Friday, May 15, 2020

Vampires, Burial, and Death

The bulk of Paul Barber's nonfiction book VAMPIRES, BURIAL, AND DEATH: FOLKLORE AND REALITY (1988) doesn't explain the origins of vampire superstitions, although one short chapter, "The Soul After Death," suggests some possibilities. What this book does is offer a detailed explanation of how vampire beliefs, once they arose, persisted because physical evidence seemed to support them. Written accounts of the condition of exhumed "vampire" corpses referred to actual events, sometimes reported in official documents filed by governmental investigators. People of several hundred years ago (the peak of vampire-hunting fervor occurred in the early eighteenth century, not the Middle Ages) were no less intelligent than we are, so why did they positively identify some of their deceased neighbors as undead?

The book begins with detailed recaps of some well-known historical accounts of "vampire" infestations, what investigations and attempted remedies were undertaken, and how the suspected undead corpses were dealt with. Barber surveys variations in vampire legends throughout Europe, exploring what they had in common and what symptoms confirmed the vampiric status of a dead body. He also reviews the characteristics of the living dead and the methods by which people were assumed to become vampires after death. The two chapters on "Apotropaics" ("methods of turning evil away") illustrate the many different preventive measures various ethnic groups employed to make the dead rest in their graves. These sections are fascinating in themselves. The core of the book, though, consists of in-depth discussions of the natural processes of decomposition and how traces of them could be mistaken for proof that a deceased individual maintained an unnatural life. The average person might have been familiar with decay found in bodies left unburied. However, a cadaver exhumed from a coffin in a grave decomposes differently from one exposed to the elements. Even meticulous, well-educated observers might mistake the appearance of a disinterred body for a state of supernatural preservation instead of an unfamiliar natural phenomenon. For instance, gases building up in a corpse could make it look flushed and bloated, as exhumed "vampires" often did. Fluids squeezed out of the orifices by the swelling made it appear that the corpse had been drinking blood. The sudden release of those gases produced the groans and screeches often reported from staked vampires. Other decay processes sometimes gave the impression that the cadaver had been chewing on its own extremities. Barber analyzes these and many other symptoms of vampirism that could have been produced naturally but interpreted as monstrously unnatural.

The chapters "Search and Destroy" and "The Vampire's Activity" contrast the conventional vampire of fiction and the less uniform folkloric revenants of various cultures with the strikingly similar descriptions of disinterred vampire corpses in many different locations. These similarities reinforce the impression that people who "killed" vampires were describing things they'd actually witnessed. Other chapters discuss burial customs, methods of disposing of corpses and preventing their reanimation, and techniques used to keep the spirit from re-inhabiting the body. Regarding testimony about the appearance and characteristics of exhumed undead corpses, Barber emphasizes repeatedly that "we would do well to trust [the witnesses'] descriptions rather than their interpretations." The interpretations vary depending on local preconceptions and superstitions, while the physical "evidence" shows a remarkable consistency.

If you're curious about vampire history and legends, provided you don't mind an often gruesome level of concrete details, you'll want to read this book.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

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