Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Horror Of...Dracula through the Ages, From Folklore and History

In the dark, down through the ages, we have been stalked. From the shadows we can feel it, but never can we escape it. Our dreaded myths and legends will never let us be.

That which hunts us has gone by many names, and has had many forms. Folklore. Legend. Myth.

And among those mythic visions is the vampire. The creature of the night. The creature of the tomb. The creature of blood.

While we've grown comfortable with a particular vision of the vampire it hasn't always been limited by one set of rules. Different cultures have had their beasts. Beasts that feasted on blood. Beast that feast on flesh. Beast that won't stay put in their graves. Dracula may be synonymous with vampirism, but he isn't the Alpha or Omega.

Le Vampire Engraving - R. de
Moraine - 1864
The vampire has had it's forms and predilections. An amorphous form with tentacles. A hopping corpse that can go rabid. A ghoul. A ghost. Detachable parts. A creature that spreads sickness. A being that stalks up behind lords in their halls and bashes them over the back of the head, using a bucket to catch up all the best bits.

Another aspect often at debate is just who can become a vampire. Generally, it was the dead who would turn; unless we are talking of tales of naturally preternatural being. Sometimes a person who was wronged would not stay still in their grave; no peace found. Other times it was a vile criminal who Hell could not hold. As you can imagine the ideas intersected a great deal with the ideas of other beings, like ghosts.

That is just how folklore works. It changes, from person to person, from culture to culture, and age to age. Changing. Morphing. It finds it's new niche.

Transitioning from word of mouth the vampire became a useful force in written stories. They would appear in different forms from time to time in different cultures.

Let's get into the some tales that at least partly step out of folklore and into reality. Some historic events also marked future tales of vampires.

Now there are the more mundane examples, sad events that fed the lore. The limits of officials' understanding of medicine and physiology. Sometimes people would get buried when they were really in the Not Dead Yet stage. And after they were underground they'd enter the Getting Better stage. Sometimes they would claw and scream, then finally die. It would leave evidence in the grave of something that seemed unnatural. Sometimes people have been to actually made it back to the surface.

This led people to the idea of staking dead bodies. Put a wood or metal pole through the body and it should be hard to climb up, or move. (Probably would also make it hard to bury a living person.)

And when people understood better, people found something new to be terrified of.

Design for a bell that could be rung from inside a coffin.

Then we have the times where people would be convinced a vampire had risen in their community. Then they would look for the likely dead person, and "dispatch" the vampire. Confirmation bias usually made the efforts a success. This process was rampant for a time in New England in the 1800's.

Look to the story of the Brown sisters of Exeter, Rhode Island. They all died of consumption, one after the other. Then when their brother suffered from the illness, the father allowed authorities to investigate his dead daughters. They dug them up. The last to die, Mercy, was still intact, due to her dying and being buried during that very cold winter.

They found blood still in her heart, when they removed it from her body. It was declared that this was proof that she was a vampire, and had fed on her brother. So they burned her heart to ash. That ash was mixed with water and fed to her brother. He died shortly after.

And still people tell stories about her being a vampire.

But there are far more notorious and widely known figures that have posthumously been tied to vampires. Two in particular always draw back lovers of lore, and also future authors.

Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III, was an Eastern European lord. He was Prince of Wallachia. When he came to power he faced many threats. The main one was the continued Ottoman threat to the east. The Ottoman Empire was ever a force pushing, first taking Constantinople, and then pushing into the Carpathians. The whole of Europe was relying of men like Vlad to stand as a bulwark against Islam. It was, in a large part, a religious war. (Hell, this period still marks the politics and society in the region today.)

In his efforts to hold the frontier, Vlad turned to brutal fear tactics. Imagery meant to break the will of his opponents. Impalement.

It garnered his another name, Vlad the Impaler.

But he had yet another name as well. Draculea (The spelling depends on the language you're using.). His father was given the name Drac for his service in the Order of the Dragon. Draculea means Son of the Dragon.

Of course since that day it's come to mean much more. Vlad has become, thanks to folklore tied to tales of dark powers, and Stoker's book would forever link him to vampirism (History be damned.).

That's not to say he didn't have and deserve his reputation. He was the Impaler. Vlad was willing to go to horrible extremes for what he believed was right. He slaughtered local nobility that he saw as a threat in his own country. And to make a point to the Ottomans, he had envoys they sent to him sent back, with their turbans all nailed to their heads (until they were dead).

This is the stuff that gets focused on with Vlad, ignoring more positive decisions he made. But that is how you build a good larger than life story.

And Vlad was long remembered, after he was killed. The stories go that he killed upward of 100,000 people. Some stories tell of his roasting babies and feeding them to their mothers. It's horrible stuff. I have no idea how much of it is true. Some of it is for sure. But Vlad became a useful villain and example.

It made him immortal...figuratively. Stoker would take his name and make him a global force.

The other hard to believe historic figure is the Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary. As the story goes, she would kill young maidens for their blood. Then she would make a bath of them, believing they would keep her youth eternal.

From the movie The Countess.
What we know for sure happen is still a horror story. She began luring, coercing, and kidnapping the daughters of the peasantry. And then she escalated and went after higher born daughters, bringing them into her castle.

What she did with them in her castle is horrific. Abuse. Torture. Mutilation. The charges against say that she would beat, burn, bite, freeze and starve these girls, among other things. And she had sites for this activity set up all over the country. This is a disturbing figure indeed.

Her aides in these crimes were forced to testify against her. One that didn't testify had her eyes gouged, breast cut off, and then was burned at the stake...Just so you can get a feel for how this society and the law operated...Geez!

Many more of her aides ended up being executed as well. But for Bathory, it was more complicated. Some wanted to execute her, but her family was very powerful, and her death would have some effect on the inheritance of some, and the futures of certain nobles. Instead, she was put under house arrest. She is given a set of rooms in a manor to live. And the only access point to those rooms was bricked up. A small opening was left, for ventilation and food to be passed to her. Otherwise, she was in isolation, until her death 4 years later.

The lore around Bathory grew from there. Baths of blood. Vampires. Sadistic horror became supernatural horror. It also becomes a cliched allegory about female vanity (Vanity, women hating women. All it's missing is a dose of gossiping to be completely ridiculous. ...The folklore, I mean.).

The horror both of these historical figures visited on others has stayed with us. And their acts would inspire many writers to create new, thankfully fictional, stories of horror.

Next time, let's look at the literature inspired by all of this, and would go on to inspire Stoker in his most famous work. Dracula.

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