Brick Eaters

Vampire Skull

Several weeks ago National Geographic reported the discovery of a “vampire” skull, that is, the remnants of a plague victim into whose mouth a brick had been stuffed, a form of postmortem exorcism which would indicate the first remains of a suspected vampire: “as the human stomach decays, it release a dark ‘purge fluid.’ This bloodlike liquid can flow freely from a corpse’s nose and mouth, so it was apparently confused with traces of vampire victims’ blood. The fluid sometimes moistened the burial shroud near the corpse’s mouth, enough that it sagged into the jaw, creating tears in the cloth….Italian gravediggers saw these decomposing bodies with partially ‘eaten’ shrouds….” In such a situation, a brick was inserted to keep the corpse from eating and spreading the plague (other techniques included burying the body of a suspected vampire up to its chin in dirt so that it could not eat its way out of the grave).

I remember learning these various origin myths of vampires when I was in high school: I was told, for example, that malnourished people (as were plentiful in the middle ages) who were acutely iron deficient could smell it in the air, and thus when someone accidentally cut him/herself, the iron deficient might literally smell the iron in the blood and began uncontrollably to salivate—thus further perpetuating the notion of a bloodsucker. Likewise, extreme curvature of the spine (through scoliosis or similar) on a particularly hirsute individual might give the mistaken impression that this person was turning into a four-legged, furry animal—lycanthropy. In other words, the most fearsome were those who had poor eating habits.

The National Geographic story follows a similar trajectory, providing eminently plausible physical reaction that could be mistaken for something far more sinister. But there are other ways to think about the origins of vampires, which lately I’ve found a bit more compelling. Lawrence Rickels’ The Vampire Lectures (which, I hasten to point out, is nearly unreadable—stuffed with way-too-arch puns and witticisms juxtaposed uncomfortably aside theory jargon and lacking much in the way of cohesion; I could barely get through it) points out that vampires come from a rather different source: not so much the un-nourished, but the un-mourned. Prior to Stoker’s Dracula, when much of the modern mythology of vampirism was solidified into its most recognizable tropes, vampires were a common and recurrent feature of most cultures. Rickels describes any number of possible individuals who might be suspected of being vampires: suicides, for example, or widows/widowers were likely to be accused, postmortem, of vampirism, as were unbaptized children or apostates. Likewise with entire families that perished at once (say, in a house fire), or bachelors, who were particularly suspect. What Rickels points out is that in each case what unites these candidates was a lack of a surviving family or community who could properly mourn the dead. It’s this lack of mourning which makes a given corpse dangerous, and thus what casts the suspicion of vampirism on it. Thus the connection of vampires to plagues makes a certain amount of sense, since the plague would wipe out a large enough segment of the population so as to obviate mourning. Rickels writes that “vampirism not only serves the exclusion of the different (a kind of double exclusion of whatever is already on the margin), but that it also always covers the need to mourn. That the vampire is someone who was buried improperly also meant…that this special someone was not mourned properly.” Exorcism was a kind of substitute for mourning, then; the dead body demands some kind of rite, one way or another.

It would be great to rescue the vampire from the treacle of kitsch and nonsense that its suffered of late—from True Blood to Twilight to Blade ad nauseum—and at least make an attempt to reconnect to this older question of mourning, and how we treat the dead body. Since Stoker the vampire has been thought of almost exclusively in terms of a very obvious sexual metaphor—not just Dracula and Twilight but Interview with a Vampire and too many others to mention—and while that’s great as far as it goes, it seems that there’s a certain potency to marrying this anxiety about sexual contact and transference with a equally troubling anxiety about the corpse and its contagion upon the living.

(Rickels also mentions that the brothers of somnambulists were also candidates for vampirism. I’m still puzzling that one out, though I’m thinking it’s going to make a good title for the eventual work on vampires that I get around to writing.)

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4 Responses to “Brick Eaters”

  1. Yay, Colin! Love your blog. No idea you were so fascinated with vampires. Vampires are technically serial killers, too, you know…

  2. Kate Durbin Says:

    Interesting, Colin! I didn’t know that vampires were once the “unmourned.” I actually teach an Intro to Writing class at Whittier College on monsters, focusing specifically on vampires. We don’t go earlier than Dracula due to lack of time, but one of the things that I find most fascinating about vampires specifically (and this is the sort of framework I operate under for the class) is how they continue to morph with each culture and time they inhabit, continually representing whichever particular fears of death (and difference) the culture possesses at the time. So it would make sense then that when burial rites and the afterlife were huge concerns for people, that the vampires would be those who didn’t receive proper burials. It would also make sense that in Victorian England, vampires (Dracula) would represent fear of sex, among other things.

    However, I think that there probably is no way of rescuing the vampire or returning it to the notion of the unmourned, since that’s not really culturally relevant now. While I think Twilight is ridiculous (and everyone though Dracula was ridiculous when it came out, though it’s a far superior text to Twilight), it does reveal a certain cultural need…for what, I haven’t totally figured out, but it has something to do with teenage girls sexual needs. In fact, it might be interesting to see how vampires actually serve to reinforce the status quo (this can be seen w/ Draculas imperialistic bent, as well as his double of Van Helsing), which is what Twilight seems to be doing. Some of the moral undertones of the book (of which I have only read half) are really disturbing and anti-feminist. But now I’m off on a tangent. In any case, thanks for posting! I’ll definitely continue to read.

  3. “there’s a certain potency to marrying this anxiety about sexual contact and transference with a equally troubling anxiety about the corpse and its contagion upon the living.” Really fascinating. Looking forward to reading more of your blog! I wrote something a lot fluffier about the teen girl vampire fixation a few weeks ago: http://gradland.wordpress.com/2009/02/18/once-bitten-twilight-and-the-fixation-that-wont-go-away/

  4. vanpire article

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