A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo of Newcastle’s Vampire Rabbit in the #FolkloreThursday hashtag on Twitter. He proved rather popular, and on Saturday I went to a talk given by cultural historian Gail-Nina Anderson about the city’s favourite lagomorph gargoyle!
The Vampire Rabbit sits above the weirdly ornate rear entrance to Cathedral Buildings. The front of the block is on Dean Street, once voted the best street in the UK. The back faces the rear of St Nicholas’ Cathedral.
Completed in 1901, architects Oliver, Leeson and Wood designed the building. The six storey building is now a mixed-used property, owned and managed by Minel Venues. Inspired by the Sparrowes House in Ipswich, Cathedral Buildings is a strange, rococo confection that stands out on Dean Street.
But why a Vampire Rabbit?
Truth is, no one knows. Gail-Nina ran through several theories, though none of them are definitive, and most of them rely on hearsay. One of them believes that he’s actually a hare, and a nod to the work of engraver Thomas Bewick, whose workshop was very close by. His work features a range of hares and rabbits, but that seems a little far-fetched given the rabbit isn’t particularly naturalistic.
As far as anyone can tell, the Vampire Rabbit has always been on the building, though he has had shorter ears in the past, and he was white at once stage. His current black coat and red fangs and claws are the result of a newer paint job.
But there are no precedents for vampire rabbits or hares in vampire lore. While he was referred to as the Demon Rabbit at one point, it’s still not a typical association. Rabbits and hares are usually associated with fertility, madness, purity or, weirdly, cunning and intelligence. You only need to look at Brer Rabbit to see the latter in effect.
Renaissance art usually relates rabbits either to purity, and places them with the Virgin Mary, or it associates them with fecundity, and you’re more likely to see them with Venus.
Is his location important?
The fact he’s on the back of the building is a key point. The front entrance isn’t actually as grand as the back, and the front certainly doesn’t feature any fantastical creatures. I wondered if the Vampire Rabbit was somehow linked with witchcraft, due to the old belief that witches could transform into hares. He’s opposite a cathedral, so maybe someone associated with the building had a problem with Christianity.
The cathedral grounds he watches over were once used for burials (now it’s a car park). So maybe he’s there to keep the inhabitants in line!
Dark tales of vampirism abound in the area. When the unfortunate burials were relocated to make way for the car park, some of the corpses were allegedly discovered buried facing down. This is supposedly a means of keeping vampires in the grave as they’ll just dig themselves further into the earth, instead of out.
Is the rabbit a reference to that?
If we want to string out the tenuous links even further, you often find dead rabbits in Dutch vanitas paintings. Their intention was to remind the viewer that death comes to us all. Such ‘cheerful’ work often included memento mori, such as skulls, but rabbits, as prey animals, were common symbols.
Given the Vampire Rabbit’s position opposite what was once a graveyard, maybe he’s there to remind us that, like those he watched over, we’re not immortal either?
How famous is he?
I’m not really sure when he became ‘famous’ as such, but he’s definitely become an object of fond associations for locals. In 1998, the Vampire Rabbit even made an appearance in Tinseltoon, a children’s fairytale set in Newcastle. In it, the historic statues of the city come to life one Christmas Eve, including our infamous bunny. Here, he’s not so much a vampire as a vegetarian, trying to munch on some grass in the churchyard.
I first came across him on a ghost walk around the Castle Garth area in around 2008. The Vampire Rabbit was the cover image on a tourism brochure; he also appears on posters to advertise the area. He was also spectacularly lit up during the Glow festival in 2006.
No matter what the reason for his being there is, I’m very glad to live in a city that features vampiric bunnies as ornamental decor!
Why do you think the Vampire Rabbit is there?
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