Shapeshifters: A History
By John B Kachuba Reaktion Books, 200pp, £16/$22.50
The myth of the vampire is among the most popular in international folklore, inspiring nearly 400 films and television productions over the past century.
The most recent of these was Dracula, the joint BBC-Netflix mini-series broadcast from New Year’s Day and which, in the event, promised more than it delivered. Written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the minds behind the great Sherlock Holmes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Dracula seemed to owe more to Sebastian Love of Little Britain than to the shadowy monster of Bram Stoker. The Dracula of 2020 was truly a vamp for our times: a loquacious and woke anti-hero who wanted a man for his bride, who slaughtered an entire community of nuns with the zeal of a Spanish communist but who, in the end, was more boring than biting, with a quarter of viewers turning off before the final instalment.
There is, of course, nothing new about homoeroticism in the vampire genre, as John Kachuba notes in his book, Shapeshifters.
In earlier times vampirism was often a metaphor for lesbianism, as well as for promiscuity and even rape. Vampires are invariably transient figures who flee the daylight after slaking their illicit lusts in the dark hours, leaving nothing but ruin, corruption, despoliation and death in their wake. They are like rock’n’roll bad boys who have gone the extra mile in debauchery. Yet that is what makes them so appealing to teenagers itching for forbidden pleasures.
Kachuba investigates vampires as part of a broad look at “shapeshifters” in general. The result is an interesting rather than good book, for he has bitten off more than he can chew. The content is occasionally so superficial and the arguments so weak that it resembles a stocking-filler from the 1980s aimed at titillating schoolboys with tales of UFOs, spontaneous human combustion and the like, but with very little of it substantiated. It is, at times, as excruciating as being bitten in the neck by a vampire with blunt teeth.
Kachuba frequently over-reaches himself, for example, telling the reader that transsexuals and transvestites are modern-day shapeshifters, and he also includes Jesus as a shapeshifter, declaring the Transfiguration as “one of the most awe-inspiring acts of shapeshifting ever recorded”. Yeah, right.
Yet some of the book is inspiring and useful in understanding the cultural contexts that gave rise to stories of vampires, werewolves and witches in the first place.
Interestingly, Kachuba cites the work of Dom Augustin Calmet, a distinguished French Benedictine who was admired by Voltaire and who, in 1752, published his Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires and their Revenants. He concluded that vampires existed, that they were people who rose from their graves months after their deaths to feast on the blood of relatives, and could be killed only by a stake through their hearts, decapitation and burning.
His work led to hysteria in Europe. But like many witch-hunters, including those of our own age, Calmet had made the mistake of collecting volumes of anecdotal evidence (or hearsay) without properly investigating it. Perhaps he had uncovered grotesque practices underpinned by superstition in an age riven by fear of witches and supernatural monsters.
Empress Maria Theresa of Austria finally put an end to it all by asking Gerard van Sweiten, her personal physician, to conduct an inquiry. He concluded that vampires were not real and the desecration of graves and corpses was subsequently forbidden.
By then, of course, the myth of the vampire was established and the rules were in place, and it was easy for storytellers like Sheridan Le Fanu, John Polidori and Bram Stoker to tap into the folklore to create their monster classics.
There must equally be rational explanations for the myth of the werewolf. In the absence of forensic science, it is understandable that any spate of extremely violent murders by a serial killer could be attributed to the actions of a diabolical beast, especially in the context of post-Reformation Europe when superstitions and belief in witchcraft actually increased as the Catholic faith was suppressed.
Kachuba would have done better had he narrowed his work to an honest study of the origins of this phenomena, rather than try to cover the whole range of shapeshifting, which is vast in contemporary film and literature alone.
Nonetheless, in his chapter on werewolves he was wise to include the anecdote of St Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio, a beast which had developed a preference for human flesh over livestock. Francis approached the lair of the wolf and it attacked him with open jaws only to be rebuked by the saint in the name of God. Once Francis blessed the animal, it lay its head in his hands and he returned to Gubbio with it at his heels, as tame as a golden retriever. The wolf lived in the village until its death and was buried there.
The moral of the story is that monsters change principally from within not from without, and it can be a two-way process. The choice is ours.