Long-time National Geographic staff historian Mark Jenkins’ new book, Vampire Forensics, is the basis for a new National Geographic Explorer television special premiering in the U.S. Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. It’s not quite an interview with the vampire, but Jenkins shares some of what he learned on the trail of Dracula and his kin.
By Ford Cochran
for Nat Geo News Watch
Fear of the walking dead is old. Sucking blood isn’t always part of it–sometimes they eat you, sometimes they just beat you up. There’s some sort of deep layer of belief that crops up here and there, possibly something shared once in the Indo-European past that survived when the tribes became separate nations.
In twelfth-century England, William of Newburgh, a fairly good historian, wrote about prodigies, oddities well beyond the natural course of events. When you read his stories, they’re pretty much about vampires and related characters–people who die in sin and come back as nasty monsters, like what we would call zombies today, spreading disease with them through the town.
In China, in particular, there’s a living corpse that resembles a European vampire. One is tempted to say there might be a Silk Road connection, but it’s too hard to prove it. The Chinese version doesn’t swoop down on you: He can only hop. But he’s a pretty nasty vampire–not one of the aristocrats, like Dracula, in a cape and evening attire. That’s the work of 19th-century Romanticism. The Chinese vampire is based in the sort of gritty peasant superstition that was condemned by the pope in Europe in the 18th century.
India’s also full of blood-sucking demons, possibly related to vampires. Many are the deformed spirits of people who weren’t properly cremated, some no larger than your thumb. If you swallow one, it lodges in your intestines and banquets on what’s down there. Sound like cholera? Possibly, as with the European vampire’s connection to plague. Cholera is a deeply feared disease that came about by drinking water infected with human feces, and outbreaks were devastating in India.
In Europe, Greece could be the home of the vampire–the Balkans and Greece. Santorini became especially fertile ground for vampire beliefs, because the volcanic soil preserves bodies, slowing decomposition. Originally, when the dead came back, they weren’t really malicious. There’s a story of a shoemaker who came back and helped his family out by making shoes. Other dead people who were thought to have returned from the grave were seen out in the fields eating beans. Vegetarians, the gentle dead! But those are ancient-vintage legends, before the evil Slavic vampire overwrote them.
The video above is an excerpt from National Geographic Explorer “Vampire Forensics”. The documentary premieres in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel, February 23, 2010, 10.m. ET/PT.
Why do you think people in so many different places came to believe in vampires?
Several things certainly contributed.
First, there were wasting diseases. Vampires weren’t something you worried about every night, but when an epidemic came through, such as the plague. No one really understood how it was transmitted. Back in Venice they were getting close. They set up quarantines, burned clothes and linens, killed cats and dogs thinking it might have something to do with their pelts. But they didn’t get the idea it was the rider on the pelts of the rats–the fleas–spreading the disease.
Six Ways to Stop a Vampire
Garlic, mirrors, holy water, a stake through the heart. Read Ford Cochran’s BlogWild for details of the traditional methods to fend off blood-sucking fiends.
In the 19th century, tuberculosis in New England was of epidemic proportions, wiping out entire families. One guy would go down, then his sister or his brother. Then they’d go down like flies. It was called “galloping consumption.” A tubercular person would be pale, losing weight, wasting away.
The folk theory emerged that if that was happening, you had to dig up the body of the most recent relative who died. If their heart or lungs looked fairly fresh, you had to tear them out and burn the corpse–or even take them out and eat them. (Not a great way to avoid contracting tuberculosis.) Somehow, people believed, by some mysterious process, the dead were absorbing the health and vitality of their next of kin. Thoreau mentioned it in one of his journal entries. These people had probably never even heard the word vampire!
Then there was the process of natural decay. After several weeks or months underground, corpses don’t look like they did when you buried them. They’re bloated, with nasty things coming from their mouths. “Bloated like a tick.” That was actually fairly normal before widespread embalming. If you reopened a mass grave and found a strange looking carcass, perhaps that was evidence of a vampire. You don’t find vampire stories in places where cremation was practiced.
The skull and brick from the Vampire of Venice. In the summer of 2006, on the Venetian island of Lazaretto Nuovo, Matteo Borrini and his team were excavating a mass grave dating from the plague of the 16th Century. They found a skeleton with a brick between the jaws of its skull. A brick was placed in the mouth of the corpse to kill a vampire. Read the National Geographic News story “Vampire” Picture: Exorcism Skull Found in Italy.
Photo © National Geographic Television
Sometimes thoughts of vampires arose when a particularly hated character died. They left a lasting impression on everybody. People would see them in their dreams. Psychologically, people were more susceptible to thinking “I saw him on the street the other night. Horses in the barn were uneasy all night long.”
It fed into the madness of crowds, hysteria. Someone might say, “He hit me–I’m black and blue!” Finally, they would just dig up the grave, sort of like the old horror movies, where the villagers would get their pitchforks. They’d dig up the body, burn it, and send the remains down the river.
The further back you go, the more it becomes just a general fear of the dead, which seems to be universal. It may manifest itself in ghosts, disembodied dead people. The further back you go, the less of a distinction seems to exist between haunting spirits with bodies and those without.
Have people always associated vampires with bats?
The notion of demonic shape-shifting dates way back. There were Paleolithic shamans, and animal cults are probably as old as humanity. Put on a wolf pelt and you become the wolf. In parts of the Balkans and Greece, vrykolakas–a word later used for vampires—had its origins with a wolf cult in which pelts were worn to transform the wearers into werewolves. The creatures got all mixed up. Each little tribe and village had a slightly different take on everything, but a common culture of vampires arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The association with bats primarily comes from Bram Stoker and the book Dracula. But the bat has always been a symbol of darkness and evil, emerging from caves. And of course, the vampire bat does drink blood.
NGS stock photo of vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) by Bruce Dale
What about the vampire’s cloak?
That was a stage prop! When Dracula was on stage in the first theatrical productions, they had a disappearing pit for him. He had to turn his back on the audience, spread a cloak and slip down a trapdoor and out of there. That’s the origin of the cloak. It carried over to film with the actor Béla Legusi, then it became de rigueur: Dracula couldn’t show up without his evening clothes and cloak. They buried Béla Lugosi in his Dracula cloak.
Jenkins, Mark Collins. Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the origins of an enduring legend. Washington: National Geographic, 2010. 303pp.
Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.