Unreal Worlds: The Trail of the American VampireOct 04
It’s October, and that means it’s time to talk about something scary. The kind of pulpy weird history musings you get from your typical Unreal Worlds post usually have at least a little bit of a horror flavor, but as the year dies and the days get shorter, I think it’s a good time to talk about vampires. After all, for creatures that fear the sun, these are the good times: long shadows and longer nights. These are the times to hunt; the times to feed. This month the Illuminerdy are chilling in Olde Europe, basically the stomping grounds of the vampire. Even in modern pop culture, the vampire usually has a distinctly European flair, though that can range from capes and dramatic accents to penchants for glitter and skinny jeans. But because we never do anything the easy way, we’re not going to talk about the various European flavors of vampire: oh no, we need to talk about the grand history of sun-hating blood-suckers in the good ol’ US of A.
On the Trail of the American Vampire
We’ve already explored at least one potential mash-up of the worlds of espionage and the supernatural, and it’s clearly fertile ground for roleplaying games. In just the last 12 months, we’ve seen the release of Reality Blurs’ Agents of Oblivion, as well as the superb Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press, and you could really use either to get a good spies vs. the undead game going. (For what it’s worth, the flavor of the month here at the Great Lodge of the Illuminerdy is Night’s Black Agents, but we strongly recommend both products.)
For all the trouble supposedly caused by witches in the early English-speaking colonies of North America (see Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s), vampires are relative latecomers to the pantheon of American supernatural threats. Although Europe had its own vampire panics in the early 1700′s, the grisly fad had largely passed by the end of the century. Not so in the young United States, where well into the 19th century poorly understood respiratory diseases like tuberculosis were more than occasionally blamed on the unquiet dead literally stealing the life from the living family members. Isolated rural communities were digging up the offending supposed vampire to burn the hearts, decapitate the bodies, or in one noteworthy case pin the offending ghoul to his coffin by crossing his own thigh-bones over his spine: a jolly roger, indeed.
Vampires, Pirates, and Templars: Oh My
I’ll only briefly mention the adventuring possibilities one might find by making this a game of American spies vs. pirate vampires, but it’s also worth pointing out that the skull and crossbones motif are heavily associated with both the sinister Knight’s Templar (protectors of a vampire bloodline fostered by the demon Baphomet?) and modern secret societies like the Skull and Bones (which, incidentally, still calls New England home). Mix it all up and you’ve got flinty, stoic New England proto black ops in the early days of the American Experiment fighting the growing influence of Templar Pirate Vampires who are slowly co-opting (and corrupting) the moneyed and educated elite. Set your game any time after, and you can set the beginning of the conspiracy any time between the fall of Christian Jerusalem and the exhumation (and subsequent exorcism) of the vampire Mercy Brown in 1892.
In any case, there’s no reason for your game to rely on the standard scientific explanation for the mysterious diseases that ravaged the vampire-plagued villages of late 18th and 19th century America. In fact, this author would like to suggest that if you’re going to ignore the possibility that at least some of these vampires were, well, vampires, you’re sort of missing the point.
At the Top of the Conspyramid
The variety of “cures” employed to divert the attentions of the New England vampires (who, it should be noted, leave no easily traceable fang-marks on the neck) may suggest that poor souls like Mercy Brown were only the legacy of a few powerful progenitors with different weaknesses. According to a fantastic Smithsonian article on the New England vampire panics…
The particulars of the vampire exhumations…[varied] widely. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
The idea of a few powerful undead spreading their curse through the politically and economically dominant American Northeast plays nicely into one of the central ideas of Night’s Black Agents: the conspyramid. If you don’t already know, the central conceit of Night’s Black Agents is that there are vampires controlling a vast, powerful conspiracy that your players slowly discover, disrupt, and defeat. The layers of this powerful hidden dynasty are laid out in a pyramid, with the vampires at the top and their agents — who may or may not have supernatural abilities of their own — laid out in the layers below.
Who Hunts the Hunter?
Our plague-bearers are probably at or near the top of the pyramid (and if they aren’t, I’d hate to see what is), but the simple fact that their progeny was staked, burned, flipped, or otherwise de-vampirified (I know it’s not a word. Shut up.) with relative frequency for the hundred years between 1793 and 1893 strongly suggests that someone was hunting the unquiet dead. Since I mentioned espionage at the beginning of the post, you’ve probably already guessed where I’m going: though we’re still more than 150 years from the founding of the CIA at the beginning of the American vampire era, an old hand at uncovering secrets like successful Revolutionary War spy James Armistead, or even a surviving Culper Ring still led by by its original spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge. Armistead and Tallmadge are both gone by the late 1830s, but it’s clear that our vampires were still around — and influential — for some time after. Sure, the death of President William Henry Harrison was blamed on age and pneumonia, but the slow loss of breath common to tuberculosis and pneumonia is — to an experienced eye — an unmistakable mark of the vampire.
Who hunts the hunter? Maybe it’s time to find out.