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Posted By Michael Bell

Serbians and Wallachians even today might perform a ceremony of remembrance, a pomana, to ensure that dead relatives have what is necessary and thus have no need to return and haunt their living kin:

All food and drink consumed at a pomana as well as the songs sung and the music played, are regarded as sacrifices to the deceased in whose honour the ceremony is conducted. Accordingly, the more guests are invited to a pomana, and the more food and drink is consumed, and the more joy and music, the more the needs of the soul are catered for in the world beyond (Schierup 1986, 181).

Included in the protective acts and objects used for disabling a vampire, among the Gypsies of the Balkan Peninsula, are putting a sprig of hawthorne into the stocking of the deceased, covering the mirrors while the corpse is still in the house (thus preventing him from seeing himself), and placing a piece of iron (sometimes a file, small saw, or small axe) to the head of the corpse. Driving a nail into the ground beneath the death spot can also serve the same purpose. Frazer notes an Asian analog: "In Cochin China the troublesome ghost of a stranger can be confined to his grave by knocking a nail or other piece of iron into the earth of the grave at the point where his head reposes" (Frazer 1977, 3:29).

Despite the popular notion that driving a stake through the heart of a vampire is the method for killing a vampire, there actually are several ways to destroy it. Both burning the corpse or its parts and decapitation are widespread rites of riddance. Staking, itself, may suggest different theories: staking through the heart implies that the heart is the seat of the soul or spirit, so that driving a stake through it will decidedly kill the vampire. Staking the corpse to the ground, on the other hand, is an expedient means of immobilizing it, ensuring that it cannot leave the grave. Sometimes more than one method may be used. For "very obstinate cases of vampirism" in Romania, for example, "it is recommended to cut off the head and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic; or to extract the heart and burn it, strewing the ashes over the grave" (Frazer 1977, 2:86-87). [Frazer might have found these practices in Emily Gerard’s Land Beyond the Forest (1888), used by Stoker for background to Dracula.]

Posted By Michael Bell

In Rumania, as elsewhere, the vampire does not cease its attacks after destroying its family, but continues in an ever-increasing circle of devastation:

If the vampire is not recognised as such, and rendered innocuous, it goes on with its evil ways for seven years. First it destroys its relations, then it destroys men and animals in its village and in its country, next it passes into another country, or to where another language is spoken (Murgoci 1926, 327-328).

Becoming a Vampire

European folk beliefs about vampires and other fiends frequently overlap—unlike the American situation. Why one becomes a vampire is another major distinction: In Europe, explanations abound. Indeed, as one scholar noted, “the causes expanded over the years until it became much easier to become a vampire than not to be one” (Thompson 1982, 151). While American folklore is oddly silent on this point, in Europe, suicides, excommunicates, perjurors, bastards, unavenged murder victims, those who died violently or drowned, the seventh child of the same sex, those born with a caul or with teeth, anyone who ate a sheep killed by a wolf, persons in league with the devil, or someone bitten by a vampire all may be candidates for vampirism. Among the Wallachians, “improper behavior towards the deceased in his or her lifetime, as well as disregard of proper rituals and precautions at death and afterwards, may impede the soul in its passage, and cause it to wander about in no man’s land between the two worlds, to seek its former house and to haunt close relatives” (Schierup 1986, 180).  (For a complete discussion on ways to become a vampire, see (Summers 1928, 77-170)).

Treating the Problem

Folk tradition has defined two major approaches to dealing with a vampire threat. The first line of defense is to prevent or at least hinder a corpse from becoming a vampire in the first place. Failing that, one must find and destroy the vampire. The practice of incapacitating a corpse to prevent it’s return is ancient and universal. Such restraints assembled by James Frazer (1977 2:63ff.) include breaking or tying together the limbs of a corpse, pegging the remains into the earth (probably related to the staking that most people associate with vampires), decapitation, burial face down, and weighing the corpse down with stones (Frazer 1977, 2:63ff.). Frazer collected many examples of “tying up or mutilating and maiming a corpse . . . to bar the return of the ghosts, or at all events to render them impotent for mischief” (Frazer 1977, 2:63).  The Dieri of Central Australia, for example, used to tie the large toes and thumbs of a corpse together to prevent it from walking.

Posted By Michael Bell

The widespread connection of vampires to shapeshifting only adds to the confusion over their defintion. Not only might a vampire appear in its human form, it may also resemble a ghost or take the form of various animals, including wolves, dogs, oxen or male sheep, and insects, particularly butterflies.  (Bats, the preferred form for vampires in popular culture, are—as we saw above—less common in folklore.)

Most of these disparate conceptions of a vampire probably can be subsumed in the two-part definition offered by J. A. MacCulloch in Hastings Encyclopaeida of Religion and Ethics: “A vampire may be defined as (1) the spirit of a dead person, or (2) his corpse, re-animated by his own spirit or by a demon, returning to sap the life of the living, by depriving them of blood or of some essential organ, in order to augument its own vitality” (MacCulloch 1928, 589).

The Victims

The vampire typically finds its victims among its immediate family. Certainly, victims of vampire attacks in America belong to the same family, a universal pattern connecting the New World to the Old. Montague Summers illustrates the vampire’s penchant for attacking “those who on earth have been his nearest and dearest” with the old proverb, “Curses are like young chickens, and still come home to roost” (Summers 1928, 161). (Dundes, p. 132, reviews the notion that vampires attack those closest to it, that is, those "nearest and dearest.") In their detailed analysis of Pennsylvania German folk medicine, Brendle and Unger trace the ancient roots of the belief that diseases are evil spirits or caused by evil supernatural powers, writing that “our pagan ancestors believed that sicknesses were caused by malignant demons--some of them the spirits of dead ancestors” (Brendle and Unger 1970, 17).  This belief is both widespread and ancient, as James Frazer documented during his prodigious collating of what he termed primitive beliefs. “Strange as it may seem,” he observed of the indigenous cultures British New Guinea, Sumatra, India, and Africa, “it is especially the ghosts of near relations who are blamed for sickness” (Frazer 1977, 144).

Left unchecked, the vampire will devour its family and continue on into the village and countryside.  The terrible consequences of not stopping a vampire attack were addressed by Calmet (quoted in Nethercot):

This reviving being, or oupire, comes out of his grave, or a demon in his likeness, goes by night to embrace or hug violently his near relations or his friends, and sucks their blood so much as to weaken and attenuate them, and at last cause their death. This persecution does not stop at one single person; it extends to the last person of the family, if the course be not interrupted (Nethercot 1939, 68-69).

Posted By Michael Bell

    Descriptions of nocturnal assaults are amazingly consistent across time and place. Victims first sense a presence, which may be accompanied by a feeling of pressure and difficulty in breathing. They are overcome by a temporary paralysis, aware but unable to move or cry out. They awake fatigued and drained of energy. Often there is a lingering fear and foreboding. If these assaults continue, the victims eventually waste away, declining into death. Explanations for “the terror that comes in the night” are tied closely to prevailing conventions. While a psychoanalyst might interpret such experiences as a “symptom of pathologically repressed sexuality,” traditional societies view them as nightmares or other supernatural assaults. Folklore acknowledges the dual nature of the succubus. She may appear as the ugly witch or night hag (whose philosophy might be summarized as, “forget the sex, just kill the guy”) or she might assume the form a vampiress, erotic but deadly.

So, descriptions of vampire attacks show strong affinities to accounts of being “witch ridden” or “hagged.” David Hufford, in his thorough study of this subject in Newfoundland, found four identifying features of being hagged: (1) awakening (or an experience immediately preceding sleep); (2) hearing and/or seeing something come into the room and approach the bed; (3) being pressed on the chest or strangled; (4) inability to move or cry out until brought out of the state by someone else or breaking through the feeling of paralysis on one’s own (Hufford 1982, 10-11).

Viewed from the “subjective experience of the victim,” Hufford finds connections between the two apparently separate traditions of vampire and hag: “As with most complex supernatural traditions, vampire attacks are surrounded by such a welter of associated events and interpetive statements that the Old Hag attack is not immediately obvious. Close examination, however, reveals clear examples even in Bram Stoker’s literary creation, Dracula.”  Hufford (1982:231) also identifies examples in sources that may be closer to actual reported experiences and finds that:

When comparing the accounts of vampire attacks to other Old Hag attacks, the characteristic detail in the former of the draining of either blood or spiritual essence stands out sharply. When we view this traditional belief from the subjective perspective of the victim, it is hard to avoid a comparison with the fatigue generally reported by those who suffer a series of Old Hag attacks in close proximity to one another. In fact, in Case 31 above it is suggested that even those who avoided actual attack became fatigued by their efforts at constant vigilance. Although more evidence is needed, it is possible to hypothesize that the traditional belief about the sustenance the vampire gains from his victims is at least in part based on the observation of this increasing fatigue (Hufford 1982, 231).