The Garlic Issue



Quarantine, day 1,534. There are 372 tiles on the ceiling of your apartment. There are 35,327 grains of rice in a two-pound bag. You have binge-watched the entirety of Netflix and Prime Video and have moved on to Hulu. None of your clothes fit and you now wear only king-size sheets draped like togas. You have not groomed in any way for six months. Your cat eyes you warily. What is it thinking? What is it thinking? It is plotting against you. Do not let it succeed. You have vacuumed your ceiling fan three times. You lose 500,000 dead skin cells every hour. If your pillow is more than two years old, twenty-five percent of its weight is from dust mites. (That figure is real.) You choose not to google what’s going on inside your mattress, and you are wise for that.

You’re wondering about vampires. They can be slain by sunlight. They survive only by drinking blood. They reproduce (on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” anyway, which you binge watched the first month of quarantine) by feeding from a human and then allowing said human to feed from them. They do not have souls. They are afraid of crosses. They are afraid of garlic.


Maybe when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, he had some sort of aneurysm midway through and just wrote “garlic,” and when he came back to his senses decided to go with it because paper wasn’t cheap. That makes more sense than the folklore, if we’re honest with ourselves. I mean, the whole vampire thing is a little weird. Dracula craves blood but has no heartbeat. (Does it just go in his stomach and sit there?) A stake through his nonworking heart kills him. He can turn into a bat? Did his teeth just … grow in pointy? Even among all that, the garlic thing is strange. But there is a good explanation for it. A good enough one, anyway.


It’s easy to pin all this vampire business on Bram Stoker’s novel, but vampires as we know them roamed the Eastern European countryside and the Balkans in particular for a least a century before the publication of Dracula. It wasn’t just Europe, though. Every culture the world over has been plagued, apparently, with our pale, undead friends. Babylon was haunted by lilitu spirits who feasted on the blood of babies. The ancient Greeks had the lamia. Iceland had the draugar. The African asanbosam feasted on children. The Philippines had the manananggal.

During the same interval that vampires were giving Europeans the willies, they were giving us trouble here in North America, as well. Rhode Island and surrounding states experienced a vampire panic—really!—when tuberculosis swept through the region. So, naturally, Rhode Islanders dug up dead bodies, and those deemed unusually fresh—stay with me here—were sometimes decapitated, sometimes had their unnaturally luscious organs extracted and burned, and sometimes (the lazy vampire hunter’s preferred method, though I’m not judging) were just turned over. A “panic” implies a few hysterical years, but this being New England, it lasted a full century. I’m sure they strapped a few witches to the pyre along the way for good measure.

Those aren’t the only ways of killing a vampire, of course. Lord, no! Indeed, my world-traveling friends, if ever you run across a vampire in Europe, a good ol’ wooden stake through the heart will do the trick. (Pro-tip: Ash and aspen are the best woods to use). Cornered by a vampire in Russia or Germany? When swinging your stake, always aim for the mouth. The Romani used steel spikes, so keep that in mind, but have a wooden stake handy in case your vampire isn’t a local. When fighting vampires in the Balkans, you can shoot them dead or drown them or both. There seems to be universal agreement that a post-post-mortem dismemberment, incineration and burial with holy water will keep the vampire from rising again. Or keep them from moving around, anyway.


Not only did Dracula not invent vampires, but it wasn’t even the first book on the subject. Ghostly versions of vampires appear in the Odyssey (which is about two and a half thousand years older than Dracula). They appear in the 1819 novel The Vampyre by John Polidori and in the famously homoerotic 1872 novella Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Dracula, though, has endured in ways those novels have not. Bram Stoker is particularly inventive in his storytelling; the book is written in an epistolary format—a collection of diary entries, newspaper accounts, letters, and even telegrams.

During his lifetime, Stoker was known less as an author and more as the successful theatre manager he was. He ran the Lyceum Theatre in London, and represented actor Henry Irving, who was like the George Clooney of his day. Writing novels was just a way to make a little extra cash, and Dracula followed a pretty typical monster adventure formula that was popular in its day. (He basically wrote a Marvel movie, complete with the heroes punching the bad guy at the end.) He drew on vampire folklore but really just wrote one hell of a thriller.

The story involves one Jonathan Harker, an English lawyer retained by a Transylvanian count named Dracula, who is seeking to buy a home in London. Harker, while at Dracula’s castle, encounters three lady vampires and barely escapes with his life. He ends up hospitalized. The count, meanwhile, his real estate paperwork squared away, sets sail for England. From here it’s a bit of a melodrama with Dracula, on arrival, turning Harker’s fiancee’s best friend, Lucy, into a vampire. (The process is basically this: You get bit. You get sick. You die. You rise from the grave pale-skinned and thirsty for blood.) A professor named Abraham Van Helsing diagnoses Lucy’s condition. She dies but is later caught stalking children. Van Helsing and the Scooby Gang find her, stake her, stuff garlic in her mouth (garlic!) and bury her. Harker, back from the hospital, reveals that Dracula is a vampire, and Van Helsing devises a plan to kill him. The short, short version is that they all end up back in Transylvania, with Van Helsing killing the three lady vampires and Harker helping to take down the count. They live happily ever after.

Dracula is really a much better book than this synopsis would suggest. The novel wasn’t a smash hit, but it was well received by some pretty impressive names, including one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels. Bram Stoker died penniless, as all the best authors do. The novel might have faded into obscurity if not for a burgeoning film industry in Hollywood and a loophole in U.S. copyright law that placed the novel in the public domain years earlier than it should have been. Moviemakers could thus film all the Draculas they wanted and not pay the Stoker estate a dime, so they did, and they didn’t.

“Did you know that Dracula is based on Vlad the Impaler?” you interrupt.

No, I didn’t, because that’s not quite accurate. The name “Dracula” was undoubtedly taken from Vlad III Dracula of Romania, but that’s about it. (Dracula translates from Old Romanian as “son of the dragon,” though that is probably incidental.) Dracula’s original name in Stoker’s notes was—I cannot believe this is real, but it is—Count Wampyre, which is like writing a book about werewolves and calling the main character Berewolf. Stoker ran across the superior name while researching Transylvania and knew a good thing when he saw it. The original title of the novel was The Dead Un-Dead, and later, The Un-Dead. We know all this because to make ends meet, Stoker’s widow had to sell his research notes at auction. They fetched two pounds.


“But what about the garlic?” you ask. You’re just going to have to wait. I’m spinning a yarn here.

Vampires are all over books, film and television, and to run through the list would be to fill about ten of these magazines. But if you thought you would get through this piece without an overlong and loving mention of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” you were mistaken. There are only two kinds of people in this world: those who have seen it and know that it is the best television series ever written, and those who have not seen it. If you know someone who has seen it and didn’t love it … well I’m not advising you to drive a stake through their (absent) heart, but I’m not saying don’t do it, either.

The title really gives the game away. It’s a show about a vampire slayer named Buffy, and the entire series is an extended metaphor for adolescence and adulthood. What makes the story and its titular character so compelling early on is that Buffy falls in love with a vampire named Angel—a vampire with a soul. Poor Angel. I rend my garments for Angel! For centuries, he was the evilest of all vampires, but after slaying a Roma family is cursed with a soul! Another century elapses with him now feeling the guilt for all the evil he has done. But it gets so much worse, as there is a second part to his curse: if ever he experiences true happiness, he is doomed to lose his soul again. Then he meets Buffy, and trouble ensues. And oh, Buffy, forced to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders. No one can know her ancient mystical calling, and so she stares alone into the abyss every night, fighting the forces of darkness, an outcast among her peers, servant of a calling she did not seek or want. And then she begins a doomed romance with a man who cannot love her back. Over the course of the series, a little at a time, she sacrifices everything.

But I have gotten carried away. You’re wondering about garlic and vampires. But first, some mind-blowing trivia. Vampires are sometimes depicted in fiction as having obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is why when Fox Mulder encountered one on the “X-Files,” he spilled sunflower seeds on the floor in order to escape. The vampire had no choice but to pick up and count the sunflower seeds, giving Mulder the distraction he needed. Why do I mention this? (Aside from it being one of the finest hours in the history of television, “Buffy” notwithstanding.) Because when you are watching “Sesame Street,” it is not coincidence that the Count is a vampire. Counting things is what he and his army of the undead do! Ah ah ah.

In popular culture, modern depictions of vampires—including Dracula—haven’t had much use for the garlic rule. A good beheading, immolation or stake through the heart, sure—there are no better ways to kill the undead (and also the living, come to think of it). On television, the best way for a vampire to protect him- or herself is to be really popular with fans. Then nothing can kill you, as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer can attest. (Even Dracula, who appeared in a single episode, as you recall from the binge, somehow managed to survive being staked—twice. We also learned that episode that Buffy has a sister! And I know that’s a spoiler but the show is 21 years old. Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father and Bruce Willis is a ghost. You’re late and that’s the price you pay.)

Vampires fear garlic on Buffy. They do not fear it in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. (An awful lot of vampire legends are dispatched in that novel, all dismissed as superstition and nonsense.) So what, exactly, is the deal with garlic?

As it turns out, there are a few real-world reasons that vampires (assuming they are not real-world, which I am not doing) would fear garlic. First, it goes back to the history of vampires roaming the Balkan countryside. In the days of yore, farmers in the region would hang garlic to repel wolves. (Presumably because wolves have a keen sense of smell, though garlic is considered a natural repellent to all manner of creature.) When you’ve got a superstitious people, it’s only a short leap from wolf to werewolf—a creature that precedes even the vampire. It is likely that vampires just sort of inherited the garlic phobia. Moreover, there is another famed bloodsucker believed to be repelled by garlic: the mosquito. (There is zero science to back this up, though I’ve just written 2,000 words on how to kill vampires, so if you’re looking for science, this probably wasn’t the best use of your time.) Here in the south, we are world class experts on mosquitoes, but we didn’t discover the things, and probably weren’t the first to come up with the (false) idea that mosquitoes hate them. They aren’t attracted to you after you’ve indulged in sugary treats, either, in case you were wondering. And male mosquitoes don’t even drink blood.

“Well,” you say to the walls as you close this magazine, “what an adventure that was. A fine way of spending fifteen minutes of quarantine.” You look at the clock. Time no longer has meaning, but you do it because it’s there. Only nine more hours left in the day. You flip through the magazine. “Did David write anything else?” you ask (this time to your potted plant, Shakira). Ah, David did! More things about garlic. And you smile. Clearly, he is losing his mind, too. In our third year of quarantine, with no television left to watch, there is only Rouses Magazine. You look at your pillow. It seems a little heavy. You look out your window. The sun is setting. Which means vampires will come. You pick up a garlic bulb. You will be ready.