“Whom And What Do I Touch When I Touch My Vampire?”: A Series Introduction to Ghost Light

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This post introduces Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage, an eight-part series with an open call for further contributions edited by Caroline Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.


Whereas of late years there has been advanced for a certainty, by a certain Quack Doctor, a foreigner, that a certain cure may be had for a consumption […] directing the bodies of such as had died to be dug up, and [that] out of the breast or vitals might be found a sprout or vine fresh and growing, which, together with the remains of the vitals, being consumed in the fire, would be an effectual cure to the same family […] in Willington [Connecticut], on the first day of June instant: two bodies were dug up which belonged to the family of Mr Isaac Johnson of that place, they both died with the consumption […] that the bodies of the dead may rest quiet in their graves […] I think the public ought to be aware of being led away from such imposture”

Moses Holmes, Connecticut Courant, 22 June 1784.

The “imposture” to which Moses Holmes refers in his 1784 allegation of ritual exhumation at the hands of the Willington, Connecticut Johnson clan drips with disgust, disappointment, and concern for his community.1 But Holmes’s warning was also a castigation of the “certain quack doctor”2 in whom he placed a great deal of the blame for what modern scholars would describe as the “unusual postmortem actions”3 of the Willington Johnsons (and other families like them) facing the horrors of tuberculosis. The “wandering practitioners”4 of whom Holmes warned offered the desperate and the terrified what folklorist Michael Bell terms a “scapegoat” in his Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (2011). Folk medicine offered a treatment for the seemingly-unstoppable disease and a locus for its ravages: the corpses of recently-deceased consumptive dead were capable of housing an evil which sustained itself by drawing upon the life force of remaining family members.5 Rumours of the rising popularity of exhumation, cremation, and the ingestion of tinctures made from the ash of corpses spread to the cities. The “New England vampire panic” had begun, as Bell evidences, without the use of the word “vampire” at all.6 Predating Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Stoker’s iconic, better-known work, Bell reminds us that “descriptions of New England’s vampires do not correspond to the Dracula image.”7 The vampire’s conceptual roots, he explains, “[predate], and [exist] independently from, the word vampire.”8 Importantly, Bell asks: “if the vampire figure exists along a continuum, with no clearly defined borders, then how and where do we draw the line to define it?”9 Pursuant to that question, it is the house of the Quack Doctor on which this series must call (and is invited in) over two centuries later.

“Can we, with justification, label as “vampires” the New Enganders whose bodies were exhumed and deemed to be unnatural?” — “Certainly not, if we use the standard vampire model, the “classic vampire” of our imaginations […] But, what if we begin with a blank slate and ask, again, what is a vampire?”

Michael Bell, Food for the Dead, Chapter 11, Second Edition, Wesleyan University Press, 2011

Returning to the diagnostic criterion of the Quack Doctor, nonhumanity frameworks find fertile soil. Though Holmes’s doctor has left modern scholars seeking out the definitional edges of what qualifies as a “vampire figure”10 with little advice, “a sprout or vine fresh and growing,”11 emerges from the organs or chest cavity of the recently-deceased, offering promise. Considering this alongside Donna Haraway’s description of “Jim’s dog” — a moss-covered stump resembling a large hound — the canine silhouette is, at once, a single “figure” and a community.12 Populated by lichen, mosses, insects, grasses, a plentiful and diverse microbiome, and the decaying remnants of a tree felled to loggers a century before, Haraway conceives of Jim’s dog as a being, a “figure:” at first considering the stump as something other-than-dog — then, on to frame the non, or other-than-human.13 Where Bell attempts to shed light on the edges of the vampire in hopes of casting it into sharper definition (and while his fortuitous use of the word “figure” is applied differently), he offers an important admission which strengthens parallels to Haraway’s work: “a vampire by any other name would be as lethal.”14 The stage now set, this series would ask: “whom and what do I touch”15 when I touch my vampire?

Old East Cemetery, Willington, Connecticut, January 2020. It should be noted that a significant portion of the graves in this cemetery predate its 1899 establishment, reflecting the storied history of cemeteries in New England. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

Sorrel sprout in mind, three key questions were posed in the call for participants in hopes of enticing environmental humanities scholars to approach the ample nonhumanity links “lurking in the folkloric countryside.”16 Critically, those questions formed around hopes of putting those scholars in conversation with Tok Thompson’s 2018 call to “[broaden] the purview of folklore as a discipline to include nonhuman agents:”17

Who are the non-human (or other-than-human) actors in folkloric stories, and what relationships do these stories have with environment? Into what roles are non-human beings cast on the stage of history, culture, or anthropogenic environmental change? What does what we fear, venerate, or mythologise tell us about the environments with which interact, or that we study?

Caroline C.E. Abbott, “CFP: Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage”, The Otter, 12 August, 2022.

Contributors to this series were quick to offer aid in building bridges to “connect the discipline of folklore to other studies”18 which Thompson argued need for, each bringing a different factor to their stability and construction. The essays in this series will offer an array of thoughtful, prudent work which sounds in answer to these questions and hopefully, inspires others. Excitingly, the breadth of work within this series also demonstrates the unique preparedness of the environmental humanities to approach the relationships between folklore, non-human “being,” and environment on a global scale. Over the next several weeks, NiCHE audiences will encounter folkloric “beings” in tremendously disparate ecologies: from North American boreal forests, plains and prairie — to deltaic mangrove forests, island ecologies of the North Sea, and still more.

Importantly, each contribution to this series contextualises the relationships between people and place: we will be greeted by ghosts, monsters, and mythos, all of which work to unmask actualities of settler-colonial legacies and challenge their tenure in future scholarship. It is my hope that readers of this series, itself coming into form as “figure,” will grow comfortable with the shadows of the “other-than-human” in the environmental humanities, and indeed, feel newly invigorated to invite this dimension into their work in good company. As editor, it is a delight to learn with and from them all (contributors and their “monsters”, respectively).

To my knowledge, none of the graves in Old Willington Cemetery have been identified as those of the 1784 exhumation Moses Holmes alleged. Michael Bell’s 2011 edition of Food for the Dead posits that two of Isaac’s children, Amos Johnson, who passed in 1782, and Elizabeth Johnson, who passed almost exactly one year later in May of 1783, were the most likely candidates.19 The details of Amos and Elizabeth’s passing and burial remain a mystery for future scholars. As Halloween approaches, and with it, the “legend trips”20 of youth seeking folkloric encounter, it is my hope as editor of this series that environmental humanities scholars will be present for the next exhumation seeking answers to old mysteries and will work to grow new ones. When last I knelt to the earth in the local, Old East Cemetery, I didn’t look for headstones: I looked for sprouting sorrel, lichen, and moss. I am proud to introduce the work of peers who might do the same.

The grounds of Old East Cemetery under light sleet. Willington, Connecticut, January 2020. Photographs courtesy of Caroline C.E. Abbott.


Notes

1 Holmes, Moses. Connecticut Courant, 22 June 1784.
2 Ibid.
3 Sledzik, Paul S., and Nicholas Bellantoni. 1994. “Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94 (2): 269—71. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ajpa.1330940210.
4 Holmes, 1784.
5 Bell, Michael. 2011. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. 2nd ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
6 Ibid,
7 Ibid,
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 Holmes, 1784.
12 Haraway, Donna. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.
13 Ibid.
14 Bell, 2011.
15 Haraway, 2008.
16 Bell, 2011.
17 Thompson, Tok. 2018. “Folklore beyond the Human: Toward a Trans-Special Understanding of Culture, Communication, and Aesthetics.” Journal of Folklore Research 55 (2): 69—91.
18 Ibid.
19 Bell, 2011.
20 Ibid.

Feature Image: Old East Cemetery, Willington, Connecticut, January 2020. Photograph courtesy of Caroline C.E. Abbott.

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