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Posted By Michael Bell

Looking at the vampire tradition as found in New England from other venues reveals additional windows into the realm of folklore. Cures for consumption, using ashes, and burning hearts and corpses all are components in a web of interconnected beliefs and practices. While the New England version of vampirism certainly seems connected to Europe, there are significant distinctions between these two traditions, which we might represent as a continuum ranging from explicit vampirism on one end to folk medical practice on the other. The explicit side is represented by the full-blown tradition as it is known in Eastern Europe (Romanian versions, for example), with variants addressing all aspects of vampirism (including an indefinite array of epidemics/plagues caused by vampires, reasons for becoming a vampire, how it travels and changes shape, its night visits, and methods for identifying, warding off, disarming, and destroying it); the other end of the continuum—the purely folk medical practice—is the American version, which I think is best exemplified by a variant collected in Grafton County, New Hampshire, published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1891: “If the lungs of a brother or sister who died of consumption be burned, the ashes will cure the living members of the family affected with that disease” (Currier 1891, 253).

Ultimately, what ties these seemingly diverse traditions together is the belief that a corpse—perhaps undead, perhaps animated by an evil spirit—is responsible for an otherwise unexplainable sequence of deaths. Reduced to its common denominator, the vampire is, as Paul Barber suggested, a scapegoat: 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). Barber’s elegant definition incorporates most instances that have been labelled vampirism, even though it opens the door to beings excluded by the “splitters.” For the purposes of this study of America’s historic vampires, Barber’s definition works quite well.

By the twentieth century, vampires had disappeared from their natural habitat in the New England countryside. Ironically, those who argued in the late nineteenth century that civilization was on the verge of eradicating the last vestiges of “primitive survivals from a barbaric past” were, in a sense, at least partially correct: an empirically tested bacterium had banished this traditional scapegoat. As the vampire tradition became an oddity of the past rather than “a horrible superstition” actually practiced by folks living down the road, Hollywood was beginning to teach people how to enjoy vampires. New England’s vampires soon were adopted, then adapted, by a mass media eager for new Dracula clones. As Holte (1987:261) pointed out, “the vampire has served as a metaphor for the dark side of human emotions and behavior.”  What better food for the human imagination than sex, violence, superhuman power, and eternal life?

Posted By Michael Bell

In the Golden Bough, Frazer provides other connections, in the form of ashes and heart burning, to curing consumption and ridding oneself of vengeful beings. One cure for consumption is to swallow the ashes of Midsummer fires (Frazer 1911-1915, 10:194-195). Burning or boiling the heart of a bewitched animal will compel the witch to appear (Frazer 1911-1915, 10:321-322). Montague Summers writes that burning a witch prevents hereditary witchcraft in subsequent generations (Summers 1928, 81). Burning the corpse, or selected parts, of the suspected vampire is a commonplace method of killing or laying the fiend. It is widespread and undoubtedly ancient. Voltaire described how Greeks dealt with vampire attacks: “The Greek corpses go into the houses to suck the blood of little children, to eat the supper of the fathers and mothers, drink their wine, and break all the furniture. They can only be put to rights by burning them when they are caught. But the precaution must be taken of not putting them into the fire until after their hearts are torn out, which must be burned separately” (Voltaire 1927, 7:145).

Among eighteenth-century Serbs, local gypsies served as the experts in vampire destruction:

In the year 1731 vampires disturbed the village of Medvedja. The High Command from Belgrade immediately sent a commission of German officers and others to the spot. They excavated the whole cemetery and found that there really were vampires there, and all those dead found to be vampires were decapitated by the Gypsies, their bodies cremated and the ashes thrown into the river Morava.

Vukanovic writes that “both Gypsies and other races in the Balakns believe that Dhampir, a magician created through the love relations between a vampire and its living wife, has the supernatural power of seeing, removing and destroying vampires” (Vukanovic 1960, 53). In some localities, this position is like an inherited trade that is passed down in families from father to son.  In others, it is the “posthumous” child (that is, born after its father’s death) who may serve as the vampire’s destroyer. There is a prescription, widely held throughout the Blakans, that absolute silence must be observed during the ceremony. Among the Balkan Gypsies, Serbs and Albanians, the successful magician is paid a sum of money in addition to being given a fine meal and traveling expenses (if needed).

Consistent with the dynamic nature of folklore, the up-to-date Dhampir often kills the vampire with a firearm. There is a Macedonian story about a woman named Karolinka “who became a vampire after her death and for a year haunted her living relatives frequently.  Once her family wanted to throw her into the water, but she sensed their intentions and immediately escaped.  The peasants told the whole affair to the administrative authrorities of the day, and when the police came into the village and used their guns against her, she fled; and nobody ever saw her again” (Vukanovic 1960, 47-48).