Griswold CT, 1990. A young boy ran home to show his mother what he’d found digging in the hillside near-by. Much to her surprise, it was a human skull. Archaeologists subsequently uncovered a colonial-era rural community cemetery. Most of the graves contained simple wood coffins typical of New England in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Two coffins were found in crypts, buried underground beneath a stone walled enclosure. On the lid of the best-preserved coffin, the letters J.B. were hammered in brass tacks. Inside, archaeologists uncovered a skeleton whose bones had been rearranged. The lower legs were in the right place but the thighbones were crossed over the cracked ribs and the vertebrae and the skull sat upon them, almost like the image on a pirate flag. Medical forensics determined that the skeleton had been decapitated about five years after J.B. had died from tuberculosis. The question was, why did someone do so? A review of similar findings in graves from a similar time period throughout New England provided the most likely explanation: vampires.
Outbreaks of tuberculosis (TB) were not uncommon in New England in the 1700s and 1800s. A wasting disease, TB causes the sufferer to get paler and weaker over time while a deep cough persistently brings up bright blood from the lungs. Then commonly called “Consumption,” patients looked like all of their life-preserving blood had been depleted when they finally died.
Tuberculosis, we know now, is caused by bacteria (mycobacterium tuberculosis) that usually attack the lungs but can also damage the kidney, spine, and brain. It is an airborne pathogen often inadvertently shared with family members and close associates.
Superstitions about vampires were initiated and sustained by outbreaks of tuberculosis in Slavic Europe as well. The folklore traveled to other parts of Europe and eventually to America, particularly to New England.
Because TB takes its time wandering about the body before it is lethal, deaths of family members can occur over many years within one household. This suggested to the community that the deceased were rising from the grave to jealously suck the blood from the living, causing them to join their lonely relatives in the underworld. To intervene in this cycle and protect themselves from the undead, sometimes parish members would exhume the bodies of the deceased decapitate the corpse, remove and burn the heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke or eating the ashes, turn the corpse face down, and hammer a wooden stake through its chest to keep it secured to the ground. Reburying it in a crypt would make it more difficult to get out of.
Why was this specific highly-detailed creature specter so well described and common to vast areas of the world? Anthropologists speculate that this specific creature’s character traits evolved over years as a cautionary tale to superstitious and religious people grappling with fears about illness, contagion, and death. Vampires prioritize their individual desires and needs over those of the community, succumbing to their thirst for blood and unable to resist the temptation. Like drug addiction, vampires will even hurt their loved ones to meet their own needs.
Another disease that may also have contributed to the vampire myth is porphyria. It is a relatively rare inherited cluster of conditions that all disrupt the body’s ability to make heme, the iron-carrying portion of the red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body. The lack of oxygen can cause severe pain, weakness, confusion, disorientation, and seizures among other symptoms. Drinking the blood of animals would relieve symptoms.
Attacks of porphyria can be triggered by external stimuli like hormonal changes, certain foods, smoking and alcohol. Symptoms and stimuli that may have suggested vampirism include:
- urine tinted red or brown insinuated drinking blood,
- extreme sensitivity to sunlight causes blisters and burns so that sufferers avoided daylight,
- repeated attacks caused the skin and gums to recede exposing the eye teeth that can resemble fangs
- because it is high in sulfur that can trigger a porphyria attack, sufferers avoided garlic.
Small rural communities with no knowledge of germ theory and a rudimentary understanding of inherited disorders from animal husbandry tried to make some sense out of the recurring diseases and deaths that were occurring all around them. They looked to understand in order to prevent additional suffering and death and to protect their loved ones. Stories that tied together clues to disease causality provided them with “others” to blame for the danger. They also suggested actions that might be taken to prevent further damage and to provide some sense of control over their situation.
Tales of werewolves – humans who could change themselves into wolves for nefarious purposes – were very common throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia and Germany, from the 15th to the 18th century. Colonialism spread these legends around the world. Werewolf-hunts occurred alongside the witch-hunts, though to a much lesser degree.
Across the centuries, rabies is often suggested as the impetus for tales of the werewolves. The disease is caused by the rabies lyssavirus, ‘lyssa’ meaning rage or fury in ancient Greece. The virus is usually transmitted in the saliva of infected animals, usually transferred to the victim by a bite from the infected animal, most commonly from dogs and bats. However, in countries where dog meat is eaten, sufferers have been infected by butchering or preparing the animal and/or eating its not-fully-cooked meat. It is not transmitted from human to human. Once infected, the virus makes its way to the brain and nervous system. In the brain, it effectively closes the blood-brain barrier so that nothing, including anti-viral medication, can get through. There is no cure, however, a person exposed to rabies can receive multiple doses of rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin. This must be done before the virus reaches the brain, usually within 2 to 3 months after the exposure. Untreated patients will eventually develop aggression, muscle rigidity, delirium, revulsion of light and water, and seizures until their inevitable coma and death.
Hypertrichosis is an inherited disease that causes excessive hair growth all over the body, including the face. The most famous sufferer was Petrus Gonsalvus, born in France in 1537. A child of highborn parents, he became a member of the court, married and had children. His story is believed to be the basis for the French fairytale Beauty and the Beast.
Now imagine a man with hypertrichosis who is bitten by a bat or raccoon and contracts rabies. It is easy to conjure up the image of a werewolf, which has been suggested as how the legend began. However, the incidence of hypertrichosis is so low that experts do not believe it could have caused or contributed to the myth of the werewolf.
Something about shape-shifting from a human to an animal and back again captures the human imagination. Perhaps it’s due to our ambivalence at being both animal and human. The freedom of expressing one’s animal instincts versus the restrictions of abiding by societal norms of behavior, propels the werewolf story. In the shape of a werewolf, we can embody our animal self.
Zombies came relatively late to the party. The term is from Haitian French or Creole and was first seen in print in 1819. Folk stories from Haitian and some African cultures describe the use of the puffer fish neurotoxin and other substances to “zombify” their enemies. By such spells and poisons, they are turned into slaves of the sorcerer or witch who created them. Modern western zombies are depicted in media as both being victims and perpetrators of “zombification.” Zombies symbolize both the decay of our physical bodies and psychological disease – mental illnesses like schizophrenia and dementia. Our memories, our identities, and our adherence to social norms give us our humanity and our morality. Losing them results in social isolation and marginalization. Instead of the fear of death, zombies represent our fear of deadness or living dead and blur the boundaries between life and death.
Monster stories demonstrate the delicate line that exists between humans and animals and between life and death. They also illustrate that illness is not just a medical problem but also a community problem and a social challenge.
Imagine how frightening life must have been before science and medicine began to make sense of things. Illness and death were ever-present threats. People would make up or adopt beliefs that helped explain threatening phenomena and implement what now seem like crazy actions to lessen their sense of danger.
We still ostracize people who contract diseases that we don’t understand (think AIDS). We still recommend unproven remedies for invisible illnesses (ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, anyone?). And we choose to adopt or resist practices that may or may not turn out to be effective (like masks) often based mostly upon the actions of other members of our closest community.
Today we read, listen to, and watch horror stories not looking for comfort and control but for entertainment. It’s almost as if we want a break from our controlled and civilized lives. We want to vicariously touch fear, poke death, and laugh at danger. Like something in our makeup somehow misses those experiences. We play with the line between animal and human, life and death. It’s a chance to stimulate the same brain centers that decided to pound a stake into J.B.’s corpse.