A few months ago, people crowded theatres to see Jack Nicholson as a werewolf. In a few days, they’ll flock to see Tom Cruise as a vampire. It might seem odd, in this supposedly scientific age, that such ancient cannibalistic terrors as werewolves and vampires should still hold such fascination for us…but actually there are good scientific reasons for it.
In European folklore, the werewolf (from the Old English “werewulf,” meaning “man-wolf”) is a man who transforms into a wolf at night and hunts humans. He must return to human form at sunrise by shedding his wolf’s skin and hiding it. If it can be found and destroyed, the werewolf dies. A wounded werewolf immediately becomes human again and can be detected by the corresponding wound on his body.
Legends of people turning into animals exist all over the world, even where there are no wolves: there are also were-tigers, were-board, were-hyenas, were-crocodiles and even were-cats. The belief in werewolves was so strong in Europe in late medieval times that many men were accused and convicted of being werewolves, or, in France, “loup-garou.”
Today there are still people who believe in werewolves…and some who believe they ARE werewolves, a delusion called “lycanthropy” by psychologists.
Psychology also suggests one explanation for the ancient legend. Centuries ago, just like today, society had its share of severely disturbed people, some of whom were violent. Someone with a medieval mind-set who came across a corpse left by the 14th-century equivalent of Jack the Ripper would be immediately prepared to believe that they had stumbled on the work of a monster.
As well, just as there are many mentally disturbed people among the homeless that wander the streets of major cities, so there must have been mentally disturbed people who wandered the forests of Europe, stealing to survive, half-glimpsed by superstitious villagers who were just as likely to attribute mysterious occurrences to supernatural causes as to natural.
A legend with such a nugget of truth at its core takes on a life of its own. Unfortunately, this probably led to people being accused of being werewolves whose only problem was being hairy or having eyebrows that met in the middle of their forehead (one of the supposed distinguishing characteristics of a werewolf in human form).
A legend with even more staying power is that of the vampire. It, too, is known in various forms all over the world, but the best-known version comes from the Slavic countries. There, a vampire was said to be an evil spirit, the ghost of a criminal, heretic or suicide, who took possession of a corpse and rose from the grave at night to suck the blood of sleeping people, who in turn would become vampires after their death. A vampire, according to these legends, could only be killed by cremation or having a stake driven through its heart.
The reason the Slavic vampire is best-known is that English author Bram Stoker wrote a book about one, Dracula, a character drawn from the infamous medieval Transylvanian prince Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler (which tells you probably more than you wanted to know about him right there).
Stoker’s book begat films, which begat more films, which begat books, which begat more films and TV series, until today vampires are ubiquitous.
The psychological explanations for vampire legends are identical to those for werewolf legends, and just as there are people who think they are werewolves, there are those who think they are vampires. The Vampire Research Centre (honest!) conducts a regular census of vampires, sending out questionnaires asking such questions as “How often do you drink blood?” “Do you sleep in a coffin?”, etc. Stephen Kaplan, director of the Centre, doesn’t believe in vampires in the supernatural sense, but he says there are at least 50 “true vampires” in the U.S.: people who are physically addicted to drinking blood and believe it prolongs their lives.
Various theories have also been put forward to explain the physiological attributes of vampires–pointy teeth, inability to face the sun, etc. In 1985 a Canadian biochemist, David Dolphin, proposed that vampire legends might have started with a rare hereditary blood disease called porphyria. Sufferers of porphyria have a deficiency of heme, one of the pigments in oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Dolphin suggested victims might have developed a craving to drink blood to alleviate their symptoms. Although the disease is treatable today, early victims were extremely sensitive to sunlight, and therefore went out only at night. The sun could horribly disfigure them, and cause their lips and gums to tighten until their teeth looked like fangs.
Another physical condition that could produce a vampire-like appearance is congenital syphilis. This can result in children born with all the front teeth shaped like incisors. The eyes are often pale and encircled with a dark ring, resulting in lightblindness–the sufferer can only seen in the dark. The palate is deformed, so that only liquids may be ingested, and the nose bridge collapses. All of these are attributes of traditional vampires (although the collapsed nose bridge has disappeared from the modern version. Tom Cruise wouldn’t go for it.)
So why do these old legends still hold power today? Why do we let them scare us? Fear isn’t something we normally seek out, yet at the box office and in books, it’s big business.
The difference is that when we’re frightened by stories of vampires, werewolves, and their ilk, it’s a manageable fear. We’re never in any real danger, and consciously, we know it, even as our subconscious is freaking out. All we have to do is close the book, leave the movie, walk out the door of the house, and the fear is gone…unlike other things we fear, like losing our jobs, over which we may have no control at all.
Personally, I wouldn’t be afraid even if faced with a real werewolf, because in my research for this column, I came across a powerful incantation that will stop even the most bloodthirsty creature of the night dead (you’ll pardon the expression) in its tracks. Just say, in a loud voice, “Begone, thou symbol of an uncontrollable eruption into the individual and collective unconscious of the disintegration of the self!”
Brr. Now THAT’s scary.