The Jasna Góra Catholic monastery near the town of Czȩstochowa in Poland is over six centuries old, having been founded by Pauline monks in 1382. It is the home of the famous Black Madonna, an icon credited with several alleged miracles. It is also the site of a conference of exorcists held every two years.
Exorcism is the driving out of so-called evil spirits by priests of the church. That there is no evidence whatsoever that these evil spirits exist is neither here nor there, they provide a ready excuse for a junket to Jasna Góra where, no doubt, the priests will partake lavishly of the excellent wines and delectable dishes of the region.
But they have to do something that looks like actual work, so they are going to discuss vampires (I promise I’m not making this up) and mental illness. Mental illness is easy; they have plenty of examples of delusional psychosis amongst their own number to provide enough conversational fodder to last weeks, but what is there to say about vampires?
These entities were alleged to be immortal, peculiarly susceptible to sunburn, not reflected by mirrors, have an insatiable appetite for blood, and vulnerable to having wooden stakes driven through their hearts. (Well, I’m pretty vulnerable to that, too, and I’m not a vampire; surely it would be more impressive if they could go about nonchalantly with a wooden stake visible fore and aft with the heart in between?) No one apart from the ditzy delegates to the exorcism conference really believes that vampires exist, do they? And, assuming that they don’t, what gave rise to the vampire mythology?
There are several theories. One is that vampires were people suffering from rabies, which would explain the photophobia and the sensitivity to garlic that is supposed to be a feature of vampirism; another holds that vampires were victims of tuberculosis or pneumonic plague which causes blood to appear at the lips and gives the sufferers a somewhat creepy appearance, although these unfortunates would with alarming rapidity prove not to be immortal; yet another dresses up the poor vampire in the grave-clothes of psycho-babble and claims that because vampires are immortal they are a subconscious manifestation of the fear of death.
I don’t buy any of these. My theory is that vampires, tokoloshes, incubi, succubi and aliens of the variety that kidnap people are all examples of the well-known phenomenon of hypnagogic hallucination. The form the hallucination takes is dictated by the cultural background of the hallucinator– a Transylvanian would not see a tokoloshe because he (or more likely she) would never have heard of a tokoloshe; and a 21st century city dweller would not see a vampire because the fashionable hallucination is a grey alien who will bear you up to the mother ship and there perform sexual experiments, not some elderly gentleman in a cape who will bite your neck and drink your blood. All of these entities interact with people while they are in bed asleep, or in a dozing state. Have you ever noticed that things in dreams that seem to make perfect sense to the sleeping brain turn out to be perfectly impossible when examined in the light of day? That is what I think happens when people see these weird manifestations; cultural inputs into the sleeping or half asleep brain cause people to see strange things. Most people, once they have awoken, can discern the difference between reality and hallucination, although a minority apparently cannot.
When the priests take time off from enjoying the waters in Poland they may conceive theories of their own, no doubt including supernatural entities from their mythological hell. But we sensible folk don’t have to believe them.
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License