Archive for Vampires

Brick Eaters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 22, 2009 by colindickey

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.)