There are few animals as closely associated with vampires as bats. The two seem to go hand-in-hand, but in spite of what seems like a clear-cut connection, vampire bats are named after their mythological counterparts–rather than the other way around.
In fact, vampire stories were common throughout Europe long before these creatures were known, appearing in written texts as early as the 11th century, more than 400 years before European colonists set out for the vampire bat’s habitat. Out of more than 1,200 bat subspecies, only 3 are true vampire bats. Native to the Americas, vampire bats commonly feed on the blood of livestock rather than humans. So how do vampires and bats fit together?
Vampires and Creatures of the Night
Feeding on blood seems to have little bearing on whether animals are associated with vampires. Aside from the well-known American bats, there’s also the vampire finch and any number of blood-sucking insects. Though one might associate leeches with vampires, the two creatures don’t cross paths; taking the form of a leech would simply be too on-the-nose.
Instead, the common denominator tying vampires to animal forms is far more obvious: if it’s creepy-crawly or commonly associated with night, it may be a vampire. Owls, rats, spiders and snakes are obvious choices, but they aren’t alone. Other animal forms favored by vampires include dogs, cats, foxes, wolves, big cats, and moths. There are a variety of stranger forms for a theriomorphic vampire to take, of course: vampires have also been connected to pigs, birds, butterflies, and even frogs.
The singular form isn’t the only option, either. Throughout legend, it’s also noted that vampires can assume the form of clouds of dust or mist, or that of a swarm of flies. Slavic vampires aren’t even restricted to taking living forms, resulting in stories of vampire plants and even vampire farm implements filling Western society.
So why bats?
Despite being home to blood-drinking vampire bats, South America is not particularly steeped in vampire mythology. The region does, however, provide one clear connection to the modern vampire. As with many aspects of the modern vampire myth, the connection is drawn in Bram Stoker’s Dracula–offered by the character Quincey Morris.
With scientific knowledge of vampire bats growing in the 1800s, Stoker used this opportunity to nestle them into literature as something new and largely unknown. In the book, Morris provided an account of vampire bats, stemming from his adventures that led him through South America. This connection–along with Dracula’s ability to assume the form of a bat–created a bond between the two creatures that persists into virtually all modern vampire stories.
In this respect, the vampire myth became self-feeding. Vampire bats were named for the fictional monster, which then became influenced by the bats.
Ironically, prior to this connection, bats held a different role in folklore. In Romania–the heart of modern vampire myth–it was once believed that carrying the remains of a dried bat could protect you from the supernatural. Including vampires.