What's so special about a wooden stake anyway?

According to folklore, there are a number of ways to dispose of a vampire. The most common is the wooden stake. Why?

When it comes to the undead, destroying or killing them can be a rather tough chore, requiring not only a certain amount of specialized knowledge, but the utilization of indigenous tools too.

With vampires, one of those tools is a wooden stake, driven deep into the heart, a concept that we have Hollywood, and a host of others film studios, to thank for. Regardless whether it was Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or any other actor portraying the darkly creeping, cape wearing, time and ageless bloodsucking beast, usually there was a wooden stake involved in their ultimate demise. And, to be perfectly honest, no one can deny that a macabre film climax featuring said stake viciously impaled deep in a chest, compelling bloodshot eyes to widely open amidst a painful fang glistening grimace makes for great horror cinema.

But, why does the stake have to be wooden? Why can’t it be some other type of material, say like metal or plastic? After all, staking a heart is staking a heart no matter what…right?
Wrong! And, the answer may surprise. However, before we get to that, let’s delve into a little vampire folklore first and, if it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to avoid those named Edward?
           
When did vampires actually appear and where did they come from?

Regardless of what is implied in popular media, it is widely accepted that the vampire existence began in the fifteenth century with Vlad the Impaler, a man who, with the aid of Bram Stoker, had the dubious distinction of solely creating the vampire persona. Was he a vampire? Certainly not, but it was some of his ruthless and gory actions that dictated later aspects that became traits of a common vampire.

As the ruler of Romania, which is now part Transylvania, we have the origin locale. Vlad was callous and brutal, employing pitiless and cruel punishments when disposing of Ottoman enemies, primarily as revenge for the killing of his father and oldest brother. Utilizing long wooden sticks, he would leave impaled dead enemies to dangle and rot, thus the Impaler surname title. However, while he used these wooden poles to pierce, it was not the primary source of the wooden stake legend. And, although there has been some discussion as to whether or not he drank the blood of these enemies, it is more likely that he hadn’t, but allowed the legend to spread in order to increase fear and keep adversaries at bay. (Personally, I would have thought that the overall sight of dangling bodies and eventual stench would have sufficed well enough, but who am I?)

Regardless, it is this blood thirsty pole account that most likely provided fodder and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, especially 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 details Vlad and the atrocities he committed. But, it wasn’t Bram’s only source and the circulating undead Slavic folklore tales probably added to his masterpiece gothic too.

Where did the name Dracula name come from?

Vlad had a hand in this too. With a surname of Draculya, meaning son of dragon, it was derived from his father, Vlad Dracul, who had acquired the designation after joining “The Order of the Dragon,” an organization formed and created to specifically battle the fast expanding Ottoman Empire. An interesting side note is that while in Latin and Greek the word generally means “dragon. But in Romanian Dracul means devil.

More on Stoker and vampire writers’ in general

Stoker isn’t the only writer to concoct a tale about a blood sucking and fang exposing terror, he is, however, widely considered to be the first. As far as popularity is concerned, Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer might very well stake a claim too, and any subsequent argument should take into account whether discussing new versus old.

Nonetheless, Stoker’s 1897 fictional tale gave us not only the basis for which all subsequent vampire media works are loosely based on, but it also offered the first vampire hunter in Baron Van Helsing. It was Stoker’s imagination coupled with incorporating archaic legends that firmly planted the most common vampire seeds. Coincidently, did you know that the book was originally not entitled Dracula and was to be called The Undead instead? This latest revelation came about in the 1980’s, when an original, corrected manuscript surfaced. One might think this document was discovered in some faraway land typically associated with the vampire lore, but in wasn’t. It was found in Pennsylvania.

And, while Stoker’s novel is considered to be an extraordinary piece of horror literature easily ranking up there with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the book does nothing to explain the wooden stake theory since the menace meets his demise at the hands of a Bowie knife.

So, where did the wooden stake come from? Let’s delve deeper.

According to Eastern European folklore, vampires have supposedly been around long before the Dracula novel was even conceived. And, in those earliest of times when firearms were an as of yet to be considered invention, there had to be a way to dispose of these horrible undead creatures. This may be where the wooden stake comes into play.

Since wood was the most readily available material next to a rock, can we adequately deduce that the same spears used to hunt prey were also used to fend off vampires? Logical I suppose, but does little to explain why, in latter centuries, with the advent of other materials, wood remained the primary weapon. Of course, there are alternatives.

Other ways to kill a bloodsucker…

Some more modern beliefs eliminate the stake altogether and argue that the only proper way to kill a vampire is by cutting the head off. Supposedly, this releases the blood demon from gripping the body, leaving nothing more than a corpse.

Another fable discusses tacking or nailing the afflicted to the bottom of the coffin to hamper ability to rise.

And yet another tradition is to staking them to the ground in order to hold them in place until sunrise can finish the macabre chore.
           
So, what is so special about a wooden stake anyway?

The best and probably most logical answer is dictated according to antediluvian folklore. The stake is specifically made from wood because at one time the wood was living matter. This is most vital and responsible for drawing or sucking the life out of the vampire. Fruit bearing trees are reputed to work best since throughout their lifetime, they were unselfish and giving of fruit or life if you will. It is this suitability for giving life that makes them most apt to also absorb life, even an undead one.

Correct and acceptable? You be the judge.

With all vampire stories fictional and limited only to a writer’s imagination, virtually anything, whether it be object, plant or animal, if properly bestowed will more than likely be accepted. Take a look at Bella and Edward…and their baby (chuckle, laugh, bellow).

Nonetheless, age-old folklore addresses many aspects surrounding vampires and specifically discusses the improbability of destroying them with something that was never alive in the first place.

Shop HBO for True Blood Special Offers