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Scary bat!Just in Time for Halloween

Campus Folklorist Releases Casebook About Vampire Lore

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted October 28, 1998

Vampires won't be out on Halloween this year. That's because Halloween falls on a Saturday -- the one night of the week when the undead cannot rise from their graves.

Or so it has been recorded in Romanian vampire lore, one of many cultural traditions concerning this legend that have been brought together in a new book by Alan Dundes, professor of anthropology and folklare.

"The Vampire: A Casebook," published this month, brings together a wealth of material on the ancient legend from scholars over the past 100 years, including information on how one becomes a vampire, how to kill a vampire and how to keep one out of the house.

Most of the vast vampire literature -- more than 1,000 titles -- is based on the 19th century Count Dracula novel and pays scant attention to the original folklore, said Dundes. By contrast, the new book collects variants of the legend across Eastern Europe from its first appearance in the 17th century and recounts peasants' efforts to kill the dreaded creatures and protect themselves.

"Windows should be anointed with garlic in the form of a cross," wrote essayist Agnes Murgoci in her classic 1926 description of vampire legends in Romania. "All lamps may be put out and everything in the house turned upside down, so that if a vampire does come, it will not be able to ask any of the objects in the house to open the door. It is just as well for people not to sleep at all, but to tell stories right up to the cockcrow."

Murgoci recounted the common folk wisdom "never to answer until anyone calls you three times (especially at night), for vampires can ask a question twice but not three times."

As far back as the 17th century, Eastern Europeans feared this half-dead figure who rose from the grave swollen with blood to haunt the night, said Dundes. So frightened were people that they stood vigil over the bodies of dead relatives to prevent them from being turned into vampires. This could happen if a cat, horse or other creature stepped over the body.

"Epidemics" of vampires would sweep across the land, from Russia to Greece, where the legend thrived, and it was not unusual for vigilante groups to go after graves, stripping open the coffin and impaling the corpse with a hawthorn stake, chopping off the head or burning the entire body, Dundes said.

Once they had opened a burial site, peasants knew the corpse was that of a vampire if they found in it "a man who has not disintegrated"...and who was "fat, swollen and red with blood," according to the notes of a 19th century Serb. The peasants would then "pierce it with that stake," the Serb wrote, "and throw it on a fire to be burned."

The Catholic Church did not much like this desecration of graves and tried, often unsuccessfully, to substitute prayers for mutilation. Apparently the prayers did not appease the peasants, since multiple records from 19th century Serbian villages speak of people being thrown in jail for digging up graves.

In other 19th-century accounts, villagers simply waited until the local priest went out of town before heading for the cemetery. In one tale from 1838, villagers waited until the priest had said his prayers over the exhumed body, poured holy wine and gone home. Then they dug the body back up, cut it into pieces, poured barley and boiled wine into its intestines "so that it would no longer vampirize" and then reburied it.

As evidence of the power of this belief, vampire killings in Eastern Europe survived even into the 20th century, said Dundes. The latest one occurred in Serbia in the 1920s. In the rest of Europe and the United States, vampire hunting was not a common practice. Nevertheless, some New England graves have been found with stakes where the heart would have been, evidence that some immigrants to America brought their vampire beliefs with them, said Dundes.

Native Americans, however, had no such legend, nor did most other cultures on Earth, he said.

"It is certainly not a universal belief. We should not confuse fear of the dead with a belief in vampires," said Dundes. "Probably every culture has some kind of fear of the dead, but they don't have stories where the corpse comes back to suck your blood."

Why, then, in Eastern Europe?

There is no good answer to that question, said Dundes, but in doing the book, the anthropologist found an important clue to the psychological and sexual symbolism of the vampire figure.

It seems that, in folk legend, vampires sucked milk as well as blood from their victims -- an indication, said Dundes, that something very strange and probably erotic was at the base of the vampire legend. Moreover, the victims usually were the dead person's close family members, the people most likely to be feeling loss, guilt and anger.

At a psychological level, Dundes said, the legend can be explained this way: the living project their anger onto the dead who come back to avenge themselves by sucking the lifeblood of those who were near and dear. In so doing, the dead strive to be reborn.


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