Folklore: Vampires

My folklore class, should it ever run, follows this schedule:
  • What is Folklore
  • Folklore & Literature
  • Regionalism and Folklore
  • Native American Myths and Legends
  • Colonial Religious Folklore
  • Magic-based Folklore in Colonial New England
  • Bogies: Witches
  • Bogies: Ghosts 1
  • Founding Fathers & the American Revolution
In keeping with the season, I decided to skip ahead to more Bogies—Vampires, Monsters, and Alien Abductions, not to mention folklore surrounding Halloween itself!

I'll come back to the American Revolution at Thanksgiving. The connection is actually more appropriate than it seems since Thanksgiving is, to all intents and purposes, a deliberately created piece of Americana!

Folklore: Vampires

New England vampires are not the same as European vampires. Dracula, Buffy and Twilight, although very different in atmosphere and approach, are descendants of the post-Stoker, European idea: vampires as dangerous predators who walk about, sometimes dressed in tuxedos, enthralling their intended prey. They are the "undead." Buffy, naturally, has an American high school twist as in the pilot episode where Buffy spots a vampire because his clothing is "carbon-dated" (i.e., it's 80's rather than 90's cool). ("Yes," Giles replies, "but you have to hone your senses. You didn't hone.")

New England vampires didn't walk. Their corpses (still buried) fed off living relatives, such as siblings. This belief/image thrived around consumption deaths in the 19th century. The only way to cure a dying child/parent was to dig up the grave of the dead sibling/child/spouse ("vampire")—if blood was found in the corpse's heart (not unusual for consumption victims), the heart was burned. This would hopefully spare the person who was dying.

This belief/ritual possibly existed before the 19th century, but that time period marks the advent of scientific responses to consumption. New England vampires appeared in written records as examples of "rural superstitions" (science versus ignorance, etc).

I found most of my information about New England vampires from Food for the Dead: on the Trail of New England's Vampires by Michael Bell. Bell does a good job explaining how a 19th century "peasant" could have doubted the superstition but still practiced the ritual. His psychoanalysis reminded me of a James Herriot story in which Herriot is trying to save dying cattle on a friend's farm; a neighbor man insists on carrying out "superstitious" rituals at the same time--such as burying a goat under the barn. Sure, the dead goat was useless, preventively speaking, but frankly, at that time, veterinarians were dependent on sulfur drugs and couldn't do much of anything anyway. If your livelihood depended on cattle that were dropping dead at your feet, you'd do anything: the vet, the superstitious neighbor man, the witch down the street . . . (then WWII and antibiotics came along, and it was a whole new ballgame).

Bell also relates an interesting example of folklore to the second power: in his search for a particular "vampire's" grave, he came across a story about a teacher who told his or her students about the grave; the teacher's students went looking for the grave and found the wrong one. Residents blamed desecrations of the (wrong) grave on the teacher. Bell wanted to speak to the teacher. Eventually, he realized that the story of the teacher was folklore. Maybe it happened; maybe it didn't. In any case, although the story of the teacher was repeated to Bell by several people, there was no "source," and the teacher was untraceable.

Bell also makes it clear that New Englanders never used the term "vampire." So are they even "vampires"? Yes, actually. In fact, New England vampires are probably closer to the pre-Stoker image of vampires in Europe than our current, but still folkloric, post-Stoker image.

Literary Forms--And there are purely American versions of the New England vampire. You find them in Edgar Allen Poe's tales, specifically in "Ligeia" where a dead woman feeds off her living romantic rival. Poe was possibly influenced by European Gothic horror, but there's a definite consumption creepy feel to this and to "The Fall of the House of Usher."

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