I wrote a mass-market book about vampires (it beats doing overload teaching or private tutoring sessions). The publishers permitted me to retain my own voice and to explore ideas at a level that made the experience, over all, very enjoyable for me. Here's an excerpt. Publication information forthcoming.
As we consider the history of the vampire, there is an important overlap, indeed a cross-pollination, between literary imaginings on the one hand, and on the other, ostensibly factual works written from the perspective of medicine, law, or clerical demonology.
The roots of non-fictional writing on strange incidents and curiosities stretch back to antiquity, but it is in the wake of the scientific revolution that a more systematic approach develops to the collection of eyewitness reports. The famous journal of the Royal Society of London, The Philosophical Transactions, founded in 1666, is meant to be a forum for presenting cutting-edge scientific research in barometry or mechanics, but many of its pages are also taken up with testimonies from far-flung travellers and country doctors telling of what they saw when they went to investigate rumours of two-headed calves, talking dogs, or hauntings.
Early treatments of vampires are written in a tone that closely echoes the learned gentlemen of the Royal Society. The first extant treatise on vampirism (to our knowledge never translated) is De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis (On the Chewing of the Dead in their Tombs) by the German Lutheran pastor and historian Michaël Ranfft. Written in 1725, Ranfft observed that the phenomenon in question “will of course be revered by the faith of the Roman Catholics as some sort of divine miracle,” but maintained for his part that it will best be explained, along more enlightened and scientific lines, by appeal to “a certain influx in the bodies.” Here Ranfft exemplifies an approach that will be standard throughout the history of vampirological writing: an affected tone of doubt and distance from the subject matter, a strong denunciation of superstition (though this comes just as often from Catholic as from anti-Catholic authors), but always leaving open to the reader the titillating possibility that the author is himself wrong, or not completely forthcoming about his own views.
Ranfft helped to make vampires known throughout the German-speaking world by republishing and discussing a report from a minor administrator in the Serbian provinces of the Kingdom of Hungary, who described some peculiar events in the village of Kisolova following the death of a certain Petar Blagojević, of whom “it was stated that within eight days [of his death] nine people, both old and young, died after enduring an illness of twenty-four hours.” It is reported that “as they still lay alive on their death beds… the above-mentioned Plogojovitz [sic], who had died ten weeks prior, came to them in their sleep, lay down on top of them, and croaked that they must now give up their souls.” Blagojević’s widow, too, reported that her husband had returned to “ask for his oppanki or shoes,” but after this left the village to appear in another.
The author of the report cited by Ranfft goes on to use the word ‘vampire’ in one of its earliest printed occurrences, noting that “since among similar people (as are called Vampyri) there must be visible various signs, as that their bodies are undecayed, with skin, hair, beard, and nails growing,” the villagers resolved to open up the grave of Petar Blagojević and to see what they might discover there. Here is what they found:
That, first of all, the body and its grave were not in the least touched by the usual smell of the dead. The body, other than the nose, which had somewhat fallen off, was very fresh; the hair and the beard, and also the nails, of which the older ones had fallen away, had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat white, had peeled away, and a new fresh skin had come forth underneath; the face, hands and feet, and the whole body were so composed that they could not have been more perfect during the course of his life. Not without surprise I glimpsed fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common expression, he had sucked from those he had killed. In sum all the indices that people of this sort (as already mentioned above) should have on them were present.
At issue in part, was a puzzlement about some unexpected contingencies in the way in which bodies decompose (it was only in the 16th century that anatomical studies of cadavers became socially accepted, and many of them were procured by common grave robbery). While they often simply rot depending on the circumstances of the air, the temperature, and the accessibility of the space to microorganisms, bodies can also come to appear, under the right conditions, even more healthy than than they had been just prior to death. Sometimes a corpse is found with blood streaming from the mouth, a natural consequence of the internal beakdown of the organs, which nonetheless can easily be mistaken for a vestige of recent feasting. They frequently become bloated, and in an era in which corpulence was still strongly associated with health, this temporary condition could easily appear as an improvement that could only be explained by assuming that the corpse had been ingesting food—food, that is, or something like it.
Another broad social change that precipitates the 18th-century fascination with graves and their inhabitants, is a growing awareness of the history of burial and the variety of methods by which human beings have disposed of dead bodies. Already in 1658 the English author Sir Thomas Browne publishes the Hydriotaphia, a strange and meandering treatise on the occasion of the discovery of Roman burial urns near Norfolk. The work expands into a broad-scoped reflection on burial practices and rituals surrounding death throughout the world. Browne remarks that “[m]any have taken voluminous pains to determine the state of the soul upon disunion; but men have been most phantasticall in the singular contrivances of their corporall dissolution.” The most sober nations, he continues, “have rested in two ways, of simple inhumation and burning.” Europe, since the end of antiquity preferred interment. The increased exposure to other funeary rituals, through encounters with non-European cultures and by an increasingly systematic archaeology of the European past, lead Europeans to reflect on what, in fact, the best methods of ‘corporall dissolution’ might be. In the Balkans, cremation was still an exceptional measure in the early 18th century. Yet we might still see Blagojević’s fate, burnt ‘down to ashes’ to make sure that he can never return, as part of a broader exploration and questioning of traditional funerary practices.
Many of the conventions deployed by Ranfft reappeared throughout the 18th century in medical treatises not centrally concerned with vampires, but rather focused from a clinical point of view, on the difficulty of determining the precise boundary between life and death. The most interesting example of such a work is the Danish-French physician Jacques-Bénigne Winslow’s 1742 Dissertation on the Uncertainty of the Signs of Death, and the Misuse of Burials, and Rushed Embalmings. Winslow cites many authorities to establish the view that “putrefaction is the only infallible sign of death.” Like Thomas Browne, he goes into great depth investigating the “funeral solemnities” of various nations, attempting to establish from a comparative perspective, that human beings across the world developed practices to avoid premature burial of the living. Winslow also peppers his treatise with macabre reports, many of which read like Gothic fiction. Thus we learn of a lady of Auxbourg, who, “falling into a Syncope, in Consequence of a Suffocation of the Matrix, was buried in a deep Vault, without being covered with Earth… Some Years after, however, one of the same Family happening to die, the Vault was open’d, and the Body of the young Lady found on the Stairs at its Entry, without any Fingers on the Right Hand.”
Another very important work, particularly for its role in establishing the geographical domain in which vampirism is thought to occur, is the French Dominican Augustin Calmet’s 1751 Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits, and on Vampires, or the Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, etc. Calmet declares he has “always been most struck by what is related of vampires or the revenants from Hungary, Moravia, Poland, the brucolacs of Greece, those who have been excommunicated, who, they say, never decay.” As a priest, Calmet is intent on establishing the reality of the phenomena he describes, in order to characterize it as a true instance of diabolism and to warn his readers of its danger. Thus, in a chapter entitled ‘Are Vampires or Revenants Truly Dead?’, the author appeals to the wisdom of crowds. He insists it is impossible “that all at once several people begin to believe they are seeing what does not exist at all, and that they die so quickly after from a sickness that is purely imagined.” Father Calmet, like Browne and Winslow, is interested in a sober perspective to balance the supernatural, to trace the strange phenomena back to plausible medical pathologies or environmental conditions. Thus he explains:
Those who have died of the plague, from poison, from rabies, from drunkenness, and from epidemic are more subject to returning as undead, apparently because their blood coagulates more difficultly, and sometimes those who are not yet dead are buried, in view of the danger that there is in leaving them for long outside of the sepulchre, for fear of the infection that they cause… These Vampires are only known in certain countries, like Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, where these illnesses are more common.
One might at this point wonder what Calmet really thinks. Is it diabolical forces at work? Or is it a question of epidemiology? As is typical of vampirologists, the author prefers to keep us suspended between the two registers of explanation, to maintain his reader’s attention by striking the perfect balance between sobriety and gullibility.
A convention emerges in vampirological works over the course of the 18th century, whereby the author is generally presented as an intrepid and dedicated, but perhaps somewhat shadowy character. This doubt is in turn offset by an assurance that the author is a man of the cloth, an abbey or a clergyman who has immersed himself in the study of dark forces in order to better combat them for the sake of humanity’s salvation. This is the persona adopted by Augustin Calmet, and it is one that will continue in fictional form into the era of cinema. Perhaps no author embodies this type more perfectly than the eccentric English Catholic deacon Montague Summers (1880-1948), author of multiple works on witchcraft, demonology, werewolves, and vampires. He consistently claimed, in a somewhat deadpan tone, to be committed to the reality of all these things, and to be fighting against them by the power of the pen. A foreword to the 1968 edition of his 1929 study, The Vampire in Europe, tells us that Summers made all his public appearances in clerical dress, and attempted to convince others that he was a Catholic priest, though it is far more likely that he was in fact an unfrocked parson. He was a vocal advocate for the public execution of witches—in the 20th century! The author of the foreword, a Catholic priest, conjectures that Summers’s stern admonitions against necromancy are at once an expression of his own guilt, or mixed feelings about having engaged in it himself. All this, of course, is meant to heighten the interest of the reader. Which side, one constantly wonders, is the author really on?
Whether writing as a science-oriented debunker, or as a pious fighter against the forces of darkness, or indeed as some mixture of these two, vampirologists always seem to be infected by their subject. Skeptics will see them as frivolous for wasting their intellectual energy on an old folk myth, and the pious will see them as rather too interested, for suspicious reasons, in the very thing they are supposed to be fighting against. It is hard to be taken seriously as a vampirologist.
One senses that as the vampire theme evolves and adapts, it often loses its connection to the exploration of desire and regret that is at the true essence of vampirism, the raison d’être of the vampire as a literary invention. Some ‘mere’ entertainments continue to explore the essential core of the vampire myth, even as they defer in varying degrees to contemporary sensibilities (the series True Blood is a good example here: it belongs to the present moment, but is also preoccupied with what has remained constant in vampire representations since at least the 19th century). Yet many other appearances of the vampire seem to involve the mere outer form, the costume and the accoutrements without any concern for the inner life and struggle that have caused the vampire to appear the way he does. Often this decontextualizing occurs where the vampire plays a part in a strictly comedic or farcical scenario. More often (increasingly so over the course of the 20th century), it occurs as a result of adaptation and appropriation, where vampires figure alongside other stock characters with whom they do not, so to speak, ‘naturally’ belong. We see examples of this art of incongruous combination going back at least as far as Gustave Le Rouge’s 1908 vampire story, Prisoner of the Planet Mars. This habit continues throughout the B-movie era, yet it seems to have mutated in recent years, as a result of the advent of the Internet and the new aesthetic sensibility centered around the ‘mash-up’: artwork that consists in the combination of elements we would not have expected to find together, facilitated by digital means.
Perhaps the most remarkable recent example of the mashed-up vampire, is the 2012 movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov and based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith. The basic plot conceit is what one might expect from the title: the president and Great Emancipator was, in his secret hours away from the demands of the Civil War, engaged in protracted battle with bloodsucking revenants. Why Abraham Lincoln, exactly? Because he, like Buffy or Van Helsing, represents the force of good against evil? Because he is a rough contemporary of Le Fanu and Baudelaire? Perhaps, but the real reason for bringing Lincoln into contact with the vampires seems to be incongruity itself: like Nietzsche Family Circus, Kim Kierkegaardashian, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, our era loves to mix oil and water, to force together elements that on their own would always remain separate. The results are often hilarious, and yet, also, somewhat empty: why did we care in the first place? The answer does not necessarily make itself known.
Vampire stories seem to have a way not just of reflecting contemporary sensibilities and cultural transformations, but also of anticipating them. Pardon the glimmer of credulousness when I say this, but there is something astounding in the interwoven life and art of Sharon Tate, who starred in Roman Polanski’s 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, married the director, and two years later, while pregnant with Polanski’s child, was murdered by the Manson family in their helter-skelter spree. The Fearless Vampire Killers, as it is usually called for the sake of convenience, is a strange film. It is, as its full title suggests, meant to be a spoof, a rollicking send-up, a bit of fun. But it is far too dark to be fun. It is weighted with the historical legacy of serious European literature and folklore: a sort of churning-up and examination of the buried fantasies and memories that must have animated Polanski’s childhood imagination. Its color and light suggest something closer to avant-garde Soviet cinema, such as that of Sergei Paradjanov, than anything familiar from Hollywood. It is dank, cobwebby, perverse, and impossible to watch Tate’s Sarah Shagal, innocently taking a bath in a Transylvanian castle unaware of her fate, without thinking of the actress’s own fate beyond the confines of the story.
Polanski’s film was adapted for stage productions in Paris and other European cities, presented as a schlocky musical: a bit of fun, as we originally expected to believe the film to be, at least if we listened to the marketing division of MGM. But so it always is, with vampires. They flit back and forth, between our deepest darkest fantasies, and our need for a bit of fun and distraction. This is perhaps the most important reason for their tremendous adaptive success, and their near certain survival into the future, no matter what new degradations of our artistic values and sensibilities await us, no matter how stupid future marketers of popular entertainments will take us to be.
But, I suppose, here I am starting to sound like a decadent aesthete myself, unfit for this world and yearning for something that has been irrevocably lost. I have been writing all night, now, and I sense the first light piercing through my study’s window. Excuse me while I get up to shut the blinds.