Superstitions of the Undead (Or How to Keep the Dead in Their Graves)

Arkane Curiosities

Every culture fears that the dead will return to haunt and terrorize them. Throughout the centuries, different superstitions regarding death and burial arose to help keep the dead in their graves, where they belong.

Haitian Lip Sewing

The religion of voodoo is a mixture of several different practices originating in Africa. The main fear is that a deceased person might rise as a zombie. This isn’t the flesh-eating ghoul introduced by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. These are bodies animated by a sorcerer (bokor) and forced into an eternal slavery.

One common practice is to sew the corpse’s mouth shut. A bokor could only raise the dead by forcing the deceased to answer its name. Thus, sewing the lips shut prevents the dead from speaking. 

Another way to keep the dead from talking is to bury the corpse face down with its mouth against the earth. A dagger is also given to the deceased so they can stab any bokor who disturbs them. 

Finally, you can distract the dead with trivial tasks. Leaving an eyeless needle that can never be threaded or sprinkling a handful of sesame seeds to be counted will keep the deceased busy so they won’t hear the bokor call their name. 

How Death Got His Scythe

In Eastern Europe, many corpses were found buried with a sickle or scythe positioned across their necks. The idea here is that if a corpse rose from its grave, the sickle would slice the head off. 

People finding these bodies in the Middle Ages associated the sickle and scythe with the apparition of death. 

The reason we see burial stones in the shape of a cross is yet another way to keep the dead where they belong. The sign of the cross was thought to deter an evil spirit. Even a sword, with its cross-like hilt, stabbed into the he grave soil will do the job.

A Coin is Your Ticket to the Afterlife

One superstition, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased. The name for this offering is “Charon’s obol”. An obol is a measure of currency. The Greeks believed that the dead spirit traveled to the underworld where it needed to cross the River Styx. Charon was the ferryman tasked with taking souls across the river. But he didn’t work for nothing. The coin was a bribe to make sure your loved one reached the afterlife. Otherwise, they might return as an evil spirit. 

Greeks are obsessed with the idea of keeping at least one coin on their person at all times. Your pocket or purse should always have at least one coin. Even your bank account needed a little something. This superstition was meant to ensure that you always had money. 

Never Dress Your Corpse in Red

Apparently it’s a difficult journey from the grave to the afterlife. The Chinese believe that a soul travels through the ten Magistrates of Hell, where they face faces trials and torments (one for each sin they committed in life). To ease this journey, monks chanted around the deceased to get them through the Courts of Hell as quickly as possible. There would also be a group of people gambling. The idea being that the corpse must be guarded day and night and the gambling kept the people awake and alert. 

The color red signifies happiness. After a death, all statues of deities in the house should be covered with red paper, to protect them from the corpse. Mirrors are also removed because to see the reflection of a coffin means that you will shortly die. 

The deceased is never dressed in red because this will cause the corpse to return as a ghost. 

Dead Flesh Chewing Gum

In Turkey, gum chewing is perfectly fine so long as it happens during daylight hours. If you chew gum at night, it transforms into the flesh of the dead. The color of Turkish gum is very similar to skin tone and can be mistaken as flesh. 

Additionally, you are not supposed to trim your nails at night otherwise a djinn will paralyze you.

Tim Kane

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Vampiric Birds and Fish (November’s Weird Roundup)

Just when you thought life couldn’t get any stranger, along comes vampiric fish and blood sucking birds. In the spirit of all things creepy, I’ve scoured the realms of fauna to find all the bloodsuckers out there. And I’ve saved the best to start us off.

Vamp Birds

I Vant to Peck Your Blood

Although no bird on Earth draws all its nourishment from blood, the sharpbeaked ground finch will occasionally delve into vampirism. This bird lives on an island already known for its freakish deviants of evolution: Galapagos. Typically the “Vampire Finch” will peck at seeds, just like a normal bird. But in the light of a full moon… Er, when drought conditions limit the number of seeds available, it switches to the red stuff. Then it mosey’s over to another fowl, a seabird called a booby. The finch pecks at the victim bird’s back until it draws blood, offering up a nice warm meal. The sharpbeaked ground finch never over pecks. They only draw enough bloom to eat. If the finch were to cause too much pain, then the booby would chase them away or attack.

This National Geographic video shows the vampiric finch in action.

Blood Sucking Fish

The candirus (or pygidiid catfish) is strongly attracted to raw turtle meat and will also attack the legs of human waders. These fish crave blood and will attack the gills and fins of dying or disabled fish or even the legs of submerged children. Scientists, Vinton and Stickler, caught a specimen using a bloody cow lung for bait. Another scientists captured one as it tried to rasp the skin of his leg. Generally, these vampire fish seek out larger catfish, burrowing into the gills. One specimen was found halfway inside the belly of a larger catfish. The vampire catfish’s belly was distended with blood.

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In 1960, one researcher captured a canirus catfish and “permitted [it] to fasten onto his hand for a short while during which time it succeeded in drawing blood, apparently using its mouth as a sucking apparatus and rasping with the long teeth in the middle part of its upper jaw.” It seemed, he added, “to be utterly avid for a meal of blood and had to be forcibly removed.” So unlike the finch, this bad boy loves the taste of blood. It gets better.

In 1959, the Cleveland Aquarium acquired four vampiric fish. The keepers tried to feed them anything from worms to brine shrimp. No go. The canirus would have none of it. Only when a half-pound goldfish was put into their aquarium, did they bite. Almost immediately, according to the report, three of the four latched onto the goldfish under its gills and began sucking blood.

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So vampire bats do not have the corner on the creepy bloodsucking market.

Tim Kane

 

Should Vampires Sparkle?

Sadly, the answer is yes. Despite your attitude toward Twilight and its ilk of bloodsuckers, this trend toward the romantic vampire was inevitable.

In the 1980’s vampire films were at an all time low. A comedy, Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, out grossed the serious remake of Dracula with Frank Langella.

Love-at-first-bite

Love at First Bite, released April 1979, grossed $44 million.

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Dracula, released July 1979, only grossed $20 million.

Vampires might be able to rise from the dead, but there was no saving poor box office results. The failure of Frank Langella’s Dracula signaled the end of the serious vampire movie. After all, how could these supernatural creatures compete with Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kruger? By all intents, the vampire film, and genre, should have never survived into the 80s.

In 1985, two more vampire films were released. One film was another comedy: Once Bitten with Jim Carrey. The second was Fright Night. The box office results showed that a serious vampire movie could compete again.

ONCE BITTEN

Once Bitten, released November 1985, only grossed $10 million.

frightnight1985_11

Fright Night, released August 1985, pulled in $25 million.

The secret to Fright Night’s success was a genre pastiche. It successfully mashed up the vampire film with the more popular teen horror flicks. Instead of a dated historic timeline, the movie existed in present day. Instead of stuffy older adults fighting the vampire, teens had to cope with the monster.

Fright Night competed will with other horror films of the time. Look a that some 1985 box office grosses: Return of the Living Dead ($14 million); Friday the 13th part V ($22 million), Nightmare on Elms Street 2 ($30 million).

The success of Fright Night led to nearly all future vampire films having a genre pastiche element. More teen films arrives (Lost Boys , 1987), along with vampire westerns (Near Dark, 1987 and From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996) and plenty of action movies mashed up with vampires (Blade, 1998 and Underworld, 2003).

So what, you ask, has this got to do with the sparkling vampires of Twilight?

It was inevitable that the romance genre would be combined with vampires. A long history of a vampire longing for a lost love existed. The 1960s television soap opera, Dark Shadows, was the first to have a romantic vampire with Barnabas. Several other movies carried this theme along, notably Blacula (1972) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

In 1991, The Vampire Diaries series featured Elena Gilbert, a human girl, who is only moved to passion by Stefan Salvatore, a vampire. These novels jump stared a whole industry of paranormal romance. The meshing of two popular genres: the supernatural and romance. It was only a matter of time before these popular books exploded onto the screen. The small screen for Vampire Diaries. And a four part movie series for Twilight.

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Vampires have so melded with romance, I doubt the two will separate. However, this doesn’t mean that different genre pastiches don’t await us in the future. Would people want to see vampire political thrillers (a bit like the Kindred)? Or supernatural detectives (like the X-Files)? The genre of vampires will not dies. It simply resurrects in different forms.

To read more about how vampires have changed through the years, check out my book: The Changing Vampire of Film and Television.

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Thanks,

Tim Kane

Ear Flapping Vampire

Imagine a vampire as a head with gigantic ears, that soars toward victims to devour blood and inflict curses. While doing research on Camazotz, a Mayan death bat, I stumbled on one of the most bizarre vampires I’ve every heard of. The chonchon.

The legend hails from the only native people that remained independent in South America. The Mapuche not only resisted the Incan Empire, but also the Spanish. Their name derives from Mapu (of the land) and Che (people).

On version of the chonchon story has that when a person dies, the ears will grow to an enormous size, and it will year away from the body.

I found this picture a Spanish site about the Chonchon.

I found this picture a Spanish site about the Chonchon.

A more complete myth involves a kalku (a sort of mythical sorcerer that works with wicked spirits). The Kalku transformed into the chonchon only on moonless nights. The sorcerer uses a magic cream along the throat (this somehow helps separate the head from the body). This version of the creature has feathers and talons and the ears serve as wings. Only other kalkus can see the chonchon.

 Tim Kane

What Sort of Vampire Are You (Revisited)

There are more sub-types of vampires than I care to count. Just when I think I have the list narrowed down, more pop into my brain. So, continuing along the vein of the last post, here are some other vampire options for your wish list.

The Punk Vampire

Although there are multiple vampires that touch on this category, only one truly embraces it. Spike. The bit character that exploded into the most interesting aspect of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The attitude here is Sex Pistols meets Lestat the vampire (in the rocker sense). Spike is the sort of vamp that just wants to have fun. I recall one time where he said he wouldn’t want to kill all the humans, then there wouldn’t be anything fun to do.

Biker Vampires

A cousin of the punk vampire is the biker vampire. Here you have the painfully 80’s and stylish Lost Boys vampires led by David (Kiefer Sutherland). I mean, is there one of them that doesn’t have an earring? But they do exude a certain level of cool. The I-can-do-whatever-I-want vampire.

Bordello Vampires

Despite a bar populated by down and dirty bikers (the human variety) it’s the female vamps you have to fear. These girls will tear you apart (literally). The upshot: as this sort of vampire, you get killer looks most of the time. Downside: You get damn ugly fast in the killing spree. Check out From Dusk Till Dawn.

Mafioso Vampire

Actually, there are multiple choices here. The first is from the one season only TV show, The Kindred: The Embraced—a show that had different species of vampires all fighting for control of the city. There was one boss vampire (Prince Julian Luna) and all the other clans vied against each other. The series was based on a role playing game (and a LARP version) called The Masquerade.

As great as this series was, to see real vampire clans (both the Euro-trash suits and the enforcers) you have to turn to the Underwold series. What’s better than gun toting vampires? Gun toting vampires that duke it out with werewolves.

Ninja Vampires

These vamps sneak around in skin-tight black speedos and wield swords. They’re about as badass as you can get and still be a vampire. The nemesis of the Blade series, these ninja vamps make their appearance in Blade II (where our cuddly damphyr has to team up with them). Check it out.

That’s all so far. Plenty more vampire types out there. But that’s enough bloodletting for now.

Tim Kane