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.