Resident Vampirologist

boy dressed as vampire

On weekend evenings, a group of Penn State students retire to a few tucked-away rooms to play the game "Vampire: The Masquerade." There, they become vampires—characters in a continuing drama taking place in an imaginary city created behind those walls. Not all their vampires are the same; some are elegant artistes, while others players become rabble-rousers, businesslike leaders, or even insane geniuses.

To Heide Crawford, a Penn State doctoral student whose business card calls her the "Resident Vampirologist" of the German Department, vampires reach beyond the imagination on Saturday nights. For her doctoral research, she is examining the first vampires to appear in literature. Crawford began her research on vampires because she was intrigued by the superstitions surrounding them, and also because she was "fascinated by the human that displays monstrous characteristics—one who hides in the shadows, but is a monster."

Vampires began as folklore and superstition before the 1700s, when people in small villages in southeastern Europe attempted to explain mysterious deaths. Those who died violently, especially criminals, and those who died from epidemics or chronic diseases such as cancer were often deemed vampires. The folktales gave the villagers a "monster" that they could blame when they had nightmares about the violent deaths, or when a terminally ill person was transformed by disease. These tales then spread, the name of the deceased becoming detached from the stories until all that was left was a monster.

"The main distinction in the depiction of vampires between folklore and literature," Crawford states, "was the human quality." Vampires in literature became "human-seeming monsters" rather than the nameless victims of a violent or mysterious death in some other village. One familiar example is Dracula, both in Bram Stoker's book Dracula (1897) and in the 1992 movie. The main character, Jonathan Harker, realized that Count Dracula was odd while living with him, but did not understand why until Dracula's nature revealed itself. Dracula was, according to Crawford, "human-seeming enough to fool you."

Crawford's research, however, does not focus on Stoker or any other British horror writer. The vampire known from authors such as Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Percy Bysshe Shelley had roots in a style of 18th-century German ballad known as the Schauerballade (horror ballad). While most books written on the vampire theme in literature devote little more than a chapter to these German ballads, Crawford says, "I want to write a book that devotes itself entirely to the German vampire in literature and its beginnings in ballad poetry—that's the new element here."

Part of Crawford's research involved tracing the roots of ballads with vampire themes back to the very first one. Written in 1747, Heinrich August Ossenfelder's "Mein liebes Mägdchen glaubet," or "My Dear Young Maiden Believes," accompanied a research report on vampires in a scientific journal.

Crawford is also examining how the vampire theme affects motifs, or smaller thematic elements within a poem. For instance, a common literary motif is that of the femme fatale, a woman who causes the demise of a man "just being who she is," explains Crawford. The vampire theme "pulls the motif into the realm of the supernatural." The femme fatale is seen in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Braut von Korinth," or "Bride of Corinth" (1774), in which a woman approaches her betrothed for a romantic night. She is a human-seeming monster—to him, she looks like his fiancée and still appears to be alive; he does not realize that she is a vampire until after their night together.

Although vampires have not appeared much in German literature since the 19th century, the influence of their British descendants on American culture is clear. Many movies have been made starring vampire characters, and popular authors such as Anne Rice continue to write vampires tales. In fact, it is Anne Rice's version of life as a vampire that Crawford sees as the biggest influence on "Vampire: The Masquerade." Vampire characters in this game, as well as in Rice's books, have so many human elements that they can easily fit in among us. The monster lurks beneath the surface.

Heide Crawford, M.A., is currently filling a temporary position as assistant professor of German at Ball State University; hac119@psu.edu. A Ph.D. student at Penn State in German, she won first prize in the Arts and Humanities category at the 2000 Graduate Exhibition. Her adviser is Tom Beebee, Ph.D., professor of German and Comparative Literature, 424N Burrowes Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4935; tob@psu.edu.

Last Updated January 01, 2002