By Light Unseen

The Big Mistake: the "Universal Vampire Belief"

Folklore became a serious and legitimate field of study as the nineteenth century waned, probably because industrialization was rapidly demolishing an entire way of life in Britain and Europe. In the span of a generation, millions of people were displaced from lands and lifestyles they had occupied for hundreds of years. Educated Europeans and British felt adrift in an alien landscape. They sought to reconnect with the past and, in a very new way, see themselves as citizens of the world as a whole. Late nineteenth century and early twentieth century scholars (such as Sir James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (1890/1922)) struggled to "unify" diverse information into connected theories or concepts that transcended individual nations and their history.

In 1896, folklorist George R. Stetson penned "The Animistic Vampire in New England" for the journal, The American Anthropologist. Two decades later, in 1914, Dudley Wright published The Book of Vampires (or Vampires and Vampirism). Relying heavily on Wright's work, the granddaddy of the vampirologists, Montague Summers, researched and published The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929). These writers, and others, established the notion that "every culture has a form of vampire belief," that "vampires" were a universal, even archetypal human superstition, and that they were found world- and history-wide, buried in every body of myth, hidden in every holy book, lurking behind every fairy-tale.

But these scholars were absolutely wrong. The folklorists managed this feat by taking each separate element of the Vampire Metaphor and using it to qualify as a "type of vampire" absolutely anything whatsoever that fitted even one aspect of the definition. Any supernatural being that drank blood, anything that physically came back from the grave, any entity or revenant that was "hungry" or that pestered the living for sex, was labeled "a type of vampire."

The white, male, and intensely Euro-centric folklorists disregarded the fact that the individual cultures concerned had complex histories and belief systems to which these "types of vampire" really belonged. The different tropes, stories and creatures all got lumped together, and suddenly the word "vampire" included at least half of the myths, legends, and folklore ever known on the planet. Child-killing demons, blood-drinking gods, hungry ancestor spirits, cannibalistic demons, fierce animal ghosts, night-hag entities, incubi/succubi, the restless dead of all kinds, plague demons...these and many other very culture-specific beliefs, each one with its own context and history, suddenly became part of the definition of "vampire."

Wrong or not, the arguments of the folklorists appealed to the imagination of English-speaking people. We already had the literary Vampire Metaphor, now over a century old and rich with psychological wish-fulfillment: immortality, eternal youth, power, sexuality, the thrill of the forbidden. Now we suddenly had educated scholars telling us that everyone the world over and to the dawn of time had believed in vampires.

Implicit in that (supposedly) Historical Fact was a seductive suggestion: "if all human beings everywhere believed in vampires...then maybe, just maybe...there might be something to it. Maybe it's really true. Maybe it's possible to be immortal. After all, could all those people have been wrong?" And so the notion that "all cultures had a vampire belief" was embraced not only intellectually but emotionally, and is now part of the Canon of Conventional Wisdom. It has rarely been attacked critically by any writer since Summers--his books are the basic references for every compendium of vampire folklore right up to Gordon Melton's The Vampire Book, and they all copy his basic format.

After the 1930's, fiction writers were eager to get away from cobwebby old "clichés" and invent fresh speculations about vampires. The Vampire Metaphor grew, and changed, and grew some more, having been completely liberated from the old definitions. Fictional vampires were freed of the old restrictions, but burdened with new ones. Filmmakers, in need of vivid visual imagery, gave us some of them. F. W. Murnau invented the previously-unknown idea that vampires would melt in sunlight for his 1922 film Nosferatu. It was such a dramatic image, and so psychologically charged, it almost instantly became vampire canon.

The fictional vampire, even more than the folklore vampire, could literally be anything--anything at all. Certain things were constants--blooddrinking and some kind of supernatural nature being the two main ones. But even those weren't rules. Science-fiction vampires (aliens, "vampire diseases") and fictional "energy vampires" were accepted.

It was only a short step further to bring the vampire full circle. The deep conviction in a "right order of things" had been shattered by the engines of the Industrial Revolution, and the definition of "vampire" had been expanded to the point of being no definition at all, because it included virtually everything. The "vampire" was about to re-enter the real world, metaphor no longer.

Continue to "The New Vampire"