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State long on ghosts; short on vampires

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 09 - October 24, 1996

Virginia has had lots of ghosts but few vampires, according to Jeff Mann, a poet and writing teacher at Virginia Tech who studies Appalachian and Virginia lore. Mann finds there are many ghost stories-such as the beautiful misty lady who haunts Chatham, the mansion across the river from Fredericksburg, waiting for the lover her father would not let her marry.

But vampires...well, you won't find many in Virginia, Mann said. In the late 1800s in Big Stone Gap, a mysterious recluse attained the reputation of vampire after animals were found dead and drained of blood, the town drunk and a traveling salesman were found in the same condition, and children nosing around the recluse's cabin saw him chewing raw meat. The man disappeared before a posse could get there.

This time of year, the subject of witches usually arises; and the old Appalachian view of witches differed greatly from the modern idea of Wicca, a modern revival of pagan religions. In the old Appalachian lore, Mann said, a witch was one who had sold her soul to the devil, and, though she might do good things with herbs, she was malevolent. If a farmer's cow no longer gave milk, he would conduct a ceremony in which he struck a stone with a birch rod. The woman who had bewitched the cow would be wounded and exposed to the community. (The same idea appears in werewolf stories when the werewolf is wounded and its human form then carries the same wound.)

Around Halloween, ghostly and scary creatures haunt store shelves in the form of costumes for children, but Mann can describe the origins of witch lore, Appalachian ghost stories, the medical disease that caused some people to be harassed as "vampires" in the 1980s, and other eerie topics such as shape shifting.