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What's so special about a wooden stake anyway?

  • August 14, 2020

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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 indigenous tools too. Of course, there are some exceptions.

Not including sunlight, most everyone is familiar with, and knows that a wooden stake is the one single tool that is needed to truly kill a vampire. It’s probably common knowledge. Especially since, Hollywood, Hammer, and a host of others film studios, have driven and embedded this conception and notion into the culture’s psyche with their movies.

Regardless whether it was Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, or any other of the numerous actors who have portrayed this darkness creeping, cape wearing, blood-sucking beast; there was usually a wooden stake involved in their demise and destruction. And, lets be blunt. There is something in each and every one 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, fangs glistening in the moonlight, and the immense blood spray that typically comes along with it that makes for great horror cinema. Am I right?

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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? Well, there is an explanation for this and it is probably less common knowledge. However, before we get to the answer to the one-dollar question, lets discuss a bit further.

Vampires have been around for a long time; centuries for that matter; at least that is what we have been told, and so, this train of thought has stuck and been accepted. But, when did they actually come to light or appear? And where did they come from?

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Regardless what is told, shown, or learned in the popular film and word media, it was during the fifteenth century and Vlad the Impaler, who is most often credited with the beginnings of the vampire persona. Was he a 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, but more so a spear, he would leave his dead enemies to dangle from the end of it while it stuck vertically out of the ground. Thus, the Impaler title. And, there has been some discussion as to whether or not he actually drank his enemy’s blood. But, this was not because he was a vampire and probably only added to increase the ruler’s fear persona to keep enemies at bay.

However, this blood thirsty and wooden stake account most likely provided some of the basis and inspiration 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. A book that included the mentioning of Vlad and some of the atrocities he committed. But, it wasn’t the only source. The un-dead Slavic folklore tales Bram was also familiar with, most certainly aided with the creation of his gothic vampire story too.

Read Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The name Dracula did stem from Vlad’s surname of Draculya and means son of dragon. It was derived from Vlad Dracul, his father, who acquired the name for joining “The Order of the Dragon.” An organization that was created and formed to fight against and limit the fast expanding Ottoman Empire. An interesting side note concerning this word’s origin; while in Latin and Greek, it generally means “dragon. In Romania, where Vlad hailed from, the word Dracul mean devil.

Regardless, Stoker was most certainly not the only writer to grace the white page with words detailing a blood sucking vampire tale. However, he was, and is considered the first, and most popular, next to Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer, 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, besides Buffy, knowledgeable vampire hunter with Van Helsing. Therefore, it was Stoker’s imagination, coupled with and incorporating previous legends that firmly set the most common vampire beliefs. Coincidently, did you know that it was nearly not entitled “Dracula” at all, and was to be called “The Un-Dead” instead? At least that was what was found to be written on an original corrected manuscript that surfaced in the late 1980’s. By the way, this manuscript was not found in a castle bearing far away place commonly associated with the vampire lore. It was found in Pennsylvania. But…it wasn’t and we now have a firm association with vampire and Dracula. Of course, and quite debatable, Stephenie Meyer, as well as millions of her fans, would probably just as soon refer to a vampire as “Edward,” instead of “Dracula.”

Although Stoker’s novel is considered to be a wonderful piece of horror literature, ranking up there with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and it does implant a certain amount of vampire history lore, it does nothing to explain the wooden stake theory. Especially since, in his novel, it was not a wooden stake that killed the menacing and terrifying stalker. It was a Bowie knife, and therefore, still leaves the wooden stake question unanswered.

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. So, in those earliest of times, when firearms was an as of yet to be thought of invention, there simply 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 the dawn of man and most certainly before any vampire ever existed. And, since wood was the most readily available material, next to a rock, able to be used as a weapon, we can suffice to say, that if those spears were used to hunt prey, then why not use them on vampires too. But, this still does little to explain why wood is actually used.

There are modern beliefs that don’t use a stake at all. Instead, arguing that the only proper way to kill a vampire is by cutting it’s head off. This supposedly releases the trapped “blood demon” within the body, and leaves simply a rotted corpse. And yet 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. Thus, holding them in place to await the sunrise and their impending doom (the sun theory). Regardless, this “staking” may have something to do with the wooden stake, yet still does not answer the one dollar question.

So, what is so special about a wooden stake anyway? The best answer, according to very old folklore, is that it is because the wood that the stake is made from, at one time was alive. This alive factor is what is responsible for drawing or sucking the life, or un-dead life, out of the vampire and rendering it deceased. And, it is the fruit bearing tree’s wood that supposedly works best due to their unselfish giving of life through their fruit. And, since they are suitable for giving life, they are most apt to be able to absorb life, even an undead one.

So, is this the correct answer? Who knows? After all, all vampire stories are fictional and limited only to a writer’s, Hollywood included, figment of imagination. Therefore, anything, from objects to plants, if properly presented, marketed, and accepted by the masses, could be used to kill anything, vampires included. However, also within in the folklore, it implies that it is not possible to kill something that is undead with something that was never alive in the first place.

And, this use of a “not living” item brings up another question. What’s the deal with the silver bullet?

Stay Scared, The Prof.

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About Staying Scared

Spurned by a fandom of both cheesy horror & Chilly Billy from Pittsburgh's Chiller Theater, Professor Willie Shivers (aka Thomas Scopel) and his cohorts Lillian, a plant that thinks she's beautiful and prefers to be called Lily, along with Barnabas, a wisecracking skeleton who finds his corny jokes hilarious, are your guides of B-Movie horror.