Nationalism, urbanisation, and vampires

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There is a folklore study, titled Slayers and their Vampires, by Bruce McClelland, which shares an enormous amount of folklore around the figure of the vampire. It’s clearly written (as not all folkloric studies are!) and it’s interesting. Mostly, as I say, it focuses on folklore, but within the framework of how the vampire and its counterpart, the vampire slayer, have been adopted and changed by more recent representations of the figure.

vampires, nationalism, and Christianity

I particularly found interesting the connection shown by McClelland between the vampire tales and nationalism (which is bound into recent vampire tales in popular fiction – see much of the discussion around Dracula and Irish studies, or Martine Beugnet, for example). Here are a couple of points made by McClelland:

The systematic collection of folklore in rural Bulgaria did not begin until the overthrow of the “Ottoman yoke.” However, as a sign of the growing nationalism that had spurred Bulgaria and other Balkan nations to finally evict their Turkish overlords in the last decades of the nineteenth century, ethnographers and folklorists from the Slavic regions of the Balkans began to investigate in earnest the customs and tales of Bulgarians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Macedonians, and other groups living in or near the Bulgaro-Macedonian region of the BalkansElicited reports of customs and beliefs were collected in the field, then written up and submitted for consideration to such encyclopedic publications as the Sbornik za bâlgarski narodni umotvorenija (SbNU), a regularly published collection of folklore and customs. There are several references to vampire slayers in SbNU, dating back to 1891.

In the earliest SbNU report of a vampire slayer, from the Demir-Haskov region, the vampire, called in this case a vrkolak, appears as a shadow (sjanka). The vampire slayer is referred to as either a sâbotnik […] or a vâperar. The vrkolak in this region was said to come into existence from the blood of someone killed with a gun or a knife: the blood that poured out from the violent wound could become a vampire after fourteen days had passed. The shadow is quite explicitly considered a double, that is, an invisible simulacrum that can only be seen by the vâperar, who is called on to kill the vampire. In this report, the existence of the shadow/vampire was evidenced by an epidemic among livestock.

Like the vâperar, the sâbotnik may also be called on to kill the vrkolak, using, according to the report, a knife or a gun. The specification that the vampire slayer use the same tools to return the violence as that which ultimately brought the vampire into existence is intriguing: [-p.98] not only do we see the vampire as a double who has been engendered (or contaminated) by violence, but the vampire’s mortal enemy—who has the capacity to become a vampire—is here also his “reverse” double, who ritually reverses the vampire’s coming into existence by reenacting the violent scene that promoted a victim to a villain. There is a kind of antisymmetrical connection that persists throughout the folklore in the relationship between the vampire and the slayer, and this quite Slavic theme of doubles and reversals, while certainly encountered frequently enough in various notions of ritual magic, appears even in the later, popular literary conception of the vampire as having no reflection (the mirror image is his enemy).” (pp.97-98)

“Because he is able to detect a vampire that otherwise is unseen or goes unnoticed, the vampire slayer is the vampire’s natural enemy. I have already hinted that this function, of seeing and eliminating demonic [-p.105] forces, is a religious one: the task of purifying the community by identifying the spiritual cause of a calamity or disease and driving it out is performed by the heroes of many religions, Christianity among them. Since the earliest vampires were linked, in the minds of Orthodox Christianizers in the Balkans, with pre-Christian beliefs, we might expect to find evidence that the vampire’s folkloric enemies emerge from that same crucible.

Of course, the vampire’s truly greatest enemy is Christianity itself, which vehemently condemned, in the image of the vampire, the pagan’s literalization of the Eucharist and Resurrection as blood drinking and reanimation or reincarnation, respectively. But at the community level, the tension between the personages embodying evil or anxiety and those embodying good or wholeness must be resolved internally. The vampire and the vampire slayer are similarly marked as “non-Christian”; they are in a sense related to each other and in all likelihood reenact a mythological struggle that pre-dates Christianity. In other words, where Christianity finds the vampire, it also finds his slayer. At the purest theological level, Christianity abhors annihilation even for the sake of expiation, Jesus having served as the ultimate scapegoat. It therefore can condone neither vengeful violence nor deliberate contact with the unholy or defiled.” (pp.104-105)

Note also that in his introduction to this book, McClelland explains these connections and his own interest in them:

Ever since the publication of Dracula, or at least since movies adopted that novel’s central characters and narrative points in 1922 (Nosferatu) and 1931 (Dracula), the nature, origin, and meaning of the vampire have been frequent subjects of inquiry by European and American scholars. Historical, literary, cultural, political, and even psychoanalytic discussions of the nature and role of the vampire have abounded since the vampire became widely known in Western Europe in the early eighteenth century. But the tradition of the vampire and, indeed, of the word vampire itself, which also had a prefolkloric meaning, goes back several centuries before Europeans living north and west of the Danube had ever heard of such things. As we ought to expect, the meaning of the Slavic term vampir changed considerably over a millennium, yet most writers on the subject have ignored both the cultural context in which the term arose and the possible changes in the nature of the thing designated by the word across time.

Among the more significant causes of this inattention to the broader development of the vampire motif is the understandable, if Orientalistic, cultural ignorance on the part of Europeans living far from those areas of Europe – in particular, the Balkans and the Carpathians – that were dominated for so long by the Ottoman Turks. Toward the end of [-p.4] the seventeenth century, as the power of the Ottoman Empire began to wane in southeatern Europe, scientists and journalists who were curious about rumors of strange vampire phenomena ventured more intrepidly into such places as Serbia, Croatia, and other areas around the borders of the Habsburg Empire. Their noble intention was first to record and then explain the exotic and perhaps supernatural goings-on at the boundaries of the civilized world. This they did with a vengeance, writing reports and learned treatises to explain away the very possibility of the ambulatory dead. To prevent a resurgence of the extreme and irrational religious persecution that characterized the Inquisition, the journalists and scientists drew on the scientific methods that were emerging during the Enlightenment.

Thus, the conception of the vampire on which virtually all subsequent vampire literature (and, by technological extension, cinema) was based derived from a handful of notorious episodes. These ‘epidemics’ occurred over the span of only a couple of decades at the fringes of Western Europe, where Balkan folklore had come into direct contact with and had thus been contaminated by contemporary ideas about witches and witchcraft. Though a few reports by seventeenth-century travelers accurately described the Greek vampire, or revenant, known by the borrowed Slavic name broukolakos, there was no understtanding at the time of the vampire’s role within a much broader demonological or lower mythological system. The phenomenology of the vampire was appropriated in its entirety into a new, Enlightenment worldview, while the semantics and cultural history of the Old Slavic term vampir were almost completely ignored.

Perhaps the most profound consequence of this appropriation was that important, structural aspects of the vampire motif went unrecognized. The significance of the vampire hunter, for example, was for a long while overshadowed by a natural fascination – which preoccupied early Western writers on the subject – with the vampire’s appearance, power, and behavior.” (pp.3-4)

Because a familiarity with such oral tales was lacking in many recent studies of ‘the figure of the vampire’, McClelland goes on to explain that: “The dynamic of the vampire report, in which the real focus is on the methods used to identify and thereby dispatch the evil vampire, is missed as a consequence. What remains misunderstood is how the appearance of evil always seems to require counteraction or expiation at the hands of someone possessing both the necessary insight to recognize a vampire and the knowledge of the necessary rituals to destroy one. The meaning of the symbols in the original folkloric system is not carried over into the new, literary adaptation of the vampire theme. [/] The present work, then, attempts to restore the balance – between the vampire and his heroic adversary – that was disturbed with the transfer of the vampire from his home within Slavic lands, especially the South Slavic cultures of the Balkans. In particular, it is important to recognize first that the vampire hunter or slayer is not at all a modern phenomenon, dreamed up by Gothic writers for dramatic or literary purposes. More likely, this character is a reflex of an ancient shamanic figure possessing the healing power to peer into the world of the dead.” (p.5)

urbanisation

I found the following statement about the drop in folkloric vampire narratives as a result of urbanisation kind of interesting, too – since urbanisation seems to be a huge feature of the vampire’s recent popularity in popular culture…

McClelland writes: “In the twentieth century, the forces of urbanization and secularization began to erode the folkloric base of the vampire, and this erosion accelerated after World War II, in part due to the imposition of Sovietstyle communism, with its antagonism toward religious expression. By the mid-twentieth century, authentic vampire lore in the Bulgarian (and Yugoslavian) village context appeared to be dying off. More and more narratives recorded in the later decades of the century are of the “fabulate” type, in which the teller speaks of vampire or vampire-killing activity as hearsay rather than personal encounter (the latter being characteristic of the “memorate” narrative). Virtually all of the informants of contemporary ethnographers that admit to having knowledge of vampires are semiliterate farmworkers in their late seventies or eighties.” (p.102)

Ref: (italics in original emphases in blue bold mine) Bruce A. McClelland (2006) Slayers and Their Vampires : A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press

Reference is to: Martine Beugnet (2007): Figures of Vampirism: French Cinema in the Era of Global Transylvania, Modern & Contemporary France, 15:1, 77-88

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