The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary defines ‘immortality’ as “unending existence.”
The life of a vampire can be ended in a small handful of ways. Therefore, they’re not immortal.
The dictionary also defined immortality as “lasting fame”. So if the vampire was particularly famous — Dracula or Armand, for example — then one could argue that he is immortal.
However, for the sake of this post, we’ll deal with vampires and their corporate bodies, rather than their reputations. If a vampire can still sink his fangs into you when he’s in the mood, he can be killed.
Every writer who has ever dealt with vampires has come up with variations on the lives and deaths of vampires in their universe, but despite the, um, endless variety, there are still a core handful of ways that a vampire can lose his life.
Exposure to Daylight
There have been a number of particularly nasty deaths by sunlight in the True Blood series, for example. Vampires can only withstand sunlight for a few short seconds before they burst into flames and disappear. However, this form of death seems to have some flexibility, because on at least one occasion, one of the vampire heroes has run through bushland in full daylight, in order to rescue Sookie, and lived to tell the tale (although he was very sunburnt).
On the other hand, Stephen King’s vampires in Salem’s Lot, when exposed to sunlight flopped about a lot and crawled back into shade.
There are authors and vampire worlds where the vampires can walk in full sunlight. They’re no longer the nocturnal creatures of myth. Stephanie Meyer’s vampires in the Twilight series is one example — although the worst that could happen to her vampires was that they twinkled in direct sunlight.
My vampires in my novels are day walkers, although my vampires still have trouble dealing with harsh, direct sunlight or light. They prefer the low light of winter, or shade.
You don’t see vampires drained of blood very often, but it is one sure way to kill them stone dead in just about all worlds and series. As they use blood for sustenance and to drive every function of their body, it seems logical that the loss of it would stop said functions.
A lot of vampires are threatened with draining (“I’ll drain you dry, you xxx!”) but you don’t see it very often in books, television or the movies.
That’s probably because it’s just not dramatic enough. It would take long minutes to drain an adult-sized vampire of all the blood in their bodies. An adult human averages 10 pints of blood. As only a complete draining does the trick, and even the most gaping of wounds to the carotid would express about an ounce a second, it’s going to take a good long while to do the deed. You might get away with skipping those minutes in a book (“she drained him”) — but as the author is actually killing off a character, skipping the scene means the author is cheating the reader of what should be a highly dramatic, tense development.
Television viewers would change stations long before the vampire curled up his toes.
So, you don’t see an exsanguination every day of the week.
Pity. It’s one of the more interesting and logical ways to off the undead.
You see this one a lot. It’s more than dramatic — it can also be bloody and very graphic, so TV and movies like to use it. In the movie and TV series Highlander, decapitation was the only way to kill the long-lived “immortals”. They weren’t vampires, though. They weren’t really immortal, either, come to that.
While I’ve not read every single vampire story out there (no one has), I’ve read more than a few, and I suspect that decapitation is a constant: Good for all worlds and all vampires.
It’s a bit hard to imagine any sort of magic or paranormal power overcoming the loss of one’s head.
Just like decapitation, removing a vampire’s heart will pretty much stop any vampire in their tracks, and you see this particularly gruesome ending frequently, because it’s so graphically dramatic. Only someone really pissed at a vampire would take such a symbolic revenge, so the drama quotient is really high.
Some vampires in some worlds would be able to recover from losing their heart. These are usually the type of vampire that is animated by pure magic, and a very potent one at that. The loss of any limb or organ (except the head) only slows them down while they regenerate the missing article.
More down to earth vampires (like many of mine, who are vampire through courtesy of a symbiot) wouldn’t live through the loss of their ticker. It is too vital an organ as far as blood circulation is concerned.
Mirrors, Garlic, Silver, Crucifixes, Holy Water, et al
Most of the devices used for warding off vampires, most often seen in classic vampire literature, and barely at all in others, are just that: Repelling tools. They will make a vampire back up a step or two — or a whole block, depending on the world you’re reading. But they rarely result in a vampire’s death.
There is a good argument to be made that if vampires are so allergic to silver, etc., then taken to extremes, these tools could kill a vampire. I have seen death by silver done several ways — injecting silver nitrate, pouring molten silver. I’ve also seen drowning in holy water. They’re certainly inventive methods of doing the vampire in and authors should get kudos for creativity.
But once more, the potential drama of the method comes into play. Death by garlic smothering just doesn’t have quite the same ring as decapitation, for example. Unless you’re reading/writing a comedy or cooking mushrooms, garlic just doesn’t have the same bang for your bucks.
Although I would really like to see a death by garlic. Just once. It would be really fun to read.