He’s Not a Vampire, He’s Just a Very Naughty Boy

Real vampires don’t sparkle.


One of the vampirologist’s (and indeed BS Historian’s) bugbears is the phenomenon of myth-creep. The more paranormal ideas are milked for their intellectual and commercial appeal, the more we see them distorted and modified to incorporate unrelated bits of history and folklore. In the case of the vampire it’s often an attempt to give it greater antiquity, presumably because the early 18th century isn’t far back enough for the first sightings of beings who we now think of as immortal. In fact that idea is itself a retrofit of a fictional, rather than folkloric attribute of the vampire. There is no suggestion from the real-life accounts of the blood-drinking revenant that he was destined to live forever in this state. Perhaps it is implicit in his very nature, being already dead, but even if so, he is always found to be a recently dead individual, known to his neighbours in life, and not some ancient stranger like Dracula.

Another example would be the Porphyria explanation for the vampire’s vulnerability to sunlight. This inventive but ultimately bogus claim disregards the fact that the very idea comes once again from fiction – F.W. Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’, released as recently as 1922. It is not a feature of history, and therefore any explanation is redundant, and arguably irresponsible, given that those suffering an already debilitating disease now have to suffer the indignity of being labelled as ‘vampires’.

The History Channel’s ‘Vampire Secrets’ documentary (2006) is a case in point – a programme about vampires that deals with “true” vampires only in part, bringing in as much unrelated stuff as possible in order to give the impression that the vampire as we know it today is both universal and very ancient. The programme opens with a bit of the pseudo-historical re-enactment that is the stock in trade of popular documentaries. – dim lighting, bad costume, bad acting and atrocious Scottish accents. From the start, they get even the historically claimed facts wrong, starting with the date – James Spalding was hung in 1638, not ‘32. They get the place wrong – Dalkeith was (and is) neither in “central Scotland”, nor was it a village, even then.

They proceed to show him being hung until apparent death and then being buried, only to rise from the dead as a ‘vampire’. The story is told to give credence to the idea that historical vampires were actually victims of that very Victorian preoccupation – premature burial.

The actual source is, typically, not given in the programme. In fact it’s the well-known ‘Satan’s Invisible World’ published in 1685 by George Sinclair. The Spalding story appears as “Relation XXX” on page 190, and is even available on Google Books. It reveals a very different story that is wholly unrelated to vampirism, or even revenant corpses of any persuasion.

The real Spalding is closer to Rasputin than Dracula, stubbornly refusing to die both on the scaffold and at a subsequent attempt. He is then buried alive – not by accident, but quite deliberately. There is some suggestion that having died in the grave, he returned as a *ghost*, but no suggestion at all of corporeal resurrection, which I think we can all agree is a defining charactistic of the vampire. The story resembles neither historical accounts of ‘vampires’, nor of victims of live burial. It is a story of a man who has made himself invulnerable by supernatural (by implication Satanic) means. Even if we look for what historian Nancy Caciola has dubbed (behind a paywall) the underlying “cultural facts” behind the story, they suggest a botched execution and deliberate live burial – nothing more.

The rest of the documentary contains nothing you won’t have come across in countless others – a solid 15 minutes or so on the folkloric vampire, and the rest wasted on Erszebet Bathory (not a vampire), roleplayers (not vampires), lifestyle vampires (not vampires), “psychic” vampires (not vampires) and even Rasputin (still not a vampire – I mentioned him above before even realising he would crop up later in the programme!).  I should be grateful that it was made pre-‘Twilight’…


In case the Google Books preview doesn’t display the relevant pages where you are, here is the Spalding story in full (complete with archaic spelling and punctuation);

A Bout the time , that the Earle of Traquair , was his late Majesties Commissioner in Scotland , it happened at Dalkeith where he resided , that one Spalding a towns-man killed his neighbour one Sadler. The Murderer fled , and absented himself , for a year and more. Yet sometimes , came home in the Night time , finding that no man pursued him. After he had been wearied of this way of living, he resolved to cast himself upon the Commissioner’s Mercy. He coming one day near to the town of Dalkeith in Coatch, Spalding came in a most humble manner , and prostrat himself before him , and begged mercy. The Commissioner enquired what the business was ? The Servants told him , he was such a man , as had killed his Neighbour a townsman. Thereupon, he appointed him to be conveyed to Prison , where he lay for a year and more. At last an Assize found him guilty , and appointed him to be hanged. When he heard this sentence , he cried out, Oh must I die like a Dog ! Why was I not sentenced to lose my head. After he came to the Scaffold , and Prayer was ended , he goes up the Ladder , and the rope being put about his Neck , he cryes with a loud voice in the Audience of all , Lord (says he) let never this Soul of mine depart from this Body til it be reconciled with thee. And having said this , the Executioner threw him off the Ladder. When he had hung the ordinary time sufficient to take any man’s life he was cut down , and his Body put into a Bier , and carried to the Tolbuith to be Woon. When they had opened the lid of the Bier; the man bangs up upon his Bottom, and his eyes staring in his head, and fomeing at the mouth, he made a noise and roared like a Bull, stricking about him with his Fists, to the great consternation of all. The Magistrates hearing of it , gave orders that he should be strangled better. The Executioner fell to work, and puting the Rope about his neck, stood upon his Breast, and strained his neck so hard, that it was no bigger than his wrist. And he continuing after this manner for a sufficient time, was carried to the Grave: and covered with earth. Notwithstanding of all this , he made such a rumbling and tumbling in it, that the very Earth was raised, and the Muiles were so heaved up that they could hardly keep him down. After this his house at the East end of the town ( as I am informed ) was frequented with a Ghost, which made it stand empty for a long time. Whether any have dwelt in it since I know not. This I have from a very creditable Person, who being a Schollar there, at that time, was an eye and an ear witness, who is yet alive.

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