I nearly didn’t watch Mysteries of the Vampire Skeletons, part of Channel 5’s Revealed series, basically because it was on Channel 5 and I didn’t think it warranted attention, but after catching the first few minutes I was intrigued enough to continue. The main focus was on archaeological digs in Ireland that had uncovered some unusual skeletons with large stones forced into their mouths or, in one case, the legs broken and twisted around a huge rock. The skeletons were dated to be from around 500 – 600 CE (Current Era, or AD, if you’re of that persuasion). Which was something new to the archaeologists. Folklore evolves over time and tends to have roots as far back as humankind, but this seems to be the earliest evidence of protection against vampires.
Was it that most, if not all burials were done in this way at this period in time, or was it that the individuals were specifically suspected of being the kind to become vampires? The programme didn’t answer that question, but it gave some explanations of classic vampire mythology. For instance, most people wouldn’t know how long a corpse takes to decompose, and what the various stages are. Digging up someone who’d been dead for a few months would therefore have caused further terror to folk who were probably frightened enough as it was – they may well have looked as fresh as when they went in the grave and the breakdown of the stomach would’ve caused blood to pour from the mouth – which would look like a vampire having had a recent feed. Also, of course, opening up a corpse to take out the heart (for burning) was likely to make gas escape, hence the idea that a corpse sighed or growled upon being cut. In times of more basic medical knowledge, premature burial was reasonably common, which meant that some did literally rise from the grave. Or were exhumed and found to be dead, but looking as if a terrible spirit had possessed them in the casket. And finally, there were illnesses and conditions that made people extremely sensitive to sunlight and tightened the skin to give an enduring youthful appearance. All very feasible. However, the books I’ve read (most recently The Vampire in Europe by Father Montague Summers, written in the first half of the 20th century) show how deep seated these beliefs were over the whole of the continent. Summers’ book has case after case where the existence of vampires is completely accepted as fact. And rituals against the dead rising from the grave as a vampire still take place in parts of rural Romania, (although apparently city dwellers find this quite embarrassing and backwards). It’s something that just hasn’t gone away and may never disappear, either from Europe or the rest of the world; each continent has its own version of the belief.
What’s made me (fairly!) hopeful that these creatures don’t exist is the oft-repeated assertion that those with a ‘difference’ of some kind, be it ginger hair, a disfigurement or being foreign, were said to be likely to become vampires after death. Fear of the ‘other’ is one of human nature’s nastier sides, which constantly needs to be battled with education and communication. But I have respect for these legends – there’s usually a grain of truth in them somewhere. I’ve no doubt that many strange things, both physical and spiritual, walk the Earth, but I’m not convinced that vampires, in the classic sense, are one of them. Although we’ve all met people who thrive by sucking the life out of others!
But ghosts are a different matter. I’ve always loved ghost stories and like any decent child was frightened of graveyards, but I’ve long since found cemeteries to be places of peace and calm, as resting places should be. Life is lived outside of them, and so, if a ghost is a recording of an event replayed over and over again, seen by the living if they’re tuned in to the right frequency, or a more coherent, trapped spirit interacting with the world of the living, it makes sense for them to do so in the places they lived and died.
I’ve never seen a ghost, but I have had many experiences that have left me in no doubt that a ghost has been present. The house I spent most of my childhood in was haunted. I’ll state that as fact, because I can’t find any other explanation for how the place was, the happiness I felt when we moved out and the nightmares I had for years afterwards. From the age of six months to around 17 I lived with my family in Ruislip Manor, on the far north-western reaches of London Underground’s Metropolitan Line. It was a small, terraced 1930s house with a long back garden and narrow alleyways behind and around the blocks of houses. I don’t know anything of the house’s former inhabitants or the plot the house was built on. What I do know was that it was an extremely frightening place. Many times at night I heard footsteps on the stairs that stopped at the top of the landing. One night I looked up and saw my bedroom door open; a shadow came in and touched the end of my bed. I screamed and it dissolved before my parents could come rushing in. I heard whispering right outside my window (I was on the first floor) and had recurring dreams of a pale, white coach and horses driving at speed along the alleyway and into our garden. On one day, my brother, sister and I were in the front room and heard someone coming down the stairs. The connecting door’s handle was pressed down, as if someone on the other side was about to open it. Then – nothing. When we eventually had the nerve to look, no one was there and everyone who was in the house was accounted for downstairs. It was not a happy house – and I always got the impression that it was the skin and bones of the house itself that was unquiet, rather than something separate inside.
The next odd event occurred when I was about 17 or 18 and was alone in a room in a squatted house, listening to music and lying on a bare mattress on the floor. The top corner of the mattress suddenly began moving up and down, as if someone had grabbed it and was violently yanking it. I watched it for a while, then reached out and turned the music off, as I thought the vibrations might be causing it. The violent movement continued. I didn’t see anything or anyone, didn’t feel a presence of any kind, it was just a physical manifestation. Eventually it stopped and I never found any rational explanation for what happened.
Perhaps ten or so years ago I visited a notorious gay bar in King’s Cross, north London. At the time a couple of friends worked in the basement bar, so I went along one Saturday night to see them. I sat for a while at the side of the room and watched the dancers. Completely sober, I should add! I was suddenly aware of a horrible presence. Something was seeping out of the walls of the basement. All I can say is that it felt like Death was there. It surrounded the dance floor and moved in. I got the feeling that it was centring on one man, who appeared unaware of anything going on. Perhaps it was just that he was in the middle of the room. It felt appalling and I had to leave. Afterwards I spoke to one of my bar worker friends and she said the basement did have a reputation for being haunted. Weird stuff, like glasses jumping off shelves, happened there. She’d heard that a customer had died in one of the little cubby holes while cavorting. Because drugs and dodgy sex was involved, the body was carried to the upstairs bar and propped in a corner, so as to be found in a more ‘innocent’ position. How much of this was true was unknown. I seem to remember going back to the basement bar but not having anything untoward happen.
My most recent experience was at Minions in Cornwall, which I’ve written about previously (30 August 2011). Coincidentally, (pah!), just as I was writing this piece, I found a postscript in the back of Barbara Erskine’s novel Daughters of Fire. Called Why Ghosts?, it’s part of an address given by Meryn Jones to the annual meeting of the Celtic Society (no year is given). The piece sums up Celtic belief in what happens to the soul after death, which just about word for word mirrors my own beliefs and goes on to describe ghosts thus: “The choices the soul makes can leave it unhappy. The life it has led may not have been full of glory. It may have ended in anger, sorrow, unfulfillment. Some will go for another crack of the whip in a new lifetime. But others haunt the scenes of their last life. And in doing so they can grow frustrated and angry because they find that people on the whole cannot see or hear them…” More than just recordings, then? I remain open-minded.