Blood Work: Emotional Responses to Early Modern Vampires

Restless Corpses: Early modern vampires had more in common with Nosferatu‘s fearsome Count Orlok than with the dashing Edward Cullen (inset) from the Twilight franchise. Wikimedia Commons.

If the Twilight films have taught us anything, it’s that vampires are brooding, irresistible creatures, with whom it’s possible to fall madly in love. Historical vampires did not usually instil such positive emotions in those they encountered. Unlike the seductive vampire-types of modern literature – reaching their Young Adult apogee in the form of Edward Cullen– the vampires that terrorised Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were vile, bloated, and pestilential creatures, who spread not romantic angst but misery, disease, and death. Vampires were stereotypical restless corpses, the kind of which have been haunting European folklore since time immemorial. If they did not instil love or lust in those they encountered, then what emotions did they provoke? In what ways did the bodily actions of the undead impact upon the affective responses of their victims? These are questions I investigate in detail in my recent article for Preternature, ‘Emotional Practice and Bodily Performance in Early Modern Vampire Literature’, but I’ll provide a brief account of some of the more interesting and thought provoking case studies here.

The title page of Henry More’s An Antidote Against Atheism (2nd edition, London, 1655).

Even if the experience was not emotionally positive, there was nonetheless an underlying intimacy to a vampire attack. Many sources relate the fear and confusion felt by the victims as they were assaulted in their beds as they slept. Paraphrasing Martin Weinrich’s account of the restless ghost of a shoemaker that terrorised the Silesian town of Breslau (present day Wrocław, Poland) in 1591, the theologian Henry More records the following:

Those that were asleep it terrified with horrible visions, those that were waking it would strike, pull or press, lying heavy upon them like an Ephialtes… [W]hen men forsook their beds and kept their dining rooms, with Candles lighted, and many of them in company together, the better to secure themselves from fear and disturbance, yet [the ghost] would appear to them and have a bout with some of them notwithstanding…

Other sources where we can discern the emotional responses to nocturnal assaults include Johann Valvasor’s chronicle of Slovenian history, Die Ehre des Hertzogthums Crain (1687), which describes how the corpse of a certain Guire Grando ‘appeared to his terrified widow in her bedroom […] and would then assault her’. References to fear and terror are not confined to early modern vampire attacks. Writing at the end of the twelfth-century, the English chronicler William of Newburgh describes the terror (terruit) felt by an unnamed widow who was ‘crushed’ in bed by her dead husband.

So how do we explain the emotional uniformity of these night-time assaults? As discussed by medical anthropologists and folklorists such as Shelley R. Adler and David J. Hufford, the feeling of being ‘pressed’ by a malign, evil entity is a common symptom of a nightmare attack (aka sleep paralysis combined with REM hallucinations). The fact that on these occasions the instigator was believed to be the ghost of a neighbour or loved one – rather than the more orthodox incubus or ‘hag’ – shows just how ingrained the fear of the restless dead could be.

The performance of a corpse that acted ‘differently’ to the norm was also liable to provoke a negative emotional response in those who saw it. Consider this account of a restless corpse from the infamous witchfinder’s manual the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), taken from the translation by Christopher S. Mackay:

The chief judge and the burgermaster dug up the tomb and discovered that almost half the shroud had gone down into her stomach through her mouth and throat. Agitated at the sight of this, the mayor drew his sword, and after cutting off her head, he threw it out of the grave.

Pa. 1 Qu. 15: Exemplum of a witch’s corpse chewing on its burial shroud from the Malleus Maleficarum (Nuremberg: Koberger, 1494). John Rylands Library Incunable Collection /R151178, col. 2-3

Frombald’s report on the Kisilova vampire outbreak was published in the Austrian newspaper Wienerisches Diarium on 21 July 1725. Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, the report produced by the Imperial Provisor Frombald, an Austrian official who, in 1725, personally investigated a ‘vampire outbreak’ in Kisilova, Serbia, notes that he was extremely astonished (erstaunung) at finding fresh blood in the mouth of the vampire suspected to have caused the epidemic – a local peasant named Peter Plogojowitz. The villagers amongst whom the vampire walked were not nearly as equivocal in their assessment. They were said to have been ‘outraged’ (ergrimter) by the sight of Plogojowitz’s corpse, and promptly thrust a stake through the vampire’s body. And yet, not all local reactions to strange, undecayed corpses were negative. Some viewers displayed only a macabre fascination. Henry More records that when the body of the errant shoemaker was finally exhumed, the limberness of his joints and general lack of rot so astonished onlookers that he became something of a tourist attraction, with ‘many of the same town [Breslau] and others coming daily to view him’.

As we can see from these sources, the methods by which vampires were dealt with depended very much on the emotional outlook of those who encountered them. Fear, disgust, and outrage prompted apotropaic action just as much as the intellectual frameworks that governed how local populaces perceived the undead. Of course, different ‘emotional communities’ responded to the vampire in different ways, hence the more visceral response of the Kisilova villagers in comparison to the mild astonishment shown by the Imperial officer, Frombald. Intimate emotional relationships find coherence in the many references to widows being assaulted by their dead husbands. However oblique they may be, references to ‘fear’ and ‘terror’ in the written records can provide a tantalising insight into the tumultuous emotional states of those unfortunate enough to be pressed by restless corpses.

Further Reading

  • Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death (Yale, 1988).
  • Stephen Gordon, ‘Emotional Practice and Bodily Performance in Early Modern Vampire Literature’, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 6 (2017): 93–124.
  • Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, ed. and trans. Christopher S. Mackay (Cambridge, 2009).
  • Henry More, An Antidote against Atheism (2nd edition, London, 1655).
  • Barbara H. Rosenwein, Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600-1700 (Cambridge, 2015).

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