By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
There are a lot of scary things in the world, and I’m not talking about the upcoming election. Literature and films are loaded with frightening monstrosities, but I’ll focus on three “classic” creatures – vampires, zombies, and mummies – and examine the origins of these horrors that have terrified folks for centuries.
Belief in vampires surged in the Middle Ages in Europe. Any unfortunate event that befell a person or village with no obvious cause, such as disease or crop failure, could be blamed on a vampire. Villagers combined their belief that something had cursed them with their fear of the dead, and concluded that the recently deceased might be responsible, returning from the grave with evil intent.
“The Vampyre,” the first fully realized vampire story, was written by John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron (the haughty Byron often belittled his young employee). In 1816, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin joined Byron and Polidori at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Byron suggested that his guests each write a ghost story. Mary’s tale became the novel Frankenstein. One theory is that Polidori, inspired by his resentment of Byron’s arrogant treatment, based his character Lord Ruthven, a charming aristocratic vampire, on the poet. But when Polidori’s story was published in 1819, it was credited to Byron. Polidori tried to prove his authorship, but was accused of misusing Byron’s name.
The most famous appearance of a vampire in literature was Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. Like Polidori’s vampire, Dracula appeared as an aristocratic gentleman. It’s often assumed that Stoker’s Count Dracula was inspired by Vlad Dracula, a real-life prince cited as an influence for modern personifications of vampires. Known as Vlad the Impaler because of the gruesome method he used to kill his enemies, he is considered a national hero for the extreme measures he used to defend his Romanian principality in the 15th century. Historians have implied but never proved that Vlad drank the blood of his enemies.
Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by voodoo priests called bokors, often as an act of punishment. Zombies were supposedly used as slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations, although none of these zombie-powered plantations was ever discovered. Westerners considered zombies fictional horror film characters until the 1980s when a scientist, Wade Davis, claimed in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow to have solved the mystery of the zombie. The work met much skepticism. Davis asserted that he found the actual powder used by the bokors to create zombies – a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin that could bring on the appearance of death.
The elaborate procedure, as much a religious ritual as a technical process, took at least 70 days. The basic method was to remove organs except the heart through a slit in the body’s side. The brain was removed through the nostrils with a hooked instrument. The organs were preserved in jars and placed inside the body. The body was covered in natron, a salt with drying properties. Once the body was dry, sunken areas were filled with linen, sawdust, and other materials to make it to look lifelike. The body was then wrapped in hundreds of yards of linen strips. Finally a shroud was secured to the body and it was buried in a tomb along with objects the person would need in the Afterlife. Throughout the entire process, rituals and prayers had to be performed precisely. Why expend so much time and effort to preserve a body? The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for the soul or spirit, and if the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost.
Early film depictions of vampires, zombies, and mummies may seem a little dated and not that terrifying compared to the ultraviolence common in today’s horror films. But that might change. In 2014, Universal Pictures announced it would be rebooting its library of “classic” horror films, bringing new life to standard horror characters. The first release in this effort, The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, is due to hit theaters in 2017.
- Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978.