The idea that the vampire is a product of myth and superstition is something we take for granted. However, the vampire wasn't just conjured up as a campfire tale, but something people genuinely believed in...because they 'experienced' it.
In my review Across the forest (2009), I noted the sincerity of belief which the documentary's subjects held for supernatural beings like the strigoi. Some even claimed they were 'haunted' by them.
We often forget that, while largely debunked, the vampire 'experience' is something attested throughout history. Like ghosts. Famed French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, would even remark 'There is not an historical fact in the world more fully attested, than that of the Vampires. It is confirmed by regular information, certificates of Notaries, Surgeons, Vicars, and Magistrates.'*
Rousseau was not simply referring to folktales, but various reports filtering out through Eastern Europe, in which suspected vampires were exhumed from their graves in the presence of local figures of authority. Witnesses. The most famous example was the Visum et repertum (a coroner's report) written by an Austrian army surgeon. What's particularly interesting about these cases, is that they occurred during the Age of Enlightenment, so subsequent writings made 'fast work' of these reports, conjuring various theories from premature burial to psychosomatics. More than just debunking 'peasant superstition', they were debunking paranormal phenomena.
And what is paranormal phenomena? According to Wikipedia, it 'designates experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation"' and describes 'phenomena understood to be outside of science's current ability to explain or measure'. I would suggest that one of the reasons vampires gained currency in the media - and provoked an explosion of writings on the subject** - was the implicit bewilderment expressed in the exhumation reports. In other words, if the attendant coroners couldn't actively dismiss what they were seeing (corpses in the 'vampire state'), then maybe something supernatural was take place.
Belief - and experience - with vampires hasn't completely disappeared, either. In 2004, Petre Toma was exhumed from his grave, on the pretext that he was feeding off his relatives. London, 1973, a Polish immigrant named Demetrious Myicura, choked to death on a bulb of garlic he rested on his mouth while sleeping, to keep vampires away. The 18th century cases, themselves, were characterised by the desecration of corpses through impalement, mutilations, beheadings and cremation - an indicator of how strongly the belief was (and sometimes, still is) held by the local populace. If that seems 'too distant' to our modern age, keep in mind a mass vampire hunt was held at Highgate Cemetery in 1970. Even today, some people still believe in the undead.
In our tendency to offhandedly dismiss this belief, we forget the human element. Not only did/do people believe in these things, but some claim to have personally experienced it. Alleged visitations from the dead still occur today, as attested by various ghost sightings and a 'science' dedicated to investigating them.
One could argue that viewing vampirism as a paranormal phenomena, first, allows us to have greater clarity on the subject - whether you believe it or not. After all, it makes us more receptive to 'eyewitness' accounts, more versed in the tropes, and allows us to treat them as we would any paranormal phenomena. If we are willing to 'accept' the 'reality' of vampirism - at least, one described as such - then we can investigate it from the bottom up, starting with the original 'claim'. Break it down, isolate its core components and seek explanations for the phenomena, consistent with what's being reported. That is, rule out all possible natural explanations before confirming a paranormal conclusion. You can apply these principles just as easily to cases of yore to the cases of today.
While it doesn't deal with vampires, I highly recommend Benjamin Radford's Scientific paranormal investigation: how to solve unexplained mysteries (2010). More about it on his website.
Incidentally, this blog underwent its third year of existence recently (July 30). Thanks again to all my followers, casual readers and commentators. Oh, and the folk who stumble across my blog searching for something else *cough* Twilight porn * cough*. Props to all of you.
* This isn't to say that Rousseau was a believer. Far from it. His comments have often been taken out of context by those who haven't read the passages following it: 'And yet, with all this, who believes in the Vampires? And shall we be all damned for not believing? However well attested, even in the opinion of the incredulous Cicero, are many of the prodigies related by Livy, I cannot help regard them as so many fables, and certainly am not the only person who doth so.' JJ Rousseau, An expostulatory letter from J. J. Rousseau, citizen of Geneva, to Christopher de Beaumont, Archbishop of Paris, London, 1763, p. 56.
** See entry 54 onwards.