Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

Leave a comment

Of Vampires and Stakes: The Grisly Truth


Here is another item which I unearthed while exhuming the CFHS Dig Boxes. Being the supernatural nerd that I am, my impulse thought declared it a vampire-slaying stake. Sadly, Chadds Ford does not boast a plethora of vampire paraphernalia or lore – Europe holds the champion title in that regard.
The myth of the vampire has evolved greatly over the past couple of centuries. It has blood-sucking predecessors haunting the religions of ancient civilizations, but our current version has fed from the fears of 18th century Eastern Europeans and 19th century literature. Since that time, staking has been a known, sure-fire manner to defeat this enemy, but the reasoning may surprise you.
Of course, shoving a solid sharp object through the chest is almost guaranteed to kill anyone, but this is the undead we are fighting. You cannot kill what is already dead, so why bother with the stake? Well, the original purpose was not to kill, but to immobilize. The earliest known appearance of modern vampire lore imagined the vampire as a malevolent spirit of criminals, returned to terrorize their previous communities. The stake ensured the spirits could not leave their graves.
In early 18th century, as Western Europe delved further into Eastern Europe, the vampire took on a more physical form. Frightened villagers dug up graves to investigate the plague of misfortunes heaped upon their town, much as Western Europeans used witches as scapegoats. The exhumed bodies displayed natural symptoms of decomposition, mistaken for lividity and malevolence. The dried, shriveled skin revealed additional millimeters of previously unexposed hair and nails, faking an appearance of continued growth. Already a facsimile of persistent life, the corpse occasionally bore a relatively healthy pallor from blood pooled about the face. Furthermore, gases of decomposition bloated the stomach, creating an appearance of a good meal. Of what? The living, of course. Those same gases sometimes pushed blood out through the mouth, thus feeding the imagination of blood-sucking monsters. If the stake wasn’t considered sufficient to nail the corpse to its coffin, burning the body offered another solution.
While the early human-based vampires derived from peasants and outcasts, we can thank Victorian literature for our suave, sophisticated Count. Apparently Bram Stoker and his contemporaries preferred tales of charming, albeit chilling aristocrats over protagonists from the bottommost pits of human hierarchy.
If you are curious about the above object, this not-weapon-against-the-undead likely contributed more to fusing architectural or furniture pieces than binding a body to a grave. Not to mention that this item hardly looks like it has spent over a century buried underground.

Article by Marjorie Haines, Collections Assistant