Psychic Vampires! Occultism in the Nineteenth Century

Henry Bartholomew is a third year PhD candidate at the universities of Exeter and Bath Spa. His thesis mines the overlap between the recent “Speculative Turn” in continental philosophy and literary-theoretical approaches to the Gothic. His current research is on genre, gender, and the “female Gothic” in Florence Marryat’s 1897 novel The Blood of the Vampire. He tweets at @HenryBartholom6

vampirebat

Illustration from J. Leyland’s Adventures in the Far Interior of South Africa. London, 1866. 332.

October marks that time of the year when vampires shake the coffin dirt from their capes to invade the cultural psyche once again. Coinciding with the cultural and consumerist phenomenon that is Halloween, re-imaginings of the vampire are currently rife, from Matthew Clairmont in A Discovery of Witches (2018) – based on Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy (2011-2014) – to Netflix’s new season of the video-game inspired animated series Castlevania (2018). Halloween is also a good time for Gothic academia, and this year saw the publication of Nick Groom’s comprehensive new study The Vampire: A New History (2018). Groom’s historicist approach posits that, unlike ghosts or demons, the vampire has no direct biblical precedent or progenitor and was thus, in fact, “discovered” in the eighteenth century. Hence vampires, Groom argues, are “creatures of the Enlightenment”, only coming into being “when Enlightenment rationality encountered East European folklore”.[1] The vampire, then, is a product of the pitched battle between science, religion, and folklore in the eighteenth century, its unhallowed “habitat” the “no-man’s land between sacred faith and secular rationalism”.[2] Long before the vampire entered the pantheon of fictional Gothic villains, the chief concern of theologians, philosophers, doctors, and the general public was, very simply, whether they were real or not.

Fast forward to the late nineteenth century and one might reasonably assume that actual belief in vampires would be a thing of the past. And this is, to a large degree, true. Bookended by John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the nineteenth century firmly established the figure of the vampire as an archetypal trope of Gothic fiction, a virulent metaphor for social and sexual deviancy, anxieties about the Other, and capitalist exploitation. Less discussed, however, is the history of the so-called “psychic vampire” and its relationship to vampire fictions and, indeed, belief. My research suggests that the milieu of competing discourses that presided over the genesis of the necro-vampire in the eighteenth century is echoed in the advent of the psychic vampire in the second half of the nineteenth century. Only this time, instead of vying with oral folklore, science and Christianity had to grapple with the many-headed hydra of Victorian occultism.

But what is a psychic vampire? Unlike necro-vampires, the psychic vampire doesn’t drain the blood of its victim but their life force or vitality. Unfortunately, and, I suggest, incorrectly, this has made the psychic vampire even more metaphorically charged than its undead counterpart, with scholarship often figuring them as “vamps” or femme fatales; stealers, not of psychic energies, but of husbands and their finances. This is not to say that the figure of the vamp did not also emerge at this time. Philip Burne-Jones’s 1897 painting The Vampire depicts just such a seductress, an image which inspired Rudyard Kipling to pen “The Vampire” (also 1897), a lament for all the “fools” who surrender their “goods”, “years”, and “toil” to fickle and inconstant women.[3] This poem would itself go on to inspire the 1915 film A Fool There Was starring Theda Bara, ensuring the propagation of the vamp into the twentieth century. But the vamp and the psychic vampire should not be so sloppily conflated, and while the vamp certainly emerged in parallel to the psychic vampire, reducing the latter to the former overlooks just how entangled psychic vampirism was with occult practices and beliefs. 

It’s easy to underestimate the prevalence of the occult in the nineteenth century. We tend to think of the period as an age of scientific advancement, a period of new sciences and their corollary societies, institutions, and publications, but the period was, if anything, an epoch of contradictory and competing forces, such that, as Roger Luckhurst writes, “every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult”.[4] Indeed, in the striking words of Jarlath Killeen: “no major Victorian thinker or writer, from the Brontës to the Brownings, from Dickens to Darwin, was unconcerned about the occult”.[5] The most culturally visible occult phenomenon in the Victorian period was spiritualism. Spiritualism brought metaphysics to the masses. The controversial “materializations” of the séance room seemed to suggest that, far from a transcendental immateriality, the spirit was a substance that might, through the correct methods or propitiations, reveal itself as an empirical substrate – a claim that was simultaneously esteemed by thousands, ridiculed by thousands more, feared by theologians, investigated by a dedicated scientific body (the Society for Psychical Research), and debated furiously in the popular press. 

However, occultism encompassed more than just the practice of séances, mediumship and clairvoyance. It overlapped with animal magnetism and a resurgence in the popularity and doctrines of fringe figures like the Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). It also included a range of periphery pseudo-sciences and philosophies, from electro-biology and psychiesm, to Somnambulism and Theosophy, fields of enquiry which were themselves fighting for legitimacy. Animal magnetism, and its refinement as mesmerism, and, ultimately, hypnotism, is especially implicated in the genesis of the psychic vampire. The core idea of mesmerism was, essentially, that by making magnetic “passes” over someone, one could manipulate a semi-substantial, “incomparably rarefied” fluid in the body – usually associated with the nervous system – in order to heal the person or, as it was feared, manipulate, injure, or drain them. The mesmeric force or fluid, which went by several names throughout the century, was likened by its practitioners to electricity – invisible but vital. Even so, despite its proffered clinical potential, it could never shake its esoteric connotations, and was by no means fully accepted by the scientific mainstream. Much like the vampire debate in the eighteenth century, there remained an indeterminacy as to whether mesmerism was occultizing nature or naturalizing the occult, an indeterminacy that proved highly beneficial to Gothic literature. Enter the psychic vampire.

life

Illustration of nervous system from Joseph Haddock’s “Psychology; or the Science of the Soul”, printed in the Library of Mesmerism and Psychology Embracing the Most Popular Works on the Subject, In Two Volumes. New York: Fowlers and Wells, 1854. 34.

The first novel of psychic vampirism is a testament to the occult milieu in which it emerged. Published in 1853, C.W. Webber’s Spiritual Vampirism: The History of Etherial Softdown is a lurid tale of wanton psychic feasting. The influence of spiritualism is clear by the title, and, if that were not enough, the book opens with a section titled “The Philosophy of Mesmeric Imposition”, and subtitled, with a startling degree of seriousness, “to be read by philosophers only”.[6] The story itself is pretty egregious, but Webber’s framing of psychic/spiritual vampirism in terms of mesmerism and the “Odic” force constitutes the first fictional instance of a new kind of vampire, one whose origins were neither folkloric nor strictly scientific, but pseudo-scientific and occult. Webber’s introduction is a whistle-stop tour of mid-century occult science and thinking. Aside from Mesmer and Reichenbach, he references, for example, the anatomist Herbert Mayo. In his book Popular Superstitions and the Truths Contained Therein; With an Account of Mesmerism, published just the year before in 1852, Mayo had explained vampirism as the result of premature burial, with the unwitting vampire simply in a state of catalepsy or mesmeric “death trance”.[7]

theo

Banner for The Theosophist. May 1880. Note the pan-occultist inclusivity of the subtitle: “embracing mesmerism, spiritualism, and other secret sciences”.

A revived interest in trance in the 1890s ushered in a return of the psychic vampire in both fiction and occult literature. Writing in The Theosophist journal in 1891, Henry Olcott, the first president of the Theosophical Society, declared:

Times are changing, and men – especially hypnotists – changing with them. Spiritualism survives its thousand “final collapses”, psychometry has won its foothold […], mesmerism is stronger because on a more scientific basis than ever, magic and sorcery are discussed as thinkable phases of practical psychology. […] We may safely venture, then, to quietly discuss vampirism as one of a group of psychical phenomena. [8]              

Vampires were being taken seriously again. Examples of psychic vampirism in fiction from the period include, for example, Conan Doyle’s “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) and “The Parasite” (1894) – which shouldn’t surprise us, as Doyle was a vocal Spiritualist – as well as Arabella Kenealy’s “A Beautiful Vampire” (1896), Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897), and, in 1902, Mary Wilkins-Freeman’s “Luella Miller”. By the time we get to the late 1920s, the occultist Montague Summers would even be linking vampirism with ectoplasm. 

Towards the end of The Vampire: A New History, Groom suggests that the vampire is ultimately “a chthonic creature of darkness, emerging from the ground white and ashen, preferring the sublunary glimmer to daylight”[9], and such are, indeed, the ways of the necro vampire. But we shouldn’t forget that for many in nineteenth century Britain and America, vampires roamed in broad daylight, and were more likely to be found in the street or the séance room than in a blood-filled coffin.  

Notes

[1] Nick Groom. The Vampire: A New History. London: Yale University Press, 2018. 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 75.

[3] Rudyard Kipling. The Recessional; The Vampire, and Other Poems. New York: Barse and Hopkins, 1910. 7-8. 

[4] Roger Luckhurst. “The Victorian Supernatural”. British Library. 2014. www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural. 

[5] Jarlath Killeen. Gothic Literature: 1825-1914. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009. 124.

[6] Charles W. Webber. Spiritual Vampirism: The History of Etherial Softdown. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co, 1853. 6.

[7] Herbert Mayo. Popular Superstitions and the Truths Contained Therein, with an Account of Mesmerism. Third London Edition. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1852. 42.

[8] Henry Olcott. “The Vampire”. The Theosophist. Vol. XII, No. 7, April 1891. 387.

[9] Nick Groom. The Vampire: A New History. London: Yale University Press, 2018. 205.

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