The days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, and a chill wind rises. You know what that means: time to eat a crap load of candy and scare the beejezus out of ourselves watching horror movies. It’s Halloween season again. And speaking of horror movies, did you know the movie monsters we’ve all to come to know and love (in a platonic way, of course) have colorful histories stretching back to the earliest civilizations? What, you didn’t think some Hollywood hack actually had enough imagination to invent vampires, werewolves, and zombies, did you? Silly, silly non-monster-trivia knowing person.
Whereas we modern folk view the scary monsters as mere entertainment, our ancestors lived in genuine terror of those things they believed went bump in the night. In fact, our amusement would probably make them feel as if we were laughing at their fear, leading to hurt feelings and possibly being run through with a pitchfork. Surly peasants.
In between the pitchfork stabbings, you could ask the surly peasant what exactly the differences between Hollywood monsters and the "real" ones are — if the surly peasant had ever watched a movie. He’d probably call it the Devil’s work and burn you at the stake. However, on the off-chance said hypothetical surly peasant did ever watch some horror films, he’d tell you that when it comes to those classic movie monsters, the Hollywood version is oft times a far cry from actual history (much like anything Hollywood produces — Pearl Harbor, Gladiator, Braveheart, Alexander the Great, Superman Returns, Batman And Robin … you get the drift).
Fangs For the Memories:1History’s Vampire
In the movies, Dracula wears a cape, and some old English guy always manages to save the day at the last minute with crosses and holy water. But everybody knows the movies are full of shit. —Blade Trinity
Vampires have been with us through most of recorded history and across many civilizations. There are the soul-sucking hopping corpses of China,2 the Greek Lamia,3 which has the upper body of a woman and the lower body of a winged serpent, the Japanese vampire foxes called Kitsune,4 the torso-separating Filipino Manananggal, … what the hell? Those aren’t real vampires! Everybody knows that vampires are pallid skinny freaks with Euro-trash accents and a crappy fashion sense. (A cape? You can’t tell me that thing doesn’t get caught every time the coffin lid slams down.)
The vampires we are most familiar with come from an Eastern European Slavic tradition, replete with blood-drinking, rising from the dead, and an aversion to sunlight. Much like telemarketers.5 However, unlike most popular fiction beginning perhaps with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, (Fun fact: The first draft title of Stoker’s vampire tale was the underwhelming Tarty the Naughty Neck Biter) ye olde Slavic Vampires were generally not mysterious, sexy nobility but your average, everyday peasant. Your average, everyday, walking corpse, blood-sucking, murderous (and, as we shall see) easily distracted peasant. Other areas the folklore differs from Hollywood: "real" vampires depressingly lacked fancy evening wear, emo-band pale skin, fangs, the ability to change into a bat, sweet real-estate, and a cadre of dour, sullen-eyed peasants giving strangers the sign for the evil eye and warning them to stay away from the Master’s castle. "Real" vampires rose from the dour, sullen-eyed peasants giving strangers the evil eye and warning them to stay away from their daughters and/or livestock. "Real" vampires were not usually pale, but had a rather healthy "ruddy" complexion. "Real" vampires wore whatever they were buried with, often-times simple linen wrap (although, to be fair, ya figure some of them might’ve been buried in fancy duds … alright, I’ll give Hollywood that one.)
The vampires of folklore differ from their Hollywood counterparts in other ways, such as the method of their contracting vampirism, feeding, and the ways to ward them off, slow them down or destroy them.
In the movies, it’s always about the blood — either a simple vampire bite or drinking the vampire’s own blood will do the trick, but the "real" ways to become one of Satan’s drinking buddies are as varied as they are sounding like they were entirely made up on the spot to explain why some random person is strolling about ex sepulchrum. Unpopular, naughty, or generally disliked people could become vampires. Wow, that means we should totally be beheading all of our politicians when they die, just in case. And maybe Simon Cowell. The Russians believed being an alcoholic could bring about vampirism, which is obviously crap, or else Ireland would be an island of the damned. Of course, this does mean Ted Kennedy is twice as likely to return from the dead. A more universally accepted theory of contracting vampirism is suicide.6 Dagmar Burkhart lists the types of people likely to become vampires: "the godless (people of different faith are included here too!), evildoers, suicides, in addition sorcerers, witches, and werewolves; among the Bulgarians the group is expanded by robbers, highwaymen, arsonists, prostitutes, deceitful and treacherous barmaids and other dishonorable people."7 Sounds like people I’d like to party with. Actually, it sounds like the people I do party with. Occasionally, our superstitious peasants became vamps through no fault of their own, such as being born during a holy period (e.g., November Sweeps), being the illegitimate child of illegitimate parents, being the seventh child born in a family (Crap! I’m a seventh child. … Better tell the wife to bury me upside down next to my severed head, just in case.) And of course, having a funky birth mark or physical defect is apt to mark one as a vampire-to-be, such as being born with teeth (that one kinda makes sense, actually) or having an extra nipple (So … many … jokes … can’t … pick … one …). Even ginger kids are considered potential strigoi in Romania.8 Maybe Cartman was right about them… 9 And finally, filed in the "people living in the olden days were weird" category, it was believed a corpse would return as an unholy revenant if an animal, such as a cat, dog, bat, or even a black hen (shakes head) were to jump over it.10 Really, let’s be honest here: basically if you sneezed wrong you were likely to rise from the dead in search of blood.
Folkloric (Is that a word?) vampires rarely drink blood in the same fashion as their Hollywood counterparts (i.e., from the neck). Nope, no repressed Victorian-era sensuality for our hardy peasant-stock Undead … actually, maybe there is. A "real" vampire will drink blood from the left breast, right over the heart, or from a nipple.11 So really, the folklore vamps are just as into foreplay as Stocker’s Count Dracula, they’re just bigger on boobs. I mean, who isn’t?
In the movies, you used a cross, holy water, or garlic to ward off the Undead, and had to destroy them with a wooden stake to the heart, decapitation, sunlight, and sometimes silver bullets. The flush-faced vampires of folklore were vulnerable to myriad means of keeping them from your nipples, in addition to the stereotypical stake-decapitation combo. No folklore records sun-burnt vampires bursting into flame like a Ford Pinto in a fender bender, and guns have been used to kill or scare away delinquent revenants, with or without silver. Also, the concerned living could put something into the mouth of a vampire-candidate’s-corpse to chew on (sort of like nicotine gum for blood suckers) or the mouth would be tied or propped shut so it couldn’t chew at all. Sometimes food and wine would be left at a grave, with the assumption if the dead had food, they’d neglect the living for their munchies. In Romania a coin, candle, and towel were placed with a corpse to prevent vampirism, kind of like a concierge service for the afterlife. Potential vamps were often buried face down, figuring they’d start digging the way they were facing. (The mole people must have been pissed!) Another way to confuse the risen dead was to bury them at crossroads, hoping they’d rise with no sense of direction (and the added bonus of potentially sending a confused vampire to your high-school football rival’s village). Without a doubt, the one method of keeping a vampire away that totally robs these supernatural evil creatures of their ability to inspire fear is the practice of leaving seeds strewn about a grave site.12 Why seeds, do you ask? Because upon digging their way from their burial mounds to walk the night to feast upon the blood of the living, these Satan-spawned demons would spy the seed and say, "Cheerio! What’s this? Oh, seeds! Why, I must sit here and count them all, one-by-one, hunger for fresh blood forgotten." Yup, the undead suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Vampires of folklore were about as threatening as TV detective Adrian Monk. Upon reflection, one must wonder why people in the "old days" spent so much time being piss-scared of vampires, since you’d have a harder time dealing with a nasty foot fungus infection. "Oh no, I’m being attacked by a vampire! Fortunately I happen to have a packet of sunflower seeds handy…" And furthermore, you can easily see why pre-literate societies without knowledge of forensic pathology would see a corpse under the grip of rigor mortis and think something supernatural was afoot, and you can see where the logic of stakes and decapitation comes in … but seeds? Did somebody spill seeds near a suicide’s grave, and, upon nobody in the village being eaten, jump to the conclusion that the beast spent the night counting? Man, our ancestors were dumb. Although, this does explain Sesame Street’s Count and his fondness for counting. "Three, three pumpkin seeds, AH AH AHH!"
Perhaps the best example of your standard "real-life" vampire case comes to us from 1725 Serbia, then under the auspices of Austria via the Peace of Passarowitz.13 As the learned Western Europeans influxed into the generally illiterate and backwater Eastern Europe, they penned an explosion of eye-witness accounts of vampire exhumations and disposals. Think of it as the eighteenth century’s version of Reality TV, only less tacky and more believable. The story of Peter Plogojowitz was written down by an eye-witness who was also an Imperial Provisor, thus giving us not only a "true" vampire story but also one written in bureaucratic eighteenth century German! Fun for the whole family. Peter Plogojowitz, like many men of his day were wont to do, died. Ten weeks later, nine people, young and old, also died the same week after suffering from a twenty-four hour illness, but not before fingering the cause of their doom. Was it crappy hygiene and lack of decent dentistry? No, they gasped, it was Peter Plogo – we’ll just call him "Pete" from here on out – risen from the dead! He would come to them in their sleep and strangle them. See, no sexy (or gay, depending on the victim) biting of the neck. Nope, just strangling. Which killed them twenty-four hours later. Makes sense. Also, a sure sign of vampiric activity occurred when Pete showed up at his house and demanded his wife fetch him his shoes, which probably led to her snottily replying "maybe if you didn’t just throw things around you might remember where you put them!" Since the good people of Serbia took vampire hoot’n’anny deadly serious, they unanimously opted to dig up ’ol Pete and give him the Serbian eighteenth century vampire CSI treatment:
- No signs of decomposition (except for his nose)? Check.
- Continued growing of hair, nails, and skin? Check.
- Fresh blood about the mouth? Checkity-check-check.
The verdict? Dear, departed Pete was a vampire. The solution? In modern Europe they might’ve given him a welfare check, apologized for disenfranchising the undead and had the UN pass a resolution condemning Israel, but in 1725 they wasted no time putting a sharpened wooden stake through his heart (which caused "fresh" blood to pour out of his ears and mouth, and also, possibly, disturbingly, caused him to sport wood) and burned the body to ash.14 If you were a vampire, you did not screw with the Serbs.
The Hairy Handed Gent: Werewolves of Folklore
"The next time that you take a wolf," the good man said, "see that you chain it by the leg, and in the morning you will find a Lutheran." — Ambrose Bierce
In history, more often than not, if you began to grow hair in unusual places, become moody, temperamental, and prone to acts of irrationality, it just meant you were a teenager. However, if you were all of those things and had a hankerin’ for human flesh, you were a werewolf. Unlike in the movies, werewolfism (or, lycanthropy15) generally wasn’t a curse brought about by a werewolf bite (though it could very well have been), but a self-inflicted condition. Like a homicidal, Satanic, hairy hobby. Basically, some dude (or dudette) decides, "Hey, walking around on all fours, howling at the moon, sniffing things’ butts, and eating people sounds nifty. I think I’ll traffic with the Devil for a magic wolf skin or something." Amazing what boredom can inspire. See, TV and video games aren’t so bad after all, are they?
The proto-werewolf first appears in Greek myth from around the time when the Greeks had myths. Zeus decided to slum around with the mortals and disguised himself as a humble traveler. An all-powerful, lightning-bolt flinging humble traveler. Imagine if Oprah secretly traveled the country in a Honda Civic, and you’d be close. Anyway, Zeus sought the hospitality of the Arcadian King Lycaon, a right bastard. Zeus revealed himself, but Lycaon didn’t buy it, so he prepared a meal of human flesh. Which makes sense … in crazy town! This pissed Zeus off, and, being the god fond of turning people into stuff, turned Lycaon into a wolf.16 Which, as ironic punishments go, is pretty … ironic.
As the years and the civilizations rolled on, the werewolf myths came along, changed and were all pretty weird. Not much can be agreed upon by the various cultures except werewolves were evil and liked to eat human flesh. Sort of like a culturally universal view of tax collectors. A werewolf might be male or female, might be able to change at will or be stuck as a wolf, might or might not need to don an enchanted skin to change, (… ewww …) didn’t necessarily need the full moon to wolf-out (they just enjoyed long walks by the moonlight, as well as positive people, pina coladas, getting caught in the rain, and ripping out human throats), and didn’t fear silver (unless it clashed with the dinner settings).
According to some traditions, you could always spot a werewolf in human form by certain telltale signs, such as a bushy uni-brow, extra long, blood-red fingernails, dry eyes, thirsty mouths, cracked, yellowish skin, and some behavioral indicators like preferring the night, solitude, and digging up graves to eat corpses.17 Might not that last one be a bit of a clue? I can imagine a medieval conversation about a potential werewolf:
"Verily, I do believe that Christoff be-ith a werewolf."
"Forsooth, why sayeth thou?"
"Yay, for I hath seen-eth him grow ever more withdrawn, preferring the night and his own company to that of his fellows. And let’s not forget the skin condition and uni-brow. Hark."
"Forsooth, but Christoff hath always had crappy skin and a uni-brow, as well as being somewhat creepy-eth.
"Verily, thous speakest true. I hath forgot to mention that he hath also been digging up graves and eating corpses."
"I’ll get the torch, you get the pitchforks, anon."
You can probably add to the list of ways to spot a werewolf in human form a propensity for chasing cats and offal carts, the urge to shout for hours at nothing, and unabashedly licking themselves in public.
One of history’s first recorded "werewolf" cases comes to us from Dole, outside Lyons, France in 1573. Gilles Garnier was a recluse who lived with his wife and children, and who one day decided to accept a gift of a magical unguent (or so he said under torture) from a spectral man who popped up one day for no apparent reason. Like an evil door to door salesman. Or Jehovah’s Witness. This magical unguent gave Gilles the ability to turn into a wolf — all the better to hunt game for his family. And by game, he meant people. His first human snack was a little girl who wandered into a vineyard after the Feast of St. Michael (March 24, to honor the Archangel Michael, or possibly Michael Jackson, whichever). Gilles turned into a wolf and, well, ate most of her and brought the rest back to his wife. And to think, a lot of men don’t even bother to bring home flowers to the missus. A week later, he feasted on a little boy. Then he attempted to attack a child while still in human form and was recognized and promptly arrested. So, during torture, he blamed his horrific acts on dark forces — and the court bought it! I imagine Gilles was thinking, "Holy crap! I can’t believe that worked! Looks like I’m off the hook. Whew!" And then the court said "We need to nip this making pacts with the Devil stuff in the bud! Time to set an example. Burn this mother at the stake!"18 To which Gilles probably said "Sonuvabitch!"
Another famous werewolf case came to light a few years later in Bedburg, Germany, 1591. Peter Stubbe (Another Peter? Maybe the name is evil?) confessed on the torture wheel (sort of like the Wheel of Fortune, minus the fabulous prizes) to sixteen or seventeen murders, among them a pregnant woman and thirteen children. Peter began to practice sorcery at the age of twelve and made a pact with Lucifer for a magic werewolf belt. (Again, this is what happens to kids without cartoons and videogames.) Why doesn’t anyone ever make deals with the devil for anything practical? Like riches, a hot wife, good plumbing and dentistry. Nooo, it’s always magic werewolf belts and unguents. Anyway, with his new magic werewolf belt, Petey began to kill livestock before moving on to slower and less meaty game, people. He raped, killed, and ate anything he could catch. The sick freak even killed his own infant son and ate his brains. Eventually, in his wolf form, Pete was attacked by local men, thinking him a run-of-the-mill wolf. To the local’s surprise, the wolf stood up and became less hairy. After the trial, the courts decided pulling his flesh off with red hot pincers, breaking his bones, and decapitation were too good for him. But they did it anyway.19 In the Middle Ages, if you were a werewolf, you did not screw with the Germans.
Less Eating the Flesh of the Living, More Menial Labor: Real Zombies
But I don’t care darling, because I love you, and you’ve got to let me eat your brains. —Return of The Living Dead
Quick — can you name the first movie about zombies? If you said Night of the Living Dead, punch yourself in the face, you are wrong! The first movie to deal with zombies was 1932’s White Zombie – not to be confused with, er … White Zombie, the band fronted by Rob Zombie. (Somehow I doubt that is his real name…) White Zombie dealt with the actual Haitian folklore that originally brought us the concept of the zombie. In fact, all of the early zombie movies were about the Haitian folkloric zombie, with varying degrees of accuracy, of course. It wasn’t until the advent of a little independent film released in 1968 called Night of the Living Dead that we came to think of zombies as the reanimated dead hungry for the flesh of the living.20 (Fun fact: Night never uses the word zombie, but instead refers to the living dead as ghouls, which is also technically wrong, as ghouls in folklore ate the flesh of the dead. Which might make me a tad anal.)
Real zombies of Haitian folklore are believed to be the dead reanimated by a bokor or witch doctor. (Do they sing "Ooo eee, ooo ah! Ah! Ting, tang! Walla walla bing, bang!" when doing their zombie ceremony?) These zombies aren’t particularly dangerous, just mindless slaves for the bokor, or, to put it into a modern context, it’s like they work in Corporate America, only they never have to fill out TPS reports. Upon the zombie-candidate’s death, the bokor captures the victim’s ti bon ange – the part of the soul containing the essence of one’s personality – which allows the bokor to raise and control his new zombie acquisition.21 Talk about being too cheap to just hire some local kid to mow your lawn and rake your leaves. Sure, there must be the initial thrill of having your own, undead mindless slave, but after awhile it’s got to feel like dating Paris Hilton.
A big difference between the real zombie and the other monsters is there are modern, documented, scientifically studied cases of zombieism. The most famous zombie case came to light in 1980 in a rural Haitian village when a man called Clairvius Narcisse showed up after being dead for eighteen years. On the plus side, he did miss disco. In 1962, Clairvius’ brothers sold him to a bokor after he refused to sell his share of family land. Clairvius was pronounced dead at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles and promptly put to work as a zombie slave on a sugar plantation with many other zombies. When the zombie master died in 1964, he hadn’t bothered to set up a competent Human … er … Zombie Resource department and his zombies were left to their own devices. So Clairvius spent the next sixteen years wandering around in a psychotic daze until recognizing his long-lost sister in that rural village.22
This sensational development led an ethnobiologist from Harvard named Dr. Wade Davis to travel to Haiti to discover a scientific reason behind zombieism. He revealed in his two books The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Passage of Darkness that the bokor uses a special powder containing puffer fish toxin, a marine toad (the few, the proud…) a tree frog, and human remains (y’know, to make it go down easier, like a spoonful of honey). The zombie powder is also available in black cherry, lemon/lime, and root-beer flavors. Dr. Davis theorized the various toxins could then pass into the bloodstream, paralyzing the victim and causing him to appear dead. Apparently, Haitian doctors of the non-witch variety never bothered with mamby-pamby modern medical practices like, say, checking for a pulse. The family would bury the victim, the bokor would dig up the "body" from the grave, the poison would wear off and the victim would be a mindless, easily controlled zombie.23 Apparently zombie-making was a big enough problem laws were passed in Haiti in 1835 classifying the administration of a substance that caused a prolonged period of lethargy without causing death as attempted murder.24 I guess they didn’t allow a screening of _ The English Patient_ in Haiti.
Conclusion (Mostly Because I’ve Scared Myself)
So what have we learned? Vampires shouldn’t have been all that scary, what with their fascination with counting games. Werewolves were probably just really, really twisted freaks who thought blaming magic belts and salve would somehow not earn them a spot on the burning stake. And zombies may actually be real. Throw in the fear of witches, fairies, and evil spirits and it’s a wonder our ancestors ever got any sleep at night. Must be how alcohol was invented.
1 Yeah, that was bad. I apologize for such a crappy pun.
3 Graves, R. "Lamia," Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955. p.205-206.
4 Hall, Jamie. Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2003. p.121-152.
5 I apologize to any telemarketers who may have been offended by that thoughtless comment. Now quit calling my house at dinnertime, you blood sucking fiends!
6 Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 1988. p.29-30.
7 Burkhart, Dagmar. "Vampirglaube und Vampirsage auf dem Balkan." In Beitrage zur Sudosteuropa-Forschung. Munich, 1966. p.216.
8 Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press, 1988. p.31-32.
9 A "South Park" reference, in case somebody’s not keeping up with popular culture.
10 Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. p.33.
11 Ibid., p.32.
12 Ibid., p.48-54.
13 Ibid., p.5. A treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria and the Republic of Venice, ceding parts of Serbia and Walachia to Austria.
14 Ibid., p.6-7.
15 From the Greek lykos meaning wolf, anthropos meaning man, and opy meaning … uh … ism.
16 Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolves. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1865. p. 12.
18 "The Spectral Man." The Crime Library_. Accessed October 2007 from http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/psychology/werewolf_killers/11.htmlkillers/11.html.
20 "Early Zombie Movies." Zombies. Accessed October 2007 from http://www.umich.edu/~engl415/zombies/zombie.html#early.
22 "Zombie." Great Moments In Science. Accessed on October 2007 from http://www.abc.net.au/science/k2/moments/s1260445.htm.
24 "How Zombies Work."
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