I’ve always enjoyed vampires as fictional creatures. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of my favorite Victorian novels, and I have more than a few anthologies of vampire stories. I even enjoy some of the nonfiction aimed at looking behind the myth of the vampire. I read and much like Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula (1972), even though it turned out that the authors vastly overstated Stoker’s knowledge of Vlad III “The Impaler.” So, it is not without a little affection that I hoped for the best when watching British TV personality Jamie Theakson and his team of fringe history’s C-list of talking heads go in search of “real” vampires.
Forbidden History S03E04 opens with talking heads Andrew Gough of Heretic magazine and Lynn Picknett of Templar conspiracy theories describing eighteenth century eastern European folklore about vampires, but with very little by way of depth. They might have described the efforts of European royals, for example, to combat the superstition of the vampire, or Voltaire’s famous essay against them. The show will touch on this later, but only just barely.
Ghost hunter Richard Felix then falsely claims that Stoker’s Dracula remade the vampire from putrid and decaying revenant into suave and sexy lover. That’s not true at all; John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the serial Varney the Vampire, and J. Sheridan LeFanu’s “Carmilla” had already done that for British audiences decades before Dracula—not that Dracula made the vampire sexy; that was an interpretation canonized by stage and screen. Gough then adds that Stoker had “all the knowledge” of vampire lore, which is again not quite true. Much of his knowledge actually came from the book version of Emily Gerard’s article “Transylvanian Superstitions.” Gough adds that Stoker made vampires sexy, which again is not entirely true since Stoker’s Count is by turns repulsive and rape-y.
The program has on skeptic Deborah Hyde who explains the scientific viewpoint that vampire legends emerged from misunderstood decomposition processes. Andrew Gogh then repeats the same material virtually word for word, presumably to eat up time. This season the producers really have a strong interest in wasting time by repeating claims over and over again. In discussing this, though, the talking heads fail to explain why only eastern Europeans came to associate bloated, blood-gurgling corpses with the angry undead while those in the west of Europe did not. Here we could get into the interesting situation that the “vampire” itself seems to be a moral panic that swept Turkey-in-Europe in the 1600s and entered the West thanks to Austrian expansion into what had been Turkish Hungary and Dalmatia in the 1700s. While we can trace elements of the vampire legend back to Antiquity—revenants, ghouls, risen corpses, blood-thirsty demons, etc.—they are found in combination primarily in the 1600s and 1700s. The show sidesteps this and instead gives us multiple dates for the invention of the vampire, ranging from the 800s to the 1200s.
Theakston travels to Bulgaria to view the skeleton of an alleged vampire in Sozopol, dating from the 1200s or 1300s, which had been pinned into its grave with a ploughshare and had its teeth knocked out. The skeleton, and hundreds of others like it, clearly indicate a belief that the dead might rise again, though it is unclear that these risen dead were expected to suck the blood of the living like their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts. For example, in the nineteenth century, the tradition in Bulgaria was that the undead would rise from their graves as prankster spirits for 40 days before their bodies would rise with them and resume earthly life in a more or less normal state, except for a propensity to drain sick cattle of their blood. This isn’t exactly the same as the horror of blood-sucking vampire outbreak of the Habsburg lands in the 1700s. Indeed, we might not even classify them as the same beings were it not for the effort to pin the undead to their graves, or, in the case of Victorian Bulgarians, burning strangers alive on suspicion of being undead.
The talking heads, though, aren’t interested in the variations in beliefs about the undead, so instead all of the different talking heads repeat the same talking points, in almost the same words, about the believe in “vampires” being deadly serious in the Middle Ages.
Of course, no show about vampires would be complete without a visit to a few “lifestyle” vampires, living human beings who fetishize twentieth century movie vampires and drink one another’s blood while dressed in Goth clothing. A Londoner appears on the show to say that one of these role-play vampires attacked him, and he claims that the vampire community engages in human trafficking via Eastern Europeans and Turks in order to import victims for blood slavery. A bit of proof of this might be nice, but none is forthcoming.
The show displays an old vampire hunting kit, and then they proceed to tell us twice in a row about a recent case when some ignorant Romanian peasants dug up a relative for fear he had become a vampire. Seriously: Why did we need to hear the same story twice in a row, first from Hyde and then from Gough? If that wasn’t enough, Lynn Picknett then tells us a slightly more generic version of the same story a third time. The editing in this series is severely wanting. But, staying with modern stories, we’re told about some weird midcentury alleged Satanic ritual that no one bothers to actually relate to vampirism. It involves staking a corpse in Highgate Cemetery in the presence of what participants described as an energy-draining ghostly being. “I never described it as a vampire,” the participant said. “I described it as a ghost.” This really has nothing to do with anything else in the episode, and even Gough doubts there is anything to story.
Theakston, who seems to have a reduced role this year, pops up for a few seconds near the end to call vampires a mere Gothic fantasy, and he states that the most important question for him is whether there are any health benefits to drinking human blood. Really? That’s the important question? Picknett and Heather Osborn are both upset that teen girls think vampires are cool and sexy instead of scary, and the only useful part of the whole episode occurs right at the end when Theakston dismisses the “lifestyle” vampire subculture as “more Count Duckula than Dracula.” That amused me only because Count Duckula was one of my favorite childhood cartoons, and I have the series on DVD, for which I had to (at the time) get a special all-region DVD player to work with British DVDs. It is much loved and much missed. This series, however, I will not miss when it finally enters the realm of the syndicated undead.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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