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.

open-uri20150930-11-1wp63v
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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St. Nicholas the Necromancer: Christmas Spirits, Part 2

 

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the real life origin of our Santa Klaus. Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.

While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield.  

As we all know–or y’all should know–St. Nicholas, an orthodox Christian saint, has as his special domain is Yuletide and that in particular he is the patron saint of children.

How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.

The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith).  That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, in Lycia an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had a strong reputation for piety and good works.  Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then).  To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.

St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.
St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.

One day, news came of a terrible crime.  Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M.  Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.

Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found.  The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking.  Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected.  He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.

St. Nick raising the boys back to life.  From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).
St. Nick raising the boys back to life. From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).

According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:

The angel said:

“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”

     The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:

“Garum, open the salting-tub!”

Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:

“Children, arise!”

At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.

“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”

The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.

Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles.  One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking.  Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed.  It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes.  This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls.  The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him.  The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.

The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark.  In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side.  During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ.  Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count.  I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.

Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts.  That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities.  He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.

Krampus seems to take particular pleasure in abusing young women, to judge by the images of him.
Krampus is St. Nicholas’ “helper” who punishes bad girls and boys.

One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus.  You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better.  One night on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him.  The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result.  This creature is seriously demented.

If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,”  Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick.  Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.

More of Krampus' hair pulling of braided hair.  That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are  filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.
More of Krampus’ hair pulling of braided hair. That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.

He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.

Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.
Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.

Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler.  In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same.  Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place.  No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun.  All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.”  But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.”   St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.

 

Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.
Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.

That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well.  Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield?  Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.

So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space.  You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.

 

Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).
Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).

For more weirdness from the land of cotton, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and 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