The Undead

Philip Burne-Jones: The Vampyre (1865)

The phenomenon of corpses leaving their graves to plague the living has been reported in all ages and cultures. In the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, Sir James Frazer reports in The Golden Bough, it is customary to take a different route home from the cemetery after an interment; the islanders have even been known to reorient their dwellings in order to make them less familiar to the deceased. This is because it is usually close relatives or associates of the visitant who are the main recipients of its attentions.

The vampire of folklore is, of course, the best known of these revenants. It differs greatly from the suave and seductive vampire of fiction, made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. In Southern and Eastern Europe, the dead body generally climbs into bed with its spouse or children, and then attempts to smother them, or asphyxiate them with foul, plague-ridden breath. Biting is mostly reported not on the neck but on the stomach or back.

Various responses to these incursions have been reported over time. The most usual one is to dig the suspect from his or her grave (the body is usually reported as swollen, with a ruddy face and fresh blood leaking from it — all, incidentally, normal effects of the natural process of decomposition, which also explains the fact that the body may have moved since it was buried). Stakes, decapitation, and quartering have all been variously described, but the most common remedy, employed in most cultures, is fire.

The best-known account of this phenomenon is probably in the Icelandic Grettir’s Saga, where the dead shepherd Glam rides the rooftrees of the narrow upland steadings until he is wrestled into submission by Grettir. The victory costs him dearly, however, as it leaves him with an abiding fear of the dark and a foreshadowing of the doom which will overtake him later in the Saga.

[G. Eden, ed. The Ecumenical Encyclopaedia. London: Denham, 1921. 636-37].

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