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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

I find this thing with the vines fascinating. For starters, vines are, well, creepy. I wonder if the word ‘creepy’ originated from the way vines move? Vines do creep in the literal sense of moving slowly and deliberately. But they are also creepy in the dictionary sense of  being “strangely repulsive” and “producing an uneasy fearful sensation, as of things crawling over one’s skin.” The term ‘creepy’ seems to have appeared first in the record in 1794, and by 1831 it was being used to characterize “having a creeping feeling in the flesh.” ‘Creepy-crawly’ debuted in 1858.

The  folklore about vines that appears in vampire accounts, especially the one from Chazy, New York, adds another frightening dimension to their creepiness: vines give you more than just a creepy feeling as they grow around things, covering and choking them; they actually are disease carriers, spreading consumption from one family member to the next. So the repulsion one might experience on opening a grave and finding a weird vine growing from the corpse or the coffin might not be so strange. As I wrote in Food for the Dead, the vine or root that was growing from coffin to coffin was an entirely new addition to my records of the vampire belief, and I wondered what it meant. Most of what I knew about the lore of grave plants did not extend to such ghastly connections. You don’t have to study folksongs to recognize the familiar motif of lovers who, being prevented from embracing in life, intertwine in death through plants. In some American versions of the ballad “Barbara Allen,” for example, a rose grew out of Sweet William’s grave and a briar from Barbara Ellen’s, and “they linked and tied in a true lover’s knot and the rose grew round the briar.” This favorite theme in folk narrative is found not only throughout Europe (in the medieval romance of Tristan and Iseult, for instance), but also in traditions from Northern Africa through the Middle East and into China.

The kind of plant growing from a grave may tell us something about the character of the deceased. In the folklore of southern France, thorns or nettles growing on a grave are a sign that its occupant is damned; if other plants grow, he is at peace; if a mixture, he is in purgatory. In German folksong, a blackthorn grows from the bodies of slain heathens while a white flower grows near the heads of fallen Christians; white lilies grow out of the graves of innocents who are put to death. Underlying  this folklore is the worldwide belief that, at death, the soul or spirit of a corpse may enter into a plant, especially one that grows from its grave.


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