It will help you to understand how some of the common elements of supernatural stories have developed and give you an insight into the psychology of fear.
Supernatural stories usually consist of two opposing forces: superstition and rationality, innocence and guilt, gullibility and cunning.
Considering the origins of many of these supernatural elements will not dissolve the mystery, but deepen it by leading you into some dark corners of the human psyche.
Historically, there is a connection between the plague, vampires and the beginning of forensic science.
In times of plague, there were mass burials. Cemeteries were constantly being dug up to accommodate more bodies. In the process, gravediggers got a hitherto unrecorded view of bodies in various states of decay. In Venice, this consisted of shrouds disintegrating around the mouth – due to the action of various bodily chemicals – which was interpreted as the undead chewing through their shrouds to get out and wreak terror on the living population.
So, in order to prevent this, bricks were forced into the jaws of the corpses to prevent their unnatural activity. In fact, one of the most terrifying images to emerge from plague-ridden Venice was not that of a vampire but of the plague-doctor with his beaked mask. [See my blog: Shroud-Eaters, Vampires and Plague Doctors.]
Plague was a scourge and rightly feared. Due to the incredibly high mortality rate, society was completely dislocated. To get an idea of what this was like, read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague year. While there is some discussion as to whether he was the author of this piece or was simply editing someone else’s manuscript, it gives you an insight into what happens when an organised society breaks down. It is hostile, unfriendly and lawless. People are terrified and turn on each other. The world is out of kilter, no longer a familiar place, no longer predictable.
Hostile entities as the personification of fear
I have a theory that stories of supernatural happenings tend to surface at times when societies are under grave threat. It is somehow a way of giving shape to a faceless fear. For instance, a news correspondent reported an extraordinary superstition that took hold following the earthquake in Haiti. The survivors were living in tents and reported that their children started screaming because they saw werewolves sitting on the roofs of the tents.
The Grease Devil
In Sri Lanka, where the civil war resulted in terrible massacres and disappearances, newspapers recently reported the recurrence of an old belief. The Grease Devil. These were supposed to be bandits or murderers who covered themselves in grease when going out to commit their crimes so that, if cornered, they could not be captured because they would literally slip through the hands of their pursuers. Following the disruption and dislocation at the end of the civil war, newspapers documented several cases of ‘Grease Devils’.
Sometimes, myth precedes reality preparing the ground for future horrors. From around the 1830s – 1880s, Britain became prey to stories of Spring-Heeled Jack. Jack’s appearance went through a number of changes, starting as a white bull and developing into a demonic figure that could leap over houses and was reported to rip at his victims’ clothes.
Ultimately, Spring-Heeled Jack was replaced by a real man, Jack the Ripper, whose attacks on women in the East End of London threw Victorian England into a state of near hysteria.
Witches and magic
Through the ages, witchcraft has touched on science, alchemy, medicine, religion, mediums and fraud.
Accusations of witchcraft have served a variety of purposes from straightforward religious persecution to the discrediting of rivals. It was an effective means of discrediting the powerful – particularly women – and a basis for blatant land-grabs.
King Henry V accused his stepmother, Joan of Navarre, of witchcraft in order to reclaim lands which his father had bestowed on her. Joan was eventually restored to favour (without her lands) and is buried next to her husband, Henry IV, in Canterbury Cathedral.
Henry V’s sister-in-law, Eleanor of Cobham was not so fortunate. Eleanor was a commoner married to Henry’s popular brother, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. A powerful and charismatic couple their wealth and influence was resented in many quarters.
Eleanor’s visits to astrologers were conveniently interpreted by her enemies as witchcraft. She was forced to do public penance, walking through the streets of London barefoot, wearing only her shift and carrying a lighted taper. She was forced to divorce Humphrey and incarcerated in a number of remote locations until her death.
For further information, see my blog: The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law.
Mythology and Fairy Tales
Old legends and tales can be a fertile source of inspiration. The writer Angela Carter said that she liked to put old wine into new bottles. Her re-working of traditional fairy-tales creates a dark and sinister environment.
Her book The Bloody Chamber puts a Gothic spin on stories with which we are well-acquainted. The introduction of the unfamiliar and unexpected into what we regard as safe and familiar creates an unsettling frisson. Suddenly, we are no longer sure of our surroundings. The literary landscape that the reader thought they knew suddenly becomes unfamiliar, menacing and distorted.
A blog by the British Library considers some of the influences on Angela Carter’s writing. These include Edgar Allan Poe and the Marquis de Sade.
I used magical realism as a sub-theme in my novel The Devil Dancers to explain some complex historical and religious subjects. By referring to a people’s beliefs and mythology, magical realism can provide an insight into their psychology.
In The Devil Dancers magical realism reflects the legends through which a particular ethnic group explained its own origins and justified its claim to power. Those beliefs led to civil war.
However, magical realism needs to be used with caution. In my view, it is appropriate for cultures which have a strong belief in the supernatural. However, it may not be appropriate for societies of a more secular, sceptical nature.
For further reading on this subject, see my blog: What Makes a Great Ghost Story? 10 Tips for a Rattling Good Read
To come: 10 Creepy Choices for a Rattling Good Read (+ 4 great films)