On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

November 12, 2018

This reminds me, I must re-watch ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’…

One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:

 

‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’

-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).

 

This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.

Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).

So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:

 

‘Quoth he, “I doubt there’s something in’t, Ye’re no’ a hare.

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

And says, “Have at ye now, auld lucky ;

Although ye were the de’il’s ain chucky,

Or yet himsell, If it but touch of you a nucky,

It will you fell.”’

 

The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.

My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:

 

‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.

 

More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,

Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;

 

‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’

 

Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).

However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):

 

‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’

 

The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.

My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it. 

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I Don’t Like Mondays

April 20, 2018

Yay! Murder!

 

I suppose it had to happen eventually. Next step – real-life ‘Battle Royale’ or ‘The Running Man’. What am I on about? Well, British television (specifically, Channel 4) has seen fit to base a Friday night primetime family gameshow on a mass murder. Not directly of course; the producers likely haven’t a clue that the Boomtown Rats song that they chose for their title and theme song was written about convicted murderer Brenda Spencer. Spencer killed two people and wounded nine more, including a number of school children, in a (once) famous spree killing with a .22 bolt-action rifle back in 1979 – the first ever US school shooting. Given the attention afforded school and other spree killings in the world’s media right now, you’d think the creators and commissioners would be a little more aware. Even if you don’t realise that Spencer’s only justification for her violence was ‘I just don’t like Mondays’, it’s throughout the bloody lyrics (abridged below);

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s going to make them stay at home

Tell me why

I don’t like Mondays

I want to shoot

The whole day down.

All the playing’s stopped in the playground now
She wants to play with her toys a while
And school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning
And the lesson today is how to die
And then the bullhorn crackles
And the captain tackles
With the problems and the how’s and why’s
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to die, die

I mean, don’t these people even know about Wikipedia (I see some wag has already edited the entry to include the new gameshow)? Surely someone, at some meeting, pointed out the possible inappropriateness of the title and song? Apparently not. Or maybe they did, and they just figured that 1979 is ancient history for the target audience, so who cares? Either way, we live in a hyper-sensitive age when TV programmes can be pulled from the schedule if they feature gun violence if a shooting happens to have occurred recently, and yet this makes it to air. What’s next – win the holiday of a lifetime on a Native American Indian reservation in ‘Run to the Hills’, hosted by Davina McCall? Stay classy Channel 4…

 

Don’t Lose Your Head

March 31, 2018

“When your head is chopped off, your brain can think for about 2 to 3 minutes.” -‘Severance’ (2006)

 

I’ve been meaning to write this one up for years. Do severed heads retain any conscious awareness prior to brain-death? After more research, on and off over years, than I’ve done for any other article, I still can’t be truly definitive. The balance of the evidence suggests some level of consciousness for a few seconds, which inevitably raises for many the horrifying possibility that for a couple of seconds at least, you would be fully aware of the traumatic amputation of your entire body, and perhaps even be able to see it. Nice.

 

Consciousness is one thing, but whether you would be fully cognizant of what was happening to you is harder to prove. Anyone that’s experienced a faint or other sudden loss of blood pressure knows that things get pretty unreal (especially when almost inevitably coupled with your head tumbling to the floor and hitting things on the way down). You’ll be instantly dizzy, your vision will quickly narrow and get fuzzy as you black out, likely much quicker than the typical faint. I am as certain as I can be that despite technically retaining the capacity for conscious thought, actual decapitation is VERY likely to take the shape of a few seconds of dim, dizzy awareness that something is wrong (especially if you knew the killing blow was coming), but almost certainly not long enough to actually process what’s happened to you. One major issue is that the historical ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal and almost entirely unreliable. What we read about in old experiments with criminals, or even watch in modern ‘gore’ video clips is just brain death – nerves activating and the brain stem continuing autonomous function, trying to get oxygen where none is available. As one Reddit commenter below points out, you’d need to have someone on an EEG and cut their head off to be sure of what’s really going on. I have decided not to reprise the various historical (hysterical?) accounts of ‘living’ heads – not very scientific ‘experiments’ by Galvani, Aldini, Wendt, Seguret, Laborde, Lignieres, Lelut and Beaurieux (the celebrated 1905 case of the criminal Languille). For these, see chapter 8 of Frances Larson’s great book ‘Severed’. As Larson says, these efforts (many of which were inspired by arguments that the French guillotine was not as humane as it appeared) proved nothing either way and today can be readily explained as involuntary action. The same applies to the present-day ‘gore’ videos that can be found online. For those so inclined, and with an appropriately huge GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING, here are three showing clear movement of eyes, mouth, and/or other facial muscles. We need to separate the technical persistence of consciousness from the observable effects. A head may be experiencing terrible pain and existential horror (although I doubt this, see below), but its face may or may not be moving at the time – there may well be no connection and chances are that the movement is involuntary as Davey suggested.

Interestingly, scepticism about the phenomenon of ‘lucid decapitation’ is as old as the claims themselves. As this article by James Elwick relates, Edward Rigby’s 1836 paper on the subject was;

 

‘“…immediately mocked in a rival medical journal’s editorial entitled “The Philosophy of Decapitation.”’

 

It proved so persistent however that in 1858, James George Davey actively sought to debunk these purely observational efforts with experiments of his own, published in his book ‘The Ganglionic Nervous System’. Depressingly, Davey carried out these tests on kittens, reaching the conclusion that;

 

‘…when the head is cut off, its irritability remains, as appears by the motion of the ears when pricked or touched with a hot wire ; and, as the extremities are also irritable, it will not be said that consciousness and sensation exist in two separated portions of the same body. Nor can it be admitted that sensibility and consciousness may remain in the head after separation ; for, if mere compression of the carotid arteries abolishes sensation and thought by interrupting the circulation in the brain, how much more must the superior violence of decapitation have this effect?’

 

This should have been an end of it, but the gothic horror of the living severed head was just too titillating. Despite other criticisms (notable French doctor and philosopher Cabanis, who was convinced that loss of consciousness was instant), for nearly 200 years now the popular media has recycled these claims as a way to send a shiver up the consumer’s collective spine (while they still have one). As ever, the internet has both promulgated these tales and offered the best means to debunk them. The main problem is separating the basic facts from the context. Davey understood the importance of this, but modern popular science outlets seem not to, reporting the facts on how long the brain is technically ‘conscious’ without qualification of just how aware one might be during the experience. Damninteresting.com has a good writeup that concludes that we don’t really know, but emphasises the horrific possibilities;

 

‘…there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments.’

 

In fairness they only say ‘surreal’, which is certainly likely. But could one really be meaningfully aware of what’s happening? How Stuff Works (quoting a figure from New Scientist) also admits the paucity of the evidence but is slightly contradictory;

 

‘…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.”’

 

The figures on loss of consciousness are supported by (indeed, may even derive from) data from testing on rodents. Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist again, 13 October 2007) and Livescience reported respectively:

 

‘Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.’ (New Scientist)

 

‘In 2011, Dutch scientists hooked an EEG (electroencephalography) machine to the brains of mice fated to decapitation. The results showed continued electrical activity in the severed brains, remaining at frequencies indicating conscious activity for nearly four seconds. Studies in other small mammals suggest even longer periods.’ (Livescience)

Digging down to the actual research level, this study by Rijn & Coenen showed that consciousness fades within 3/4s and may last up to 17s. Brain death comes around 1m. On the face of it, these figures are pretty terrifying. Even two seconds of full awareness would be truly horrifying – 17 doesn’t bear thinking about it. However, the human brain’s oxygen requirements for anything like full function are far greater than any rodent. Again, I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’d be genuinely ‘with it’ during those seconds. To summarise, we have lots of anecdotal evidence for facial movement after decapitation that doesn’t really help answer the question, and a lot of scientific evidence for ‘consciousness’ (tending toward 2-4 seconds) that doesn’t usefully convey what the real-life experience would be like. Short of an EEG and a willing victim, the provisional conclusion has to be that, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your head, yes you might technically still be conscious, but you’re really not going to know anything about it before (to paraphrase Ghostbusters II) your ‘head dies’.

Fash masel redux

March 24, 2018

I’ve had some very good comments in response to my previous post about the use of ‘fash masel’ by Bram Stoker in ‘Dracula’, and I’ve come to realise that they have a point. I think I got carried away in addressing the claim that it is somehow ONLY a Doric phrase, and overlooked the plausibility of the claim that Stoker would have got it from Scots rather than Yorkshire folk. This is reasonable. HOWEVER, he must also have known that it was current in Yorkshire dialect, or he wouldn’t have used it, so the implication that it is exclusively Scottish is still misleading. I also realised that one of my links was a duplicate. What I intended to link to under ‘Yorkshire dialect’ was this entry for ‘fash’ in ‘The English Dialect Dictionary’ (under ‘Cum’;

‘n.Yks. Ah’ve no need ti fash mesel’

Now, there is a spelling variance here ‘masel’ is favoured in Scots/Doric and ‘mesel’ is the preferred rendering for northern English, er, English. However, there is no standard spelling for dialect beyond what scholars choose to put in books – it reflects the pronunciation of the word. ‘Masel’ and ‘mesel’ are the same compound word. So, Stoker using ‘masel’, coupled with his history with Doric (he did write two whole books in the dialect) and the lack of the phrase in his notes (where he did record more specific Yorkshire words and phrases) makes it quite plausible that he took ‘fash masel’ from the Doric. But once again, this is also a Yorkshire thing, and is being put in the mouth of a fictional Yorkshireman based upon a real Yorkshireman, and was written whilst Stoker was staying in Yorkshire. To say that it’s a Doric phrase is like saying, for example, that an author of a novel set in Elizabethan England is using a Scots word when they have a character say ‘murther’. Yes, today it’s a Scots word. But for centuries it was also an English one. I do admit that the evidence for it being in common usage is limited, but I suspect that’s due to the attention afforded written Scots in the 19th century.

Kiss of the ‘Vampire’?

February 10, 2018

Surprisingly, I had never heard of Hungarian serial killer and alleged ‘vampire’ Béla Kiss until I watched a recent episode of ‘The Great War’ on YouTube. It’ s fantastic series, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, I was immediately sceptical of the suggestion that Kiss had ‘drained’ his victims of blood and was a ‘vampire’. This is frequently claimed by vampire universalists; people who like to lump absolutely everything they can under the vampire umbrella, regardless of cultural or historical context. The connection between vampires and serial killers is often made, but is entirely spurious other than in handful of cases where killers actually do drink the blood of their victims. Even this doesn’t make them ‘vampires’ per se. More ‘wannabes’ really. Anyway, back to Kiss. I had a good dig about, and the claim of blood-draining/drinking seems to originate with Monaco and Burt’s ‘The Dracula Syndrome’ (1993). Kiss appears on page 156;

‘…what intrigued investigators more were a series of sharp wounds on the necks of each victim — each of whom had been drained of her blood. Other, more fortunate women began to come forward to identify Kiss as their evil, vampire attacker.’

Unless readers can find any earlier claim, I’m calling this one BS – a cheap attempt to make Kiss seem more, well, ‘evil’ and ‘vampire’ than just a plain old nasty murdering f*ck-head. In fact, the whole book appears to be part of the ‘true crime’ movement to romanticise serial killers as somehow other-worldly beings. Which is not to say that the story of a First World War killer that disappeared isn’t interesting; you should definitely check out ‘The Great War’ video on Kiss and the rest of the channel for that matter.

 

I wouldn’t fash masel’ about the facts

January 26, 2018

George Malpas as seaman Swales in the excellent 1977 BBC version of Dracula

 

[Edit – I was a little hasty in discounting this entirely. Clarification here.]

Like most readers of ‘Dracula’, I had no idea what the old sailor was talking about when he advised Mina ‘I wouldn’t fash masel’ about them, miss’. I later realised it was intended as Yorkshire dialect; a way of saying ‘I wouldn’t fuss myself about them’ i.e. ‘I wouldn’t worry about them’. Yet, according to some, most notably Bram Stoker’s author descendant Dacre, this was a piece of Doric dialect that Bram Stoker picked up whilst staying in Scotland. This despite the fact that the scene is set, and was written, in the coastal town of Whitby in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I was a little taken aback at first, thinking perhaps that I had it wrong, but sure enough, whereas ‘fash masel’ features in Doric, it’s also well-documented Yorkshire dialect. In fact many words and phrases that are said or implied to be uniquely Scottish are also found across broad swathes of northern England, which is unsurprising to those familiar with the history of the two countries and their shared language. Still other Scots words are also archaic English words, which always gives me pause for thought when the debate over the status of Scots arises. That is, whether Scots is a dialect of English or a distinct language. The whole thing is massively political, and really, it shouldn’t matter. English is just as much a Scottish language as it is an English or British one. Anyway, I digress. Suffice to say that Bram Stoker was not silly enough to put Doric in the mouth of a Yorkshireman. He may have first heard it in Scotland, but he must also have known that it was in wider usage. I don’t blame Dacre Stoker, as a North American, for not realising this, but I think it’s worth correcting this error.

Now, as for the claim in the same Scottish Sun article that Slains Castle ‘matches the floorplan of’ Dracula’s castle, that deserves its own post…

Helsinki Syndrome

December 25, 2017

The redoubtable Harvey Johnson. I miss satire in my action movies.

 

Every year at Christmas I enjoy a viewing of Die Hard (1988), usually as the wife decorates the tree, but this year we had a staff screening at work. Such a good film. Anyway, every time I see it I notice another detail, and this time it was the odd phrase ‘Helsinki syndrome’. Everyone knows that the psychological phenomenon of hostages identifying with and even sympathising with their captors is called ‘Stockholm syndrome‘ after a specific bank robbery that took place in that Swedish city in 1973. I naturally wondered whether ‘Helsinki syndrome’ was a silly mistake, a continuation of an existing mistake (as in, the movie reflecting popular misconception), or part of the movie’s poking fun at the media (the news anchor shows his ignorance by immediately trying to clarify for the audience that Helsinki is in Sweden, only to be corrected by the expert guest). I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t an existing misconception that the writers were referencing, unlike the infamous ceramic ‘Glock 7’ of Die Hard 2 (which was based on an existing media scare; one for another post). The movie seems to have started a meme of sorts, to the point where some people today actually think that ‘Helsinki syndrome’ is a real thing. There is no mention that I can find of it prior to the film. ‘Helsinki’ was definitely in the original script by Jeb Stuart and Steven de Souza. As to why the writers didn’t just call it Stockholm syndrome and have the presenter mistakenly say that Stockholm was in Finland, I can’t be sure. It may just have been deliberately changed to distance the movie from real-life events, just as Hans Gruber’s ‘Volksfrei movement’ never really existed but had parallels in groups like the Red Army Faction aka Baader-Meinhof Gang. Viewers in the know would realise what was being referenced and would find the ensuing gag extra funny. For those not familiar with the real-life syndrome, the movie explains it and we can all laugh at the daft anchorman together. However, there may be a more specific origin. I did find one reference to Helsinki syndrome as a political comment in The Nation magazine (vol.241, 1985, p.8) made in reference to this hijacking;

‘Most feared of all Scandinavian disorders is Helsinki Syndrome, in which positively charged particles of information afflict the victim’s central ideological system, causing him to question America’s absolute moral superiority in the cold war. Specialists in the field refer to victims of the syndrome as being “‘Finlandized,” thus beyond recuperation.’

It seems plausible, given the amount of satire present in Die Hard, that the writers were referencing this wry comment, which is using its suggestion that Helsinki Syndrome is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome to satirise US foreign policy and, I believe, Allyn B. Conwell. This incident produced two radically opposed views from the hostages; Conwell, who responded with hatred for his captors, and Peter W. Hill, who defended them in the press. Hence whereas sympathy for terrorists would be medicalised as effectively a mental illness (which is the popular understanding of Stockholm Syndrome, implying that the sufferer’s aberrant views can be disregarded), the magazine is suggesting that such people might label any critic of the US government as having a case of ‘Helsinki Syndrome’. It does fit, although I have no direct evidence for this one. I did once manage to get in touch with de Souza about another piece of Die Hard trivia, so perhaps I could find out if anyone is sufficiently interested. Anyway, just in case there is any doubt, there is no such thing as Helsinki Syndrome.

On African ‘Vampires’

December 10, 2017

The only ‘African vampire’ that I know of…

 

Trying to get back in the habit of posting, and I’m a bit slow on this one, but you probably saw the news around halloween this year that ‘vampires’ were causing problems in Malawi. In fact, it’s still happening. I was interested to read Anthony Mtuta’s take on the phenomenon in the latter account. Mtuta is a lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi, and believes the vampire mania to reflect the deep divide between rich and poor. He’s clearly onto something. I was not aware of any indigenous African vampire tradition, and wondered if we might be seeing some influence from western pop culture (hence my image choice above). I can’t rule this out as a factor, but have found no evidence of it. The reality is much more interesting.

 

Partway into my research I discovered that Vice News had actually done my job for me with a very well researched article. This confirmed what I had suspected; these aren’t really ‘vampires’ as we know them, except perhaps in the super-inclusive sense of there being a meme of the ‘universal vampire’. There are no stories (ancient or otherwise) of dead people taking vitality from the living in Malawi. In fact, there is no history of bloodsucking revenant belief anywhere in Africa as far as I know (though I could be wrong). What’s being acted upon in Malawi seemed to me a very recent belief with the hallmarks of a modern conspiracy theory or urban myth, with no traditional folklore to back it up. They’re not talking about walking corpses or even ghosts, but living people using needles to steal blood. Vampires of a sort perhaps, but nothing whatever to do with the European revenant tradition and especially not the ‘true’ Slavic vampire.

 

I wanted to nail down just how old these beliefs are, as the Vice article only pushes things back to ‘the 1930s’ with a quote from leading researcher in the field Luise White. I only have access to the Google Books preview of her definitive book, but it looks as though the first written account dates to 1923 (for mumiani – see page 39 of White’s book). White’s interviewees, some of whom were born in the 1890s, claimed that the practice ‘…started after World War I in Kenya and in the 1920s in Northern Rhodesia and Uganda’. A variety of names were used in different countries and languages, including mumiani and banyama which seem to be analogous to ‘vampire’ in the literal sense of an entity that draws blood, and chinja-chinja / kachinja, which White lumps together but may in fact represent a distinct belief (which reads to me like a straightforward mythologising of the ‘western’ serial killer – perhaps the belief has changed over time?). How the current Malawian term anamapopa relates to all this, I don’t know. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. In any case, Mumiani is especially interesting because it seems (p.11) to be connected to the practice of foreigners making spurious medicines from the dead bodies of Africans (ancient Egyptians, to be precise). White doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea (perhaps because she believes her interviewees), but the 1930s-vintage definition of mumiani makes the origin quite clear I think;

 

‘THE STANDARD Swahili-English Dictionary describes “Mumiani” as “a dark-coloured gum-like substance used by some Arabs, Indians and Swahili as a medicine for cramp, ague, broken bones, etc.”, and further states : “It- is used as an outward application, also when melted in ghee for drinking as a medicine”. It is said to be brought from Persia but many natives firmly believe that it is dried or coagulated human blood taken from victims murdered for the purpose and when a rumour is started that Mumiani is being sought for, the natives in a town are filled with terror and seldom go outside their houses after sunset (Pers. “Mumiyai”, a medicine, with which mummies are preserved).

E.C. Baker in ‘Tanzania Notes and Records’, December 1944, p.108)

 

Variants of the word ‘mummy’ have long referred to folk-medicine preparations made from ancient corpses which, of course, white people had also indulged in as late as perhaps a century prior to this explanation. Interestingly, there was an Indian version of the blood-theft myth current in the late C19th which may be the origin of all of these African variants (White, p.10). In the mid-C19th this was seen as an Indian practice, and the myth was that Abyssinian boys were being killed to produce it. The connection between actual corpse medicine traditions and latter-day myths of blood theft for medical purposes seems clear. White suggests (p.28) that colonial banning of traditional ‘poison ordeal’ rituals in the 19th century might have created a gap in traditional practice that was filled by these stories. This would all fit together as an hypothesis; local tradition is interfered with by foreigners, who then become the butt of a new tradition, itself imported from abroad.

 

In any case, it’s fair to say that the current violence in Malawi is part of an older traditional belief in bloodsuckers, but is nothing to do with the older European vampire (or the even older revenant). It’s just a shame that a practice that seems to have served as a victimless scapegoat in other parts of the world (the dead bodies ‘killed’ as vampires didn’t feel a thing) is mirrored here by one that involves persecuting and harming real, living people.

The Winchester House

March 26, 2017

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

Quick BSH – Caynton Caves

March 9, 2017

For some reason the media (and social media) have gone nuts today over ‘Templar’ caves in Shropshire, due to a series of photographs by the talented but historically misinformed photographer Michael Scott. The caves are almost certainly mid-19th century in date. This isn’t just speculation; a local historian was able to find a ‘smoking gun’ source written within 30-odd years of the caves’ construction. They certainly have nothing whatever to do with the Knights Templar. BSH rule of thumb; if someone says something or someone is connected with the KT, it/they almost certainly aren’t.

 

Wikipedia has it right on this occasion;

 

‘Claims of a Templar connection are without foundation. There are no records of any Templar holdings in vicinity of the caves and the nearest house of the Order was the preceptory of Lidley some 25 miles to the west. Nor is there anything structurally or in the iconography that points to a Templar association.’
The suggestions of ‘druids and pagans’ using the site ‘later’ may well be correct, but if so they were Neo-Pagans, with no direct connection to their ancient inspiration (and apparently no awareness of their own local history).