From the first time people sat around a campfire and scared each other with ghost stories and other tales of the supernatural, many have wondered if there was a grain of truth to the tales. More often than not, stories are simply stories, a means of entertainment, cautionary tales of morality or a way to keep children from straying too far. But, sometimes, there is a basis of fact in the tales and superstitions passed down for generations.
For centuries, the physical manifestations of good and evil existed nearly everywhere. Nearly every culture has made reference to some form of a spiritual parasite that can drain the life-force from the living. In Christian traditions, the Devil could appear in many forms and could very well meet you on the road to steal away your soul. And if not the Devil, then one of his servants, one of which was the vampire.
One would do well to keep in mind that many people have a fear of the unknown, and quite often, an overwhelming fear of death, worrying over what might be waiting for them in the afterlife. Even worse, what might have crept out from the underworld, waiting in the shadows. Given the lack of understanding about the process of decomposition until modern science and medicine explained it over the last 100 years or so, it’s not surprising that misunderstandings of the human body fueled superstitions and beliefs.
Add to that, the ignorance of medical conditions such as acute catalepsy, in which the sufferer’s respiration and heart rate become extremely faint and their muscles become so rigid that they are mistaken for a corpse. Imagine, if you were to witness an apparent death, only to see what you thought was a corpse, rise up and speak. Compound this sight with a belief that evil walks the earth in physical form, equipped with supernatural power with the intent of causing great harm, ready to take your very soul. How would you react?
There were quite a number of ways in which the dead became the undead, but the similarities of identifying the demonic were usually but a few. One of the signs was that, if a suspected vampire’s grave was opened and the corpse had blood dripping out of its mouth, it was proof that the thing had recently fed. What the people of that time did not understand was that bodily fluids are pushed out through the orifices during decomposition.
Another “sign” of a vampire was that their eyes remained open wide, bulging in some instances. Since the eyes are one of the first things to undergo the process of rigor mortis, it’s easy to understand the mistaken belief that the dead aren’t quite dead, especially when the body’ gasses create pressure that cause the eyes to bulge. This trait of the vampire led to the conclusion that it had hypnotic power over its victims, which could clearly become romanticized as seduction in literature and film.
One of the most signature features of recognizing a vampire is by the presence of fangs. These are the tools of their trade, as legend tells us, what they use to feast on the living or turn someone else into a member of the undead. In reality, the protuberance of teeth was due, once again, to decomposition and rigor mortis if the deceased had died in pain or surprise, leaving a grimace on their face. Because of the belief held at that time, was that the body would remain flexible if uncorrupted by evil, a rigid snarl was a sure sign of vampirism.
Filed under: Traditions on April 8th, 2011