When we hear the word vampire, an almost automatic image springs to mind: aristocratic, suave, beautiful, etc. Even the sparkly vampires of the much-derided Twilight series are wealthy, aristocratic and achingly beautiful (hey, I’ll admit to a thing for Alice Cullen).
But all that is very much a modern trope. ‘Modern’, as in, since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven (1819). But just prior to these aristocratic literary inventions, the ‘vampire craze’ of the 17th century featured a very different vampire. These vampires were moored in folk traditions, and were therefore much more ‘earthy’, if not grittily disgusting. They were also the subject of fierce theological and philosophical debate.
Vampires, or at least vampire-like ‘living dead’ monsters who plague the living are indeed ancient tales found all over the world, from Classical Greece to Slavic folk tales. But, beginning in the late 17th century, a new type of vampire myth gained wide currency.
At first, though, these living dead didn’t feed on the living but on each other.
Among the earliest collections of vampire accounts, such as the 1679 Masticatione Mortuorum by Philip Rorh and the more famous De Masticatione Mortuorum by the Reverend Michael Ranft, refer to the “chewing dead”: the dead that chew. These are detailed accounts of the recently buried gibbering, scratching and grunting like pigs within their graves. Further and similarly disturbing are accounts in which the dead were exhumed for a wide range of reasons. At that time they appeared to have somehow gotten free of their burial shrouds and, worse, they’ve consumed some of those shrouds. In other cases, it’s even more disturbing: the dead have gnawed at their own arms or even partially consumed their own entrails.
It seems obvious to we scientifically sophisticated moderns that what was at cause here were premature burials. Which, indeed, was such a horrifying possibility that, at one stage, special coffins were proposed to include a bell-ringing device for the prematurely buried to signal for rescue.
But, aside from that dreadful prospect, such living dead were theologically problematic.
Their chief issue here being the premature resurrection of the dead. The dead aren’t supposed to come back inside of their graves, at least not… not yet. Of course the Bible has instances in which the dead are physically returned to life, but the general theological consensus of that time and now among Catholics was that such an event will occur only at the end of time at the final day of judgment. Thus the physical return of the dead is a theological problem not… not just a monster problem.
Of course, demons could have been generating the frightful sounds within the grave to terrify the living, but what of the obviously physically resurrected corpses exhumed?
Only God Almighty has the power to physically resurrect the dead. Not even Satan himself has that power, not even necromancy, in some sense according to strict Catholic theology, has that power, and these mutilations within the grave are by no means demonic illusion and were numerously attested to from a range of, frankly, bewildered though reliable sources.
As it happens, many of the early texts adopted a kind-of ‘religious naturalism’: while the sounds were attributed to demons, the physical mutilations were explained by insect and vermin predation.
However Ranft does leave open a much stranger possibility: that death itself is a transitional cycle from a sense of being maximally alive, physically, mentally and spiritually alive, through successive stages of death, where the last vestige of life is a kind of purely vegetable existence.
That left Ranft to explain how vampires could harm the living. Here, he proposed a quasi-psychological explanation: people hearing the dreadful chewing sounds from the grave might succumb to an ‘infection of the imagination’, by fear. Kind of a vampiric ‘mass-formation psychosis’.
What’s rather outstanding about these earliest accounts of vampire lore is just how different… how different they are when compared to later 19th-century narratives, much less contemporary narratives with their damn sparkling. Rather than well-dressed handsome aristocrats, we have peasants. Most attacks are formed through spectral mystical bodies rather than physically resurrecting and walking around. Throttling, strangulation is just as common if not more common than blood drinking as the means of violence committed by the vampires. And they’re absent in much of the way of things like shape shifting, turning into a bat or a wolf or fog, or any other supernatural powers […]
And rather than the lean pale vampire we have like Nosferatu, they’re plump, zaftig, and they’re ruddish. Red with gore, which is consumed at a distance through some weird occult means. Which is somehow even stranger [than] them drinking blood from your neck, or your chest for that matter.
There are theological implications here, too. It’s almost as if vampires were inverse Christs: the consumption of blood, the resurrection after death, the seeming eternal life after death. The unnatural preservation of vampires even seems a mockery of the incorruption of saints.
It wasn’t only monstrous: many such monsters and spectres abounded. But it was the very concept of the vampire as a theological and philosophically abhorrent matter. That such creatures could exist at all [was] an outrage against especially Catholic Christianity and the naturalism of the Enlightenment. I mean these creatures are miraculous: that shouldn’t be happening in the naturalism theories, either.
The vampire wasn’t only an attack on the peasants of Eastern Europe […] it was also an attack at the very jugular of 18th-century Catholicism and rational naturalism. So both Catholics and naturalists had to become vampire hunters.
Protestants tended to mock it all as just more of that popish superstition, but even Enlightenment philosophers had to ponder the deeper meaning of vampires. Did the rising from the dead of vampires mean that there was a soul that survived death?
In general there were very active debates about the nature of life at this time, from the radical mechanists, people like the post Cartesians, with their Ghost in the Machine theory, to various vitalist and even more occult theories, still: exactly what life was and when did it end.
All of this forms an intriguing backdrop to the early classics of horror literature, which began to be written a few decades later. Polidori’s The Vampyre was written in response to the same challenge that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another book deeply concerned with the nature of life, death and life after death.
Indeed, Dracula itself can be seen in the light of modern science finally laying old superstitions to death.
People forget: Dracula is a highly technological book. If you read that text, [there’s] all that technology: there is brand new blood transfusions and the cinematograph and wax cylinder recorders that the doctor, Dr Seward, uses to record. It’s more science fiction as it is horror.Esoterica/YouTube
Science slays another superstition – and yet, just as in the legends, the vampire lives on in the popular imagination. Perhaps now, more than ever.
Even the sparkly ones.