Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 30: Even More Spooky Facts

We’re right on the brink of All Hallows Eve and I couldn’t resist sharing a few more spooky facts with you. Check out my Spooky Facts and More Spooky Facts posts if you want to discover more chilling truths to get you in spirit of the season.

  1. Consider the coconut – In Spanish, Hispanic and Portuguese cultures, there is a figure called El Coco or El Cuco, a kind of boogeyman figure used to scare children. As the story goes, El Coco eats children who misbehave so he is often used by parents to get children to do as they’re told. The slightly odd part of this story is the theory on his name. The word “coco” seems to have its roots in the Portuguese and Spanish words relating to the head and skull. When Portuguese explorers found coconuts they decided the three dots on the top resembled a human face and so the name was born. There are also some who believe that El Coco’s name comes from the humble coconut due to the linguistic connections but this has never been proven for certain.
  2. The body of William Burke – William Burke is best known for being part of the murdering duo Burke and Hare in 1820s Edinburgh. These two committed 16 murders and sold the bodies to Robert Knox, a physician, to dissect. The last of their victims was of Margaret or Marjory Docherty, murdered on the 31st October 1828. Witnesses that had seen Docherty with Burke and Hare the night before found her body under a bed where Burke was staying and went straight to the police. After Burke, Hare and both of their wives were caught, Hare entered a deal with the police whereby he revealed the details of all the murders to get both him and his wife off the crime. This led to Burke taking the fall for pretty much everything. If the story wasn’t dark enough, Burke’s body was sent to the same fate as his victims but with some particularly gruesome extras. A letter was written in Burke’s blood which now lives in the University of Edinburgh archives, his skin was used to make a book and a calling card holder and his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum at Edinburgh University to this day. Hare’s fate is unknown.
  3. Once in a blue moon – Did you know that Halloween 2020 falls on a blue moon? A blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. As the saying suggests, they are quite rare, they usually only occur every couple of years. Sadly though, blue moons aren’t actually blue, they just look like a regular full moon – still great to howl at on Halloween though!
  4. Unlucky number 13 – The number 13 is recognised as an unlucky number all the time, there are even hotels that won’t have a 13th floor or room because of the association. The classic reasoning as to why 13 is the unluckiest number or, at least, the reason I’d heard before is that in the Bible, the 13th person to take a seat at the Last Supper table is Judas Iscariot, the one to betray Jesus. Turns out there’s another theory. 13 is an awkward prime number which follows 12, considered a “perfect” number. This might sound a bit odd but if you think about how our whole world runs on the number 12, you might not roll your eyes at this idea. There are 12 months in a calendar year and our days are broken into two sets of 12 hour chunks. There were 12 Olympians, 12 Tribes of Israel, 12 Days of Christmas, 12 sons of Odin, 12 signs in both the astrological and Chinese zodiacs, 12 Christian apostles… the list goes on. We seem to be obsessed! Maybe 13 is just unlucky itself since it has such a tough act to follow.
  5. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall – One of the most famous ghost photos ever taken is supposed to show the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, though some claim it’s a fake. However, the Brown Lady has been spotted for three centuries and is believed to be the spirit of Dorothy Townsend. She was married to Viscount Townsend and rumour has it, he locked up her in Raynham Hall after discovering that she had been having an affair with Thomas Wharton. Another little tidbit of interesting info here is that Dorothy was the sister of Robert Walpole, the first official prime minister of the UK and the aunt of Horace Walpole who, arguably, invented the horror genre which you can read more about in an earlier Blogtober post!

I hope you found these facts interesting, I’ll be back for the final Blogtober post tomorrow! Bye for now!

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 27: It’s All in the Origins: Familiars

This is a bit of unusual edition of my It’s All in the Origins series but I was doing some research into the concept of familiars and thought it was all too interesting not to dedicate a whole post just to familiar folklore and fiction. If you are unfamiliar (pun intended lol), familiars are most often said to be demons that took the form of a creature, whether an animal or some kind of monster, to assist a witch with their evil dealings.

During the European witch craze, the presence of familiars was used as a means of identifying witches in England and Scotland. This was mostly because James I had mentioned familiars in his book on witchcraft, Daemonologie, and Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled ‘Witchfinder General’ of England, ran with the idea in his investigations. As it was believed that familiars were gifts from the Devil and would suckle from those they served, Hopkins would examine the bodies of suspected witches for a “witch’s teat”, a form of witch’s mark that the familiar would drink their blood from.

However, not all familiars, or those they lived alongside, were thought to be evil. Some cunning folk of the time were also known to keep familiars that aided them in their good magic. There is a suggestion that in the case of cunning folk, the familiars were fairies rather than demons.

Boy: A Real-Life Familiar?

Onto one of the most famous cases of a familiar now. Boy was the white hunting poodle of Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Prince Rupert is best known for fighting on the side of the Royalists in the English Civil War and, apparently, so did Boy. The dog was said to accompany Rupert during battles and he soon became a mascot for the Royalist cause. This led to Parliamentarian propaganda claiming that Rupert dabbled in witchcraft and Boy was his familiar. Some even claimed that Boy was the Devil in disguise. A much more bizarre suggestion was that Boy was a “Lapland Lady” reincarnate. However, the strange stories about Boy don’t stop there as he was said to have magical abilities. These ranged from shapeshifting to being able to locate hidden treasure to being able to catch a bullet in his mouth. Ultimately, Boy was to die in battle but his story certainly takes the idea of “man’s best friend” to a spooky new level.

Modern Familiars

Familiars still pop up in fantasy fiction all the time today. From Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s cat Salem to Lyra’s Daemon in His Dark Materials, the familiars are usually presented in a much cuter light, perhaps owing to the fact that so many own pets these days. I’ve had quite a few pets in life, including several dogs, and I have to say there is something about the bond between human and pet that is so unique and quite special. Even though you don’t speak the same language, you develop a weird understanding that allows you to communicate and it’s not hard to see why those unfamiliar with this bond themselves could see it as almost magical, and, just maybe it is in a way. I know I wouldn’t trade my familiar, Rebel the labradoodle, for the world!

Rebel, the world’s best labradoodle
Posted in Blogtober, Books, History

Blogtober Day 23: Did Horace Walpole Invent Horror?

If you type ‘Who invented horror?’ into Google, Horace Walpole’s name pops up at the top of the search results. This is due to his authorship of his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, a tale of ghosts and an old castle which features the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’. Although Google seems sure, I wanted to explore whether there were any other people in history who could possibly lay claim to the title of ‘inventor of the horror genre’.

So, what exactly is horror?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines horror as ‘a type of book, movie, etc. that is designed to frighten people’. This is incredibly vague and somewhat subjective. Were there really no works of fiction created with the intention of frightening people until 1764?

The Ancient Candidates

Let’s go back, way way back to the time of gods and monsters. The ancient Greeks had all manner of frightening beasts in their mythology, from Cerberus to the Hydra to the Minotaur. The ancient Greeks are also known for their love of theatre and storytelling. Although horror wasn’t in the classic triad of ancient Greek theatre genres, there were some pretty brutal murders and disturbing taboos explored in the tragedy plays. However, there was rarely anything too graphic or scary on the stage, despite some of the nastiest-sounding murders in fiction stemming from these plays, they were usually described rather than shown. That doesn’t mean the dialogue didn’t conjure up pretty horrific images. There’s a famous speech delivered by a Messenger in Euripides’ Medea that describes a rather brutal poisoning: ‘Her eyes no longer kept their wonted form nor did her shapely face, and from the top of her head blood dripped, mingled with fire, and her flesh dropped from her bones like resin from a pine-torch, torn by the unseen jaws of the poison, a dreadful sight to behold.’

Even without showing these murders on stage, these scenes were likely intended to be frightening. But, if we fly ahead in history and take a look at some of the best-remembered plays of the English Renaissance I think we’ll find a few more examples of pre-Walpole horror seeping into literature. Shakespeare’s tragedies had characters dropping like flies, if they survived to the end, they were in the minority. But, it’s not the murders I want to focus on as much as the supernatural elements. Nowadays, there’s an understanding that good horror speaks to its contemporaneous audiences and plays on the specific fears of their time. One of the most talked about topics and sources of genuine fear for many in the Jacobean period was witchcraft. King James I was obsessed with witches, he even wrote a book about them called Daemonologie. Shakespeare was no fool, he knew that in order to stay in favour with the royals, he had to write about what interested them (hence why the Tudors are bigged up in the history plays) so the Weird Sisters are given full license to be creepy and spooky as Hell in his Scottish play.

However, much as we see with the ancient Greek theatre, true horror and frightening scenes weren’t always portrayed on stage and theatre is naturally a trickier art form to show horror due to the limitations of stagecraft. Maybe it was only a matter of time until someone like Walpole took these theatrical tremors of horror and put them into a book with the rise novel in the 1700s due to technological developments in printing presses. Walpole himself even drew similarities between his novel and Shakespeare’s works, suggesting he didn’t necessarily see what he was doing was particularly original.

Why does it matter?

It doesn’t really. It’s a fairly arbitrary issue. The definition of horror is so vague that pinpointing the first work of fiction to ever intentionally strike fear into its audience is basically impossible. I think Walpole did do something meaningful with his novel but I’m not sure if it’s fair to claim he invented horror.

As a genre, horror is often regarded as not being very high brow. It’s associated with base and popular but forgettable storytelling, from cheaply made movies to Victorian penny dreadfuls. Even Euripides is the often the most criticised of the ancient Greek tragedians.

I personally think there is real skill in being able to scare an audience or reader. It’s not an easy task. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating what’s popular because sometimes that’s what ends up making history. In fact, if it wasn’t for this line of thinking, Walpole might not have claim to the title at all. In the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, not only did Walpole use a pseudonym, but he put a note at the start of book stating that it was a translation by a William Marshal from a Medieval Italian manuscript. It was only when the book became so popular that Walpole identified himself as the real author and therefore the modern ‘inventor’ of horror.

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 20: Five More Spooky History Facts

To follow up on my last post featuring spooky facts from history, here are five more to put chills up your spine…

  1. In 1898, Futility by Morgan Robertson was published. Part of the plot involves a ship called Titan which sinks in April after hitting an iceberg whilst on a voyage through the Atlantic. Majority of the passengers on board die due to the lack of lifeboats. Fourteen years later, in the April of 1912, the real-life Titanic struck an iceberg whilst crossing the Atlantic and there was a great loss of life due to an insufficient number of lifeboats. The uncanny similarities between fiction and fact have led to conspiracy theories about the real event and claims that Robertson might have even been psychic, which he denied.
  2. Starting about a century after the death of Edgar Allan Poe, a mysterious unidentified figure, known as the “Poe Toaster”, would visit Poe’s grave in the yearly hours of his birthday each year to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac by the headstone. It became an annual event in Baltimore for people to gather at night to catch a glimpse of the Poe Toaster making his annual tribute. In 1999, the tradition was passed on, likely to the original Toaster’s son, but the Toaster stopped making his graveside visits in 2009. The Maryland Historical Society hosted a competition in 2015 to chose a new Poe Toaster to reinstate the yearly honour to one of literature’s best-loved Gothic writers.
  3. In the very first iteration of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at California’s Disneyland park, real skeletons, provided by UCLA, were used as part of the ride’s set. Over time, as fake skeletons got more realistic, these were replaced. However, there is a rumour that one real skull still remains as part of the ride to this day.
  4. Scottish psychic Helen Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under the 1735 Witchcraft Act in Britain. During World War Two, Duncan led seances where she would produce a substance that she called ectoplasm from her mouth. She alleged that she had spoken with the dead, including a sailor from the HMS Barham. The ship had been sunk by German forces but this was not public information at the time. Duncan was then arrested after a police raid during one of her seances in 1944. Some attest that the authorities were concerned about her using her psychic abilities to discover the forthcoming D-Day plans which was highly confidential and secret intel. Duncan was released after a nine-month stint in prison and the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951.
  5. It’s considered unlucky to say “Macbeth” and quote from the witches’ passages in a theatre though no one knows exactly why. One of the most common theories is that Shakespeare used real witches’ spells when writing the play. Another possibility comes from the various deaths and unfortunate mishaps, both on-and-off stage, associated with the play’s long performance history. The first unlucky incident goes all the way back to the play’s first ever performance. After the actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, Shakespeare himself allegedly stepped in to play the role.

Thanks for reading and I hope you found these facts interesting. Bye for now!

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 18: It’s All in the Origins: Zombies

After previously exploring the history and origins of vampires and werewolves, I thought it was time to give zombies their moment in the spotlight…

Haiti, Vodou and Slavery

Zombie folklore dates way back to the 1600s in Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue and part of the French colonies. Black slaves were brought into Haiti from West Africa to work on the sugar and coffee plantations. Soon enough, Haiti came to be biggest moneymaker of the French colonies and the slave population grew exponentially. This was despite many slaves dying only a few years after being brought to the island from the back-breaking work and brutal treatment.

The sheer number of Africans brought into Haiti meant that African religions and cultures could be sustained in the slave populations even when some French Catholic elements were adopted into their belief system. It is thought that through a combination of traditional African Vodou beliefs and the harsh oppression faced by the slaves, the idea of the zombie was born. The Africans believed that in death their souls would be released back to Guinea and freed from slavery. However, the souls that didn’t make it to Africa would remain where they were, trapped on the plantations even in death. One of the biggest reasons souls were said to become zombies was if the death was caused by suicide. Slave drivers themselves used this idea to frighten slaves into not attempting suicide as many saw it as the only means of freedom from slavery.

The idea evolved over time and with the successful Haitian Revolution of 1804 abolishing slavery in the region, the concept of the zombie changed. Today, witches practicing black magic in Haitian Vodou, known as bokors, are said to be able to kill a person then reanimate them as a zombie and make them do their bidding.

There is just one thing I want to touch on here before we move on to what I’m going to call the ‘Anglo-American Zombie’ (to distinguish from the Haitian version). Firstly, although zombification is a real belief in Haitian Vodou, it is an aspect of the religion that has been highly sensationalised and is only one of many different beliefs and facets of the religion. I mention it here because it is relevant to the origin story of the zombie as a monster of fiction we know and recognise so often today, not to reduce what is already an often misunderstood and misrepresented religion to its most sensationalised qualities.

The ‘Anglo-American Zombie’

One of the first real zombies of Anglo-American literature could, arguably, be the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The creature has many traits we associate with zombies today, he’s a reanimated corpse and he goes on a killing spree like most zombies in modern horror movies. Although, some would say the creature has more in common with vampire lore than zombie lore and he is presented as much more intelligent and empathetic than his future counterparts.

Jumping forward over a hundred years, we get to the first feature-length zombie movie, White Zombie, released in 1932. The storyline concerns a young woman who goes to Haiti to marry her fiancee but a Vodou master plots to turn her into a zombie instead. The film, though now only really known and watched in film critic circles, saw many other filmmakers do their own take on a zombie movie over the next few decades. None have had as much of an enduring impact on zombie fiction as Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It’s important to note though that the film doesn’t include the word ‘zombie’ in its script and the director and writer, George A. Rumero, has said that he believes the undead in the movie have enough differences to distinguish them from the Haitian Zombie, though he may have been unconsciously influenced by it. Despite this, Rumero is credited with creating the idea of the Anglo-American Zombie as an undead cannibal that we know today.

Since then, zombies have cropped up in many works of fiction, most notably on-screen in the likes of Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and Warm Bodies. I personally think that zombies are one of the most flexible and ever-evolving supernatural figures. Vampire lore has barely changed since Dracula and our modern understanding of werewolves is pretty much as what it was in folklore from centuries ago. Zombies, in their most recognisable form for us today, only really go back as far as 1968. Even then, they have crossed over from horror to comedy, apocalyptic, action and even romance genres far easier than the other creatures I’ve written about so far. They may not always be portrayed as the smartest but they’re certainly the most durable and even if there’s a lull in zombie fiction every now and then, they really don’t seem to stay dead for long.

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 17: Spooky History Facts

Something I’m finding really fun about Blogtober is all the historical research I’m getting to do when looking into the origins of Halloween and everything associated with it. I thought it would be interesting to share five weird and spooky Halloween-related facts from history that aren’t long enough for a post of their own today.

  1. During the Reformation, many Catholic churches were looted, especially in Germany, where the Protestant Revolution began. To make up for the lost treasures of the Catholic churches, skeletons of old Christian martyrs were retrieved from the Roman Catacombs. They were decorated with gold, jewels and lavish clothing and given the name ‘Catacomb Saints’, many can still be found in German Catholic churches to this day.
  2. During the Middle Ages, a bizarre pandemic occurred known as the ‘Medieval Dancing Mania’. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, someone would start dancing uncontrollably and others would end up getting the urge to join them. Some cases were so severe that some who caught the bug would literally dance until they died. Speaking of bugs though, a similar affliction caught on in Italy, specifically in the town of Taranto, where the bite of a wolf spider was said to cause a state of frenzy known as Tarantism. A strange cure was devised for this condition, a dance called the Tarantella which is still a popular style of dance now.
  3. Speaking of strange and spooky Italian history, I have to mention the particularly ferocious King Ferdinand I of Naples, also known as Ferrante. This ruler had an unusual and pretty brutal way of dealing with his enemies. After they would be tortured and executed, he would have them embalmed and mummified so he could keep them forevermore.
  4. There are a lot of spooky stories connected to the London Underground, from rumours around the lines curving around known plague pits to ghosts that are said to haunt the many stations. What is for certain is that, according to TFL, there are at least 40 disused Overground and Underground stations, many sitting empty deep deep under the streets of the city.
  5. Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is probably one of the most well-known spiritualists in history but did you know that he was also a member of The Ghost Club? This group aimed to investigate reported ghostly activity as the rise of Spiritualism (which could do with its own post!) also saw a huge amount of opportunists faking hauntings for cash. The Ghost Club is still running to this day and notable former members include Charles Dickens, Charles Babbage, W. B. Yeats, Siegfried Sassoon and Peter Cushing.

I have more spooky history facts to share but I’ll leave it here for now. Check back for another post of creepy facts from history on my blog soon. Thanks for reading!

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 15: Is Tutankhamun’s Tomb Really Cursed?

One of the biggest discoveries of the twentieth century also turned into one of its biggest mysteries. Did Tutankhamun’s tomb really curse all who entered it? Let’s explore this bizarre history, starting with the life story of the boy king himself.

The Story of King Tut

Tutankhamun was born around 1342 BC and thought to be the son of King Akhenaten, a controversial leader. Akhenaten made radical, and mostly unpopular, religious changes. Stepping away from polytheism, Akhenaten instead made Egypt’s official religion Atenism, which centred solely on the cult of Aten. The records are foggy when it comes to the exact identity of Akhenaten’s successor but what is certain is that Tutankhamun became king not long after his father.

Tutankhamun was a pharaoh of Egypt from 1334 – 1325 BC, taking the throne when he was only eight or nine years old. He had a short reign but sought to restore the land to polytheism. Ultimately he died young at the age of roughly eighteen. Scientists believe he may have had several ailments and illnesses, including possible malaria, bone necrosis, scoliosis and epilepsy. Despite this, there is no confirmed cause of death and his passing seems to have been quite sudden to ancient Egyptians. Theories about his death vary widely, from murder by a blow to the head to a chariot accident to his ill health.

During antiquity, Tutankhamun’s tomb was robbed twice. Nearly all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are thought to have been ransacked in the Twentieth Dynasty but what makes Tutankhamun’s tomb unique is the scale of what was left behind. Even though a lot of riches were taken away nearly 3,000 years before Howard Carter’s excavation, there was still so much for Carter and his team to discover. The reason for this is because King Tut was almost completely removed from historic records. Fury over Akhenaten’s religious reform led to those after him aiming to destroy any reference or monument to him or those associated with him, including any mention of his son. Tutankhamun’s anonymity may have protected his tomb from further damage before the 1900s because the robbers simply didn’t know it was there.

That Infamous Excavation

So, speeding ahead 3,000 years we get to 1914 when George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon financed a project exploring the Valley of Kings. He put Howard Carter in charge of the excavations and waited to hear for news. Years went by with few interesting discoveries and he decided that 1922 would be the last year he would provide funding for a project that was reaping little of what he sowed. It was in November of that very year that Carter’s water boy accidentally discovered the top of a staircase leading to a doorway. Word was sent to Carnarvon and Carter, the Earl and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, were the first to enter the tomb.

Upon realising just what they had discovered, help was drafted in to begin cataloguing the many artifacts. On the 16th February 1923, Carter entered the burial chamber of King Tut. Just seven weeks later, Canarvon died of blood poisoning. He is thought to be the first victim of the King Tut’s curse.

The Curse?

Ok, so context aside, here is where the spooky bit comes in… as if talk of tombs and ancient mummies wasn’t spooky enough as it is. There are a lot of (probably fabricated) details when it comes to the supposed curse and considering the excavation and the curse itself became big news stories back in England, it’s not hard to imagine the most extreme were probably made up by the media.

But, here we go, these are just a few of the people related to Tutankhamun’s tomb who died in mysterious circumstances or had strange things happen to them:

  • Sir Bruce Ingham – Carter gave Ingham a mummified hand to use as a paperweight (main question here being why?) then Ingham’s house burnt down.
  • Financier George Jay Gould – died of pneumonia after visiting the tomb.
  • Hugh Evelyn-White – took his own life two years after working on the excavation.
  • Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell – found dead in his bed in Mayfair after being smothered.

The list goes on a bit however one key person in all this who got off scot-free is Howard Carter himself. Carter lived a full life, as did many people who worked on the excavation. There is definitely something spooky about the idea of a mummy’s curse but there is no evidence of it aside from some strange coincidences. No curses have been found written on the walls of the tomb itself and neither have archaeologists or scientists found any substance in the tomb that would cause death to those who enter. This is a bit of a non-point considering the variety in causes of death anyway.

I personally think the idea of a curse and the reason the story flooded the media is because there is something just wrong about the idea of exploring a burial site. Even when that tomb is thousands of years old and definitely a place a historical interest, there’s still this feeling that where someone is put to rest is where they should stay. King Tut might have been young but he was a king and there was a reason he was given the lavish burial he was. I’m not saying I think excavations themselves are wrong. If that excavation had never happened, Tutankhamun may have ended up being a name lost to history. Disturbing the final resting place of the dead is incredibly spooky and maybe the ultimate risk you take isn’t a curse, it’s learning to live with your decision to explore that grave in the first place.

Hmm… that got a bit deep. Anyway, point is I don’t think the curse is real but it’s an excuse to chat about some Ancient Egyptian history. Bye for now!

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 11: It’s All in the Origins: Vampires

This is the second in my It’s All in the Origins series where I examine the history and origins of a famous being associated with Halloween. First up was werewolves and now we’re sinking our teeth into vampire lore.

What is a Vampire?

Here’s the problem with exploring the origins of vampire lore, defining what a vampire is can be surprisingly complicated. Vampire characteristics vary greatly depending on who you ask. A lot of traits we see repeated in vampire fiction today e.g. having an aversion to sunlight, not having a reflection, needing to be invited into a property, turning into bats, not liking garlic and so on come from various pieces of modern fiction. Most notably of all for several of these would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula which we’ll revisit a bit later on.

In European folklore, the general consensus is that a vampire is a usually undead being that preys on the living by consuming their blood (or some other type of life force). That’s a very simple definition though, let’s venture into the history of vampire folklore and fiction.

Folklore and Famous Cases

Perhaps because of the vague and ever-changing definition of what a vampire is, it’s not surprising there is some kind of vampiric creature in nearly every culture around the world. And, much like werewolves, vampire lore dates way back to the ancient times.

In some strands of Judaism there is a possible interpretation that Lilith, the first wife of Adam, is the original vampire. She is often depicted in art as the snake that tempts Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and is sometimes thought to be a kind of demon. There is even one strand of belief that she would steal children and suck their blood, however this is a story that is more commonly attributed to Lamia of ancient Greek mythology.

It could be these figures of religion and mythology that bled into hysteria over vampire attacks. Archaeologists have discovered skeletons of individuals given a vampire’s burial (i.e. with a stake through the heart or a stone in the mouth) across Europe and from several different centuries. But, there are two particular bouts of vampire mass hysteria that I want to mention here:

  • The 18th Century Vampire Controversy

Despite the dawn of the Age of the Enlightenment, mass hysteria gripped Europe after reports began in Prussia of a string of vampire attacks in the early 1720s. Bodies were dug up across the continent and stakes were driven through the hearts of these supposed vampires to ensure the dead would never leave their final resting places.

  • The New England Vampire Panic

In the 1700s and 1800s, tuberculosis, known then as “consumption”, was spreading quickly amongst families in New England. Making sense of the illness and how it was infecting whole families in the days before science had a full understanding of TB led to the sufferers looking to folklore for answers. Some believed that consumption was spread by one infected family member draining the life forms of those around them, even beyond the grave. In order to cure consumption, families would dig up their dead relatives and examine them for decomposition. If the bodies looked fresh and were found to have still blood in their hearts, they would remove and burn several organs and the ashes would be fed to any remaining living sick relatives. Of the multiple New England “vampire” cases, Mercy Brown is the best-known. She died in January 1892 and her body was exhumed two months later after her father suspected she was causing her brother’s consumption. He died not long after drinking a tonic of her ashes. This case is thought be one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published just five years later.

From Dracula to Lestat

Although Dracula is thought to be the definitive work of vampire fiction, it wasn’t the first. There are several precursors to Stoker’s classic novel. These include Varney the Vampire (1840s), a long-standing penny dreadful, Carmilla (1872), Sheridan Le Fou’s novella which began the lesbian vampire trope and The Vampyre (1819), a short story by John William Polidori which features vampire Lord Ruthven, often thought to be inspired by Polidori’s friend Lord Byron and the closest of these three in similarity to Dracula himself.

This brings us to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. The antagonist is thought to be inspired by Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula, the ruler of Wallachia in the 1400s. He has become a historical figure both feared for his cruelty and revered for his status as a national hero in Romania. What he has to do with vampirism is, on the surface, very little. Modern scholars now believe that Stoker didn’t actually know a whole lot about Vlad the Impaler and what he did know came from one biased history book. However, one key aspect of the former ruler’s life has become synonymous with our contemporary understanding of what a vampire is.

Nowadays, there is a belief that Vlad Dracula might have had a condition call porphyria, this causes the body to not produce enough haem, a substance found in haemoglobin. Porphyria can cause paleness, an aversion to sunlight, pronounced fangs and even avoidance of garlic as it can worsen the symptoms. All of these vampiric qualities are found in Dracula and reoccur countless times in vampire fiction, from Lestat to Edward Cullen.

There are various theories as to why Dracula made such a mark on literature and how vampire myth has managed to endure for so long. One thing is for certain though, interest in these bloodsuckers is truly immortal.

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 8 : The Spooky Mystery of Shakespeare’s Missing Skull

For today’s Halloween-themed Blogtober post I thought I’d share one of my favourite spooky mysteries with you. This is the story of Shakespeare’s missing skull.

William Shakespeare’s body is buried in Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, an archaeologist investigation for a 2016 Channel 4 documentary using ground-penetrating radar suggests that his skull is not.

Rumours started circulating that the grave was missing a head after an 1879 magazine report claimed his skull had been removed by trophy hunters nearly a full century beforehand. But, other than some obvious disturbance and repair work on the stone itself, there was no clear evidence to back this report up.

That was until the documentary, however. The archaeologists discovered that beneath the ledger stones of the Shakespeare family were several shallow graves and at the head-end of the Bard himself’s resting place, it seems as though the grave had been filled in to support the weight of the stone. This suggested the grave really is missing the head after all and the team concluded that the grave had indeed been disturbed.

One of the most unnerving details about this whole situation is that, despite having died nearly 180 years before the magazine article claims the skull was taken, his epitaph seems to have seen the grave robbing coming:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

There have been attempts to reunite the skull with the grave but the problem is that the location of the skull is still a mystery to this day. There are multiple theories are to where the skull might be but these have all led nowhere so far. The biggest dead end came from a mystery skull in St Leonard’s Church in Beoley. Allegedly another old magazine article claimed the Bard’s skull had ended up in Beoley after the grave robbers who stole it were unable to sell it. When this lead was followed up by the documentary, it turned out the skull was that of a 70-year old woman and not Shakespeare at all.

One much more wild theory was that the skull was stolen by Dr Frank Chambers and sold to Whig politician and Gothic author, Horace Walpole. Walpole is perhaps best-known now for Strawberry Hill, a “Gothic castle” he designed to house his collections of art, miniatures, ceramics and more. Could it be that Shakespeare’s skull was another one of his collector’s pieces, the phrenological answer to literary genius? It’s probably just a far-fetched story but it is a compelling one.

Considering how far science has come, it would now be possible to get a DNA match on Shakespeare’s real skull so maybe it will turn up one day. As for the identities of those who stole it in the first place, I don’t think we’ll ever discover who they were. It would be fascinating to know if the curse England’s most renowned writer placed upon them ever came back to haunt them though… after all, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dream of in our unique philosophy.

Bye for now!

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 4: It’s All in the Origins: Werewolves

It’s a series within a series. Throughout Blogtober, I’m going to be sharing the origin stories of some of the spookiest supernatural figures. Today, I’m kicking this off with werewolves.

From An American Werewolf in London to a bare-chested Taylor Lautner, werewolves have really ranged in their ferocity. Sometimes, they’re terrifying creatures of nightmare and other times, they’re cuddly-looking pups. Where then did the idea of these iconic shapeshifters come from and why have they stood the test of time?

The First Mentions

The very first potential reference to werewolves is found in one of the oldest texts in the world. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem dating possibly as far back as the eighteenth century BC, there is a woman who transformed an ex-lover into a wolf.

Wolves have also played a huge part in myths and legends. From the formidable Fenrir of Norse mythology to the ancient Scythian Neuri tribe who were said to turn themselves into wolves for a portion of the year, there are countless references to wolves and werewolves to be found. One particularly well-known story in the development of werewolf lore comes from ancient Greece and concerns Lycaon of Arcadia. As the myth goes, Lycaon wanted to test whether Zeus truly was all-knowing so he invited the great god for dinner and roasted one of his sons for the feast. Zeus saw through this test and turned Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for his infanticide and cannibalism.

As Western Christianity spread across Europe, stories of humans transforming into wolves continued to terrify believers in the occult. Stories and beliefs about werewolves vary across Europe through the Middle Ages, sometimes werewolfery was even thought to be caused by witches or having some relation to vampire legends circulating at the same time.

Why Wolves?

There are a lot of possible reasons as to why there was a widespread fear of werewolves across Medieval Europe. The main theory as to why it was wolves people were the most scared of simply comes from the fact that wolves were the biggest predators. Wolves were much more common in Europe then than they are now and considering most people wouldn’t ever travel much further than their home village, the threat of a wolf attacks on livestock (one of their few sources of food and income!) was just as scary as an attack on a human.

People believed in the strange and the mystical a lot more back then and most people didn’t have the means to fact-check anything they were told. If a priest told his congregation they were to obey the teachings of the Bible and avoid witches otherwise they might cross paths with a werewolf, the fear is then placed in the heads’ of all the people in that church.

There’s also the idea that any crime that seems too horrific for a human to have committed could be given a supernatural explanation to make it easier to swallow. Or, perhaps that as it wasn’t always easy to capture and punish wild animals for the havoc wrought upon a village, it was preferable to blame someone. This led to a lot of mass hysteria and wild accusations. An infamous example of this would the case of alleged serial killer, cannibal and werewolf, Peter Stumpp. Under torture, Stumpp confessed to a variety of hideous crimes that he claimed he could carry out by wearing a magical belt, gifted to him by the Devil, which transformed him a wolf. I’m going to spare you the details but Stumpp, his daughter and mistress were tortured and executed in particularly brutal fashion.

More Recent Beasts

Moving on from horrible facts to fiction, let’s look at how we got from then to now. As I’ve said already, werewolves have been popping up in literature and mythology for a long long time but it’s 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore that is considered to be the seminal work of modern werewolf fiction. This book came along as Hollywood movies were really starting to take off and it’s on the silver screen (silver… lol) that werewolves really howled their way into the hearts and nightmares of contemporary horror fans.

Are you a werewolf fan? Are you just as surprised as I was to discover how far back werewolf legends go? Let me know in the comments.