Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Of the Night

August isn’t too early to start thinking about vampires. The nights are already noticeably longer than they were in June and some leaves are just beginning to change on the trees. I’m thinking of vampires because one of my readers sent me a link to some investigative reporting about the “Highgate Vampire.” I’ve posted about this before, but the brief story, if you don’t have time to browse through my “monster” category, is that beginning in the 1970s a group of people came to believe a vampire haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery. This led to the publication of written accounts of the hunt for the undead. On a trip to London in 2012 I visited the Highgate Cemetery as my host for the trip lived quite close by. Apart from being the resting place of many famous people, the cemetery is moody and Gothic and it’s easy to see how, in days when it was neglected, it could’ve spawned such tales. Thing is, we know vampires don’t exist. So we’re told.

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Back to the story. My reader pointed me to the website Vamped, and now I’m afraid my limited time has just grown more limited. More specifically, there is a story by Erin Chapman entitled “5 Reasons Why a Wampyr Didn’t Walk in Highgate Cemetery.” The article investigates claims made in Sean Manchester’s book on the subject (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), demonstrating that his locations, photographs, and narrative don’t add up. The piece on Vamped shows a meticulous level of detail, comparing notes and photos in a way some of us simply don’t have time to do. Now I’ll sleep more securely on my next visit to London. I hope. The conclusions are disputed.

At this point some may be asking why an educated, rational adult is even addressing such questions. Why worry about something that isn’t even real? This brings to mind the realm of religion. Archetypes, whether they have an objective existence or not, are part of our consciousness. Supernatural beings of many varieties inhabit our heads, no matter how much garlic or holy water we happen to have lying around. Ignoring them can lead to problems. Do I think there is/was a vampire in Highgate Cemetery? I don’t think so. Do some other people sincerely believe it? I have to think yes. No matter which religion people follow, there will be entities that other people don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The Highgate Vampire isn’t real for most people, but it is for others. And just in case, I’ll keep a bit of garlic around as the nights begin to grow longer.

Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

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Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.