The short history of the sleeping dead

Though vampires are commonly linked to coffins, that wasn’t always the case.  The association of vampires and coffins is actually a more recent addition to folklore; simply put, it was born out of the fact that vampires are dead, and by the time vampires became a media staple and not just a folk story, most people were buried in coffins.

Prior to the 18th century, most dead were simply wrapped in burial shrouds, if they were covered at all. Though a casket for burial was in use in Europe as far back as 700 A.D., only the wealthy could afford them, and most were stone–not the wood we typically associate with vampires today. Unsurprisingly, some of the burial practices prior to the common use of coffins likely gave rise to other vampire superstitions, such as killing them with a stake through the heart.

The biggest change occurred between the late 1600s and early 1700s, when vampire panic famously swept Europe. By this point, the dead were commonly buried in coffins, and it wasn’t unusual for the dead to have their clothing–or even their limbs–nailed to the wooden interiors in order to restrain them, should they rise from the dead.

Tombs in Père Lachaise Cemetery
Tombs in Père Lachaise Cemetery

Despite this initial link, early literary vampires did not come with coffins. Geraldine and Lord Ruthven had no casket mentioned; Carmilla lacked a coffin, but was found resting in her crypt. Crypts, tombs, and other methods of interment were mentioned alongside the living dead. Even Dracula and his brides had their resting places described only as tombs, and the importance was placed on a vampire needing to rest on native soil, not a coffin.

That shift occurred with the advent of Dracula in film. The 1931 rendition of Dracula replaced the concept of plain stone tombs with coffins, and later films merged Dracula’s boxes of native soil with a coffin partially filled with earth. As vampire lore gradually lost the attachment to native soil, the coffin remained alone, providing a dark sanctuary for a vampire to sleep, safely hidden away from sunlight. But, really, any dark place will do.

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