Friday, April 02, 2010

Vampire Forensics by Mark Collins Jenkins

Everyone knows about vampires, but where does the concept of vampires come from? We all know about Dracula. who was based on the Legends of Vlad Dracula, also known as Tsepesh, or Vlad the Impaler, because that was the punishment he used most often. A fairly typical bloodthirsty warlord, Vlad took things a step further, using terror as a weapon, terror of him. He would impale hundreds, if not thousands of enemies, and then take his meals in the midst of the groaning, bleeding, dying men. Occasionally, he would dip his bread in the blood of his fallen enemies, and eat it. The legends surrounding him were so great that after his death, men told stories that Vlad Dracul was a Vrykolakas, a vampire.

But Transylvania is not the first place where stories of the blood-sucking dead appeared. From the Penanggalan of Malaysia to the Alp of Germany and even the Chiang Shih of China. So where did all these ideas of the walking dead, drinking the blood of the living, come from?

Well, Dracula isn't the only Eastern European noble to be said to be a vampire. The distaff side of the equation is Erzebet Bathory, a noblewoman who favored extreme cruelty to her servants. As she grew older, and her beauty began to wane, she looked for all sorts of cosmetics to make herself look young again. One day, when beating a servant girl with a brush, some blood fell on the back of her hand, and when she wiped it away, she noted that the skin under the blood looked tighter and younger. And so she found the very best youthening cosmetic of all- the blood of young girls. Girls died by the hundreds in her castle, bleeding out their lives for her skin, until even they no longer sufficed. Then, her servants and mentors suggested that the blood wasn't pure enough- the blood of nobility would do. It was this final act that saw her condemned to death- for killing the daughters of her fellow nobles. But she wasn't killed quickly- she was bricked up inside her castle, with only a small channel for food and drink near the bottom of her door. It took her four years to die.

Similar stories abound in this book, which traces the stories of vampire plagues (where one person dies, and then more die, presumably victims of the vampire preying on the people of the same family or town), and strange burial practices, like a woman found in Venice with a piece of brick shoved between her jaws- presumably because they suspected she had a chance of rising as a vampire, and used the brick to prevent her from preying on others.

In fact, it's hard to tell what a true vampire attack is, since in the past, diseases passed from person to person quite easily, and those left behind might think the initial victim is a vampire and is preying on the rest. The stories of uncorrupted bodies lacking the stench of decay is also suspect, as there is an account written by a soldier who took part in one of these burial openings, and while the villagers later maintained that there was no scent of decay, he remembered gagging on just such a scent.

In the end, it is possible that the idea of a vampire arose out of legends of an ancestor cult, possibly reaching as far back as the proto-Celtic culture. The idea of a vampire disseminated in many lands, and each brought their own ideas about vampires to the table, which led to entirely different sorts of vampires, all of whom thirst for life-force, most in the form of blood. Just looking at the different vampire legends should show this to be true.

I found this book to be very interesting, for it shows how legends of vampires often started, with vampire plagues, and with people falling sick. In the end, our own conception of what it means to be a vampire changes as often as our culture does. In the Victorian age. they were creatures who preyed on those who repressed sexuality, and their bite was often analogous to a kind of twisted reverse rape. "I penetrate you with my body part, but instead of leaving the stuff of life (sperm), I take something away (blood and often life as well)."

In our time, Vampires have become the bad boy, the idea of living forever, and their existence is no longer seen as a curse. Things have changed in the media in just the last 60 years, with Vampires going from being villains to anti-heroes to heroes. The unchanging nature of vampirism is that it is always changing, always becoming something new and different to the next generation. This book goes a small way to explaining our fascination with Vampires, and how they emerged from mythology into our consciousness. Recommended.

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