A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse

The New York Times, Dec. 30, 2002

<A HREF="javascript:zoek('vampirism')" "javascript:void(0);" onmouseover="return overlib('Click for archived news items on this subject’, CAPTION, ‘Link Info…’, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’);” onmouseout=”return nd();”>Vampires are us, as vampire experts say. And that may explain why Malawi is now in the grip of a vampire panic.

Rumors that the government of that landlocked southern African country was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food sent terrified villagers fleeing, wire services reported last week. A suspected vampire helper was stoned or beaten to death; three priests were attacked; and a foreign aid encampment identified as vampire headquarters was destroyed.

It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Malawi faces widespread starvation and a severe AIDS epidemic, as well as an uproar over efforts by the country’s first and only democratically elected president, Bakili Muluzi, to override a two-term limit and remain in office after 2004.

“Vampires say a lot about our fears and hopes,” said Nina Auerbach, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Our Vampires, Ourselves.”

For millennia, the storied undead that emerge from the grave to suck the lifeblood of the living have embodied power “and our fears of power,” Ms. Auerbach said. “They can be whatever you want.” They are immortal. And unlike ghosts, they are robustly corporeal.

Another scholar, David J. Skal, author of “The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror,” has said that a fixation on demons often accompanies periods of national stress. “In times of social upheaval, the vampire asserts itself,” he said.

President Muluzi, in debunking the vampire rumors, may have inadvertently encouraged them when he said, “No government can go about sucking the blood of its own people.”

The denial rang false, Ms. Auerbach said, because, “Governments have always sucked the blood of their people.”

It was for good reason, she said, that the vampire legend became deeply rooted in Eastern Europe, where the peasantry was cruelly persecuted for centuries.

In the United States, perhaps by the same reasoning, vampires come in friendlier form. There is Count Chocula cereal; Sesame Street’s helpful arithmetic tutor, the Count; Anne Rice’s novelistic dynasty of masterful and sexy vampires — “practically spa people,” Ms. Auerbach calls them; the empowered and liberated black lesbian vampires of Jewelle Gomez’s “Gilda Stories;” and the wholesome cheeriness of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

The origins of the vampire legend lie buried in antiquity, dating to Greece and perhaps Egypt, scholars say, at some point taking credence from the bats that suck the blood of horses and livestock.

Drawing on ancestor worship, cannibalism, human sacrifice and the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation, and real fears of violence, tales of ghouls nourished on human blood surfaced in widely separated cultures, including China, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, wrote the British author Anthony Masters in his book, “The Natural History of the Vampire.”

The medieval plagues that spread unseen contagion also fed the vampire legend, as did commonplace grotesqueries like live burials (by mistake and on purpose), body-snatching and grave-robbing, along with the capture of some all-too-real fiends like Gilles de Rais of France who fought along with Joan of Arc in the 1400’s before becoming an orgiastic child-slaughterer, and Countess Elizabeth of Bathory in Hungary 200 years later who bathed in the blood of murdered virgins.

Austrian forces returning from conquests in the Ottoman east in the early 1700’s brought back vampire stories, which circulated throughout Europe, later inspiring Byron, Keats and Coleridge. It was left, however, to Bram Stoker, stage manager for the revered Shakespearean actor Henry Irving in the 1870’s, to turn the fragments into terrifying form in his 1897 “Dracula.”

But it was not until the vogue of vampire plays and films in the 1920’s that the popular Dracula cult took hold, at a time when it was still believed that evil always wore an evil face, or at least a wicked-looking widow’s peak.

Soon vampirism became as rule-bound as any orthodoxy. So today one can read, on the Web and in a slew of popular books, that an animal or a nun passing over an unburied body turns into a vampire. So will a child in the womb whose mother was looked at by a vampire (particularly after her sixth month), a seventh son and a dead wizard.

Of course, today, at least in much of the West, this is merely the stuff of high camp. But the fear stalking Malawi these days is a reminder that, among desperate people, who with reason feel their life’s blood, or that of their children, is being sucked away, the vampire myth still resonates uncannily with human experience.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 30, 2002.
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