "What use is something that smells bad to someone who doesn't have to breathe?" XD

JoHarrington on 03/22/2013

Wow! That is really interesting. You're the perfect person to add information about this stuff too, seeing as Bram Stoker was only half understanding folklore from your region, and you have medical knowledge too.

I was waffling on over here: http://wizzley.com/why-are-we-afraid-... about how Bram Stoker (being Victorian and all) was actually writing about a threat from the Balkans. It was because of the wars over there, which Britain was contributing greatly to by being imperialistic. To a Briton of that time, the Balkans = war + foreign.

I'd love to read an article from you about vampirism. So much of what we have in our traditions over here are watered down and misunderstood versions of your legends. Even if it was further East and not actually in Slovenia!

Tolovaj on 03/22/2013

Vampires infested the rest of Europe (and eventually Great Britain) from Balkan although they were always rare in my (Western) part of Balkan. I can still add one more simple fact to your research of the vampire stakes. Corpses of some people who died of specific diseases (I believe anthrax tops the list and rabies is close second) didn't look as they should be.

After several days they bloated (some other symptoms occurred, blood coming out of mouth for instance) and if they were not buried deep enough, they could 'rise'. So a hole in a chest with sharp object (wood is widely available in Balkan...) was made to release the gases and corpse would stay where is supposed to. Sure we can get into magic properties of wood, different sorts of wood in different areas of Europe (always the sort which is available, nothing imported please) but we want to stay practical here, right?

JoHarrington on 03/22/2013

Oh no! I forgot about the brick in the mouth. Are those the pictures from Bulgaria? Great find!

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