The most popular and well-known method of killing a vampire is a stake through the heart, though depending on lore, a stake through the stomach may be enough.
Although popularized by its use in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the stake’s use as a weapon against the undead originated through burials practiced in Europe prior to widespread use of coffins. In some strains of vampire lore, the stake also only immobilizes, rather than killing; this, too, can be traced to these burial practices.
In rural regions where coffins could be hard to find or difficult to afford, washing rains could cause the bones of loved ones in shallow graves to work their way to the surface. To prevent this unpleasant discovery, it’s believed that bodies were occasionally staked to the earth in the bottom of graves, holding them where they belonged until the fresh-dug earth settled and the risk of the grave washing out was eliminated.
Throughout much of early Europe, it was believed that once a soul vacated a body, it could be claimed by malevolent spirits–or become a vampire. The stake prevented them from rising once possessed, discouraging possession and preventing the deceased from rising again. Typically, wooden stakes that would rot away after the earth settled were used, meaning there’s not always a lot of evidence left behind. It’s where metal stakes are used that things become interesting.
A number of vampire burials have been identified in Europe, but those most easily identified are those where metal implements are used. Prior to common use of coffins, the metal pieces were used to pin the body permanently, ensuring an identified vampire could never return to life. After the use of coffins became more commonplace, the stakes instead were driven into the heart, as common belief held that destruction of the heart would kill an otherwise immortal vampire.
So why the emphasis on wooden stakes, if metal will do the trick?
It’s not just wood–it’s the type of wood that counts. Ash, aspen, willow, and juniper are often chosen, though the most common stake of choice is one carved from hawthorn wood. Each type of wood is steeped in folklore that gives it power. In Asia, willow is believed to have power over the dead. Similarly, the ash tree is associated with life, due to its representation of the Norse tree of life, Yggdrasil. Aspen was once believed to be a connection to the other world, making it a choice implement for dispatching a dead creature back to death, while juniper was known as a symbol of protection in medieval England and Scotland.
Hawthorn, however, was prevalent and revered through much of Europe. Once used as a charm to ward against witchcraft, it’s not hard to see it make the leap to protecting against vampires. After all, the Portuguese Bruxa is believed to be a witch that can take a vampiric form. Yet even more notably, the hawthorn is a revered religious symbol, believed by many to be the branches from which Christ’s crown of thorns was woven. This lends it a holy power, as well, which makes it all the more effective against vampires.
Unless, of course, you’re Anne Rice. But that’s a topic for another day.