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Michael Bell
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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).

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