A brick to the face

>> Monday, March 16, 2009

Photo by Matteo Borrini / APHere's something you don't see every day. This is the skull of a woman with a brick wedged into her mouth. Why? So she would starve back to death.

Or at least that's the theory of a team of archaeologists who have concluded that this is a vampire's skull. Or rather that somebody who dug up the grave in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance thought she was a vampire, and took the logical step of filling the corpse's mouth with something to keep her from feeding on the living.

During epidemics, mass graves were often reopened to bury fresh corpses and diggers would chance upon older bodies that were bloated, with blood seeping out of their mouth and with an inexplicable hole in the shroud used to cover their face.

"These characteristics are all tied to the decomposition of bodies," [archaeologist Matteo] Borrini said. "But they saw a fat, dead person, full of blood and with a hole in the shroud, so they would say: 'This guy is alive, he's drinking blood and eating his shroud.'"


To kill the undead creatures, the stake-in-the-heart method popularized by later literature was not enough: A stone or brick had to be forced into the vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death, Borrini said.

-Ariel David
"Dig unearths female 'vampire' in Venice"
MSNBC (AP), March 13, 2009.

There are so many vampire legends, one shouldn't be surprised to hear a new one. There are, if I recall correctly, Greek vampires who were born on Christmas Day (an obvious slight against The Lord, and a sign that one is on the road to Satan's Kingdom from day one), Wikipedia mentions traditions in which a corpse that is jumped over by an animal becomes a vampire, there are vampires who can't cross running water and those who can, vampires who are just plain folks by daylight, vampires with counting fetishes, etc., etc., etc.

But this one was new to me. And it seems obvious, really, now that I think about it. Of course you have to fill the vampire's mouth with something, lest it continue to consume. It's already dead, so the stake through the heart accomplishes little. Cutting off the head might be insufficient: some vampires are essentially all head. It does seem a little puzzling that the technique is so crude as a brick in the face--one might thing filling the mouth with sand would be more efficacious, though it also seems likely that that's a legend somewhere, too. (One recalls, here, that zombies are not to be given salt, hence the alleged custom among some bokor of sewing a zombie's mouth shut: however salt was expensive--a mere taste is all you need to send a zombie back to the grave--and filling the vampire's mouth with salt would be overkill, no?)

It seems that a "shroud-eating" vampire in Italy was considered immobile, perhaps consuming its feast of blood through some magic not requiring it to leave the grave. In this case, a brick would be expedient, one thinks: after all, part of the problem one sees with the brick is the matter of why a vampire wouldn't just reach up upon awakening in the evening and pry it out of her jaws. Then again, this brick between the jaws would almost certainly break things; should the vampire lack the regenerative powers we ascribe to the generic version of the species these days, her blood-drinking nights may be behind her if her mouth hangs open broken-jawed and slack.

This is a disturbing image, I realize, but the serious horror student thinks of these things, and the aspiring writer wonders how they might be used. Already I find my mind going back to my abandoned vampire novel and wondering how I might use this if I come back to it: perhaps the fearful vampire killer lugs around a dufflebag full of masonry, just in case? Perhaps a grotesque scene in which somebody revives with a brick in his mouth and must endure something awful as a consequence?

It's also interesting, you know, to think about the people who did this. This bit of insanity wasn't mere "ignorant superstition" as far as they went, but a necessary defense mechanism in compliance with the natural laws of the world as they were understood at the time: "Ah, yes, I see: we have a vampire, we should put a brick in her mouth so she starves." It may not have been quite as lackadaisical as that--no doubt discovering a vampire in your midst was alarming, after all. But once the initial shock wore off, the next steps were as obvious and normal as taking your child to the doctor once you've recovered from the shock of seeing what the thermometer says when you pull it out of his or her mouth. Or calling the police, locksmith and credit card companies after coming home to a broken window and wide open door. Indeed, thinking on that last bit: do you think these folks were indignant when they discovered the bloated corpse in the grave? "What the--a vampire in my town, how dare they! I... I feel violated."

So I give you this, today, for your consideration: a long-dead Italian woman, probably buried sometime around the middle of the 16th century (up to 1576) and unburied sometime around 1576, when it was probably discovered that she was fat and had eaten away part of her burial shroud so her mouth would be free to harass and slay the living. Whereupon she was, perhaps, staked, and then had a brick shoved in her mouth. File it away, forget about it, write about it: it belongs to you now, and isn't just mine anymore.


neurondoc Monday, March 16, 2009 at 2:55:00 PM EDT  

I take all of this kind of stuff with a large grain of salt. Half the time you see something called a "ritual object" or "religious object" in a museum, you should consider that it really means "we don't know what the hell this thing is, so let's call it a ritual object". David Macaulay captured it well in Motel of the Mysteries. We had to read and critique it for one of my archaeology classes in undergrad. God, that was way longer ago than I want to admit...

Eric Monday, March 16, 2009 at 6:32:00 PM EDT  

You're breaking my heart! :-)

You're right, of course. There may be some other explanation. Let's agree this one ought to be true....

And I have to wonder, should that emoticon have been :-K

...or is there another letter/symbol that would make for a good vampire emoticon?

Oh, and I believe I owe somebody whose BiL wrote what has become the definitive example of the "demon doll" horror subgenre a deep and sincere "thank you" for making a crappy day quite a bit better when I opened the mailbox this evening....

Random Michelle K Monday, March 16, 2009 at 7:07:00 PM EDT  

I read a similar article somewhere else a couple weeks ago--can't remember where though.

It's also in New Scientists, if that's worth anything. (one day I'll renew my subscription to New Scientists--after we can start reading magazines at the dinner table again.)

neurondoc Monday, March 16, 2009 at 9:56:00 PM EDT  

I'm not saying that the theory is incorrect. I am just saying that archaeologists make shit up, when they don't have a clue. I am interested in watching this debate to see how it pans out. Just for the sheer amusement value of the posturing that will surely go on...

And I have slept in the same room as said "demon doll". O.O

Eric Monday, March 16, 2009 at 11:32:00 PM EDT  

Ooo--I look forward to reading that article when I'm a little more awake and alive, ND. "The Essenes never existed"? That looks like fun!

(And writing a line like that gives me a twinge over taking my History degree to law school instead of a PhD. Dagnabit. Grass is always greener, other side, etc.)

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