Is Heathcliff a Vampire?

By T. L. Stone

"Is he a ghoul or a vampire?" So muses Nelly Dean on the day before Heathcliff's death. She soon dismisses this thought, for she has known Heathcliff throughout the course of his life. At dawn, however, with her superstitions renewed, she goes outside to "ascertain if there were any footprints under his window". This quotation of Nelly's is the single direct reference to vampirism that Emily Bronte offers in Wuthering Heights, but other hints about vampirism may be scattered about the text. Writer James B. Twitchell calls these hints "footprints," and the purpose of this essay, in case you have not figured it out, is to seek out such footprints in Wuthering Heights -- to discover if a credible case may be made for Heathcliff (or any other character) as vampire.

First of all, what are the characteristics of vampires? For a working definition of a classical vampire, one may refer to John Heinrich Zophius's 1733 dissertation called Dissertatio de Vampiris Serviensibus: "Vampires issue forth from their graves in the night, attack people sleeping quietly in their beds, suck out all their blood from their bodies, and they destroy them. They beset men, women, and children alike sparing neither age nor sex. Those who are under the fatal malignity of their influence complain of suffocation and a total deficiency of spirits, after which they soon expire. Some who, when at the point of death, have been asked if they can tell what is causing their decrease, reply that such and such persons, lately dead, have arisen from the tomb to torment and torture them."

To these classical features of the vampire, James Twitchell adds seven more generally accepted characteristics:

1. Although many need human blood to survive, there is also a breed of psychological vampires who parasitically live off the experiences of others, and who only occasionally, if ever, take blood.
2. They bleed their victims dry but do not kill them.
3. Their canine teeth become pronounced before and after the bloodletting, with their "red lips drawn back."
4. They sleep with their eyes open.
5. They can go for weeks without food after a human repast.
6. They usually roam at night, as they can see in the dark.
7. And no vampire is particularly happy about being involved in this process (the Hollywood version notwithstanding).

Heathcliff does not seem to share many of the qualities described by Zophius, but Heathcliff may provide footprints for the characteristics in Twitchell's description. In any regard, who can guess what was in Bronte's mind? Maybe she had a more subtle approach to the topic, giving an almost imperceptible nod to vampirism in Wuthering Heights (other, that is, than in Nelly's statement), or maybe it was far more pronounced.

If she had decided to give her character pronounced vampiric attributes, she was in good company. Several other English writers of Bronte's time touched on vampirism to a greater or lesser degree. Coleridge, Southey, and Keats wrote poems in which characters had vampiric qualities, and John Polidori wrote a popular novella called "The Vampyre."

Also, it is likely that Emily Bronte was familiar with vampire legends of the English countryside, even though her sister Charlotte Bronte wrote, "I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates."

England and Scotland had many legends of vampiric happenings. A representative tale from England is the story of the vampire of Alnwick Castle. This story involves a servant who has an unfaithful wife. Intent upon catching her in the act, he hides himself on the roof above their bed. Unfortunately, he falls from his perch and dies the next day. Soon there are reports of his corpse wandering through the town. This, of course, coincides with an epidemic that kills several townspeople. It is blamed on the "vampire." On Palm Sunday, the local priest assembles a group, and they proceed to the cemetery. Upon exhumation, the body appears engorged with blood. (It gushes out when the body's poked with a spade.) The body is dragged out of town and burned, and soon the epidemic ends.

In Scotland, there was the legend of the "baobban sith." These creatures normally appeared in animal forms, but sometimes they appeared as maidens in long green dresses (to conceal their deer's hooves). One story involves four hunters who camp for the evening. To entertain themselves, one man sings, and the others dance. They are joined by four beautiful maidens, apparently attracted to the music, who dance with them. The singer soon discovers that his friends have blood on their shirts and collars. Frightened, he runs away into the woods and finds shelter among the horses. On the next morning, he finds his comrades dead and drained of blood.

Stories like these probably did find their way to Hayworth parsonage, and the work of other English writers probably did influence Emily Bronte, but essayist Mary A. Ward viewed Nelly's remark in an entirely different fashion. She wrote: "The remark is not hers in truth, but Emily Bronte's, and where it stands it is of great significance. It points to the world of German horror and romance, to which we know that she had access. The world was congenial to her, as it was congenial to Southey, Scott, and Coleridge; and it has left some ugly and disfiguring traces upon the detail of Wuthering Heights."

What, then, were these works of German horror and romance?

A truly classic example of vampires is found in Heinrich Ossenffelder's 1748 work called "Der Vampir." A segment of this poem includes:

And as softly thou art sleeping
To thee shall I come creeping
And thy life's blood drain away.

Other German works include "Lenora" by Gottfried Burger and "The Bride of Corinth" by Johann von Goethe. Though neither is precisely a vampire poem, both include themes which involve returning from death and love that reaches beyond the grave.

These German writers, in turn, were no doubt influenced by their own folklore. In Germany, the popular vampire myth depended on where in the country one lived. In northern Germany, der Nachtzehrer, or "night waster," was a recently deceased person who arose from the grave to attack family members and village acquaintances. In southern Germany, der Bluatsauger, or "blood sucker," was a dead person who arose from the grave to attack humans and animals and suck their blood. Citizens who were not baptized, who were involved in witchcraft or lived an immoral life, or who committed suicide were at risk of becoming eine Bluatsauger.

"Is he a ghoul or a vampire?" (Nelly Dean) Whatever Bronte's intentions, whether the "disfiguring traces" of Mary Ward or the "footprints" of James Twitchell, one must turn to text of Wuthering Heights to discover more.

From the beginning, Heathcliff's origins are mysterious. Mr. Earnshaw, opening his greatcoat, produces the young Heathcliff. (This may be considered Heathcliff's figurative birth in the story.) Earnshaw introduces him by saying: "See here, wife! I was never so beaten with anything in my life; but you must e'en take it as gift of God, though it is as dark almost as if it came from the devil."

Interestingly, young Heathcliff arouses no motherly feelings in the three females present in this scene. Mrs. Earnshaw's first instinct was to "throw it out of doors." Catherine and Hindley refuse to admit the boy into their room or bed, and even Nelly leaves the child "...on the landing of the stairs, hoping it might be gone on the morrow."

Perhaps one should not think these reactions extreme. Heathcliff is described as being "dark." In Christianity, at least, darkness represents evil. Numerous passages in Wuthering Heights refer to Heathcliff's coloration, and in many places he is called a gypsy, which also had unwholesome connotations in Bronte's time. Lockwood initially describes Heathcliff: "He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows..." Lockwood also describes Heathcliff as "...a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman..."

When Nelly returns to Wuthering Heights after her brief banishment by Mr. Earnshaw, she finds that the child has been christened Heathcliff, "...the name of a son who died in childhood." This rather startling and unconventional move illustrates Earnshaw's somewhat pathetic hope that the dark child can fill the void left in the Earnshaw family by the younger son's death.

As the story develops, Heathcliff does fill this void, but not in any way that Mr. Earnshaw can imagine. Comments Nelly, years later: "...where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?"

Bronte gives little information about the years between Heathcliff's arrival and first departure, except that Heathcliff fought with Hindley, the children had the measles, and that Catherine was "much too fond of Heathcliff." In fact, it is in this bond that develops between Catherine and Heathcliff that is pivotal in later action.

At Mr. Earnshaw's funeral, Hindley's new wife Frances has a type of fit and reveals to Nelly "with hysterical emotion the effect it produced on her to see black" being worn by the mourners. This description of Frances' fear of death is in marked contrast to Catherine's later feelings, but this certainly constitutes another association of the word "black."

When Hindley takes over ownership of Wuthering Heights, one of his first acts is to strip from Heathcliff the status of an adopted son. He turns Heathcliff out, relegating him to "labour out of doors instead hard as any other lad on the farm."

This does not, however, have the effect of driving a wedge between Heathcliff and Catherine. Says Nelly, "They both promised to grow up as rude as savages..." and "it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day..."

Bronte leaves to be imagined further details about the relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine, but it is markedly altered when Catherine is bitten by the Linton's dog. Heathcliff describes the Linton residence to Nelly: "It was beautiful -- a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers." With both children being accustomed to roughhewn Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange must have appeared an alien and alluring world to them, but only Catherine is invited inside. In this way, the wedge is finally driven between the two children that Hindley could not.

It is soon after Catherine's return that Heathcliff, feeling himself alienated from Catherine, goes to Nelly and says, "Nelly, make me decent, I'm going to be good." Nelly's immediate response: "High time, Heathcliff..." Later in the conversation, Nelly provides an unflattering description of Heathcliff. "Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil's spies?" This unsparing description of Heathcliff's appearance is the most sinister yet.

In the following year, leading up to Catherine's fifteenth birthday, Catherine and Heathcliff again become companions, but their relationship is changed. Nelly relates,"...he had ceased to express his fondness for her in words, and recoiled with angry suspicion from her girlish caresses, as if conscious there could be no gratification in lavishing such marks of affection on him."

Soon afterwards, Heathcliff overhears Catherine say that to marry him would degrade her, but fails to hear her profess her love for him. Catherine makes the famous statement, "Nelly, I am Heathcliff -- he's always, always in my mind -- not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself -- but as my own being -- so don't talk of our separation again -- it is impracticable..."

This reveals a bond between Catherine and Heathcliff that can be described as unnatural. James Twitchell argues that this bond between the teens can be seen as a type of symbiosis, or mutual psychic vampirism, in which each draws sustenance from the other. In any regard, this marks Heathcliff's departure from Wuthering Heights and the end of the first movement in the story.

The second movement reaches from Heathcliff's return to Catherine's funeral. When Heathcliff returns, Nelly describes him as "...a tall, athletic, well-formed man... His countenance... looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire... his manner was... quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace."

He returns at a time in which Catherine has overcome her illnesses and has settled comfortably into her relationship with Edgar. Nelly says, "I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness." Heathcliff's arrival creates an upheaval at Thrushcroft Grange that continues until Edgar, at the extremity of his endurance and in response to Heathcliff's provocation, attacks Heathcliff and orders him away from the Grange. Once again, Heathcliff is deprived of Catherine.

Catherine, however, feels more the negative effect of the separation. Predicting the future, she tells Nell, "...say to Edgar, if you see him again to-night, that I'm in danger of being seriously ill. I wish it may prove true. He has startled and distressed me shockingly."

Catherine, in a delirious episode in which she does not seem to understand her illness, tells Nelly, "I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy and free, and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? Why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on these hills."

A reader might also wonder why Catherine is so changed. Could it be due to a vampiric influence from Heathcliff, who, feeling himself betrayed by Catherine, is drawing too deeply on deeply on Catherine's vitality? Evidence for this possibility is soon put forward when Heathcliff elopes with Isabella. During the two months that the pair are gone, Catherine recovers from her "brain fever." Might this illustrate a "proximity effect" beyond which Heathcliff's psychic vampirism can not operate?

When Heathcliff returns with his bride, Catherine becomes ill again. Heathcliff, contemptuous of Edgar's care for Catherine, tells Nelly, "He might as well plant an oak in a flower-pot, and expect it to thrive, as imagine he can restore her to vigour in the soil of his shallow cares."

At their next and final meeting, brought about with Nelly's reluctant assistance as letter carrier, Catherine grasps Heathcliff's hair and complains, "I shall not pity you, not I. You have killed me -- and thriven on it, I think. How strong you are! How many years do you mean to live after I am gone?"

Catherine prefaces this by saying that she is talking about both Edgar and Heathcliff, but this sentence might apply more directly to Heathcliff alone. Despite the symbiosis of their teenage years, Heathcliff might now be literally killing her, increasing his own strength to the point that she might die and he long survive her.

"I wish I could hold you," Catherine continues, "till we were both dead!" This unendearing statement expresses a bittersweet sentiment that may best be viewed, along with the previous comment, as Catherine yearning, even at this late date, to recover her former, symbiotic, relationship with Heathcliff.

"Don't torture me till I am as mad as yourself," cries Heathcliff in response, "wrenching his head free and grinding his teeth." (This grinding of teeth is a recurring leitmotif in Wuthering Heights.) "Are you possessed with a devil... to talk in that manner to me, while you are dying?"

They separate for a short time, and then Catherine says, "Do come to me, Heathcliff."

At that earnest appeal, he turned to her, looking absolutely "desperate. His eyes wide, and wet at last, flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder; and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive. In fact, to my eyes, he seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel that I were in the company of a creature of my own species; it appeared that he would not understand, though I spoke to him; so I stood off, and held my tongue, in great perplexity."

This portion of the final scene between Catherine and Heathcliff contains many vampiric qualities. First, there is the leap with which the two came together. Too rapid for Nelly's eyes to follow, was it inhumanly rapid? Then, with the long embrace from which Nelly wonders if Catherine will be released alive, is not the mental imagery evocative of the embrace between a vampire and his victim? Finally, with Heathcliff's gnashing of teeth and foaming at his mouth, is not the image of one altered complete? Nelly might well wonder if she were in the company of another of her own species.

Soon after, Catherine says that she is dying and has forgiven Heathcliff. Would Heathcliff forgive her? His response: "I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer -- but yours! How can I?"

This statement is a bit ironic. Ostensibly, he seems to mean Edgar, but could also mean himself.

Nelly brings the scene to a close by observing a crowd gathered outside the Gimmerton chapel. Her comment is, "Service is over." This statement serves as a benediction for this passionate scene. Nelly may as well have said, "Amen."

Catherine gives birth that same night, to a premature child who will also be named Catherine. Catherine, the mother, dies two hours later. Heathcliff, in grief, mounts vigil outside the house, and remains there until, on the third day, he is given opportunity to enter the Linton's house to view Catherine's body.

Inside, he removes a strand of Catherine's hair from her locket and replaces it with his own. Nelly finds the strand on the floor, twists it with Heathcliff's strand, and places both in the locket. It is described as "curl of light hair, fastened with a silver thread..." To whom did the removed strand belong? If it were Catherine's, would Heathcliff have so easily disposed of it? If it were Edgar's, the symbolism would be of Heathcliff attempting to replace Edgar in Catherine's affections for eternity.

This portion of Wuthering Heights is complete when Catherine is buried. Says Nelly, "The place of Catherine's interment, to the surprise of the villagers, was neither in the chapel, under the carved monument of the Lintons, nor yet by the tombs of her own relations, outside. It was dug on a green slope, in a corner of the kirkyard..." No explanation is offered for this particular placement, but one may note that Catherine's resting place is neither with the Lintons or the Earnshaws, but in between both. Also, the placement of the grave at the edge of the "kirkyard" is noteworthy. Twitchell observes that it is "just outside the pale of the church yard..."

This placement may have been necessary to provide Heathcliff access to the grave. Heathcliff visits the grave that night, but this is not revealed until years later, on the evening after Edgar's funeral, when Heathcliff explains his actions to Nelly: " I got a spade from the toolhouse, and began to delve with all my might -- it scraped the coffin... I was on the point of obtaining my object, when it seemed that I heard a sigh from some one above me... There was another sigh, close at my ear. I appeared to feel the warm breath of it displacing the sleet-laden wind. I knew no living thing in flesh and blood was by; but... certainly I felt that Cathy was there, not under me, but on the earth."

That incident took place soon after Catherine's death, but Heathcliff had revisited her grave the previous day (the day of Edgar's funeral. Heathcliff explains: "I got the sexton, who was digging Linton's grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it... When I saw her face again -- it is hers yet -- he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up -- not Linton's side, damn him!"

Both of these incidents reveal supernatural influence. In the first, Heathcliff feels that the spirit of Catherine continues to exist, even though she is in the grave. Would any one but Heathcliff, who so well knew the nature of Catherine's soul, be as perceptive? That love continues to exist beyond the grave is a persistent theme in vampire literature.

In the second incident, Heathcliff finds that Catherine's features have been preserved. Seventeen years have elapsed since Catherine's death, so it is surprising that Catherine's body should be well preserved. A possible explanation is that she is still deriving some form of psychic nourishment from her link with Heathcliff. It is even possible that Heathcliff, feeling remorse for his contribution to Catherine's death, has been deliberately sacrificing a part of himself to keep a portion of Catherine alive. This could be an example of what is described by Melton as "astral vampirism," in which the actual body remains in the grave, but the astral (psychic) component goes into the world and derives energy from the living that sustains the body in the grave.

It is around this point, chronologically, that Lockwood arrives and finds Catherine's diary. Later that night, Lockwood has a nightmare and awakens Heathcliff, who is so upset that he is "crushing his nails into his palms, and grinding his teeth to subdue the maxillary convulsions." Is Heathcliff exerting an extreme effort to keep his canines from becoming prominent? Heathcliff, like Catherine before him, predicts his own death: "Nelly, there is a strange change approaching; I'm in its shadow at present. I take so little interest in my daily life, that I hardly remember to eat, and drink."

Interesting here is Heathcliff's use of the word "change," which is reminiscent of Catherine's plaintive, "Why am I so changed?" Martin Turnell, writing of this, says:"This 'change' amounts to a completely new relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff... which can only be completed (so the writer implies) in another world."

In the closing scenes of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff's behavior becomes more and more erratic. Says Heathcliff, "I have to remind myself to breathe -- almost remind my heart to beat." Heathcliff begins to take long overnight walks, and further refrains from eating. When Nelly confronts him, he says, "To-day, I am within sight of my heaven. I have my eyes on it -- hardly three feet to sever me! And now you'd better go. You'll neither see nor hear anything to frighten you, if you refrain from prying."

This is most peculiar behavior, but Bronte gives no further information. What could be causing Heathcliff's strange excitement? What is Heathcliff's destination on his nightly walks?

Even though he refuses food, it is likely that Heathcliff has not found another form of nourishment. Nelly describes his appearance:"...I cannot express what a terrible start I got, by the momentary view! Those deep black eyes! That smile, and ghastly paleness! It appeared to me, not Mr. Heathcliff, but a goblin..."

From this description, it is evident that Heathcliff's energy is running out. Is he visiting Catherine's grave on his nightly walks? Is her remnant continuing in astral fashion to draw from his energy to a point where he has little left? Is Heathcliff, unmindful of his own demise and preparing to join with Catherine in eternity, now sacrificing himself? Conversely, might Heathcliff have been drawing some remaining essence or spiritual communion from Catherine? And without it, Heathcliff no longer has the will to live, and he welcomes his impending death?

On the next day, Heathcliff appears to stop breathing for a period of thirty seconds at breakfast. He is distracted, seeming to see someone that Nelly cannot see. That night, Nelly hears him in conversation with someone, but no one is there. She catches the name of Catherine. Is Heathcliff, nearing his own death, somehow communicating with Catherine, who has been dead for eighteen years?

Two days later, Nelly notices Heathcliff's window open, and she goes to check on him:"His eyes met mine so keen and fierce, I started; and then he started to smile. I could not think him dead, but his face and throat were washed with rain; the bedclothes dripped, and he was perfectly still. The lattice, flapping to and fro, had grazed one hand that rested on the sill; no blood trickled from the broken skin, and when I put my fingers to it, I could doubt no more -- he was dead and stark! ...I tried to close his eyes -- to extinguish, if possible, that frightful, life-like gaze of exultation, before any one beheld it. They would not shut; they seemed to sneer at my attempts, and his parted lips and sharp, white teeth sneered too!"

That Heathcliff's wound had not bled is perhaps not remarkable. Bronte probably knew then, as is known today, that no bleeding is expected in an elevated extremity if the person to whom it is attached has no blood pressure.

That Heathcliff died with a life-like gaze of exultation is more mysterious. If he really were in psychic communication with Catherine he could only consider his death a release. That this might bring him to a state of jubilation in his last moments is, at last, understandable.

Is he a ghoul or a vampire?

Certainly, Heathcliff seems to share some of the characteristics described by James Twitchell, but whether or not one finds vampiric qualities attributable to Heathcliff (or Catherine) scattered throughout Wuthering Heights depends on what set of filters one applies. One such filter is psychic vampirism, which accommodates the teens' unnatural relationship. A related filter is the concept of astral vampirism, which seems to neatly explain Heathcliff's continuing involvement with Catherine long after her death and the preserved state of Catherine's body after seventeen years. Yet another filter is vampiric traits, particularly teeth. In fact, of the eighteen references to teeth in the text, eight involve Heathcliff's. They are described as "closed," "grinding," "cannibal," "tearing," "visible," "gnashing," "sharp," and "sneering."

Whether these points are the "disfiguring traces" of Mary A. Ward or the "footprints" of James Twitchell depends on the interpretation. Montague Summers offers this description: "The Vampire is... a man of foul, gross, and selfish passions, of evil ambitions, delighting in cruelty and blood." Does this description fit Heathcliff? If so, pity him. As Charlotte Bronte wrote: "Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed."


Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 1850. 3rd ed. William M. Sale, and Richard Dunn, eds. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, Inc. 1990.

Bronte, Charlotte. Untitled. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism 16:64-65.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1928. New York: University Books, Inc., 1960.

Twitchell, James. "Heathcliff as Vampire." Southern Humanities Review. 11:355-362.

Turnell, Martin. Untitled. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism 16: 85.

Ward, Mary. A. Untitled. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism 16: 70-73.


Copyright 2000 Lamar Stonecypher