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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

“But perhaps it may be suggested  that the name witch (Angana, Hexe) had got into the story by accident; and that not a witch in our sense of the word, but a ghost from the dead, is really meant. There might be something to be said for this if there were any substantial distinction to be made between ghosts and witches and fairies. In the tales and superstitions discussed in the present volume we have found no distinction. Whether it be child-stealing, transformation, midnight meetings, possession and gift of enchanted objects, spell-binding, or whatever function, or habit, or power be predicted of one, it will be found to be common to all three. I conclude, therefore, that they are all three of the same nature.”

Those are the words of British folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland, taken from his 1891 classic study, The Science of Fairy Tales (p. 348). Had Hartland been more familiar with vampires, he might have added them into his mix, as well. I argued in Food for the Dead that Vampire lore, in New England, was a regional variant of a worldwide tradition, with particularly close ties to European practices. Once we remove Dracula’s shadow, we can see, lurking in the folkloric countryside, a host of supernatural creatures, including demoted goddesses, demons, devils, witches, hags, ghosts, vampires and werewolves. In the ever-changing landscape of this danse macabre, creatures and concepts merge and blend, divide and disperse. Ultimately, what unites these seemingly diverse folk traditions is the belief that a corpse, possibly animated by an evil spirit, is responsible for an otherwise inexplicable sequence of deaths. Reduced to its common denominator, the vampire is a classic scapegoat.

But, what about the folk medical side of vampirism? While the vampire tradition of Eastern Europe is woven into the fabric of ancient cultural systems and addresses all aspects of vampirism—from why one becomes a vampire to methods for destroying it—America’s tradition was reduced to a folk medical practice. This pragmatic tendency toward commodification—in this instance, a literal, but compassionate, “eating the other”—is exemplified in a reference I recently discovered in an old history of a small town not far from Boston, Massachusetts. “Almost, if not quite, within the memory of the present generation, in a town adjacent . . . , pills made from ashes obtained from burning a human heart have repeatedly been administered as a cure for consumption.” This extreme distillation of an ancient and complex vampire tradition seems to take the vampires, themselves, out of the picture. Will any human heart do? If so, then the scapegoat seems to have vanished and we find ourselves in a very different context. Next time, I’ll share an example from that context.

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