In honor of Halloween, this week’s Mercury Moment explores the history of vampires and the roots of many superstitions surrounding vampires today. The modern vampire – the fanged, blood-sucking, reflectionless, garlic-fearing creature of the night – is most commonly attributed to 16th century European folklore, though some believe the idea of vampires dates back to Greek mythology. In 16th century Europe, fear of vampires centered around the idea that the dead could harm the living; although the real issue was simply a widespread misunderstanding of the process of death and postmortem body decomposure. When suspected vampires were exhumed, as they sometimes were, they often appeared to have grown “fangs” and to have what seemed to be dried blood around their mouths. Historically, this was seen as irrefutable evidence of vampirism and spurred mass hysteria throughout much of Europe; however, these phenomena can be readily explained today through advances in science and medicine.
Vampires’ “fangs” can be explained simply enough: once a body begins to decompose, its skin shrinks, and its teeth appear to grow larger, giving the appearance of fangs. As for the idea that vampires survive on the blood of humans? That, too, has a scientific explanation. When a body begins to decompose, its internal organs break down, causing a dark fluid to flow from the body’s nose and mouth. This fluid looks similar to blood, and in 16th century Europe, the assumption was made that the dead body had been drinking the blood of the living.
But a misunderstanding of the body decomposition process was not the only reason Europeans feared vampires. In a time when diseases like the plague were ravaging Europe, many people attributed the spread of disease to vampires. By preventing the vampires from feeding on the living, people felt they had some level of control over the spread of disease. There were multiple ways people prevented vampires from feeding on the living, one of which was filling the dead body’s mouth with dirt so that it couldn’t chew. In a similar manner, some fearful Europeans buried their dead with bricks in their mouths: another attempt to prevent the body from leaving its grave to feed after it was buried. It wasn’t only disease that was blamed on vampires; many other unexplained misfortunes were blamed on vampires, such as drought or bad harvests. To sum it up, “Vampires were one easy answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.”
The fear of vampires was not limited to Europe; in fact, one of the most famous “vampires” resided in New England. In late 19th century Rhode Island, 1892 to be exact, a 19-year-old named Mercy Brown died of tuberculosis, following her sister and mother’s untimely deaths. Fearing that postmortem Mercy would come back to harm one of her surviving relatives – specifically her brother, Edwin – neighbors opened her grave, burned her heart, and mixed the ashes into a potion for Edwin to drink: an old Romanian ritual intended to protect the living from the dead. Unfortunately, Edwin died a few months later. The case of Mercy Brown was not an isolated act; experts estimate roughly 60 anti-vampire rituals to have been committed in 19th century New England. It was around this time that vampires became the focus of European literature like Carmilla (1871-72) and Dracula (1897). Fear of vampires dissipated in the 20th century, but vampires have made a comeback in recent years in pop culture, as evidenced by the popular book and movie series Twilight and TV show True Blood, among other books, movies and TV series.
Mercury One has its own piece of Halloween history with this vampire kit – one of the many ways people attempted to “protect themselves,” pictured below.
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