Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legendby Mark Collins Jenkins (Washington D.C.: National Geographic Books, 2010)
A quick glance at the movie theaters and the offerings of cable TV tell us that the subject of vampirism is a current rage. Where did the idea of a vampire arise? More to our point, do they have anything to say about our own beliefs in God?
The story takes off with a running start by noting the remains found in Venice during the time of the plague. This “victim” was different. A brick was jammed into its mouth. Why? With this mouth-watering nugget, the chase begins.
The next section recounts various tales of vampires and the like. The flavor of the beginning pages is that of horror fiction. It seems more like a behind-the-scenes look at a Stephen King novel than anything else.
This changes, however, when the author begins to compare forensic evidence from graveyards with legends told in those same vicinities. Suffice to say, a belief in the “walking, munching, sucking dead” is not of recent origin. Although I hate to “spoil the surprise” of the book, I will note that a convincing case is made that earlier generations did not understand the process of the decay of human bodies and, more importantly, what things might delay that decay. Therefore, when a body was disinterred and the mortification was not as advanced as expected, supernatural explanations began to be bandied. A convincing cross-disciplinary case is made that much of our vampire legend is tied to the “wasting deaths” of tuberculosis and the bubonic plague.
Yet there are other sources to the legend that do not arise from plague-infected Europe. Similar stories are told from China, Japan, Australia, among the Eskimos and wandering tribes like the Romani. Interestingly, there are no such stories from Egypt, a land understood to be the source of black magic and the occult. The posited explanation is that the Egyptians buried so well that there were no strange postmortem observations that required explanation.
The book closes with tantalizing suggestions of the interplay between Christianity and the legends of the vampire. Since the book's focus is on forensic explanations, the subject of Christianity is addressed more from an anthropological perspective than a theological one. Still, it is intriguing to note that vampire legends tended to arise with greater specificity after the influx of Christianity. This fascinating morsel is identified but not completely analyzed. It seems that the early Europeans simply transferred their pagan beliefs in deities to beliefs in demonic forces once the faith of the one God came to them. Rather than completely displacing all their previous beliefs, they simply incorporated some of these old gods into their Christian belief system, but this time saw those spirits as evil spirits warring against God. Even some of the symbols typically associated today with Satanic rituals were originally simply religious symbols. Reading them as originating in Satanic worship would be anachronistic since they had no belief in Satan as such before the Christians arrived.
This hints at why I think this book can be productively read by people of faith. The heart beliefs of a people are very difficult to identify, let alone eradicate. This book is not a missions text so it does not pursue broader missiological questions, but it does raise the issue of syncretism. What happens when a people come to faith in God but do not know what to do with their prior beliefs? Further, is every incorporation of a prior belief system necessarily evil? Belief in the power of Christianity in general and priests specifically demonstrate that our early European ancestors viewed God as superior to these other forces. Is this really that different from the idea in the Hebrew Scriptures that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is superior to other gods? “We have seen what your God did to the gods of ...” is often a state of embryonic and growing faith. The issue then becomes the power and sovereignty of God, not necessarily his numerical oneness. Dealing with issues of prior belief systems is one of the greatest challenges of the missionary.
I also found it interesting to note that the author traces the origins of the vampire legend from Slavic countries, but also from Greece, Italy, Africa, Australia, China, Japan, etc. While there is a “main stream” at least for American vampire lovers, the origins itself are nebulous not only in time, but also in place.
Some religious skeptics might compare the belief in vampires to the belief in another dead person who rose from the grave to walk the earth once again. The difference is not just that this earth-walker is good and kind, but that this story is specifically related to a certain time and place. The account does not arise from attempts to explain unusual decay found in a tomb, but to explain an unusual absence! The story of Jesus has been subjected to historical scrutiny. Whether the story is finally believed or not, his “legend” did not arise among people who were miles and years removed from the events in question, but from among the very eye witnesses of the strange things that happened in Jerusalem in or about A.D. 33. Thus comparing the rise of the Jesus movement with the rise of the vampire legends is one demonstration of the qualitative difference in the stories about Jesus. While the story of Jesus's resurrection is not unanimously believed, it is unanimously agreed that it had a uniquely identifiable source in time and geography.
For this believer, the explanation is simple. The Jesus story is true; the vampire legends are not.
Grace and Shalom, Steve Kenney