Thursday, March 19, 2009

of vampires and sleeplessness

The other day I started reading this book, Vampires, Burial and Death by Paul Barber. It is a fascinating scholarly text (but readable) on the folklore of the undead—mostly the European/Eastern European undead. One of the most fascinating things about the stories presented in the text is the unquenchable fear that rose up in people in the face of the unknown and uncertain and unfamiliar.

Now I am only 6 chapters into the book, so my brief synthesis—and maybe it is not brief enough for some of you, but alas I am long-winded and full of air and watery stuff—is not going to capture the entirety of the author’s thesis, but here’s my understanding of it so far.

In the middle ages (and beyond) the undead (vampires, revenants, vrylolakas (sp?)) were at times blamed for unexplained deaths—many peasant people assigned undeadness to people who had passed on and left other people dying in their wake or left strange things happening in a village that were indicative of hauntings. If a person was murdered, committed suicide, or experienced violent, accidental early deaths he or she was much more likely to become undead after burial. Furthermore, a person could be born with certain traits or characteristics that created a propensity for becoming undead after dying.

The author goes into great detail about how the vampires and undead above are not at all like the fictional vampires of books and movies. These vampires reeked havoc on the various villages described in the written folkloric cannon and were disinterred and dealt with in multiple ritualistic and not so ritualistic ways in order to stop whatever the havoc may have been within the village. The vampires of folklore were actually described as bloated, ruddy, slack-eyed, fresh skinned, long nailed, fresh haired creatures (they were almost always seen in repose in their burial spots upon disinterment). Essentially the description is the not-so-usual (but really quite usual) patterns of decomposition.

When someone happened to be the first to die in an epidemic (or when the first few people died in an epidemic) these victims of disease would essentially spread more death. Villagers would reason that the quick and numerous deaths were caused by vampires rising from their graves and squeezing the life out of victims—we know now because of science that these people were of course going to bring more death along because diseases are contagious.

Sometimes the revenants did not bring death to more people, instead the undead played tricks and haunted the village by drinking jugs of wine and moving things around.

What I’ve been finding most interesting about the folklore I’ve been reading is the collective fear that unified the people into both relying on one another for comfort and the spectacle that was created out of the dead bodies of the supposed undead.

There is an account of many people coming together in a big sleep over at one house in order to stay ghost/revenant/haunting free for the night. Another story describes many, many people sleeping over in the town square in order to avoid the hauntings.

This coming together in the night to get through fearful moments really resonates with me. Since my teens I have loved the fact that the 7-11 or Meijers grocer or the 24-hour coney island joint would be open with bright lights shining and night owls hanging out if ever I was having an insomniac night loaded with graphic depictions of either scary or not-so-scary imaginings.

See, I’ve been an insomniac since I was in the fifth grade. When I was young I would stay up for hour upon hour praying for Jesus to stick to my heart so I wouldn’t go to hell and simultaneously wondering about the promise of heaven and the sureness of eternal boredom that I thought might come with it. I would fall asleep, only to be awakened by elaborate, horrific dreams—strange creatures trying to scratch through the glass of my bedroom window; men with cross bows entering my room and shooting deathly arrows at me and faceless friends.

As I got older, I dealt with all the fears that erupted in my mind at night by simply staying up and reading or drawing or watching cooking shows or playing board games with friends till late into the night. For a few years in my late teens I would stay up almost the entire night until I was so exhausted I crashed out. Sometimes I had floating fears in my head; other times the things of distraction mentioned above kept me calm. Whatever the case—fears or fearless—the idea of other people being up in one place gathered together helped alleviate the misery of my sleeplessness.

In this folklore, I find the collective alignment of the village in the middle of night to resonate with me in the same ways the smoky, florescent lit 24-hour diner filled with distraught, angst-laden teenagers and overly drunk wastoids at 2:30 in the a.m. soothed my pacing mind when I could not get to sleep. During those sleepless years, I would sometimes wander the streets at night—usually via bicycle—under the blue street lights or bright moon searching for other souls awake during the wee hours between darkness lifting and light rising.

I did not need to know the person I might come across; I just needed to know (and still need to know) that there was a warm body with a warm mind roaming the surface of the earth at that exact moment. There’s something about being alone at night (and when you are the only one awake in your house; you are virtually alone) that creeps under my skin and causes fierce fears and imaginings.

Today, my insomnia is much better. It comes in small waves and taking benedryl or zyrtec helps. But still when I wake in the night, I am more apt to see things move and hear things that may be sinister or spooky sliding over the floorboards or up the plaster walls. I create whole stories of murder and mayhem and supernatural phenomenon for every floorboard creak and animal scurry.

So, I relate all so well to the peasants’ fears in the stories of the undead. I can imagine the hysteria that built up over the days and nights as strange (and maybe not-so-strange) things happened in villages throughout Europe. When young healthy people start dying one after another or people were murdered or jugs of wine were stolen in the early morning hours when the dark of night hung relentlessly on the sky, well, who better to blame it on than someone already dead? And what better way to deal with all the fear connected to unusual events than to deal with it collectively in a common space--warm bodies gathered together to stay off the difficulty of sleeplessness?

1 comment:

starrhillgirl said...

And here I thought I was the only one who used the word "imaginings"....