• August 28, 2015

All the Dead Are Vampires

A natural-historical look at our love-hate relationship with dead people.

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I remember the view from a grave. Cartoon stars spiraled in front of my eyes when I hit the damp soil at the bottom. Up there on the faraway earth, past six feet of square muddy wall, a man and a boy stared down at me—my brothers, Gary and David, both laughing. Until I slipped and fell into the grave, we had been setting up the graveside for a funeral. Gary, 11 years older than I, worked for a funeral home; more than once in our childhood, David and I rode with him to pick up a corpse. I remember coming in the back door of a funeral home around midnight—the glare of fluorescent lights on stainless-steel tables, the smell of antiseptic, and another odor underneath. Only once did I actually zip up a body bag over a dead man's nose. Once was enough.

These mostly forgotten memories returned after I was invited last year to edit an anthology of vampire stories.

"Vampire stories?" I repeated. Despite a secret fascination with werewolves—something strikes home for me about the need for anger management to keep you from going all beastly during a crisis—I had never really been a fan of vampires. I wasn't reading the Twilight books or watching True Blood. I never even read Interview With the Vampire—even though I dated a psychic vampire back in the early 90s—and my Tom Cruise allergy kept me from the movie.

The editor clarified: "Victorian vampire stories."

"Oh, I see." He knows I have a weakness for the atmosphere of Victorian genre fiction, from Raffles relieving the aristocracy of the burden of wealth to pissed-off ghosts chasing M.R. James's bumbling antiquarians. Who can resist an era in which first aid for any trouble begins with a shout of, "Brandy! For God's sake, bring her some brandy!"

So, wondering how I would find a new angle on vampire stories, I said yes. Anthologizing is a dusty sport, half antique hunting and half literary gossipfest, and I love it. I went home and prowled my shelves and realized how many of the Victorian-era stories I had already read. Why, here's that pasty-faced bastard Lord Ruthven, by Byron's doctor and hanger-on, John Polidori, and so obviously based upon Byron himself. Here is Théophile Gautier's crazy priest, in love with a vampire courtesan and wrestling with his naughty soul. And there were many stories I hadn't read before—gay vampires, child vampires, even an invisible vampire.

To understand how this modern mythology blossomed during the Romantic and Victorian century, I had to go to the allegedly true 18th-century accounts of vampirism. With or without clergy, the citizenry often performed frenzied exhumations because they feared that Aunt Helga was returning to prey upon her relatives.

As I read about the careful inspection of corpses for signs of vampirism, a curious thing happened. Slowly I began to get vampire stories: the horror of our aspiring consciousness finding itself trapped in a mortal body, the threatening presence of the already deceased, even the undead's gamble on a kind of credit—another's blood instead of their own—rather than acceptance of normal human fate.

Reading about these fictional bodies—bodies of victims and of monsters—reminded me of bodies I had known. I remembered my own encounters with death, from riding in a hearse with a corpse strapped to a gurney behind us to sitting beside a friend's father in the hospital as he sighed his last breath. I remembered my momentary horror and panic when I fell into the grave. It wasn't like falling off a ladder. This was a grave.

As I worked on the introduction to the anthology, I merged the two main topics I write about: natural history and Victorian literature. I tried to look at vampires from a scientific point of view. After all, where did we get this fear that, once the sun goes down, the ghoulish undead climb out of their coffins and come back for the rest of us? It didn't emerge out of thin air.

The vampire story as we know it was born in the early 19th century, as the wicked love child of rural folklore and urban decadence. But in writing these depraved tales, Byron and Polidori and company were refining the raw ore of peasant superstition. And the peasant brain had simply been doing what the human brain does best: sorting information into explanatory narratives.

I found lots of reports of vampires from Europe—from urban France, rural Russia, the islands of Greece, the mountains of Romania. Along the way, I was reminded of something I already knew but hadn't thought of as relevant in this context: During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, dead bodies were a common sight. Plague and countless other illnesses ravaged every community. Corpses of the executed and tortured were displayed in public as warnings, even left hanging as they decomposed.

Few bodies seemed to rest peacefully even in the ground. Often people in the 18th century had an opportunity not only to see corpses but also to glimpse them again after they were buried. Urban cemeteries were densely overcrowded, sometimes with the dead stacked several graves deep, causing horrific spillage during floods or earthquakes. More corpses than the ground could accommodate resulted in the stench of decay and the constant risk of disease. Grave desecration was also common; a thriving trade in illicit cadavers for medical students joined a vicious rivalry between competing religious groups. After Louis XIV abolished the convent at Port-Royal des Champs as a hotbed of Jansenist heresy, drunken locals dug up nuns' bodies from the cemetery and fed them to their dogs. Corpses of executed heretics were dragged through the streets, then reburied in too-small graves by breaking the body into small pieces.

I found in older vampire stories that often the person who returns as a vampire was irreligious during life—irreverent, scornful of the infallibility of the church or the need for communion, for example. People worried especially about those who had been excommunicated and denied burial in a church-approved cemetery. If your soul didn't sleep peacefully in the arms of the Lord, what might it be up to?

In his 1746 compendium, The Phantom World, Augustin Calmet explored those questions. In a section headed "Do the excommunicated rot in the earth?," he examined the common fear that the body of a heretic does not decompose but instead lingers in the earth, profaning the laws of God in death as it did in life, polluting the ground with its sinfulness and disease. Unlikely comrades, such as natural philosophers and village priests, found themselves allied in an antipollution movement, lobbying for the segregation of cemeteries to rural areas beyond dense centers of population—where their rotting inhabitants could inflict less harm on the living.

The scholar Marie-Hélène Huet sums up the subtext of many early vampire accounts: "All the dead are vampires, poisoning the air, the blood, the life of the living, contaminating their body and their soul, robbing them of their sanity."

As I continued digging into the literature, I wondered: If ordinary people were encountering the corpses of the recently dead or even long-dead friends and relatives, what were they actually seeing that they misinterpreted and then wove into a vampire mythology? Not surprisingly, no one understood the process of decay within a subterranean chamber. They had no forensic body farm at which to chart a corpse's fade from nauseating stink to cautionary bones.

Any variation from "normal" in the grave provoked fear, yet there isn't really much of a norm in the process of decay under different circumstances. Some coffins protect their residents better than others. Lime helps preserve a body, as do clay soil and low humidity. Graves in different climates and latitudes vary, depending upon air temperature and humidity, soil composition, and insects, not to mention those invisible sanitation workers who turn us all back into the dust from which we came—and of course in the 18th century, no one knew that such creatures existed.

Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don't actually continue to grow after death, but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you're turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil's chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein—adipocere, "grave wax." In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature—to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.

And what about the blood reported around the mouths of resurrected corpses? That too has a natural explanation. Without the heart as a pump to keep it circulating, blood follows the path of least resistance. Many bodies were buried face down, resulting in blood pooling in the face and leaving it looking flushed. Sometimes blood also gets lifted mouthward by gases from decomposition. Vampire stories recognize that death is messy.

Much of the original folklore does not include our familiar theme nowadays, that the undead recruit their own next generation by infecting victims when they drink their blood. Often I found the fear that a corpse might spontaneously transform into a vampire without ever once making an unwilling blood donation during life. Your behavior before death was more important because it might increase your odds of coming back as a vampire. Felons, especially murderers, were thought likelier to be cursed in this way—as were those poor souls presumptuous enough to commit suicide and take their departure schedule out of the hands of God.

Here's a list of other likely vampires: murderers' victims, the battlefield dead, the drowned, stroke victims, the first person to fall in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, alcoholics, grumpy people, women with questionable reputations, people who talk to themselves, and redheads.

Throughout my research, I found parallels between my own experience and vampire stories. When I read that list, I realized that the psychic vampire I once dated was a redhead. I'm just saying.

What I didn't foresee, when I signed on to compile an anthology of Victorian vampire stories, is that these tales from the dawn of the genre would tap into fears from the dawn of my own life, as well as more recent experiences. Once, in an emergency room, I was given an overdose of morphine for severe back pain. I flat-lined. My consciousness rushed away like an outgoing tide, and everything went black. I had just enough time to think, "Wow, dying is so easy." My wife recounts the next few minutes: a buzzer screaming, nurses racing in, calling to each other, giving me another injection, my EKG line getting excited again. Slowly I returned to consciousness, as if washing up on a beach. I shivered for days after that experience.

I didn't shiver like that again until late one night while reading Aleksey Tolstoy's "The Family of the Vourdalak." Gorcha, the grandfather of a village family, returns from 10 days in the mountains a disturbingly changed man, pale and slow. That evening he lures his own young grandson out into the darkness. I was reading this story late at night in the living room, with my wife already upstairs asleep. I began to shiver. I remembered my own grandfather's death when I was 7, how my memory of him merged with a late-night horror movie I had seen, how he kept coming back in my nightmares. In one dream, he limped up the gravel road from our family cemetery and tapped on my bedroom window. He wanted me to join him.

Of course he did; the dead always want us to join them. They frighten us because we know that someday we will see the view from a grave.

Michael Sims, a writer, is editor of Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories, due out this month from Walker and Company. His books include Apollo's Fire: A Day on Earth in Nature and Imagination (Viking, 2007) and Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (Viking, 2003).


1. laurenbdavis - June 15, 2010 at 09:13 am

Terrific article. Just the right amount of grim, grisly and humorous. I've never read the present crop of vampire books either, but love Victorian literature and I look foward to reading this collection.

2. dweisk - June 16, 2010 at 08:36 am

I'd also recommend Paul Barber's excellent 'Vampires, Burial, and Death' to readers looking for more on how vampire legends arose in folklore, and how the signs of vampirism are related to processes of decay and decomposition.


3. kaybar47 - June 16, 2010 at 08:53 am

For whatever reason, I am a great fan of vampires and a diehard True Blood viewer. I regret, however, that most modern vampire stories have migrated from the horror genre and are now referred to as "romance" novels. The emphasis on "forbidden love" is weakening the effects of the read. Hence, the reason that I have no interest in the Twilight phenomenon.

4. 11182967 - June 16, 2010 at 09:03 am

Before reading the article I took the title to be metaphorical. There is a sense, certainly, that the past can rob the present of vitality, that the actions of our ancestors suck away our lives. An awareness of the deadliness of the past may well be seen as an inspiration to revolution. The logical conclusion of this way of thinking is the sort of Maoist/Pol Pot kind of revolution (but think also of the reanming of the days and months during the French Revoluion) which seeks, ironically, to eliminate the power of the past by obliterating it and in killing the past also destroys the present--a Romantic action if ever the was one (the Victorians, of whom we are the heirs, being Romantics with machines).

5. lexalexander - June 16, 2010 at 09:44 am

I read Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in fifth or sixth grade and have been mildly fascinated with the bloodsuckers ever since.

May I also recommend Jeffrey Rice's "The Night Stalker," a book by a former Las Vegas newspaper reporter about how that tourist-conscious town, where so much of life is lived after sunset, might react to the modern-day presence of a vampire. It's more a critique of boosterism than any kind of analysis of our attitudes toward death and dying, but it's a helluva beach read.

6. agpbloom - June 16, 2010 at 10:44 am

Sims gives us a very good account of how some of our most persistent folklore has roots in real phenomena. Nice job on the vampire forensics!

Richard Matheson grounded the vampire tale in science, and this made I Am Legend a contemporary classic. Also, I was intrigued by the author's mention of his relationship with a "psychic" vampire. The horror fiction authors Briam Lumley and Dan Simmons explore this possibility in an effective manner. For those who have the time, read Simmons' new edition of Carrion Comfort, and then make your own decision about the possibility of "psychic" vampires in our world, creatures who manipulate and drain human beings of their potency and will to live. I think I have crossed one or two of them in my short time on this earth. A couple of them worked at colleges. Is Van Helsing's bag of tricks enough for going up against these psychological blood suckers? I don't know. You tell me.

7. research_guy - June 16, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Really interesting story. Thanks, Michael. But I was wondering why you seemed to have focussed entirely on the ghoulish side, and not picked up also on the sexual side of vampire-appeal - the fangs sinking into innocent pure white necks laid bare, the blood redness related to arousal, the older male master / younger girl-victim pairing -- and how those themes must have appealed to the more unconventional authors in the Victorian-morals age. How nice it must have been to read at a time when strictness prevailed. What shock value! Nowdays, if a real vampire turned up at a bar, she wouldn't be questioned, just carded.

8. bekka_alice - June 16, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I love this article, and particularly adore this paragraph: "Here's a list of other likely vampires: murderers' victims, the battlefield dead, the drowned, stroke victims, the first person to fall in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, alcoholics, grumpy people, women with questionable reputations, people who talk to themselves, and redheads." A brilliant brief summary of our human nature when faced with unanswered questions.

I liked the reader comment about the increase in undead romance - perhaps fueled by a lack of predators in our daily lives? The romance genre has used predatory men disrupting otherwise dull lives as a staple, so vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings are a welcome new source of hunters.

Some stories treat this in a very smart way - for instance, Spike in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was one of the most successful physical predators in the vampire world of the story but in emotional context he was a tragic heroic fool, which made for a nice contrast - while other stories just use false flaws (I am beautiful, although alas my breasts are simply too large; I am immortal and studly with a cleft chin and three Doctorates yet I am tortured... and tortured... and tortured... by my guilt... and can't learn to cope with it over hundreds of years until I find a young girl who smells nice (I could have gotten over this angst hundreds of years ago if only baths were popular then?)) as faint camouflage of cardboard predators in stereotypical romance. I deeply prefer stories which expose facets of humanity we think about less often.

Also entertained by the red-headed psychic vampire, I think I worked with him at the Renaissance Festival one year; he always had a sunburn. And why were all the red-headed psychic vampires back then from California? Dated and was friends with a few of those more mentally draining psychic vampires too - garlic is less effective in dealing with them than a good strong communication barrier. Like an unplugged phone, internet user block, forty miles, and a hammer just in case.

9. janice_h - June 16, 2010 at 04:34 pm

You mention Polidori and Byron. The interest in vampires has very little to do with the dead and more with being undead - not abiding by the laws of god and morality. Vampires are very different from haunting ghost and the undead coming back to life. It's an important difference, even if slightly connected. A really interesting discussion on vampires I read:

10. matiu - June 16, 2010 at 05:36 pm

When searching for the origins of the vampire belief regard should be given to the religous orthodoxies that prevailed in Christian Europe prior to the 19th century.

The centrality of the eucharist, the sacrifice of the Roman mass commenorating Christ's redeeming death through the consumption of bread & wine, believed to be his literal body and blood.

The consumption of human blood can be considered to be emulating the sacred reinactment, albeit in service of "a dark force".

The ultimate redemption of all believers was for the physical resurrection of the dead after the Day of Last Judgement. The breaking up of the corpse and the dislocation of its parts, the ultimate indignity, was seen as a means of ensuring that the individual could never participate in the eternal life promised to the just.

The preoccupation of christians with their eventual salvation and redemption directed for many their life's endeavours, especially in their mature years. Anything that might prevent the attainment of an everlasting place in the divine presence but lead to damnation with all of Hell's torments, was truly terrifying !

11. cranefly - June 16, 2010 at 07:29 pm

I read an article as an undergrad called "forensic pathology and the European vampire'. Can't recall who wrote it, but it seemed to answer many of your points.

12. dmaratto - June 16, 2010 at 08:05 pm

Dracula was a real person, Vlad Dracul, a 15th century Wallachian (now part of Romania) prince/dictator who was fond of impaling his enemies, or anyone who pissed him off, on wooden stakes. As far as lady vampires are concerned, the closest historical figure was Elizabeth Bathory, a 16th century Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered something like 100 young girls and women, and supposedly bathed in their blood.

Truth is stranger than fiction! Take that Twilight

13. 11250382 - June 22, 2010 at 04:32 pm

Which is why he was called Vlad the Impaler.

14. agpbloom - June 23, 2010 at 09:48 pm

The Twilight series of books and films presents our era with a larger picture if we are willing to see it. In Meyer's revised version of the myth, there is such thing as a "vegetarian" vampire that avoids feeding on humans, opting instead for wild game.

A vampire like Edward is someone to have a crush on in high school; he becomes a sort of cool "outsider" to Bella, like a rebel-without-a-cause, James Dean kind of blood-sucker.

One larger message here: Vampires COULD be your friends or even lovers. They are not really to be feared, as they are probably just misundertstood. So who is to really say who the vampires are and what is really right or wrong. Vampire culture is relative to their upbringing and preference. Who are we to call them right or wrong? Just hang out with them a bit, and get to understand them like Bella did.

This is a far cry from Stoker's relentless vampire-hunter, Van Helsing. Not only is he committed to combat these creatures physically, but as a Christian, he understands the spiritual stakes of the battle he pursues, along with his side-kicks (Harker, Seward, Godalming and Morris), at the end of the novel.

Shame on that "intolerant" Dutch doctor of vampire metaphysics! Obviously, he is not quite as sophisticated as those new followers of Twilight who know that these monsters are just misunderstood.

I like the modern authors who carry on in the tradition of Stoker (i.e. King, Lumley, Simmons, etc.), but I am afraid their popularity is also waning along with their Irish Catholic predecessor.

Who knows? In the future, we may even see high schoolers in novels bringing home zombies to meet their future parents-in-law. I for one will avoid those books. Now, I am really revealing my age...enough for now.

15. 12039333 - June 28, 2010 at 11:35 am

I think the popularity of the Twilight series has much to do with vampires as figures of untrammeled desire--and with teenage anxiety about it. Edward Cullen nobly restrains himself in his desire for Bella, and she learns to understand and control her own desires until she is ready. As the parent of two teens, I can see how today's sexual culture fascinates and terrifies them at the same time, and how Stephanie Meyer's noble vampires appear to have a solution.
Just finished re-reading Dracula--it's on my kids' summer reading list--and was struck thsi time by the vampires' choice of victims. While the Count apparently preys exclusively on young women, poor Lucy and the three vampire brides try unsuccessfully to seduce Godalming and Harker; their actual victims are all children. I wonder what that says about Victorian constructions of desire.

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