DEATH TRAP

Who doesn’t want people to be safe in their homes? Writers!  Injury and death are bread and butter for writer. But even if you aren’t a writer, you should read what follows to help protect yourself and your family from these dangers. I’ll start with the more innocuous or less common hazards. Consider the following.

Accidents

  • Extension cords:
    • Extension cords cause about 3300 residential fires each year, injuring or killing more than 300 people. If used continuously, insulation deteriorates fast. Even if not in use, extension cords left lying around can present a hanging or choking hazard for children.
  • Mothballs:
    • They are actually little balls of pesticide. They can cause a breakdown in red blood cells in children with certain genetic diseases (such as Glucose-6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency). In addition, exposure can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and eye and nasal irritation in humans; kidney and liver damage in pets.  
    • Mothballs can be huffed for a brief high caused by the dichlorobenzene or naphthalene, either of which can lead to addiction, brain damage, and death.
    • NB, not as common in homes as they used to be.
  • Humidifiers: 
    • Water left to sit in the humidifier for long periods of time become rife with mold spores, fungus, and bacteria.
    • Ultrasonic humidifiers can be particularly dangerous, because they aerosolize and disperse as a mist everything that might be in water, including chemicals, minerals, bacteria, and mold.
  • Pressed wood: 
    • Products made from hardwood plywood, particleboard, or fiberboard are often made with formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure can cause watery eyes, burns ins eyes and/or throat, asthma attacks, and cancer in animals and perhaps in humans.
This little party crasher might be hanging around in your living room.
  • Carpeting:
    • New carpet can emit potentially dangerous chemicals  called volatile organic components. Any carpet can trap dust mites, pet dander, mold, dirt, etc., all of which are hard on respiratory systems.
  • Lead:
    • Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.
    • Lead paint was commonly used in homes built before 1978. Toys and furniture made in countries with less stringent health safety protocols may still be covered in lead paint.
    • In very old houses (1920s and earlier), original plumbing may be made of lead, causing all the water coming into the house to be contaminated.
    • Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
  • Polycarbonate plastics:
    • This is most dangerous when used to make food storage containers. The problem is the degradation of the chemical bisphenol (BPA) when it comes in contact with water. Health agencies have gone back and forth on the dangers of BPA, but studies have linked it to disruptions in the endocrine system and ultimately to cancer.
  • Flame retardants, which seem like they are good things, actually have a downside: most contain toxins that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q., and other problems.
  • Space heaters:
    • More than 25,000 home fires every year, especially those that don’t have an emergency tip-over feature and don’t have eating element guards. They are especially dangerous for children and pets.
  • Houseplants:
    • Many common varieties of houseplants, kept for air purification, beautification, or even medicinal purposes, are toxic to humans and animals in the wrong context. While most adults can be trusted not to eat the leaves, chew on the roots, or drink the water from random pots around the house, the same may not be true of children and pets.
    • Philodendron, peace lilies, oleanders, pothos, and caladium are among the most common houseplants, and all are poisonous to humans and pets.
  • Christmas trees:
    • The combination of dry winter air, hot light bulbs, and paper or wooden ornaments make for a perfect storm of conflagration. Add in tinsel, paper-wrapped boxes, and the tendency of many families to leave the tree lights on overnight, and it’s surprising that there aren’t even more house fires and deaths every year.
    • Fires caused by Christmas trees are among the most deadly house fires: approximately one out of every 34 home fires caused by a Christmas tree results in a death.
    • Decorative or scented holiday candles can be quite deadly as well. The top three days for fires caused by unsafe candles are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Asbestos removal is a very complicated process.
  • Other possibilities: 
    • Asbestos, carbon dioxide, radon, cuts, slip and fall accidents, carbon monoxide, unbalanced heavy furniture, stairs, throw rugs, icy walkways, mixing up the sugar and the rat poison…
I’m not sure if this counts as a home injury or a vehicle accident.

Leading Causes of Unintentional Home Injury

Children and the elderly are at greatest risk.

  1. Falls: more than 40% of nonfatal home injuries; more than one third of unintentional home injury deaths.
  2. Poisoning: most unintentional home poisoning deaths are of adults and are caused by heroin, appetite suppressants, pain killers, and narcotics. Other frequent poisons are amphetamines, caffeine, antidepressants, alcohol, motor vehicle exhaust gas, etc.
    • Children under 5 have the highest rates of non-fatal poisoning, often from exposure to substances not typically thoughts of as poisonous.
    • “Hidden” poisons can be found in household and cleaning products; personal care and beauty products; medicines, vitamins, plants, and lead paint.
  3. Fires/burns: the third leading cause of unintentional home injury and death. Death rate is highest among senior citizens and —again—children under five. A huge percentage of burns are from hot water. Depending on water heater settings, tap water can be hot enough to cause second-degree burns.
  4. Choking and suffocation: the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one. An average of one child a month dies due to strangulation from a window chord.
  5. Drowning/submersion: 80% are children under age 4, mostly in bathtubs and swimming pools. Because they are top-heavy, a toddler can drown in a bucket, in as little as two inches of water.
Two inches of water or six feet of bubbles!

Intentional Harm

People are more likely to be killed by people they know than by a stranger, and it will probably be in the victim’s home. 

As of 2017, 12.3% of homicide victims were killed by family members, 28.0% were killed by someone they knew other than family, and only 9.7% were killed by strangers. In 50% of cases, the relationship between the victim and the offender were unknown. Chances are, at least some of those were family or acquaintance homicides.

Approximately 39% of victims were murdered during arguments or as a result of romantic triangles. Another 24.7% of murders were committed in conjunction with another crime such as rape, robbery, burglary, etc.

More than 72% of the known weapon homicides involved firearms, primarily handguns.

  • Violence against women—Domestic violence is the #1 cause of injury to women, more than all the rapes, muggings, and car accidents in a given year.
    • One out of every four women in the U.S. will be injured by a husband/lover during her lifetime.
    • 64% of women killed each year are murdered by family or lovers.
  • Violence against children—Calls to Child Protective Services received 3-4 million reports of alleged abuse in 2011: 79% neglect, 18% physical abuse, 9% sexual abuse.
    • Babies under the age of one were assaulted most often. Of child victims in 2011, 82% were younger than four.
    • Children in violent homes have sleeping, eating, and attention problems.
    • Abused children are more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed than non-abused children.
Pictured above: not a neglected or abused child. Still, railings are a good thing.

Bottom Line For Writers: whether accidental or intentional, injury and death are fertile ground for tension, emotion, and upping the stakes. 

This definitely looks intentional.

MY POISON GARDEN

Xylaria Polymorpha (Dead Man’s Fingers) aren’t actually poisonous, but they look like perfect fertilizer for deadly flora!

This summer, I noticed a volunteer growing among my hellebores. I identified it as Carolina Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), a member of the nightshade family. It looks like a nettle because of the small spines on the stems and leaves. Fortunately, I was able to dig it out before it matured, but what I read said it blooms from April to October and that the crushed leaves smell like potatoes. It produces deceptively pretty, little, white flowers.

Horsenettle grows in pastures, along roadsides, in disturbed areas, and other types of “waste” ground. It can tolerate both wet and dry conditions—i.e., practically anywhere. Symptoms of horsenettle poisoning include nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, drowsiness, diarrhea, and weakness. Although horsenettle poisoning is seldom fatal, ingesting the fruit can cause abdominal pain, circulatory and respiratory depression, and occasionally death. Fatalities are most common among children.

Horsenettle produces fruits that look like very small tomatoes, starting out green and turning yellow. In order of toxicity: unripe berries, ripe berries, leaves, stems. Toxicity is stronger in autumn.
So, I wondered: what other plants, growing innocently in gardens, might meet the needs of poisoners.  I just happen to have on my shelf the perfect reference for this subject—Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. It is part of the Howdunit series, books providing technical information for writers of crime and mystery books. According to Stevens and Bannon, plants are the source most accessible to the average poisoner.

The authors organized plants into groups:

  • Plants that are quickly fatal, like foxglove
  • Plants that can be mistaken for edible, like castor bean
  • Plants eaten by animals whose meat is then poisonous for humans, like laurel
  • Plants that are edible in small quantities, like ackee berry
  • Plants that have certain edible parts, like rhubarb
  • Plants that are edible during certain times of the year, like mandrake
  • Plants used for medicinal purposes, such as ergot
  • Plants that flower, like rhododendron or azalea
Rhododendron from New River Gorge

Stevens and Bannon rated all of the poisons for toxicity—not just the plant-based ones—according to the amount required to kill a person. Weight and metabolism vary, and the authors provide a means of extrapolating the fatal dosage for a person of any size or circumstance. Here’s a quick and dirty list for writers, based on a vaguely average 150 pound human being:

  • 6—Supertoxic
    • A taste, less than 7 drops
  • 5—Extremely toxic
    • Between 7 drops and 1 teaspoon
  • 4—Very toxic
    • Between 1 teaspoon and 1 ounce
  • 3—Moderately toxic
    • Between 1 ounce and l pint or pound
  • 2—Slightly toxic
    • Between 1 pint and l quart
  • 1—Almost nontoxic
    • More than 1 quart or 2.2 pounds

Given that my poison garden is in Virginia, I looked for poisonous plants of Virginia, and found that Virginia Tech has compiled such a list. (FYI: if your poison garden is elsewhere, search online for an equivalent collection for your area. For example, I know there are such lists for West Virginia and Ohio, as well as guides for all states and all regions.) So here, in alphabetical order, are the plants in my poison garden. I’ve omitted plant descriptions and locations in favor of what part(s) of the pant are toxic and the symptoms. Greater detail is readily available if one of these little beauties appeals to you.

American False-hellebore (Veratrum viride), aka Indian Poke, has a toxicity of 5. All parts of the plant are poisonous and potentially fatal when ingested by humans or livestock. Don’t touch or handle any of it with bare hands, because the toxic compounds can be absorbed through the skin. Symptoms of False Hellebore poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, seizures, decreased blood pressure, slowed heart rate, heart arrhythmia, coma and, potentially, death. On the other hand,Veratrum viride can have medicinal uses as pain reliever, heart sedative, and to lower blood pressure.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is not a native plant, but it has been found in isolated parts of Virginia as well as Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. Although not typically poisonous, it’s very dangerous to humans and shouldn’t be touched at all. The sap is strongly toxic for humans, resulting in serious skin reactions after exposure to sunlight. Eventually, this skin rash changes to blisters that look like burn wounds. A red-purple scar may develop that can last years. Exposure of the eyes to plant juice may lead to blindness.

Jimson-weed (Datura stramonium), aka Jamestown weed, has a toxicity rating of 6. Although also not native to Virginia, it grows everywhere: in pastures, fields, waste areas, and in sand and gravel bars near streams. All parts are poisonous. Sometimes seeds are ingested directly, or plant parts brewed brewed into tea. Exposure often results in hospitalization. In small doses, it is hallucinogenic. Besides hallucinations, symptoms include headache, delirium, agitation, large pupils, constipation, urinary retention, elevated pulse, hypertension, and fever. Stevens and Bannon said, “Accidental poisoning is most often caused by the seeds […] Both adults and children have been fatally poisoned by tea brewed from the leaves or seeds of this plant.”

Mayapple (Podophyllium peltatum) aka Wild Mandrake, is most likely found in forests—but it’s in my poison garden, and I’ll include it! Leaves, roots, stems, seeds, and unripe fruit are toxic. Symptoms when ingested include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, followed by organ failure, coma, and potentially death days later. Ripe fruit is edible, but mistakenly eaten not-quite-ripe fruit leads to all of the above.

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a member of the carrot family… but grows 6 to 10 feet tall! It has a toxicity rating of 6. It’s an invasive non-native. All parts are extremely poisonous, the blooms emit a foul odor, and the leaves acts like nicotine. Juice from Poison Hemlock can cause severe skin irritation. Internal poisoning often occurs after a victim confuses the root with wild parsnips, the leaves with parsley, or the seeds with anise. Hemlock tastes similar to lettuce. Whistles made from the hollow stems have been reported to lead to death in children. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, coughing, wheezing, watery eyes, salivation, sweating, difficulty seeing, weakness, dizziness, trembling, seizures, paralysis, changes in pulse rate, coma, and potentially death.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), aka Pokesalad, is found pretty much everywhere: fields, fencerows, roadsides, crop fields, and forest edges. It has a toxicity rating of 4. All parts of the plant are seriously poisonous. The juice can be absorbed through the skin, causing itchy skin and/or painful rash. Symptoms of ingestion include nausea, severe vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, burning sensation in the mouth, visual impairment, weakened respiration and pulse. Dehydration caused by these symptoms can be severe enough to lead to convulsions and death. People have tried to cook the leaves with spring greens, but the result was still poisonous even with multiple changes of water.

Virginia-creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a native plant that grows virtually everywhere. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans and other mammals. Ingestion causes intense mouth pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Swelling of the mouth and throat may cause swollen airways and asphyxiation.

Water-hemlock (Cicuta maculata), aka Spotted cowbane, is among the most toxic native plants in Virginia and has a toxicity rating of 6—and it’s one of the most gruesome poisons. It’s common near water, swamps, and wet seepage areas. All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans, especially the roots. Symptoms include severe stomach pain, pupil dilation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficult breathing, violent convulsions, and swelling of the mouth. Grand Mal seizures can begin soon after ingestion and prove non-responsive to regular seizure medications. People can asphyxiate on their own vomit or shred their tongues with their teeth because they cannot open their jaws. Death typically follows within fifteen minutes to eight hours after ingestion.

Rhubarb has delicious stalks but poisonous leaves.

Other plants in my poison garden

  • Rhododendron — toxicity 6
  • Lily of the Valley — toxicity 6
  • Oleander — toxicity 6
  • Yew — toxicity 6
  • Daphne — toxicity 5
  • Mountain Laurel — toxicity 5
  • Rhubarb aka Pie plant — toxicity 4
  • Foxglove — toxicity 6

CAUTION! DANGER, DANGER, DANGER! Many of these plants are beautiful and/or sweet-smelling. Pay close attention when someone—especially a child—visits your poison garden.

Bottom line for writers: death is as close as your own backyard—or roadside—or pasture—or woods. . .

THE FLIP SIDE OF TWINS

Identical twin sisters gave birth to daughters on the same day in Fresno, California.

Last week, Kathleen Corcoran shared a horrifying review of the portrayal of twins in horror films. The focus was on identical twins and the societal assumption of duality: good/bad, light/dark, the pervasive trope of one twin being evil—though sometimes both claim to be the evil twin!

Gred and Forge can both solemnly swear they’re up to no good!

There is a long history of assuming evil by one or both twins, attributing natural disasters and disease to twins, sometimes leading them to be left alone to die or even  buried alive along with their mother. Myths of twin mental telepathy, mate-swapping, and all sorts of weirdness have been around for centuries. But twins are fertile material for writers even without going to the dark side!


In the beginning:

Twins are of two types.

  • Identical twins (also called monozygotic) are the result of one egg, fertilized by one sperm, that for some reason separates into two cell masses shortly after fertilization. Their genetic codes are identical and permanent. 
  • Fraternal twins (also called dizygotic) are the result of two eggs being fertilized by two sperm during the same fertile period of the mother’s cycle. With the same father, fraternal twins share approximately 50% of their genetic heritage. They are no more alike genetically than any other full siblings of the same parents.

In this instance, the girls are full siblings of the same two parents. Plot point!  Given the differences in appearance, what if the father suspected that the mother had been with another man? 

The technical term is heteropaternal superfecundation.

How could fraternal twins have different fathers? It starts with the mother releasing more than one egg and then having sex with more than one man within the few days of her fertile cycle. According to Brian Boutwell in Psychology Today, 11/19/2017, “…more than 2% of fraternal twin pregnancies involve the genetic contributions of separate men, but Segal [Dr. Nancy L. Segal] contends that it’s likely higher, since when the two dads are of the same race and ethnicity, mothers may assume that both twins have the same sire.”

This British couple each fertilized one egg and implanted both embryos into the same surrogate.

Writers: Imagine the situation in which a woman would have sex with more than one man within days of each other. Rape? Promiscuity? Two intense relationships she’s conflicted about?

There are more fraternal twins among us than identical ones

The likelihood of identical twins is the same around the world, about 3-4 in 1,000 (3.3% in the U.S.). The incidence of fraternal twins varies by geography, from 6 to over 20 per 1,000 deliveries. Among the Yoruba in Nigeria, 1 in 11 people is a twin.

The World Twins Festival in Igboora-Ora, Nigeria celebrates the esteemed place twins hold in Yoruba society.

Do twins run in families?

Fraternal twins have long been recognized as likely to recur in families. Although women typically release only one egg per cycle, some women release multiple eggs on a regular basis, increasing the likelihood of fraternal twins. This tendency for hyperovulation can be an inherited trait straight from mothers to daughters and also to the daughters of sons. Writers: consider a character who is a matriarch in a twinning family.

Fraternal twinning rates vary across populations. A 2011 study reported that the highest rates of twinning in Central African populations, especially Benin. Asia and Latin America had the lowest rates of twinning. In the US, Asian American and Latino/Hispanic Americans (21.8/1000) have the lowest rates; African American women are more like (36.8 per 1,000) to have twins than Caucasian women. Getting pregnant while breastfeeding (while less likely overall) increases the likelihood of twins (11.4% vs. 1.1% in non-breastfeeding women).

Candido Godoi in Brazil has one of the highest densities of twins in the world, 10% of the total population.

Historically, identical twins have been assumed to result from random events in utero.  However, twin researcher Dr. Nancy Segal traveled to Brazil to spend time with a family that includes 22 sets of identical twins born across five generations. A study in Jordan focused on 13 sets of identical twins. Similarly, seven different families sharing similar alleles produced at least two pairs of identical twins. Clearly, this area of study is full of opportunities for further research.

Other factors affecting twinning: besides heredity, being an older woman (over 30), having previous children, being taller, and having a high body mass index (over 30) all increase the likelihood of fraternal twinning. Research among the Yoruba indicates that a diet high in beans and yams may contribute to twinning! Writers: to make your twinning thread realistic, first determine why they are twins.

Vanishing twin syndrome and related phenomena:

An estimated one in eight natural pregnancies begins as twins, but in the early weeks of the pregnancy one zygote (fertilized egg) is reabsorbed or spontaneously aborted, perhaps because of birth defects making it nonviable.

But sometimes the twin doesn’t really vanishin these cases, the fetus is partially reabsorbed and remnants of the nonviable fetus are found in the mother, placenta, or surviving twin. This is most likely to occur during the second or third trimester. The death of one twin at 15-20 weeks may result in papyraceous, a tiny paper-like flattened fetal remnant. Writers: imagine the possibilities. A teratoma tumor containing bone, hair, teeth, or tissue fragments may be found in the survivor. Some survivors feel longing, guilt, grief, or problems with relationships or sexuality.

Lifelong twinless-twins are people whose twin died at or near birth. Often the surviving twin strives to assert their uniqueness and/or feel as if they’re living for two people. Famous examples include Elvis Presley, painter Diego Rivera, pianist Liberace, and writers Thornton Wilder and Philip K. Dick.

The basic framework for twin studies: the goal is to understand variances in behavioral, physical, and mental health in the population at large. Studying twins allows researchers to separate (at least to a certain degree) the three contributing factors.

  • Ggenetic effects/ heritability
  • Shared environment, both in utero and after birth
  • Unshared/ unique/ non-shared environment, happen to only one twin (e.g., accidents, travel, work, classes)

Overall, research indicates that the relative importance of genetic vs. environment depends on the specific trait being studied. (Duh!)

When one twin is a robot, all three contributing factors are involved.

Birth order for twins

  • The general assumption is that twins are born minutes apart, but lots of twins have different birthdays. The longest time between deliveries is 87 days! Peggy Lynn, of Danville, Pennsylvania, delivered twins Eric and Hanna 84 days apart, one in November 1995, one in February 1996.
  • Birth order doesn’t seem to affect psychological outcomes.
  • Second-born twins are at higher risk for health problems including respiratory distress, neonatal trauma, and infections.
  • Along with the history of primogeniture in Great Britain, with older being the heir, there has been a tendency to assume some sort of primacy, privilege, or superiority to being firstborn. However, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the firstborn twin (always named Taiye) is assumed to be the younger of the twins: they believe the senior twin (always named Kehinde) sent the younger one out first to scout the world and declare it safe.
Taiye and Kehinde marrying Taiwo and Kehinda
(photo by BellaNaija)

Other twin facts

  • In utero, as early as 18 weeks, twins seem to reach for each other intentionally and stroke each other. Early signs of bonding?
  • About 40% of twins develop their own language.
  • Twins yawn contagiously. Most non-twins don’t exhibit this behavior till 4 or 5 years old.
  • They affect each other’s sleep patterns for years.
  • Identical twins still have different fingerprints.
  • One twin can’t get away with a crime by blaming the other twin because modern technology can distinguish them (facial recognition, fingerprints, hair follicles, etc.).
  • Twins are more likely than singletons to be left-handed.
  • Identical twins can vary greatly in specific skills.
  • About one third of twins are opposite-sex fraternal.

Weird similarities of twins reared apart:

Twins switched out at birth are rare, but many twins (at least 1,894 cases since 1922) have been reared apart as a result of adoption.
According to Dr. Nancy Segal, “they [twins reared apart] cannot be communicating because they are often unaware that the other twin exists—instead, they are reflecting their matched abilities, tastes, and temperaments.” Thus they may read the same books, follow similar household routines, or enjoy the same hobbies.


Jorge Enrique Bernal Castro, William Canas Velasco, Carlos Bernal Castro and Wilber Canas Velasco were switched at birth in Columbia and raised as two sets of fraternal twins instead of pairs of identical twins.


Another set of separated twins studied by Segal were “The Jim Twins.” Reunited at age 39 without previously knowing the other existed, they’d been adopted and lived forty miles apart in Ohio. Both got terrible migraine, bit their nails, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove light blue Chevys, scored poorly in math and spelling, had worked at McDonald’s and as part-time deputy sheriffs. One named his first son James Alan; the other named his first son James Allan. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty.

Identical twins habits, interests, intelligence, and religion seem immune to separate upbringings.

The Jim Twins

And then there’s the environment: 

Even with identical DNA, twins can exhibit remarkable differences in the way their genetics interact with the environment. For example, a set of four identical sisters were all diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 24, primarily as a result of an abusive upbringing. One sister had mild symptoms and might never have been diagnosed if not for her three sisters. The symptoms of the other three ranged from paranoia and hallucinations to catatonia and incoherence.

To protect the family’s anonymity, the sisters were referred to as the Genain Quadruplets in research publications.

Nowadays, it is widely acknowledged that all human disorders involve both a genetic and an epigenetic (environmental) component.
Although both identical and fraternal twins share parents, parenting styles, houses, food, schools, popular culture, etc., there is some speculation that parents, teachers, peers, and others treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal ones.

Kodinhi Village in Kerala, India has more than 400 sets of twins.

The upside of being a twin:

  • The extreme closeness of twins, of “having a best buddy for life” may be protective over their lifespan. Life is longest among identical twins, but fraternal twins also live longer than the general population.
  • Twins—particularly identical twins—validate each other, their beliefs and attitudes.
  • The opportunity to prank family and friends or take each other’s spelling tests provides endless amusement.
The violence often begins at birth.

The downside of being a twin:

  • For both identical and fraternal twins, a big downside is the comparison game: which twin is bigger, brighter, nicer, more attractive, more talented, etc.
  • For identical twins, a huge challenge is to establish one’s individuality. Not everyone wants to his/her identity to be defined by twinness.
Ere Ibeji are memorial statues honoring Yoruba twins who have died.

Celebrating twins

Yoruba twins have an annual festival in Ishara, a picturesque city on steep hills with dirt roads and what are reported to be “gingerbread-colored” houses (whatever that means). During the festival, twins in Ishara wear matching clothes, dance in the streets and exchange gifts. Their mothers cook the food, mostly beans.

The largest gathering of twins is the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Attendees can enjoy funnel cakes and other fair food. Thousands of twins participate, as well as other multiples. Researchers gather from far and wide to test volunteers and enlarge the body of knowledge associated with twins.

Bottom line for writers: twins are fertile ground for characters and plot. You can find an incredible amount of info online. Check it out!


THE JOYFUL SIDE OF THE SEASON: TRADING HALLOWEEN FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD

For more than a month, people have been bombarded with ads, displays, and commercials about things to buy for Halloween: costumes, candy, house decorations, yard displays, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, more money is spent on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas—which I find pretty horrifying in and of itself. 

This insanity is what inspired Tim Burton to write Nightmare Before Christmas.

But that’s just the tip of the horror: evil witches, vampire bats, the walking dead, haunted houses, werewolves, and not-nearly-as-friendly-as-Casper ghosts. The scary side of the season is why the previous four blogs on this website have been about evil twins, being buried alive, satanism, and vampires.

Hard on the heels of Halloween comes Dia de Muertos, The Day of the Dead (though it seems to me it ought to be Days, plural). It begins at midnight on October 31 and continues through November 1 and 2.

  • Writers please note:although November 1 and 2 coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, respectively, the Day of the Dead is not now tied to any particular religion. It is more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. 

Scholars have traced the modern holiday back hundreds of years, particularly to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. People can, and have, personalized it, integrating elements into their own cultural and/or religious practices. It is nearly opposite of all that Halloween stands for.

A representation of Mictlantecuhtli, also known as the Divine Mother or Santa Muerte Narco

In Aztec mythology, Mictlan was the underworld and after-death destination for the majority of people. The ruler of Mictlan was
Mictlantecuhtli, who held the bones used to create all of humanity.
Mictlancíhuatl was his wife, who watches over the souls of the dead.

A popular costume is La Catrina, a character that was created by Mexican lithographer and illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). La Catrina is a female skeleton who is dressed in the style of upper-class women of the period.

Dio de Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico, especially the central and southern regions. It is also celebrated by people of Mexican heritage worldwide. Although the details of the celebration vary by location, the central elements are the same: celebrating the lives of those who have died with feasting, parties, costumes, and activities the dead enjoyed in life.

October 31 is usually devoted to preparing to welcome the souls of loved ones. A home altar is created, decorated with candles and lots of food and drink: fruits, peanuts, turkey mole, tortillas, and Day of the Dead breads (pan de muerto) ; sodas, cocoa, and water. These offerings are called ofrenda, though that can also refer to the altar itself. The breads often have icing that resembles and bones across the top. Buckets of flowers, especially wild marigolds (cempasúchitl), are used as well.


Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times.
The word copal is derived from the Nahuatl word copalli, which means “incense.”

Traditional altars include very specific elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • A candle for each relative remembers, so that the light will guide them.
  • Flowers to represent the fleetingness of life.
  • Salt and water to purify and refresh the souls tired from the journey.
  • Copal incense to raise prayers to God.
  • A photo or drawing of each relative, often with a favorite piece of clothing or toy.
An ofrenda for a young child

The holiday begins when the souls of dead children and miscarried babies are allowed to return to their families for twenty-four hours, on Día de los Inocentes. Toys, candies, and miniature skulls are added to the home altars for these angelitos.  On November 2, the spirits of adults arrive. The miniature skulls are replaced by full-sized ones. For adults, the altar includes cigarettes, shots of mezcal, and/or the favorite drink of the dead person(s).

A small
calavera de azucar (sugar skull) for a small child’s ofrenda

Sugar art was learned from Italian missionaries in the 17th century, who made sugar lambs and angels to adorn altars in Catholic Churches at Easter. Clay molded sugar skulls, angels, and sheep date back to the 18th century. As described on mexicansugarskull.com, “Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home Ofrenda [altar] or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit.”  According to the same source, “Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments.”

Now they are represented by jewelry and masks.

Typically, the holiday activities includes a trip to the cemetery/graveyard where loved ones are buried. Besides clean-up and maintenance of the gravesite, these visits include a party, often with local music, games, card playing, feasting, and decorating the graves.

Families at a cemetery in Oaxaca

Although a Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead is celebrated worldwide. In the United States, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona feature pretty traditional celebrations.

These Catrinas dressed like Adelitas, women who fought in the Mexican Revolution.

California, too, has strong historical ties to Mexico and Dia de Muertos is celebrated widely across the state—though the celebrations sometimes add a political element, such as an altar to honor the victims of the Iraq War.

The parade in Mexico City this year honored migrants who have died.

Virtually every big city has a festival and events. For example, the historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood hosts an annual festival celebrating the cycle of life and death. People bring food, flowers, pictures, and mementos to add to a huge decorated altar. It includes traditional music and dance.

Jamaica Plain, Boston

Bottom line for writers: consider a scene involving Day of the Dead celebrations. Perhaps it is a tradition for one or more characters, or perhaps the protagonist just happens to be in a city where the celebration is taking place. Think broadly!


DUOMAIEUSIOPHOBIA – DOUBLE TROUBLE

A suspected publicity stunt for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children terrified London commuters.

Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and reluctant sister, niece, and granddaughter of twins.

Even they cannot tell who is who in this photo.

Duomaieusiophobia (literally the fear of double childbirth) is the scientific name for the fear of twins, though it can refer to the fear of any multiple birth.  Twins are a very common element in movies and TV, whether identical, fraternal, or imaginary.

I bet they share absolutely everything!

In the horror genre, twins often serve to add an extra element of creepiness even if their relationship is not the primary driver of the plot.  Consider the twin girls in The Shining or the Merovingian’s twin assasins in The Matrix: Reloaded.  Though they are minor characters, their appearance on screen is chilling.

And this is before they turned into glowing electric ghosts

A big factor for this (beyond saving money by only paying one actor for two roles) comes down to our own subconscious: twins pose a threat to our understanding of self-identity and to the way the world works.  In some cultures, twins are seen as lucky or even venerated as having a direct link to the divine.

The Yoruba people have one of the highest concentrations of twins in the world, and they celebrate all of them.

In other cultures, twins are seen as the result of or the bringers of evil and are ritually killed.  At either end, twins are outside of the norm.

The Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Just being there was very unsettling.

The Evil Twin

Anthropologists have theorized that twins were originally seen as personifying the duality of nature – day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, etc.  This carried over into mythology, in which twins often played opposite roles, such as Apollo and Artemis controlling the sun and the moon.  Opposite moralities are also a common element in mythology; one twin is good and the other is evil: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, etc.

Jonah and Seth Trimble in Seconds Apart. Can you spot the evil twin?

Many horror movies play on this trope.  Twins are identical in every way except for the body count.  This idea is so common that an entire page of TVTropes is dedicated to good and evil twins or clones.  My sisters like to claim that they are both the evil twin.

Bette Davis played both good and evil twins in Dead Ringer.

Margot Kidder played a twin who was so possessive of her sister that she murdered any potential rivals in Sisters.

Twins of Evil starred actual twin sisters Mary and Madeleine Collinson, one of whom is turned into a vampire.

Closely linked to the idea of one twin being good and the other evil, there is a common theme of one twin taking the other’s place.  In comedies, this generally results in zany hijinks, as when the Marx brothers all put on Groucho Marx’s iconic mustache and glasses and caused mayhem all over the mansion in Duck Soup.

They weren’t actually twins, but Groucho, Chico, and Harpo could certainly pass!

In horror movies, the evil twin generally steps into the life of the good twin for personal gain or allows the good twin to take the fall for nefarious deeds.

Good twin Holland is punished for evil twin Niles… or so it would seem in the 1972 film The Other.

Blood Rage features a psychotically evil twin who frames his brother for several murders.

The Devil’s Double (2011) features both the good/ evil twin trope and the impostor/ scapegoat trope as well as being based on a true story.  Dominic Cooper plays Saddam Hussein’s son Uday as well as the soldier called up to be Uday’s fedai (a political decoy and body double).

Letif Yahia is rumored to be living in Ireland or Germany now.

Both Twins Are Evil

In many areas of the world, particularly West Africa, twins (or triplets or quadruplets) are viewed as harbingers of doom or even inherently evil.  Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart mentions the village custom of abandoning twins in the forest to die.  Some even blame the devastating 2016 earthquake in Tanzania as the work of angry twins.

June and Jennifer Gibbons are a real-life pair of twins, born in 1963, who spoke only to each other and committed several acts of theft and violence.

Despite a concerted effort by government and foreign aid groups, twins in Nigeria and Madagascar are frequently buried alive with their mother or sealed in a room to starve to death.  Though for different reasons, Hollywood shares many of these ideas of twins being unnaturally synchronized, lacking empathy for all others, possessing some form of supernatural ability, or even providing a gateway for evil spirits or ghosts.

The twin boys in American Horror Story: Murder House are condemned to spend eternity trapped in the house where they tormented others.

Jeremy Irons played both psychotic doctors in the film Dead Ringers, horrifyingly based on a true story.

Legend was also based on a true story, of the London gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, though Ronnie was arguably a little more evil.

The German film Goodnigt Mommy features a pair of twin boys who torture and kill their mother when they think she is an impostor.

Twins Separated or Left Alone

Because twins are so close, strange things tend to happen when they are raised separately or when one dies.  This is often called the Twinless Twin effect, and it touches the parents of twins and other siblings as well as the twins themselves.  Both Elvis Presley and Liberace lost a twin very early in life, and they both cited their missing twin as having a major influence on their creative work.

Both performers felt that they were living for their twin as well as themselves.

This particular grief felt by twinless twins, coupled with the assumption of twins’ psychic link, creates perfect fodder for horror movies.  Several of the films listed above have a surprise ending in which it is revealed that one twin has already died and is a hallucination or delusion of the remaining twin.  No spoilers!

A stillborn twin comes back to haunt his sister and serve as a bridge for the ghosts of other twinless twins in The Unborn.

Alone is a Thai horror movie about a conjoined twin who dies during separation surgery and comes back to possess her sister. It also features the trope of the good/evil twin pair.

Calling upon her supposed twin bond, the heroine of The Forest enters Aokigahara (the “Suicide Forest”) in Japan to search for her sister, whom she believes is planning to commit suicide.

The film Jonathon is an interesting twist on the idea of the twinless twin: both brothers inhabit one body, switching off every twelve hours, so they can never meet or interact.

Every year, at the Twins Days Twins Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, an entire section of the festival grounds is set aside for researchers looking for volunteers.  Twins throw balls into cups, test their memories, fill out questionnaires about mental health, and let themselves be weighed, measured, observed, and questioned to shed light on all those pesky questions people can’t answer by experimenting on babies.

Most researchers offer gifts or money in exchange for participation. My sisters won so much cash in prizes that I made them pay for the hotel.

Scientists are fascinated by twins because of what they can reveal about genetics and the role of environment in supposedly hereditary traits.  Anthropologists are fascinated by twins because of what they can illustrate about a culture’s understanding of self-identity.  Doctors are fascinated by twins because of what they can demonstrate about the contraction or treatment of illness.

Is the ability to play the harp standing up and backwards hereditary? You’d have to ask Camille and Kennerly Kitt, the Harp Twins.

Artists, filmmakers, writers of any sort are fascinated by twins because of what they can show us about human nature, because of the opportunity for wacky confusion, because they have a bond that is very rarely found in any other grouping of characters.  Twins are a source of comedy, drama, terror, tenderness, and every other aspect of writing… doubled!

This is by far the most terrifying image I found online. Can you tell which one is Bruce Willis?

BURIED ALIVE

 
Fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia.  Also known as live burial, premature burial, and vivisepulture, it’s been around forever—and is with us still!  Those buried alive often die of asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia.  If fresh air is available, the buried person can last days.

 

This guy seems pretty happy about the situation.

Fear of being buried alive reached a peak in 19th century England.  More than 120 books in at least five languages were written about it, as well as methods to distinguish life from death.  (See below.)

 

Harry Clarke’s illustration for Premature Burial by Edgar Allen Poe

A Fine Literary Tradition
 
Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” The Fall of the House of Usherand Berenice.  More recently, Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery includes Paul Sheldon’s Misery’s Return, a book within a book.

Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Level 6 of the Inferno, painted by Suloni Robertson

Dante’s Inferno references several classes of sinners punished with some form of eternal burial:

  • The Sullen in Level 5 are kept just below the waters of the River Styx, forever near drowning.
  • The Heretics in Level 6 are trapped in flaming tombs.
  • Murderers in Level 7 are covered by a river of boiling blood.
  • In Level 8 (where all types of fraud are punished)
    • Flatterers are encased in human excrement.
    • Simonists are buried head-first while flames burn their feet.
    • Fraudulent Counselors are encased in flames.
  • The Treacherous in Level 9 are buried in ice of varying levels depending on their sin.
Accidental or Unintentional Burial
 

It’s easier to handle if you bring a buddy along.

Reports of being buried alive date back to the fourteenth century.  In spite of hype and hysteria, as late as the 1890s patients have been documented as being declared dead and accidentally sent to a morgue or encased in a steel box, only to “come back to life” when the coffin is dropped, the grave is opened by grave robbers, or embalming  or dissection has begun.

 

“Life preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual dead,” a safety-coffin model by Christian Eisenbrandt

During centuries when embalming wasn’t common practice, coffins were mostly for the rich, and rapid burial was the norm especially during major pestilences such as cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox.  In these cases, rapid burial was an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.

 

The Great Plague by Rita Greer

Several medical conditions can contribute to the presumption of death: catalepsy, coma, and hypothermia.

 

How to Know When Someone Is Really Dead

 

Snoring is a pretty good sign. (This is actually the Fourpence Coffin flophouse, the first homeless shelter in London.)

Jan Bondeson, author of Buried Alive, identified methods of verifying death used by 18th and 19th century physicians.  (Personal reaction: shudder!)  The methods were any acts the physician thought would rouse the unconscious patient, virtually all imaginatively painful.
  • Soles of the feet sliced with razors
  • Needles jammed under toenails
  • Bugle fanfares and “hideous Shrieks and excessive Noises”
  • Red hot poke up the rectum
  • Application of nipple pincers
  • A bagpipe type invention to administer tobacco enemas
  • Boiling Spanish wax poured on patients’ foreheads and warm urine poured into the mouth
  • A crawling insect inserted into patient’s ear
  • A sharp pencil up the presumed cadaver’s nose
  • Tongue pulling (manual or mechanical) for at least three hours

 

The traditional Irish wake was (and is) an occasion for family and friends to celebrate the life of the deceased while watching the body for signs of movement.

Most agreed that the most reliable way to be sure someone was dead was to keep an eye on the body for a while.  To that end, waiting at least 72 hours from apparent death to burial was mandated.  In the mid-1800s, Munich had ten “waiting mortuaries” where bodies were stored awaiting putrefaction.  Each body was rigged to bells to summon an attendant should the corpse come back to life.

 

Waiting morgues, like this one in Paris, were often left open to the public for macabre entertainment

We presume that modern science has surpassed this sort of mistake, defining death as brain death.  Even so, earthquakes and other natural disasters often result in people being accidentally buried alive.

 

Victims of the 2018 tsunami in Nepal were not so fortunate.

But Wait: Sometimes People Are Buried Alive on Purpose!

From the Museum of Torture in Venice

Sometimes live burial is a method of execution.  Documented cases exist for China, German tribes, Persia, Rome, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Russia, Netherlands, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Confucian scholars were buried alive while their books were burned in 3rd century BCE

Interestingly, most of the laws demanding live burial as a form of execution were for crimes committed by women.  Men convicted of comparable crimes were more likely to be beheaded.

 

Vestal Virgins were sealed in caves for breaking their vow of chastity, as shown in this painting by Pietro Saja

When death was not enough, often a spike was driven through the body of the person executed by live burial, perhaps as a way to prevent the person from becoming an avenging, undead Wiedergänger.

 

In some parts of the world, live burial is still practiced as a means of execution.  Often, the victim is buried upright with only their head above ground.  In these cases, death is very slow and painful, often the result of dehydration or wounds caused by animal scavengers.

 

And sometimes live burials are another horrific act of war.

Codice Casanatense, a Portugese artist, recorded this scene of a Hindu widow being sent alive to her husband’s grave.

Very rarely people willingly arrange to be buried alive, for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it is to demonstrate their ability to survive it.  The Indian government has made voluntary live burials illegal because the people who try it so often die.  In 2010, a Russian man was buried to try to overcome his fear of death, but was crushed to death by the weight of the earth over him.

Four “lucky” contest winners

There are even performances in which people have an opportunity to be buried alive for fifteen or twenty minutes.  As a publicity stunt for the opening of the 2010 film Buried, a lottery was held for a few fans to have a very unique viewing experience.  Four winners were blindfolded, driven to the middle of nowhere, and buried alive in special coffins equips with screens on which they could watch the film.  (A 2003 episode of “Mythbusters” demonstrated that, even if a person buried alive was able to break out of a coffin, they would be crushed or asphyxiated by the resulting dirt fall.)

There is now a monument to Mick Meaney on Kilburne Street.

Irish barman Mick Meaney remained buried under Kilburne Street in London for 61 days in 1968, mostly to win a bet.  Tubes to the surface allowed air and food to reach him in his temporary, underground prison.

Parents are often unwillingly volunteered for vivisepulture on the beach.

Bottom line for writers: consider a character being buried alive—or being threatened with it—as a way to up the tension. 
 
Live burial isn’t the only attention-worthy aspect of dead bodies.  For more, check out books such as these.

SATANISM: IT’S A REAL THING

Engraving by Gustave Dore. from Milton’s Paradise Lost

Satan, also known as the Devil, is an entity in the Abrahamic religions that seduces humans into sin or falsehood.  In Christianity and Islam, he is usually seen as either a fallen angel or a jinn who used to possess great piety and beauty but rebelled against God.

 

Shaitan or Sheyatin, an evil jinn

In Judaism, Satan is typically regarded as a metaphor for the yetzer hara, the evil inclination (or as an agent subservient to God).

The Christian figure of Satan is viewed as a horned, red, demonic human figure with a pointy tail and sometimes hooves.  Sinners are sent to the domain of Satan after death—to hell, an underground world of fire and sadistic demons under Satan’s command.

Engraving by Gustav Doro of the Ninth Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno

Other versions of Satan appear as a Zoroastrian Devil and Jewish Kabbalism, but the name “Satan” first appeared in the Book of Numbers in the Bible, used as a term describing defiance.  In the Book of Job, Satan is an accusing angel.  In the apocryphal Book of Enoch (written in the first century B.C.) Satan is a member of the Watchers, a group of fallen angels.

 

The Watchers, as described in the Book of Revelations

Early on, satan was simply a word meaning adversary.  In the Book of Samuel, David is depicted as the satan of the Philistines.  In the Book of Numbers, it is used as a verb, when God sent an angel to satan (oppose) Balaam.

King David With His Harp at the entrance of his tomb in Jerusalem

In the New Testament, Satan is established as a nemesis of Jesus Christ and the final book of the Bible, Revelations, he is the ultimate evil.

The Devourer of Worlds (and bones)

The words “Satanism” and “Satanist” appeared in English and French during the 1500s, when the words were used by Christian groups to attack other, rival Christian groups.  For example, a Roman Catholic tract in 1565 condemned the “heresies, blasphemies, and sathanismes [sic]” of Protestants.  Anyone who didn’t follow one’s own “pure” Christian views was condemned.

St Augustine shown here being offered the Book of Vice by Satan, as painted by Michael Pacher in 1471

Gradually, it morphed into meaning anyone leading an immoral lifestyle.  It wasn’t until the late 1800s that it was applied to those suspected of consciously and deliberately venerating Satan.

 

Eugene Vintras, inspiration for the Golden Dawn, levitating in Tilly-sur-Seulles

According to online sources, during the early modern period, fear of Satanists took the form of witch trials (1400s to 1700s, which doesn’t seem all that modern to me, but hey, witch hysterias, and the inquisition).  Across both Protestant and Catholic regions, witch trials emerged.  Between 30,000 and 50,000 people were executed as Satanic witches.

 

Members of the Knights Templar being burned as witches

Skipping lightly past offshoots and variations, prior to the 20th Century, Satanism did not exist as a real, organized religion.  Satanism is a modern, largely non-theistic religion based on literary, artistic, and philosophical interpretations of the central figure of evil.  It wasn’t until April 30, 1966 that the Church of Satan was formalized.

 

From the official Church of Satan website

Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible was published in 1969.  His teachings promoted indulgence, vital existence, undefiled wisdom, kindness to those who deserve it, responsibility to the responsible, and an eye for an eye code of ethics.  In his view, a Satanist is carnal, physical and pragmatic, enjoying a physical existence, propagating a naturalistic worldview that seems human as animals dieting in an amoral universe.  The ideal Satanist should be individualistic and noon-conformist.   He encouraged an individual’s pride, self-respect, and self-realization by satisfying the ego’s desires.  Self-indulgence is a good thing.  He said hate and aggression are necessary and advantageous for survival.  Bottom line: he praised the seven deadly sins as virtues.

 

By the 1970s, groups were splintering off to form alternative churches.  In 1978, the U.S. Army included the faith in its manual for chaplains, “Religious Requirements and Practices.”

 

The most successful of the church divisions is The Satanic Temple, opened in Houston in 2015.  The Temple calls itself a non-theistic religion embracing the Devil as a symbolic form of rebellion in the tradition of Milton.  It devotes itself to political action focused on the separation of church and state, religious equality, and reproductive rights.

 

The Satanic Temple sponsors after-school clubs to teach students scientific methods and rational thinking in areas where the only activities for kids are involve religion

It was recognized as a religion of the U.S. government in 2016, receiving tax-exempt status.

Statue of Baphomet erected by the Satanic Temple to protest Ten Commandments statues on public grounds

Note: Practitioners of LeVey’s version of Satanism do not believe that Satan literally exists and do not worship him. For them, Satan is an archetype for adversary, who represents pride, carnality, and enlightenment.  The Devil is a symbol of defiance against the Abrahamic faiths that “suppress humanity’s natural instincts.”
However, Theistic Satanism (Spiritual Satanism or Devi worship) holds the primary belief that Satan is an actual deity to revere and worship.  They believe in magic and ritual, often focusing solely on devotion.

 

Bottom line for writers: Satanism isn’t a unitary thing.  If Satanism figures into your plot or character characteristics, do your homework, particularly for any historical setting.

Truly terrifying

OCTOBER IS FOR HORROR: VAMPIRES

Drawn by shamad

A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life.  Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers.  Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.

 

The anthropomorphic personification of EVIL!

Inquiring minds want to know!  I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!

 

When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.”  He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.

 

Mobs of vampire hunters killed dozens in Malawi

At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval.  He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”

David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror claims that a fixation on demons often accompanies periods of national stress.  “In times of social upheaval, the vampire asserts itself.”

 

 

In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living.  And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.

 

The Chinese Jiangshi hunts by “hopping” because of rigor mortis.

In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer.  And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth.  People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”

Paul Barber, author of Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality, made several telling points in the introduction to his book.  One is that there is little similarity between the vampires of folklore and the vampires of fiction.
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy.  This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name.  Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.

 

 

The 1922 film Nosferatu (on left), though an unlicensed adaptation, portrayed the vampire as described in Stoker’s novel.

 

In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance.  Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc.  Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.

Polish strzyga

But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead.  To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.

 

A manananggal from the Philippines will send its detached head and torso to hunt.

Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path.  The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape.  I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?

 

He’s the color of a rotting corpse, but cloth fangs are pretty harmless.

At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog.  Instead, I refer you to books such as this:

 

 

And should vampires show up in your dreams, according to DreamBible: the answers to all your dreams, pay attention.  Their appearance could mean many things.
  • Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
  • Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
  • To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
  • To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
  • Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
  • A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
  • To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
  • Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.

The yara-ma-yha-who in Australia drains a victim of almost all blood before swallowing and regurgitating the body, which then becomes a copy of its killer.

Bottom line for writers: consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
 

The soucouyant appears in the Caribbean by day as a harmless old woman, but she sheds her skin at night to hunt as a ball of fire.

SEE SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING—MAYBE

Kitty Genovese

The March 13, 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese led to an entirely new field of research in psychology.  Genovese was attacked while walking home from work at 3:20 a.m. in Queens, New York.  She was stabbed, sexually assaulted, and murdered over a period of 30 minutes.  Subsequent reports said 38 witnesses watched the attack from nearby apartments but neither intervened nor even called the police until the attacker fled.  Kitty Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

 

Two psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, conducted extensive research to examine and try to explain such apparently callous indifference to the suffering of another human being.  Over time, these and other researchers teased out several factors that will affect the likelihood of bystander intervention.

 

  • Diffusion of responsibility is one of the earliest and most powerful variables identified: the more people who are bystanding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.  Responsibility is diffused among all.
    • Contrarily, Philpot et al. just this year published the results examining real-life video recordings from three countries and found that someone intervened in over 90% of cases.  Even if the likelihood of any one person responding was infrequent, someone in the crowd intervened.

 

Note the lack of assistance offered by the bystander

  • Emergency vs. non-emergency situations. The following conditions are relevant.
    • Notice that something is going on.
    • interpret the situation as an emergency.  Others not reacting provides social influence against acting,
    • Feel responsible: does the victim deserve help, is the bystander competent, what is the bystander’s relationship to victim.
    • The form of assistance needed (e.g., medical emergency, harassment protection, etc.).
    • Implement the action choice.

CPR? Thermal blankets? Take away the vodka?

  • Ambiguity and consequences: ambiguous situations take up to five times as long to respond to, and even then bystanders will often not intervene until after assessing their own safety.

 

No one will slip or fall. There is no room to land.

  • Cohesiveness and group membership: the more cohesive a group, the more likely it is that the norm of social responsibility will lead to helping.  Bigger cohesive groups are quickest to react.

 

When punching a small child is perfectly acceptable

  • Cultural differences affect intervention—both broad/national culture and subculture.

 

Taking a photo is far more important than looking for survivors.

  • Digital interference is a relatively new phenomenon.  With the spread of cell phones and social media, bystanders at a scene are becoming more likely to try to film the incident (whether as “armchair activism” or simply to attract online attention) than they are to intervene or call for help.  This has the doubled impact of overloading nearby cell towers so that actual phone calls to emergency services are not connected.

Plus, it makes you look like a total jerk!

Bystander apathy can be counteracted by raising awareness of bystander effects ad consciously taking steps to overcome it and help; and victims can overcome the diffusion of responsibility in groups by singling out a single member and asking for help from that one person.

 

In 2011, Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square took turns forming protective circles to allow the others a safe place to pray.

Bottom line for writers: make your readers understand why your character does or does not intervene!

 

Any kind of intervention was clearly doomed.

ALTRUISM? REALLY?

Altruism: an individual performing an action that is at a cost to him/herself (e.g., time, effort,  pleasure, quality of life, probability of survival or reproduction) that benefits – either directly or indirectly – another individual or group, without the expectation of reciprocity or compensation for that action.

 

Helping behavior may or may not be altruistic.  There are many factors affecting the urge to help, including the following.

 

1) Kin selection: both animals and humans are more helpful toward close kin that to distant kin or non-kin.  Perception of kinship is affected by whether the other looks like the giver, shares a family name (especially if it’s an unusual name), has a familiar scent (in animal groups), etc.  Think of kin as the in-group.

 

2) Vested interests: helping friends, allies, and similar social in-groups (besides avoiding vicarious suffering to the individual) may eventually benefit the altruist.  Extreme self-sacrifice may be adaptive if a hostile outgroup threatens to kill the entire group.  During the Allied campaign in Italy in the World War II, First Lieutenant John Robert Fox ordered an artillery strike on his position in Sommocolinia, sacrificing his own life to take out invading German forces and allow US troops to retreat safely.  He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

First Lieutenant John Robert Fox

3) Reciprocal altruism: helping others is more likely if there is a chance that they can and will reciprocate.  Therefore, people are more helpful it is likely that they will interact again in the future.  If a person sees others being non-cooperative, they are less likely to be helpful.  If someone helps first, the recipient of the help is more likely to help in return.  Think charities that give small gifts of stickers, notepads, or holiday cards when asking for a contribution.

 

Cleaner wrasse servicing a big-eye squirrelfish

4) People are more likely to cooperate on a task if they can communicate first.

 

Technology assisting Rohingya in getting aid

5) Groups of people cooperate more if they perceive a threat from another group.  In the insect world, this frequently happens when a colony or hive finds safety in numbers while moving larvae, a queen, or the entire group.  Ants, bees, termites, etc., form large masses and structures to complete the move.

 

Moving a beehive

6) People will help more when they know that their helping will be communicated to people they will interact with later, is publicly announced, is discussed, or is simply observed by someone else.

 

Peace Corps volunteers swearing in

7) Selective investment theory proposes that close social bonds, and associated emotional, cognitive, and neurohormonal mechanisms evolved in order to facilitate long-term, high-cost altruism benefiting those depending on another for group survival and reproductive success.  Humans, like many other animals, care for members of the species who cannot care for themselves, ultimately benefiting the species as a whole.

 

Very young and very old humans often require assistance and care

8) Microbiologists are studying whether some strains of microbes might influence the hosts to perform altruistic behaviors that are not immediately obvious as beneficial to the host.  There is a possibility, currently being researched, that the bacteria in a person’s gut could affect their behavior and that changes in the bacterial makeup (such as from taking antibiotics) might result in a change in personality.

 

At first glance, this monkey grooming a sleeping wild dog must be suicidal

Psychology has defined psychological altruism as “a motivational state with the goal of increasing another’s welfare.  Some definitions specify a lack of external rewards for altruistic behaviors.  Even when not immediately obvious, altruism is often rewarded in various ways (see above).  When there is no tangible reward, feeling good about oneself can be rewarding.  Regardless of whether an act is “true” altruism, there are many psychological studies that document the conditions under which people are more likely to help.
  1. Helping is more likely when the recipient is clearly in need.
  2. Helping is more likely when the giver feels personal responsibility for reducing the other person’s distress.
  3. A person with a high level of empathic concern is likely to help regardless of how many bystanders are around.

The Good Samaritan mosaic by Fr Marko Rupnik

The up-side of helping: volunteerism is strongly related to current and future health and well-being.
  • Older adults who volunteered were higher in life satisfaction and will to live, and lower on measures of depression, anxiety, somatization.
  • A 30-year study of the physical health of mothers found that 52% of those who did not volunteer experienced a major illness, compared to 36% of those who did.
  • A 4-year study of people 55 and older found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations had a 63% lower likelihood of dying.  Controlling for prior health status indicated that volunteerism accounted for a 44%reduction in mortality.
  • Research supports the idea that altruistic acts bring out happiness but it also works in the opposite direction: happier people are also kinder.

Philemon and Baucis offered complete hospitality to Zeus and Hermes in disguise, despite being paupers

When too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing:
 
  • Although positive effects of helping were still significant, one study of volunteers found that feeling overwhelmed by others’ demands had an even stronger negative effect on mental health.
  • While generous acts make people feel good about themselves, it is also important for recipients of assistance to appreciate—and show that their appreciation—for kindness and help.
  • Research indicates that a conscious focus on gratitude led to reductions in negative affect and increases in optimistic appraisals, positive affect, offering emotional support, sleep quality, and well-being for the grateful person.
  • Volunteer burn-out is especially common in high-stress positions, such as volunteer firefighters and medical providers at refugee camps.

Altruism is an important moral value for virtually all of the world’s religions:
  • Jews practice tzedakah, righteous behavior, providing support to make the world a more just place

  • Daya (compassion) and Daan (chairty) are two of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism

  • As part of aparigraha (non-attachment), Jains give away possessions and harm no living creature

  • Many Christian churches still practice tithing, donating 10% of all earnings

  • One of the five primary tenets of Islam is zakat, giving to charity

  • Sikhs practice seva, which is unselfish and unbiased aid to all

  • Buddhism teaches kindness toward all beings

Bottom line for writers: helpful characters are a good option, but be clear in your own head who, why, and under what circumstances the person helps.