Right from the start, a recent long-anticipated trip to Romania delivered on its promise. On the shuttle from the airport into the heart of Bucharest the driver asked if we had ever visited before. When I told him no, his mood turned grave. “We have a beautiful country,” he said. “But it is not safe to go out at night, especially for a young woman.” When I asked why, he hit the brakes, turned around slowly, and smiled. “You must be careful of the vampires.”
It was just what I’d been hoping for. A huge fan of Dracula, I’d always wanted to see the place that had inspired Bram Stoker’s classic tale, and to get a sense of how its citizens feel about clueless foreigners associating their entire country with nocturnal bloodsuckers and Vlad the Impaler. They certainly seem willing to cash in on it, judging from the tourism industry’s marketing and advertising. But they also revel in it, as evidenced by my grinning shuttle driver.
Romanians are hardly the first people to use the myth of the vampire to establish an identity or advance an agenda, as Nick Groom makes clear in his book The Vampire: A New History. Far from a Freudian representation of sexual desire, an inelegant metaphor for colonialism, or merely a played-out trope, the vampire, according to Groom, is something more layered and complex. “Vampires came into being when Enlightenment rationality encountered East European folklore,” he writes, “an encounter that attempted to make sense of them through empirical reasoning and that, by treating them as credible, gave them reality.” Various folklore traditions make whispering mention of mysterious hybrid ghosts, zombies, werewolves, and demons, many of which suck blood. Only after members of the European elite began to investigate these entities using the science of the day did they become what we know as vampires. Thus, “the vampire is a specific phenomenon that dates from a precise period in a certain place, and which consequently has recognizable manifestations and qualities—particularly concerning blood, science, society, and culture.”
Groom divides his book into two sections—delightfully titled “Circulating” and “Coagulating”—to demonstrate the flow of ideas about disease, demonology, and politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which congeal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into the Gothic literary figure—epitomized by Stoker’s Dracula—that we’re familiar with today. He writes that although most histories of vampire mythology begin in the Victorian era, the Gothic monster can be traced back to the folkloric milieu of the previous two centuries. From Eastern Europe came tales of bloodsucking creatures that stalked the living, tales that through the 1600s and 1700s spread across the continent. They shared many of the same elements: the vampire comes into being through the reanimation of a corpse; it can influence the weather and certain animals; it preys on loved ones, strangling and sucking the victim’s blood, often from the chest; it can be killed with a stake or by decapitation. Localized versions might include more specific details, such as the unearthing and opening of a suspected vampire’s coffin to find the corpse floating in fresh blood and gore. Sometimes it had partially eaten itself and its clothes. In other versions, one could protect oneself by drinking blood from a vampire’s head, eating the dirt from its grave, receiving Holy Communion, or making the sign of the cross.
The corporeality of the vampire—as opposed to the ephemerality of a ghost, for example—lent itself well to “investigation” via the latest medical and forensic methodologies. William Harvey’s discovery of circulation, Christopher Wren’s development of hypodermic injections, and fears of contagious disease were changing the way the body was understood, and when European empires consolidated power over Eastern Europe, they deployed new techniques to make sense of what they were hearing about. It was only in such investigations, Groom writes, that vampires were “discovered”; they “did not exist until the emerging medical profession and natural philosophers began to try to explain them and they were thus named and categorized as vampires.” When, for example, a recently deceased woman was reported to be attacking villages in Moravia and her corpse was found to have fresh blood in it, Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa deployed two doctors and the head surgeon of the military to look into the matter. Such investigations were thoroughly documented, as Groom writes: “Detailed forensic examinations were accordingly made and records kept, including catalogues of signs and symptoms, and much learned (and pseudo-learned) work was published in professional journals.” Indeed, in the 1730s, many such journals made their reputations for scholarly seriousness and rationality with accounts of outbreaks of vampirism in Eastern Europe.