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Boundaries of Life and Death

Written by: Michelle Belanger

Vampirism, in folklore, often results from an incomplete transition between the world of the living and that of the dead. In Michelle's 2005 release, Sacred Hunger this concept is explored in great detail. The following article, originally included in Sacred Hunger explores this concept in the context of Romanian vampire folklore. The thing that distinguishes these vampires, both living and dead, is that they have made an incomplete transition between this world and the next. In the case of the undead vampires, this liminality is clear. The undead are beings that have failed to truly die.

According to the beliefs of the villagers, the physical body of the undead strigoi dies, but the spirit does not cross over. It is this lingering spirit that then animates the body and causes it to return, again and again, preying upon those it knew it life. In Vampires, Burial, and Death, author Paul Barber has made a compelling case that the folkloric vampire was developed as a kind of metaphor for contagion. It is true that where belief in the undead exists, they are often blamed for plagues and rampant disease that carry too many family members and friends to an early grave.

However, in examining the oral traditions recorded by folklorist Harry Senn in The Were-wolf and Vampire in Romania, there is a metaphysical element to the undead vampire that Barber’s notion of contagion oversimplifies. Undead vampires are not merely individuals who have died of some poorly understood disease which then runs its course through all the people that the vampire came into contact with. Long before the onset of any fatal disease, most of the undead of Romania were already marked as candidates for vampirism. They are individuals whose lives, deaths, or even the circumstances of their births, marked them as liminal beings. They hang in a state between life and death that is typically described as “undead.”

This incomplete transition is not limited simply to the “undead” who become vampires after their deaths. Romanian strigoi, or living vampires, are also victims of incomplete transitions between the two worlds. Somewhere, in the process of being born, their passage from the world of spirit to the world of flesh is interrupted.

According to the folklore of the Romanians interviewed by Senn, all such living vampires bear the mark of this incomplete passage. They are born with a caul, or a little tail; they are born covered in fine hair; they have twin pupils, or they have a dark ring of color around the irises of their eyes. These remarkable physical signs reveal the individual as having been touched by the otherworld, and aspects of that world cling to them still.