Sunday 6 April 2008

Another bogus documentary

I'm sorry, but I'm about to reiterate my usual tirade about why people prefer to contruct speculative fictions about vampires rather than telling the actual story. I honestly find it very hard to understand why people don't care to tell the true story when making a documentary about vampires, but rather prefer to invent their own fiction. Why don't they care about the facts? Why do they presume that we, the public, don't want to know the facts, but are willing to be deluded by their fictions? Do they prefer to tell us how superstitious people of the past were rather than try to explain why they did what they actually did?

How come that it is OK to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction when dealing with the (historical) subject of vampires, when no serious historian or documentarist would attempt to do so when dealing with e.g. various episodes in 20th Century history?

Consequently, I am pretty much surprised that scholars and academics are willing to lend their names and professional reputations to bogus historical docudrama like Die Vampir Prinzessin, which is the subject of this post.

The premises of this documentary are:

  1. 3 skeletons from the first half of the 18th Century are found by archaeologists in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech republic. They are buried North-South, and show signs which could be interpreted as if they had been treated for Magia Posthuma (decapitation, stone in a mouth, impaling)
  2. In Cesky Krumlov, a princess called Eleonore Amalie von Schwarzenberg resided in the 18th Century. She suffered from a mysterious illness (actually, cancer), a seemingly mysterious autopsy was carried out on her corpse, and she was buried beneath the floor of a local church.
  3. Bram Stoker quotes Bürger's famous poem, Lenore, in his tale Dracula's Guest, and an Austrian noble woman is referred to.
Based on speculations concerning these three facts, the documentary claims that the princess was suspected of becoming a vampire, and that Bram Stoker was inspired by her tale to create a noble man vampire, Dracula.

Well, today Stoker's working notes have been studied by various authors and scholars, and it is quite certain that Stoker was not inspired by this Bohemian princess but rather by a literary tradition instigated by John William Polidori's character Lord Ruthven. So this whole idea is certainly humbug.

What about the rest of this documentary?

Well, I assume that some of the facts concerning e.g. the three skeletons and princess Eleonore are in fact correct, but I don't find the conclusions very convincing.

Were the three corpses actually treated to prevent them from becoming vampires? The evidence presented is not so convincing that alternative explanations are ruled out.

Furthermore, it is claimed that a certain Dr. Frantz von Gerstorff inspected many cases of vampirism and that he also examined princess Eleonore. Oh, well, Frantz von Gerstorff was actually an Inspector at a mining facility in Transylvania who was involved in examining the case of a certain Dorothea Pihsin who was claimed to be a vampire in 1753. So he wasn't a doctor, and he probably had nothing to do with Eleonore Amalie who died in 1741. So this is even more humbug!

It is also claimed that Stoker probably based his character Abraham van Helsing on Gerard van Swieten, but to my knowledge there is no evidence that he had ever heard of van Swieten. So it's pure speculation.

As for 18th Century doctors, we are required to believe that some of them seriously believed in vampires, whereas the fact is that hardly any enlightened and well educated physician of that day believed in vampires. So when we furthermore are presented with the hypothesis that the autopsy conducted on Eleonora Amalie may have been carried out to prevent her from becoming a vampire, we are required to suspend our disbelief more than anyone can expect.

But then we are assumed to believe that her coffin was put into a specially walled up cavity beneath the church floor to prevent her from coming back, whereas this as far as I'm told isn't a particularly unique way of placing coffins in crypts and church floors.

Well, there's a lot more I could say about the speculations and nonsense that is presented in this documentary, but the above should suffice. What is perhaps even more strange is the appearance of various scholars from universities in e.g. Vienna, whose presence lends credibility to this ludicrous documentary.

So why do they do it? Why don't they tell the true story of the vampires of Serbia, the Magia Posthuma of Bohemia and Moravia, of van Swieten, Maria Theresa, Augustin Calmet etc.? In my opinion the true story will always be more fascinating and interesting than the speculative fantasies presented in documentaries like this one.

It actually really worries me that documentarists don't feel that they owe the public a true understanding of history? Do they really believe that it doesn't matter if we are told the true story or not?

The only redeeming thing about this documentary are the bonus features on the DVD which I have mentioned in an earlier post.

The photo shows Rainer Köppl from the University of Vienna, who hosts the documentary.


Anonymous said...

Dear Dr Petersen,

I read with interest your comments about the s.c. Vampirprinzessin and the related film which was recently released also in Italy. I'm a nuclear engineer, so unavoidably with a sound passion for scientific methodology. Among my many interests I can quote also cultural anthropology. Eventhough I'm not in a position to give a reasoned and scientifically justified opinion about the matters discussed in the film, and while I agree with you that they have not demonstrated anything with the film itself, nonetheless I cannot avoid to consider what they lay out at least "possible", even if not "certain" or "probable". What especially I don't understand in your comments is why a physician at that times should be so enlightened to be immune from superstitions or magical and/or other popular beliefs. Was a rough century (i.e. from about 1600 to about 1700) sufficient in your opinion to change so deeply the cultural background of these people, the physicians of the nobles or of the courts, so that they can be considered as modern medicine doctors? I'm not criticizing you; I'm really interested in your opinion and would like to know more. Thanks, best regards, Federico Rocchi - Italy.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this documentary on the History Channel today. Although I agree with you that it is very speculative it prompted me to read up a bit more on the Princess and Bram and Dracula (and stumble on this blog) so it wasn't an entirely wasted effort. Not defending the documentary just saying even bogus ones can inspire people to do more research on the topics presented.

Niels K. Petersen said...

The documentary is well made and pretty intriguing, so I can understand why you were inspired to learn more :-)

By the way, I recently learned that it is also available in an English languaged DVD edition, see e.g. this site.

Ash said...

I cannot imagine any other reason for the decapitation and placement of heavy stones on the limbs of the skeletons OTHER than the vampire thesis (this, of course, was a very common way of preventing the return of the dead) but I do agree with you about the princess. This part is nothing but speculation, and seems to be an attempt to cash in on the "Dracula" mystique instead of seriously studying vampires. Also, as you pointed out, her burial in a brick vault was in no way out of the ordinary, and in fact a very common way of entombing the dead.

Stuart said...

Could this old belief have an influence on the Churches stance when it involves funerals of suicide victims?

klavaza said...

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Sanyi said...

Doctors might not have believed in Vampires but they were charlatans whose customers believed in Vampires.

Charging ~ equivalent of $150,000 for the autopsy was a lucrative benefit of this "going with the flow".

Not knowing what cancer was, it wasted the victims & was known as the "vampire disease".

The burial method was to make sure Eleonore stayed dead!

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