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.

On “Guilty Pleasures”

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Estonian heavy metal group Remote Silence perf...

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I enjoy listening to classical music and jazz, especially bebop. I also enjoy listening to heavy metal music, something that I count among my “guilty pleasures.” I cannot explain the attraction, although the groups I like the most (Anthrax, Zao) tend to write more intellectual lyrics than are found in other heavy metal bands. Another guilty pleasure may relate to this interest–I love horror fiction and horror movies. Black Sabbath became successful when they tried to reach horror fans with their music, and other groups followed. From Rob Zombie to black and death metal, horror themes are found in heavy metal music. Now some people would say I should be ashamed of this guilty pleasure, and perhaps they have a point. Richard Weaver, the author of the fine book Ideas Have Consequences, thought jazz to be decadent, and he would have rolled over in his grave if he had lived long enough to have heard heavy metal music.

As for horror fiction, I prefer books of higher literary quality–not only the classic works such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also works of fine contemporary horror writers such as Ramsey Campbell and, yes, Stephen King. Dean Koontz is not as strong, though his writing has improved over the years. I love his Frankenstein series. Now and then I don’t mind reading a trashy horror novel–or seeing a trashy horror movie. With a red face I admit I like both the movies Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. H. P. Lovecraft would have fainted if he saw how his work was adapted, but there is a campiness to these movies that eases the shock of their graphic imagery.

Another guilty pleasure is that I collect animal skulls–so far I have several dog, cat, and deer skulls, a cow skull, a horse skull, a goose skull, and perhaps more if my old brain could remember them. I do not know the source of that interest entirely–as a child I was afraid of skulls and skeletons when they appeared in horror movies or shows. I remember watching, in the late 1960s as a child, an episode of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows. Someone was sitting down and glanced up to look at a bookcase. Several skulls floated in the air. I screamed, got in trouble, and eventually was…. punished….. for insisting on continuing to watch the show. While an interest in skulls could be explained by my fear-fascination with death, such a pleasure becomes less guilty due to my fascination with form in nature. So many patterns repeat in nature, not only in different living organisms, but inanimate ones, too. That’s the excuse I give myself to feel better about this interest.

Last but not least is ghost investigations. I have no idea whether or not ghosts exist.  I do believe (and have experienced) things that are difficult to explain via conventional science. But I enjoy being in the dark, feeling like a child in the woods listening to ghost stories. It is not that I do not take this activity seriously, but I find it to be lots of fun despite the work involved.

Everyone probably has at least one guilty pleasure, something he enjoys that seems incongruent which his known character and interests. Someone who likes fine wines may have a cheap white Zinfandel now and then. A person who enjoys fine dining may enjoy the occasional splurge as a cheap, greasy fast food restaurant. I’m not convinced that these guilty pleasures are worth feeling guilty about. They reveal human beings to be interesting and complex creatures who can tie together disparate, even contradictory, interests together in their minds. If quirks and guilty pleasures do not harm a person and make this short life a little more interesting, then more power to them.

“It’s Fiction”–or the “You Can’t Go Home Again” Syndrome

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Thomas Wolfe, 1937

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My parents were taken aback by some of the content of my novel, End of Summer, because at the very beginning of the novel the main character, Jeffrey, based roughly on me, said that his parents had been killed when he was two. They asked me why I  killed the parents off, perhaps subconsciously thinking of some Freudian act of patricide and matricide. I explained that since this was my first novel, I thought it best to limit the number of characters, especially since I wanted to focus on Jeffrey’s relationship to his grandfather. I also explained that the novel, while based loosely on people I had known, is a work of fiction. My sister was busy making comparisons between characters and people I had known, cataloging what did and did not “really” happen. That such reactions from family members (and friends) is common is shown by the North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe‘s experience. He had written fiction about people with whom he grew up in western North Carolina. When he came home, people reacted with hostility, believing that they were the characters whose flaws came out in Wolfe’s works. Wolfe was so moved by this reaction that he wrote a novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, since he could not really go home to the same world after living in New York given his loved one’s anger at his writing. They did not understand that he was writing fiction–and any fiction writer writes based on that writer’s life experiences.

Sometimes characters in stories or novels are a combination of more than one person the author knew. Stephen King has said that his character, Carrie, the namesake of his novel, was based on two high school girls who suffered ridicule from their fellow students for their poverty. This does not mean that Carrie “is” those two girls–she is a fictional character in a novel with her own fictional identity. How else can a writer have any material on which to base stories if not those individuals encountered over the author’s life. Fictional characters may be based on one person, but the fictional character is not that actual person the author knew–the character is a “fictionalized version” of that person. For anyone to feel insulted by a character in a story or novel because that person says, “This is me, and I don’t like the way I was portrayed,” is experiencing a natural human reaction, but a reaction which reveals a lack of insight into the nature of fiction.

Reading fiction is one way to gain insight into the human condition through a story. The fundamental virtue of fiction is not to be didactic, though, but to tell a good story, a story with a plot and characters that grip the reader and allow the reader to “suspend disbelief” and, for a time, live in the world of the story. If any of you who read this blog are relatives or friends of fiction writers and have read or plan to read the author’s work, remember that you are reading about characters who may “exist” in some possible world, but do not exist in the actual world. In a good story, they may seem more real than the people you know. You may find “events you remember,” but do not focus on finding parallels to the world shared by you and the author you know. Relax, have some iced tea, and enjoy the story.