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Vampires are undead mythological or folkloric beings who feed by draining and consuming the blood of human victims. The term vampire was popularised in the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire folklore from the Balkans and Eastern Europe into Western European culture, although vampiric entities have been recorded in most cultures. Folkloric vampires were depicted as revenants who visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the neighbourhoods they inhabited when they were living. They wore shrouds, but did not bear fangs and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or darkened countenance, markedly different from today's vampire.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre (1819) by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. However it is the novel Dracula which is best remembered as the quintessential vampire novel, providing many traits that have been incorporated into modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century with books, films such as Dracula and television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The vampire is generally held to be a fictitious entity, with little actual belief in the creature surviving today, although superstition in similar vampiric creatures such as the chupacabra still persists in some cultures.

The notion of vampirism has existed for millennia; cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits which are considered precursors to modern vampires. However, despite the occurrence of vampire-like creatures in these ancient civilizations, the folklore for the entity we know today as the vampire originates almost exclusively from Southeastern Europe. In most cases, vampires are revenants of evil beings, suicide victims or witches, but can also be created by a malevolent spirit possessing a corpse or by being bitten by a vampire itself. Belief in such legends became so rife that in some areas it caused mass hysteria and even public executions of people believed to be vampires. Although the original lore has been distorted due to new fictional references such as Dracula, there are numerous cited methods to destroy a vampire, including decapitation, a stake to the heart, incineration, and immersion in water.

It is difficult to make a single, definitive description of the folkloric vampire, though there are several elements common to many European legends. It was usually reported as bloated in appearance, and ruddy, purplish or dark in colour; these characteristics were often attributed to the recent drinking of blood. Indeed, blood was often seen seeping from the mouth and nose when one was seen in its shroud or coffin and its left eye was often open. It would be clad in the linen shroud it was buried in, and its teeth, hair and nails may have grown somewhat, though in general fangs were not a feature.

Other attributes may vary greatly from culture to culture; some vampires, such as those found in Transylvanian tales, are gaunt, pale and have long fingernails, while those from Bulgaria only had one nostril, and Bavarian vampires slept with thumbs crossed and one eye open. Moravian vampires only attacked victims while naked and the vampires of Albanian folklore wore high heeled shoes. As stories of vampires spread throughout the globe to the Americas and elsewhere, so did the varied and sometimes bizarre descriptions of them: Mexican vampires had a bare skull instead of a head, Brazilian vampires had furry feet and vampires from the Rocky Mountains only sucked blood with their noses and from the victim's ears. Even broad descriptions were implemented, such as having red hair. So from these various descriptions across time, works of literature such as Bram Stoker's Dracula and the influences of historical figures such as Gilles de Rais and Vlad Tepes, the vampire developed into the stereotype known today; over time, a selection of the more commonly reported attributes from a huge variety of ancient and medieval stories have coalesced to form a contemporary vampire profile as seen in modern literature and film.

It is commonly accepted in modern cultural depictions that one is likely to become a vampire if bitten by one. However, the causes were far more varied in original folklore. In Slavic and Chinese traditions, any corpse which was jumped over by an animal, particularly a dog or cat, would become one of the undead. If a body had a wound which had not been treated with boiling water, it may become a vampire. And in Russian folklore, vampires were said to have once been witches while they were living, or people who rebelled against the church.

Practices often arose that were intended to prevent a recently deceased loved one from turning into an undead revenant. Burying a corpse upside-down was widespread, as was placing earthly objects, such as scythes or sickles, near the grave to satisfy any demons entering the body or to appease the dead so that it would not wish to arise from its coffin. This method resembles the Ancient Greek practice of placing an obolus in the corpse's mouth to pay their way across the River Styx in the underworld; it has been argued that instead, the obolus was intended to ward off any evil spirits from entering the body and this may have influenced later vampire folklore. This tradition persisted in regard to modern Greek folklore about the vrykolakas, in which a wax cross and piece of pottery with the inscription "Jesus Christ conquers" were placed on the corpse to prevent the body from becoming one. Other methods commonly practised in Europe included severing the tendons at the knees or placing poppy seeds, millet or sand on the ground at the grave site of a presumed vampire; this was intended to keep the vampire occupied all night by counting the fallen grains. In similar Chinese narratives about vampire-like beings, it is stated that if one came across a sack of rice, he would have to count every grain; this is a theme encountered in myths from the Indian subcontinent as well as in South American tales of witches and other sorts of evil or mischievous spirits or beings.

Apotropaics, mundane or sacred items or things able to ward off revenants such as garlic, sunlight or holy water, feature commonly in vampire folklore. Items vary from region to region; a branch of wild rose is said to harm vampires, as is the hawthorn plant; in Europe, sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of a house was said to keep vampires away. Other apotropaics include sacred items, for example a crucifix, rosary beads and the aforementioned holy water; vampires are said to be unable to walk on consecrated ground, such as those of churches or temples, or cross running water. In Asian legends, vampiric creatures are often warded by holy devices such as Shinto seals. Aloe vera hung backwards behind or near a door has the same function in South American superstition. Although not regarded as a vampire apotropaic, mirrors have been used to ward off vampires when placed facing outwards on a door; it's a well known myth that vampires do not have a reflection and in some cultures, do not cast shadows either, perhaps as a manifestation of the vampire's lack of a soul. This attribute, although not universal as the Greek vrykolakas/tympanios was capable of both reflection and shadow, was utilized by Bram Stoker in Dracula and has since remained popular with subsequent authors and filmmakers. In addition to apotropaics, some traditions hold that a vampire cannot enter a house unless invited by the owner, although they only have to be invited once as after this they can come and go as they please without further permission.

Traditional methods of destroying vampires were varied, with staking the most commonly cited method, particularly in southern slavic cultures. The preferred wood is ash in Russia and the Baltic states, or hawthorn in Serbia, with a record of oak in Silesia. Potential vampires were most often staked though the heart, though the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany and the stomach in northeastern Serbia. Unlike today's cloaked and suave vampires, the original revenants were described as largely bloated. Thus the act of piercing the skin of the chest was a way of "deflating" the vampire; this is similar to the act of burying sharp objects, such as sickles, in with the corpse, so that they may penetrate the skin if the body bloats sufficiently whilst transforming into a revenant. Decapitation was the preferred method in German and western Slavic areas, with the head buried between the feet, behind the buttocks or away from the body. The act of cutting off the head was also seen as a way of hastening the departure of the soul from the body, which in some cultures, was said to linger in the corpse for a prolonged amount of time before dispersing. Other than being decapitated, the vampire's head, body or clothes could be spiked and pinned to the earth to prevent rising. Gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse's heart and placed bits of steel in the mouth, over the eyes, ears and between the fingers at the time of burial. They also placed hawthorn in the corpse's sock or drove a hawthorn stake through the legs. Further measures included pouring boiling water over the grave or complete incineration of the body. In the Balkans a vampire could also be killed by being shot or drowned, as well as having the funeral service repeated, or by the sprinkling holy water on the body, or exorcism. In Romania garlic could be placed in the mouth, and as recently as the 19th century, the precaution of shooting a bullet through the coffin was taken. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and administered to family members as a cure. Even a lemon was placed in the mouth of suspected Saxon vampires in Germany.

Vampires are sometimes endowed with special abilities when described in folklore; some are given great strength, while others have the ability to transform not only into a bat, as is often depicted in modern cartoons and film, but rather other familiars such as rats, dogs, wolves, spiders and even moths. An attribute shared by the 19th century literary vampires Lord Ruthven and Varney the Vampire was the ability to be healed by moonlight, although no account of this is known in traditional folklore. Though folkloric vampires were believed to be more active at night, they were not generally considered vulnerable to sunlight. This vulnerability developed with subsequent vampire fiction.
In Supernatural, the boys have run across vampires three times: in Dead Man's Blood, Bloodlust, and Fresh Blood. According to John, crosses won't repel them, and sunlight won't kill them, although they do sunburn wicked fast so they don't like to be outside, and a stake to the heart won't kill them, only decapitation and fire. Also, if dead man's blood gets into their bloodstream, it is poisonous, and subdues the vampire.