Rumours of Vampires

Luise White. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. University of California Press, 2000.

There is something familiar in the stories recounted in this book, people hiding from strange vehicles and uniformed figures; rumours of aliens who are out to kidnap you and subject you to extremely unpleasant medical experiments, bodies kept in vats and their blood being used to feed the alien occupying powers, rumours that some of your own are in league with the terrible others and are doing their nefarious business for them.

It all sounds familiar until, you realise that the strange vehicles are motor cars and fire engines, that the figures in uniform are firemen, that the scene is east-central Africa and that the abducting, blood sucking alien others are the European colonialists and their henchmen. These are the sort of story which circulated in parts of East and Central Africa in the war years, centred around the notion that people were being kidnapped and drained of their blood, in order to provide a steady supply for Europeans and their hospitals.

Luise White explores these stories as metaphors of colonialist extraction of natural resources, an interpretation which certainly seems to make a great deal of sense. Magonians will however see these stories in the much wider context, with connections backwards to medieval antisemitic blood libels and forward not only to alien abduction narratives but also to the organ snatcher tales discussed by Peter Burger in Magonia 56, and to modern western stories of Satanic abuse. Like alien abduction and Satanic abuse lore, there were survivors tales, people who had narrowly escaped being kidnapped, and like the Satanic abuse panic. There were also perpetrators' tales, people who claimed that they had been indeed gone round kidnapping people. Tales of darkened vehicles with blacked out windows echo modern tales of MIB and black helicopters.

The strange otherworld quality of some of the tales here is striking: a woman going home after a night in the pub meets a strange vehicle with no lights of any kind and a group of men, on who throws her to floor. She escapes and they hang around, then one says to the other "Oh, oh, oh, the time is over" and they drive off like ghosts departing before the cock crow. Or tales of children lured to trucks on the road at nighttime, made helpless and invisible by wands, taken to fattening houses where they were drained of blood and returned home in an emaciated condition. Do we not see universal themes and visionary experiences which are interpreted in terms of the predominant cultural beliefs? And in these stories we can also see the process of secularization of supernatural themes at work.  -- Peter Rogerson

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