If I go to my DVD shelves and pick any title from my sizable collection of horror movies, chances are there'll be a lot of biting going on (in the movie, not in my living room). No matter the monster "“ vampires, werewolves, zombies "“ movies would have us believe that getting turned into one, and turning others, is as easy as a bite. But if you look at folklore and legends from around the world, getting turned into one of these creatures by a bite from one is, overall, pretty rare. Instead, man became monster by a variety of methods that range from simple to complex, coincidental to intentional. We'll take a look at some of them if you promise not to try any of this at home.
In folklore across Christian Europe, one of the common beliefs you'll find is that the souls of people who committed suicide, which the church considered unforgivable, were unable to rest in the grave. Their bodies would not decay and they would leave their graves at night to torment the living, who still had a chance at salvation. People who were excommunicated from the church and unable to receive the sacraments and people who didn't receive proper burial rituals were damned to the same fate. If you angered the Church enough, it was a sure bet that you'd become a vampire, which, of course, kept people in line.
Frequently, though, people became vampires through no fault of their own. Dumb luck methods for becoming a bloodsucker include being conceived during holy periods in the Church calendar, being born on holy days, being the illegitimate child of parents who were also illegitimate, drowning to death, having a shadow cast over your corpse, having a cat jump over your corpse, and being the seventh son of a seventh son. In Romania, it was as easy as being the seventh child in the family.
Since drinking blood is what vampires do best, a vampire's bite could also transform a person, but it's a little more complicated than in the movies. If you've ever seen From Dusk till Dawn (I don't know why you wouldn't have; stop reading this and go watch it now), there's a scene where Tom Savini "“ of Dawn of the Dead makeup effects fame "“ gets bitten on the arm and, minutes later, sprouts fangs and goes on a rampage. It's quick and it's easy and it makes for a great shot, but in vampire legend, getting bitten is more like walking into the DMV: you should be ready for lots of waiting and being bossed around by unholy, terrible creatures.
Traditionally, if a vampire wanted to turn a human, he/she would bite them and drink their blood until they were near death. The human would then drink some of the vampire's blood, die and rise again 2-7 days later as a vampire subject to the will of the vampire that bit them. In some variations, the victim has to die from the bite or be bitten a certain number of times to become a vampire.
Becoming a werewolf is the complete opposite of becoming a vampire. There's no way to just stumble in to it. You really need to want it.
European legend has it that a person seeking revenge for the death of a loved one would be visited by the Devil in the form of a man driving a coach pulled by black horses. In exchange for the person's soul, the Devil would offer a potion that would aid in their revenge. This potion, applied to the skin under a full moon, would immediately transform the person into a werewolf.
In Germany and Poland, a person's soul could also be traded to the Devil for a "wolf strap," a magical belt, sometimes made from wolf skin, which turned the person into a werewolf. Anyone who possessed a wolf strap would not be able to get rid of it; even if they threw it out, buried it or tossed it in a river, the strap would inevitably find its way back to the person.
In variations of this legend, it was human skin that had transformative powers. Polish witches were said to be able to transform a couple into wolves on their wedding night by laying a piece of human flesh across a doorway at the wedding feast. The bride and groom could then shift between wolf and human form at will. In Germany, the skin of a hanged man, when worn as a belt, would allow someone to become a werewolf.
Outdoorsy types living in the Balkans could have searched the forests for special "lycanthropous flowers" that were said to transform people when picked and worn under a full moon.
If someone had some time on their hands to collect the ingredients, a mixture of body fat from a child, hemlock, aconite (also known as wolfsbane), poplar leaves, soot, sweet flag, cinquefoil, deadly nightshade, bat's blood and oil would also transform them after they anointed themselves with it.
As important as zombie movies are to my enjoyment of life, this is where modern fiction really veers from monster folklore. It's not even entirely correct to call a zombie a monster. Sure, they might be frightening, but they're not the lumbering, undead, brain-eating beasts that put George Romero's kids through college. Rather, they're just normal people who are under the power of a bokor. In Haitian Vodou, bokors are sorcerers who "serve the loa [spirits] with both hands." That is, they practice magic with both malevolent and benevolent intents.
To create a zombie, the bokor feeds their victim a potion that causes paralysis and brain damage, making them appear dead. The "deceased" is then buried and the bokor exhumes the body and forces their zombie, easily controlled because of the potion, to do their bidding.
Some Haitian folklore leans even further into the supernatural and tells of powerful bokors that steal the souls of the living or reanimate the dead in order to take control of them.
You've seen Hollywood monsters and now you've heard the legends that they're based on. In a future post, we'll explore some of the real-world phenomena that may have inspired these monster myths.