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Disease like COVID made mankind's mash of monsters

It’s times like these that make monsters for the ages.

As the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, from how to slow its spread and how to stop it to those who question whether it’s real, it may be difficult to imagine how humans a thousand years ago would relate to a deadly virus neither seen nor imagined.

Actually, it’s not hard. Their method is on TV, movie screens and a plethora of paperback books and pulp novels. It’s the vampire.

“We really don’t know how old the vampire is, but the earliest mention comes from an old Russian text from about 1047 AD,” said Stanley Stepanic, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Virginia and an authority on vampires. “That’s the first time ‘vampire’ appears in writing, but we would estimate that it was around 200 to 300 years or more before that.”

Stepanic not only knows about vampires, but for a dozen years he’s taught a popular course at UVa, called “Dracula.”

The original vampire was not shiny, sparkly or sensual and lacked the knack for precision, high-speed driving as seen in the movies. They were not sexy. They were not classy. They were not well-dressed.

Neither were vampires principled or aristocratic. They were not cultured or controlled by an undead hierarchy hidden on the outskirts of society like so many novella vampires. Nay, they were nasty, blighted bringers of disease and death created by a culture bereft of knowledge yet fraught with myriad maladies.

And, like the evil protagonist in the Harry Potter stories, you didn’t just call He Who Must Not Be Named by name.

“The oldest word we have for a vampire is upir and it was a euphemism. It meant ‘the thing present at the sacrifice.’ The upir was an entity and you didn’t want to refer to it directly,” Stepanic said. “You didn’t want to call it by name because you might summon it. Language has power.”

The upir was developed through the need of people with no knowledge of microbiology to explain the sudden onset of disease and onslaught of epidemics as well as deaths, injuries and bad luck.

“In the original Slavic beliefs, the vampire was a symbol for disease,” Stepanic said. “The pandemic is caused by a virus and we know that, but we’re talking about a time when viruses were unknown. We know about microorganisms and how to deal with them, but they had no idea. Imagine the primal fear of something you had absolutely no understanding of or control over: That’s where the vampire came from.”

Exactly what created the upir concept is anyone’s guess. The night creature developed in a time when few people could read or write and the wanton and random incidents of life and nature were easier explained by evil spirits and divine retribution.

Death in childbirth and infancy were often attributed to the reanimated corpse that came back for vengeance for any number of perceived slights and, sometimes, just at random. Livestock losses, accidents and disasters were part of its realm.

“If you look back at that time, and we’re talking 800 AD or before, all they had were herbs for medicine and the world was a pretty terrifying place,” Stepanic said. “You need to have some way to take control.”

Over the decades, scholars have suggested everything from porphyria to pellagra to rabies may have created the monster. It’s rabies that many, including Stepanic, think is the most likely culprit.

For instance, the disease is easily transmitted by wildlife from raccoons to fox, bats to dogs and it is transmitted by biting.

Rabies makes animals do odd and often aggressive things. Consider the frightening 2013 attack by a rabid bear that was thwarted by an Albemarle County farm worker’s point-blank shotgun blast from the roof of a Gator utility vehicle.

The 120-pound female bear attacked the Gator farm vehicle, biting one of the tires before pursuing the farmworkers. One climbed into the bed of the Gator and then onto its roof, toting with him a shotgun.

The other man left the cab but set the park brake when the vehicle started to roll downhill. The bear climbed into the vehicle’s cab and was getting into the bed when the man atop the Gator shot the bear in the head.

It was the first-ever recorded case of a rabid bear in Virginia and only the second case on the East Coast.

According to several scholarly treatises on vampires, which proliferate on the internet, symptoms of a vampire attack include nightmares, apparitions, and death by wasting away.

The first symptoms of rabies, according to the Mayo Clinic, include flu-like symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting and cramps. Difficult breathing follows along with excess saliva production, difficulty swallowing, anxiety and fear of drinking water.

Insomnia, restlessness, fear and avoidance of sunlight, hallucinations and nightmares, intolerance of odors, mental confusion, hyperactivity, aggression or paralysis precede a coma and then death.

Like rabies victims, vampires bite, avoid sunlight and are repelled by strong odors such as garlic.

To prevent the vampires from running amok in the village, research shows villagers would perform a variety of rituals mostly involving exhuming bodies and driving stakes through the hearts, chopping off the dead’s heads and burning their bodies.

In the 1700s, the vampire myth went worldwide in what is known as Serbia’s Great Vampire Epidemic that created a rash of vampire-related deaths as well as graveside efforts to stop the night stalkers.

“During the Vampire Epidemic there is evidence there were entire villages that were abandoned because people didn’t know what was going on,” Stepanic said.

The epidemic happened to coincide with another epidemic, one of rabies spread by rabid wolves and people.

“There is a strong link between wolves and vampires and the werewolf is actually just an offshoot of the vampire myth,” Stepanic said. “Vampires did not turn into bats originally, but they could turn into wolves.”

Western doctors knew of rabies and successfully debunked the vampire theory as it made its way into Germany and the rest of Europe via soldiers and travelers who had seen the vampire hysteria.

Even New England had a vampire epidemic in the 1800s as tuberculosis, then known as consumption, made its way through whole families. From 1812 to nearly the end of the century there were reports of vampires in small towns.

In 1892, an Exeter, Rhode Island the family of George Brown was decimated by the disease. In 1884, his wife died of tuberculosis. In 1886, his oldest daughter died from the ailment. His son Edward became ill and was sent to Colorado for “healthier air.” In January 1892, daughter Mercy Brown died of the disease and was buried in an above ground, stone crypt.

A month later, Edward returned critically ill and superstitious townsfolk, many of whom were of Slavic descent, pressured Brown to exhume his family members for fear that “by some unexplained and unreasonable way, in some part of the dead relatives body, live flesh and blood might be found, which is supposed to feed on the living are in feeble health,” a newspaper report of the time states.

In March, Brown agreed. All but Mercy’s remains were skeletal, the story states. Mercy’s body was well preserved, having only been two months in the stone crypt during the cold of January and February.

An autopsy found blood still in Mercy’s heart and liver, which convinced townsfolk that she was a vampire, despite a doctor’s insistence that it was normal.

The townsfolk burned her heart and liver and mixed the ashes with water. They used that to make potion given to the Brown’s stricken son to stop Mercy from preying on him and cure his illness.

He died two months later.

“With our pandemic we’re lucky because we’ve got the vaccine and we’re confident that life will be back to somewhat normal maybe this fall,” Stepanic said. “But what if we didn’t know what caused it? What if we didn’t know about bacteria and viruses and what causes disease? What if this was something we had no control over at all? I think we’d see people losing it and trying to find some way to explain what’s happening. We might create some monster or another, something like vampires, to explain it for us.”


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