An Interview with Michael Bell
Michael Bell has spent the past twenty years tracking down vampires in the cemeteries of southern Rhode Island, northern Connecticut, and Vermont. His book, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (2001) documents his journey into the dimly lit world of nineteenth-century vampire practice, where, when one’s children began to die from a mysterious, crippling disease, it sometimes became necessary to exhume the bodies of the dead, find out which one was possessed, cut out the heart of the corpse, burn it to ashes, and feed it to the living in order to put an end to the vampire’s reign. Although Bell’s vampires never wore capes, hissed, or even bothered to leave the grave, he maintains that they were much more terrifying than the monster we’ve become familiar with through movies and television. “They killed their kin while still lying, apparently dead, inside their coffins,” he says. “How can you escape from something like that?”
More terrifying, perhaps, is that when I met Bell at a small restaurant around the corner from my house, he looked so much like a vampire hunter—at least, the way a proper vampire hunter should look—that I hesitated to call him over to my table. He is a narrow, handsome man who radiates a vehemence not unlike Christopher Plummer in his turn as Dr. Van Helsing in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000. It is so easy to picture him, wooden stake in hand, struggling atop a mound of freshly dug soil with a shrieking, reanimated corpse, that I found it difficult to focus on the interview at all. But some two hours later, I know a few things I did not know before. The good news: The golden age of the vampire seems to be over. The bad news: You may be alive today only because a distant relative ate the charred remains of a possessed family member.
I. “DRIVING THE STAKE IS
CERTAINLY ONE WAY TO DO IT.”
THE BELIEVER: How do you know when you’ve found a real vampire?
MICHAEL BELL: Well, when you get familiar enough with the vampire tradition, there are certain cues and motifs—little narrative elements that stand out—and make you realize “OK, this is probably something I’m interested in because it’s similar to the vampire tradition,” and then there are other elements that seem to be directly from popular culture that don’t fit, and you can tell pretty quickly one from the other. Basically I look for cases where the people involved were dying from a specific condition—where they exhumed the bodies, what they did to the bodies—cutting out the heart, et cetera. Those are the things I’m looking for.
BLVR: Wait, what about the vampires themselves? How did they fit in?
MB: In New England, first of all, the evidence seems to be that nobody referred to the corpses that they were exhuming as “vampires.” People in a family who had died of a disease that to them was mysterious—which we now know was tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was first known—they didn’t know how it was spread, they didn’t know what caused it, or why people died from it. They knew about contagion, you know, and that sense that if one person in the family gets sick, then the next person gets it, and then somebody else gets it, and so on, but they didn’t know how this happened.
And the old folk remedy—that’s basically what it was, it was a medical practice—was to go out to the cemetery, exhume the bodies of the people who had died from the disease previously, and check the corpses to see which ones seemed to be in an unnatural state. In most cases this meant the presence of liquid blood—which they interpreted as fresh blood—in the organs, especially the heart. There are variations on what happened next—they’d either cut out the heart or other organs and burn them to ashes, maybe feeding the ashes to people that were sick, or they’d just burn the entire corpse, and the sick family members would stand around the corpse and inhale the smoke, similar to taking the ashes—and in a nutshell that was the practice—that was how they stopped the vampires from finishing off the family.
BLVR: So the vampires never got out of their coffins.
MB: Right. They basically killed from the grave—they killed their own families—whoever was nearest and dearest.
BLVR: That’s a lot different from, say, the vampire tradition as expressed through Bram Stoker, where…
MB: Yeah, [he] rises from the grave at night, bites necks, sucks blood, has to be killed by driving a stake through the heart. Also beheading. I mean, that’s in Dracula too. But I think the stake emerges mainly from the movie version, because even Stoker knew that the folk tradition allowed for variations on how you disarm or kill a vampire. Decapitation. Driving the stake is certainly one way to do it. But simply turning the corpse upside down worked in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
MB: At least they thought it worked.
BLVR: They—just flipped it?
MB: The only documentation I have is from a newspaper article. Apparently the article was written by an eyewitness. The author even wrote a poem about it, the last line of which became the title of my book: “the living was food for the dead.” Anyway, there was a family in Plymouth that was dying to the point where I think there was just the mother and one son left, and they went out and exhumed the bodies of the children that had died, one by one, and then they found the youngest daughter, who was described in the poem as “the fair speechless queen of the grave,” with her beautiful hair—and her eyes were open, and that’s when they realized that it was her. She was the vampire.
BLVR: And so they basically reached in and—
MB: They inverted her, face down, and reburied her. In Europe, to keep a corpse from coming back, one of the techniques was to turn it facedown. To keep a corpse from walking, sometimes they would remove the legs, or the leg bone, if that was all that was left. Place them somewhere out of the way. Or remove the head. Decapitation was so common back then.
II. “EMBALMING WAS BECOMING
VERY CHIC BY THAT TIME.
EVERYBODY WAS DOING IT.”
BLVR: How many vampires are there in New England? How widespread is this phenomenon?
MB: Over the years, it was only sort of serendipity that I would find a new case, and it was usually because someone found out about this peculiar trail I was on and would come across something unusual in his or her own field of study and say, “I bet Mr. Bell would like to see this,” and tell me about it, so that eventually I ended up with about twenty cases in New England. I have a feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg, because I think that for every case that I found there must be many, many that were never reported in any form, that are perhaps recorded in some esoteric place—in a diary somewhere, or a newspaper article that was published in 1820 that no one’s seen since.
BLVR: This practice is very similar to the Romanian vampire tradition, right? How did that happen?
MB: It does seem odd that the closest, analogous, similar practices are found in Eastern Europe, when New England was populated, in the early days, mainly by people from England. The first case I found was 1793 in Vermont, so we know it goes back at least that far, and probably before that. So how was it that the Eastern European practices found their way into New England—and the fringes of New England, too, we’re not talking about Boston, we’re really talking about the outlying areas where these things occurred—how did it find its way out there? It’s hard to answer that question.
MB: I’ve ruled out that it was something that they learned from the Native Americans, which has been suggested. I’ve looked at Native American stories and medical practices, and there’s nothing really that close, and, in fact, people have maintained that tuberculosis is a European disease—the Native Americans didn’t have tuberculosis until European contact.
Another suggestion is that maybe the colonists thought it up all by themselves—a case of what you might call “independent invention,” or what some anthropologists call “polygenesis.” It was born many times in many different places, like the bow and arrow, which occurred in the New World and the Old World independently. But that doesn’t seem likely because it’s so similar—it’s not just similar, I mean, it’s identical, when you get down to it. It’s identical. There’s also a possibility that it was introduced in a secondary form because people in Europe found out about Eastern European vampire practices in the early seventeenth century, when there was a sort of vampire scare that came out of the area now known as Hungary.
BLVR: And why was it called a vampire scare?
MB: I don’t mean that it was a scare in that people were worried about being attacked by vampires—it was more of a general awareness of the phenomenon. You know, and maybe some people got a little edgy.
BLVR: The last vampire case you’ve found so far occurred in 1893, right?
MB: 1892, yes.
BLVR: Was that the end of the reign of the vampire? Did we defeat them?
MB: Yes. Throughout the nineteenth century, the phenomenon of what we now call “medicine,” which some people call the biomedical paradigm, was co-opting and creating a stranglehold on the medical community. Prior to the end of the nineteenth century, you had a lot of competing medical theories and systems and practitioners. The medical school was a new thing, and medicine itself was hit and miss, more of an art form than anything. By 1892, the paradigm we know now had taken over the mainstream as the recognized authority. And so people were very much more reluctant to turn to any other alternative, whereas before people were saying, “Oh, you can’t help me? I’ll go somewhere else.”
And then another factor was that embalming was becoming very chic by that time. Everybody was doing it. You didn’t just wrap the dead in a shroud and stick them in the ground as soon as possible. You drained the bodily fluids and the blood and you put chemicals in. I think that all started with the Civil War, where families were trying to get the bodies of their dead family members back, and the zeitgeist moment was when Lincoln’s body was transported from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, on the train, stopping all along the way so people could view him. Obviously he had to be chemically treated—otherwise by the time he got to Indiana people wouldn’t get too close.
BLVR: So what you’re saying is that Lincoln was not a vampire.
MB: Embalming basically disarms the corpse, like a bomb. You take the fuse out, it cannot become a vampire.
III. “GHOST HUNTERS ARE
MUCH BETTER ORGANIZED
THAN VAMPIRE HUNTERS.”
BLVR: Do you come into contact with people claiming they’re vampires, and are they angry at your assertion, and, I guess, the deflation of the vampire tradition as they know it? Do they write you angry letters?
MB: Since I started writing about this, I’ve met some people, some Goths. I think they’re interesting but I don’t think that what they do relates to the real, authentic tradition. I mean, let’s face it, let’s put it bluntly—vampires were just disgusting, rotting corpses. There’s nothing romantic or attractive about them at all. So it’s the literary conceit that makes the vampire attractive and all-powerful. The New England vampires didn’t travel great distances. They didn’t have guys going through centuries, living in New Orleans after having spent a century in Paris. It makes a good story, and those are the narratives that people who believe themselves to be contemporary vampires really relate to—eternal life, all-powerful, sexy, mesmerizing, you know. Who could resist wanting those qualities?
BLVR: But are they disappointed to find that those elements have nothing to do with vampirism? Doesn’t that make them sad?
MB: I haven’t really sat down and discussed that with any practitioners.
BLVR: Could you tell me if there are any other vampire hunters out there? I am thinking maybe there is a yearly vampire hunter convention, like that scene in The Conversation, where all the wiretappers converge to show off their wares. Is there something like that for vampire hunters?
MB: I would say that ghost hunters are much better organized than vampire hunters. Ghosts are everywhere: old houses, out-of-the-way hollows, cemeteries, bridges, anywhere some tragedy took place. Vampires, on the other hand, seem to be few and far between. They are such specialized revenants when compared to ghosts. The Rhode Island Paranormal Research Group claims to have found numerous ghosts but they are silent when it comes to vampires. Like the Maytag man of the old TV commercials, vampire hunters would be a lonely lot, perhaps even reduced to playing solitaire.
BLVR: Given that you spend so much time studying the realm of the supernatural, do you ever become confused about what you believe versus what you know?
MB: I’ll talk to some people in a community, and maybe part of the community swears there’s a certain house where things used to occur—certain instances of brutality, of torture—they say, “We can still find the shackles down there in the basement, where the people were bound and tortured”—stuff like that. And maybe I have evidence that those incidents have been investigated and no one’s ever found that stuff. I don’t say that to the person who’s telling me, “No one’s ever found that. Those are just stories.” What’s important to me is that they believe the story and that they act on those beliefs. It’s not for me to tell them directly that that’s not what happened. This really came home to me a couple years ago when my wife and I were giving workshops at local libraries on how to do family histories. We asked people to bring in memorabilia from their past. One woman came in with—I can’t remember whether it was a medal or a certificate or something—that suggested her great-great-grandfather was a hero in the Civil War. She said that, since that time, every male in her family has gone and fought in whatever war happened to be around at the time. This was established as the family tradition. Then she said, “I got interested in genealogy when I discovered that he actually never served in the army. He was actually drafted and he paid someone to take his place.” So she was just totally amazed that this tradition had gone on for so long—that so many people in her family had gone to war because of this thing that turned out to be completely false. But it shows me the power of belief. That what you accept is true, what you act on, becomes the central truth of your life.