blood rituals

VampjenlucIt’s All Soul’s Day, and Jen-Luc is proudly sporting her vampire look for the occasion, eschewing the usual Halloween festivities last night. She embraces the notion (popularized on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) that vampires and other nasty things actually take the night off on Halloween — because they find the whole spectacle beneath their Evil Dignity or something. I’m especially reminded of the episode where a semi-reformed Spike joins the "Scoobies" in warding off a group of vampires who decide to flout the tradition. Mid-fight, one of the vamps asks Spike, "What’s your problem, man?" Spike reminds him of the tradition, to which the vamp blusters, "Yeah, well, I’m a rebel." Which causes Spike — never the most patient of vampires — to roll his eyes and stake the poor bastard, declaring, "No, I’m a rebel. You’re an idiot." Also? A big pile of dust.

Naturally, I’m a vampire fan — but only because I’m pretty confident the creatures don’t exist. Okay, maybe there are some rare albino folks out there with a serious melanin deprivation, making them ultra-sensitive to sunlight. (And what was the rare disease that supposedly afflicted the unfortunate children in The Others? Oh right, xeroderma pigmentosum.) The hereditary disease known as porphyria has become associated with vampirism, with historians speculating that the legends arose from early sufferers. This is a disease in which the body doesn’t produce enough heme, an iron-rich pigment in the blood, making victims sensitive to sunlight, sometimes with reddish mouths. (Remember the Master in Buffy? He had "fruit-punch mouth.") There are different varieties of porphyria; the rarest, and most severe, leads to blistering and scarring of the skin, with the lips and gums becoming so taut that teeth protrude like fangs.

In all of recorded history, there have only been 200 or so documented cases of the most extreme forms of porphyria, although it’s popping up more and more on prime time TV. For instance, I distinctly recall an episode of C.S.I. where Grissom builds a case against a nutritionist who, it transpires, suffers from porphyria. She has trained her large dog to attack random joggers so she can harvest their blood-rich organs, puree them in the blender, and drink it up to keep her disease at bay. Drinking fresh blood is erroneously believed to be a kind of folk remedy for porphyria. In reality, the chemical enzymes in the blood that the sufferers require can’t survive the digestive process; the best way to treat porphyria is through blood transfusions. Vlad_tepes_002

There have been a few historical figures rumored to have an especially powerful bloodlust, even in earlier, more violent ages where slow-lingering painful executions were the order of the day. Take Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracula) from the mid-1400s believed to be the partial inspiration for Bram Stoker’s horror classic, Dracula. He earned his nickname for his penchant for impaling his enemies on long wooden spikes.

Per Wikipedia, this was called "bung poling," i.e., "dropping a person upright onto a sharpened tree trunk starting from between the legs, the weight of the person forcing the tip of the trunk through the chest cavity or neck." Women were not exempt from this punishment, particularly those Prince Vlad deemed unchaste. Actually, by the time he got around to impaling such unfortunate females, it would have been a merciful release, given the sorts of atrocities inflicted upon them beforehand. Maybe Vlad wasn’t an actual vampire, but he most certainly was a monster.

When Francis Ford Coppola filmed 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, he presented the vampire as actually being Vlad the Impaler, not just inspired by him. This was a highly romanticized portrayal of a sympathetic monster, driven to embrace vampirism by the suicide of his beloved wife, who threw herself out of a castle window into the river hundreds of feet below. Something very like this seems to have happened with Vlad’s first wife (name unrecorded) during a siege of his castle in 1462. She jumped out of the castle tower, vowing that she "would rather have her body rot and be eaten by the fish of the Arges (River, flowing below the castle) than be led into captivity by the Turks." (The tributary is, indeed, known as "the Lady’s River" or "the Princess’ River," as Coppola’s film declares.) Considering the Turks were only slightly less barbaric than her own spouse, it was probably a wise choice. What’s lacking in this account is any evidence that Prince Vlad was all that upset over the loss of his lady. Life was cheap back then. He married another princess in between various imprisonments and reigns (it was a volatile period), siring a few sons in the process.

Then there is Elizabeth Bathory, a late 16th century Transvylvanian noblewoman of extraordinary beauty who was known as "the bloody countess" because she was rumored to bathe in the blood of young women (more than 600 victims in all) to preserve her youthful appearance, even drinking the blood of the especially pretty ones. Think of it as an especially heinous form of alternative medicine. Local villagers reported hearing screams emanating from the Castle Csejthe, and young peasant girls who went to work as maidservants for the countess never seemed to return. She got away with her diabolical practices for a good long while, until King Mathias of Hungary could ignore the rumors (and missing young girls) no longer. Around Christmas in 1609, he sent a raiding party to the castle to investigate. TruTV has this account of what they found:Bathoryportrait350

"On the cold stone floor of the great hall lay a pale, partially clothed young girl. She failed to move. They wondered if she might simply be asleep or drunk so several men went toward her. Still, she made no effort to rouse herself. One reached down to touch her and shook his head. He told the others she was dead. They turned her over and saw how pale she looked. She appeared to have been drained of blood…. Just a few paces away was another girl, sprawled face up but still alive. The men discovered that her body had been pierced in many places. She was also pale, as if from severe blood depletion. It was clear to them that she would not last long."

The raiding party also found a female corpse chained to a post, also mostly drained of blood, having clearly been beaten, whipped, and burned while still alive. Deeper within the castle, they found prison cells filled with women and children, scarred from frequent repeated blood-lettings — and greatly relieved to be released, since they were bound for the same fate as the three dead young women found earlier. Oh, and in the private upper chambers, they found "evidence of a drunken holiday orgy, complete with torture." Because really, what’s a Christmas party without a spot of ritualistic blood-letting? 

The countess herself was nowhere to be found, having already fled the premises. But they tracked her down and arrested her soon after. After all that hard work collecting fresh blood to maintain her youthful complexion before the Age of Botox and chemical peels, Elizabeth Bathory continued to age, and died in 1614 in her early 50s while imprisoned for her crimes in her own castle, deep in the Carpathian Mountains. See? Alternative medicine doesn’t work.

In the 1940s, England caught and executed a serial killer named John George Haigh, nicknamed the "Acid Bath Murderer" because he attempted to dispose of his victims’ remains by dissolving their corpses in tubs of concentrated sulphuric acid. He was convicted of killing six people, although he confessed to nine, showing zero remorse in the process. His primary motive seems to have been fraud: he was a compulsive gambler, who had trouble holding a steady job — he kept getting fired and/or imprisoned for silly things like theft, embezzlement and fraud — and his murders always seemed to coincide with a particularly low point in his personal finances. It was during one of his prison stints that he dreamed up the "perfect murder": he figured that by destroying a body by dissolving it in acid, there would be no corpse, and thus no evidence with which he could be convicted, which is why he cheerfully confessed to the murders, convinced he couldn’t be prosecuted. Such is the convoluted logic of the criminally insane.

Unfortunately, Haigh wasn’t nearly so thorough in disposing of his victims’ possessions: when they searched his workshop on Leopold Road, police found various personal items belonging to the missing persons (papers, coats, hatboxes, pawn slips for jewelry, etc.), along with the tools of Haigh’s nefarious trade. They also found all the acid sludge he’d carelessly dumped in the yard. The acid hadn’t quite eaten everything away. The team of pathologists probably deserved some sort of special award of merit for sifting through the stuff, but their efforts paid off. They recovered 28 pounds of human body fat; three gallstones; part of a left foot; 18 bone fragments; a hairpin; and an intact upper and lower dentures, the handle of a red plastic bag and a lipstick container. Haigh2

The dentures were especially damning, as they matched the dental
records of Haigh’s last victim. Apparently sulphuric acid doesn’t erode
plastic quite as easily as human remains. The forensic team performed
their own experiments to prove it, putting various items in sulphuric
acid. Acid works at varying speeds, depending in part on how much water
is present. Human fat is more resistant to the acid; his final victim,
Mrs. Durand Deacon, has been quite a heavy woman and her weight helped
preserve the items recovered from the sludge

In short: Haigh was busted. He had a handy insanity defense at the ready, though, which is why he’s included in this blog post: he claimed that he drank the blood of the victims, and that his killings were prompted by a recurring dream cycle. ("From each of them I took my draught" he said.) A car accident in 1944 supposedly triggered his blood fetish; he suffered a head wound, which bled into his mouth, and thereafter, he claimed, he craved blood, and this would periodically drive him to murder.

There are rare cases of clinical vampirism documented in the medical literature: those with a compulsion to drink blood periodically, often deriving sexual satisfaction from the act, and usually in the belief that they can prolong their lives by doing so. But this is a psychosis, not evidence of supernatural monsters — or, in the case of a prison inmate trading sexual favors for the chance to drink other inmates’ blood, an ill-devised strategy for gaining access to a relatively comfy hospital room rather than his cell. There are also vampire-like cults scattered around the world, and definitely on the Internet, wherein participants can meet, share their vampire fantasies and even drink small amounts of each other’s blood. Some have been known to file their teeth into fangs for added verisimilitude to the group fantasy.

(Sidenote: Author Eric Nuzum sought out one such "vampire cult" while writing his book, The Dead Travel Fast. He found a rather pathetic group of social misfits with delusions of psychic powers, rather than any actual blood-fetishists, which had to be a bit disappointing. His book is still a fun read. He attends a Dark Shadows convention, tours Romania with the actor who played Eddie Munster, plays a vampire in the local haunted house, and even tries to drink his own blood, with vomitous results. Good times!)

The serial killers Peter Kurten and Richard Trenton Chase were dubbed "vampires" by the tabloid press when it was discovered they really had drank the blood of their victims. Haigh, however, probably didn’t suffer from clinical vampirism. He was just looking for a handy way to avoid being executed for his crimes. There was something a bit too calculated about how he went about luring and killing his victims, forging paperwork to take over their homes and other belongings, pawning their jewelry, and so forth. Nobody really believed he was insane, although he certainly lacked any moral compunction. He was hanged on August 10, 1949, and good riddance to bad rubbish, seemed to be the prevailing popular consensus of the day.

The upshot: those prone to fantastical wishful thinking and rare cases of psychosis notwithstanding, there’s no such thing as vampires. The one place where vampires really do seem to exist is in the animal kingdom — not just vampire bats, but according to the guys at Deep Sea News, there’s also a vampire squid. It has certain bioluminescnent capabilities, producing a faint pulsing light to attract prey, the better to eat your face off. Now that’s the stuff of All Soul’s Day nightmares. I’m guessing Edvard Munch had his share of them, too, judging by his own depiction of a ravenous vampiress devouring her prey:


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