As I was watching Fright Night the other night, I got to thinking about vampires in books and film. After all, with my Halloween Haunters feature during October, they come up fairly often. Two so far this year, and we’re only a third of the way through the month; four last year. That may not seem like much, but it outweighs any other specific group of monster. So as I was watching yet another vampire movie, it occurred to me that people are never actually prepared to face a vampire. Many of us have first aid kits in our homes, perhaps fire extinguishers, firearms for self defense or putting down dangerous animals depending on location. Some people have elaborate preparations in case of earthquakes or floods or other disasters. But nobody ever has a vampire-preparedness kit.
Granted, vampires aren’t real. But part of the fun of fantastic stories is playing “What if?”, and that’s what my “Science Fictional” column is all about. Besides, nobody in books or film is ever prepared to face a vampire either, largely because for the most part the characters in these stories also believe that vampires are fictional. But a lot of the traditional vampire weaknesses require a degree of preparation… or at least they seem to at first glance. So today I’m going to take a look at some of the common vampire-fighting techniques, and see what possibilities they give for improvisation. After all, sooner or later these vampires have to attack somebody who’s quick on their feet.
Unfortunately Jack Bauer is not available.
Stake, Behead, Burn
I’m listing these three together and first for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that this is the end-game for most of the preparations when a vampire attacks. A lot of the vampire weaknesses only hold them back, but don’t stop them. This puts an end to it. The second reason these are lumped together is that, depending on which bit of folklore is applicable to the vampire in question, all three steps may be necessary. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had vampires dissolve into dust upon staking, but most vampire stories are not so convenient. In particularly involved vampire folklore, it is necessary to stake them to limit their mobility, then cut off their head, and then burn the body — only then it is truly over. The third reason I’m lumping these together is that, unlike a lot of the traditional vampire weaknesses, this one has almost no hint of the mystical to it. Just about anything dies if you stake it, behead it, or set it on fire, let alone all three. (Incidentally, should you find yourself faced with something that doesn’t, I advise getting out of town as quickly as possible.)
The one caveat here is that it’s possible the stake material is important. Most folklore says wooden stake; some specifically says hawthorn, oak, rowan, or ash. Metal stakes are seldom used, though aside from any theoretical mystical reason (I’ve never seen it explicitly said metal stakes wouldn’t work if non-specific wooden ones are allowed) this may simply because they’re not as easy to come by. In practical terms, anything that can pin the vampire to the ground should do the trick, at least if you’re going to follow it up with a beheading. And fortunately, wooden stakes are easy to come by. Modern society is filled with broomsticks, table legs, and fence posts all easily adapted into a stake; a good knife will help out with the sharpening. Remember to get a mallet, or even a big rock, as well; ribs are tough. Beheading is a simple manner if you’re in a rural area — either you or a neighbor almost certainly have an axe of some sort handy. Unfortunately vampires seem to be more prone to attack suburbia nowadays, where axes are a bit less common. A shovel will work just as well with some force, and even a hoe has some potential. If you don’t have any of those available, and staking has immobilized the vampire enough that it’s safe to go near, take the slow route and use a large kitchen knife. Otherwise, hope it’s held there until you can get some tools from a house that actually has something useful.
Here we go from the very practical to the woefully impractical. First, we must sadly note that not all vampires are destroyed by sunlight; some merely have to cope with a reduced level of power. No, I’m not talking about sparkly things that teenagers go see in low-rated movies… I’m talking about Dracula. The big guy himself wasn’t affected by sunlight traditionally, nor were his predecessors. That’s an invention from film, specifically Nosferatu (one of its deviations from the novel Dracula). While it’s become traditional that sunlight burns and kills vampires, one should be aware of the risk of a vampire adhering to older traditions. But even that aside, sunlight is unreliable. All too many vampire attacks begin at dusk, and then you’re trying to keep alive for the next eight to twelve hours until the sun rises. No good.
So how do you substitute for the sun? It all depends on whether the weakness is mystical (in which case you’re out of luck), or physiological. If it’s physiological, it still has something to do with the precise nature of the sun’s light — vampires are generally unaffected by flashlights, fire light, even moonlight, which is reflected from the sun. Presumably there’s some quality that isn’t a big enough factor in reflected light, and starlight we can presume is too distant to be a factor. The most likely culprit here is ultraviolet light — but as vampires seem to enjoy picking off inattentive young adults in nightclubs it would appear that “black light” (UV-A) is not the key. Some aquarium lights use UV-B and/or UV-C for the purpose of purification. It’s not as intense as the sun, but it might be your best bet, at least if you can get the bulb close.
It never seems to work. Let’s just get that out of the way immediately. But traditionally vampires — and this tends to be one tradition most hold to — can’t enter an inhabited house without an invitation. Once invited, though, they seem to have free rein in the place — and The Lost Boys even had it such that a vampire, invited, was immune to other vampire weaknesses, so it’s definitely an area to be careful. Exactly who can grant an invite varies; most stories allow any invitation by a rightful inhabitant, some allow it from anybody inside at all, and some limit it to the owner. If dealing with the latter situation, be careful of mortgages — I wouldn’t put it past a vampire to be the head of a bank. Also consider whether changing ownership resets the status to uninvited, in case someone inadvertently lets the vampire in before you’re aware of the danger. If anybody can grant an invite, don’t let anybody wander off by themselves, and make sure everyone knows procedure for letting someone in (I.e., don’t unless they can get in themselves.) If any member of your group is a smartass kid prone to taunting villains with lines such as “I’d like to see you come in here and get us now!”, shoot him.
Much like the rule about invitations, holy symbols are pretty thoroughly in the realm of the mystical, which leaves us dealing with philosophy rather than hard science. That wouldn’t be bad in and of itself, but there are a lot of contradictions in the lore. A cross is traditional, but some stories insist it has to specifically be a crucifix. Some, however, let it be any religion’s holy symbol. Sometimes the wielder has to have faith in the symbol, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s the vampire that has to have faith. Sometimes it has to be of a particular material. Some vampires are known to wear crosses themselves. I wouldn’t discount holy symbols entirely — there’s usually some way in which they work, and they’re pretty easy to come by — but use them well before the vampire gets close. When the vampire is three inches from your face is not the time to discover that the cross has to be made of wood from a tree planted over the grave of a holy man.
Holy water, on the other hand, seems to be quite a bit more reliable. Even when the protagonists and the vampire are not Catholic, holy water still seems to eat the vampire like acid. Since the water is still chemically normal, this must still be a mystical quality. Of course, it does have its limitations in that Protestants tend not to have it lying around. But even if you aren’t Catholic, don’t have a priest handy, and can’t bust into a Catholic church to raid the stoup, there may be an exploit here. Holy water is meant for sacred rites; the combination of a sacred rite and water may well generate the same effect. If you don’t have a Catholic friend handy with holy water, try to find a Baptist and some standing water. Long-standing tradition holds that any member of the church can perform a baptism, which ought to pose a nasty surprise for any vampire.
Just for the record, I’m not confusing vampires with werewolves. Though if you’re having trouble with those as well, this may be doubly relevant. Old folklore has vampires burned by silver, the same as werewolves. It’s often forgotten in modern stories, but given that it’s usually not too hard to find something made of silver, even if it’s just silver plate, it’s worth a shot. Whether alloys and compounds work is going to depend on whether the weakness to silver is mystical or an allergy. If it’s mystical, it’ll probably have to be pure silver; mystical rules always seem to be persnickety about that whole purity thing. If it’s an allergic reaction to silver, though, there is no reason to think that silver alloys and compounds wouldn’t work just as well. Back before digital photography, silver iodide would be easy to find in a darkroom; now it’s hard to find a darkroom. But between jewelry and tea sets, it’s still reasonably easy to find silver; just be aware that much of “silverware” is really stainless steel. Also, if it turns out to be a mystical weakness, watch the patina; tarnish is silver sulfide. If it’s a physical reaction, though, that would work just as well, and may even be good for a two-fer (see below.)
A lot of these vampire fighting tactics have had to rely on conjecture about how the mystical rules work, but here we’re on more solid ground again. In any suburban vampire story, you can bet on two things being true about garlic. First, the young hero will string it all around their house. And second, it won’t work. It would be easy to conclude that garlic is therefore useless, but it’s more likely that they’re not using it correctly. See, it’s not just the bulb that does the trick; old folklore states that it’s the smell of garlic that repels evil spirits. And fresh, whole garlic isn’t all that strong.
It’s all down to the chemistry of the plant. It contains a few enzymes that, when combined, form allicin, a sulfurous compound. And those enzymes remain separate while the garlic is whole; they only combine when the garlic is crushed or cut. What’s more, it fades relatively quickly. So the key is to keep the garlic on you and crush it when the vampire approaches. Don’t have garlic handy? Well, shame on you, but that’s what improvisation is about. Garlic isn’t the only plant that forms allicin. Ever have trouble with your eyes stinging when chopping an onion? That’s allicin again. If garlic works, then onions ought to as well. Leeks and chives also contain allicin; not as much, but it’s worth a try in a pinch.
There may be another option yet. The smell of allicin is primarily from the sulfur — it may be the sulfur itself that is the bane of the vampires, and that opens up a few more options. Eggs, especially rotten ones, are a good source. So is black powder — should any vampire happen to strike on the Fourth of July, the smoke from a firework might be a useful deterrent.
Or you could go back to the first item and just set them on fire. That works too.