Glamour, entertainment and science
From 19th century to this day
In the third part of this essay I presented two historic figures who became unwillingly two template vampires. The fact that they were both aristocrats influenced the way vampires have been perceived ever since – after a while these monsters started to be presented as sophisticated creatures, often Europeans of noble classes. They were knowledgeable, elegant, cultured, although savage. Additionally, they were presented as sensual and alluring – often because their incredible, much coveted and never changing youth. This is another significant element of our modern view of vampires, an element which separates them from their legendary ancestors, horrible monsters all of them, and all other fiends and ghouls: contemporary vampires do have sex appeal. Bloodlust, eroticism and death – a truly intoxicating mixture, perfect for any popular story or Hollywood production. How could we forget about such enticing creatures?
During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. In this region there are many documented cases of families disinterring loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family (although the word “vampire” was never used to describe him/her). The deadly tuberculosis, or “consumption” as it was known at the time, was believed to be caused by nightly visitations on the part of a dead family member (who had died of consumption him/herself). The most famous (and latest recorded) case is that of nineteen year old Mercy Brown who died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892. Her father, assisted by the family physician, removed her from her tomb two months after her death. Her heart was cut out then burnt to ashes. An account of this incident was found among the papers of Bram Stoker and the story closely resembles the events in his classic novel, Dracula. Before we will progress to Dracula the book, though, let me present other vampire novels, almost forgotten now, which showed that new trend – glamourizing of monsters.
Perhaps the most significant contribution to the evolution of vampires was Dr. John Polidori’s eighteenth century novel entitled The Vampyre (well, how else?). The fanged main character of this novel, called Lord Ruthven, is a magnetic, sensual bloodsucker – suave, sophisticated and able to seduce almost anyone he chooses.Charming and intelligent he might be, but he is also very fickle in his affections, absolutely cold- hearted type. Polidori wrote that novel as a satire, intending to insult Lord Byron, whom he had adored and who had recently discarded him. However, much to his horror, the public bestowed equal adoration on the Vampyre figure himself, and, as Polidori drifted into obscurity, many attributed the authorship of this astounding book to Byron . It was, you must admit, also an example of intellectual vampirism.
After the success of this novel the concept of the aristocratic vampire really took off, and a whole wave of similar tales precipitated over the following century. Sheridan LeFanu’s famous novel Carmilla, published in 1871, used the vampire myth to explore forbidden aspects of sexuality, and, in doing so, created an interesting, overtly lesbian heroine who, despite her nature, attempted to resist harming the girl whom she truly loved. The vampire and the human had at last become directly entwined. There was also a lengthy penny dreadful serial written by James Malcolm Rymer (Varney the Vampire) but without any long-term significance.
Knowing that background we can deal now with “Dracula”, written by Bram Stoker in 1897. The book featured as its primary antagonist a vicious Count who was given not only new life but also a totally new historical background and bears almost no resemblance to the historic Vlad III Dracula.
The novel is mainly composed of journal entries and letters written by several narrators who also serve as the novel’s main protagonists; Stoker supplemented the story with occasional newspaper clippings to relate events not directly witnessed by the story’s characters. The tale begins with Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified English solicitor, going to Count Dracula’s crumbling, remote castle (situated in the Carpathian Mountains). The purpose of his mission is to provide legal support to Dracula for a real estate transaction. At first the young man is enticed by Dracula’s gracious manner but soon he discovers that he has become his prisoner. One night, while searching for a way out, Harker falls under the spell of three wanton female vampires, the Brides of Dracula. He is saved at the last second by the Count, who wants to keep him alive. Finally Harker escapes from the castle but he is very ill. Not long afterward, a Russian ship, runs aground on the shores of Whitby, England, during a fierce tempest. All of the crew are missing. The captain’s log is recovered, containing strange events which led to the gradual disappearance of the entire crew. An animal described as a large dog is seen on the ship leaping ashore. The ship’s cargo is described as silver sand and boxes of “mould”, or earth, from Transylvania. As you might guess Dracula arrives to London to track Harker’s devoted fiancée, Mina Murray, and her friend, Lucy Westenra. There is a notable encounter between Dracula and Seward’s patient Renfield, an insane man who wants to consume different creatures in order to absorb their “life force”. Renfield acts as a motion sensor, detecting Dracula’s proximity and supplying clues accordingly.
Lucy begins to waste away suspiciously. Her suitors fret, and finally one of them, Seward, calls in his old teacher, Professor Abraham Van Helsing from Amsterdam. Van Helsing immediately determines the cause of Lucy’s condition but refuses to disclose it. Van Helsing tries multiple blood transfusions, but they are not working. On a night when Van Helsing must return to Amsterdam (and his message to Seward asking him to watch the Westenra household is accidentally sent to the wrong address), Lucy and her mother are attacked by a wolf. Mrs Westenra, who has a heart condition, dies of fright, and Lucy apparently dies soon after.
Lucy is buried, but soon afterward the newspapers report children being stalked in the night by “beautiful lady”. Van Helsing, knowing that this means Lucy has become a vampire, confides in Seward, Lord Godalming and Morris. The suitors and Van Helsing track Lucy down, and after a disturbing confrontation between her vampiric self and Arthur, they stake her heart, behead her, and fill her mouth with garlic. Around the same time, Jonathan Harker arrives home from recuperation in Budapest (where Mina joined and married him); they also join the coalition against Dracula.Dracula learns of the plot against him and he takes revenge by visiting and feeding from Mina at least three times. Dracula also feeds Mina his blood, creating a spiritual bond between them. The only way to forestall this is to kill Dracula first. Mina slowly succumbs to the blood of the vampire that flows through her veins, switching back and forth from a state of consciousness to a state of semi-trance during which she is telepathically connected with Dracula. This telepathic connection is established to be two-way, in that the Count can influence Mina, but in doing so betrays to her awareness of his surroundings.
After the group sterilizes all of his lairs in London, Dracula flees back to his castle in Transylvania, transported in a box with transfer and portage instructions forwarded ahead. He is pursued by Van Helsing’s group. After a dramatic pursuit Harker shears Dracula through the throat with a Kukri while mortally wounded Quincey, slashed by one of the crew, stabs the Count in the heart with a Bowie knife. Dracula crumbles to dust,
and Mina is freed from his curse.
The book closes with a note about Mina’s and Jonathan’s married life and the birth of their first-born son, whom they name after all four members of the party, but refer to only as Quincey in remembrance of one of their friends.
According to literary historians, Nina Auerbach and David Skal in the Norton Critical Edition, the novel has become more significant for modern readers than it was for contemporary Victorians, most of whom enjoyed it just as a good adventure story; it only reached its broad iconic legendary classic status later in the 20th century when the movie versions appeared.
As we already mentioned movies…
The first film about vampires was released as early as 1922 – it was F. W. Murnau’s seminal silent movie, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (A symphony of grays) . Then came the classic 1931 film “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi (a Hungarian). As a homage to the first 1922 movie director Werner Herzog made the 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre which basic story is derived from Bram Stoker’s novel. Herzog considered Murnau’s Nosferatu to be the greatest film ever to come out of Germany. The Vampyre was played by Klaus Kinsky (and if you like being afraid while watching a horror movie do see this one – old but incredibly scary; I was never able to watch it from the beginning to the very end).
In 1992 Francis Ford Coppola decided to shoot a new version of “Dracula”, a gothic romance-thriller, starring Gary Oldman as Dracula and Winona Ryder as his beloved Mina. In this movie Dracula was portrayed as a creature more human than ever, really a monster you can sympathize with. Despite some narrative confusions and dead ends I enjoyed the movie simply for the way it looked and felt. Production designers have simply outdone themselves.To tell you the truth I am yet to find a better vampire movie.
Filmmakers have interpreted the cult of vampires in many ways, some emphasizing the primal and ancient instinct of the ungodly, while others using vampires as tools to introduce generic horror and gore. For example, vampires have been portrayed as rock stars in Queen of the Damned, next door neighbors in Fright Night, space creatures in Lifeforce, melancholic aristocrats in Interview with the Vampire and criminals in From Dusk Till Dawn. They never ceased to entertain the public, though.
Movies and fiction are one thing, real life is just another, right? Do people still believe in vampires? You bet they do. It seems this belief not only persists to this day but also is spreading. While some cultures preserve their original traditions about the immortal, most modern-day believers are more influenced by the fictional image of the vampire as it occurs in films and literature.
In the 1970s, there were rumors (spread by the local press) that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in London. Amateur vampire hunters flocked in large numbers in the cemetery. Several books have been written about the case, notably by Sean Manchester, a local man who was among the first to suggest the existence of the “Highgate Vampire” and who later claimed to have exorcised and destroyed a whole nest of vampires in the area.
In the modern folklore of Puerto Rico and Mexico, the chupacabra (goat-sucker) is said to be a creature that feeds upon the flesh or drinks the blood of domesticated animals, leading some to consider it a kind of vampire. The chupacabra mystery was frequently associated with deep economic and political crises, particularly during the mid-1990s.
During late 2002 and early 2003, hysteria about alleged attacks of vampires swept through the African country of Malawi. Mobs stoned one individual to death and attacked at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was colluding with vampires (the best political accusation I’ve ever heard, this one!).
In January 2005, rumours began to circulate that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fueling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crime had been reported. This case appears to be an urban legend.
In March 2007, self-proclaimed vampire hunters broke into the tomb of Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and staked his body through the heart into the ground. Although the group involved claimed this act was to prevent Milosevic from returning as a vampire, it is not known whether those involved actually believed this could happen or if the crime was simply politically motivated.
|Mistletoe, a plant – vampire|
What contemporary science has to say? It seems doctors and scientists have found real vampires and the culprit as well. They say that the first step in understanding vampire lore is to understand some of the biological reasons that may have led to such beliefs. In zoology and botany, the term vampirism is known and used in reference to leeches, mosquitos, mistletoe, vampire bats, and other organisms that subsist on the bodily fluids of others.
Today many scientists believe that ancient people’s misunderstanding of decomposition resulted in many being accused of being vampires. As the body decomposes and the skin withers away it can create the illusion of growing hair or fingernails (and these grow anyway for some time after death). Also, as the body decomposes it can become filled with a gas causing it to swell. This swelling made many vampire hunters thinking a corpse looks well-nourished and must be rising from the dead at night to feast upon the living. If someone were to stake a cadaver swollen with gases it could cause the gases to look for an escape route due to the newfound pressure. Now we can imagine such a scenario: the gas passes out of the mouth, it comes into contact with the vocal chords and makes a groaning sound (or it could pass through the anus and make a sound similar to flatulence). Both these sounds could be confused with signs of life after death, especially by frightened, superstitious people “working” in darkness or semi-darkness.
|A victim of porphyria|
One of the most plausible medical explanations for vampire myths, though, is the disease called porphyria, which occurred frequently in Transylvania. Porphyrias are a group of inherited or acquired disorders of certain enzymes in the heme bio-synthetic pathway (also called porphyrin pathway). They are broadly classified as acute (hepatic) porphyrias and cutaneous (erythropoietic) porphyrias, based on the site of the overproduction and accumulation of the porphyrins (or their chemical precursors). They manifest with either neurological complications or skin problems (or occasionally both). In January 1964, L. Illis’ 1963 paper, “On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werwolves”, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. Later, Nancy Garden argued for a connection between porphyria and the vampire belief in her 1973 book, Vampires. In 1985, biochemist David Dolphin’s paper for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Porphyria, Vampires, and Werewolves: The Aetiology of European Metamorphosis Legends“, gained widespread media coverage, thus popularizing the connection. Vlad III the Impaler was also said to have suffered from acute porphyria, which may have started the notion that vampires were allergic to sunlight.Indeed porphyria results in rapid tissue damage, giving the victim a ghastly pallor and enlarged teeth due to gum damage. The effects of porphyria are greatly amplified upon exposure to the sun, making sun light something the victims would try to avoid at all costs. It is also believed that certain strains of porphyria are associated with neurological conditions, which would result in insanity. This condition might also explain the practice of drinking blood – these people would have done so trying to alleviate somehow their severe anemia.
Some doctors have also established a link between the disease rabies and the belief in vampires. They suggest that the “vampires” and “werewolves” that ancient people fiercely believed in were merely people in the late stages of rabies. Rabies can cause hypersensitivity, disruptions in sleep patterns (causing someone to become nocturnal for example), a bloody foaming at the mouth, and the urge to bite other people and/or animals.
There are also psychological aspects entangled in the vampire myths. Many historians have noted that the belief in vampires rises when ancient communities are going through times of mass outbreaks of disease. Perhaps the only way that ancient people knew how to explain these disease epidemics that were killing them were through the folkloric tales of vampires. Some of the psychologists of the Freudian field of thinking believe that vampires represent the darker side of human nature and these myths and legends are manifestations of secret human desires.
Regardless of the reason, vampires have become a mainstay in world culture, and to some they are very real. In the modern world, there is an entire subculture dedicated to the vampire. These groups of people often partake in the drinking of blood or sometimes they feed off the supposed life energy of another. This life energy feeding is often refereed to as psychic vampirism in the vampire community.
Do you still believe in vampires? If so, ponder over this. In 2006, Costas Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi published a dissertation that, using geometric progression, makes the following statement: if each vampire’s nourishment depended on making even one other person a vampire, it would only be a matter of years before the Earth’s entire population was among the undead or vampires completely died out. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
|A mosquito- the only vampire you should be afraid of.|
My concise history with fangs ends here. Thank you for accompanying me during this long and scary journey through countries and ages – I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!