Skepticism

I loooooove vampires

I can’t help myself. I love these blood-sucking, night-stalking, dark, mysterious creatures. I can’t get enough of them. I know they’re scary and usually evil, but I sometimes finding myself wishing they were real. Especially sexy vamps like this….

I also find myself wondering where the legend of vampires came from (just like I wonder where the idea of gods came from). A few years ago, I stumbled onto an interesting book that discusses this very topic.

Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires by Michael E. Bell explores the folklore of American vampires who are, according to a Publisher’s Weekly review, more macabre than their Eastern European cousins.

If I were to chose a form of immortality, I’d rather be a vampire here on earth in the throes of passion, blood-lust, and pain, than a saint in heaven — a bucolic land of milk an honey — playing a harp and singing “hosanna” to God for eternity. But American vampires aren’t really immortal. They’re not even really undead. If you ask me, they got royally screwed by whoever handed out monster powers. These American vampires make their friends and relatives gravely ill without actually getting to rise from their own graves.

In an interview on SeacoastNH.com, Bell describes the basic premise of his book:

When consumption (which is what people used to call tuberculosis that settled in the lungs) took hold in a family, some people in the outlying areas of New England would open the graves of their deceased relatives, looking for signs that they considered out of the ordinary — such as liquid or “fresh” blood in the heart. The heart would be cut from the body and burned to ashes. Often the ashes were administered, in water or some medicine, to sick family members. The belief supporting these practices seemed to be that there was some sort of evil, perhaps a demon, residing in one of the bodies that was draining the life from others in the family. 

Strangely vampire hunting in America was a form of alternative medicine. The author’s explanation for the belief that people were reaching out from the grave with an evil force that caused disease to spread reminds me of reasons that people turn to homeopathy, acupuncture, and other unproven medical treatments:

I believe that this practice was probably much more prevalent and widespread than we might think. The few cases I’ve found are just the tip of the iceberg. I think that this practice reveals how people deal with looming death that is considered untimely or premature — they will not accept it without putting up a fight. If the medical profession says, “I can’t help you,” then people will look elsewhere for an answer. And folklore always has an answer. It may not be an effective answer, but in the end, even a wrong answer is better than none. Doing something beats doing nothing.

Unfortunately, people feel the same frustrations today and look for solutions that are often no less outlandish.

Food For the Dead is not just about people exhuming bodies to look for supernatural causes of disease. It is the story of the author’s search for the origins of the vampire legend in New England, and the stories of the people he met — living, dead, and undead — during the twenty years that he researched this topic. As I said, I read this book several years ago, but I remember that it was spooky and engrossing. I think I’ve just inspired myself to re-read it on my next free weekend. Crap. My nightstand is getting buried in books again.


Next week, mummies!  I guess these creatures don’t really fit in the cryptozoology category, but we don’t have a category for monsters.

 

 

 

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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19 Comments

  1. A very good book on the origin of vampires is Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death. Far from being the suave nobleman of modern treatments (started by Stoker’s Dracula), European vampires were grotesque, cantankerous peasants who wouldn’t stay dead. Barber’s thesis is that vampire legends started from fundamental misunderstandings about death and decomposition.

  2. Well, my great-gran always made my father wear a clove of garlic around his neck before he was allowed out. And he was never attacked by a vampire.

    So I think that should be all the proof anyone could need.

  3. Well, I’m a goth who loves to dress up in Victorian-era finery and go to Vampire Balls. (I was even going to dress up for my Skepdude calendar shot, but decided to go nude instead. :)) I have friends who play The Masquerade and LARP. I lost my virginity on a one-night-stand with a girl who asked me to cut her and drink her blood. But still and all, none of us truly believe real vampires exist. (Though Ted’s and Rav’s logic seems unassailable! …)

    It’s just fun to pretend, and I think it is telling that no one wants to pretend to be a mindless, barely-more-than-a-zombie type of vamp. Everyone prefers the suave, sexy types.

    I think Anne Rice’s books really put the idea of a sensual, feeling vampire into the mainstream. Since “Interview with a Vampire”, though, the idea of the “gentleman” (or Lady) vampire has been done to death, no pun intended.

  4. Definitely recommend “Vampires, Burial, and Death”, as the American vampires are the ‘Johnny come latelys’ on the vampire scene, and most are a cheap rip offs of Stokers Dracula, Liz Bathory, and other derivatives (Ann Rice, etc) put through the Hollywood meat grinder.

    The history of vampire beliefs is vastly more interesting than the limited emo-goth types which seem to predominate in the US, and even historical “US region” vampire myths are pretty dull on the whole – drawn from a limited selection of English and European mythology.

    Now if you want a non boring vampire, have a look at the Malaysian ‘Penanggalan’. Not a ‘sensual European metro sexual noble’ this one. Think of a vampire whose head detaches from her (they’re exclusively female) body and flies around drinking blood – oh and the body’s entrails hang from the flying heads neck as it goes hunting. Or the Slavic Strigoli, which can only be killed if you kill it while its killing someone else….(Any volunteers? Buffy?)

    Now mummies are not that interesting from the legend/story point of view as the shambling bundle of linen chasing lost loves or hunting tomb robbers is pretty much an early British invention during the Egyptian Craze of the late 19th early 20th century.

    Go for the lycanthropes instead.

    And sadly yes, I collect vampire/werewolf/ghost tales and history…ah well. Being a skeptic doesn’t prevent one from exotic hobbies. ;)

  5. OK, I am doing a Sunday monster series! Zombies are definitely on the list. So is Frankenstein’s monster, although I think he’s in a category of his own. Are lycanthropes werewolves?

    And I have a personal affinity for mummies, so we will be visiting them next just because.

  6. Lycanthropes = werewolves (wolfmen)
    lykos = wolf, anthropos = man

    Though technically, it should be Therianthropy (therion = beast, beastman) as werewolves are mainly European, but you have other animals (werejaguars in jungle climates, werefoxes in japan, weretigers in India, etc).

    Frankies monster isn’t in a catagory of his own either – you have the Jewish Golem of Prague, Karel Capeks robots in RUR…

    As for mummies, each to their own. But if you start posting “Im-ho-tep, Im-ho-tep” on Skepchick measures will have to be taken…

  7. Ooooh, a series on Mythozoology? Legendary Zoology? Submortal Zoology? fictozoology?
    ok, I’m out of ideas.

    Lyc’s statement about imhotep sounds almost like a challenge… it should totally be line #1 for Sunday’s post (but then, I’m a bit of a sod)

    I lurve me some vampires. possibly because I know that one day I’ll wind up with their pasty skin and bloodlust (I’m a gamer-geek). But they’re too cool for words. I don’t know that it’s a chick thing. I’m a guy, I know a couple of guys who are into the bloodsucking night-horrors.

  8. Ha ha, my anti-mummy measures are not the predictable (and ineffective) techniques used by Adventuring Mummy Huntersâ„¢ (Dr Jones, Lara Croft, Larry, Curly and Moe, etc) but are much more fiendish and subtle.

    By using the ancient techniques of Boring Monotones, I will discuss the historical derivation of the mummy myth, the nature of how ancient Egyptians saw the soul (the Ba and Ka), how this ties into Haitian zombie legends, and how Imhotep was really a much revered ancient architect and not some bald & bronzed tail chaser.

    I expect said mummy to rapidly return to an inanimate state, and any followers of said mummy fleeing for more interesting activities like paint watching, or grass growth inspector. Tests of this these techniques have proved most effective with managers during meetings. :P

  9. Oh God… I’m having flashbacks to my primary school Choir days.
    “Ancient Egypt down by the Nile,
    Mummy’s gonna be in a tomb for a while,
    Fair go Pharaoh it’s not funny!
    Tell King Tut I want my mummy!”
    I *think* that it was from one of the Sing books. ~1994

  10. Fundies and Mummies in common? Too easy…

    Mummies: Dried up, wrinkly, desiccated old husks with their brain removed. Have a horde of mindless glassy eyed followers, about 2000 years out of date with the real world, moan, howl and vocalise in weird tongues…

    Fundies: Dried up, wrinkly, desiccated old husks with their brain removed. Have a horde of mindless glassy eyed followers, about 2000 years out of date with the real world, moan, howl and vocalise in weird tongues…

    The only real difference is that mummies have archaeological use.

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