Fear And Superstition Leading People To Do The Unimaginable...
The New England Vampire Panic is often throughout history that superstitious and frightened people attributed illness to supernatural or demonic beings. It happened before that, and it’s happened since then. What makes it interesting is how gruesome the panic would get.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people fought off their own pandemic: what was popularly known as “consumption” and would later be identified as “tuberculosis” by Johann Schonlein in 1834. The bacteria that caused tuberculosis wouldn’t be discovered until the 1880s.
Tuberculosis came about during a time where there was a moral panic about science. While one can certainly make the case that this exists today, it was a much different problem.
Medical science as we know it today was in its infancy. Remember, even germ theory wouldn’t be the scientific consensus until the 1890s. Science as a secular field was a concept that had existed since the Enlightenment. Still, religious involvement in what and how things were researched had ceased very recently, increasing the already significant mistrust people had for science.
We saw a clash of two very different worlds during this time: the scientific world that was changing very rapidly and the world of those who saw science as inherently dangerous. And, in retrospect, there really are two understandable sides here.
Scientists who read about the New England Vampire Panic correctly believed it to be a problem of ignorance. A superstition took hold over several towns, resulting in a panic that led people to exhume and destroy corpses in ways that actually made the rest of the town sicker.
Germ theory may yet to have been discovered, but scientists basically understood that tuberculosis was contagious; it just wasn’t clear what made it so. They may not have known how long tuberculosis could survive in a deceased body, which varies. Still, they certainly understood that eating the heart of someone who recently died of the disease (something that did happen) wasn’t exactly going to help matters.
Meanwhile, because of how quickly things were changing in the 19th century, medical science at the time really was dangerous, just not for the reasons people thought. It wasn’t dangerous because scientists were trying to “play God,” or were crazed with power, or anything like that.
However, it was dangerous because several essential scientific discoveries hadn’t yet been made, and a lot of scientific theories at the time were tragically false. Add that to the fact that modern scientific ethics have changed a lot since the 19th century. Many things scientists did at the time that they would never be allowed to do today, and it becomes unsurprising that there was such a clash.
Naturally, this was a breeding ground for superstition.
The word “vampire” came into use in the English language in the early seventeen-hundreds. However, a form of the word existed in many other languages long before then. Since then, however, the term “vampire” has been used to describe some mythological creatures in folklore for centuries.
The concept of a demonic and\or dead spirit that comes back to destroy a person’s health, either physical or mental, exists in many cultures throughout the world. They lived in a pre-germ theory time, where there would be sudden outbreaks of deadly illnesses that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The New England Vampire Panic was no different. Attributing tuberculosis to vampires gave people an answer to two essential questions: “what caused this?” and “how do we fight it?”
It’s pretty common knowledge that the vampire image we see today is heavily influenced by Dracula. However, I would actually argue that the New England Vampire Panic decades before played its own role in the creation of the monster we’ve come to know.
During this time, vampires were believed to be deteriorating your health instead of specifically drinking your blood, yes. However, they were also believed to be deceased people you knew who only came out at night (usually when you were sleeping). “Fighting vampires” involved exhuming corpses and desecrating them in a number of brutal and unpleasant ways. While there weren’t many wooden stakes, there were some accounts of burning the bodies, which does happen in many vampire stories.
In the 2012 article “The Great New England Vampire Panic,” Abigail Tucker points out the inherent tragedy in this. “The enduring sadness of the vampire stories lies in the fact that the accusers were usually direct kin of the deceased: parents, spouses, and their children. ‘Think about what it would have taken to actually exhume the body of a relative,’ [Michael] Bell says.”
The question “if someone you loved deeply became an x, would you feel comfortable having to fight them?” That issue comes up in a lot of stories about vampires, zombies, and ghosts. It’s certainly an upsetting thought, isn’t it? I have a hard enough time thinking about what happens to squirrels that get rabies, let alone what would happen if a family member became a damn vampire. I believe this is part of why they make for such good horror monsters.
But the sad thing here is, of course, that the New England Vampire Panic happened in real life. Vampires may not be real, but these people thought they were. That led to bodies being exhumed, destroyed, and burned even though people knew they died a tragic death. That had to be unbelievably traumatic.
As upsetting as the New England Vampire Panic is to read about, after spending the better part of two years with a different pandemic being a fundamental part of my daily life, I can’t help but empathize with them. In the absence of an answer, people try to fill in the blanks themselves. We’ve seen people do that over the last few years, and we have the advantage of a lot more scientific advances than they did. In the 19th century, it only makes sense that superstition entered into it.