Friday, April 15, 2011

What's So Special About A Wooden Stake Anyway?



By Thomas Scopel

When it comes to the undead, destroying, eliminating, or killing them can be, and usually is, a rather tough chore. Whether it is a werewolf, zombie, vampire, or any other of the various ghouls, each requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge, as well as the use of special methods or tools.
Not including sunlight, most everyone knows that a wooden stake is the single tool necessary to kill a vampire. It’s probably common knowledge. Especially, since a host of film studios have driven this notion into the culture’s psyche with their movies. Whether it was Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee playing the creeping, cape wearing, blood-sucking beast; there was usually a wooden stake involved in their destruction. And, let’s be blunt. There is something in each of us that finds it particularly macabre when a stake is driven into the heart of this evil, undead bad guy, causing his eyes to open wide, his mouth to snarl, his fangs to glisten in the moonlight, and his blood to spray like a fountain that typically comes along with a staking that makes for great horror cinema. Am I right? But, why is it a wooden stake? Why can’t it be a metal stake? Or a plastic one? Or any other material besides wood for that matter?
            Vampires have been around for centuries, and perhaps longer considering that the ancient Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, and Hebrews all had their tales of spirits and demons. But, these demons and spirits were not coined vampire since the word itself had yet to exist. It wasn’t until the 1734 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that the word vampire officially became added and accepted.  But, when did vampires actually first appear? And where did they come from?
In spite of the message within popular film, it was during the fifteenth century that Vlad the Impaler began to receive credit for being a vampire. Was he a real vampire? No. He was simply a ruler of Romania who employed wickedly cruel punishments to dispose of his Ottoman enemies primarily as revenge for the killing of his father and oldest brother. By utilizing a long wooden stake-- a spear--he would leave his dead enemies to dangle from the end of it while it stuck vertically out of the ground, thus, Vlad, the Impaler. And, there has been some discussion as to whether or not he actually drank his enemy’s blood; but, this was not likely because he was a vampire. If Tepesh drank the blood of his enemies, it was probably to increase their fear and keep them at bay.
It seems likely that the accounts of Vlad Tepesh’s use of wooden stakes in battle provided some of the basis for Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, after he came across a book entitled “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: with various Political Observations Relating to them” by William Wilkinson which mentioned Vlad and some of the atrocities he committed. That coupled with the un-dead Slavic folklore tales with which Bram was familiar probably aided with the creation of his gothic vampire story too.
Stoker was most certainly not the only writer to grace the white page with words detailing a blood sucking vampire tale. However, he is considered the first and most popular to bring the vampire story to the masses. His 1897 fictional gothic vampire tale gave us not only the basis for which all subsequent vampire media works are loosely based on, but it also gave us the first knowledgeable vampire hunter with Van Helsing. Therefore, it was Stoker’s imagination, coupled previous legends that firmly set the most common vampire beliefs.
Although Stoker’s novel is considered a wonderful piece of horror literature, ranking up there with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, it does nothing to explain the wooden stake theory. For, in his tale, it makes no mention of a wooden stake, and, it is a bowie knife that kills the great undead creature. So where does this stake idea come from?
According to Eastern European folklore, vampires have supposedly been around long before the Dracula novel was conceived, or probably even thought of for that matter. In those earliest of times, before firearms, there had to be a way to kill these horrible creatures. Maybe this is where the wooden stake came into play. After all, wooden spears have been around, basically, since shortly after the dawn of man and certainly before any vampire ever existed. And, since wood was the most readily available material it seems reasonable that, if those spears were used to hunt prey, then why not use them on vampires too.
There are modern beliefs that don’t use a stake at all. Instead, they argue that the only proper way to kill a vampire is by cutting its head off. This supposedly releases the trapped “blood demon” within the body, and leaves simply a rotted corpse.
Another theory that does at least lend some credence to the stake use is the body being tacked or nailed to the bottom of the coffin before burial. This was to ensure that the undead were unable to rise. And yet, along with this theory, were the times when the undead were simply staked to the ground, holding them in place to await the sunrise and their impending doom (the sun theory). 
            Still, we don’t have the answer to the one-dollar question. What is so special about a wooden stake anyway? There are two common beliefs that could hold the answer. The first is that since the cross Christ died upon was made from wood, it is thought that wood has a healing or holy power. The second considers a more defined arena in thinking that a fruit bearing tree’s wood works best due to their unselfish giving of life through their fruit. Since they are suitable for giving life, they are most apt to be able to absorb life, even an undead one.
Wooden stake issue? Check. Now, what’s the deal with the silver bullet?

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Stay Scared,
Thomas