The Bitten Files #2: Mercy Brown and the Vampire Panic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a report on tuberculosis every year. Currently, about one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB. It is also the infectious disease with the highest mortality rate, with 5,000 people dying of the disease every day. Although the term “tuberculosis” didn’t come into use until 1839, TB has been with us since ancient times. Our medical knowledge has, of course, improved exponentially since the Industrial Revolution and treatment in the modern world is often inhibited purely by stigma rather than by lack of resources.

Why all this talk about tuberculosis, you might be wondering. When is she going to get onto the vampire stuff?

Fear not, dear reader. I think we’re there.

In the latter half of the 19th century, rural New England was plagued by tuberculosis. Known at the time as consumption, due to the rapid weight loss experienced by those who contracted it, it struck fear into the hearts of communities. It’s easy to see why: it was so infectious that it wiped out whole households. At the time, tuberculosis hadn’t been identified as a bacterial disease so the source of the infection was unknown. The disease induces symptoms which – especially if unexplained and poorly understood as they were then – are undoubtedly terrifying. A raging fever and night sweats plagued the “consumptive” person as they grew ever paler and weaker, coughing up blood.

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Mercy Brown’s grave marker, Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter, RI

This tragic epidemic led residents of the northeastern United States to suspect a supernatural culprit. They believed that the dying were having the life drained out of them by none other than their own deceased relatives. In accordance with local superstitions, they started to exhume the bodies of the recently deceased in order to confirm that these wandering spirits were causing havoc from household to household.

The earliest (recorded) case came from Bennington County, Vermont. It was that of Hulda Burton, the wife of Captain Isaac Burton. Hulda was dying of tuberculosis and, in an effort to save her, the captain had his first wife Rachel (c. 1770 – 1790) exhumed. Believing Rachel to be the entity draining his new spouse of her life force, Burton agreed to have his late wife’s liver, heart and lungs burned and obviously hoped that Hulda would be cured; sadly, this was not to be and Hulda died in 1793. Vermont was also the site of one of the most notorious incidents in the so-called “vampire panic”. On 14th February 1817, Frederick Ransom, aged 20, passed away. Fearing his son would return to plague their family, his father had Frederick’s heart cut out and burned on the blacksmith’s forge.

But by far the most infamous case was the story of Mercy Brown. Born in 1873 in Exeter, Rhode Island, she was only 19 when she died in 1892. Her mother and older sister had already passed away, and her younger brother Edwin suffered alongside her but did outlive her. After her death, Edwin’s condition worsened and the family believed his illness to be the foul work of the undead. They persuaded George Brown, Mercy’s father, to exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. George was justifiably reluctant, but he gave in due to the pressure of those around him The cadavers of Mary Eliza, his wife, and Mary Olive, his eldest daughter, had decomposed at the expected rate. When her body was examined, Mercy’s heart was discovered to be full of blood and she did not appear to have decomposed much at all, despite the exhumation taking place two months after her burial.

We know now that the environment can have a significant impact on what happens to the body post-mortem, and Mercy’s corpse had been stored in a cold crypt above ground, decelerating decomposition. However, to the 19th century New Englander mind, this was proof that Mercy was the fiend who had returned from the grave to harm her brother. Her heart and liver were burned and the ashes were mixed into a tincture for Edwin to drink. Unsurprisingly, Edwin himself succumbed to the disease two months later.

The phrase “vampire panic” is a bit of a misnomer. Although the newspapers of the period made reference to beliefs in “vampirism” – and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between these practices and the vampire found in European folklore – there’s no evidence that the people of New England used that sort of terminology themselves. It’s unlikely that the word “vampire” was in common usage. “Panic” is also perhaps too strong a word. It implies that this was a one-off when a belief that the dead could do harm to the living was prevalent in various cultures and for an extended period of time.

Edvard_Munch_-_Vampire_(1895)_-_Google_Art_Project

“The Vampire”, Edvard Munch (1895)

It also implies that this was a spree of connected traumatic events, whereas the truth is more complex. There is a century between the first and last notable incidents, so it is possibly better described as a “superstition” or an ongoing practice to which the inhabitants of New England resorted when they could not rationalise what was happening to their communities. Ritual is a very important thing across all human cultures and, macabre as it may seem, the ritualistic burning of undead hearts assuaged the community’s fears – and even if it didn’t, they were perhaps comforted by the thought that they were doing something in the face of an unknown, faceless enemy.

Further reading

The Great New England Vampire Panic, Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian Magazine)

New England’s Vampire History, Joe Bills (New England Today)

When Rhode Island Was “The Vampire Capital of America”, Charles T Robinson (New England Today)

Vampire Island, Timeline (documentary) – a bit sensationalist, but is at its core a decent examination of early modern beliefs about vampires

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Review: “From Here To Eternity”, Caitlin Doughty

I loved Caitlin’s first book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, so I was mega excited to get my hands on her second. From Here To Eternity: Travelling The World To Find The Good Death recounts her adventures around the world, exploring the mourning rituals and funerary practices of a range of cultures.

I’m a big fan of Caitlin’s YouTube channel Ask A Mortician, so I couldn’t help but hear her voice in my head while I was reading. She writes the way she speaks and it’s full of her personality. She’s really funny and engaging. The illustrations by Landis Blair are beautiful; they’re so evocative and, at the risk of sounding like I’m twelve years old, cool.

Caitlin’s advocacy for better public understanding of death, more transparency in the funeral industry and greater family involvement in funerals is fantastic and a very worthwhile cause. Although she’s lighthearted in the way she writes and in the way she presents her work on her YouTube channel, I found From Here To Eternity moving, particularly the chapter about the Ruriden columbarium in Japan. A columbarium is a space where urns can be kept in niches in the walls (example here). At the Koukokuji Temple in Tokyo, cremated remains are represented by small LED Buddha statues. They glow blue, but when mourners visit their loved ones’ resting place and enter the deceased person’s details, the Buddha which corresponds to their loved one glows white. Caitlin discusses the project with the monk who presides over the columbarium, and I was touched by his desire to memorialise those who had no-one to tend to their graves.

A couple of reviews I read were critical of the fact that three of the eight chapters (not including the introduction and epilogue) dealt with death rituals within the United States. I don’t quite understand that critique, if I’m honest. I personally felt that they were each sufficiently unique and interesting – for example, the first chapter documents Caitlin’s visit to a cremation at America’s only open-air pyre in Colorado and the other two America-based chapters deal with a so-called “body farm” and natural burial.

It’s a relatively quick read (perhaps that’s just because of the pace at which I devoured it, haha!) but thought-provoking and insightful nonetheless.

Links

Caitlin’s website (x)

Order of the Good Death (x)

Spooky Women You Should Support

I wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day on this blog but I’ve struggled to come up with an idea for how to do so in a way which fits the ethos and theme of Jude And The Obscure. Finally, inspiration struck. This blog post is a tribute to women whose blogs, YouTube channels and published works I follow and who have inspired me to embrace my weird interests. Of course, I can’t list every woman who ticks those boxes – there are so many fantastic female activists, writers and content creators out there –  but this is a selection of those who have really changed the way I think.

Caitlin Doughty

Owner of Undertaking LA, Founder of The Order of the Good Death, Death-Positive Activist and Author

I’ve mentioned Caitlin’s work multiple times on this blog (specifically here and here). Her YouTube videos on the Ask A Mortician channel deal with death from all angles, and it’s never insensitive but always fun. She examines the relationships between death and race, gender and class in a way I find necessary and relevant.

She’s seriously had an enormous impact on the way I feel about death and mortality. Watching Caitlin’s videos and reading her fabulous debut book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes helped me realise that grief is a process rather than a singular emotion; she taught me that bereavement is not something you “should just get over”. It’s not morbid to engage with our death and mourning traditions – if anything, it’s deeply cathartic and healthy. I love Death Mom and you should too.

Her Instagram is here.

caitlin doughty

Lucia Peters

Writer and Editor

Lucia Peters is the brains behind my favourite blog of all time, The Ghost In My Machine. TGIMM is a hub for spooky stories and creepy cases from history; I’m especially fond of her Most Dangerous Games series. I’ve never done any research into this, but it often seems like online communities which focus on the paranormal or on topics we perceive as “spooky”/”creepy” are dominated by men. All the popular storytellers on YouTube (the likes of Lazy Masquerade and Mr Nightmare) are men. It’s incredibly cool to see a woman find success in this field and, as with all the women on this list, I’d urge you to support her work.

lucia peters

Sarah Chavez

Director of The Order of the Good Death, Founder of Death & The Maiden and Blogger at Nourishing Death

Through engaging with Caitlin Doughty’s work, I discovered Sarah Chavez’s fantastic blog posts which are available across multiple platforms. I particularly admire her work around the decolonisation of death – she posts such interesting and beautiful photos on her Instagram (@sarah_calavera) which provide insight into ancient and contemporary Mexican funerary traditions. I really liked this post she wrote about the Disney film Coco (Oscar-winning Disney film, might I add!). Much of her writing deals with the “reclaiming” of death and, by extension, our own bodies. Whenever I read something of hers, I always find it thought-provoking.

sarah chavez

Amber Carvaly

Director at Undertaking LA, Death-Positive Activist and Artist

Amber is part of the all-female team at Undertaking LA, alongside Caitlin Doughty and funeral arranger Susana Alba. Like Caitlin, she advocates for more open discussions about death and greater involvement of families in the preparation of their deceased loved ones for burial or cremation. I particularly enjoyed this piece she wrote for Dead Maidens in 2016 about planning ahead for funerals – plenty of food for thought!

You can find Amber on Instagram as @yoshimidreams.

amber carvaly

Kelly-Ann Maddox

Spiritual Counsellor and YouTube Content Creator

I mentioned Kelly-Ann briefly in my post about tarot – I discovered her while trying to find YouTube videos with tarot tips – but I’ve come to appreciate her for much more than that. She’s a witchy heroine of mine. I said that she “exudes warmth” in that blog post and I think that’s largely why I subscribed to her channel; she’s laidback and candid in a style many other pagan channels seem to shy away from. She’s completely changed my view of how my spiritual practice is “supposed” to be. I spent a long time convinced I was doing it wrong: I didn’t understand all the New Age terminology and felt stupid, and the witchy Instagram craze made me feel fake because I don’t dress or decorate in a particularly spooky way. Kelly-Ann’s work has taught me to own all of it and just set out on a voyage of discovery without worrying what other people think.

kelly ann maddox

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!!

Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

the mummy 2

In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

the mummy

The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

BD_Hunefer_cropped_1

The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

Creative Writing: “Wings”

This is the second of the two pieces I’ve saved from my now-deleted WritersCafe account; it’s also the closest to “horror” of the two. I hesitate to call it “horror” because I think it takes a lot of skill to write horror and I’m not sure I have (or ever had) quite the ability. I wrote this in November 2014.

WINGS

The battlefield is silent now.

A pale and eerie mist has descended, encompassing the expanse of grass and dirt like a funerary shroud. Second Lieutenant James Lerwick lies under it, sharing it with his comrades, the damp of the ground beneath him soaking through his uniform.

The quiet is so unnatural that he wonders if he is dead yet.

Tentatively, James spreads the fingers of his left hand. They are numb but functioning, as are those on his right hand, so he tries to struggle into a sitting position. Fiery, sharp pain sears through both his legs and he whimpers. The explosion flung him like a child’s ragdoll. He wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the bones of his legs have shattered; they certainly feel like it. He is stuck.

His eyes are burning with tears. He prays – not an infrequent gesture this year – that someone will find him. Some luckier soul will be blundering through the mist over the battlefield, searching for other survivors, and see him here in the mud. Maybe his prayers are futile, but he has survived so far on faith alone and he isn’t willing to give up now.

“Help!” he shouts into the gloom, “Help me!”

Then he listens, for the splash of boots in the mud or even – though he doesn’t quite dare to hope – a response.

But nothing happens.

His lower lip is trembling and he has to fight the urge to break down and cry. If he is going to die, he might as well go with dignity, the way his mother would have wanted. It is hard not to weep when he thinks of her anticipating his next letter in vain. James clears his throat and calls out again. His heart is pounding, like the rumble of war drums.

The skies overhead are darkening as he waits. James is losing sight of the bodies around him and panic sets in. How will anyone find him now?  He glances at his watch and squints at its grimy face to find that it is nearing 8 o’clock in the evening. He has no idea how long he has been slumped here. He watches the seconds tick by until 8 o’clock passes. His mind is drifting and perfectly blank.

The silence is broken by the harsh croak of a raven. It startles James. He can see the murky shadow of the bird circling overhead, its wings outstretched. The raven swoops down and lands elegantly a few feet away. James has never seen one up close; they are truly massive birds. From its beak to the tips of its tail-feathers, it must measure at least the length of his forearm, if not more. Its feathers are smooth and dark, but its eyes are darker. He has never seen a creature with less emotion in its eyes. It is almost human in its apathy. It looks up into the sky and James follows its gaze.

Two more ravens are approaching. One lands beside the first, but the last raven hurtles to the ground and collides with its fellow birds. The second raven squawks. They squabble noisily, comical in their fury. If he were not in his present situation, James might have laughed.

“Alastor, ‘ave you lost your mind?!” James is elated at the sound of a voice. Finally, someone has found him! He surveys the surrounding area, seeking out the silhouette of his saviour.

He sees no-one. There is no-one emerging from the fog, no-one stumbling over the uneven ground.

Then he realises.

The voice came from the ravens.

He is convinced that he is hallucinating. That is the only possible explanation. In his pain and desperation, he has imagined a voice. It could even be the shock.

“I was distracted!” This voice sounds younger than the first, more uneasy. It reminds him of his own voice when they first handed him his gun. It sounds so real and close that he doubts himself.

Dread in his heart, he turns back to the ravens. They are hopping about, plucking at the uniforms of the dead. He remembers hearing that ravens are scavengers. He has never witnessed them feasting though. The sight of them plunging their beaks into flesh and tearing it away, spraying blood in all directions, makes bile rise in his throat.

One of the ravens lands on his chest. He can feel its talons digging in, even through layers of clothing. He tries to knock it away, tries to scare it off with a yell, but he can’t move. He is paralysed by some unseen and unknown force. The smell of decay, of sickness, rolls off the raven in pungent waves.

“I think we have a live one, boys.” It has a soft, insidious voice, like the silk of a murderess’ gown over floorboards, and James decides this must be the first raven, the imperious one, the one who seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

Oh Christ, he thinks. Whatever you are, please don’t hurt me.

“Been ages since we’ve ‘ad summat fresh,” The second raven mutters. It joins the first, settling on the other side of his ribcage. Its beak is smeared with blood from its meal. The third raven stands behind them both, an eyeball on a string of crimson sinew dangling from its beak. The iris is brown, the pupil still dilated with fear. It tilts its head back and starts to swallow the eye in revolting gulps. If he could move, James would vomit.

“Surely you mean someone fresh?” The first raven says slyly, and the three cackle in unison.

James knows for certain in that moment, with the trio of ravens laughing raucously on his chest, that he is going to die tonight. Not at the hands of the enemy, but under the claws of these birds from Hell.

 

Creative Writing: “Samhain Night”

I recently closed my account on WritersCafe.org, having been inactive there for quite some time, but I did salvage a couple of pieces of short spooky fiction which I’d written.

This was written for a Halloween competition at my school library in October 2014. Of the two I’ve chosen to keep, this is less like true “horror” fiction – I hope it’s still a fun read and as creepy as 15-year-old me thought it was when I wrote it.

SAMHAIN NIGHT

This is the night that, in ancient times, we called Samhain. It was the time when we led the cattle back from their pastures and gathered in the harvest. We lit our bonfires to banish the cold. Even now, the leaves fall like hanged men, carpeting the ground in crisp brown layers. The days become shorter, the nights longer. It marks the descent into the dark half of the year. Relief will come in bright February, on the day we once called Imbolc, but we must always wait.

This is the night when our world and the Otherworld are no longer separate. The line between them is blurred; the veil is lifted. This is the night when spirits pass between them, unencumbered, walking amongst the living but leaving no footprints. They are the spirits of those who came before us. They are wise now, for they have seen into the mist of the beyond, into the other side. On this night, souls can return to their earthly homes for the evening. Those who do are the lucky ones.  They can see the ones they used to love, be within the walls of a house once more. They can silently soothe grief, easing heartache with their numbing touch.

But there are spirits who return with a purpose.

No longer mortal and imbued with the knowledge of the Otherworld, some visit not to comfort but to foreshadow. They know who is destined to join them. The banshee comes as a messenger, her pallid flesh as white as her tattered gown. She wails and keens on Samhain night, her screech so piercing that it shatters glass. She howls the names of those about to die. Some say she weeps for them in sorrow, as a mother would. Some say hers is a siren’s song, luring them to the Otherworld.  In a beautiful maiden’s guise, she beckons them with her bony fingers and they follow willingly. There are tales of spirits who sit at the riverside, washing the blood-stained armour of damned warriors. They sing, like washerwomen at work, as they soak the clothes that each brave knight is doomed to die wearing.

These spirits cannot harm, nor can they change what is predestined to be; they can only forewarn and accompany mortals into the Otherworld.

Some spirits are not so kind. The banshee’s counterpart, the bavanshee, leaves the Otherworld only to hunt. For one night, she pursues human prey. Although her green garb of the finest silk and her ethereal beauty are notorious, more infamous still is the unearthly origin of such splendour. She lurks at the edge of abandoned paths through the woods. She is a patient predator. Should a lonely young traveller lose their way, she sidles out from the shadows. Her smile is beautiful but careful, and it hides her teeth.  What teeth they are – fangs like sacrificial blades. As the trusting traveller approaches, her grin widens and she pounces, feasting on blood until the light of dawn graces the earth.

From the west come the eternally restless slua. Rejected by the earth itself, unwelcome in the Otherworld, they are condemned to wander as penance for their sins. They leave naught but destruction in their wake. Crops fail as they pass; livestock perish in their grazing-fields. If they find a window unlocked on Samhain night, they creep in. They cast scarcely a shadow. They hunger for pure souls, to wear as they would a cloak, so that they might be accepted into the Otherworld. Lingering in a cursed crowd, they appear to some as thick fog or a murder of crows at a crossroads.

The presence of spirits is to be feared on Samhain.  But worse still is the emergence of the ancient one, the darkest deity of the old religion. They call him the crooked god, the king of the burial mound, the death of summer. The Otherworld is his domain, and he rules with an iron fist. His powers are tenfold that of the wandering spirits. On Samhain night, our world is his domain.

His name is Crom Cruach. On Samhain night, he is free.

 

The Bitten Files #1: Sava Savanović

This is the first installment of The Bitten Files, a series of blog posts exploring vampire legends.

In the small village of Zarožje, Serbia, an old watermill once stood in the valley of the Rogačica river. According to legend, the villagers risked their lives whenever they went to mill their grain, for inside the gloomy structure resided a terrifying creature: the vampire, Sava Savanović.

Sava Savanović is part of a long tradition of vampire folklore in Eastern Europe: “In the Balkans, where a vampire cult flourished in the late Middle Ages, a vampire was suspected of infesting a graveyard when people reported seeing apparitions of the dead that pestered them and bit them, or sat on their chests and suffocated them at night… Vampires also were blamed for plagues, invisible terrors that bothered people at night and wasting diseases that brought death.” (Guiley, 1992: 344) There were efforts to preserve the watermill as a tourist attraction, although, as one of the mill’s owners was quick to assert in an interview with ABC News, no-one was ever permitted to sleep there overnight. Renovations to make the mill a proper (read: safe) site for tourists began in early 2010,  but this was not to come to fruition. At the time of its collapse in 2012, the mill – owned by the Jagodić family – hadn’t been in operation since the 1950s, but the vampire who was said to have made his home there remained a significant figure in the collective consciousness of the surrounding villages. The village council even issued a warning to the public upon the mill’s collapse. Sava was now homeless, they declared, and would be on the lookout for somewhere new to rest in peace (or not, as it goes).

How seriously the villagers took the warning varies depending on which news outlet you’re looking at. However, Sava’s legacy is serious business indeed. The people of Zarožje made an official complaint to the local police that the city of Valjevo, on the other side of the valley, had stolen Savanović from them when the city made him their mascot in 2010. He was also the subject of an 1880 novella, Posle devedeset godina (After Ninety Years), by Milovan Glišić and the 1973 horror film Leptirica which was inspired by the story. It’s interesting to note that Leptirica is widely considered to have been the first Serbian horror film. Whether it’s any good is another matter entirely…

 

Although widespread belief in vampires has died out across most of Europe, Serbia’s best-known vampire remains an important aspect of the country’s cultural history and its cinematic and literary canon. His peasant-purging days might be over, but – like a true creature of the night – Sava Savanović lives on.

Further reading

Dragona Jovanovic (2012) Vampire Threat Terrorizes Serbian Village (ABC News)

Sasha Ingber (2012) The Bloody Truth About Serbia’s Vampire (National Geographic)

Tyler Tichelaar (2017) After Ninety Years: A Newly Translated 1880 Serbian Vampire Novella (Gothic Wanderer, WordPress)

Rosemary Guiley (1992) The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (pp 344)

Note: there are a number of Serbian sources, two of which are available here and here. I can’t read or speak Serbian (although I’m taking a module of Serbian-Croatian next year at uni) but you’re welcome to comment if you do and you find something in the Serbian articles which you think ought to be included here.

 

I’m A Feminist And I’m Scared Of Dying

Hooked you in with that title, didn’t I?

Something interesting often comes up in conversations about my hobbies and passions. The fact that I’m a feminist and a leftist is generally accepted with little more than sought-after reassurance that I’m “not one of the preachy ones” (spoiler: I am). People are equally comfortable with my other passions – ghost hunting, tarot and horror films – and are usually quite enthusiastic (or at least happily indifferent) about them. A small minority of the people I’ve met have been ghost hunting and still fewer have ever attempted to learn tarot, so I get to be the “expert” in the room despite being no such thing.

The interesting point that arises is often expressed like this: “For someone so political, it’s odd that you’d be into such illogical things.”

It’s a fair statement to make. I’m very serious about my politics, but conversely I’ve participated in an activity – namely ghost hunting – which is not widely considered to be a “serious” endeavour. Despite this contrast, I find myself feeling self-conscious about both of these passions. I portray them as something they are not when I talk about them, something frivolous and silly. Ghost hunting is my “weird little hobby”; feminism is “just me being a hairy bra-burner, haha”. Neither of those things really represent how I feel, because I take them both very seriously indeed. There’s also plenty of crossover between the two, because the personal is political for me. I think about feminism in the context of my life every day – for example, my love of horror films has led me to analyse them more deeply and ask myself: how are women depicted in these films and why? How do horror films handle feminist themes? I can combine my “serious” interest with my “silly” interest, and that works for me.

But if we properly psychoanalyse me, if we strip my flag-waving, marching politics and my love of anything spooky back to the barest bones, what do we find?

Someone who has a really weird relationship with the concept of death.

I am not consciously scared of dying. I joke about what I want done at my funeral, I love crypts and cemeteries, and I especially love mummies. I don’t find myself squeamish at corpses in particularly nasty crime documentaries.  I’m relatively comfortable at the top end of exposure – at least as much exposure as an average person who doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies in person can possibly have (perhaps I would change my mind in the presence of an actual cadaver).

It is not physical death that scares me. Like anyone else, I would like to go painlessly one day and, on a more personal level, I like the idea that I could greet Death warmly as a friend like a folk hero might. I think it is the death of my drive, if you like, that unsettles me. The idea that I might pop off one day and leave the cause forever. As someone who wants to make a difference, I am deeply afraid of being cut off and leaving nothing behind. What if all the writing and arguing and campaigning just never pay off? What if I can change nothing about the inequality rampant in our society? You might instead describe that as a fear of impotence or inferiority (and, damn, have I got a lot going on where inferiority complexes are concerned) but that’s what is truly frightening for me.

The relationship between ghost hunting and death is more obvious – who doesn’t want to know if our consciousness can remain on this mortal plane? – although I think politics has a lot to do with death as well. Where you stand on politics has a lot to do with what you consider to be “surviving” and what you consider to be “living”. Feminism and socialism are both movements devoted to improving people’s quality of life. Socialists object to a world in which you (and your labour) are exploited until you die. Feminists object to a world in which women are treated as willing bodies rather than human beings. Women and girls are murdered on our TV screens, over the pages of our crime thrillers and all over the world in real life, and I find that far more upsetting and scary than any amount of standing around in dark tunnels and damp caves, calling out to spirits.

As strange as you might find it, I can comfortably sit in the grey area between “serious” politics and “silly” paranormal pursuits.

How To Tell A Good Scary Story

Did you ever go to sleepovers as a child? Or did you ever go camping away from your parents? If so, then you’ll likely recall that, along with your pyjamas, your toothbrush and an extra pair of undies, the key thing you needed to bring with you was a stonkin’ good scary story. There was always one kid who was the best storyteller, the one who’d seen horror movies they were way too young to watch, the one who had the cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s friend who was almost killed by a poltergeist. If you were a weird kid like me, that storyteller was probably you. I swear to you, I once nearly made a girl piss herself. That’s not an exaggeration.

The fun doesn’t have to end there. Get your friends over for a horror movie or organise a camping trip, relive those golden days and wow them with the best scary story they’ve ever heard, one which will chill them even now.

Here’s how to do it.

Firstly, the set-up.

The standard is lights off, torches on, which is obviously a classic combination. Holding the torch up under your chin to give yourself that Tales from the Crypt lewk is a must if you go for this option. However, a lot can be achieved by having all the lights off except for a lamp (or two). Throw something over the lamp – a thin t-shirt will do – to make it dimmer and, voila, you’ve got ambient mood lighting.

If you choose to tell your scary story on a camping trip, huddling together with torches around a roaring campfire (although health and safety comes first!) is the way to go.

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Next, the story.

One of the most important things that really sell a scary story is a believable background. You need to open your story well. It’s up to you whether you leave it enigmatic and open-ended – say, by starting your story with something along the lines of “I heard this a few years ago…”/”I read on the internet that…” and going from there, never quite disclosing your source. I’m quite fond of the “vague familial connection” trick (you might have noticed I used it in my introduction) in which the person who experienced the paranormal encounter or freaky incident is linked to you, the storyteller, by mutual friends or relatives: “Apparently, the freakiest thing happened to my older sister’s best friend’s cousin…”

Once you’ve laid out where your story originated, it’s time to find some inspiration. It may be that someone you know has had a scary experience, or you may have even had one yourself. If so, feel free to dress that up and present it. If you’re not lucky enough to have a plethora of personal paranormal adventures at your disposal, never fear! You could retell an urban legend but apply it to an abandoned house or creepy park near where you live, or you could even borrow a generic horror movie plot and use that. No-one will mind if you repurpose an existing legend like the babysitter and the man upstairs, Bloody Mary, the vanishing hitchhiker or Slender ManNobody needs to know as long as you can convincingly embellish it and make it your own.

The very first scary story I ever told was a fairly bog-standard ghost story. The basic plotline was that a girl was babysitting her neighbours’ children. She cooked their tea, watched television with them for an hour or two and then put them to bed. She went back downstairs to relax until the parents came home, but kept hearing noises like footsteps running up and down the stairs and across the upstairs landing. She checked, thinking the children had woken up and were misbehaving, but she found the children were sound asleep in their beds.

I can’t really remember how it ended – I think the gist of it was that the house had been an orphanage or some bullshit, which obviously would never fly as a plot twist in a real horror story – but the plotline rarely matters on occasions such as these. My story was not particularly complicated, but it didn’t need to be to unsettle the room full of prepubescent girls. Instead, it was my performance of it that was of greatest importance. We were sitting in the dark and I deliberately positioned myself next to the wooden coffee table and punctuated the footsteps part of the story by tapping quickly on the table. What can I say, even as a little girl I had a flair for the dramatic.

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Finally, go for the jugular.

If it fits into your story, leave your ending as ambiguous as possible. Leave your audience wondering what the monster really was or whether the protagonist got out alive.

Even better, a skilled storyteller will draw their audience into the story. Let them know that no-one is safe and they could be next. As I said, I can’t remember the ending of my ghost story, but I vividly recall the mother of the girl who was hosting the sleepover opening the living-room door to check on us, just as I mentioned that the orphans still haunted the house which used to be their home. That was just sheer good fortune, but it did the trick. Everyone was in bits.

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Drop your own ideas and your favourite experiences of telling or hearing scary stories in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

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You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

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The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

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But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.