Hello listeners, and welcome to the Mad Scientist Podcast. This episode we will kick off our countdown to the best holiday of the year, Halloween! And what better way to start this spooky season than with a look at one of the all time classic movie monsters, the Vampire. Vampires and creatures that suck blood are one of those penultimate horror myths, a creature whose connection to you is out of your control, but who over time sucks the life and very soul from your body, desecrating both the physical and eventually the spiritual parts of you, and causing you to do horrendous actions outside of your control. Add to that the very real and very disgusting facts of the world of parasitic organisms and blood feasting animals, and you have a recipe for a myth that just won’t die. So let’s que the intro music, and prepare for a trip to Transylvannia in this weeks episode!
Vampires have an extremely deep and long-lived lore behind them, going back nearly as far as written records date. The most common view of the Vampire we have in the west is that with roots in the Europe, which really stems from stories of dead bodies being disinterred and destroyed post burial by villagers in towns throughout the regions of Serbia and Walachia, or what we today view as Transylvania. These stories were eventually used by Bram Stroker to craft his masterpiece “Dracula”, which tells the story of Count Dracula, an immortal being who terrorizes and drains the lifeforce from a circle of friends who are unfortunate enough to come into contact with him. Many of the stories told about Vampires, the methods used to fight them, and the methods the vampire uses to assert its power, come directly from these tales of folklore, and I think its worth going over them to start with.
The following quote is from the book “Vampire, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality” by Paul Barber.
“The word vampire entered the English language in 1734 according to the Oxford Dictionary. Vampire mythology goes back much farther and is quite different from the Hollywood monster we know. The Peace of Passorawitz in 1718 turned Serbia and Walachia over to Austria. This, in turn, put occupying forces in place who began to report unusual local practices. These forces acted like our modern media in telling these strange stories of digging up the dead to ‘kill’ them. Educated Europeans witnessed these shocking and ‘new’ practices that were ancient rituals. There were ‘signs’ of a person who was a vampire. The dead body would not decompose. Skin, hair, beards and nails would grow. The dead skin would fall away leaving ‘new’ skin behind. Blood in the body would remain liquid. A body exhumed and found to display these signs would need to be dealt with to destroy the vampire. Peter Plogojowitz is an example of how such corpses were treated. Peter lived in the village of Kisilova in the Rahm District. He died in 1725, most likely from an epidemic. Ten weeks after he died, 9 other villagers died of an illness lasting 24 hours. Before they died, they claimed Peter had come to them in their sleep and laid upon them. He then throttled them until they were near death. The village became even more upset when Peter’s widow said that he had come home to collect his shoes and go to another village to torment them. [side note: I find it interesting that the undead would worry over shoes.] The villagers asked the author of the story to accompany them and the parish priest to dig up Peter’s body. The account states that upon bringing Peter up, no odor was noted. His body was intact except for his nose which fell off. His beard, hair and nails had ‘grown’. Fresh blood was noted in his mouth. Peter’s remains were treated in the common way. He was stabbed multiple times and his body burned.”
Vampires, or revenants, are beings who in their lives committed some great sin or who where cursed for some reason by the Devil. This is a very common part of the story, although the methods to become a vampire are varied even across Europe. For instance the people of Romania believed that their version of the vampire, known as the Strigoi, were born with two hearts, one of which was active upon mortal life and one which acted after their death to power their undead bodies. Other similar lifelong curses could cause vampirism, such as being born with a red caul or amniotic membrane over your head at birth. It was believed that this signified that your mother had either taken in demonic saliva somehow, or had met a Demon with a red hat in their lifetime. Kind of a shitty side affect; but probably a good call to stay away from Red Wings fans regardless. Another similar version of this is the belief of the Kashube people, who believed that a red birthmark is the sign that a child is cursed to rise as the undead. Some other versions of these origins include a human reaching over a dead body, having a brother who is a sleepwalker, somehow getting blood into an open grave, having an unhealed wound or even an open mouth at the time of death, or even just having a sort of crappy attitude during your lifetime. One personal favorite of mine is the Romani belief that a way to stave off vampirism is to ensure that your shadow is never stolen, which is performed by literally nailing your shadow to the wall of a home or buildings foundation. But some versions of the vampire story are also quite sad. One version of this is the Russian belief that revenant or undead beings are caused by the living individual being murdered, drowning, or committing suicide. This quote from 1506 shows what the Russian peasants would do to stop such a being from coming back after death.
“We do not dignify with burial the bodies of those who are drowned or murdered and thrown out; instead we drag them into the fields and fence in the place with stakes, and -what is completely unlawful and Godless- when a cold wind blows in the Spring, so that what we have planted and sown does not prosper, we stop praying to the Creator and Founder of everything...we learn of some person who was drowned or killed and was buried long ago...we dig up the condemned person and throw him somewhere in an out-of-the-way place and leave him unburied...because we believe, as a result of our great foolishness, that his burial is the cause of the cold.”
And of course, there is the traditional belief that vampirism can be spread like an infection. In fact the connection with illness is pretty pronounced, with some versions of the vampire story seeming to describe symptoms of very real illnesses such as tuberculosis, also known at the time as consumption, or other long term disease that wither away a person until they eventually die. In fact a tuberculosis epidemic caused a significant vampire panic in New England in the start of the 19th century, with people believing that it was a vampire and not this terrible wasting disease that caused their loved ones to continually become more weak and ill until they eventually died. One famous case from this panic is that of Mercy Brown, whose mother, brother, sister, all died from consumption, causing the townspeople to believe that someone in the household must be a vampire. Eventually, with Mercy herself dying of the disease, the townspeople exhumed her, finding that the body showed little decomposition and seemed to have fresh blood within its internal organs. In order to stop the revenant they removed her heart, burnt it, and mixed the ashes with water for her brother to drink, which of course was unsuccessful in stopping the epidemic. Pretty heinous stuff.
So the roads to vampirism, even the European variety, can be varied, and of course there is the always-popular notion that vampirism may begin as a power granted to those who make an unholy pact with the Devil or some other dark force. Because of their connection to the demonic or black magic Vampires are generally considered to be uncommonly powerful, nearly immortal, able to take on the appearance of and control animals such as bats and wolves, and leach the energy out of living humans most often by drinking their blood. They have a nearly hypnotic control over those they come in contact with, and it is their ability to weave their way into your life, making you nearly willingly give yourself to them, that makes them so dangerous. However these beings also have a number of limitations that come from their connection to the demonic. They can’t travel over water, so rivers and oceans are considered methods to escape or potentially stop a vampire from pursuing you. They are most powerful at night, when the connection to the demonic is strongest, and religious incantations and symbols are powerful tools against them. And they can be killed by driving a stake through their hearts, by burning their bodies, and by the use of swords built to look like holy crosses, or even in some cases by swords which just resemble a cross due to their scabbard or handle guards positioning. And of course the connection with water can also be used, and one surefire way to stop a Vampire it was believed was to remove the head and heart of the body and burn them on an island, so that the spirit could not seek out another host or victim.
There are also a number of ways to tell if a body or even a walking person is actually a vampire. These include, for the body at least, an odd or pungent odor, the presence of blood on the mouth or face, red swelling or coloration of the skin, and long growing fingernails and hair after death. The idea of odor as an indicator is actually very interesting, because one of the strangest things believed to stop a vampire are other powerful smells, such as flowers and incense as used in Dracula by Van Helsing. Interestingly this may have something to do with the idea of garlic as a cleansing method against unclean or demonic forces, because of its strong smell. The idea of smells as being linked to illness is an old one, with disease like the plague believed to be spread by noxious odors or mists, and for instance one common method to stop disease from spreading believed to be having a mask of pleasing smelling flowers and herbs over your mouth. Garlic is also popularly believed in Romania to be especially holy, given to the Earth by Saint Andrew. A really awesome holiday in Romania is what would nearly be their version of Halloween, known as Saint Andrews Night or The Night of Vampires, in which families have many garlic centric traditions to ward off the undead and demonic in the coming year. On this night animals are also believed to be able to speak in human tongues, although to hear it is to bring death to your household, and since magic is especially powerful on this night it is customary for young woman to perform scrying ceremonies and other folk magic to try to tell who their future husband will be. Anyways, the idea of garlic to ward off vampires likely comes from these traditions, or at least is within the same vein as these ideas, although an exact sourcing of where this tradition originates from is difficult.
So vampires are pretty popular in the European tradition, but they are not only found in these folktales, and especially not the idea of a dark entity, which slowly weakens you by strengthening itself. Asia has some particularly scary ones. For instance in India there is the idea of the BramarakShasha, who wanders the earth drinking blood from a skull cup and has intenstines strewn about their head. Another story from Southeast Asia is that of the Mananngaal, which translates as Self-Segmenter. This is a being that appears to be a beautiful woman, but who can detach their lower body to fly on bat like wings into the homes of pregnant woman, sucking their blood with their proboscis like tongue. This idea of a detached bodypart becoming something like a giant terrifying mosquito is actually kind of common in the folklore of the region, which I guess makes sense since they already kind of have to deal with giant scary mosquitoes and other bugs. Africa has similar stories of bug/human hybrids, but one of my favorites from Africa is that of the Ramanga. This story is from Madagascar, and its said that this being drinks the blood and eats the fingernails of noble people to make himself strong. In some versions this being is sort of a hit man, or maybe an everything man is a better word, doing the unseemly tasks required in the kings service. I don’t know what their paying that guy, but eating nail clippings is not worth it dude. Try Burger King, I hear they have good benefits and a no nail clippings policy.
The Ramanga actually brings up a really point here, which is that these ideas of vampires are tied up with ideas that the body or even bodily fluids of a person are inherently linked to their vitality or spirit in some important way. Now obviously blood is linked in many ways to our energy and lives right, and ancient peoples probably noticed that if a warrior seems to be gushing a lot of this read stuff all over the place they will get weaker and eventually die. And if one starts spouting blood say from the mouth or eyes or something due to illness it likely means that the person is about to die. So the link between blood and life or the soul isn’t all that surprising, and it spawned a lot of medical techniques that we now know aren’t helpful, such as blood letting or leaching, to remove what was considered bad blood and the ultimate source of the apparent illness. But this idea of nail clippings or body parts in other ways being magical or powerful is a very common motif we see in Western magical thinking. It’s believed for instance that magic is most powerful if used with a part of the person you want to perform the magic on, which is why in so many stories of love potions an essential ingredient is a lock of hair or even, as gross as it may seem, nail clippings or a piece of skin or something. And its why in many cultures it is thought that these extraneous pieces of you must be burned or buried, or why in some cultures the eating of flesh is believed to bring you more spiritual power. It’s a gross but important side note I think on this story, and its why I think versions of the Vampire are pretty common throughout the world.
Ok, so vampire legends are varied and interesting, but how can we explain some of the evidence these people claimed to see when they exhumed dead bodies? Why do bodies seem to not decompose sometimes, have blood on their mouths or hands, or seem to continue to grow hair and nails? Well a lot of this has to do with people not really knowing a lot about how bodies actually decompose. So when you die, your body begins a process of sort of emptying itself out. Now that there isn’t any heart to circulate your blood it all starts to be affected by gravity, meaning that it settles to the bottom of the body and pools, so at times it might seem that blood is still present within a body that’s been long dead for months. But eventually that blood has to go somewhere, and as the skin begins to break away open sores may form that causes blood to pool and fall out. Although it is also the case that blood may escape out the mouth or other openings within the body, again because like, it has to go somewhere. This is likely why vampires when exhumed may seem to have blood in or around their mouths, its just a weird but common part of the decomposition process.
The bodies cells also begin to pop or lyse, releasing all kinds of fluids and other watery residues that may also appear to be red in color or nearly blood like if mixed with leftover blood or tissues that are breaking away due to the decomposition. This means that some organs break apart faster than others, specifically those organs composed of lots of watery cellular tissue like the brain, while the parts of the body that are more musculature or rigid like muscles and of course bones will take longer or potentially be the leftovers once decomposition is over. And on top of that, the decomposition process means that parts of the body will break down and release gases that would normally be released through other, more comical means. So methane may pool and cause the stomach to distend, or when moving the corpse an escape of trapped causes may occur. This is likely why at times people exhuming and staking supposed vampires would notice a groan or noise when the stake is driven in, as well as a horrible stench. It’s not the demons being released, unless we consider farts to be demons. Which like, obviously this show isn’t above fart jokes.
Now noticing that hair or nails appear to continue growing is also a likely feature of the decomposition process, with the skin shrinking at these areas as the cells lose all their fluid and the skin tightens. This will show hair and nail that we wouldn’t normally see but which is present as it grows, giving the appearance of growing hair but not actually being caused by growth. As for bodies being exhumed that seem to show no decomposition, I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with ground temperatures or time of burial varying throughout the year, meaning that those bodies decomposing in a colder period of time would take longer than those in a hot one. But there are documented cases of the body not appearing to change much upon death of course, and the rates of decomposition can vary significantly. I mean its not like their bury you and within a week you’re a spooky skeleton, you may appear to be nearly normal, or at least slightly worn but still passable, for a few months or even years after burial if the conditions are just right, so those stories aren’t that amazing to me really. I would say that for all intents and purposes the vampire thing is pretty well explainable, although why they might shine with a sexy, masculine musk and coy grin is anyone’s guess.
Source credit: Beyond the Grave-Understanding Human Decomposition by Arpad A Vass
Maybe a more interesting question is related to those scary bug vampires the peoples of various Asian and African countries came up with, specifically can something survive on only blood, and how is that possible? Furthermore, just how much blood would a vampire need to drink to survive? Obviously we know of parasites such as mosquitos, ticks, and others that survive solely off of human blood. These organisms are ones who need blood either to survive fully, or to perform some function in their lifecycle. For instance, mosquitoes either need blood to lay eggs, or need blood to lay a significantly increased amount of eggs depending on the species. In terms of larger animals, probably the most well known blood eating animal is the vampire bat. But surviving off of blood, or Hematophagy, is not just confined to vampire bats but also appears in Vampire Finches, the Hood Mockingbirg, and Oxpecker. Interestingly, these birds all evolved on small isolated island like the Galapagos, where this trait may have been helpful in them continuing to survive in such extremely competitive surroundings. Anyways, in all of these cases blood is only a secondary food source or a source used only in extreme circumstances, and so they do not take in all of their nutrition in this way. And some human societies practice this as well, I mean some people eat blood pudding or other things made from blood.
But can you as a person actually survive on blood? Well, first off what do we need to survive? As a human, at least assuming that all of those listening are human, you need around 1500 calories a day to survive and maintain a healthy weight. You also require vitamins and other things like sugars, proteins, fats and cholesterol, all the stuff you would normally get from eating food. But if your only drinking blood, how much of that stuff would you really get? Well, as its hard to find nutritional info on human blood, we are going to have to assume it is of similar nutritional value to lambs blood, which for some unknowable and frankly terrifying reason is available on fitbit.com, I guess for any Chupacabras out there or people attending their local Black Sabbath who are watching their waist lines. I mean the fact that this is available on a fitbit thing seems super sketchy right? Like is this entrapment for really stupid serial killers or something? “Oh yea let me log my exercise and food today, lets see, oh well I drank that lambs blood but only after a half hour of mutiliation and mayhem, so I guess it evens out. And most of the lambs blood was to coat my body anyways”.
Regardless, according to this website 100 grams of lambs blood, or approximately 100 mL of lambs blood, is 75 calories, contains 35% of your daily required proteins, 212% of your daily iron intake, and 0% of basically every other required vitamin. So really, if your only drinking blood, you would probably die of scurvy before you starved to death. Actually, the amount of iron in blood is comically high, so high in fact that ingesting it would probably kill you due to iron toxicity. The normal amount of iron in blood is around 1.5 grams per mL of blood, and toxic affects due to iron ingestion start at around 10 mg/kg of body tissue, and an average adult weights around 200 lbs or 91 kg. So lets do the math here. If you drank that whole 100 grams of lambs blood, you would take in 100*1.5 = 150 grams of iron. If you weight 91 kg that means you iron levels would be approximately 1.65 grams per kg of body weight. So ok, 1 serving of straight lambs blood won’t break your body, although maybe you should re-evaluate your life choices. But we need 1500 calories per day to survive. So that would be how much blood? Well, if we are doing just pure lambs blood we would be looking at 20 servings of lambs blood. That would be 3000 grams of iron, which if you weight 91 kg is 32 mg/kg. So that puts us at the high end for iron toxicity, basically the point where your organs start to shut down. So yea, don’t drink blood kids, even if all your favorite pop stars are doing it.
Well what is it about the Vampire that has kept it in our societal consciousness for so long, even if the most recent versions of the character are more pre-teen than terrifying. I think it has to do with this idea that something can come into our rooms at night and while we’re sleeping drain our life away, while simultaneously gaining slow but significant control over us. In many ways this makes the vampire similar to UFO abductions in a sense, where unsuspecting people tell us that they find themselves under the control of something else, something sinister and more powerful than they are, for reasons that they don’t understand. And our modern day world still has stories of blood sucking beings out there. I mean there are stories of Chupacabra, or aliens who suck the blood out of cows for some reason, or still stories about demons who suck the life force out of their victims over prolonged periods of time. So while the vampire may have changed shape, I think like with many other magical or legendary stories its more of a cosmetic change than a change in kind.
Well, then where did this idea of the Vampire actually come from? One explanation is that this is just a common trope, a sort of permanent mythological figure that is brought up again and again because of its commonly terrifying qualities. One example of this may fit in with the story of Lilith, a demon or group of demons who steal human babies before they are baptized. The idea of Lilith really comes from older traditions of evil winged creatures who come in the night, seduce their victims, and take away either themselves or their children for the purposes of drinking their blood. Over time this idea became a part of the Catholic mythic tradition, with Lilith at times being called the first wife of Adam who left the Garden of Eden and vowed to kill human children for the rest of her existence. Anyways, the idea of Lilith eventually became that of a seductress, much like a succubus I suppose, who comes to either steal children or drain the life force of humans. In many ways this fed other notions of stories about dark or evil figures, who come in the guise of humans to steal away your life. And a lot of cultures have this same sort of story, or at least a similar version of it, with a charming or seductive being tricking you into becoming its host, as they parasitically steal your life or power from you.
Honestly though, an episode on Vampires just wouldn’t be complete without discussing the historical persons who Bram Stoker and others use as templates for this stories. And although of course the stories of Vlad Dracul the Impaler are probably the most commonly used when discussing vampires, I’ve always been more drawn to another historical vampiric character. The Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian Noblewoman who would become infamous throughout history. Elizabeth was born into a noble house in 1539, born into wealth and power. Her family controlled the local government in her country of Transylvania, now Romania, and had family connections to the King of Poland and the grand Duke of Lithuania, and just generally had significant connections and influence throughout all levels of the Transylvanian government. At the age of 11 she was engaged to Ferenc Nadasdy, a nobleman who at that point was 15 years old. Supposedly she then had a son at the age of 13, who was given away to a peasant family, although the sourcing on that claim is a little bit less than perfect. Anyways, she was married at the age of 15 to Ferenc Nadasdy, but kept her family name because her family was significantly more powerful and noble than those stupid Nadasdy’s.
For a wedding present her new husband gifted her his castle, Cachtice castle, where she would spend most of her time and commit the bulk of her atrocities. You see her husband, as part of the wedding present supposedly, had built an elaborate torture chamber within the castle, something that was perhaps not unheard of during the period. But his wife was often left alone to fend for herself and her people, kept in charge of their lands and peasants while her husband was off being an important part of the way effort against the Ottoman Empire. Ferenc was known for his especialy harsh treatment of prisoners, something that we can imagine translated for his treatment of criminals at home as well. But it was when her husband was away fighting battles that Elizabeth Bathory seemed to acquire her taste for punishment and sadism. See, Elizabeth was very well educated and intelligent for her time period, and for her station of life, at a time when women were not normally given political control. She spoke 4 languages, was noted for her intelligence in political science and the art of ruling, and so when her husband was away she was left in charge to rule in his stead. And although the exact timeline of events isn’t known, it seems to be the case that she found, during her routines as master of her lands and de facto ruler, that she enjoyed punishing those who found there ways into the dungeons in particular. It isn’t exactly known when or how she found this proclivities, some way she had been taught the joys of sadism and torture by an Aunt, who also sexually indoctrinated Elizabeth in various ways, while others say that it was her marriage to her husband and his own love of brutal treatment that made her fall into this world. Regardless, what began in theory as part of her duties as head of her lands eventually became an obsession for her, with her desires becoming more devious and her victims more numerous over time.
At first, her victims were the children of peasants, who were hired as maids and servants but who would disappear within the castle. This went on for quite some time, around 29 years, and caused the local villagers to whisper about the countess who would hire local girls only to have them disappear forever. During this time she would also throw lavish parties as well as orgies supposedly, with sadistic torture of peasant girls and servants part of the draw of the affair. It’s actually reported that the wedding of her daughter was celebrated by a particularly lurid event, described in some sources as a “blood orgy”, although this may be part of the exaggeration of events that took place with her legend years after her death. At any event, things were kept pretty quite until the death of her husband in the year 1604, at which point her rate of killings increased significantly. Her victims eventually began to include the daughters of the lower gentry, which raised suspicions and caused her to be investigated by the King of Hungary finally in the year 1610. During the investigation and trial over 300 witnesses where found, who gave extremely lurid details of the crimes and terrors they witnessed or had heard about within the castle.
Although in popular culture it is said that she actually bathed in the blood of her victims to retain her youthful appearance, there is no mention of these in the official accounts, and the first written account of such an event seems to have occurred at least a hundred years after her death and trial. However, the things she is known to have done are horrific. She is said to have performed sadistic acts of torture on these girls, biting them while they were alive and consuming their flesh, burning them with hot pokers, freezing some of them to death, drinking their blood and evidently enjoying a sexual thrill from such torture. She also appears to have been a fan of piquerism, or the sexual thrill of stabbing pins and other sharp objects into other people, an activity she performed on many of her victims. One act she is infamous for is honey torture, where she would cover a young girl with honey and leave her outside for insects to crawl over and consume.
During the investigation they found that she actually had 2 conspirators, although Elizabeth was protected until it became clear that the number of victims increased towards 650 or more. Although they hoped at first to put her into convent, her crimes were considered so terrifying that she was finally punished via house arrest. She was jailed within a single cell within her own castle, surrounded by bricks except for 2 small holes for food and for air ventilation, where she would eventually die 4 years after her imprisonment. Her final number of victims is unkown, but in her 34 years of rule it seemed that she managed to kill at least 300, but potentially as many as 650 peasant girls, maids, and the daughters of local nobles. So really, when talking about terrifying historical figures who should have vampires based on them, she should be far up the list from Vlad the Impaler, at least in my estimation. She is really pretty terrifying, and who knows how many more people she could have killed before she was finally put on trial.
One final word that I think is quite interesting here, many of these stories of vampires and even werewolves have at times been argued make sense of crimes such as serial murder or spree killing before we had these sort of stringent definitions to put on them. I think that argument may hold some water, as we see in the case of Elizabeth Bathory, but ultimately with vampires it makes far more sense to me that what we are seeing are scared villagers, beset by disease that shows no real outward signs but wasting away, who need to find some explanation. And perhaps they exhume a body, and see that it has blood on its mouth, and well, perhaps this corpse really is walking in the moonlight, searching for victims in their mind. As is often the case with these paranormal events, its often the things that the humans left behind do, or the humans who are the basis of these tales, that is far more frightening than anything the supernatural creatures perform.
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