Friday, April 1, 2011

Head Like a Hole

An obscure method of destryoing vampires caught my attention in Andrew's review of The night of the walking dead (1977).

Andrew has a great passion for the lore featured in vampire flicks, which always receives coverage in his reviews. I love vampire lore, meself, especially when it's particularly inventive or suggests the filmmakers might've done some actual research for their movie. So, the following paragraph from his review couldn't help but catch my attention:
The other lore we get is the fact that a stake through the heart won’t work permanently. Clearly we saw that and, as Catherine's father is the one who communicates the effective method, we can only guess that he didn’t relay that to the villagers as it was his daughter they were staking. Rather an iron nail should be hammered through the skull – this not only makes for a nicely unusual scene but forms (unintentionally) a bridge between East and West as the Indonesian Kuntilanak is sometimes said to lose its powers through just such an intervention.
An interesting parallel, but I'm somewhat skeptical that the 'bridge between East and West' was a deliberate move. After all, what Andrew may or may not know, is that there's actually a European precedent for this method of destruction. Let's turn to Augustine [sic] Calmet's The phantom world; or, the philosophy of spirits, vol. 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1850)¹. Calmet relates an account from someone byway of the 'Count de Cabreras, captain of the regiment of Alandetti infantry' who dealt with a vampire infestation 'on the frontiers of Hungary' (p. 33). Three alleged vampires were exhumed, each dealt with in a different way. It's the second sucker we're concerned with here:
Upon this deposition the commissary had this man taken out of his grave, and finding that, like the first, his blood was in a fluid state, like that of a living person, he ordered them to run a large nail into his temple, and then to lay him again in the grave (p. 34).
For the record, the first vampire was beheaded, the third was cremated. Calmet gives no explanation as to why these various methods were employed against these unfortunate undead. The nail-in-the-head routine is later invoked in his coverage of Greek practices against the excommunicated dead:
They know of no means more certain to deliver themselves from being infested by these dangerous apparitions, than to burn and hack to pieces these bodies, which served as instruments of malice, or to tear out their hearts, or to let them putrefy before they are buried, or to cut off their heads, or to pierce their temples with a large nail (p. 109).
For a literary parallel, we turn to an anonymous German story called 'The mysterious stranger', which was first published in English in Odds and ends in 1860:
"You see there that open vault!" replied the knight Woislaw, pointing to the door and flight of steps: "You must descend. You must go alone; I may not accompany you. When you have reached the vault you will find, close to the entrance, a coffin, on which is placed a small packet. Open this packet, and you will find three long iron nails and a hammer. Then pause for a moment; but when I begin to repeat the Credo in a loud voice, knock with all your might, first one nail, then a second, and then a third, into the lid of the coffin, right up to their heads."

Franziska stood thunderstruck; her whole body trembled, and she could not utter a word. Woislaw perceived it.

"Take courage, dear lady!" said he. "Think that you are in the hands of Heaven, and that without the will of your Creator, not a hair can fall from your head. Besides, I repeat, there is no danger."

"Well, then, I will do it," cried Franziska, in some measure regaining courage.

"Whatever you may hear, whatever takes place inside the coffin," continued Woislaw, "must have no effect upon you. Drive the nails well in, without flinching: your work must be finished before my prayer comes to an end."
So, to sum up, I find it much more likely that the filmmakers drew upon extant European use sof nails against the undead. However, I couldn't end this without giving some coverage to the kuntilanak Andrew mentions. Let's turn to our good friend, Wikipedia:
Some believe that having a sharp object like a nail helps them fend off potential attacks by Pontianaks, the nail being used to plunge a hole at the back of the Pontianak's neck. It is believed that this will turn the Pontianak into a beautiful woman, until the nail is pulled off again. The Indonesian twist on this is to plunge the nail into the apex of the head of the kuntilanak.

¹ Rev. Henry Christmas' English translation of Augustin Calmet's Traité sur les apparitions des Esprits, et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie &c. (1751).

1 comment:

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi AV,

I have put a response (or explanation/agreement) over at my blog.

However, must say that I am glad to have inspired an article again :)

Related Posts with Thumbnails