Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mad science: All the dead are vampires.

Vampires are essentially a Romantic and Victorian phenomenon. Prior to that, a vampire was one of any number of distinct and mostly unrelated local folk beasties. But an explosion of vampiric literature and art in the 19th century began to establish, for what would ultimately become a global audience, the norms for vampires. With the exception of the wonderful Chinese jumping vampire, almost all notions of what a vampire is pretty much a reaction to the Romantic/Victorian template, itself a massive constriction of the diverse and regional sense of the term. (That last bit is worth noting when encountering purists' arguments about what should and should not be considered a real vampire: There's no original vampire; it was always already a mess of different influences, original inspirations, and second-hand ideas.)

At the Chronicle of High Education, science writer turned horror anthology editor Michael Sims attempts to find the
cultural and scientific roots of the Victorian vampire boom. And he comes up with some neat ideas:

The vampire story as we know it was born in the early 19th century, as the wicked love child of rural folklore and urban decadence. But in writing these depraved tales, Byron and Polidori and company were refining the raw ore of peasant superstition. And the peasant brain had simply been doing what the human brain does best: sorting information into explanatory narratives.

I found lots of reports of vampires from Europe—from urban France, rural Russia, the islands of Greece, the mountains of Romania. Along the way, I was reminded of something I already knew but hadn't thought of as relevant in this context: During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, dead bodies were a common sight. Plague and countless other illnesses ravaged every community. Corpses of the executed and tortured were displayed in public as warnings, even left hanging as they decomposed.

Few bodies seemed to rest peacefully even in the ground. Often people in the 18th century had an opportunity not only to see corpses but also to glimpse them again after they were buried. Urban cemeteries were densely overcrowded, sometimes with the dead stacked several graves deep, causing horrific spillage during floods or earthquakes. More corpses than the ground could accommodate resulted in the stench of decay and the constant risk of disease. Grave desecration was also common; a thriving trade in illicit cadavers for medical students joined a vicious rivalry between competing religious groups. After Louis XIV abolished the convent at Port-Royal des Champs as a hotbed of Jansenist heresy, drunken locals dug up nuns' bodies from the cemetery and fed them to their dogs. Corpses of executed heretics were dragged through the streets, then reburied in too-small graves by breaking the body into small pieces.

Sims thinks this familiarity of death lead to the development of erroneous notions about what death should look like: a corpse gently sleeping for eternity. The actual messy process of decay is not so pleasant. And this unpleasantness was interpreted as something out of the norm.

As I continued digging into the literature, I wondered: If ordinary people were encountering the corpses of the recently dead or even long-dead friends and relatives, what were they actually seeing that they misinterpreted and then wove into a vampire mythology? Not surprisingly, no one understood the process of decay within a subterranean chamber. They had no forensic body farm at which to chart a corpse's fade from nauseating stink to cautionary bones.

Any variation from "normal" in the grave provoked fear, yet there isn't really much of a norm in the process of decay under different circumstances. Some coffins protect their residents better than others. Lime helps preserve a body, as do clay soil and low humidity. Graves in different climates and latitudes vary, depending upon air temperature and humidity, soil composition, and insects, not to mention those invisible sanitation workers who turn us all back into the dust from which we came—and of course in the 18th century, no one knew that such creatures existed.

Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don't actually continue to grow after death, but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you're turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil's chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein—adipocere, "grave wax." In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature—to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.

And what about the blood reported around the mouths of resurrected corpses? That too has a natural explanation. Without the heart as a pump to keep it circulating, blood follows the path of least resistance. Many bodies were buried face down, resulting in blood pooling in the face and leaving it looking flushed. Sometimes blood also gets lifted mouthward by gases from decomposition. Vampire stories recognize that death is messy.

It's interesting stuff. Plus, Sims found this brilliant quote:

The scholar Marie-Hélène Huet sums up the subtext of many early vampire accounts: "All the dead are vampires, poisoning the air, the blood, the life of the living, contaminating their body and their soul, robbing them of their sanity."


The Frog Queen said...

Great post. Really enjoyed reading the information. Thanks for sharing.


zoe said...

fascinating post! i especially like that Huet quote. it's curious to think that a very well-preserved corpse (because of lime, or even apricots!) could either be seen as "undead" or a saint... eye of the beholder, i guess, haha!

Bill said...

Zoe's above statement catches on some important spots. Things began to shift at some point in 1700's (I'm guessing). What might have been grounds for a miracle or Sainthood became a grotesque obscenity to be feared by the 1800's. The more we learn, the more we learn to fear. A recent nonfiction work called "Rag and Bone," is a groovy illumination of holy (bodily) relics through the ages.