Connecticut Vampires in a Naive Skeptic’s Court

Can you trust skepticism that isn’t based on a firm grasp of our collective history? After just penning a piece for The Teeming Brain on the serious case of cultural amnesia that our media representatives seem to enjoy regarding Isaac Newton’s mystical proclivities, I run across Sharon Hill, a leading cultural critic and skeptic with a background in Geology, writing for Doubtful News, and her brief dismissal of historical depth in a post that links to a Smithsonian article on 19th century vampire beliefs. Hill’s commentary shows a similarly stunted viewpoint as the authors of the Newton articles, only she is not just a journalist, but someone who claims to be working to educate the public on scientific rationality:

“In 1854, in Jewett City, Connecticut, townspeople had exhumed several corpses suspected to be vampires that were rising from their graves to kill the living. Yes. 1854.”

Now, I admit I’m a bit biased because I’d rather have my Forteana reported in sober academic fashion, or by a breathless Keelian storytellers (the Smithsonian article that Doubtful News links to is a nice mix of both.)  However, stories filtered through naiveté, like the pontification surrounding this one on Doubtful News, show why a passive skeptical attitude can get in the way of deeper encounters with the churning waters of the cultural mythosphere. It’s a good example of how a focus on debunking assumed superstitions can offset the benefits of rational skepticism, and how internet resources meant to educate can be wasted on surface level examinations of a topic that requires much more depth to understand.

In 1854 General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who served for awhile as special adviser to the Secretary of War during the Lincoln administration, was engaged in a deep study of alchemy, Charles Leland had yet to write Aradia: Gospel of Witches (which has its own interesting history that often gets subsumed in the ‘is it real – is it not real’ debate), the spiritualist movement was in full séance celebrating swing, Mesmerism was in vogue in the courts of Europe, Theosophists were creating the socio-philosophical underpinnings of what would become post-colonial India, and that’s not even brushing the surface of the deep well of mystical mentalities which still are finding expression and influence today.

“In 1854…yes, 1854.”

“Two hundred years after the Salem witch trials, locals were convinced that the dead were returning from the grave to feed on the living. Now, vampires are fictional entertainment. But, this (Smithsonia article) tells of a time before Dracula and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These panics over vampires seem to occur at times of tuberculosis outbreaks which is a contagious wasting disease. Prayers weren’t enough, action had to be taken and people exhumed the bodies of their relatives and desecrated the corpses. Horrible to envision now but superstition takes a great toll. “

A great toll? You like your India casteless? Because the same mindset that kept the question of vampires open, was the one that helped Theosophy spread far enough to have an influence on the political development of that nation state, and unify it in a way that wasn’t totalitarian, while they were kicking out the Brits. It’s also rather odd to have some sensitivity to a bit of body chopping and reburial in the same sentence as you’re lamenting superstitions.

How do you think the English anatomist Henry Gray got such detailed renderings of the human body for his famous book on anatomy? Even our scientifically minded founding father Ben Franklin had bodies buried beneath the floor of the London house he stayed in while on diplomatic missions overseas.

If you want to get huffy over the dangers of superstition talk about contemporary issues like the witch camps in Ghana, or the slaying of 14 shamans in Peru because some angst ridden Evangelicals got trigger happy with their misreading of the Gospel.

Vampires may be fictional entertainment, but surprising to some, in 2012 people are still reporting encounters with them.  My friend Martin Riccardo, a hypno-therapist and author of Liquid Dreams of Vampires, has an entire archive of reports, mostly from the vampire archetype showing up in peoples’ dreams, but also including some strange Forteana from folks who report that they came face to face with something slightly more physical.

Are these accounts true? Perhaps not in the cut and dry way that naïve skepticism would like to gnaw on, but the scholarship in Halloween happy areas like witchcraft, vampirism, and lychanthropy show that these phenomena are complex, multi-layered and not easily dismissed as just some whacky weirdos getting their brains in a knot over mass hysteria and delusional beliefs.

The giggling skepticism surrounding the recent, and horrifying, cannibal attacks in a bunch of trite zombie talk, has erased from the issue the fact that there are over two millenia worth of forensic and anecdotal material on the intricate mytho-poetic social phenomena of lycanthropy, which better fit the profile for what is going on. Now, before your head explodes with the idea that I’m suggesting that these could be werewolves, realize that, as I mentioned before, these phenomena are complex, and multi-dimensional.

There are rituals for inducing lycanthropy, like those found in the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould’s treatise The Book of the Were-wolf, which include some of the same, or similar, neuroactive components that the anti-drug pundits are proclaiming as the basis for some of the recent attacks (despite evidence to the contrary, it should be pointed out.) There are numerous examples of psychoses which mirror, and have been at the root of, lycanthropy sprees, which have included cannibalism, grave desecration and child murder, which bear a marked similarity to the recent attacks. There are also detailed official investigations into the spread, pathologies, and social conditions that have supported these incidents in the past that can be used, especially in our age or digital archives and informatics, that could give us deeper clues not only into the crimes themselves, but also how they relate to our culture as a whole.

One thing that isn’t going to help that is blushing at the mere mention of something that surprises the skeptical attitude, like accounts of vampirism in 19th century Connecticut. Do we really know what happened in Connecticut to cause the vampire panic? The Smithsonian article provides a deeper look at the phenomenon than the rough handled account on Doubtful News:

“Though scholars today still struggle to explain the vampire panics, a key  detail unites them: The public hysteria almost invariably occurred in the midst  of savage tuberculosis outbreaks. Indeed, the medical museum’s tests ultimately  revealed that J.B. had suffered from tuberculosis, or a lung disease very like  it. Typically, a rural family contracted the wasting illness, and—even though  they often received the standard medical diagnosis—the survivors blamed early  victims as “vampires,” responsible for preying upon family members who  subsequently fell sick. Often an exhumation was called for, to stop the  vampire’s predations.

The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many  cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted  on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even  pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to  simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In  Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead  person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too,  exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses,  while others bound their feet with thorns.)”

Perhaps it was just a case of misidentified tuberculosis, but as folklorist Michael Bell, author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires,  points out in the article, the surprising frequency, proliferation and social consequences of these very active beliefs requires a deeper study of what exactly was going on at the time, and in turn what it can show us about ourselves. So before writing the journalistic equivalent of ‘OMG WTF’ with a snicker and a placating remark, it might be best to search for deeper sources for reflection that can aid us in understanding our place in the world. Or we can just keep shoveling dirt on top of these phenomena, and snuggle down into the warm, blind grave of a dark age of reason. If we ever want to come into the light, however, we may find it’s not so easy to crawl out again.

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  • Jen

    Awesome and extremely well written/researched! Thanks so much for sharing!! 

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    I still trying to fathom Amerika’s fascination with blood suckers.
    Anyone got a clue?

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    I still trying to fathom Amerika’s fascination with blood suckers.
    Anyone got a clue?

    • Matt Staggs

      You am try
      long time

      • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

        Sam: Yeah, but I tried, I tried hard.
        Rita: Try harder!
        Sam: Yeah, but you don’t know, you don’t know!
        Rita: I don’t know WHAT?
        Sam: Yeah, you don’t know what is like when you try, and you try, and you try, and you try, and you don’t ever get there! Because you were born perfect and I was born like this, and you’re perfect!
        Rita: Oh, is that right?

        ‘cept I ain’t really tryin’ nutin
        i’m just probing cyber space
        anally

      • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

        this hambone dogpoet pseudoed
        himself under the hangname he gave himself of Bethgelert
        in the porchway of a gipsy’s bar
        (Shem always blaspheming,
        so holy writ, Billy, he would try, old Belly,
        and pay this one manjack congregant of his four soups
        every lass of nexmouth, Bolly,
        so sure as thair’s a tail on a commet,
        as a taste for storik’s fortytooth,
        that is to stay, to listen out,
        ony twenny minnies moe, Bully,
        his Ballade Imaginaire which was to be dubbed
        Wine, Woman and Waterclocks, or
        How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty,
        by Maistre Sheames de la Plume,
        some most dreadful stuff in a murderous mirrorhand)
        that he was avoopf
        (parn me!)
        aware of no other shaggspick, other Shakhisbeard,
        either prexactly unlike

      • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

        this hambone dogpoet pseudoed
        himself under the hangname he gave himself of Bethgelert
        in the porchway of a gipsy’s bar
        (Shem always blaspheming,
        so holy writ, Billy, he would try, old Belly,
        and pay this one manjack congregant of his four soups
        every lass of nexmouth, Bolly,
        so sure as thair’s a tail on a commet,
        as a taste for storik’s fortytooth,
        that is to stay, to listen out,
        ony twenny minnies moe, Bully,
        his Ballade Imaginaire which was to be dubbed
        Wine, Woman and Waterclocks, or
        How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty,
        by Maistre Sheames de la Plume,
        some most dreadful stuff in a murderous mirrorhand)
        that he was avoopf
        (parn me!)
        aware of no other shaggspick, other Shakhisbeard,
        either prexactly unlike

  • http://twitter.com/DoubtfulNews Doubtful News

    I don’t understand your criticism, considering the purpose of my website is a news feed of interest to those who like to keep up on stories of the paranormal and anomalous.

    We cover ALL kinds of superstition – modern witch accusations, exorcisms, traditional chinese medicine. It’s a news feed, not a editorial. We provide the link to the original post and place it in some context.

    If readers have a beef with the commentary, they can have their say in the comments. And I STRONGLY encourage people to add knowledgeable commentary and additional links that can round out the story and provide better context. I’m no expert about most stuff.

    I often get others on their own blogs complaining they don’t like the referenced story or my commentary to some degree. Why not do something constructive and provide a correction instead? We have a whole section called “Were we wrong about something” http://doubtfulnews.com/were-we-wrong-about-something/ to allow the audience to correct an issue. The whole point of that is make sure the discussion about an article is reasonable and there is opportunity to correct a mistake or misinformation that appeared in the media story.

  • http://twitter.com/DoubtfulNews Doubtful News

    I don’t understand your criticism, considering the purpose of my website is a news feed of interest to those who like to keep up on stories of the paranormal and anomalous.

    We cover ALL kinds of superstition – modern witch accusations, exorcisms, traditional chinese medicine. It’s a news feed, not a editorial. We provide the link to the original post and place it in some context.

    If readers have a beef with the commentary, they can have their say in the comments. And I STRONGLY encourage people to add knowledgeable commentary and additional links that can round out the story and provide better context. I’m no expert about most stuff.

    I often get others on their own blogs complaining they don’t like the referenced story or my commentary to some degree. Why not do something constructive and provide a correction instead? We have a whole section called “Were we wrong about something” http://doubtfulnews.com/were-we-wrong-about-something/ to allow the audience to correct an issue. The whole point of that is make sure the discussion about an article is reasonable and there is opportunity to correct a mistake or misinformation that appeared in the media story.

    • David Metcalfe

      Greetings Sharon,

      I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to provide some feedback on the piece, thank you for opening a conversation. The web is wonderful in it’s ability to bring so many voices to the table, and it is a humbling experience to engage in such a widespread expression of human potential.

      In terms of offering a constructive correction, I did, that is what the article that drew your commentary is. The web being a flattened media space, this is as interconnected to your Doubtful News blog as a comment hosted on your page, only it opens up the issues to a broader audience, allowing for more public engagement, and on a horizontal, rather than vertical conversational field.

      This is no different than a journal article reflecting on an issue that I saw raised by your piece on Doubtful News. Disinfo.com is a web magazine that has been around since 1997, although it has undergone a number of format changes. Disinfo has a long history of engaging in open dialogue on cultural myths, the emergence of mythotypes in cultural narratives, and the effects of these emergent patterns on society.  

      Part of the issue is that the web allows for anyone to represent their work as scientific, or frame it with critical authority. The proliferation of accessible communication technology allows amateur research groups to spring up across the web. Commentators often make the mistake of thinking that that human experiences such as anomalous phenomena, especially in the areas of mythotypes such as vampirism, are unique in that they examine areas on which no organized academic research or inquiry is focused.

      Such an assumption, in line with the ubiquity of the digital platform, can spread damaging attitudes that hamper serious investigation and mediation of these areas of culture. Richard Dawkin’s memetic theory, and its expansion by other commentaries that have broadened its applicability, shows how important to the broader cultural conversation, and behavior patterns of individuals, even something as innocuous as a brief bit of commentary on a news link can be.

      In the U.S. we have developed a sense of science as an attendant function of the economy, industry or a very narrow view of social progress. This has translated into a functional view of media, which is a tool for shaping minds and behavior. However, there is a long history of exploration in these areas which takes a much more nuanced approach. As the noted French scholar Antoine Faivre, who held a chair in the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne,has evinced in his work on academic scholarship in the area of Western Esotericism, one must approach these issues with a deep engagement in multi-disciplinary studies.

      Due to the prevalence of these phenomena (not necessarily vampirism, but certainly other areas that Doubtful News covers,) as statistically reported in the Baylor Religions Survey, Gallup polls, and similar surveys, it’s important to realize the damage that can be caused by individuals directing and participating in self-styled investigations. Especially those who assume the role of public educators, and hold loose affiliation to groups which the wider public recognizes as legitimate cultural determinants.

      The misinformation was less factual in the example that I cited for this piece, than tonal, and as I outlined in the article, it was a lost opportunity to open up a broader cultural dialogue. With the current state of education in the United States, every opportunity is vital. Especially on well trafficked websites.

      Forgive me if I am misreading you, but I am not a “reader” with “a beef,” nor am I a member of the “audience…(correcting) an issue.” This article, written on equal footing with your work, does everything which you’re suggesting: adds knowledgeable commentary, additional links, and provides a better context. While at the same time, it serves the same function as the Doubtful News piece, by directing the reader to the Smithsonian article. In addition, it points out a direction for those writing on the web to engage on a deeper level with their content, encourages further research into a variety of subjects tangentially related to the topic of the Smithsonian article, and includes a closing line that contains a (weak) play on the vampire theme.  

      As noted in the opening of the article, the issues I’ve outlined in regards to the Doubtful News piece are not isolated, and represent a broader cultural amnesia, which I feel is a threat to the positive growth of an open-minded global society.

      Again forgive me, as to further my point I have to draw on two additional pieces which can only be said to apply to you through association, but in Vol. 17, No. 3 of Skeptic, Michael Shermer has a brief article titled The Flake Equation, which is followed by a piece from Michael K. Gainer titled The Physics of UFOs. Both of these pieces are written with an authoritative voice regarding the UFO phenomenon, however they both address the idea of extraterrestrials as if that were the whole summation of over 50 years of reports of aerial anomalies. Yet, this area has had, since at least the 1970’s when Jacques Vallee opened up the examination of the phenomena as an expression of information which causes cultural change, a much more mature and important way of engaging these things.

      We have moved far past the point where these issues are the domain of “is it real – is it not real,” unfortunately people such as Alex Jones and Bill Cooper have heightened the tone of these inquiries, yes, even UFOlogy, to the point that legal scholars such as Cass Susstein have discussed public policies focused on prosecuting conspiracy theorists. These ideas, for whatever their basis in truth, can activate deep effects in the culture. This makes it all the more important for those involved in the media, through whatever venues, to take a much more detailed and nuanced approach to addressing these areas.

      As I said, this moves away from the Doubtful News piece, however it points to the fact that even in that small instance dealing with something as innocuous as the myth of the vampire was an opportunity to engage in a cultural discussion that reaches to the heart of the complicated interplay of ideational forces that are shaping our reality. Just as in both Michael Shermer’s, and Michael Gainer’s, articles were opportunities to engage in a deeper expression of the conversation we are all engaged in as an interconnected, global culture.

      By bringing your insights, and questions here, and through this response, we’ve already expanded on a simple link to a Smithsonian article on the history of vampirism in Connecticut, into a much larger dialogue. These odd interstices of human experience are often where we can find some of the most fruitful grounds for understanding the human condition. I hope that in reading my response you can see the intentions, and bring that to your work in exploring the intersection of science and public understanding, and your online activism.  

      Warm Regards,

      David

    • David Metcalfe

       

      Greetings Sharon,

       

      I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to provide some
      feedback on the piece, thank you for opening a conversation. The web is
      wonderful in it’s ability to bring so many voices to the table, and it is a
      humbling experience to engage in such a widespread expression of human
      potential.

       

      In terms of offering a constructive correction, I did, that
      is what the article that drew your commentary is. The web being a flattened
      media space, this is as interconnected to your Doubtful News blog as a comment
      hosted on your page, only it opens up the issues to a broader audience,
      allowing for more public engagement, and on a horizontal, rather than vertical
      conversational field. The web is a beautifully democratic medium in some ways.

       

      This is no different than a journal article reflecting on an
      issue that I saw raised by your piece on Doubtful News. Disinfo.com is a web
      magazine that has been around since 1997, although it has undergone a number of
      format changes. Disinfo has a long history of engaging in open dialogue on cultural
      myths, the emergence of mythotypes in cultural narratives, and the effects of
      these emergent patterns on society. 

       

      Part of the issue is that the web allows for anyone to
      represent their work as scientific, or frame it with critical authority. The
      proliferation of accessible communication technology allows amateur research
      groups to spring up across the web. Commentators often make the mistake of
      thinking that that human experiences such as anomalous phenomena, especially in
      the areas of mythotypes such as vampirism, are unique in that they examine
      areas on which no organized academic research or inquiry is focused.

       

      Such an assumption, in line with the ubiquity of the digital
      platform, can spread damaging attitudes that hamper serious investigation and
      mediation of these areas of culture. Richard Dawkin’s memetic theory, and its
      expansion by other commentaries that have broadened its applicability, shows
      how important to the broader cultural conversation, and behavior patterns of
      individuals, even something as innocuous as a brief bit of commentary on a news
      link can be.

       

      In the U.S.
      we have developed a sense of science as an attendant function of the economy,
      industry or a very narrow view of social progress. This has translated into a
      functional view of media, which is a tool for shaping minds and behavior.
      However, there is a long history of exploration in these areas which takes a much
      more nuanced approach. As the noted French scholar Antoine Faivre, who held a
      chair in the École Pratique des Hautes Études at the Sorbonne,has evinced in
      his work on academic scholarship in the area of Western Esotericism, one must
      approach these issues with a deep engagement in multi-disciplinary studies.

       

      Due to the prevalence of these phenomena (not necessarily
      vampirism, but certainly other areas that Doubtful News covers,) as
      statistically reported in the Baylor Religions Survey, Gallup
      polls, and similar surveys, it’s important to realize the damage that can be
      caused by individuals directing and participating in self-styled
      investigations. This is true especially for those who assume the role of public
      educators, and hold loose affiliation to groups which the wider public recognizes
      as legitimate cultural determinants.

       

      The misinformation was less factual in the example that I
      cited for this piece, than tonal, and as I outlined in the article, it was a
      lost opportunity to open up a broader cultural dialogue. With the current state
      of education in the United States,
      every opportunity is vital. Even more so on well trafficked websites that aim
      at a specific cultural group, whose weaknesses and critical gaps can be
      determined prior to writing.

      Such an analysis is common to marketing, as well as to sales, however it can
      also be used as a means to educate, enlighten, and enliven our communal lives. Forgive
      me if I am misreading you, but I am not a “reader” with “a beef,”
      nor am I a member of the “audience…(correcting) an issue.” This
      article, written on equal footing with your work, does everything which you’re
      suggesting: adds knowledgeable commentary, additional links, and provides a better
      context. While at the same time, it serves the same function as the Doubtful
      News piece, by directing the reader to the Smithsonian article. In addition, it
      points out a direction for those writing on the web to engage on a deeper level
      with their content, encourages further research into a variety of subjects
      tangentially related to the topic of the Smithsonian article, and includes a closing
      line that contains a (weak) play on the vampire theme. 

       

      As noted in the opening of the article, the issues I’ve
      outlined in regards to the Doubtful News piece are not isolated, and represent
      a broader cultural amnesia, which I feel is a threat to the positive growth of
      an open-minded global society.

       

      Again forgive me, as to further my point I have to draw on
      two additional pieces which can only be said to apply to you through
      association, and which share in focusing on what can be called the ‘superstitious’
      element of a much wider area of cultural experience rather than raising the
      level of conversation in these areas. In Vol. 17, No. 3 of Skeptic, Michael
      Shermer has a brief article entiled The Flake Equation, which is followed by a
      piece from Michael K. Gainer titled The Physics of UFOs. Both of these pieces
      are written with an authoritative voice regarding the UFO phenomenon; however
      they both address the idea of extraterrestrials as if that were the whole summation
      of over 50 years of reports of aerial anomalies.

       

      Yet, this area has had, since at least the 1970’s when
      Jacques Vallee opened up the examination of the phenomena as an expression of
      information which causes cultural change, a much more mature and important way
      of engaging these things. We have moved far past the point where these issues
      are the domain of “is it real – is it not real,” unfortunately people
      such as Alex Jones and Bill Cooper have heightened the tone of these inquiries,
      yes, even UFOlogy, to the point that legal scholars such as Cass Susstein have
      discussed public policies focused on prosecuting conspiracy theorists.

       

      These ideas, for whatever their basis in truth, can activate
      deep effects in the culture. This makes it all the more important for those
      involved in the media, through whatever venues, to take a much more detailed
      and nuanced approach to addressing these cultural accretions.

       

      As I said, this moves away from the Doubtful News piece,
      however it points to the fact that even in that small instance dealing with
      something as innocuous as the myth of the vampire was an opportunity to engage
      in a cultural discussion that reachs to the heart of the complicated interplay
      of ideational forces that are shaping our reality. Just as in both Michael
      Shermer’s, and Michael Gainer’s, articles were opportunities to engage in a
      deeper expression of the conversation we are all engaged in as an interconnected,
      global culture.

       

      By bringing your insights, and questions here, and through
      this response, we’ve already expanded on a simple link to a Smithsonian article
      on the history of vampirism in Connecticut,
      into a much larger dialogue. These odd interstices of human experience are
      often where we can find some of the most fruitful grounds for understanding the
      human condition. I hope that in reading my response you can see the intentions,
      and bring that to your work in exploring the intersection of science and public
      understanding, and your online activism. 

       

      Warm Regards,

       

      David

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