The Blood is the Life
New exhibit at Everhart Museum explores vampires in art and nature
Only be sure that you eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh.
— Deuteronomy 12:23
You’ll find the name of the Everhart’s new exhibit, The Blood is the Life in two places, The Bible and Dracula.
The biblical warning against eating unclean meat (also Leviticus 17:14) was largely practical, intended to prevent disease potentially carried by animals that dropped dead inexplicably given the limited science of the time. The words have become more spiritually potent over time. In Bram Stoker’s seminal novel, it is “zoophagous maniac” Renfield that says Sângele este viata! the blood is the life.
“It is this precious, sacred religious thing,” affirmed museum curator Nezka Pfeifer.
While these blood sucking staples of literature and film reside safely in our collective imagination, the exhibit also delves into the very factual world of bloodsucking fleas and ticks, leeches and bloodletting, blood diseases including haemophilia and AIDS, and menstruation.
Subtitled ‘Vampires in Art and Nature’ the exclusive show opens Feb. 1. It was executive director Cara Sutherland’s passion for Gothic literature and by extension the British horror films of the ’60s and ’70s (Hammer, House of Horror) that inspired the show. Sutherland fondly recalls sneaking off to see the movies like The House That Dripped Blood at her local Strand Theater while in junior high.
“You would leave so scared you wouldn’t sleep for days,” she said, grinning.
Later she tackled the subject matter with a more studious attention.
“When I was at Mount Holyoke, I remember trying to figure out what to (focus on) and a professor said, ‘read this book.” It was Interview a Vampire,” Sutherland recalled.
She realized she could juxtapose Ann Rice’s novel with Ann Radcliffe’s work of the late 18th century and the transition of the Gothic novel in America.
It was Stoker who laid the seeds for Vlad Tepes to be identified as Dracula. Vlad Dracul (derived from dragon) had a reputation for cruelty, impalement his preferred method of torture and execution, which lent itself neatly to the tale. Reproductions of Bram Stoker’s research notes have been loaned to the museum by heir Dacre Stoker.
Each culture in the world has some kind of a vampire monster, Pfeifer pointed out.
“I think one of the reason that vampires are so much in the pop culture mindset is because we understand the concept of vampires — being next to someone who can drain you (metaphorically).”
Among the diverse embodiments of vampirism the museum has considered are so-called lifestyle “vampyres,” psychic vampires who drain the energy from willing subjects rather than drink blood (although a few claim to do so.)
“They wear custom-made fangs and elaborate costumes and hold psychodrama balls full of spectacle,” Pfeifer described. “They create these rituals that are very sex-based. They’ll have nude women on an alter and all that … which we’re not going to do, but we do have some of the ritual items that they use in the show,” she said.
Widely considered a co-founder of the “movement,’ Father Sebastiaan personally came to Scranton to meet with the curator and Sutherland. On Wikipedia, he is described as an “American master fangsmith,” impresario of the Endless Night Vampire Ball events, founder of “The Sanguinarium” social network, and one time promoter at NYC’s The Limelight.
“There’s a handbook on how to be a psychic vampire,” Pfeifer shared. “You put your hands on, supposedly, a willing donor, and they touch you at your chi points and take your chi (prana, energy, life force) from you. ”
Nine out of 10 people hearing about the exhibit for the first time mentioned Twilight, the curator smiled. That one other time they guessed at flea and tick and bats angle the Everhart was apt to explore. A “slew of blood sucking bugs” were purchased from a supply house. Jarred specimens of spleens and livers affected by blood diseases were borrowed from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. A medical museum at Youngstown State University lent implements like fleams, a hand held instrument used for bloodletting, a cupping set, and a scarificator.
“Bloodletting is still done, namely for hematomas,” said Pfeifer. Medical grade leeches are particularly useful after plastic surgery reconstruction to ease venous congestion during healing. Leeches actually inject an anti-coagulant, and like syringes, they cannot be shared. Doctors also use medical grade maggots to eat out necrosis (death of body tissue occurring when there is not enough blood flowing to the tissue).
The museum did not shun pop culture outright. The visual artists exhibited in the show “are interested in exploring the pop culture phenomenon of vampires but they do it aesthetically in different ways,” Pfeifer said. “You won’t see any lusty, busty Elviras.” Visual artists featured in The Blood is the Life include Cameron Conaway, Jordan Eagles, Anna Fidler, Kathy High, Kerri Halpern, Jessica Joslin, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, Duane Thomas, Marci Washington, and Thomas Webb. Of the lot, Eagles is perhaps the most fascinating and prestigious. The New York City-based artist creates sculptural works and textured paintings that “evoke life, death, body, spirit, and the Universe” using slaughterhouse blood as a key medium.
“Blood is obviously a sacred material; it’s a life force that has energy but is no longer living,” Eagles told The New York Times in September at Manhattan’s Krause Gallery upon the opening of his exhibit Hemofields: A New Series of Multidimensional Works in Blood & Resin.
“You say the word ‘blood’ and people have so many preconceived notions and imagery that comes to mind, like the time you scraped your knee as a kid, or when you gave birth…” he said.
In the pop culture section of the exhibition, visitors will find depictions of Count Chocula and The Count from Sesame Street.
“Count von Count is, in my opinion, the best conceptualized Muppet,” Pfeifer said grinning, “And that’s because … in many cultures the way to protect yourself against (vampires) is to play to their arithmomania. It’s an OCD behavior where you have to count everything in front of you. So if you’ve got a vampire on your tail, take a huge handful of seeds or peppercorns or salt, something you can throw behind you in your wake, and they’ll have to stop and count it.”
The fears around vampires stem from mass deaths or strange, unexplained deaths in history, she said.
“Whenever there were epidemics of certain diseases like the black plague or tuberculosis, you’ll find a higher incidence of vampire sightings and then apotropaics to keep them from rising again — so that’s when you get people’s bodies exhumed, their heads decapitated, and their heads would then be turned upside down facing the other direction so they couldn’t come up.”
Some historians believe the association of vampires with immortality can be linked to these sudden deaths, arguing that immortality may have been an attempt to rationalize the loss of loved ones.
“You wouldn’t have completely lost the person, but then the person that you lost isn’t the person, it’s a monster,” said Pfeifer. “It’s a very strange love-hate relationship no matter what kind of vampire format you’re looking at, whether it’s literary or pop culture or legend.”
Unlike the eye candy of today’s Twilight and Vampire Diaries, vampires before the 18th century, were scary monsters who, if they seduced you, did so with magical powers, not sexual magnetism, Pfeifer emphasized. The concept of the vampire as a seductive and degenerate aristocrat preying upon his subjects appeared after the publication of George Gordon Byron a.k.a. Lord Byron’s 1813 poem The Giaour (Turkish for infidel or non-believer), in which it is predicted the villain will be condemned to an afterlife as a vampire, compelled to kill his loved ones by drinking their blood.
Byron brought up the vampire again during the famous ghost story weekend with The Shelleys from which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein emerged. Also in attendance was Byron’s doctor John Polidori who annoyed with the poet’s bad behavior turned Byron’s unfinished story into The Vampyre, featuring a Lord Ruthven clearly fashioned after the debaucherous Lord.
“There’s all sorts of sociopolitical stuff you can start to pull into all of this,” Sutherland pointed out, referring to this idle, social leech who would feed off the peasants and did not himself have to work. “No literature appears in a vacuum.”
“What I like about Vampire Diaries is they really tie in all the legends of being a vampire where as Twilight has almost no vampire legend at all,” Pfeifer said. “They can go out in the sun and do all these other things that are more human and less vampire. They are immortal and they stay very young and beautiful, and the reason for that is explained as they need to entice their prey.”
In the 21st century, staying young and beautiful forever is something that we’d all like to do, if only because the value has been drilled in our heads by the advertising industry.
“We hyper-realize beauty. Everything has to be beautiful. People have to be beautiful,” Pfeifer agreed.
The Blood is the Life: Vampires in Art in Nature opens Feb. 1 and will remain on display through July 2. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $7 or $5 for students and seniors and only $3 for children ages 6 to 12. Children younger than 5 years, and members are admitted free. Call 346-7186 or visit www.everhart-museum.org for more information.