Vampires, Folklore, and Reality

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Little vampire

Little vampire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At http://theweek.com/article/index/237005/the-serbian-village-thats-warning-of-a-vampire-on-the-loose is a story about a mayor in the Serbian village of Zerozje who warned the villagers of the danger of a vampire in the area. Villagers began to purchase garlic and other anti-vampire products. This story is interesting in revealing the power of folklore to be belief-forming and action-guiding even in an age permeated with science and technology.

Although I do not believe in “undead” vampires, history has had its share of people who enjoyed drinking human blood. One who probably should not be included in that category is the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth von Bathory (1560-1614) whom legend says bathed in the blood of the servant girls she murdered. Although this is pure legend, it is true that she was a sadist who tortured and murdered some of her servants.

What is interesting in contemporary times is the number of criminal cases involving people who self-identify as vampires, particularly in the state of Florida. In 1985, John Brennan Crutchley (1946-2002) was captured after a woman he had held prisoner escaped and was found wandering along the side of a highway. She had been drained of almost half her blood supply, and she said that her kidnapper had drank some of the blood. Crutchely would rape his victims first, drain their blood, drink it, and then murder his victims. He died of autoerotic asphyxiation in prison in 2002, revealing that he has more than one paraphilia. Roderrick Justin Ferrell (1980- ), from Murray, Kentucky, with the help of an accomplice, brutally beat a couple to death in 1996 and carved a “V” into one of the victims. Ferrell believed himself to be “Vesago,” a vampire.  In 2011, there was another murder by a teenaged girl claiming to be a vampire, and another girl bit pieces of the face and lip off a homeless man after telling him she was a vampire. Although not the only state to have such clubs, Florida is among the leading growth states for “vampire clubs,” in which members ritualistically drink small amounts of blood from other members. There is no need to fear the legendary “undead” when living people commit horrific crimes.

Many vampire stories are not fairy tales because their setting is usually in a particular time and place, and often with an actual historical figure as the vampire. Bram Stoker took advantage of legends about the Transylvanian Prince Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476) in his writing his famous novel, Dracula. Yet the vampire stories remain folklore; historically the origin of the legends are rooted, in part, in people’s confusion about the process of decomposition after death. Lips drawing back make teeth look larger and more ominous. Skin pulling away from hair creates the illusion that hair continues to grow after death. The fact that such folklore exists should be no surprise given the clear connection between blood and life—the character Renfield was not totally off base when he quoted the Hebrew Bible and said, “The blood is the life.” Driving a stake through the heart of a vampire makes sense within the secondary world of the legend since the heart is the organ that pumps blood. The older idea of the heart being the center of the self may have helped the folklore develop. The self is, in part, a psychological notion, and there is much contemporary discussion of “psychic vampires,” people with personality disorders such as narcissism, histrionic personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder, who seem to feed on the emotional energy of other people.

Montague Summers (1880-1948) was a British writer who claimed to be a Roman Catholic priest  but most likely was not one). He wrote a survey of vampire stories around the world along with a second book focusing on vampires in European folklore. Summers believed that vampires existed, arguing that they are (1) logically possible, (2) could exist with the permission of God, and (3) do actually exist given the extent of legends about vampires throughout human culture.  (1) is true—vampires are logically possible, but so is Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. (2) True, vampires could exist with God’s permission, but so could many other unusual creatures. (3), given the considerable evidence that vampire folklore arose, to a major extent, from mistaken views of decomposition, it is highly unlikely that “undead” vampires exist.

I have always preferred, when it comes to vampire fiction, the traditional evil vampire, the vampires of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot being an excellent example. Romantic vampires, such as those in the Twilight series, nauseate me—yes, writers can create new traditions, but making some vampires good is tantamount to blasphemy. Hopefully teenagers will soon grow out of this romanticized view of the “vampire with the good heart” (no pun intended) as soon as possible. Throughout its historical manifestations, both good and evil, the vampire remains a powerful symbol, to the point that for some people in Serbia today, it is much more than a symbol—it is a part of literal reality—and it is to be feared rather than loved.

Horror Movies

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Ghost Story (film)

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One of my pleasures (some people might consider it a guilty pleasure) is watching horror movies. But as Noel Carroll notes in his fine book, The Philosophy of Horror, there is a paradox in enjoying horror. How can something frightening and sometimes violent be a source of entertainment? Another paradox is that to actually be afraid we must “suspend disbelief” and, for the time of the film, believe that the horrific entities described in the film exist. Fear in real life is not a pleasant thing. If I were being chased by a deranged serial killer who desires to eat my tongue for dinner, it would be one of the worst moments of my life, and if I survived, I would not wish to remember or relive that experience. Yet watching the same scene on film is exciting. If ghosts existed (I am open minded, but neutral) and a hostile ghost who could cause harm to me existed, it would not be pleasant if I suffered bodily harm or was scared half to death during the night.

If Aristotle had been familiar with horror films, he most likely would have pointed to catharsis, the cleansing of emotions, in this case negative emotions of fear and dread, as the reason that some people enjoy these films. The emotions I feel seem to be real fear–my heart pounds (usually more in anticipation than when the horrid looking entity pops out), I breathe fast, I feel the adrenalin rush. But I realize that the film is fiction and even if it were not fiction, it is only a film. Nothing will jump out of the projector and attack the audience.

I tend to prefer ghost stories most of all–Ghost Story (with Fred Astaire) is my favorite horror movie; The Shining is also an excellent flick, as is the original The Haunting. Notable also are The Others, the recent film, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and Frailty are examples of top-notch theological horror.

Horror originally was influenced by the latent Christianity remaining in Europe, and Dracula by Bram Stoker basically operates with a Judeo-Christian point of view, and this is reflected in the classic Dracula films. In the older horror films, and in some of the recent ones, there is hope at the end of the film. Lately, with the decreasing influence of Judeo-Christian culture, horror films have become more negative, often ending in despair. I remember a movie from the 1970s in which the audience thinks a couple has gotten away from rampaging people in their van–but the movie ends with their van surrounded. The ending of the recent movie, The Mist, was also one of despair, as a man kills his son and two other people to spare them from being eaten by Lovecraftean-style monsters–yet right after he killed them the army clears the area. Despair is the cry of those without hope, of people without faith who believe, as did Bertrand Russell, that all human hopes and dreams will die in the death of the universe. Since I am in the Christian tradition which is ultimately optimistic, I find those films too much in tension with my values to enjoy. There are still many recent horror films that have a more optimistic ending, though the Judeo-Christian element is omitted or replaced by neo-Paganism or other pantheistic religions.

I suppose I really like horror because it brings into play the transcendent–what goes beyond ordinary experience–whether it be a ghost, a demon, or a serial killer who transcends most human beings in his evil. There is a sense in some horror films of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Combine that with being “just plain scary,” that combination creates a powerful horror film. That is difficult to do, which is why so few horror films are good films–but those that are good have given me and millions of other people enjoyment.

I also enjoy the Frankenstein theme, both in the old 1930s movies as well as in the more perverse Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. I wish more movies would be made with a Lovecraftean element. Some have, but other than the recent silent film, The Call of Cthulhu, none captures for me the cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s writings. I prefer older vampire flicks when the vampire is an evil entity rather than (gag!) vampire romances. Japanese horror, with its references to popular Buddhist legends, is particularly entertaining and frightening, especially Ringu and Juon and their American remakes.