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A Natural History of Vampires


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"Nosferatu" by Nathaniel Gold

    "Nosferatu" by Nathaniel Gold

Medveđa, Serbia. Jan. 1732 — The Carpathian mountains loomed ominously to the east, as if nature herself was conspiring with evil. In the valley below a shadow had been draped over the corpses that now littered the quiet cemetery. Of the forty villagers exhumed that morning, a total of thirteen had been identified as vampires. Fresh blood seeped from their mouth, nose, or the gaping wounds in their chest where the stake had been pounded in. The gore was clear evidence of their demonic guilt.

Dr. Johannes Flückinger, regiment medical officer dispatched by the Honorable Supreme Command, surveyed the ghastly scene. He was clearly uneasy about being sent to this small village on the remote edge of the Habsburg Empire. His disgust for the local haiduks was evident as he gazed upon a newborn child, who, “because of a careless burial had been half eaten by dogs.”

The young doctor hunched over what had once been the child’s mother, a 20-year-old peasant woman named Stana, and proceeded with his dissection. He noted that she was “quite complete and undecayed” despite having died in childbirth two months earlier. Like the others, her blood had not coagulated and after prying open her rib cage he documented that her lungs, liver, and spleen were all still fresh. The woman’s skin was described as “fresh and vivid” and she had a pool of extravascular blood in her stomach and chest cavity. The only interpretation could be that, after being turned into a vampire, she had risen from her grave to feast on the blood of the living.

“After the examination had taken place,” Flückinger wrote in his official report, “the heads of the vampires were cut off by the local gypsies and then burned along with the bodies, and then the ashes were thrown into the river Morava.”

The first to be transformed, Flückinger learned from the Serbian villagers, was a former soldier by the name of Arnod Paole who had fled his post in Turkey after being “troubled” by a vampire there. However, after settling in the village and being betrothed to his neighbor’s daughter, Paole met with a sudden and unexpected death. Not long after, people began to report seeing Paole wandering through the village after night-fall. Some swore that he had even attacked them or that he was observed taking the shape of a black dog, as though hunting for prey. More than twenty people had mysteriously died in the village since Paole met his untimely end, and most within a few months of each other.

“Paole attacked not only the people,” Flückinger reported, “but also the cattle, and sucked out their blood.” These were the two ways by which vampirism had then spread throughout Medveđa: some were bitten directly while others had eaten the infected meat and become vampires as well. Apparently, once they were turned, vampires not only behaved as though possessed by wild beasts, they could also adopt a beastly shape, or transmit their vampirism through animals to an unsuspecting human victim. In order to end Arnod Paole’s reign of terror, the villagers of Medveđa “drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.”

Vampires were almost entirely unknown to the European imagination prior to 1730 and Johannes Flückinger’s strange report would become known as the most thoroughly documented–as well as the most widely circulated–vampire narrative in the world. Following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, much of the region now known as the Balkans was ceded to the Habsburg Monarchy by the Ottoman Empire. Along with it came a rich folkloric tradition which quickly merged with European ideas of witchcraft that had gripped the continent for the past three centuries. These stories would be widely reproduced in French, German and, later, in English, to eventually find their way into the hands of an obscure Irish writer and theater manager by the name of Bram Stoker.

The storyline of Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula about a Transylvanian Count and his invasion of English virtue would be almost entirely original. However, key attributes of the vampire itself would draw directly from Slavic folklore, particularly where there was an overlap with European witchcraft. While Bram Stoker’s Dracula was an elegant and seductive aristocrat, the Slavic vampires were typically rural villagers that had become possessed. In appearance and mannerism they would have shared more in common with Max Schreck’s animalistic performance in the German silent classic Nosferatu than with Bela Lugosi’s theatrical mesmerism as the Hungarian Count. However, the depiction of the vampire as a savage beast of prey, the infection of new vampires through bites or contaminated blood, their ability to transform into specific animal “familiars” (especially wolves and bats), and the method of dispatching the undead by murdering them in their coffins while they slept, would all be borrowed directly from Slavic folklore.

What the Slavic and European vampire mythologies both have in common however is that they tell an important story about how people understood natural events such as death, decomposition, and the transmission of disease prior to the advent of scientific medicine. They also serve as an illustration of the anxiety present in many Christian societies over the delicate line that seemed to separate human from animal.

“Far from being merely fanciful horror stories,” writes UCLA historian Paul Barber in the Journal of Folklore Research, “the vampire stories prove to be an ingenious and elaborate folk-hypothesis that seeks to explain otherwise puzzling phenomena associated with death and decomposition.” In nearly all cases, individuals would be identified as vampires after they were exhumed and irregularities found with the condition of their bodies. The most common reasons were lack of decomposition or because liquid blood was found around their mouth and nose.

Decomposition is largely misunderstood even today and is not the rapid or complete process commonly assumed. As Barber notes, putrefaction begins at about 50°F and occurs most rapidly at temperatures ranging between 70° and 100°. However, the temperature even just a few feet below ground is usually much lower and decomposition occurs on average eight times more slowly than on the surface. In the case of the Medveđa village cemetery, it would therefore be unsurprising for bodies that were exhumed in January (with average surface temperatures at just above freezing) to remain relatively intact for weeks or even months.

Furthermore, because the bacteria that cause decomposition feed on the protein-rich content of the blood, if there had been significant haemorrhage (as would occur in a violent death or sudden accident) the process would be significantly slower. This fact may have only reinforced these folk traditions, since it would be expected that violent or rapid deaths were somehow unnatural to begin with. However, the most common way that vampires were identified was when liquid blood was seen around the corpse’s mouth, nose, or ears. It was commonly believed that vampires would so gorge themselves on blood that it would leak out after they’d returned to their grave.

“[Vampires] suck the blood of living people and animals in such great abundance,” stated one early Slavic account, “that sometimes it comes out of their mouths, their noses, and especially, their ears, and that sometimes the body swims in its blood which has spilled out into its coffin.”

What is more likely, Barber argues, is that local populations simply filled the gaps in their knowledge about the process of decomposition with folktales that could explain what they had observed. In actuality, during the normal process of decomposition the lungs become loaded with a dark red sanguinous fluid and the brain liquifies. Depending on the orientation of the body, this liquid would have leaked out as it was acted on by the pull of gravity. Ironically, individuals suspected of being vampires at the time of burial would usually be placed face down to make it harder for them to find their way to the surface. When these individuals were later exhumed, the red fluid in and around their mouth or nose would only confirm the original assumption. Add to this the eruption of sanguinous fluid when a stake is hammered into their lungs (an event that can emit sounds from a low groan to a high pitched scream as gases are forced outwards) and the misinterpretation would be complete.

In addition to flawed assumptions regarding death and decomposition, certain diseases (particularly ones that result in extreme psychological and behavioral changes) would only add to folk-hypotheses seeking to explain such unusual events. While both schizophrenia and tuberculosis have been proposed as potential natural influences on the folk tradition of vampirism, a study published in the journal Neurology by Juan Gomez-Alonso of the Servicio de Neurologia, Hospital Xeral in Vigo, Spain argues that many of the primary attributes of vampires show remarkable similarities to the physical symptoms associated with rabies.

“In certain cases, rabies appears similar to vampirism,” says Gomez-Alonso, “The rabid patient rushes at those who approach him, biting and tearing them as if he was a wild beast.” In both cases, the method of transmission is identical since rabies infections are caused through animal bites or blood to blood contact. While dogs are the most common animal associated with rabies today, rural villagers have historically had much greater interaction with wolves and these animals were a significant threat both to themselves and their livestock. There have also been many documented cases of rabies infection from bats both in Europe and the United States. “Consequently,” says Gomez-Alonso, “it would be imaginable that men and beasts with identical ferocious and bizarre behavior might have been seen, by a primitive witness, as similar malign beings.” It is notable that in the early Slavic accounts there was no distinction between vampires and what we would now call werewolves; in some versions a vampire was simply what a werewolf became after they died.

There are many additional characteristics that appear to connect vampirism and rabies. In terms of pathology, for example, humans that have contracted rabies typically die of suffocation or cardiorespiratory arrest. These types of deaths, according to Gomez-Alonso, result in post-mortem features consistent with those used to identify a vampire: blood is less likely to coagulate after death and hemorrhage is common, resulting in slower decomposition. Humans can also contract rabies by drinking unpasteurized milk or eating undercooked meat from a rabid cow (or through oral exposure to their blood or saliva during preparation). In this way, knowledge of how the rabies virus can spread might have been contained in these folk traditions, even if the actual mechanism remained mysterious.

Finally, Gomez-Alonso points out the historical coincidence that during the period when dramatic tales of vampires were first emerging from Eastern Europe, a major epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves, and other wild animals was recorded in the same region between 1721-1728. This coincidence may have even been identified as early as 1733 when an anonymous physician argued that vampirism “is a contagious illness more or less of the same nature as that which comes from the bite of a rabid dog.” While it is likely that multiple natural factors would have influenced the folk tradition of vampirism, it is remarkable that rabies has the potential to connect such seemingly unrelated elements as transmission, behavior, and post-mortem pathology.

“Among the European peasantry wolves were dreaded because of the physical threat they represented,” says Jessica Wang, professor of history at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada “but also because they could transmit the symptoms that we now understand are caused by the rabies virus.” Wang is currently engaged in research documenting the social history of rabies, in which she has identified the common theme of animal possession as a folk-hypothesis to explain the transfer of symptoms from animals to humans. “People associated witchcraft and occult forces with animals,” she says, “as well as the crossing of the line between animals and humans. I think a lot of the fear was based on the fact that humans are animals and what happens if people concede that line rather than try and preserve it.”

In one newspaper account Wang identified from Prussia in the nineteenth century, a farmer was “seized with rabies” only to run amok through the village as though possessed. “He finally took refuge in his own house,” she related, “where he attacked his wife, a young woman to whom he had recently been married. He literally tore her to pieces.” After committing the horrible deed he was then seized with another convulsion and inflicted wounds upon himself from which he died. When neighbors entered the house both dead bodies were found on the floor “frightfully mangled and still warm.” The newspaper account didn’t specify whether or not he had been buried face down.

Just as the vampire myth has its origin in historical events, the cultural tradition that gave rise to it may also have had a natural basis. While these early vampire stories share little with the modern myths about such creatures, the folk tradition that spawned them does contain many of the same inherent fears. “What happens when people do, in a sense, become animals and lose control of their physical bodies through the display of uncontrolled aggression?” Wang asks. “I think a lot of these rabies narratives reflected these kinds of fears. They’re ultimately about the line between animal and human and the ease with which it can be breached.”

References:

Barber, P. (1987). Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire, Journal of Folklore Research 24 (1), 1-32. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814375

Gómez-Alonso J. (1998). Rabies: a possible explanation for the vampire legend. Neurology, 51 (3), 856-9. PMID: 9748039

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jc2929 11:01 pm 12/4/2011

    First off I have to say that I love vampires, vampire stories and anything vampire even though I know they don’t exist and vampirism is impossible. The idea of vampires however, is fascinating. I thought I knew everything there was to know about vampires, but I never knew that they could transform into other things (except bats). Another thing that I find interesting is how they have evolved over time. They went from hideous looking creatures to good looking, sexy, glittering ones. They seem to be very popular right now we have TV shows like True Blood and Vampire Diaries and movies like Twilight, which all portray vampires as super cool creatures that have the gift of eternal life. It’s funny how people in the olden days believed in them due to pure ignorance, which I have to be honest I’m glad they had such creative imaginations because vampires make for great stories.

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  2. 2. yasmina_n 6:57 pm 12/5/2011

    As someone who comes from a neighboring country I am very familiar with these types of stories,the likes of which elderly people will still tell,swearing by their veracity. I was very interested to find out the scientific reasons behind some of this phenomena. Who knew that the “vampire” was only an unfortunate person infected with rabies or that hemorrage could cause slower decomposition and thus a more vibrant looking corpse? The next time I visit the old country I could tell the old people about this article…but old legends die hard.

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  3. 3. Superuser29 11:28 pm 12/7/2011

    While the mythological Vampire does not exist the modern day Vampire does. The modern day Vampire is a creation of role play. There are clubs that cater to the Vampire genera with an ever growing patronage. Part of the reason this is becoming ever popular can be attributed to societies need to escape the increasing daily list of responsibilities. Escape into a fantasy world which tears down the moral borders imposed by our society allows an individual to de-stress and free up individual artistic thinking. There are those that take this role play further than pure fantasy. We must use caution when reality trips over fantasy and combines into one’s mental state of mind.

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  4. 4. critcare0 7:54 am 02/22/2012

    It is worth noting that Dracula was written at the same time as whole blood transfusions were becoming viable as a medical procedure. Vampires are just as much about blood exchange as they are about folklore and disease etc

    See
    http://critcare-reflectionsofamalenurse.blogspot.com/2012/02/blood-lust-origins-of-nursing-part-ii.html

    Cheers

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  5. 5. aetiology 2:52 pm 10/31/2013

    Nice post! Have you read Vampire Forensics from a few years back? It covers much of the ground you do here (though obviously more extensively).

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  6. 6. greg_t_laden 2:55 pm 10/31/2013

    Great post.

    Here’s a cognate item of interest: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/The-Great-New-England-Vampire-Panic-169791986.html

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  7. 7. EricMJohnson 3:03 pm 10/31/2013

    Thanks aetiology! I came across that book in my research for this post, but haven’t read it yet. I was largely utilizing Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber: http://j.mp/1gfd5z1 His paper that I linked to above was an early summary of what he expanded upon in that book.

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