The fourth Skeptics on the Fringe talk for 2013 was given at the Banshee Labyrinth by Deborah Hyde, writer and editor of the ‘Skeptic Magazine’, who gave us a fascinating insight into the folkloric history of the vampire. She dispelled a number of common misconceptions about vampires that have arisen in popular culture over the last century (such as the vampire’s vulnerability to sunlight and the uncommonly good looks of most vampires), while exploring the possible origins of many of the characteristics that have been attributed to vampires throughout history.
Placing the origin of the vampire somewhere in Eastern Europe at any time between the 9th and 18th centuries, Ms Hyde proposed a combination of pagan and Christian ideas in the formation of the vampire myth, describing it as a kind of “natural religion”. She described a number of forms of folk magic that were historically used to defend against vampire attacks, including everything from smearing one’s self in blood and eating grave dirt to burning the hearts of cadavers suspected to be vampires and drinking a solution of the ashes — practices which were used as late as the 1890’s. Given the lack of knowledge of decomposition and microbial causes of disease, it is unsurprising that people once genuinely believed that a corpse could rise and prey upon the living. Bodies that were dug up were often found to be less decomposed than expected, often looking healthier than when they were alive, with fuller faces and a ruddier complexion — something we can today attribute to a simple post-mortem bloating of the flesh and bursting of capillaries beneath the skin. And, while it may seem odd that people would believe that consuming part of the vampire would lead to some kind of supernatural protection, this is by no means unusual in folk magic; indeed, as Ms Hyde argued, we see something very similar in Christian communion, where believers drink the “blood” and eat the “flesh” of Jesus Christ, thereby bestowing his power and protection upon themselves. Essentially, a magic spell not altogether unlike such folk magic wards against supernatural predators. But perhaps the most insightful point that Ms Hyde raised was the idea of top-down processing in dealing with the unknown. People tend to interpret what they see in line with pre-existing assumptions and beliefs about the world; people who believe in magic and supernatural predators will naturally gravitate towards those things as an explanation for illness and death, where they do not know what is really causing it. And this is surely a trap that we can all into, not only those with superstitious beliefs.
Ms Hyde’s talk was both informative and engaging, with a good bit of audience participation. She interspersed her talk with slides of vampire films and whoever could correctly identify the film or the actor fastest was rewarded with — what else? — gummy vampire teeth. As with all of our talks there was a brief Q&A session afterwards in which we learnt one possible explanation as to why vampires need to be invited into a dwelling before they can enter and the possible origins of the Count from ‘Sesame Street’. The talk was very well received and very well attended, with only a small handful of empty seats, and Ms Hyde stuck around afterwards for further discussion and to provide copies of the ‘Skeptic Magazine’ to anyone who was interested in reading it.