Somnambulism and trance states in the works of John William Polidori, author of The Vampyre (1819)
This presentation explores the intersections between nineteenth-century neuroscience and vampirism that I began investigating in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Brain Stem,” a paper delivered at the 10th annual ISHN conference in St. Andrews. Here I turn to the earliest British vampire tale, John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). As Lord Byron’s personal physician, Polidori traveled to the Continent and participated in the famous ghost-story writing contest that also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Though Polidori’s contribution, The Vampyre, is less well-known than Shelley’s novel, it has remained popular and inspired more famous vampire tales like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Polidori’s novella also reveals its author’s preoccupation with somnambulism, a medical condition he explored in his 1815 dissertation at the University of Edinburgh.
Previous historians and literary critics have paid scant attention to Polidori’s medical thesis, partly because it was available only in Latin. Stanley Finger and I recently commissioned an English translation by classicist David Petrain, which we hope to publish soon. We have used this document to understand how Polidori’s medical interest in sleepwalking dovetails with his pet literary theme, vampirism. Polidori’s medical thesis responds to eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century explorations of unconscious thought processes by Charles Bell, David Hartley, and Erasmus Darwin. These scientists argued that the brain was the organ of thought and the center for nervous sensation, functions previously attributed to the soul or to human free will. Romantic authors like Polidori were alternately attracted to and repulsed by these materialist theories. In The Vampyre, Polidori’s zombie-like villain embodies the widespread fear – spawned by the work of Darwin, Bell, and others -- that unconscious mental processes dominate human brain function, eclipsing so-called “higher” functions like willpower and divine inspiration. Thus, this presentation suggests how nineteenth-century neurological discoveries have helped shape modern vampire lore.
Session XI. Trance and Hypnosis
12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the
History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)