18 July 2019


Richard Sugg, The Real Vampires: Death, Terror and the Supernatural, Amberley, 2019.

As one of the earliest members of the esteemed British Dracula Society way back in the 1970s – and therefore almost one of the undead myself by now – this book sparks a special interest for me. Even if it was as rotten as a six-month-old corpse, I’d still give it a go, but as it isn’t – in fact it’s not half bad and actually rather good – here I am recommending it, almost unreservedly.
You’d think that by now everything that could be said about vampires has already been done to death. But as Richard Sugg’s often charming and liberally informative work reveals, you would be very wrong. From the dizzying heights of ‘vampotainment’ – the media’s cyclical obsession with the vampire phenomenon, even from before John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1816), and of course Bram Stoker’ Dracula (1897), through the early movies’ delight in sadistic looming and rather bitey older gents with a good line in swirly capes – not to mention leering female ‘vamps’ – through Hammer Horror to the peculiarly puritanical Twilight novels, generation after generation has come to think of vampires as powerful, weird and endlessly fascinating.

To a large extent, this book deglamourizes the vampire. Far from being devastatingly, mesmerizingly attractive – one can even overlook the red eyeballs and dripping fangs, apparently, when in their grip – real vampires were shambolic and often, well, simply fat. And not surprisingly, they were more than a tad smelly. Ew.

But what do we mean by ‘real’? Sugg travelled widely through traditional undead countries – Romania, Serbia and Greece, for example, but also North America – to delve into the ancient myths and alarmingly recent beliefs. He notes: … "what was stranger, wilder, and much harder to navigate was vampire country as a state of mind. In Europe and North America, anytime between 1150 and 2004, ordinary people really believed in vampires; they really did that to vampires…"

And oh God, what they did… We learn, and rapidly wish we hadn’t, that in mid-19th century Bulgaria a child was buried, but the mother heard cries from the grave and rescued it (no gender is given), secretly nursing the traumatised prematurely-buried infant to health. But this was discovered, and as the child was deemed undead, the villagers sought to neutralise its assumed evilness in the most hideous way. Ensuring that the mother could witness their monstrous exorcism, they skewered the child’s gut with a thin stick, taking over a quarter of an hour to kill it. But objectively, Sugg asks, "The question was not just, 'how could people be so barbaric?' but also, 'how could people be so terrified?'"

Terror so all-consuming that it induces paralysis, nervous breakdowns and even death is a major, engrossing theme of this book. But there’s an added insight: "[people] were so terrified that the wild energy of their terror caused the supposed vampire to behave like a poltergeist… many vampires acted like poltergeists [and] poltergeists themselves are real."

Believe me, poltergeists themselves are real, and this interpretation is surely valid – up to a point perhaps, but it does go a long way towards explaining certain phenomena. Those of us who have had the misfortune to be at the sharp end of a polt attack know it is indeed about a wild sort of energy. This is, however, directed and targeted intelligently (though the intelligence involved might only be that of low cunning and naughty-childishness, though sometimes more extreme, dangerous and terrifying), not something altogether developed here.

But the legendary vampires were shambling upright corpses who threatened the sanity and life of the locals and had to be stopped before an epidemic of fear carried them all off. Interestingly, a respected folklorist concluded of Greek vampires: "during their periods of resuscitation they act as reasonable human beings [but] their whole condition is pitiable, and the most humane way of treating them is to burn their bodies." (Sugg’s italics). Often this apparently disrespectful practice is implemented through love for the ‘vampire’ – seeking to give them rest in their graves, besides ensuring the peace and health of the village.

Sugg tells the stories of drunks whose comatose states got them very nearly buried, and very nearly staked. He concludes: "The moral of these stories, perhaps, is that if you decide to get so drunk as to lose all semblance of humanity, you’d best not do it in Romania. There you could wake up not just feeling like a zombie, but looking like a vampire." (By the way, with respect, the capital of Romania isn’t Belgrade. It’s Bucharest. Mind you, the author is in good (?) company, as Michael Jackson greeted the throng there with the immortal words: ‘Hello, Budapest!’ It didn’t go down brilliantly.)

Vampires – or perhaps more properly the fear of vampires – are not simply a matter of the historical record. Far from being merely peasanty fears complete with pitchfork hysteria of yesteryear, we learn how recent the superstitions have reached. Nor is vampire-terror an exclusive province of remote Eastern Europe or rural Greece. In World War I British soldiers often buried German combatants face down, to prevent them doing further damage after death. A British mother told her daughter sharply to shut the front door when her grandmother’s open coffin lay in the front room "as a cat might get in". Shuddering, she elaborated: "If it jumps on the coffin she won’t rest – well, that’s what they say." That was in 1970s Yorkshire. I know, because it was my mother who said that to me.

In the warmth of our brightly-lit, tech-friendly modern rooms, we devour the popular rash of vampire novels and movies, with not only a certain cultural superiority but also an underlying and curious reassurance. Sugg remarks: "You – the educated reader – no longer believe in witches; but it was, all the same, rather exciting to know that some people believed quite fervently in vampires."

We learn much about folklore and local customs in these pages, most of which is fascinating. For example, in Italy (although also elsewhere in the Catholic world) an undecayed corpse is often a sign of sanctity "rather than of the uncanny or of demonic possession." In Italy, "if you saw an undecayed corpse you were more likely to pray to it than flee from it". However, the key is that the saintly corpses smell fragrantly – the ‘odour of sanctity’ indeed – whereas the transgressive undead tend very much not to.

We learn, as wish we didn’t, that real vampires – those hallowed, or perhaps unhallowed, by long-held belief – weren’t the pale elegant creatures beloved of Hollywood, but tended to be red-faced (all that blood has to go somewhere) and noticeably lardy. Their unholy feasts bloated and disfigured them, leaving their bodies ‘tight as a drum’. Of course, it might be that the normal depredations of the grave create the bloating and redness.

But even with these give-away physical characteristics, some vampires did not traditionally feast on blood, but on an innocuous diet of apples and nuts. Apparently the vegan undead were a thing way before 21st-century dietary puritanism took hold.

We are also invited to put the vampire belief into a religious, even spiritual context – absolutely essential for an investigation of this nature. How to make a vampire? "The body needs to be dead, and the soul needs to be the sort that people really believe in… although you could not read… you knew what life was. The soul was life."

To destroy a vampire was not merely a case of dusting off your hands after the staking and forgetting about it, job done. Hopefully you had considered what you were doing to the soul of the undead. If it was excommunicated, then the staking was effectively underlining its anathematization. If this was your relative or friend, you had participated in ensuring their eternity in hell. Not to be undertaken lightly, even in cultures that were more ambivalent about saving the vampire’s soul. It was still a major exorcism that might or might not work, with potentially terrible consequences for the souls of all concerned. This was achingly, traumatizingly, real to them, we must remember.

Often Sugg’s breadth of research brings the reader up sharp. Noting that people perceived it was possible to be ‘slightly dead’, he cites the fact that in the New Testament people were raised surprisingly often. "… at that time, for many observers the risen Christ was probably just one among many brought back from the dead". (Indeed, our own research has revealed that the Emperor Nero was believed to have been seen walking around after his death.)

This is a rare book, in that it straddles that almost impossible line between belief and scepticism – often successfully. While we discover that most if not all of the grotesque physical characteristics of the undead can be explained away by the normal processes of decomposition – especially in the case of victims of tuberculosis, whose rotting lungs produce quantities of bright red blood – there are trickier matters about terror-induced phenomena to consider, and very largely Sugg considers them.

We also travel through the centuries and many countries, including the US, where among other delights we note a Victorian ‘Vampire Hunting Kit’, which among the usual wooden stakes and cross, also features a pistol (well, we are in America) and several custom-made ‘serums’. Sadly, on inspection the Kit is revealed to be a product of the 20th-century, but perhaps if enough people believe in its potency, it could be quite useful one day…

Sugg is very big on sleep paralysis as an explanation for the utter terror that has traditionally affected vampire victims as they lay unable to move in their beds, though apparently wide awake. He presents a great deal of scientific evidence that certainly explains almost all of a certain type of report. Almost…

Admitting that "the medical explanations… offer us only the driest of true nightmare experiences" he enters a murkier world, between our two familiar worlds of sleeping and waking, the supernatural. It’s never totally clear whether he thinks this twilight-world state explains all apparently paranormal experience, but believe me, it doesn’t. And to ‘explain’ the physical manifestations of nightmare terrors – such as livid finger marks on the skin – as kinetic energy is simply not enough. (No mention of the phenomenon of stigmata, though, which is an important omission.) Still, in general, the questions raised and the evidence offered is impressive and thought-provoking. And ultimately largely satisfying.

There’s a wealth of intriguing material about the psychological and social effects of terror and hysteria, especially with reference to poltergeists and alien abduction. Sugg has done his stuff, interviewing a clutch of experiencers and experts. He’s particularly good on ‘voodoo deaths’ – the terrible toll of ritual curses on the mind and body of the victim.

Belief and expectancy, as the parapsychologists of the 80s used to say, are what’s needed to induce discernible physical phenomena, be they beneficial or destructive. And a tiny kernel of fear can indeed rapidly escalate into full-blown, terror-driven hysteria that creates bizarre effect in the material world. (But does it also invite stuff in? That is something that is only very briefly touched on here, perhaps because the implications are so huge and would tilt the book in what many would consider a distasteful direction. But hey, it’s about vampires anyway – why not go the whole way and look at what might be termed potentially real intrusions from elsewhere?)

Vampires are still with us in a big way. Not just as SFX-heavy vampotainment, but also – deeply, deeply disturbingly – out there in everyday belief. In 2006 the body of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic – ‘Butcher of the Balkans’ – was staked by one Miroslav Milosovic (no relation), who handed himself into the police afterwards, but whose only response was to warn him: ‘Be careful or Milosovic’s hand might get you from the grave.’ At least the dictator was dead at the time. Not so in other recent cases of attacks on the ‘undead’. We are told that a young mother in Papua New Guinea was burnt to death as a vampire in 2013. Horrifically, this is just one of many similar cases, and even then, presumably a whole host of such barbaric and hysterical attacks simply go unreported.

To put it mildly, belief in vampires can end in very big mis-stakes. This book is – apart from is wealth of material about folklore, legend and psychology - a valuable tool in reminding us to keep a lid on our fancies and half-baked beliefs.

And you’ll enjoy reading it enormously, which is, after all, everything a good book should be. -- Lynn Picknett.

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