According to the Associated Press, Sava Savanovic seems to have risen from the grave again. In the world of professional vampirologists, I am a mere hack, but when local Serbian officials start instructing villagers to stuff their pockets with garlic, I know enough to sit up and listen. The Balkans and eastern Europe claim the lion’s share of vampires, but the idea is an ancient one that some scholars trace back even to the Sumerians. While the AP report seems very tongue-in-cheek (as opposed to teeth-in-neck), there is no doubt that ancient fears are as hard to kill as actual vampires. It is no surprise that vampires found their resurrection in the western world as the Enlightenment was catching on. The emphasis on reason and science alone leaves many people very cold. We all may be lemmings headed for the cliff, but we don’t want to be told so. And when the scientists pack up all their equipment and head home, there are still unexplained noises in the night.
Sava Savanovic may have been a historical person, but not one approaching the stature of Vlad Tepes off to the north and a few centuries earlier. A little closer to home, Peter Plogojowitz, an actual Serbian peasant, was staked for being a vampire in the eighteenth century. Fortunately, he was already dead at the time. The story is recounted in Gregory Reece’s Creatures of the Night and the account remains one of the earliest documented Balkan vampire records. The Enlightenment was under full steam and yet, and yet…
Interestingly, the report on Newsy shows a Fox News reporter declaring with certainty that no vampires exist. Given the track record of Fox News of catering to causes near and dear to Neo-Con hearts, it is hard to accept that people believing in fairy tales only inhabit the darker regions of the Balkans. No, vampires do not just crave blood. The ancients often believed that they were after reproductive fluids in order to generate more of their kind. A more recent version is the fiend who drains others of their money so that they may live in their remote castles far from the reach of the unwashed populace that has to work for a living. Perhaps we should be envious of those fearing Sava Savanovic—he can be frightened away by garlic and crucifixes, after all. The modern American vampire fears nothing but death and taxes, and the latter they’ve already defeated.
Gregory L. Reece’s Creatures of the Night is a strangely profound book. I picked it up to read on the plane home from Chicago and I wasn’t disappointed. Promising to explore ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and devils, Reece suggests that maybe the key to such fascination rests with the late Rudolf Otto. I had over a decade of students read Otto’s famous little book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto, whose palindromatic surname suggests something uncanny, characterized the holy as the fascinating mysterium tremendum, the wholly other. (I will refrain from calling it the wholly holy.) The mystery that makes us tremble. The monsters that haunt our nights and imaginations are aspects of this utterly other.
Along the way Reece proves an able tour guide. He recognizes, as I have repeatedly stated in this blog, that religion and fear are conjoined twins. He also knows how to get your skin crawling. For Reece there is no question that such things are real. Real doesn’t mean that they are physically lurking outside your window at night—for who is to say that only the physical is real?—but they are as real as religion. No doubt strange things have transpired in history and continue to occur. And the reason we go into church may ultimately be the same reason that we watch a horror film.
As Reece comes upon the topic of demons the air in the room (or plane, or bus) thickens. Here we have documented accounts of impossible events. No amount of rational training can remove the shudder from these stories. Explanations of epilepsy only go so far before terror takes over. By herding them together with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, Reece stakes his claim that they all are real. Rational reductionists may shrink our world down so tightly that no room appears in the inn for our creatures of the night. But those who are honest, even among the reductionists, will admit to a mysterious tremor, even if unintentional, on a dark and stormy night.
Finally, after a couple of decades, I got around to watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As viewers know to expect of a Coppola film, the cinematography is stylish and artistically exaggerated. It has been even more years since I’ve read Stoker’s novel, the book that gave birth to the modern vampire, but I am pretty sure that the many oblique references to the Bible count among the film’s innovations. Coursing like an artery through the movie is the phrase “the blood is life,” taken from Leviticus 17. I’ve posted earlier concerning the biblical outlook that life is equated with breath, and so it is. The Bible does not always remain consistent on this point — natural enough for a book with multiple authors living centuries apart. Blood and breath obviously share crucial functions in maintaining life.
Ancient peoples believed in a world peopled with unusual, quasi-supernatural beings, including blood-drinkers and nocturnal baby-snatchers. Theirs was a world of harsh realities where death was more closely observed than it tends to be in many parts of the world today. The fascination, often coupled with religious underpinnings, continues to engage our imagination today, as can be seen in any given Halloween season or on el Día de los Muertos.
Whether el chupacabra or Bela Lugosi, the fascination with mythical creatures of the night that thrive on the life-source of others is a concept never far from religionists. No matter how many stakes we pound through undead hearts, the unholy bloodsuckers continue to show up in our theaters and on YouTube. A childhood penchant for Dark Shadows books has recently been reactivated in the restless gray-matter in my head. As the days grow shorter and shadows become an increasing element of daily experience, I marvel at how the human imagination parodies our daily experiences, dressing them up in fanciful garb to parade about with the other ghosts of October. What is perhaps even more unusual is that money is still to be made in this business of selling the parasite. How else can we explain Buffy and all her cohort? The life is indeed in the blood.