October 25 marks the 254th anniversary of the death of Dom Antoine Augustine Calmet, a theologian and historian who inadvertently spawned the entire cultural phenomenon of vampires. Sparkly Edward, sexy Lestat, scary Dracula -- they owe it all to him.
Dom Calmet was a Benedictine monk who devoted his life to Biblical scholarship, and if you look in the Catholic Encyclopedia, that's what he's best known for. But in 1746 he tossed off a little treatise called "The Phantom World" about spirits, apparitions, and other cool Halloween-themed topics. It was a best-seller in its day -- because, let's face it, if given the choice between reading a thick tome of Biblical exegisis or some cool stories about ghosts and demons, which are you going to pick?
In Part II of his treatise, Dom Calmet collects a number of legends from eastern Europe about . . . vampires. This was apparently the first major exposure western European readers had to the rich vampire lore of the east. And Calmet's creepy anecdotes hit the memetic jackpot with the birth of the Gothic novel. John Polidori's Byronic bloodsucker Lord Ruthven made the vampire a mainstay of Gothic fiction, and a century later Bram Stoker's Dracula made vampires one of the Big Three monsters of the horror world (along with the Werewolf and the Ghost).
Scientists and scholars are often best-remembered for what they consider minor work. I've written before about how Johannes Kepler was really excited about his "Mysterium Cosmographicum" theory of nested Platonic solids, while the Laws of Planetary Motion were just a bit of data analysis. But poor Dom Calmet has it even worse: a Godly man who accidentally inspired a fictional subgenre which has become outright glorification of accursed bloodsucking monsters.
In honor of Dom Antoine Calmet, have a sip of Benedictine this Halloween, and get the stakes sharpened.