Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

By Peter Day | Go to book overview

“Dead Man Walking”: The Historical Context
of Vampire Beliefs

Darren Oldridge

Vampires belong to fiction. They exist in horror stories and fantasy films. While popular interest in the undead has probably never been stronger, few readers of the novels of Anne Rice or fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer really believe that corpses can haul themselves from their graves. Even among the hard core of vampire enthusiasts - the “night people” who read specialist magazines like Bite Me and Bloodstone genuine belief in vampires is probably very rare. There is a small community of “real vampires” who claim to suffer the symptoms of a physical condition: pallid skin, an aversion to sunlight, and a craving for blood or “psychic energy.” But even among these true believers, few if any would claim to be the dead restored to life and destined for immortality. This idea is simply incredible. If anyone really did embrace it, they would almost certainly be regarded as delusional.

The refusal of most westerners to credit the existence of vampires is revealing, since it provides a nice indicator of the limits of acceptable belief within our culture. The key problem for modern thinkers is not the idea that certain people may have pellucid skin or a reaction to sunlight, or even a compulsive desire to drink human blood. The real obstacle is the concept of physical life after death. Oddly enough, most of the other characteristics of vampires were created in nineteenth-century fiction: before Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, the restless dead enjoyed ruddy complexions and were often seen in the daytime. But these fictional attributes are more believable today than the reanimation of the dead. We live in a culture that does not permit corpses to stir; and this basic assumption has condemned vampires to the realm of fiction.

This was not always the case. The belief that revived cadavers or “revenants” - could return to menace the living was common in the premodern world. Writing in the late twelfth century, William of Newburgh reported many “clear examples in our own time” of corpses wandering from their graves.1 Around 1230, the German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach produced a compendium of similar tales to illustrate “the punishments of the dead.”2 These men were not isolated thinkers. The reanimation of the dead was discussed seriously by academics throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As late as 1732, a team of Serbian doctors was called to investigate a graveyard allegedly infested with revenants. Their disinterment and careful dissection of the bodies suggested clear evidence of vampirism. The corpse of one woman, for

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