Friday, June 01, 2012

Supernatural Friday: Vampires: Part 4

Most vampire scholars focus on the cultural roots of vampire lore, others have looked to physical origins. There is no scientific evidence of actual vampires, but there are a number of real medical conditions that might result in vampiric behavior or appearance.

One of these "vampire diseases" is porphyria. It is a rare disease, characterized by irregularities in production of heme, an iron-rich pigment in blood. People with the more severe forms of porphyria are highly sensitive to sunlight, experience severe abdominal pain and may suffer from acute delirium. One possible treatment for porphyria that might have been used in the past was to drink blood. This was suppose to correct the imbalance in the body, even though there's no clear evidence that this even did the trick. Some porphyria sufferers do have reddish mouths and teeth, due to irregular production of the heme pigment. It is hereditary, so there may have been concentrations of sufferers in certain areas throughout history.

A more likely physical root of vampirism is catalepsy. It’s a peculiar physical condition associated with epilepsy, schizophrenia and other disorders that affect the central nervous system. During a cataleptic episode, a person essentially freezes up. The muscles grow rigid, the body becomes very stiff, and the heart rate and respiration slow down. A person with acute catalepsy could very well be mistaken for a corpse.

Doctors have the knowledge and tools today that they can determine whether or not someone is alive. In the past, people decided based only on appearance. Embalming was unknown in most of the world until just recently, so a body would have been buried in the ground as is. A cataleptic episode can last many hours, even days, allowing enough time for a burial. When the person came to, he or she might have been able to dig out of their grave and return home. Others who couldn’t get out of their coffin; many skeletons have been discovered, showing they’ve awaken and scratches gouged in the coffin. If the person did suffer from a psychological disorder, such as schizophrenia, he or she might have exhibited the strange and disturbing behavior associated with vampires. Like currently, the man in Florida who attacked another and began to eat his face. Today’s society says zombie, but in days of vampire legends, vampires not only drank blood, but ate flesh too.  All the signs of an insane person.

The behavior of actual corpses might have suggested vampirism as well. After death, fingernails and hair continue to grow because the surrounding skin recedes and this may give the impression of life. Gases in the body expand, extending the abdomen, as if the body had gorged itself. If a decomposing corpse was staked, it could very well rupture, draining all sorts of fluids. Of course, this would be considered evidence that the corpse had been feeding on the living.

Maybe this might have fueled a fear of the undead; most root causes of vampire lore are due most likely to the psychological rather than physical. One kind of psychological is Renfield’s syndrome, named after Bram Stoker’s character in Dracula. Clinical vampirism is a recognizable, although rare, clinical entity characterized by periodic compulsive blood drinking and an affinity with death. The sexual element of this disorder as well as the hyper-violent behaviours displayed by numerous serial killers, the most famous being Jeffery Dahmer, has become an inherent part of the modern notion of the vampire.
Several notorious criminals in history are considered by scholars and psychologists to have been psychotic vampires, including Fritz Haarman, Gilles de Rais, the Marquis de Sade, John Haigh, and Elizabeth Bathory. These individuals appear over and over in non-fiction books about vampires. There have also been several cases of vampire crimes from the 1950s to the present. These include the Rudas, whose crime was connected with Satanic ritual, Richard Chase and Joshua Rudiger, who believed themselves to be vampires, and John George Haigh, a serial killer. There are many more in history, and most of all, modern times.

All cultures are preoccupied with death to some degree. One way to get a handle on death is to personify it -- to give it some tangible form. At their root, Lamastu, Lilith and similar early vampires are explanations for a terrifying mystery, the sudden death of young children and fetuses in the womb. The strigoi and other animated corpses are the ultimate symbols of death -- they are the actual remains of the deceased.

Vampires personify humanity’s dark side. Lilith, Lamastu and the other early vampire demonesses are the opposite of the "good wife and mother." Instead of caring for children and honoring a husband, they kill children and seduce men. Undead vampires feed on their family, instead of supporting it. It was the licing’s way of staking their own evil tendencies.

The appearance of so many vampire-like monsters throughout history, as well as our continued fascination with vampires, demonstrates that this is a universal response to the human condition. It's simply human nature to cast our fears as monsters.


Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I love reading about legends and myths. Quite interesting how the imagination can run wild when something doesn't make sense.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I love reading about legends and myths. It's quite interesting how imaginations run wild when there is something not understood.

Great post!