Garlic vs Vampires

The most famous of all garlic folklore is its association with vampires. This was popularised in the West by Bram Stoker in the classic gothic novel Dracula.

In Dracula, van Helsing uses garlic to protect Lucy from the vampire Count by placing it in her room and around her neck:

We went into the room, taking the [garlic] with us. The Professor’s actions were certainly odd and not to be found in any pharmacopeia that I ever heard of. First he fastened up the windows and latched them securely. Next, taking a handful of the flowers, he rubbed them all over the sashes, as though to ensure that every whiff of air that might get in would be laden with the garlic smell. Then with the wisp he rubbed all over the jamb of the door, above, below, and at each side, and round the fireplace in the same way.

It all seemed grotesque to me, and presently I said, “Well, Professor, I know you always have a reason for what you do, but this certainly puzzles me. It is well we have no sceptic here, or he would say that you were working some spell to keep out an evil spirit.”

“Perhaps I am!” He answered quietly as he began to make the wreath which Lucy was to wear round her neck.

Why Does Garlic Repel Vampires?

So, should we all be mixing heads of garlic with our Halloween pumpkin stew? Can it ward off the undead vampire princes of the night?

The reputation of garlic as a vampire repellent goes back long before Stoker’s relatively recent gothic creation. Why should this be? It’s true that garlic has long been associated with health and life in general, however why should it ward off vampires specifically rather than all undead monsters?

There are many competing theories as to the origin of the vampire story. Many have to do with disease.

A recent theory tries to associate vampirism with rabies. This works well in general however it fails to explain convincingly the position of garlic in vampire lore. Instead it relies on the idea of rabies sufferers becoming fixated on its smell – an idea that could just as likely apply to the smell of coffee, not a known anti-vampire tool!

Another theory is that vampirism can be seen as symbolic of mosquito bites – and garlic is known in folklore as a natural mosquito repellent.

Mosquitoes suck blood and in doing so spread disease. So do vampires. Some of the symptoms of malaria – exhaustion, fever, anemia – are reminiscent of the reputed effects of being bitten by a vampire without being totally drained or turned. Garlic is a known insect repellent which reportedly works well against mosquitoes, perhaps people saw the similarity with vampires, especially when in their bat form.

This would fit well with the vampire folklore and gothic fiction and is my personal favourite theory.