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An Interview With Theresa Cheung


Following my recent review of The Element Encyclopedia of Vampires by Theresa Cheung, I decided to put a few questions to the author and gain an insight into what attracts her to Vampire mythology.

Theresa, What is your background and how did you come to write the book?

I've been researching and writing about the paranormal for over two decades now. It's a subject that fascinates me, and always ever since I read my first Anne Rice novel in my teens. I've already written two element encyclopaedias - one on dreams and one on the psychic world - and both were very well received so another encyclopedia was on the cards. I'd actually suggested a vampire encyclopedia for the series several years earlier but there was hesitation from my publishers about whether there might be interest from readers so the project was shelved. Then when the Twilight novels became huge best-sellers it was only a matter of time before an up to date vampire encyclopedia became an essential part of the element encyclopaedia series. I couldn't have been happier when I was told that vampire artwork was going to be supplied by Andy Paciorek: his gothic and compelling drawings really make the book special.

What first attracted you to Vampire research/lore?

It was when I was writing my psychic world encyclopeida a few years back now and compiling the entry for vampires that I fully realised what a huge subject it was and how much it deserved a 400,000 word study of its own. There were a couple of great encyclopedias written in the late 90s but nothing bang up to date.

Did you discover anything in you research for the book that surprised you?

Yes, I could go on for hours about how much I discovered that surprised me - that's the fascinating thing about vampires they are impossible to pin down and will always spring surprise after surprise. I guess what surprised me most, though was my investigation on the modern vampire scene. There are a lot of people out there who not only believe vampires are real but that they themselves might be vampires, and these people aren't scarey, mad or bad. Many that I spoke to were highly intelligent and sensitive and fascinating to talk to.

Here’s an obvious one: do you believe in Vampires?

I believe that within each one of us there is an aspect of our personality that is vampiric and I cover this extensively in the book. There are both positive and negative elements in the vampire within us, perhaps you could call it a vampire archetype. Negative in that it can sap the life out of us and other people we associate with but positive in that it offers us the possibly of transformation, of uncovering the truth about ourselves - a reality that is both terrifying and inspiring at the same time.

Obviously a lead on from the last question but, with such a widespread tradition, do you think there could be any truth in stories about Vampires?

There has to be. There are just too many stories and unsolved cases to suggest that there might be such a thing as real vampires, although they may not emerge in the guise most of us expect.

Where do you think Vampire legends and lore originated and why do we find it so fascinating?

There are several schools of thought about where the vampire myths originated - some people believe it was in Eastern Europe but other experts have suggested China, Africa, Egypt and several other locations. Part of the problem in pin pointing the exact place is that there seem to be vampiric stories in almost every culture. We find the legends so fascinating because the vampire legend embodies so many aspects related to the human condition - death, desire, control, sex, intimacy, violence, romance, mystery and the feeling of being an outsider or not fitting in which I guess everyone can relate to at some time in their life. Above all, though, vampires are fascinating and erotic because they embody or symbolise a need within us for an intense affirmation of life, suggesting perhaps that our desire for knowledge, mystery, excitement and intimacy may be far stronger than our fear of evil, death and the unknown..

What is your favourite Vampire story/legend?

This is very tough. When I was writing the book I had to be constantly reminded that I had a deadline to complete each entry because every one was just so fascinating and in many cases could have been a book in itself. An obvious choice would, of course, be the stories and legends surrounding Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory but I was equally fascinated by less well known but equally chilling cases such as the Liebava vampire, the Berwick Vampire, and so on - and what really made my spine tingle was the most recent and unsolved vampire sightings and reports, those within the last five years.

Do you think the way that film and television portrays the myth to be detrimental in any way?

I know a lot of vampire purists would think this is the case but in my opinion any representation of the vampire is enligtening because it reflects how writers, film makers and society perceive the vampire to be at that moment in time. There is no definitive way to present a vampire because as I say time and time again in the book the vampire is a shape shifter. He (or she) will take the shape of the fears and anxieties of the vessel he or she is poured in because they are impossible to define or pin down.

I know you mention it in the book, but one of Britain’s most famous ‘cases’ is the Highgate Vampire which is highly controversial. What are your views about the story?

From studying it for the book it became obvious to me that the existence of the Highgate vampire remains unproven and that celebrated accounts written about it by both Sean Manchester and David Farrant were subjective and very possibly flawed. Having said this the case has to remain open because there were a series of unexplained events that have to date not been explained. I guess what I'm saying here is that I'm keeping an open mind.

What projects have you got planned in the future?
I'm swinging to the other side of the force - and working on my angel books. When people ask me how I cam write about vampires and then angels I tell them that I like to see both sides of the coin. There are after all, angels of darkness.

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Ian Topham
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Re: An Interview With Theresa Cheung

The problem with people who dabble in spiritualism and the occult is that they can open portals to malevolent forces which they are then unable to control. This can also occur when the person dabbling isn't a medium or an occultist and is just doing it for thrills. Either way, it can lead to psychological breakdowns, even suicides, and there have been, in extreme cases, possession leading to death.

When all other avenues have been exhausted and have clearly failed, the exorcist is usually then called upon to solve the disturbance created by the release of something sinister into our realm.

If exorcism did no good and had no more effect than failed psychology, exorcists (who should be experienced and in holy orders) would have become redundant a long time ago. According to church sources, including the Vatican, their expertise has never been more needed than now.

In a front-page headline story in the Roman Catholic newspaper The Universe the Pope warned of the serious growth of occult practices and satanic sects that has led to an unprecedented rise in demand for exorcists.

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Re: An Interview With Theresa Cheung

“People who have no apparent problem with ghosts seem to balk at the thought of vampires. Yet there has always been more evidence to support the existence of vampires than there is to support the existence of ghosts, which even the Society for Psychical Research has not managed to establish after investigating them continually since 1882. That is not to say we shouldn't keep an open mind about ghostly apparitions of the dearly departed, but at least afford vampires the same open-minded approach when researching”
I usually visit David Farrant’s home on a Friday evening, but this weekend I have other commitments because it is the Summer Solstice, so I have come here on Thursday instead. He showed me this piece alleging that there is more evidence for the existence of vampires than of ghosts, an assertion that I cannot help but challenging. The Society for Psychical Research have collected a lot of evidence for the existence of ghosts, but not absolute proof; because, as Gurney put it, an exceptional amount of evidence is needed for such a claim.
By contrast, I do not think that the SPR have found the slightest evidence for the existence of ‘vampires’. Greek and Roman writers did indeed describe ‘striges’ (vampire owls) and ‘lamiae’ (female vampires), but these were nearly always in poetic works which were probably not meant to be taken seriously. The one exception is Philostratus’s ‘Life of Apollonius’, which tells how a man was rescued at the last moment from a Lamia, but, though this was purportedly true, it was only written down two hundred years after the alleged event – hardly an eye-witness account. Admittedly, the classical stories about ghosts are no more nearly first-hand.
Sixteenth and seventeenth century English writers gave numerous cases of reports of ghosts, and of what we now call poltergeists – though then the latter were usually termed ‘devils’ or ‘witches’, as in the celebrated Civil War pamphlet ‘The Just Devil of Woodstock’. The only instances they knew that could be related to vampires were one or two, in Germany, of ‘shroud-eating’, that is, an exhumed corpse was found to have eaten part of its winding sheet, but this is probably evidence for premature burial rather than vampirism.
Vampirologists often quote Augustin Calmet’s 1746 book, but if you bother to read it, you will find that he was impressed by the evidence for ghosts, but not by that for vampires, and suggest that supposed vampires were actually ghosts, and that, since some ghosts have been reported as looking solid, people mistakenly thought that the physical bodies had come of their graves. Earlier still, Martin Del Rio, in his ‘Disquisitionum Magicarum’ (expanded edition, 1603), concluded that it was certain that the souls of the dead can appear to the living – so much so that it was possibly heresy not to believe it – and gave twenty folio pages of examples; but declared that it was impossible for demons to raise up the bodies of dead men. (See Book II, Questions 26 and 29.)
Coming down to the last century, an absolutely huge number of books and articles have appeared about investigations of hauntings. In 1925, for instance, the Daily News asked their readers to write in with their ‘True Ghost Stories’, and were able to fill a largish volume with the responses. Most of what we have heard about vampires in the same period, by contrast, has been fiction, indeed primarily film fiction, comparable to the Roman poet Ovid’s verses about ‘striges’!
Evidence may not be proof, but Roman poetry and Hammer Horror films are not even evidence.
Gareth J. Medway.

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Re: An Interview With Theresa Cheung

"I do not think that the SPR have found the slightest evidence for the existence of ‘vampires’."

That is due to the fact the SPR were not studying, researching, investigating or even vaguely looking for vampires.

French vampirological and biblical scholar Dom Augustin Calmet (who entered the Benedictine Order in 1688, becoming ordained into the priesthood in 1696, after which he was offered consecration to the episcopate by Pope Benedict XIII, but turned it down) is remembered for his 1746 work on vampires: Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges des Démons et des Espits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, et de Silésie.

Calmet's findings were inconclusive. He did not state, however, that the reports could be explained away by natural causes, but he shrank from proposing an alternative answer. In other words, he left the entire matter unresolved. Yet he seemed to favour the existence of vampires by noting:

“... that it seems impossible not to subscribe to the belief which prevails in these countries that these apparitions do actually come forth from the graves and that they are able to produce terrible effects which are so widely and so positively attributed to them.”

Calmet had posed five possibilities for all the accounts he had considered. Three of these he dismissed. The remaining two consisted of the possibility that vampires are the result of the Devil’s interference, or just superstition.

No firm conclusion was apparent until the third and last edition, published in 1751, where in his bestselling work he makes clear that he could conclude naught save that such creatures as vampires really did return from the grave.

Tales of the undead craving blood are found in nearly every culture around the world, including those most ancient. Vampiric spectres called the Lilu are mentioned in early Babylonian demonology, and the bloodsucking Akhkharu even earlier in the Sumerian mythology. These female demons were said to roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of these demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted into Jewish demonology as Lilith.

In India, tales of the Vetalas, demons that inhabit corpses, are found in old Sanskrit folklore. A prominent story tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive Vetala. The stories of the Vetala have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi. The vetala is an undead, who like the bat associated with modern day vampire, is associated with hanging upside down on trees found in cremation grounds and cemeteries.

The hopping corpse is an equivalent of the vampire in Chinese tradition; however, it consumes the victim's life essence (qì) rather than blood.

The Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet became full of bloodlust after slaughtering humans and was only sated after drinking alcohol colored as blood.

The strix, a nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood is mentioned in Roman tales. The Romanian word for vampires, strigoi, is derived from the word, and so is the name of the Albanian Shtriga, but the myths about those creatures show mainly Slavic influence.

As an example of the existence and prominence of similar legends at later times, it can be noted that 12th century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants that arguably are little different to East European vampires.

The vampire, as we know it, is most strongly rooted in East European and above all Slavic folklore where vampires were revenants accused of killing people, often by drinking blood. A vampire could only be destroyed by cutting off its head, by driving a wooden stake into its heart, or by burning the corpse.

Vampires in Europe were thought to be hideous undead from the grave. They were usually believed to rise from the bodies of suicide victims, criminals, or evil sorcerers; though in some cases an initial vampire thus "born of sin" could pass his vampirism onto his innocent victims. In other cases, however, a victim of a cruel, untimely, or violent death was susceptible to becoming a vampire. Most of Romanian vampire folk beliefs (except Strigoi) and European vampire stories have Slavic origins.

Belief in vampires persists to this day. Forty years ago there were rumours that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in London. Amateur vampire hunters flocked in large numbers in search of this troublesome undead, but it was the founder of the Vampire Research Society who finally succeeded in tracking the creature down and exorcising it, as recounted in his bestselling book The Highgate Vampire.

In the modern folklore of Puerto Rico and Mexico, the chupacabra (goat-sucker) is said to be a creature that feeds upon the flesh or drinks the blood of domesticated animals, leading some to consider it a sort of vampire. The chupacabra hysteria was frequently associated with deep economic and political crises, particularly during the mid-1990s.

During late 2002 and early 2003, hysteria about alleged attacks of vampires swept through the African country of Malawi. Mobs stoned one individual to death and attacked at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was under vampiric influence.

In Romania during February 2004, several relatives of the late Toma Petre feared that he had become a vampire. They dug up his corpse, tore out his heart, burned it, and mixed the ashes with water in order to drink it.

In January 2005, rumours began to circulate that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fuelling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crime had been reported. This case appears to be an urban legend.

In 2006, Costas Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi published a piece that uses geometric progression to attempt to disprove the feeding habits of vampires, stating that, if each vampire's nourishment depended on making even one other person a vampire, it would only be a matter of years before the Earth's entire population was among the undead or vampires died out. However, this notion that a vampire's victims must themselves become vampires does not appear in all vampire folklore, and is not universally accepted by modern vampire believers. This theory also assumes that a single bite turns the victim into a vampire, which is not generally the case in most vampire lore.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. In this region there are many documented cases of families disinterring loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family. The deadly tuberculosis, or "consumption" as it was known at the time, was believed to be caused by nightly visitations on the part of a dead family member (who had died of consumption him/herself). The most famous (and latest recorded) case is that of nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown who died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892. Her father, assisted by the family physician, removed her from her tomb two months after her death. Her heart was cut out then burnt to ashes.

By comparison, ghosts are described as all manner of possibilities, including time warp glimpses of living people from the past, but no evidence as remotely substantial as that we have for vampires has ever been forthcoming.



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