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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

Dundes (pp. 162-163) distinguishes two broad categories for interpreting the vampire figure: the literal-historic and the metaphoric-symbolic.  He labels Barber's attempt to account for the vampire legend with forensic data a literal-historic approach, arguing that, while Barber’s discussion is "plausible" it "falls well short of offering a satisfactory explanation of what is almost certainly fantasy, not reality" (p. 163). I fail to understand why the two must be mutually exclusive: cannot the fantasy of vampirism rest on the reality of forensic pathology?  Is it not possible for the literal-historic and the metaphoric-symbolic aspects to be operating simultaneously?

In my view, vampire lore as it developed in America is a regional variant of a worldwide tradition, with particularly close ties to European practices. The task of defining a vampire seems simple on the surface but becomes more elusive on closer inspection. Analogous concepts, practices and creatures merge and blend in the dynamic processes of oral tradition. All species of deadly beings, among them witches, hags, demons, devils, ghosts, vampires and werewolves, combine with a host of preventative and therapeutic practices to enliven the record of folklore.  Even the categorical characteristic central to commonly held definitions of a vampire—that it is a revitalized corpse—is widely distributed and dates from ancient times (MacCulloch 1928, 589-590).

Underlying the vampire belief is the general concept that the dead have a life after death (Tylor 1929, 2:19).  It seems but a short, logical step to the conclusion that it is the dead who cause death.  In many cultures there is a belief that, whether out of anger, jealousy or a desire for revenge, the dead prey upon the living unless certain steps are taken to placate or disarm them (Barber 1988, 197).  “It would seem that the most primitive phase of the vampire belief was that all departed spirits wished evil to those left,” wrote Agnes Murgoci in her description of Rumanian vampirism, “and that special means had to be taken in all cases to prevent their return.  The most typical vampire is therefore the reanimated corpse.  We may call this the dead-vampire type” (Murgoci 1926, 320-321).

Posted By Michael Bell

Just what are the folk traditions surrounding the vampire? Generous, inclusive “lumpers” see the vampire as a universal figure whereas conservative, literal “splitters” would limit the vampire to Europe and perhaps European-derived cultures. In his vampire casebook, folklorist Alan Dundes (p. 161) argues against the universality of the vampire:

Widespread as the vampire is throughout eastern Europe, it is not true, as has been claimed, that “the belief in vampires is found all over the world” (Anon. 1950:1154). This statement in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend is demonstrably false. The vampire is not universal by any means. Native Americans do not have vampires.  Nor do most of the indigenous peoples of Oceana have vampires. Fear of the dead is one thing; vampires in particular are quite another.

Dundes cites a definition offered by J. Gordon Melton in his vampire encyclopedia that includes the concept of a reanimated corpse rising from the grave to suck the blood of the living, thereby maintaining some "semblance of a life." This line of argument follows a precedent established in the nineteenth century by the likes of Jacob Grimm ("dead men come back, who suck blood," Deutsche Mythologie, p. 1586), Mannhardt (1859, in German), Hanush (1859, in German), Krauss (1892a, in German; 1892b, translation in Dundes), and Afanas'ev (1976, reprinted in Perkowski 1976) and continued in the twentieth century by Polivka (1901, in German), Vukanovic (1957-59), Burkhart (1966, in German), Oinas (1978, 1982), and Perkowski (1976, 1989, 1992a, 1992b).

While this definition seems to be the most commonly accepted, that proposed by Paul Barber in his Vampires, Burial and Death would extend the concept universally: A vampire is "a corpse that comes to the attention of the populace at a time of crisis and is taken for the cause of that crisis" (Barber 1988, 125). Sith Thompson, in his Tales of the North American Indians, also apparently disagrees with Dundes, since he lists a number of Native American tales under the vampire motif E251 (p. 357). I would add, too, that the New England incidents labelled as "vampirism" (at least by outside sources such as the Providence Journal) also would not fall under the purview of the narrow definition defended by Dundes.  Although the practices undertaken to halt consumption epidemics most assuredly place the New England examples squarely within the folk domain of vampirism, there is no authenticated historical account from this region that has a reanimated corpse leaving the grave to suck the blood of the living. When such elements do appear in the region’s narratives, they are relatively recent additions grafted onto historical reports that have been filtered through popular and mass media sources.