Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

By Peter Day | Go to book overview

“Death to Vampires!”: The Vampire Body and the
Meaning of Mutilation

Elizabeth McCarthy

The vampire body is the site of continual mutilation, a surface, as Foucault would say “totally imprinted by history.”1 An examination of the texts and contexts of these mutilations reveals a unique history, quite literally written onto flesh and bone. In the process of such an examination what becomes increasingly evident is how the central action and primal scene of the vampire myth is not the vampire's consuming of blood but its own destruction and mutilation. Far more the victim of atrocious acts of bodily violation than the perpetrator, the vampire body is a primary site for exploring the methods and the reasons behind the excessively violent and ritualistic use of another's body as a means of articulating social, as well as individual, beliefs, fears, and desires. With this in mind, this essay will consider just some of the possible sources as well as the implications of the mutilation of the vampire body, moving from folkloric and religious interpretations to literary and cinematic representation.

The process of decomposition has its place within a reading of vampire mutilation for a number of reasons. As a process which sees the body attack its own solidity and unity, decomposition is, in itself, an act of unconscious self-mutilation. The strange and varied activities of the body after death almost seem to suggest a second life, not beyond the grave but within it. Yet, curiously, it is the apparent lack of bodily dissolution within the grave which has often disturbed individuals and communities that become aware of it. A great deal of consideration has been given to this aspect of the body after death by Paul Barber in his work Vampires, Burial and Death. Arguing that when circumstances lead a group of people to exhume a body, the “normal events associated with decomposition,” such as bloatedness new skin, and a ruddy complexion, are sometimes read, by certain preliterate European communities, as signs of a blood-drinking life after death; in other words, of vampirism, as in the infamous cases of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnod Paole in eighteenth century Serbia.2 Both these cases represent an important development in the history of vampire mythology. While previous instances of suspected vampirism and subsequent corpse mutilation, in Eastern Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, were primarily the concern of a single village and an oral tradition, the stories of Plogojowitz and Paole were widely reported throughout the whole of Europe. In fact, one of the very first uses of the term vampire is to be found in an official report on the events surrounding Peter Plogojowitz's death, disinterment, and staking.3

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