CSI: Transylvania: Jenkins unlocks vampire forensics

How do you perform an autopsy on the undead?

For author Mark Collins Jenkins, his new book, Vampire Forensics, explores misunderstandings about the various stages of physical decomposition– and may explain how the vampire legends arose in Europe centuries ago.

During the Middle Ages, explains Jenkins, before embalming became widespread, people who reopened fresh graves discovered that some corpses were not behaving as expected.

"Instead of decently moldering away, they were found to be ruddy, bloated up like ticks, with reddish fluid streaming from the corners of their mouths, and other such assorted horrors."

This was actually standard decomposition. But with raging plagues exterminating their families, many superstitious peasants thought that the dead were feasting on the living. Ancient eyewitness accounts of exhumations of "vampires," often minutely detailed, might read like clinical descriptions of ordinary rotting bodies.

"Ask any forensic anthropologist," says Jenkins. "Dead bodies do all kinds of funky things, depending on a host of circumstances."

One notion was that cadavers that hadn't received the official church protection of Last Rites could become "fair game for demons to inhabit"– and then harm the living.

"Often bloodsucking had little to do with it," says Jenkins. "They just kind of went around and beat people up."

An Italian anthropologist's discovery initially inspired Jenkins' book. Among cadavers from a 16th-century bubonic plague epidemic, one skeleton had
a brick jammed in its jaws. That strategically placed brick "might have been one folkloric remedy for stopping the predations of a vampire."

Jenkins, 50, says he realized that a larger story needed to be told. His research makes use of forensic anthropology, archaeology, and folklore; and he credits research by two vampire scholars at UVA, Jan Perkowski and Bruce McClelland.

"Vampires have always been about death and burial," Jenkins says. "In societies where cremation is the norm, there are few if any vampires as we
understand them. Furthermore, once a corpse has become a skeleton, his vampire days are over. The vampire stalks that dangerous time between
death and dissolution."

So Jenkins successfully pioneered the post-post mortem:

"Most forensics tries to determine cause of death," he says. "In this book, we tried turning that around a bit. Instead of explaining what made them die, we
hoped to relate a little of the convoluted history that has made them so long survive."
Mark Collins Jenkins will appear with writer Christopher Corbett on a panel entitled "Vampires and the Pony Express: Twisted Truths and Legends" at 8pm Friday, March 18, at Barnes and Noble.