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Dr. Michael E. Bell Discusses Vampires, Modern Folklore, and Scary Stories
Michael E. Bell's book, Food for the Dead, has brought attention to the vampire practice in New England, and the last North American vampire, Mercy Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island, and he's now a well-known expert in the field of the undead.
How does it feel to be known as Rhode Island's "Vampire Stalker" (Seacoast New Hampshire)?
Well, there's truth to that - but only in the sense of being a scholar-sleuth. I'm stalking vampires in the historical, folkloric and archaeological record. I'm not looking for living undead creatures. Just scapegoats who were blamed for an illness that the medical establishment of the times could not cure.
When you were young, would you have ever imagined that you'd be known as such?
Of course not! I thought I would be a professional baseball player or a general in the Marine Corps.
You wanted to be a baseball player when you grew up?
My first memory is of wanting to be a trashman, since they got to look at all that cool stuff people threw away. I ended up doing something very similar, as my undergraduate degree was in Anthropology with an emphasis on Archaeology.
How did you end up in Rhode Island?
I was born in Louisville, Kentucky and spent all of my elementary school years in Texas (Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Dallas). We moved to San Diego when I was twelve, where I lived until my college years. My father was a newspaper writer, so we moved to increasingly larger cities with larger (and better?) newspapers. I went to Indiana University for my Ph.D. in Folklore. At the time, there were only two such programs in the country (the other being University of Pennsylvania). In 1979, when I was completing my dissertation (African American voodoo practices), I came to Rhode Island as part of a team put together by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to complete a survey of traditional culture in RI. The short narrative is, I'm still here.
What exactly is a folklorist?
Folklorists record, preserve and interpret traditional cultural expressions - everything from regional foodways to folk music to ghost stories. The stuff that has been passed down in groups of people by word of mouth or by imitation of customary examples. To me, it's the real world (as opposed to the official realm or the artificial milieu of pop culture).
Has technology impacted modern folklore?
Modern technology has become part of the folk process. Folklore absorbs whatever context surrounds it and incorporates it into itself. Of course, this process is more complex and intricate than my simple answer might suggest.
What's the best thing about studying folklore?
In doing fieldwork, I get to meet so many interesting people. I also love doing the research - finding the dots that connect to make a picture.
What's the worst thing?
Writing grants and reports that are necessary to fund the work I do. I hate administrative work. I love to do the work-work.
Do you feel that younger people are disconnected from their elders and
the stories of their past?
Probably. Young people seem to spend a lot of time talking and texting with their friends. I'm not convinced that all of that time adds up to actual communication or interaction on any significant level. But maybe that's an old fuddy-duddy talking. I wouldn't trade the stories that were told to me by my older relatives for all the I-pods or computer games in the world. There's nothing like a face-to-face storytelling session. Young people can put away their electronic devices now and then and sit down with their older relatives and ask them about things - anything, such as what it was like growing up "back then."
Do you think Mercy Brown was really the last Rhode Island vampire, or
is it possible that people still did the practice and just stopped
talking about it? Think anyone still believes in it?
I'm pretty sure that Mercy Brown was the last vampire in this region. Had others been exhumed after her, I'm sure that word would have gotten out. Since the publication of Food, I've received a lot of correspondence from people who do believe in vampires - really. One woman asked me if I had ever been attacked by a vampire during astral projection. I replied, "That's why I stopped doing that." And she believed me! Yikes!
What's next after Food for the Dead? Now that you've laid the vampire
issue to rest, if you will, what are you researching now?
Well, the vampires actually have not been laid to rest. Since publication of Food for the Dead, I've found about twenty new or updated cases (some beyond New England - into Pennsylvania and even North Carolina). So, I'm working on an update of Food with the new cases. It will be titled The Vampire's Grasp: The Trail Continues.
You mention Druids a few times in Food for the Dead -- what, if any,
evidence have you found in Rhode Island of Druid influence?
Well, the Hazard family, for one, was interested in spiritualism and druidism - hence, "Druid's Dream" in Narragansett.
You also talk about insider / outsider language, as in the use of the word "vampire." Those involved in the practice never used the word; only strangers passing judgment used the term. Can you give me any other examples of insider / outsider language that you've found in Rhode Island?
If you mean RI dialect - there are lots of interesting words not found in other places. "Bubbler" for water fountain, for example. The only other place where people use bubbler is in Wisconsin. The reason? When public health demanded replacing the communal bucket and dipper with a more sanitary water-delivery system, states put out bids for such devices. RI bought a system made in Wisconsin that had the trade name "bubbler."
But, to me, the term vampire not being used by insiders suggested that the people involved did not see what they were doing as some kind of folk tradition of evil beings; rather, they were employing an old folk medical practice to rid themselves of a problem that no other approach could deal with.
What's the most interesting story / legend, aside from vampires, that you've encountered in Rhode Island?
I love the story of Granny Mott the witch (South County). In one of her legends, a man is being bothered by a Guinea Hen and tries to shoot it with his musket. He runs out of bullets, so he takes a silver button from his coat, loads it into his musket and fires at the bothersome bird. A little later, the town doctor is called to Granny's house to tend to a wound she has received. He extracts a silver bullet from her leg.
What is the most interesting example of a swamp Yankee folk remedy that you've heard about in your research?
Well, the vampire practice would have to be number one in that regard. The others are pretty standard folk medicine, such as stealing a dish cloth, rubbing it on a wart and burying at the crossroads (the wart will be transferred to the next person coming).
Have you ever seen a ghost?
Not that I'm aware of.
What's your explanation for why people see ghosts?
I don't have one, but I believe that there are many possible explanations - most of them natural and some, perhaps, still inexplicable.
What will be your wearing for Halloween this year?
Haven't given it a thought yet.
What was your favorite Halloween costume as a kid?
Indian. I used to tell my parents I wanted to be an Indian when I grew up. They would tell me I couldn't. That confused me, because they and everyone else always used to say, "In America, you can grow up to be anything you want."
I enjoyed reading your personal narrative interjected into your
vampire quest, especially the story you recounted told by your Nana
called "The Spirit on the Staircase." You mention that she told lots
of stories -- What's the scariest story that your Nana ever told you?
I suppose that one was the scariest. I think the funniest was when she had a carnival concession in the late 1920s and, one summer, my father went along to help her. His job was to be out of sight and pull a hidden rope that kicked the ball out of the barrell when people tried to throw it into the barrell. There were various code words so that he knew when to let the ball stay in and when not to (you need to show people that it can be done, for example). About halfway through the summer, my father told his mother (Nana) that he couldn't do that anymore because it was wrong. She said everyone with the carnival has to pull his own weight - no free rides. It happened that the snake charmer had run off with a local man, so they made my father put on dark makeup and a turban and have pithons, etc. crawl all over him. He told me he was deathly afraid of snakes! His side of the family was pretty weird (interesting, but weird).