Halloween is right around the corner, and Science Channel’s Mythical Beasts series is getting festive. The third episode attempts to explore the terrifying origins of vampires, and digs down deep to examine their lust for blood. The vampire myth wasn’t native to the medieval people of western Europe, but traveled there along with eastern European folklore, and then to America as well.
The way vampires are portrayed in pop culture today is only vaguely reminiscent of the vampires of ye olden days. Although none of the folklore was actually presented as evidence, vampires are established to be the corpses of humans that rise from the grave to kill their family and neighbors by sucking their blood. After getting bitten and drained of blood, the newly dead then go on to become vampires as well, and an entire army of vampires, in theory, would eventually wipe out entire towns.
Stakes and stones
“Modern day vampire-hunters” lead archaeological digs in Bulgaria where researchers continue to find graves that don’t match traditional burial; the bodies are staked with iron or wood through the ribs, legs are sometimes bound or removed altogether, and high walls around the body are built to keep the corpse from rising from the grave.
In a lab, a team of scientists reenacts staking to understand how much force it would take to stake a human between the ribs. Their wooden stake strikes a bone, and they conclude it would have been no simple feat to stake a corpse down. This suggests that those doing the staking were doing so with determination, likely with fear as a motivator.
If a corpse is suspected to be rising, terrorizing a village, and then returning to the grave, the body may be exhumed and burnt. An exhumed corpse could be identified as a vampire if it showed signs of bloating, had blood or fluids seeping from its mouth, or if they appeared to have longer hair, facial stubble, or fingernails — indications they were still somehow “alive.” These things are typical of natural decomposition processes, but medieval people didn’t have education in mortuary science or decay.
According to Mythical Beasts, the lack of knowledge of decomposition and postmortem bodies, combined with fear of the unknown, allowed for the idea of vampires to exist. The people were so afraid of the creatures, they took part in classic tropes like hanging garlic outside their doors, or mustard seeds on the roof, or even eating the ashes of burnt corpses. Documented evidence exists as hand drawn pictures and in texts shown on screen.
May the life-force be with you
Mythical Beasts discusses medieval beliefs that our “life-force” is found in blood, and that drinking it allows one to take in the essence of another person. Royal and young blood was considered valuable, and an example of this is provided with the beheading of King Charles I. After the event, spectators from a large crowd attempted to gather his blood on their handkerchiefs.
Two experiments involving blood are shown, a plausible one where clever men were boiling blood for plasma separation to sell for a pretty penny, and the other, an unclear and odd inclusion to the story involving electrophoresis, used to provide insight to blood protein differences in young and old people.
Blood feasting is also tied to why vampires were said to turn into bats. Joy Reidenberg, comparative anatomist, analyzes a vampire bat and explains its unique ability to live off a blood diet. These are the only mammals that can survive this way, and Reidenberg shows off the fangs that allow the bat to create a puncture wound. Though these animals are fascinating, they are native to Central and South America, so it is unclear how they may have impacted folklore in medieval Europe.
An alternate explanation is brought forth to shed light on the shape-shifting abilities of the vampire — the rise of alchemy and the werewolf. An alchemy book filled with plant specimens provides a look at some of what medieval people may have been consuming as magical elixirs, and shows that some of the plants used have been deemed quite toxic in modern times. Scientists question if perhaps these toxic plants could have caused those that consumed them to believe they had transformed, much in the way LSD affects a person today.
The third installment of Mythical Beasts is a bit of a departure from the typical format of the program. This episode doesn’t take you to libraries to suss out the folklore, or show you historical texts. The expert information is great, but it would have been nice to get an understanding of what they’re basing their claims on, and how they reached their conclusions.
It seems strange to include the werewolf story but leave out information regarding leeches and bloodletting. The electrophoresis hemoglobin protein test was irrelevant, due to technological limitations of the time period. Including vampire bats is questionable due to the very large distance separating the people of Europe and the bats’ native home. A huge part of this episode seems like guessing and vague assumptions, which is more frustrating than simply saying, “I don’t know.”
While entertaining, this episode feels shy of the intended origin story show that is supposed to provide a truthful look into the basis of mythical creatures. It’s disappointing that everything about vampires deals entirely with the fear of the unknown, but this episode doesn’t emphasize it or really drive it home like it should have. Additionally, there are so many really interesting angles to explore with the rise of iconic vampires through the years, it feels like a missed opportunity.
All in all, the third episode of Mythical Beasts is entertaining and informative, but leaves a lot of room for further exploration. With Halloween passing on Wednesday, perhaps there will be more of a return to form following.
The vampire episode of Mythical Beasts debuts tonight, October 28th, at 10:00 eastern time on the Science Channel.