Skeptical thinking can sometimes take the fun out of stuff. Most people enjoy the thought that there’s a little magic in the world, that there’s some solid foundation for centuries old legends. Many of us love to be titillated by the horror of stories about ghosts, werewolves, sorcerers, vampires and the like. But when it comes right down to it, no matter how many people relay their “true” stories and experiences with spirits, magic, and the un-dead, logical thinkers just can’t quite bring themselves to succumb to the hype. In fact, they tend to move in the opposite direction; to find an answer that explains away these creatures and gives a reason for their existence in age old tales and popular culture but not in real life. Sometimes they are successful in debunking myths, other times the challenge is more difficult. For instance, how do you prove or disprove the existence of magic? A believer will say it exists because they believe it does. A skeptic will say it can’t be proven to exist, so therefore it doesn’t. Stalemate. But something more solid, of the flesh (if I may say so), is an easier target to disprove for a skeptic. If you trace back the myths surrounding preternatural creatures to their origins, you can unearth (pardon the pun) some pretty compelling evidence that they do not, in fact, exist.
I know. I know. Bubble burst. Sorry. So why, you ask, am I callously destroying your happy world of rainbows, unicorns and vampires? Well, actually, because in the instance that I am about to explain, the truth is cooler than the fiction…in my humble opinion. It’s actually kind of grosser too…but if you’ve seen CSI…you’ll be okay. What the heck got me thinking about this in the first place? Well, I’ll tell you. I happen to be one of these logical thinkers who also loves the world of fantasy and magic. Of all the nasty, villainous creatures, the vampire tends to intrigue me the most. This is likely due to it’s relevantly recent incarnation as a sexy, brooding, bad boy…which I think most women of my generation (and younger) can appreciate. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not obsessed by the vampire, but I do enjoy the stories that have come out in the last 20 years or so. My head was first turned by the 1992 film version of Bram Stokers Dracula. Although most people have slammed the movie, I have to admit I loved the romance in it. Then, 6 years later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer arrived on tv and I was hooked. Since Buffy, there have been many movies and many television shows about vampires which have been created and targeted to the teenage crowd; one of the latest is The Vampire Diaries on tv. I am now hooked on that which is the main reason why vampires are at the forefront of my mind these days.
I’m told I’m way behind the curve on this one…vampires…but that’s the way I roll so bear with me as I might have something to say that you haven’t heard before. But, before I get into that, I have to ramble on a little more. My first impulse was to research why vampires have become so sexy recently – well…recent as in the last 100 years. That topic, however, has already been covered extensively (I was warned) so I decided that it would not be a good angle for me. If you’re interested read here and here for a start. With that scrapped I turned to another aspect of vampire lore – the legends of vampires world wide. Turns out it’s also been done…a lot (again…I was warned). But one point of interest that came of this initial research was that I discovered that in the Middle East and Turkey there seem to be no legends of vampires whatsoever. Weird, I thought, since all of the old world (Europe, Asia, Africa, and Russia) have long established legends. So, being ever so resourceful and curious, I contacted my friend and fellow blogger, Abufares, and asked him about it. He was only aware of regional oral folklore but not much else. As far as he knew, stories of vampires just didn’t exist. They had all sorts of myths of demons and such but no vampires. He said he’d look into it, but it appears I piqued his curiosity beyond a little research. If you go to his blog, you will find out what he discovered in his own post on the topic. At this point, as I am writing this, his findings are still a mystery even to me. Ah, you gotta love blogging.
So with two dead ends already in my research, where was I to go from here? I thought about it for a while. I really needed something to sink my teeth into (I know…witty, eh?) and I asked myself what did I really want to know about vampires that I have never read before, that no one, in my experience, has ever talked about? Well, the answer was very simple and yet something I hadn’t considered. In two words…forensic pathology. I’m betting, however, I need more than two words to satisfy your curiosity now, don’t I? No…I’m not about to explain how the dead can rise again, scientifically…well, actually…I am…sort of. What started it all seems, to me, to be kind of a chicken and egg situation (I can’t seem to find a good, clear answer). However, I shall muddle my way through the history first to get to the good stuff. Most of the vampire folklore we (in North America) are familiar with comes out of 17th and 18th century Eastern Europe; areas like Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and East Prussia (modern day Poland and Russia) were most prolific in their story telling. In fact, the citizens in these countries had worked themselves into such a frenzy about supposed vampire attacks that even government officials had become involved in hunting and killing the creatures. There were two well documented cases in Serbia, Petar Blagojević (Peter Plogojowitz) and Arnaut Pavle (Arnold Paole) who, apparently came back from the dead and attacked the locals. Government officials even examined their bodies after they were finally “killed” and confirmed their findings in reports. These reports, of course, spread like wildfire and reinforced the hysteria which became commonly known as the “18th Century Vampire Controversy”.1
But what did they find exactly? This is where the very interesting (and slightly gory) forensic pathology comes into play. I imagine that what the government officials, mentioned above, saw was similar to what the people (probably peasants) who first started the stories found when they exhumed corpses of the supposed vampires. Now, this part, if you’ll forgive me, is a bit of conjecture. I’m not sure whether the stories about vampires started because someone dug up a corpse or whether a corpse was dug up because of the stories (chicken and egg). I hazard to guess, however, that due to medical error and the invention of embalming fluid several hundred years off, it is possible the the first “vampire” was an unfortunate soul who had been buried alive, struggled and scratched their way out of the ground, and returned to his family or friends for shelter only to be killed “again” or chased off in terror. You can imagine that their bodies, particularly their hands, would be mutilated and bloodied and their pallor from lack of oxygen and shock would be quite white with maybe a bluish tinge. Chances are, they may also be suffering from the illness or injury that put them near death so all in all they appear rather ghastly. Can you blame their family and friends for becoming hysterical upon the return of their “dead” loved one?
Whatever the real instigating factor, according to Paul Barber, a research associate with the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, it was well documented by “literate outsiders” that digging up corpses was a fairly frequent event in Eastern Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.2 The problem was that, particularly among the peasantry, understanding of decomposition was very limited. In fact, I really don’t think they had any understanding at all. And herein lies a good theory about what vampires truly were. As an example, here is an account of state of the body of Petar Blagojević:
“The hair and beard — even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away — had grown on [the corpse]; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it. . . . Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.”
Barber explains away any supernatural possibilities with the following:
1. Although many people believe it to be so, hair does not grow on a dead body. What actually happens is that the skin recedes making it appear as though the hair is longer.
2. Nails do fall off of dead bodies, however new ones would not grow. Likely what the observer saw were the nail beds which looked like new growth.
3. When the observer writes about the skin, he is describing “…skin slippage: epidermis and dermis. Many accounts remark also on the “ruddy” or “dark” color of the corpse, a phenomenon that may be caused by decomposition and a variety of other things as well. Contrary to popular belief, the face of a corpse is not necessarily pale at all, since pallor results from the blood draining from the tissues. If the person was supine when he or she died, the face of the corpse may be pale; if prone, the face may be dark. Those parts of the corpse that are lower than the rest may be gorged with blood that, having lost its oxygen, is dark and causes the skin to appear dark as well. And the parts that are under pressure — where the weight of the body is distributed — may be light in color because the (now dark) blood has been forced away from the tissues. The dark coloration resulting from the saturation of the tissues with blood is called “livor mortis” or “lividity.” It is this phenomenon that allows medical examiners to determine whether a body has been moved after death: If lividity is present where it shouldn’t be, or not present where it should, then the body has been moved.”
4. Blood at the mouth, although appearing “fresh” to the observer was likely not tested as to its freshness. The truth of the matter is that exhumed bodies often have liquid blood at the mouth. “The reason the blood migrates to the mouth is that the body, as it decomposes, bloats from the gases produced by decomposition, and this bloating puts pressure on the lungs, which are rich in blood and deteriorate early on, so that blood is forced to the mouth and nose.”
Kind of takes the wind out of the vampire stories, doesn’t it? But isn’t it cool? Well, if you’re not thoroughly convinced I have one more trick up my sleeve. This is another very interesting point by Barber. Many times, once a corpse was exhumed and the dead were deemed to be vampires, a stake was driven through them to “kill” them once and for all. The observer claimed that the vampire “came to life and cried out”. According to Barber, the observation was correct but the conclusion was not. When you drive a stake into a decomposing body, the gasses which have accumulated in the body are driven out. Air is forced past the glottis and it appears as though the body cries out”…but this is not because the body is still alive.” Clearly, forensic examiners today would never deem a body to be that of a vampire given the above observations but we can understand how the ignorance of the observers could lead to the conclusions they had, and also to the sheer terror of the locals who were easily convinced of the supernatural.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are many who still firmly believe in the existence of vampires; there are many who believe they are vampires. I can’t really account for the second group. I suppose if you decide you’re a vampire, who am I to say otherwise but being a decentant of a bloated corpse is not terribly enchanting. Sometimes it’s easier to believe the stories of the supernatural. They appeal to our sense of wonder and they’re much more exciting to talk about than the boring predictability of logical forensics. And forensics takes the sexy right out of vampire unless, of course, the forensic examiner is extremely sexy him/herself. (CSI) But seriously, I’m sure it wouldn’t take much to dig further than I have to find other logical explanations for vampire “sightings” and stories (rabies, porphyria, contagion to name a few)3. Is there a harm in believing in vampires? If it leads to hysteria and/or death, either personal or mass, then yes. But if it’s simply a pass time, a way to connect with others, an enjoyment of telling thrilling tales, then no. If you get right down to it though, common sense and logic will tell you how far to take it and what to believe. Enjoy it for what it is, myth and fantastic fodder for novels, movies, and Halloween costumes. Have fun but don’t bite….okay, maybe a nibble… :-)