Wednesday, 31 August 2011

From Demons To Dracula

From Demons To Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth 


Matthew Beresford 

Publisher: Reaktion Books Ltd (2008)

From Demons To Dracula  is structured around a number of key periods and important events that have driven the evolution of the vampire legend throughout history. Matthew Beresford considers the importance of real-life sightings and genuine belief, historical figures, literary and cinematic portrayals, and contemporary sub-cultures, all of which have had some influence on the emergence of the instantly recognisable contemporary vampire, and the conventions we associate with it, like living in darkness, drinking blood, and aversion to religious items, particularly Christian symbols.

This exploration begins with the antiquity’s obsession with death rituals that include excarnation (the de-fleshing of the body), mummification, the building of cairns, placing coins on the eyes or in the mouth, and communal burial chambers. These practices, being closely linked with spiritual beliefs in existence after death, opened the way for the superstition that an improper or incomplete ritual may lead to a person becoming un-dead or a vampire. Beresford goes on discuss the vampire throughout the Middle Ages, focusing on the link between the vampire and the Devil since the evolution of Christianity as the dominant European religion. At this time, according to Beresford, conceptions of vampirism were closely related to issues of morality, and in repressing and undermining pagan and occult practices. Here then, the vampire becomes a symbol of evil and a heretical scapegoat of Christianity, linked to Judas Iscariot and his betrayal of Christ and immoral behaviour including aberrant sexual activities. This can be seen in the common belief that living an evil life or being excommunicated by the Church could lead to an exceedingly wicke person becoming a vampire.

The chronicle goes on to explore the emergence of the vampire in literature and cinema, and accounts for the most famous and impacting works in relation to our continuing enthralment of the vampire legend. Dracula, of course, is given significant attention, as is Vlad Tepes, the historical figure on whom Bram Stoker apparently based his demonic Count. Beresford is rigorous in showing a chronology of fictional development, looking at early poetry such as Dante’s Inferno and Beowulf, the first fictional depictions such as James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, then moving on to Stoker’s Dracula, and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Cinematic portrayals are also duly considered. Beresford's emphasis that cinema has played a key, if not the key role in the development of our modern conception of vampires, is central to his approach. He explores this cinematic evolution through Murnau’s Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee’s portrayals of Dracula, through to The Lost Boys and the Blade franchise. Through these examples, Beresford illustrates how the vampire legend has been transformed over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reflecting social and cultural conditions that allowed the vampire to evolve from a grotesque Victorian monster, as is the case in Nosferatu, to a beautiful, erotic and tragic being in Interview with a Vampire, to an action figure in Underworld.

While Beresford suggests that our modern day conception of the vampire has dissipated any real belief or fear of vampires as real threats, he goes on to explore contemporary examples of vampiristic activity such as sanguinarians who actively drink blood — though usually from a willing donor — and instances of genuine modern vampire fears as in the case of the Highgate Vampire. He asks whether it is "coincidence that both the Rev'd Montague Summers, who wrote two important works on the vampire in the 1920s, and the priest Seán Manchester, the self-proclaimed exorcist of the Highgate Vampire, the only modern case of a vampire scare in England, are or were devout believers in the vampire?" What he does not ask is why these two Catholics became "devout believers in the vampire," and whether this had anything to do with them each being personally confronted by such supernatural manifestations of demonic evil? Later he refers to Bishop Seán Manchester's and other people's assertion that "both Eastern and Western churches accepted the existence of vampires ... supported by the fifteenth century book Malleus Maleficarum" where vampirism is considered to be "one of the worst manifestations of the Devil."

An entire chapter is devoted to the bare bones of the Highgate Vampire case which is largely gleaned from Seán Manchester's bestselling account from which a quoted extract appropriately heads Beresford's offering. There is also some mention of interloping bandwagoneers, including "a gang of youths" arrested two days after "the Wessex Association for the Study of Unexplained Phenomena announced they would hold a vigil at the tomb of a suspected vampire" in September 1978 four years after the vampire had been successfully exorcised! and, unsurprisingly, David Farrant in whom Matthew Beresford constantly discovered "further contradictions in his story," that he "was arrested and jailed for five years in 1974 for tomb vandalism" and "the fact that Manchester was never in trouble with the police, even though according to his accounts it was he who performed exorcisms, gained entry to graves and tombs on several occasions and ultimately destroyed the vampire," concluding "it is therefore difficult not to take Manchester's side in the proceedings."