Category: Edgar Allen Poe

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

#32 Vampires, Shroud-Eaters, and the White Plague

This episode explores the connection between vampires and disease, beginning in 19th-century New England with a strange graveyard ritual involving the exhumation of the bodies of Mercy Brown and family members in 1892. The gruesomely ritualistic destruction of Mercy’s body parts was spurred by a belief that those who succumbed to tuberculosis might live on in the grave and infest loved ones with the disease.

Mercy Brown's Grave
Mercy Brown’s Grave

Mercy’s case is the last and best known of cases like this beginning in the late 1700s and occurring throughout the area, particularly in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont.  Accounts of several more cases involving cursed vines growing from corpses and a shockingly macabre and bloody ritual occurring on an idyllic village green in the town of Woodstock, Vermont, are read by Mrs. Karswell. (We even hear a clip of a little tourism spot for Woodstock, though surely not in the context it was imagined when produced.)

The association of vampiric entities with times of plagues and epidemics came to New England from Europe, and might be compared to the German belief in the Nachzehrer, an undead creature known to appear in times of pestilence to spread disease. A defining attribute of the Nachzehrer is its tendency to feed upon its shroud and even its own body, a repast providing the creature the nourishment necessary to then rise and continue feasting on the living.  Another interesting term for the Nachzehrer deriving from the noises that it produced in its grave would be schmatzende Toten or “smacking dead.”  We hear a number of accounts of such creatures from German/Latin texts dating to the 1400s, including the definitive work on the topic, the 1679 volume by theologian Philippus Rohr, called in Latin, “The Masticating Dead.”

Miraculis Mortuorum
De Miraculis Mortuorum

Moving even further back to the Middle Ages, we examine some stories of plague-spreading vampires from England, including a 12th-century account from William of Newburgh, which includes the grisly destruction of a corpse swollen with blood, and an account from 1135 by Geoffrey of Burton, featuring an evil spirit in the form of a crow arising from the monster’s burning heart.  Both stories associate the vampire particularly with the spread of disease.

We also have a quick look at archeological evidence for the type of vampire rituals discussed — disordered graves identified  as “deviant burials,” or “therapeutic burials” in which bodies believed to be undead may be mutilated, staked into the grave, or — in cases like those we are focusing on — have rocks or other objects stuffed into their mouths to stop the creature from feeding on its shroud, or worse, the blood or vitality of those above the earth.

Also discussed is the use of plague imagery in German versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu, both Director F.W. Murnau 1922 version and Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake.

Whether Bram Stoker may have been influenced by reports of the New England tuberculosis vampires of the 1800s is addressed, and we have a deeper look at how romantic 19th-century ideas about tuberculosis influenced not only his portrayal of vampirism, but the work of other literary artists, painters, and composers. Among the artists mentioned are Lord Byron, Alexander Dumas, Claude Monet, John Keats, and Edgar Allan Poe. We also hear some clips of musical deaths by tuberculosis from the operas La Traviata and La Boheme.

Monet's "Camille Monet on her deathbed"
Monet’s “Camille Monet on her deathbed”

We conclude the show, as we began, with another musical composition played at graveside, and a story of heart removed and preserved in cognac, that of Frédéric Chopin, another victim of “the white plague.”

 

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers

This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.