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Michael Bell
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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?

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