SOME COME BACK: A Primer on the Undead

Some Come Back: on The Undead and the Walking Dead.
Some Come Back: on The Undead and the Walking Dead.

While I write true accounts of supernatural places and things, I am as fond as the next person of a good horror story, not to mention credible science fiction or well executed fantasy (the latter category, I’m afraid, is rarely well executed though).  However, as I am hip deep in true accounts of the paranormal—or at least what I believe to be true—I get miffed at the widening gap between supernatural fictional and the real thing.  Fiction writers are certainly entitled to use literary license in crafting their tales to entertain us and after awhile, I understand it gets difficult to come up with something new and original in the horror genre; but I also think tales of the supernatural should have some relationship to reality, however remote.

How far will Hollyweird take the Undead craze? As long as you buy it they'll churn it out.
How far will Hollyweird take the Undead craze? As long as you buy it they’ll churn it out.

So today, boys and girls of all ages (as they used to say), we are going to provide a bit of a reality check—or surreality check—and correct some misconceptions which have arise about the undead, or at least in folk beliefs about them, versus the ever growing pop myths that seem to have snowballed out of control in recent years.  I don’t expect to change any minds in Hollywood, much less in the ComiCon universe, but I least I can provide a bit of fresh air here and there to the stale stereotypes that have become dogma in pop horror.

I have met many people, from all walks of life, whom I believe have genuinely experienced some kind of paranormal event.  I do not have much truck with professional psychics, but I have on rare occasions met or known people who may well have genuine psychic abilities.  While there are a lot of fakers around, and even more self-delusional believers, unlike the professional debunkers, I am willing to genuinely keep an open mind about the many phenomena which science is unable to adequately explain.  And there is a lot out there which science can’t explain.

The association of sex with vampires is nothing new and goes back at least to the Victorian era.
The association of sex with vampires is nothing new and goes back at least to the Victorian era.

So it is with accounts of the undead, a generic term for the belief that dead bodies may sometimes, somehow, reanimate.  There are accounts I have come across which are credible enough for me to be willing to consider the possibility, even if hard evidence may be lacking, or if most of it is more folklore than fact.  Can such things be?  I don’t know for certain; of all paranormal phenomena it is the most elusive and even credible cases are few and far between.  Yet western society, not to mention other world cultures, has a deeply engrained believed that such a thing is possible.  One only to look to the New Testament and the story of Lazarus, as an example that the claim of bringing the dead back to life has been made.  If you believe in the Bible, then you cannot reject the notion out of hand.  Outside of Christianity, of course, there were people who were called necromancers—a type of sorcerer who specifically claimed to be able to reanimate dead corpses—although not necessarily with the soul still in it.  So this whole thing is not a recent invention of some Hollywood hack; it has a background, a tradition, even if the hack writers have much abused it lately.

Modern pop horror is silly with stories of both zombies and vampires, both of which have a solid grounding in western beliefs, and it is these two types of undead which we are focusing on presently and which I propose to vent my peeves upon.

Bela Lugosi was for many years the stereotypical vampire; today's bloodsuckers are younger and sexier.
Bela Lugosi was for many years the stereotypical vampire; today’s bloodsuckers are younger and sexier.

 

First off, let us deal with the notion that vampires can be good or romantic, or somehow friendly or misunderstood.  There are whole rows of paperbacks in bookstores dedicated to vampire romances these days, even broken down into equally popular sub-genres, such as teenage vampire romances.  If there are such things as vampires that roam the night, let us understand what they really are: they are dead bodies, lifeless corpses, which have been reanimated by a demonic spirit.  Nothing more, nothing less: so any notion that they are somehow misunderstood or lost, or in need of your company, is utter nonsense.

The belief that a malevolent spirit can somehow occupy a dead corpse originated in Eastern Europe in the Dark Ages and goes back to the split between the Eastern Church and the Western one.  In Christianity one of the seven sacraments is Extreme Unction or Last Rights and while it can be administered to almost anyone who feels in need of spiritual healing, it has traditionally been administered to the dying.  The trouble came in when they tried to determine how late one could administer the sacrament to a dying person; in other words, when does the soul leave the body?  In the Western Church, they used the rule of up to one hour after clinical death; however, the Eastern Orthodox Churches were quite a bit more generous as to how long the soul might reside in the dead body and allowed up to thirty days to administer the sacrament.

But in those thirty days, especially in a colder climate, the dead flesh may still be viable and without visible signs of decay.  What if the soul leaves the corpse; don’t you then have an empty vessel, suitable to be occupied by something else?  Enter the vampire: an empty vessel reoccupied, not by the soul of the deceased, but by a demonic entity which has the power to reanimate the corpse and imitate the living.  It is in the nature of demons to roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls; what better way to do so than to take the shape of a deceased and pass among human society with its true nature undetected?  The business about sucking blood was a later addition: it is the life force which a demon seeks to drain and blood, itself a mysterious substance, is but the symbol of that life force.   Novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote about “emotional vampires:” these are flesh and blood humans, not dead corpses, who gain strength and vitality by draining others of their emotional sense of well being.  Doubtless we have all encountered an “emotional vampire” at one time or another and just not realized it: a co-worker or a relative who seems to leave all those around them drained of energy or strength.  This is not supernatural, but I’m afraid is all too common.

A genuine vampire hunting kit from the 1840's.
A vampire hunting kit from the 1840’s.

Many years ago I read an account by the famed archaeologist A. J. B. Wace, the noted excavator of the city of Mycenae, famous from Homeric legend.  He was engaged on a survey once in a less explored part of Greece, seeking out Late Bronze Age tombs.  Most of the tombs had long ago been robbed of their contents, nut he came across one where the skeleton was still intact, with a bronze arrowhead still lodged in the chest where the heart would have been.  With nothing else of value left in the tomb, Professor Wace took the arrowhead and also removed the skull from the skeleton for anthropological analysis.  He thought nothing of the days work, until that night, and on succeeding nights, his camp was disturbed by an invisible intruder, apparently intent on vandalizing the camp.  Professor Wace and his British team could make no sense of it as they had found nothing of value worth stealing; but the local Greeks workers claimed to know what was afoot: the excavators had taken the skull of a vrykolakas—the Greek version of the vampire.

People who have led a sinful life, who have been excommunicated or been buried in unconsacrated ground; all these are potential causes for a corpse to reanimate and become a vrykolakas.  The activities of the vrykolakas are almost always harmful, although they may seem tame compared to the Hollywood version: it varies from merely leaving their grave and “roaming about” at night, to engaging in poltergeist-like activity, up to causing epidemics in the community.  One local villager even claimed to have seen a headless skelton walking along the dirt track that led from the tholos tomb where had Wace gotten the skull and arrow towards their camp.  The disturbances in camp nightly became more violent and were threatening to disrupt the expedition; so even though the British team had seen nothing themselves, they discretely put the skull back in the tomb and replaced the arrowhead in the ribcage of the skeleton.  Once done, the disturbances ceased as suddenly as they had begun and for years afterwards the Greek villagers referred to the incident as “St. George the Vampire.”

In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I relate the case of the discovery of a corpse in East Tennessee where the body was almost perfectly preserved but had a wooden stake through its heart—the traditional method of disposing of a vampire.  I was at a loss to explain it, since vampires are traditionally an Eastern European or Near Eastern phenomenon and Anne Rice’s novels notwithstanding, not generally present in the South.  However, after the book was published, I came across a reporter for a Tennessee newspaper whose family were of Armenian extraction and sheinformed me that in the earlier part of the twentieth century—about the time of the discovery of the “Vampire of Bradley County”—that there were indeed Armenian folk in that part of the South.  In Armenia they tell of the Dakhanvar who dwells in the mountains and sucks the blood from the soles of peoples feet.  So perhaps the mountains of East Tennessee have their own Dakhanvar.  Who knows?

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead started the cannibal zombie craze.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead started the cannibal zombie craze.

Insofar as that other popular undead monster goes, the zombie, the evidence, of sorts, is actually much better—although, here again, not what Hollywood would have you believe.  I credit George Romero with his black and white B movie horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, for having introduced the business of zombies becoming cannibals.  I grant you it was a stroke of genius and upped the horror level of zombies immensely: but really people, can’t you think of something original here?  Everyone since Romero has basically been ripping his idea off.  I will confess that I and most of my family do following the Walking Dead series on TV, which is exceptionally well rendered; but in general, the cannibal zombie plague trope is way, way overdone and I sincerely hope Hollywood will give this one a rest very soon.

That being said, there is in fact some basis to the traditional Voodoo belief in zombies.  It has long been believed that Voodoo practitioners can curse people to death and that if they are really in need of household help, will dig up the corpse and, via their magical powers, reanimate the corpse.  Several years back, an anthropologist studying Voodoo in Haiti uncovered persons who were believed to be zombies.  The real zombie, I should add, is not cannibal, or anything like it; it serves a master’s bidding, mostly doing hard manual labor.  In theory, unlike the vampire, a zombie is an empty vessel: it has no soul but it also has no demonic spirit inside.  It is just a mindless automaton, a piece of dead flesh made to do drudge work.  The anthropologist, however, did not find any walking dead; rather, he found persons who had been slipped a mickey by the local witch-doctor, gone into a death like trance, even been buried, then dug up and kept under the influence of the drugs and been virtually turned into slave labor.  Are there such things as genuine zombies out there somewhere?  I don’t know; but I certainly hope not.

Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space mixed zombies with aliens. A movie so bad it was good (for a laugh at least).
Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space mixed zombies with aliens. A movie so bad it was good (for a laugh at least).

For more true accounts of the uncanny, the unexplained and the just plain weird, read Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and, of course, Dixie Spirits.

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Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South
Dixie Spirits Fall River Press
DIXIE SPIRITS: True tales of the Supernatural in Dixie.

 

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Tall Betsy, Bradley County’s Lady in Black

Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee's resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.
Tall Betsy, Cleveland, Tennessee’s resident spook, comes on Halloween to deliver tricks and treats.

In the pages of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I have previously chronicled some high strangeness originating from the area near Cleveland, Tennessee, as well as a rather scary apparition from East Tennessee referred to as The Lady in Black.  In Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I delved even more deeply into the supernatural stirrings of the Mid-South.  Even with the ghost stories and mysteries which I did not chronicle in those books, I had assumed I had researched just about every paranormal phenomenon and tale there was to known about this region; my file cabinets are bulging with accounts and my computer files contain even more.  Well, I was wrong, for until just recently, I had never heard of Bradley County’s favorite apparition, Tall Betsy.

While most folks outside of Cleveland have never heard about Tall Betsy, anyone who grew up in or around the East Tennessee city can give you an earful about this unusual hobgoblin.  An online search of the usual ghost-hunter websites and directories will generally give you a blank; but that is not to say she is not real–or as real as any immaterial being can be.

I stumbled across Tall Betsy through one of my son’s friends who grew up in Cleveland.  My son Bubba knows just about everyone in Sumner County and his friend, who now hails from here, spent most of his boyhood in Bradley County.  So, knowing my interest in all things weird and wonderful relating to the South, Bubba’s friend regaled me with what he knew of Tall Betsy.  The game afoot, I dug deeper and came up with more on this mysterious apparition and what passes for the facts about her—admittedly not much.

Unlike TV ghost hunters, who go armed with all sorts of high tech gear and flashlights glued to their faces and generally end up scaring themselves, I resort to low tech methods to research ghost stories: word of mouth, hearsay, old newspaper clippings, an occasional eyewitness and the like.  No, it’s not scientific–but then neither are those TV “experts” who charge a large hunk of chump change for their expertise these days.

In her present incarnation, Tall Betsy dates back to 1980, when a local Cleveland Tennessee businessman and entrepreneur, Allan Jones, decided to get up on stilts, don a long black gown and a witches’ fright mask and hand out candy to neighborhood kids.  At first his fright costume worked too well; the local children avoided his home on Halloween like the plague.  Bit by bit, however, the kids got used to the spooky seven and half foot crone and the appearance of Tall Betsy became an annual tradition until it grew into a day long block party with thousands attending.  In recent years the celebration has also included TV celebrities and rock stars such as Little Richard.

Whether the block party got a little too big or whether Squire Jones simply got weary of standing on stilts all day, Tall Betsy disappeared from the Cleveland celebration for several years.  By all accounts she is back on the scene, handing out candy as before and a documentary has even been made about her legend.  So Cleveland, Tennessee is definitely a fun place to be on Halloween.

Although Allan Jones can certainly be credited with reviving the tradition regarding Tall Betsy, contrary to what professional debunkers may claim, he by no means originated the legend.

Jones actually learned the story of Tall Betsy from his mother, Giney Jones, who in turn had heard it as a girl from her mother, Marie Slaughter. So the tale of Tall Betsy, also known as Black Betsy or simply The Lady in Black, goes back to at least the 1920’s and 30’s and the story seems to be a genuine local tradition.

In her original incarnation, Tall Betsy was a real apparition—or at least “told as true”—who was of uncommon height (seven and half feet tall) who had a persimmon tree for a cane and who wandered the streets of Cleveland late at night.  Her grave is located in Fort Hill Cemetery, where she seems to have originally been seen and all sorts of dark tales were told about her to young children.  She was alleged to kidnap children out too late on Halloween and carry them off to her mausoleum, where she would cook and eat them and gnaw on their bones.

At this point in time it’s impossible to say how the story of Tall Betsy originated.  Whether there was indeed a cemetery ghost who was a Lady in Black (Kingston, Tennessee has one too) which was sighted on dark and gloomy nights, or whether she was just some eccentric old crone of uncommon height whose nocturnal wanderings became the subject of unkind gossip, is not known.  Tall Betsy defies easy explanations; but as far as the folk of Cleveland, Tennessee are concerned, she is a reality—at least once a year.

For further uncanny tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, and, of course, Dixie Spirits.