It’s happy hour at Monsters Pub. Vampire, Frankenstein, and Zombie are in the house, discussing their early beginnings over foamy pints.
VAMPIRE: I’m an original, you know.
FRANKENSTEIN(scoffs): Yeah, no shit.
VAMPIRE: No, really. Like, I didn’t come from a book. People think I’m some pale guy from Transylvania who wears tuxedos and a cape – but that’s just fiction.
FRANKENSTEIN (raises a stitched eyebrow, but says nothing).
VAMPIRE: I’m actually from Rhode Island.
FRANKENSTEIN: I see. And you have a thing for teenage girls…
VAMPIRE: Oh, it’s much creepier than that. My story originates with dead people.
(Continues, ominously) During the 1800s, there were numerous vampire scares in Rhode Island, and all over New England. People were dying, and no one knew why. They suspected that vampires were on the prowl, sucking people’s blood at night.
Vampire hunters rose up and started digging up graves in search of vampires. When they found a vampire, they would drive a stake through its heart. Or they would cut off the head, and then burn the head and the body.
FRANKENSTEIN: How would they know when they’d found a vampire?
VAMPIRE: Great question. Vampires have a couple of telling characteristics. First, we don’t decompose. When you open a vampire’s grave, it’s like he’s not really dead. His body looks fresh and doesn’t show obvious signs of decay. Second, vampires will have blood dripping from their mouths or noses – a sign that we’re active and bloodthirsty.
These signs would indict the murderous bastard. But, in fact, we vampires weren’t killing people. Diseases were killing people.
VAMPIRE: Tuberculosis. Or rabies. Major contagious diseases that New Englanders at that time didn’t understand and didn’t have a cure for.
Imagine that someone in a village dies. Weeks or months later, two more people from the same family die. Then a neighbor dies. What would you think? You might think that the first guy passed the curse of death on to the others. Perhaps the dead guy had come back from the grave to take more people with him.
That’s how vampire myths perpetuated: out of a misunderstanding of contagious diseases. Coupled with an ignorance about human decomposition.
Human decomposition begins at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and speeds up at 70 to 100 degrees. Underground, however, the temperature is much cooler, and corpses don’t rot as quickly as they would if they were lying around above ground. A corpse buried during January in New England could quite possibly look relatively well-preserved, even if it were dug up a month later.
This bloody liquid seeps out of bodily orifices, such as the nose, ears, and mouth. The body also bloats with gases, causing the belly to look full and distended. So, when vampire hunters opened graves, they naturally found all of the right signs to confirm their suspicions of moonlighting, blood-sucking fiends.
What’s more, when a vampire hunter dramatically shoves a stake through a corpse, air is displaced and forced through the windpipe, producing an unearthly moan or a ghastly cry.
FRANKENSTEIN: Man, that’s twisted.
ZOMBIE: (sliding over) Sick story. But, hey, guess where I’m from.
FRANKENSTEIN: Zombie! Were you born of diseases too?
ZOMBIE: No, worse. I come from Voodoo sorcery and slavery.
ZOMBIE: In Haiti. Specifically, Haiti under eighteenth century French colonial rule.
The French had imported West African laborers to work Haiti’s sugarcane fields. The French were ruthless slave drivers. Being a slave under the French meant suffering constant hunger, extreme overwork, and cruel discipline. Slave life was so brutal that slaves would wish for death, the only freedom and release from pain. What deterred slaves from suicide was the fear of a fate worse than death, and that was the fear of becoming a zombie.
In Voodoo folklore, one’s afterlife was controlled by Baron Samedi. He could allow or forbid a person’s passage into paradise. Those who were refused passage became zombies, an enduring slave with no will or self-determination, who was bidden to do the will of whoever controlled him. Dying and still remaining a bondservant – that was the worse possible destiny for a slave to imagine.
Once in zombiehood, the only way to regain one’s will and be delivered from zombie slavery was to eat salt (Slave masters always kept slaves’ food bland and flavorless.). Of course, it was in the interest of the slave owners to capitalize on such folklore, scaring slaves into earthly submission.
FRANKENSTEIN: Wow. So, Zombie, you’re really a Voodoo slave. And, Vampire, you’re really someone who died of a contagious disease.
VAMPIRE: Humph. Well, then, who’s your creator?
FRANKENSTEIN: A nineteen-year-old English girl named Mary Shelly, who dreamed me up one summer while she was vacationing in Switzerland. My name was Creature; Frankenstein was the name of the Swiss doctor who fashioned me out of various people’s body parts. An experiment turned catastrophe.
It’s Alive, Alive!
VAMPIRE: So, you’re a recycled craft project.
FRANKENSTEIN(indignant): I’m a thoughtful critic of scientific progress! And a pioneer of the science fiction genre in literature. When Universal made a film of my story in 1931, I also become one of the first successful horror film characters.
VAMPIRE: So, you came from fantasy.
FRANKENSTEIN(fuming): I came from London. And Hollywood.
ZOMBIE: Okay, you both win the ugly contest, alright? If we’re going to fight, let’s monetize it. We’ll make bets: Which of us is going to land the next blockbuster movie?
Geoghegan, Tom. “FRANKENSTEIN: 10 Possible Meanings.” BBC News Magazine. March 14, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-12711091
Johnson, Eric Michael. “A Natural History of Vampires.” Scientific American. October 21, 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/a-natural-history-of-vampires/
Tucker, Abigail. “Meet the Real-Life Vampires of New England and Abroad.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/meet-the-real-life-vampires-of-new-england-and-abroad-42639093/
Wilentz, Amy. “A Zombie is a Slave Forever.” The New York Times. October 30, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/31/opinion/a-zombie-is-a-slave-forever.html