Monday, 31 October 2011

A Queer Hallowe'en

Strolling through the shops this month I realised that Hallowe’en is growing in size very year. And just like Christmas it lasts longer as well.

Of course it all goes back to pagan times and the celebration of the New Year. They didn’t have the luxury of a regular, precise calendar like ours. They used the stars, the sun and moon to set dates, so events weren’t always on the same date each year – just like our Easter.

The most popular costumes I saw in the shops were of witches, demons, ghosts and vampires. Whilst the first three have been around for centuries, vampires are relatively new in the west. Surprisingly, it was the 19th century Romantic poets who established the vampire image we recognise today. Based on eastern European legends, poets like Coleridge, Shelley and Nottinghamshire’s own polysexual poet Lord Byron gave the blood-sucking demon its more human and sexual overtones which sells TV shows today.

The word vampire first appeared in 1734, taken from a French word, which in turn was adapted from the Slavonic word for a witch.

Dracula, the most famous vampire of them all, was created by Bram Stoker, a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s family, and a man who struggled with his own sexuality. Dracula was influenced by “The Vampyre” by Dr. John Polidori which in turn was influenced by one of the greatest literary “brain-storming” sessions in history.

One stormy night in 1816, in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of friends gathered to drink and take drugs. Present were Shelley, his wife Mary, Byron and Polidori. As the storm raged outside they read ghost stories to each other. Then Byron challenged the group to come up with the scariest ghost story of them all. It was Mary Shelley who eventually won the contest with her story of Frankenstein.

Byron wrote down a short vampire tale of his own which he never got round to turning into a full novel, but it inspired Polidori to write “The Vampyre”.

The traditional vampire is a demon who possesses corpses and can change into animals, usually a wolf. The classic image of a vampire doesn’t come from legend or Bram Stoker. The suave charming Dracula character was created by actor Bela Lugosi on stage in 1927, and the bat comes from thousands of miles away and had nothing to do with vampires at all until a distant cousin of my grandmother, Charles Darwin, saw blood-sucking bats in South America. Darwin knew of the popularity of vampires in literature and gave them the name Vampire Bat. Since then, people get the idea (for no reason whatsoever) that vampires turn into bats – they don’t! Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t. Perhaps that’s why people are so scared of bats these days.

Just think – if Darwin had seen blood-sucking gerbils in South America instead of bats people would be  dressing up as gerbils for Hallowee’en instead!

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