The Berbalangs: A Legend of Filipino Ghouls

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Buried in the pages of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1896 is a dry-sounding article called “Cagayan Sulu, its Customs, Legends, and Superstitions,” by one Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly. It starts out as a typical amateur (for I assume Mr. Skertchly was an amateur) anthropologist’s paper of the time would, with a physical description of Cagayan Sulu — now known as Mapun — an island in the southern Philippines, about eighty miles from Borneo, closer to Malaysia than to most of the rest of the Philippines. The paper meanders on, through descriptions of the flora and of the fauna, of the people, their dress, their customs, their industry. Mr. Skertchly gives us a couple of short folktales, including a charming one about a crocodile spirit covered in diamonds. I imagine a typical Asiatic Society member of the time perusing the paper after dinner, the journal in one hand, a brandy or perhaps a pipe in the other, perfectly relaxed. Nothing new here.

But then Mr. Skertchly veers off into a first-person narrative that would be right at home in a collection of classic English ghost stories: the tale of the Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu.

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The Tlahuelpuchi Epidemic

In this installment of my Mexican Monstresses series, folklore meets real life when the bloodsucking tlahuelpuchi strikes a small rural community.

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December 8, 1960: an unseasonably cold night in San Pedro Xolotla, a rural, primarily Nahuatl-speaking community beneath La Malintzi volcano in the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. Filemón and Francisca, a couple in their early thirties, were working late carding wool and making yarn; like most households in the community, they supported themselves with their weaving. They lived in one room of Filemón’s parents’ extended household with their four children: two boys and a girl between 5 and 14 years old, and a seven month old daughter, Cristina. Around midnight, Filemón’s older brother returned from Mexico City, where he had gone to deliver an order of sarapes. The three of them had coffee and chatted, then all retired for the night.

Filemón, exhausted, fell asleep immediately, but Francisca gave baby Cristina one last breastfeeding. Then she put Christina back on her petate (sleeping mat) before going to bed herself.

Two or three hours later, Francisca awoke and saw an intense light moving around outside the window. She tried to get up to investigate, but her body felt heavy and unresponsive, and she soon fell back asleep. A little later she half-awoke again. A strange mist filled the room, and out of it materialized a chicken-like creature, blue and red. Again she tried to get up, but the mist overcame her. That’s all she remembered.

At six AM Filemón awoke and noticed that the door to the room was partially open. Then he saw baby Cristina lying not in her petate, but on the floor some yards away. He got up to investigate. Francisca was still fast asleep.

It took several minutes for Filemón to wake Francisca from her deep slumber with the terrible news: Cristina was dead. The skin around her chest and neck was mottled and purplish, her chest covered in scratches. She had been sucked to death by that shapeshifting vampire known as the tlahuelpuchi.

And on that morning of December 9, six other mothers were shaken out of trance-like sleeps to a similar discovery: a still, tiny body, sometimes an open door. Seven dead babies. It was a tlahuelpuchi epidemic.

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The Family of a Vourdalak

I had hoped to get this one out before Christmas, but I didn’t quite make it. It still makes a great winter tale, though…

Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875), Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin: poet, novelist, playwright, and diplomat. He is best known for his historical dramas, in particular the trilogy The Death of Ivan the Terrible (1866), Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (1868), and Tsar Boris (1870).

He wrote several vampire-related novellas, most notably The Family of a Vourdalak (originally in French) and The Vampire (or Oupyr — originally in Russian) while in the diplomatic service in the late 1830s and early 1840s; he left diplomatic service in the 1860s to pursue his literary career full time. He seems to have been an opinionated, iconoclastic man, politically controversial, impatient with both the Left and the Right. He died in 1875 from an overdose of morphine.

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La Famille du Vourdalak was written about 1839 on a trip to France, while Tolstoy was with the Russian Embassy in Frankfurt. It is the story of a womanizing French diplomat, the Marquis d’Urfé, who encounters a Serbian family (with a beautiful daughter, naturally), whose patriarch disappears into the mountains to hunt down a bandit who has been terrorizing the countryside. Before leaving, he warns his family not to let him back into the fold if he is gone more than ten days, because by that time he may have been turned into a vourdalak (vampire). Luckily, he returns home just in the nick of time — or did he?

The story is told in flashback, during an evening round of ghost stories (a traditional winter tale format, which is one of the reasons I picked this story).

A vourdalak, by the way, is a made-up beastie. Tolstoy probably based the name on the Serbian term for the werewolf, vlkoslak, though Sabine Baring-Gould claimed that the same term also refers to vampires:

The Serbs connect the vampire and the were-wolf together, and call them by one name vlkoslak. These rage chiefly in the depths of winter: they hold their annual gatherings, and at them divest themselves of their wolf-skins, which they hang on the trees around them. If any one succeeds in obtaining the skin and burning it, the vlkoslak is thenceforth disenchanted. [The Book of Were-Wolves, 1865]

Tolstoy’s description of the vourdalak is a bit different:

I should explain to you, mesdames, that vourdalaks, as the Slavic peoples call vampires, are believed in those countries to be dead bodies that come out of their graves to suck the blood of the living. Their habits are similar to those of all vampires, from any country, but they have one characteristic that makes them even more dreadful. The vourdalaks, mesdames, prefer to suck the blood of their closest relatives and dearest friends who, once dead, become vampires in turn. They claim that in Bosnia and Hungary entire villages have become vourdalaks.

You can see where this might be a problem.

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Vampires in Rhode Island: The Shunned House

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article on the nineteenth century vampire scares of New England. These scares tended to happen in remote, rural, agricultural regions in or near southern Rhode Island, beginning in the late 1700s and going on as recently as 1892. Much as in Eastern European vampire scares, a recently deceased person would be blamed for the further illnesses of people in the region, and the body would be exhumed to check for evidence of vampirism.

Once a vampire was “discovered,” the New Englander’s way of dealing with it was a bit different from the usual holy water and staking that we are used to from the movies. Instead, the heart would be removed from the exhumed body and burned. Some communities believed that inhaling the smoke from the burning heart was a cure for the still-living victims of the vampire’s life-sucking. Others believed that feeding the ashes from the burning heart to the vampire’s victims would cure them. Often, the “vampire” would also be beheaded.

The real vampire? Tuberculosis. TB is a wasting, draining, disease, characterized by fever and a hacking cough; the victims visibly become paler and more emaciated as the disease progresses. It’s also very contagious. Early outbreaks of TB hit New England in the 1730s and became the leading cause of death in New England by the 1800s. Not surprisingly, vampire scares coincided with TB outbreaks.

The last, and one of the most famous, New England vampire cases was that of Mercy Lena Brown, of Exeter, Rhode Island. Mercy’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1883, followed soon after by the Browns’ oldest daughter. Mercy’s brother Edwin got sick in 1890, and left for Colorado Springs, hoping that the change in climate would improve his health. Lena didn’t get sick until 1891, and died in January of 1892, at the age of nineteen. By that time, her brother had returned to Exeter, extremely ill.

The people of Exeter believed that one of the Brown women must be a vampire who was feeding on the rest of the family (and from them, probably, on to the rest of the community). They forced Lena’s father, George Brown, to have the womens’ bodies exhumed. The evidence seems to be that George didn’t believe in the vampire theory (the bacterium that caused TB had already been discovered, in 1882), but he gave in to his neighbors. The bodies were exhumed. The bodies of Lena’s mother and sister were in advanced states of decomposition — they had been dead for almost a decade — but Lena’s body, which had only been buried for two months, still showed evidence of fresh blood in the heart. She must be the vampire!

The neighbors took out Lena’s heart and liver and burned them. They fed the ashes to Lena’s brother Edwin. It didn’t work; he died two months later.

A reporter from the Providence Journal was present at the exhumation. His story caused an outrage in the more urban parts of New England. It was picked up by an anthropologist named George Stetson, who eventually published his research in the American Anthropologist, and the story spread all the way to Europe.

NewImageIllustration from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House”
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Some people believe that Mercy Lena was the inspiration for the character of Lucy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which was published in 1897, the year after Stetson’s article). She is definitely referenced in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shunned House,” which he wrote in 1924. It was published posthumously in 1937, in the magazine Weird Tales.

Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was then, as now, a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace…

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O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

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Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).
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