For some “intellectual preparation” for our getting reacquainted with HBO’s popular vampire saga, my friend Brian shared a truly fascinating, if rather morbid, article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s written by Michael Sims, editor of the recently released Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories.
Following is an excerpt from Sim's article, "All the Dead Are Vampires: A Natural-Historical Look at Our Love-Hate Relationship with Dead People."
As I worked on the introduction to the anthology, I merged the two main topics I write about: natural history and Victorian literature. I tried to look at vampires from a scientific point of view. After all, where did we get this fear that, once the sun goes down, the ghoulish undead climb out of their coffins and come back for the rest of us? It didn't emerge out of thin air.
The vampire story as we know it was born in the early 19th century, as the wicked love child of rural folklore and urban decadence. But in writing these depraved tales, Byron and Polidori and company were refining the raw ore of peasant superstition. And the peasant brain had simply been doing what the human brain does best: sorting information into explanatory narratives.
I found lots of reports of vampires from Europe — from urban France, rural Russia, the islands of Greece, the mountains of Romania. Along the way, I was reminded of something I already knew but hadn't thought of as relevant in this context: During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, dead bodies were a common sight. Plague and countless other illnesses ravaged every community. Corpses of the executed and tortured were displayed in public as warnings, even left hanging as they decomposed.
Few bodies seemed to rest peacefully even in the ground. Often people in the 18th century had an opportunity not only to see corpses but also to glimpse them again after they were buried. Urban cemeteries were densely overcrowded, sometimes with the dead stacked several graves deep, causing horrific spillage during floods or earthquakes. More corpses than the ground could accommodate resulted in the stench of decay and the constant risk of disease. Grave desecration was also common; a thriving trade in illicit cadavers for medical students joined a vicious rivalry between competing religious groups. After Louis XIV abolished the convent at Port-Royal des Champs as a hotbed of Jansenist heresy, drunken locals dug up nuns' bodies from the cemetery and fed them to their dogs. Corpses of executed heretics were dragged through the streets, then reburied in too-small graves by breaking the body into small pieces.
I found in older vampire stories that often the person who returns as a vampire was irreligious during life — irreverent, scornful of the infallibility of the church or the need for communion, for example. People worried especially about those who had been excommunicated and denied burial in a church-approved cemetery. If your soul didn't sleep peacefully in the arms of the Lord, what might it be up to?
In his 1746 compendium, The Phantom World, Augustin Calmet explored those questions. In a section headed "Do the excommunicated rot in the earth?," he examined the common fear that the body of a heretic does not decompose but instead lingers in the earth, profaning the laws of God in death as it did in life, polluting the ground with its sinfulness and disease. Unlikely comrades, such as natural philosophers and village priests, found themselves allied in an antipollution movement, lobbying for the segregation of cemeteries to rural areas beyond dense centers of population — where their rotting inhabitants could inflict less harm on the living.
The scholar Marie-Hélène Huet sums up the subtext of many early vampire accounts: “All the dead are vampires, poisoning the air, the blood, the life of the living, contaminating their body and their soul, robbing them of their sanity.”
As I continued digging into the literature, I wondered: If ordinary people were encountering the corpses of the recently dead or even long-dead friends and relatives, what were they actually seeing that they misinterpreted and then wove into a vampire mythology? Not surprisingly, no one understood the process of decay within a subterranean chamber. They had no forensic body farm at which to chart a corpse's fade from nauseating stink to cautionary bones.
Any variation from "normal" in the grave provoked fear, yet there isn't really much of a norm in the process of decay under different circumstances. Some coffins protect their residents better than others. Lime helps preserve a body, as do clay soil and low humidity. Graves in different climates and latitudes vary, depending upon air temperature and humidity, soil composition, and insects, not to mention those invisible sanitation workers who turn us all back into the dust from which we came—and of course in the 18th century, no one knew that such creatures existed.
Many natural changes after death were judged to be evidence that the late lamented had turned into a bloodsucker. Like hair, fingernails don't actually continue to grow after death, but as fingers decompose, the skin shrinks, making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike. You begin to look as if you're turning into a predatory animal. Dead skin, after sloughing off its top layer, can look flushed and alive as if with fresh blood. Damp soil's chemicals can produce in the skin a waxy secretion, sometimes brownish or even white, from fat and protein — adipocere, "grave wax." In one eyewitness account from the 18th century, a vampire is even found—further proof of his vile nature — to have a certain region of his anatomy in a posthumous state of excitement. The genitals often inflate during the process of decomposition.
And what about the blood reported around the mouths of resurrected corpses? That too has a natural explanation. Without the heart as a pump to keep it circulating, blood follows the path of least resistance. Many bodies were buried face down, resulting in blood pooling in the face and leaving it looking flushed. Sometimes blood also gets lifted mouthward by gases from decomposition. Vampire stories recognize that death is messy.
To read Michael Sim’s “All the Dead Are Vampires” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Blood, Sex, Magic: Welcome to the World of True Blood
Image: Stephen Moyer as vampire Bill Compton in True Blood.