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.

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“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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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.

 

Urban Legends: The Black-Eyed Kids

In 1998, a journalist named Brian Bethel, of Abilene, Texas submitted a tale to the story archive on Obiwan’s UFO-Free Paranormal Page. In his submission (here), Bethel recounted an experience he had two years prior in the car park of a cinema. Having driven at night to pay his internet bill and utilising the light from the cinema’s marquee, Bethel had parked up to write a cheque. While sitting in his car, he was approached by two adolescent boys who asked if he could give them a lift home. They’d forgotten their money and they wanted to see Mortal Kombat, they said.

Bethel knew something about them was… off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. The longer he spoke to them, the stranger they seemed. They kept trying to reassure him, insisting that they weren’t going to harm him, that they were just two little boys who needed a lift to their mother’s house. Then they began demanding, let us in, Mister.

As the boys became more persistent – and he was being unconsciously persuaded by them, his hand drifting to open the car door –  it dawned on him.

Their eyes.

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Bethel’s story is widely accepted to be the earliest encounter with the Black-Eyed Kids (often abbreviated to BEKs) or Black-Eyed Children, although, according to ThoughtCo, “Reports of BEKs spiked in 2013”. This was the first encounter with the BEKs which I read – at the age of 10 or so – and it has stayed with me. There’s something about the Black-Eyed Kids that resonated with me. I’m finding it uncomfortable to write this post even now; I keep looking over the top of my laptop screen.

The BEKs are, according to whispered legends (and internet forums), an invasive force. Whether it’s into your car or into your home, they want you to let them in. This has led many, questioning their origins, to wonder how much resemblance they bear to the vampire of myth. As it was put in an article on the Creepypasta Wiki, “…[the] encounters frequently emphasize that the children must be voluntarily admitted or invited into the house or car in question, and in this way are reminiscent of some vampire legends. However it is unspecified what happens should you comply with their demands, as no reports of the Bek [sic] have included that happening… ” Although no conclusive evidence of their existence or of a hoax has ever been provided, each story bears some common features. The encounter takes place at night or during a storm. The child (or children) attempts to persuade the victim to let them in – for a lift home, to use the telephone or to wait for help. The victim is consumed by a mounting sense of dread until, finally, the penny drops. Is this the modus operandi of evil entities or an indication of mass hysteria, spreading by word of mouth?

Sightings of BEKs are not limited to the US; the stories come from all over the world. Here in England, we have our own tales of Black-Eyed Children, such as a little girl  sighted on Cannock Chase (you might remember Cannock Chase from a previous article). In 2014, Soul and Spirit Magazine published an article about the experiences of psychic medium Christine Hamlett, who believed she had caught the black-eyed child on camera.

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The Black-Eyed Girl of Cannock Chase. (c) Christine Hamlett.

According to the article, sightings of the child can be traced back to the 1980s. As with many UK examples, this case is generally described as a “ghost” and encounters differ significantly from US reports like Brian Bethel’s, so they are potentially unrelated phenomena.

Whether you believe in the Black-Eyed Kids is entirely up to you. It’s an urban legend, after all. A tale from a friend of a friend – or even some WordPress blogger – shouldn’t be enough to convince you. It didn’t quite convince me, even when I first read Bethel’s account.

Still, when I read the story of the first recorded BEK encounter at the age of 10, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would have happened if Brian Bethel had opened his car door? What if he’d rolled his window down a little too far? What if he had let them in?

What happens to the people who don’t figure out what’s wrong with these children quickly enough?

The answer doesn’t quite bear thinking about.

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For more:

 

Review: “What We Do In The Shadows” (2014)

Alright, so technically this is a retrospective review and I’m years late to the party, but I watched What We Do In The Shadows for the first time recently and it’s fantastic. I haven’t had so much fun watching a film in ages.

Ladies

Everything about it is hopelessly endearing: the characters are well-developed and likeable, the plot is fresh without losing a nostalgic touch and it’s just so funny. I generally prefer a straight-up horror film – at best, the horror-comedies I’ve seen have made me smile or prompted a chuckle or two, but What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh out loud. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (although I swear I’m not exaggerating), I laughed so hard that it actually hurt. That’s partly due to the dialogue being razor-sharp and subtly witty; however, the things that made me laugh most were all the references. Normally, references to other films just irk me and remind me of classics that I’d much rather be watching, but the jokes were so tightly crafted and beautifully woven into the plot (there’s a particularly good Lost Boys reference which had me wheezing). It dares to imagine what modern-day vampires might get up to and how they would interact with the modern world. What would they think of films like The Lost Boys or Blade? How might they feel about vampire literary tropes? It explores these questions – along with deeper introspections on mortality and being human – without ever becoming cheesy in the way other films have.

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It’s also one of the finest mockumentaries I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It sounds ridiculous, but there were times when I forgot that it wasn’t a real documentary; the tone and style are absolutely flawless. I found myself believing that there could be vampires hiding away and flat-sharing in Wellington. It’s easy to be drawn in by it because it’s so incredibly detailed and the protagonists all have such interesting backstories.

What We Do In The Shadows balanced being a genuinely solid horror flick, a brilliant comedy and a silly, sweet film. I don’t mean “silly” or “sweet” in an insulting way (it’s such a clever film), but it goes all in while fully acknowledging how daft the premise is. That’s why this works and why something like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter doesn’t.

So here’s to What We Do In The Shadows, the best new (at least, new to me) film I’ve watched this year.

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You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.