The Headless Horseman

The Halloween History Of The Headless Horseman

Headless Horsemen have figured in the imaginations of many cultures, and have now become a fixture in modern horror and Halloween celebrations. Some compilations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales include an encounter with a headless horseman. Bavarian folklore apparently contain tales of Headless Horsemen who patrol the forests.

In India, a character called the Dund rides about headless, although his noggin is tied to his saddle. The Dullahan of Irish folklore is a headless spirit seen riding a headless horse. In some variants, it’s a headless coachman. The Green Knight of medieval legend is beheaded by Gawain, but rides away carrying carrying his own head.

In a 1777 work by the German poet G.A. Burger, Der Wilde Jager, a ghostly huntsman is condemned for his cruel demeanor on earth. He rides with his hell hounds through the woods and chases innocents. The poem is based on German folklore and in some versions, he’s headless.

The best known of the Headless Horsemen, however, appears in Washington Irving’s 1820 story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is this version of the story that has become Halloween legend.

Irving was not above borrowing folklore for his tales, especially from the Dutch — as in his popularization of the Dutch Santa Claus. New York, originally New Amsterdam was Dutch in origins, and Irving’s Knickerbocker Tales focused on their descendants.

In Irving’s story, the Headless Horseman is the ghost of a Hessian who was decapitated by a cannon ball during the American Revolution. His spirit haunts the town of Sleepy Hollow.

The Hessians were mercenary soldiers from the German state of Hesse-Kassel hired by King George III to fight against the Continental Army during the American revolution. It was the Hessians who were caught by surprise at the Battle of Trenton after Washington crossed the Delaware River.

The Hessians also featured prominently in the Saratoga Campaign in New York in 1777. The Hessian force there contained a large number of cavalry. However, in the dense upstate New York woods, the horses were abandoned, and the Hessians fought on foot. The Hessian forces under British General Johnny Burgoyne were defeated by the Colonials under Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold.

In either case, the Hessians developed a reputation among the colonists for brutality against the local populations. Whether that was true, or only propaganda is unclear. Their reputation, however, plays a part in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The Washington Irving tale of horror is well known. It’s set in the town of Sleepy Hollow, which, Irving reveals early in the story, is a magical place haunted by the spirit of a headless Hessian trooper. The plot revolves around a schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane, who is in pursuit of Katrina van Tassel, a wealth heiress. Unfortunately for the skinny and somewhat meek Crane, his competition for Katrina is the local bully, Brom Bones.

The subject of the horseman comes up at a local party, where the various young men of Sleepy Hollow are telling ghost stories. Brom Bones claims to have raced the Headless Horseman for the stakes of a bowl of punch. In the race, he claims that the Horseman was unable to cross the water under the town’s bridge. Even with this lightheartedness, however, Crane is nervous.

Irving notes that the time of year is autumn, but does not specify whether or not it is Halloween.

On the way home from the party, Crane imagines all sorts of scary things in the woods. Eventually, he is joined by another rider. When he realizes that it’s the Horseman, he flees, hoping to reach the bridge for the safety of town.

Crane nearly makes it. But, at the last minute, the Horseman throws his head, knocking the schoolteacher from his mount.

That’s the last we hear of Crane. The next morning his horse is found, as is a shattered pumpkin, but there’s no sign of the schoolteacher. His fate is never actually revealed by the storyteller.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 02:42:22.

The Bunny Man

As children in suburban Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, we were terrified by rumors of a bizarre serial killer known by the not-so-frightening name of “The Bunnyman.”

In our imaginations, he inhabited the woods and swamps around our homes, a large fat man wielding an axe, and wearing an Easter Bunny costume. He was a homicidal Peter Cottontail who preyed on kids and especially on teen couples parking their cars in isolated places.

Although we were convinced the Bunnyman lived in our Maryland suburbs, he actually seems to have had his origins in the nearby town of Clifton, Virginia. Fairfax County Library Historian Brian A Conley reportedly has identified two incidents of a threatening man in a bunny costume occurred in the last weeks of October 1970. According to Conley and Washington Post reports, on October 20, 1970, USAF Academy Cadet Bennett and his fiancee Dusty were sitting in their car on Guinea Road in Burke, Virginia when a white-clad figure smashed the front passenger window. The white figure shouted “You’re on private property and I have your tag number,” before Bennett turned the car around and headed down the road. Later, the couple discovered a hatchet on the floor of the car. A second incident occurred on October 29 of that same year. This time, a man in a white bunny suit was spotted by a security guard on the porch of an unfinished home. The Bunnyman was chopping on the home with an axe and ran into the woods when confronted.

Four articles on the incidents eventually were printed in the Washington Post.

Given the times and the location, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the “Bunny Suit” was in fact a Ku Klux Klan costume. I can clearly remember seeing a sign on a Virginia roadside in those days that said “Big Klan Rally Here Tonight.” But it’s been reported that Fairfax police reports specify that the man was wearing a bunny suit. On the other hand, it’s also not unreasonable that the Fairfax police would want to discount and deflect attention from a Klan presence.

Whatever the details, the story spread quickly. Local legend held that the Bunnyman not only attacked youngsters with a hatchet, but also left behind the bloody, skinned corpses of rabbits. And in an echo of the more widespread “hook” ghost story, couples reported finding hatchet scrapes on the sides of their cars after they had been parking in remote areas (and much of what is now suburban Maryland and Virginia were “remote” in those days).

The Bunnyman’s apparent aversion to outsiders trespassing on his land suggests that it was a local, perhaps upset by the encroachment of real estate developments on what was until then a relatively rural and isolated area.

A well-known variant of the story pegs the initial incidents as occurring much earlier — perhaps at the turn of the century. In that version, an inmate escaped from a local Virginia insane asylum, murdered several children and left their bodies hanging from a bridge. The murderer became known as the Bunny Man when the corpses of skinned and half-eaten rabbits began turned up in the area. The bridge, a single lane auto road passing under a railroad track, is located in Clifton, Virginia. Officially called the Fairfax Station Bridge, it’s now known as the Bunnyman Bridge.

Several published versions of this variant have appeared, but all have been discredited. There has never been a mental asylum in the Clifton area; investigations of newspaper and police reports have failed to turn up any documentary evidence for escaped, killer lunatic inmates.

Over the years, the story grew, and more murders were attributed to the Bunnyman, most ending with corpses hanging either from the bridge, or nearby. In our Southern Maryland suburbs, bodies supposedly were found among the ruins of old Fort Washington, a large fort dating to the early 1800s.

More fantastical stories claimed that the Bunnyman is actually a giant rabbit who killed family pets. These tales echo those told about the “Goat Man,” a satyr-like creature — half man and half goat — said to haunt Governor’s Bridge Road, Lottsford Road and Fletchertown Road in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Interestingly, unlike the Bunnyman’s haunts, those locations are near a state medical facility — the Glen Dale State Asylum, a tuberculosis facility whose name may have convinced some tale spinners that it was a mental institution.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 02:39:47.

The Maryland Goat Man

The Maryland Goatman is a hybrid beast who reportedly inhabits the Forestville and Upper Marlboro areas of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Generations of children (including this writer) grew up with tales of the Goatman’s series of horrific murders. The victims of the satyr-like creature were reportedly hacked to death with an axe and then eaten.

The first sightings of the Goatman occurred in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Certainly the legend was well-established in the area by the mid 1960s. The Goatman made appearances throughout Prince Georges County, usually alongside roads such as Lottsford and Fletchertown. These stories often seem to be a version of the “hook” urban legend, where young lovers are threatened in their parked cars.

The Goatman also was said to stalk the grounds of the Glenn Dale Hospital and Sanatorium, which was a state tuberculosis facility. Another story associates the Goatman with the Governor’s Bridge in nearby Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The bridge is said to be the haunt of either a) a young unmarried mother who committed suicide there, b) a baby who was flung off the bridge by a similarly desperate mother or c) both.

There is a similar legend of a Bunnyman in adjacent Northern Virginia, which is said to inhabit the area around the Colhester Overpass, a railroad bridge which spans the Colchester Road.

One Goatman legend says that the beast was the creation of an agricultural scientist at the United States Department of Agriculture research facilities in Beltsville, Maryland. This echoes the legends of the Chupacabra, which in some accounts was created by a US lab in Puerto Rico. It is interesting that Chupacabra means Goat Sucker.

Another make the more obvious witchcraft connection, claiming the Goatman is a summoned devil or demon.I had also heard that it was actually a hobo who lived in the woods and turned into a were-goat at night.

Indeed, the Goatman legend incorporates many broad horror themes.The beast was created by a Mad Scientist, and resembles nothing less than the devil of medieval witchcraft. The Goatman was a serial killer threatening teenagers long before Michael Meyers, Jason or Freddie. It is said to inhabit a bridge like a troll, and perhaps be an example of lycanthropy. Add to that cannibalism, and you have the perfect Halloween monster.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 02:37:36.

History of Halloween

Halloween’s Origins

Each year on Halloween night, millions of children take to the streets in scary costumes to beg for treats at the doors of their neighbors. And millions of adults enjoy the holiday as a celebration of things that go bump in the night, and frighten the unwary.

Few, however, ever stop to wonder about the origins of the night, or of the creatures that seem to populate it.

Most sources trace Halloween’s origins to an ancient Celtic holiday called Samhain. The Celts were a group of people who lived in present day Ireland and England from about the 5th Century BC.

Samhain (pronounced sow-en) was an end of the summer commemoration that occurred near the end of October. October 31 is cited as the official end of summer, but since the present day Calendar was not in effect then, that is probably not a precise date.

The end of summer was a significant event for ancient peoples because it represented the end of warmth and sunlight, and times of plenty, and the entry into a time of shorter days, colder nights, and deprivation. And naturally, such dark times would be accompanied by dark spirits.

It is doubtful that anyone really knows how the Celts celebrated their holiday, but several stories have emerged.

One story says that the Celts believed that on Halloween night, the spirits of the people who had died in the previous year came back to the Earth, to search for a body to occupy. To avoid being possessed, the superstitious Celts would put out all the lights of their village in an attempt to convince the spirits that no one was at home. Then, the villagers would dress in costumes designed to trick the spirits into thinking that they, too were spirits, and thus not eligible to be possessed.

If all went well, the spirits would wander through the village, and see nothing but dark houses and other spirits. They would then wander off to another village.

In this legend, you can see the origins of several of the modern Halloween traditions: Ghosts (spirits of the dead) costumes and dark, empty houses.

As the night ended, the villagers found that they were without lights. They would then relight all of their hearth fires from a sacred bonfire maintained by their priests, the Druids.

A more gruesome version says that part of the bonfire ceremony involved the ignition of a young, innocent village girl. This, however, sounds more like Hollywood than History to me.

Another version – more pedestrian – is that the Celts celebrated their end of summer holiday with a huge bonfire built by the Druids. The villagers would put out their own fireplaces and gather to sacrifice crops and animals to the fire. Costumes of animals were worn to further honor the creatures that had blessed them throughout the summer’s bounty. Then, at the end, each family would relight their hearths from the sacred communal fire.

The Celts became one of many peoples conquered by the Romans in the early part of the first Century. The Romans were an adaptive people and happily incorporated local holidays, gods and traditions into their own. (That’s why so many Roman gods bear an uncanny resemblance to Greek ones; and why the Roman Empire was later able to shift from paganism to Christianity. If there was a better idea, they stole it.).

The Romans had their own fall harvest festival. One, for the Goddess Pomona celebrated the harvest of the fruit of the trees. Pomona’s symbol was the apple, which has led some scholar to speculate that this is the origin of the custom of bobbing for apples. (Whatever the origins, illustrations in medieval manuscripts show people bobbing for apples, so the custom dates to at least the dark ages.)

The Romans also had their own festival of the Dead, called Feralia, which was marked at the end of the Roman year, in February.

Christianity was introduced to the British Isles starting about the second century AD. Just as the Romans had been willing to adapt to local customs, so were the early Christian missionaries — many of whom were Roman (for example, early missionaries were willing to abandon the stricture that converts first become Jews when they ran across cultural barriers, and it is thought that the date of Christmas was selected to coincide with a Germanic winter festival.)

When the inhabitants of England and Ireland proved unwilling to abandon their late October festival, Christianity simply incorporated it.

In the 700s, Pope Boniface IV set November 1 as All Saints Day — a day to honor Saints and Martyrs. The day was also known as All Hallows, and the previous night, All Hallows Eve. November 2 was named All Souls Day, and was set aside to honor the souls of the dead. The three days together were called Hallow Mass.

All Hallows Eve, of course, was later corrupted into Halloween.

It is widely believed that Boniface IV did this to co-opt the pagan Celtic holdouts into Christianity.

It’s not too hard to imagine how the conversations went between early missionaries and the pagan villagers.

Village Chief (after listening to the missionary’s explanation of Christianity): Well, it all sounds very nice, but we really don’t want to give up costumes and bonfires and all the other stuff that goes with Samhain. It might all be superstition, but why take the chance …

Missionary (after thinking a bit): Did I say you had to give it up? By an amazing coincidence, it turns out that we Christians also have a holiday to honor the dead … and it’s on the same day! … and instead of one day … it’s three days!”

Halloween arrived in North America with the early colonists. However, because of the Puritan influence in New England, it was mostly confined to the Scots-Irish of the Southern Colonies.

Colonial Halloweens were essentially Harvest Festivals, with lots of eating and drinking, music, dancing, ghost stories and fortune telling (you can see why it didn’t catch on with the Puritans). Some more of our modern Halloween symbols were introduced at this time, as traditions were blended with Native American harvest festivals. Corn stalks and pumpkins – unknown in Europe before the discovery of North America – became part of Halloween imagery.

Halloween really arrived in America with the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s. The Irish brought their Halloween traditions with them and wove them into the fabric of American society.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:30:54.

History of the Jack O’Lantern

The Jack O’ Lantern has its origins in Irish folklore:

According to the story, there once was a ne’er-do-well named Jack. An infamous drunk, he could generally be found at the local pub. One day, Jack is sitting in the bar when along comes the Devil.

“Jack,” he says. “Its time to go.”

Jack begins to whine. “Oh Devil,” he says. “I’d love to go with you, but first, I’d like to have just one more drink.”

“Fine,” says the Devil. “Go ahead.”

Jack fishes in his pocket and pulls out his change purse. It’s empty. “Oh Devil,” Jack says. “I once heard that you could change your self into anything you like.”

“It’s true,” says the Devil.

“Well,” says Jack. “Could you turn your self into a coin so I could buy another drink. Then you could change yourself back and cheat the barkeep out of his money.”

The idea of cheating the barkeep appealed to the Devil, so he changed into a coin. And quick as a wink, Jack picked up the coin and put it into his purse. Then he took out his knife and carved a cross on it.

The Devil was stuck inside.

“Let me out!” he said.

“Not until we make a deal,” said Jack. “I have some unfinished business. If I let you out, you must promise to give me another year.”

The Devil grumbled, but agreed to the terms. And Jack opened the purse and dumped him out. The Devil then went away.

A year later, Jack was sitting in the same pub, when along came the Devil.

“Your year is up,” The Devil said. “No more tricks now, lets go.”

Jack followed the Devil out of the Pub and was on his way to Hell. But along the way, he passed an apple tree

“Oh Devil,” said Jack. “Before I go to Hell, I would really love to have an apple to eat.”

The Devil didn’t see any harm in this, so he agreed. Jack tried to reach an apple, but it was to high for him to reach. He tried to climb the tree, but slid back down.

Disgusted and impatient, the Devil jumped into the tree to get the apple for Jack. And quick as a wink, Jack whipped out his pocket knife and carved a cross on the tree trunk.
The Devil was stuck in the tree.

“Let me down!” he said.

“Not until we make a deal,” Jack said. “You must promise to go away and never bother me again.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” the Devil said.

“Just promise to leave me alone,” Jack repeated.

The Devil agreed, and Jack carved out the Cross. The Devil jumped down and went away.

And after that, Jack lived a very, very, very, very, very, very, very long life. So long in fact, that he began to tire of living. So Jack goes in search of Heaven. But when he finds the Pearly Gates, St. Peter refuses to let him in.

So Jack goes in search of Hell. When he gets to the firey gates, the Devil is waiting.

“Oh, Devil,” Jack says. “I’m so tired of living. I’m old and I’m cold and I want to end it all.”

The Devil just laughed. “Don’t you remember our deal? I promised to leave you alone forever.”

“But where will I go?” Jack asked. “I’m lost, its dark, and I don’t know the way.”

“Here,” said the Devil, “take this!” And he reached down and grabbed a big scoop of Hell. And he threw it to Jack.

Jack caught it, but it was so hot that he tried to drop it. Only he couldn’t. No matter how much he tried, the stuff stuck to his fingers. So he ran out into the dark fields outside of Hell and grabbed a turnip. He took out his pocketknife, and quick as a flash, carved out the inside, and dropped the hellfire inside. Then, he carved a couple of holes in the front of the turnip and wandered off, using it as a lantern.

So Jack of the Lantern – Jack O’Lantern — wanders to this very day, carrying his hellish light with him.

The Irish used turnips for their Jack O’Lanterns in Ireland. But when they reached America, they found that pumpkins were more plentiful, and made a better lantern. And so the Jack O’Lantern pumpkin was born.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:28:34.

History of Trick or Treating

In the mid 19th century, many of the traditions of modern Halloween had fallen into place. Halloween celebrants dressed in costumes and wandered from door to door begging for food or money, echoing a medieval practice known as “Souling.”

Medieval Christians believed that when a person died, they would go to Heaven if they lead a good life, to Hell if they didn’t, and to Purgatory if they were somewhere in between. A family could get the souls of their loved ones out of Purgatory and into Heaven if they said enough prayers for them.

On Hallowmass, the beggars would take advantage of this belief by wandering from house to house offering to say prayers in exchange for food. Small cakes, called “Soul Cakes” often were distributed.

In this custom, we have the origins of the Halloween custom of “Trick or Treating.” In fact, among many older people, trick or treaters still are known as “beggars.”

Trick or treating continued until the late 19th Century, when it was replaced with community Halloween events such as parties and parades. At the same time, a religious revival removed much of the superstitious and gothic horror overtones.

Many of these customs seem to have been revived in the 1920s, when children’s costume parades once again became popular. By the 1950s, with the baby boom and the development of suburban communities, the practice was once again in full swing.

In recent years, the custom of Trick-or-Treating has been darkened by the specter of poisoned treats. Wild media reports – even from the normally clear-headed Ann Landers have warned of razor blades in candy bars and arsenic in pixie sticks.

But reputable studies have shown that these reports are only myths. In fact, the entire urban legend can be traced back to one incident: In 1974, a father poisoned his own son with cyanide, and then attempted to cover his crime by lacing candy in the child’s bag with the poison. The candy was not handed out to the neighborhood kids.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:26:58.

Halloween History of Witches

One of the more enduring symbols of Halloween, horror and folklore is that of the Witch. Ugly and evil, they are shown flying on their broomsticks, or stirring their cauldrons.

Witches were not always thought of as evil or ugly. In ancient times, witches could be healers or wise women of the community. But as Christianity spread, they were often condemned because their power supposedly came from somewhere other than God.

Later, accusations of witchcraft often were used as a way to keep talented, intelligent women from threatening the male supremacy of the day. They also could be used to make people toe the line with regard to community standards. Anyone who was thought of as different or rebellious could be accused. Thus men were often accused as much as women.

The focus of witchcraft on medieval women can be seen in what have becomes the symbols of witchcraft: the broom, the cauldron (pot) and the cat. All of these are associated with the household and women’s work. Not surprisingly, these have also become strong symbols in modern Halloween and horror literature.

Witches were thought of as ugly because evil is ugly.

While witch hunts are thought of as a medieval phenomenon, the height of the atrocities actually occurred between the 15th and 18th centuries. In fact, it was not until 1320 that the Church officially declared witchcraft as a heresy.

While there is no definitive answer as to the number of people tried for witchcraft, it seems safe to say that tens of thousands – perhaps as many as hundreds of thousands were accused.

Following the advice in the witch hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum – The Hammer of Witches – witch hunters used a variety of tests to try the accused. Believing that a witch wouldn’t bleed when cut, they employed a variety of instruments to test this theory. (Though of course, the instruments often were blunt).

Birthmarks were often seen as the mark of the Devil. In a voyeuristic show, hunters would strip their victims before the crowd to inspect for the Devil’s marks.

Another test – often shown in medieval woodcuts, involved dunking – or worse, throwing – women into a pond or well. If they floated , it was thought that they had been rejected by the water of baptism and thus were witches. If they sunk, it indicated that they were innocent. Of course, this could also involve drowning, but at least they were innocent and their soul was saved.

Confession under torture was another favorite. Using a variety of grisly devices, the witch hunter would try to extract a confession. Although torture was sometimes held in secret, it often was a public spectacle, providing entertainment for the masses.

The key to all of this was that the accusation alone often was enough to make you guilty.

A person found guilty of witchcraft often was executed for their crimes – although apparently, a confession (and under torture, who wouldn’t confess?) could result in a chance at rehabilitation. A reformed “witch” could be sent to a monastery or convent.

In the popular imagination, however, the proper way of disposing of a witch is by burning at the stake. This is no doubt bolstered by the fate of Joan of Arc.

While many were burned at the stake, other methods of execution also were employed. Hanging seems to have been a preferred method, and images of witch hangings can be seen in period engravings. Others were beheaded, stoned, broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered and so on. In the famous Salem Witch Trials, one man was “pressed” to death, by placing him under a board and then piling rocks on top until he was crushed.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials occurred in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In the incident, the accusations of three young girls against their neighbors touched off a series of charges and counter charges that eventually resulted in hundreds of people being accused and held for witchcraft.

The accusations grew quickly because of the chain reaction nature of the investigations. Once a person was accused of witchcraft, one way to avoid further harassment and punishment was to confess, ask for absolution, and then turn over the names of the other witches in their Coven. Since there was no Coven, the newly accused would protest their innocence. But eventually, they, too would see that confession and accusation was the way out.

Twenty eventually were executed. The hysteria ended when the Governor was convinced by Increase Mather that “spectral evidence” should not be accepted in the trials. Without this, the prosecution’s cases fell apart.

There have been a number of attempts to explain the Salem hysteria, but the one that seems most likely involves disputes between two different factions in the town of Salem.

Since then, the term “Witch Hunt” has been used to refer to any chain reaction of unfounded accusations. It may have first been used in this sense by George Orwell.

The most famous were the anti-communist investigations of the 1950s, which culminated in the McCarthy Hearings of 1954. Arthur Miller’s play, The Cruicible, ostensibly about the Salem Witchcraft trials, was symbolically a criticism of these investigations.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:25:02.

History of Vampires In Halloween and Horror

The Vampire is another stalwart of Halloween and Gothic Horror culture.

The Vampire story is present in many cultures from many eras. The image usually has to do with the fact that even ancient cultures associated blood with life. Many of the early stories have to do with female vampires sucking the blood of children.

Ancient Greeks had stories of a Vampire-like creature called Lamiae, who attacked children and drank their blood. Ghouls in the Arabian Knights stories have definite Vampire like tendencies. Chinese vampires were called Chiang-Shih; Vampires show up in the Vedas of India. Meso Americans, especially the Maya and Aztecs have their own versions.

There is even a possible Vampire in the Old Testament: Lilith, who is described in Hebrew texts.

Our own popular Halloween and horror images of the Vampires, however, come mostly from Eastern Europe. The word Vampire apparently comes from the Hungarian word for a spirit who feasts on the living: vampyr.

While the concept of a monster rising from the grave to feast on the blood of humans seems ridiculous to modern man, in the past, the world was a much more mysterious place. Lack of scientific and medical knowledge may well have contributed to a belief in the undead.

One source of the legend may well have come from the medieval practice of digging up burial grounds either to reuse the consecrated ground for new burials, or – strangely, to use as garbage dumps. The bones of the disinterred often were cleaned and moved to reliquaries, where they were piled with the bones of others long gone. (There are vast catacombs under Paris full of bones from reused gravesites).

While digging up these graves, the workers cannot have failed to notice that some showed definite signs of activity after burial. Scratch marks on the lids of the coffins … bodies that had changed their position.

To the superstitious mind, this could be evidence of the undead. After all, they were certainly dead when they were buried.

Or were they? It is often difficult to tell – even with modern medicine – when a person is really, truly dead. Stories in the media still surface about people who woke up just as an autopsy was about to begin (or worse, in the middle of one), or who were delivered to the mortuary only to revive just as preparations were underway. The stuff of horror, indeed.

So the rational explanation is that people were sometimes – perhaps often – mistakenly buried alive.

Fear of being buried alive led to a number of customs that persist to this day: After a person died, relatives would gather at the house to maintain a prayer vigil and a watch over the body, which was held in the front room, or parlor of the house (thus, funeral parlors).

This practice of watching over the body was known as holding a wake. Wake is related to the word “watch.” Another explanation for the word, which is widely circulated, is that people would wait for the deceased to “wake.”

Interestingly, there are several inventions registered in the US Patent office for notifying those above ground that the person in the coffin had awakened. (The simplest thing to do today would be to bury people with fully charged cell phones).

One interesting story – probably apocryphal – says that people would run a string from the coffin to a bell on the surface. If the person awakened, all he had to do was pull on the string, and the bell would ring, letting people know that he was still alive. Some scholars have cited this as the origin of the term “saved by the bell.”

But if the person awakened in the middle of the night, there would be no one to hear it. This problem apparently was solved by hiring village boys to sit in the graveyard for a couple of days after a burial to listen for ringing. The boys were said to be working the “graveyard shift.”

The above story should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s interesting to think about.

Another thing that the gravediggers may have noticed about the disinterred bodies is that their hair and nails appeared to have grown, and their teeth seemed longer. While it may have been mistaken for signs of the undead, such growth is the normal result of tissue shrinkage and decomposition.

Mysterious deaths and unknown diseases may also have contributed to belief in Vampires. Some have suggested that early outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague or a hemorrhagic virus may have started such stories. Both could result in horrible, bloody deaths.

And if the mysterious death came on the heels of a stranger visiting town (presumably bringing an infection with him), superstitious imagination could run wild.

Imagine this situation: A stranger comes to your village. A few days later, he gets sick and dies, with blood at the mouth, and strange pustules on his body. The villagers bury him in the local cemetery. A few days later, another person in the village gets sick and dies with the same symptoms of the stranger … and then another … and another. With no knowledge about the spread of disease, it becomes obvious that evil forces are at work, and that the stranger is the culprit. The villagers disinter his body and burn it, along with the bodies of the other victims. Then, on the advice of the local priest, they also burn the huts of the victims. The deaths stop.

Obviously, fire cleansed the village of the evil spirits. Now everyone knows that you can kill a vampire with fire.

Of course, we know that the fire would have destroyed the source of the germs. But remember that it was not until 1677 that Anthony Leeuwenhoek first even observed bacteria, which he called Little Animals.

The rare disorder Porphyria also has been suggested as a source of the Vampire legend. Porphyria, an inherited disease can cause a number of interesting symptoms, including seizures, and mental illness such as hallucinations, depression and paranoia. It can also cause skin issues, such as photosensitivity, blisters, itching and swelling. Interestingly, the main issue with porphyria is lack of production of heme, the principal ingredient of blood.

The sources for individual elements of vampire lore in modern horror and at Halloween are varied. The idea that a Vampire can be killed by driving a stake through his heart is almost certainly related to the idea that the heart is the source of life.

A Vampire’s allergic reaction to sunlight can possibly be traced to light sensitivity caused by certain rare diseases, such as porphyria. It may also be as simple as the connection that vampires are evil, and evil is associated with darkness.

The idea that Vampires are repelled by garlic may come from the time of the Black Death, when the stench of the bodies of the victims became overwhelming. People would suspend cloves of garlic around their necks to block out the smell.

It apparently was also thought that it was the smell of the decomposing victims that spread the disease. So, blocking the smell could prevent the Plague; and wearing garlic could repel Vampires.

An interesting side note to this involves the children’s nursery rhyme Ring Around The Roses. One explanation suggests that it’s actually about the plague. The imagery of rings and roses (skin lesions), pockets full of posies (to cover the stench of the dead), ashes (of the burned dead; or, alternately, the sound of the sneezing victims) and falling down (dead), seems to some to fit. Others claim it’s just a nonsense rhyme.

A vampire’s allergy to silver could come from the fact that silver is a white precious metal – pure, and therefore repulsive to evil. (Presumably, the same would be true of platinum). The idea that a vampire doesn’t appear in a mirror may also be related, since mirrors are pieces of glass backed by silver. In the same way, vampires won’t show up on traditional film, since the photoreactive element in film is silver.

Horror literature, movies and modern Halloween imagery have borrowed heavily from all these elements in creating the Vampire as we know it.

In 1897, Bram Stoker successfully combined many of these Eastern European legends into his novel, Dracula. His is the iconic image that has shaped much of our modern horror literature, movies and Halloween themes. Later writers such as Stephen King in Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice with her Interview with the Vampire have kept many of the same classic horror images, but have reimagined them in original ways.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:23:38.

Real Vampires? Vampiric Figures In History and Halloween

Vampires figure prominently in horror literature and movies, and in Halloween imagery. Are there any real Vampires? Probably not, but there have been a number of historical and criminal cases involving murderers who drank the blood of their victims.

The infamous Geoffrey Dahmer is a good modern example. John George Haigh (High), the infamous Acid Bath Murderer of England also was accused of drinking his victims’ blood. Haigh was executed in England in 1949. And in the 1920s, a German butcher named Fritz Haarmann (also spelled Fritz Harmon)apparently murdered his victims with a bite to the neck before turning them into sausage.

Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary (1560 – 1614) is a historical figure who probably provides the basis for many Vampire legends. In 1610, Bathory was caught in the act of torturing several young girls and subsequently was charged – along with four co-conspirators – with the mass murder of hundreds more. As the legend has it, Bathory both drank and bathed in the blood of young girls in an attempt to stay forever young. Because she was nobility, Bathory escaped execution, and was instead walled up in a room in her own castle, where she died three years later.

But the most famous of historical “vampires” was Vlad III , a Romanian nobleman who lived from 1431 to 1476. Vlad, also known as “Tepes” (Impaler) was the governor of a strategically placed kingdom on the borders between Moslem Turkey and Christian Europe. Depending upon the source, the kingdom is identified as either Transylvania or Wallachia. He was known as the Son of the Dragon (Dracula), a reference to his father’s position as a Knight of the Order of the Dragon.

In a precarious position in a brutal time, Vlad quickly gained a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty. He led frequent raids into Turkish territory, burning crops and poisoning wells. Vlad also had a nasty habit of impaling his enemies and prisoners on high stakes, thus gaining his nickname Vlad The Impaler.

There are many legends about Vlad’s excesses. In one, he is said to have invited a collection of his political enemies to a meeting at his castle. Vlad then locked the doors and burned it to the ground with his rivals inside.
When an Ottoman ambassador refused to remove his turban, Vlad had it nailed to the poor man’s head.

And then there were forests of bodies throughout the countryside, impaled high on stakes.

There is no way of knowing how many of these stories are true. But that there are so many of them suggests that his cruelty was more than propaganda.

Although the circumstances of his death are fuzzy, it is thought that Vlad died in battle with the Turks. Legend has it that his head was sent as a gift to the Sultan of Turkey.

Others say that he was killed by the Hungarians, who buried him. But later, when his body was exhumed, the tomb was empty.

Today, ironically, Vlad Tepes is a folk hero to many in that part of the world.

Bram Stoker apparently rediscovered Vlad Dracula while researching vampire lore for a planned novel on vampires. The Transylvanian prince eventually became the central figure in the novel that bears his name: Dracula. The novel was published in 1897.

Many of the elements of the vampire story seem to have been invented by Stoker, including the idea that vampires can change into things like bats. Certainly Stoker created the idea of the Vampire as a sort of sexual predator. Since then novelists and Hollywood have further manipulated Vampire lore, adding and subtracting elements as necessary to fit the plot.

It’s interesting to note that one of the key themes of the novel Dracula seems to be that science does not always have the answer to our problems. The (mortal) characters in the novel are surrounded by (what was then) modern technology – railroads, phonographs and the like – but it is something out of myth and superstition that threatens them.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:18:09.

The Halloween History of the Frankenstein Monster

The limits of science – both actual and ethical – provides the theme for another of the elements of modern Halloween and horror imagery: that of the man-made monster.

The idea that man can be threatened by – even destroyed by – his own creations is an old one. The Jewish folktale of the Golem tells of a priest who created a servant out of clay (much as God created Adam out of clay). To activate the Golem, the priest wrote the word “Emeth” (life) on its forehead. Things work out for a while, but eventually the Golem rebels and the priest is forced to destroy it. He tricks it into bending over so that he can erase the “E”, converting the word to “meth” (death). The Golem immediately melts back into a large lump of clay, killing the priest.

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein is the classic of the genre – and one that provides seemingly endless Halloween fun. No set of Halloween decorations is complete without at least one flat headed, green monster with bolts in its neck.

In Shelley’s novel, Victor Von Frankenstein is a doctor who becomes obsessed with the secrets of life. Through the course of his experiments, he steals body parts and brings to life a creature, which remains nameless throughout the novel.

Note here that, despite what popular culture would have us believe, the creature’s name is not “Frankenstein” or (worse) “Frankie.” Frankenstein is the name of the Doctor. Shelley apparently declined to give the creature a name to emphasize the idea that it has no place in God’s plan. The monster, however, in several places compares himself to the biblical Adam, telling Frankenstein “I ought to be thy Adam.”

Several authors have taken this to indicate that the creature’s name was indeed “Adam.”

Of course, not all goes well with the creature. It is rejected by its creator – Frankenstein – and left to its own devices. Eventually, it returns to Frankenstein to demand that he make a suitable mate. When Frankenstein fails to do so, the monster destroys his family. Frankenstein then sets out to destroy his own creation.

Since its publication – just before Shelley’s 21st birthday – the story of Frankenstein has been told and retold in hundreds of plays, movies, comics and novels. Most got it all wrong and missed the main points of the novel.

It’s also worth noting that the creature in the novel looks nothing like the square-headed, bolt-necked being from the 1931 Universal Pictures movie. That image of the monster was created by Hollywood makeup man Frank Pierce for actor Boris Karloff, who has become the definitive Frankenstein.

Here’s how Shelley describes him:

<blockquote>His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.</blockquote>

Some more recent films have tried to more accurately recreate Shelley’s original image. But they weren’t particularly successful. Karloff’s portrayal of the monster is the definitive one for our time.

Originally posted 2015-01-02 03:15:56.