Nationalism, urbanisation, and vampires


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)


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

Rape in popular folklore


Jane Ritchie and James Ritchie once wrote (in 1993) that “Of all the violent crimes, rape has generated the most myths in popular folklore ([Burt, MR (1980), 224]). Contrary to public belief, most rapes are not committed on the streets at night by a stranger but at the home of either the victim or the rapist by someone who is very often known to the victim ([Coddington, C and Marrieskind, L (1982)]). Women do not get raped because they flaunt their sexuality: victims can be any female – from little girls to very old women. Rapists are not always either young men in the full flush of sexual desire or ‘dirty old men’. They too cover the whole age range.

While less recent literature ([Albin, RS (1977)]) suggests that anger and hostility towards the woman victim, rather than sexual lust, is an important motivation, modern perspectives regard rape as an act of power, of domination ([Shapcott, D (1988)]). Most rapists are not sexually deprived but are either in regular sexual relationships or have licit sex available to them if they seek it. The purchase of sex on the streets is available to all men. But that is not what the rapist is after. There is also the myth that rapists are sexually inadequate but this, too, is not the case. The sexually inadequate peep or flash or seek out children ([Barber, D (1990)]).” (p.51)

“These myths,” the authors continue, “are carried in the collective consciousness of our society. They are perpetrated through literature, movies, and videos. [-p.52] Especially pernicious is the scenario where the woman resists sexual advances, is raped, and enjoys the sexual encounter ([Donnerstein, E and Berkowitz, U (1981), Ritchie, Jane (1986)]). This is a frequent theme in pornographic videos but in milder form it pervades the popular media. Even when the censor cuts a scene, it just leaves a gap where the rape ought to be. …Implicit rape scenes give vulnerable men as much (or more) permission as overt depiction. The message that women wish to be violated to fulfil their sexual desires must be banished for ever from popular culture.” (51-52)

Ref: Jane Ritchie and James Ritchie (1993) Violence in New Zealand. Huia Publishers and Daphne Brasell Associates: Wellington    NOTE: reference is made to: Albin, RS (1977) ‘Psychological studies of rape’ Signs, 3(2), pp423-435; Barber, D (1990) ‘An indecent Obsession’ Listener & TV Times pp26-27, March 5; Burt, MR (1980) ‘cultural myths and support for rape’ Journal of Personality and social psychology 38, pp217-230; Coddington, C and Marrieskind, L (1982) ‘Rape: an analysis of calls to the Hamilton Rape Crisis Centre’ in Jane Ritchie (ed.) Psychology of Women, Research Record IV Hamilton: University of Waikato; Ritchie, Jane (1986) ‘Pornography and sexual violence against women’ in D Braun and J Koirala (eds) Entertainment Violence and a Peaceful World, Auckland: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand; Donnerstein, E and Berkowitz, U (1981) ‘Victim reactions in aggressive erotic films as a factor in violence against women’ Journal of Personality and social psychology 41(4), pp710-724; Shapcott, D (1988) The Face of the Rapist Auckland: Penguin.

The Mad Axeman, urban legend and Harry Potter


I’ve an interest in the theory around urban legend and reading an article on that subject, I got to thinking about the role of urban legend in the Harry Potter series. Much has been said about the way JK Rowling portrays the news media in Harry Potter, but are urban legends also engaged in the way urban fears grow and diminish in the wizarding world as the series develops?

I couldn’t say without re-reading the books, but I’m thinking about the panic that circulates in the books when there are escapes from Azkaban (and every time Voldemort is reported seen). Certainly, Rowling emphasises both the exaggerated state of communal panic and the disparity between fact and fiction in reports of citings… anyway, the thought was prompted by an article on the inherent interweaving of legend and life (as exemplified by the urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’ in the UK).

Michael Wilson explains how this urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’, seems to have fed on news reports of a violent prisoner’s escape from Dartmoor prison in 1966 (Frank Mitchell). Consequent to this escape, it took on a cautionary role in the community, particularly for females. While the legend predates the escape, the panic caused by media reportage of Mitchell’s escape seems to have meant that the legend entered the adolescent oral repertoire to be retold to each other by teenagers well into the 1990s (Wilson cites figures that demonstrate the story’s continued popularity). Its status as truth/fiction shifts with the teller…. (Wilson also suggests the panic was in part fed by the media’s reliance on the mythology already created around Mitchell’s previous violence, precisely because there was an absence of Police information – Mitchell was never found)

‘The Mad Axeman’ legend, Wilson explains, “touched a nerve within the community, which was aggravated by the media’s concentrating precisely on the coincidences between fact and folklore. The press operated as an effective interface between folklore and reality, and Mitchell was absorbed into folklore.” (p.92)

Some quotes:

The relationship between legend and life

“The relationship between legend and life, narrative folklore and reality, is one that has fascinated folklorists for some time, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of contemporary legend. Scholars are constantly dealing with material that is presented as fact, and yet, because they have encountered wide-spread variants they presume it to be largley fiction. Recently it has been recognised that the relationship is a complex one; that legends often contain a blend of fact and fiction; that this is perhaps precisely why contemporary legends are so believable; and that the relationship between legend and life is a two-way process.” (p.89)

Wilson gives two other examples before embarking on his own – the Axeman – in depth (the tensions between: the murders of Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’, and ‘The Hairy-Handed Hitchhiker’; the armed robberies of Caryl Chessman in LA and ‘The Hook’ legend). Of these, he writes that “…the popularity of the story was enhanced by a set of widely-publicised real-life incidents which seemed to echo folklore.” (p.89)

The truth in the telling

“The issue of ‘believability’ is crucial to the case. Whether or not a particular story is told as true has a pivotal effect upon the meaning of the individual text. In other teenage horror stories, the story is rarely, if ever, told as true. In David Buchan’s words, it is a ‘gruesome-funny tale’ (Buchan 1981, 10) and it is told primarily for its entertainment value. This is not always the case with ‘The Mad Axeman’ which, even today is often (but not always) told as a true story and accepted as true by the audience because it expresses ‘in a succinct and entertaining form what narrators wish to present as a truth about contemporary life and behaviour’ (Boyes 1984, 64). …I would…suggest that the story became popular at least partly because of its increased believability and because the Mitchell escape served to validate it.

In fact ‘The Mad Axeman’ is a useful example with which to investigate this phenomenon, precisely because it is sometimes told as true, and sometimes as untrue. According to Boyes, ‘these legends articulate, and to a great extent validate wishes and fears’ (Boyes 1984, 64) and to Brunvand, ‘the story reveals society’s broader fears of people, especially women and the young, being alone and among strangers in the darkened world outside the security of their own home or car’ (Brunvand 1981, 11). This is certainly the case, and when the story is told and believed as true, the articulation of those fears transforms them into cautionary messages. Brunvand says that ‘…a story like ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ [the folklorist’s name for the Axeman tale] simply warns young people to avoid situations in which they may be endangered’ (Brunvand 1981, 11).” (p.93)

“On the other hand,” Wilson continues, “the story is often told as not true – or rather the truth element is not given any great weighting – and in these cases, when the story is told for entertainment purposes, the violence and the gruesomeness are exaggerated beyond the realms of credibility into the grotesque, and the story begins to become humorous.
In her essay ‘Legend: Performance and Truth,’ Gillian Bennett tackles exactly this issue. In her analysis of the same legend as told by two different narrators (one story told as true and one as untrue), she concludes that in the case of the non-belief tale, ‘the aim of the storytelling seems to be to arrive at the punchline [-p.94] and get a quick laugh’ and that ‘likelihood and local colour are both sacrificed for dramatic effect’ (Bennett 1988, 22).” (pp.93-94)

Gendered storytelling and reception

Wilson takes this further (and I found this part of the discussion really interesting!): “An application of these theories [i.e., Bennett’s, described above] to my own fieldwork collection will often bear out the truth of her assertions, and what may be additionally significant here is that it would seem that male storytellers have a greater propensity to exaggerate and tell the story for entertainment (i.e., as untrue) than female storytellers. This is not to say that females are more gullible than males, or that males are not capable of telling or accepting the story as true, but it may be that there is a gender difference in the meanings with which the storytellers endow their stories. Male storytellers seem more prone to tell the story for laughs or to disgust their audience, whereas female storytellers seem to prefer to warn and scare.” (p.94) … “This phenomenon could, of course, be put down, at least partly, to the gender rolds within many of the texts. Although it is the boyfriend/husband who is usually decapitated and thus the primary victim of the killer, it is the girlfriend/wife who is perceived as being under the greatest threat. The boyfriend/husband is simply a less important character in the story, fulfilling the role of traditional protector, and when he is removed, the girlfriend/wife becomes more vulnerable.” (p.94)

The media again

“Brunvand says that ‘rumours or news stories about missing persons or violent crimes … can merge with urban legends, helping to support their air of truth, or giving them renewed circulation after a period of less frequent occurrence’ (Brunvand 1981, 10).” (p.94)

Ref: Michael Wilson (1998) Legend and Life: ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ and ‘The Mad Axeman’ Folklore 109, pp.89-95

[NOTE: reference is made to: Bennett, Gillian. ‘Legend: Performance and Truth’ In Monsters with Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend III, ed. Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. 13-36. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988    Boyes, Georgina ‘Belief and Disbelief: An Examination of reactions to the presentation of rumour legends. In Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, ed. Paul Smith. 64-78. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1984    Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1981.    Buchan, David. ‘The Modern legend’ In Language, Culture and Tradition, ed. A.E. Green and JDA Widdowson. 1-15. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1981]

Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy 2


As I mentioned, I really enjoyed Clive Bloom’s chapter on Jack the Ripper in his Cult FictionAfter describing “the rapid dissemination of the Ripper legend and its endurance in popular publishing,” (p.167) he considers “the constellation of possibilities around which this publishing industry revolved and upon which the legend was built.” (p.167) He writes:

“It is obvious that any legend requires a small and possibly spectacular fact to unleash a great deal of ‘fiction’. Before turning to the legend as a type of ‘fictional’ genre it is necessary to consider the Ripper legend as revolving around (a) a series of bizarre and ferocious crimes, (b) an impotent and mocked authority (the Criminal Investigation Department being left totally in the dark and being criticized from Windsor), (c) a mysterious and unapprehended felon, and (d) the power of fiction and the use of the human sciences.

The murders of autumn 1888 allowed for the appearance of a new urban dweller, a dweller on the limits of society and yet fully integrated into it – the homicidal maniac, the psychopathic killer. Unlike de Sade, the psychopath is always in desguise; his intentions and his secret actions are on another plain from his social responsibilities. Consequently, the psychopath delineates that absolute psychological and mental ‘deterioration’ that Kraepelin had considered as a form of dementia praecox and that was not defined as schizophrenia until 1911. The Ripper, however, was seen as split not merely in personality but in morality as well.” (p.167) [Bloom goes on to consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in some depth]

“As with Jekyll and Hyde so Jack the Ripper too was seen as an inhuman, if not non-human, monster who combined possible middle-class respectability (a doctor or a surgeon) with lower-working-class savagery (an immigrant, ‘Leather-Apron’, a mad butcher). The Ripper united both classes inasmuch as he was excluded by his acts from both ( just as were his victims). The Ripper was both a technician (a post-mortem surgeon, a doctor, a butcher) and an insane lunatic (incapable of finesse). He was supposedly at once able to focus his aggression in anatomical detail and yet unable to curb its force. Thus, the forensic nature of the Ripper’s ‘work’ (his ‘job’) provided a focal point for popular fears and prejudices against those professions dealing in the limits of the ‘decent’ (psychologists, doctors, post-mortem surgeons, forensic experts). The Ripper’s supposed anatomical expertise suggested all sorts of horrible possibillities about the life of the ‘expert’ and the specialist. His ability with a knife united him to the very professionals paid to track him down!

Like Hyde, he was the alter ego of the police force and the letters clearly demonstrate him showing off his expertise to them and the vigilante forces operating in Whitechapel. Later his dual nature as criminal and enforcer-of-law became explicit when reports of his deerstalker gave one attribute to the occupier of 221b Baker Street, whose business was forensic science, whose other real-life model was a surgeon and whose friend was a doctor.” (p.170) 

“Thus the Ripper was not merely a murderer but the catalyst for a series of psychological and social reactions. He combined the supposed popular idea of the expert as well as the darker side of the madman, lunatic, animal degenerate. As a median point between middle-class respectability and a debased Darwinian proletariat, the Ripper became the invisible man…. The Ripper’s letters acknowledge the pretence of cockney patois while pointing directly toward a middle-class author – but the author of what: a letter or the murders?” (p.171)

“…we have seen that the combination of popular prejudice and fiction produced a character and a rationale for the Ripper qua murderer and respectable member of society. His split nature (if such it was or presumably had to be) was completed by the hypocrisy concerning the very people he killed (the ‘Magdalens’). For these people were themselves invisible, acting as a certain outlet and limit to urban society. The psychopath and the prostitute were two ends of a society that refused to acknowledge their presence. Invisibly, they provided their services on the edge of the rational, morally degenerate as both supposedly were.

Yet Jack the Ripper’s threat is one that spills back into ‘ordinary’ society and threatens that society. In the period when the legend of ‘the Ripper’ begins, the psychopath becomes an urban reality but as a character-type is not quite part of a mental spectrum and yet is not fully freed from being a theological problem either. Jack combines notions of evil, insanity and moral justice at the moment when the nineteenth century saw itself as the century of progress, enlightenment and escape from ‘moral’ prejudice. The Ripper’s name denotes a certain consequent frontier for the human sciences at this time.” (p.171)

In the eighteenth century executions became a ritual in which the ‘main character was the people, whose …presence was required for the performance’.  By Jack’s time public execution was long since over, but Jack took on the symbolic weight of a ‘higher’ justice operating beyond the arm of the law, exposing and cutting out the cancer of sexual commerce. His role was acknowledged in his instant fame and his ferocity in his attack on the condemned: the prostitute class. It appears that Jack represented the return of a social memory of the proximity of death (by violence, cholera, starvation) now distanced by the work of social and medical reformers.

In that latter half of the industrialized nineteenth century ceremonies about the integration of death had long ceased to be necessary. In a sense the body had gained utility value but lost its ‘sacred’ humanness (its ‘mystery’ that early Christians feared). Jack represents the unconscious of that society – a repression not yet exorcized; he forcibly reminded society (unable to speak of bodies without blushing) of the crudest function of that mass of organs. Jack clearly unites ideas about the mortification of the flesh and the technology that manipulates the body (the human sciences: biology, psychology, forensic science, medicine). One end of the spectrum acknowledges desire for and the power of the flesh while the other denies both and reduces the body to a mass of functions and utilities: an automaton. The body hence becomes ironically ‘sacred’ (as an object in religious devotion to be escaped from) and yet also machinic.” (p.173)

“Jack is demon/animal and therefore totally other, therefore unrecognizable (invisible), therefore the perfect criminal. He disturbs the human only to reinforce it. Indeed, this monstrosity embeds himself in the imagination of each generation that needs his presence. For that reason alone there is a smile on the face of the Ripper.

The historical details of the Whitechapel Murders are nothing less than the facets of a scenario for a script about modernity itself. Reworked in fiction and film as well as the focus for true crime books (of the solve-it-yourself variety), the Ripper’s deeds are ever reworked to remain forever contemporary, and thus curiously emphasized by layers of nostalgia. The Ripper’s script has violence, eroticism, sentimentality, and the supernatural: a text to live out the sensationalism of the modern.” (p.177)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

Jack the Ripper: legend and literacy


Reading Clive Bloom’s Cult Fiction, I particularly enjoyed Chapter 8 The Ripper Writing: A Cream of a Nightmare Dream…

“Jack of Hearts, Jack O’Lantern, Jack the Giant-Killer, Jack the lad, Jack Sheppard and Springheeled Jack; ‘Jack’, a common name that represents ubiquity: the nomenclature of the ordinary. In the late nineteenth century as for us in the late twentieth there was only one Jack – the Ripper; of the famous nineteenth-century criminals this one alone has endured into legend. Of Charlie Peace, Neill Cream or Israel Lipski little is remembered; of other famous murders only the victim is recalled: Maria Marten offering herself to melodrama and Fanny Adams to a coarse joke. Jack survives, but not merely because he was not caught.

This chapter is an attempt to consider the determinants and the progress of the Ripper legend as both text and history and to consider the constellation of historico-psychological notions that have gathered around the name of the Ripper.

Jack, it seems, timed his murders at a correct psychological moment, for almost immediately, not least for their ferocity, his deeds became the stuff of legend. He instantly became both a particular and a general threat, a focus for numerous related fears among metropolitan dwellers across Europe and America. …Already, only one month after the murders had ceased, Jack [had] an international ‘appeal’.” (p.159)

Reporting on his murders mixed xenophobia, humour, political and religious fear, with sensation and sexual innuendo, Bloom explains, resulting in a peculiar relationship between the Ripper and the reading public.

“…even during the season of the killings in the autumn of 1888, papers quickly realized the value of Jack’s exploits, conducting their own post-mortems and reporting coroner’s verdicts at length. The Times, for instance, ran articles in its Weekly Edition from September 1888 to November 1888. On 28 September 1888 it gave a full page to the social background of Spitalfields and the poverty endured there by Annie Chapman, the Ripper’s first victim. The Times was quick to guess the direction in which police might look. They thought a post-mortem surgeon’s assistant might be the culprit because of ‘his’ specialized knowledge of the uterus, which was removed from the victim’s body.

The Times further noted the curious circumstance of an American surgeon who wished to include real uteri with a journal he was mailing to clients! Could this bizarre surgeon, whose name was not known, have prompted the killer to get ‘a uterus for the £20 reward?’ asked the paper. In a later issue, next to the report of other Ripper murders (26 October 1888), a clergyman protested in a long letter at the condemnation of the destitute by the middle classes, at [-p.162] their hypocrisy over prostitution and at their ignorance of the conditions prevailing in the East End. He concluded that this had ‘blotted the pages of our Christianity’.

The freakish, of which the nineteenth century was inordinately fond, found itself beside the missionary, which in its guise as Mayhew, Engels or Booth consistently restated the ordinariness of the ‘freak’ (the destitute, the prostitute, the opium addict, the derelict). ‘Body snatching’ (and the notion of a uterus as a ‘free gift’ with a new journal) then wierdly allies itself with murder for greed (the reward offered at £20) and murder as the act of the desperately destitute. Jack becomes the focus for the bizarre in the ordinary misery of everyday life in the metropolitan slums. Jack the murderer becomes Jack the missionary who focussed on problems other investigators were unable to bring to such a wide audience. Murder allowed for social reform. The newspapers, by keeping Jack the centre of attention, ironically kept the slum problems central too.

After reports covering three months by The Times and The Times Weekly Edition, the newspaper concluded that ‘the murderer seems to have vanished, leaving no trace of his identity… with even greater mystery’ (The Times, 10 November 1888). Jack the Ripper, given his nom de guerre by Fleet Street, was the first major figure to offer himself to, and to become, a creation of journalism. By the 1880s newspapers commanded audiences large enough to make Jack a major figure of international interest rather than a local folktale figure for the East End of London. The power of journalism and the crowded warrens of the central city of the Empire together provided ground for the dissemination of the legend, a legend based upon both fear and curiosity – a terrible ambivalence. The possibilities for the dissemination of rumour could never be more fortuitous, and letters from ‘Jack’ fed interest and added to the atmosphere of uncertainty.

Indeed, Jack’s letters themselves may have been the work of an entrepreneurial journalist providing ‘copy’ for himself.” (pp.161-162)

“The Ripper letters are a form of true life confessionheightened to the level of a fiction which embraces a ‘cockney’ persona, a sense of black hmour, a melodramatic villain (‘them curses of coppers’) and a ghoul (sending ‘innerds’) and mixes it with a sense of the dramatic and a feeling for a rhetorical climax. In these letters life and popular theatre come together to act upon the popular imagination. The Ripper (now possibly many ‘Rippers’ all reporting their acts) autographs his works as a famous artist (death as creativity) – anonymous and yet totally well known. Here, confession only adds to confusion (even Neill Cream claimed to be the Ripper). Jack’s letter ‘from Hell’ concludes ‘catch me when you can’, adding a sense of challenge and a stronger sense of a ‘hint’ to the frustration of authority in its quest for an actual identity to the murderer.

By the time of these letters Jack has ceased to be one killer but has become a multiplicity of performing personas for the popular imagination. The possibility of copycat crimes (although finally dismissed from at least two other ‘torso’ cases) lent to Jack the amorphous ability to inhabit more than one physical body.

Consequently, for the late nineteenth century, the Ripper became a type of ‘folk’ character whose exploits spilled into the twentieth century via cinema, theatre and fiction.” (p.163)

Bloom describes the numerous writers who have sought to positively identify the Ripper, noting that “The ‘debate’ heats up every few years with new flushes of theory and further refutations, while works such as Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper; The Final Solution added to the growing heap of books searching for scandal in suburbia or in the freemasons, in highest government or the royal family. Knight, himself a journalist, stated in the East London Advertiser (7 December 1973) that ‘the evil presence of Jack the Ripper still seems to haunt… the imagination of crime investigators’, and he noted that in the 1970s letters were still arriving from people claiming knowledge of or claiming actually to be ‘the Ripper’. In the twentieth century Jack has become the centre of a conspiracy debate. Indeed, so vast is the volume of literature to date that Alexander Kelly was able to write an article for The Assistant Librarian about his compilation of a bibliography of ‘Ripperana and Ripperature’. / The Ripper literature however is far from confined to the work of amateur sleuths (and they are a study in themselves) but extends to both fiction and film.” (p.164)

Jack the Ripper is a name for both a necessary fiction and a fact missing its history. Here fiction and history meet and mutate so that the Ripper can be searched for by ‘historians’ of crime at the very same moment that he can ppear in a Batman comic. Separable from his origins, the Ripper is a strange historicized fiction, a designation for a type of murderer and his scenario (for the game is to give ‘Jack’ his real name and collapse fiction into biography), while also being a structural necessity for a type of [-p.165] fictional genre….” (pp.164-165)

In chasing the identity of the Ripper and in placing his personality upon numerous more or less well-known historical characters (the lastest being James Maybrick) investigators acknowledge the [-p.166] bizarre silence at the heart of the tale, a place where history has closed in upon itself and refused its fact. History becomes an abyss antagonistic to its own determinants and played upon by conspiracy in the fiction of the secret of Jack’s identity. Scanning the grim, grainy, obscure picture taken of Mary Kelly’s eviscerated body as if in search of clues we become dabblers in the oracular and the occult. In her photo the Ripper steps out of Victorian history to become the epitome of Victorian history, its embodiment and spokesman.” (pp.165-166)

Ref: (italics in original) Clive Bloom (1996) Cult Fiction: Popular reading and pulp theory. Macmillan Press Ltd: London

Urban legends and travel


Mike Hanne once pointed out (in a lecture – COMPLIT 202: Interpreting Folktales, University of Auckland 2001) that lots of urban legends are associated with travel… ‘What is attractive and what is frightening about being away from home/where you are comfortable?’ he asked…

Consider stories about losing kidneys (for example) in the airport, on the plane, in Disneyland, etc…

or the urban legends associated with restaurants – especially those run by other ethnic groups (cats going missing near Chinese neighbourhoods, for example, or – more recently – near the New Zealander living in small town France)

“In the telling of these stories,” Mike explained, “part of the psychological point is that they’re pushing the question ‘what will you believe?'”

Do these legends require the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’? or is some other narrative tradition in play?

Who tells the stories???


With regards to the collection and interpretation of urban legends, Jan Brunvand writes:

What little we know about who tells the stories, when, to whom, and why invariably contributes towards understanding how legends function and what they mean. Too frequently, however, our contextual and background information is limited to the name, age, sex, and address of informants; seldom do we find scholarly studies that give close descriptions of actual storytelling events.” (p.15)

Ref: Jan Brunvand The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban legends and their Meanings, New York/London: WW Norton, 1981.