Vampires, ghosts, goblins, witches, and mummies are traditional characters in the repertoire of scary stories told on dark Halloween nights, calculated to amuse or perhaps scare young children. Their images are common themes on Halloween postcards, both antique and modern. Each of these entities has a place in folklore, and people believed in them long before Halloween traditions sprang up in Ireland in the mid-17th century and America in the early 19th.
Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Buffy the Vampire Slayer make frequent appearances on modern postcards, but any type of ghoul is extremely hard to find on non-Halloween cards before 1970. If you find one, treasure it with respect and awe.
Here is a handful of postcard horrors that I’ve run across in many years of looking in the Macabre or Miscellaneous categories at shows.
Pre-Raphaelite British artist Philip Burne-Jones (1861-1926) painted The Vampire, showing a blood-sucking female crawling over an unconscious man, for the summer 1897 exhibition at the New Gallery in Regent Street, London. The vamp was based on renowned stage actress Beatrice Stella Campbell, who had spurned the artist’s romantic advances after using him as a stepping stone to social introductions. The painting, now in unknown private hands or possibly lost, only appears in monochromatic reproductions. To accompany the painting, Burne-Jones’s cousin, author Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem—also called “The Vampire”—that describes how an uncaring woman took advantage of a foolish man. Both painting and poem appear on this sepia postcard from ca. 1910.
It was also in 1897 that Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula appeared, becoming an instant success as well as a handy sourcebook for much Eastern European vampire lore and legend. Some researchers say Stoker named his character, the Transylvanian Count Dracula, after the 15th-century Prince of Wallachia, Vlad III the Impaler. Medieval Bran Castle, a national landmark near Brasov in post-Communist Romania, is often marketed to unwary tourists as Dracula’s Castle. It looks impressively gothic, but the only connection to Vlad is that he may have been detained here for a few days in 1462 after his capture by Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. Castle Bran was frequently shown in real photo postcards from the 1920s and 1930s when it was the summer residence of Queen Marie of Romania. This well-to-do motoring couple has stopped for a pose on the road leading up to the castle. Of course, the real Prince Vlad was not a vampire, but he had a nasty reputation for executing his enemies by impaling them on sharpened, stake-like tree trunks.
Ghosts have been reported around the world and throughout recorded history. This interesting Bulgarian card, postmarked 1914, shows the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) gazing at a feminine apparition while sitting at a piano and accompanied by a skeletal figure. The sickly Chopin was troubled by hallucinations bred of illness and depression. He was so weak at times that he had to be carried off stage after concerts, and in his later years he taught piano while lying down. The image shown here could refer to a story told about Chopin when he visited the home of the eccentric Parisian painter Paul Chevandier de Valdrôme, who is said to have kept (literally) a skeleton in his closet as an anatomical model. Chopin asked for the skeleton to be placed next to him at the piano, after which he spontaneously composed the Funeral March part of his Piano Sonata No. 2. The story does not mention a ghost, but the figure could represent a feverish vision of his lost love, Maria Wodzi?ska.
Some ghosts make strange noises in old houses when you are trying to sleep. A prayer from Cornwall called the Cornish Litany goes like this: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night—good Lord deliver us.” The saying was first printed in Frederick Thomas Nettleinghame’s Polperro Proverbs and Others, published in 1926 by the Cornish Arts Association, but it’s probably much older. It also appears on this amusing postcard, number 6 of a series of at least 10 published by Harvey Barton & Son Ltd., Bristol, with goblins drawn by Stanley T. Chaplin in the 1920s.
The most famous witch panic in U.S. history took place in Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1692 after a group of girls and young women began to suffer from hysterical fits. When a minister pressured them to reveal who had called up the demons that tormented them, they began naming names. More than 150 people were arrested and imprisoned. During a yearlong spate of trials, 14 women and five men were hanged as witches in the vicinity of Gallows Hill, Salem, Massachusetts, between June and September. Now a city park, the hill is actually a low rocky ridge on the west side of town. One postcard, postmarked 1911, claims to show two “Witch Trees” on the hill where “the Salem Witches were hung.” But even if the image is based on a much earlier photo, it’s doubtful that these two smallish trees could be more than 100 years old. The exact location of the executions will never be known for certain, although Sidney Perley in 1921 theorized that the most likely spot was a low rise at the base of the hill. Modern pagans gather near here on Halloween to commemorate the tragic events.
Mummies frequently turn up on antique postcards. One ancient Egyptian with a unique history is pictured on a Curteich card from 1949, which asserts that it is the body of General Ossipumphnoferu, on exhibit in his sarcophagus at the museum in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The mummy was purchased from a pair of tomb raiders in the Valley of the Kings by Canadian physician James Douglas in 1860 and deposited in the museum. After residing in Niagara Falls for 140 years, Ossipumphnoferu (undoubtedly a made-up name) and other Egyptian artifacts were sold in 1999 to Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta, where CT scans, X-rays, skull measurements, and DNA tests indicated that the mummy was quite possibly Pharaoh Ramesses I, whose remains had been stolen in ancient times—or if not, at least he was a close relative. See the article by Mark Rose, “Mystery Mummy,” in the March/April 2003 issue of Archaeology for the full story. The mummy was repatriated to Egypt in October 2003 with great fanfare.
Halloween gets all the fun spooky press, but real ghosts and goblins can be even more interesting because they involve real people and historical events. I’ll take a real ghost any day of the year!—Email firstname.lastname@example.org to share some spectral postcard tales.