Today I’m taking a break from aliens and alternative archaeology to present a bit of classic—and supposedly nonfictional—horror. The following tale was the 97th of 107 stories of the Seneca tribe of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) collected by Jeremiah Curtain on the Cattarugus reservation near Versailles, N.Y. sometime between 1883 and 1887, written with a lead pencil on notepaper and then reconstructed and translated by J. N. B. Hewitt at the Smithsonian Institution years later. Hewitt believed the story was a product of the “story-teller’s art” rather than a genuine myth, but nevertheless it is a fascinating early and non-Western tale of the risen, hungry dead—what we might today term a “zombie” rather than a vampire.
97. The Vampire Skeleton
A man with his wife, starting from a Seneca village, went from it two days' journey to hunt. Having built a lodge, the man began hunting. When he had obtained a sufficient store of meat, they started for home. They packed all the meat they could carry and left the rest at the lodge. Setting out in the morning, after traveling all day they came to a cabin in which they found all the people dead. The last person to die was the owner of the lodge. The people of the village had put the body on a shelf in a bark box which they had made. When the man and his wife came it was already dark. The husband thought it better to spend the night there than to continue the journey. He gathered a quantity, of wood with which he made a fire. The woman began to cook, broiling meat and making a cake of pounded corn, which she placed under the hot ashes to bake. The man lay down to rest a while and fell asleep. While cooking the woman heard a noise behind her, near the place where her husband lay; it sounded like the noise made in the chewing of flesh. She began to think about the corpse on the shelf and remembered that the dead man was a wizard. Putting on more wood and making the fire blaze up, she looked toward the bunk, where she saw a stream of blood trickling out. From this she knew at once that her husband had been killed by the dead man.
The bread under the ashes was baited. She then spoke, saying, "I must make a torch and bring some water." Thereupon she prepared a torch of hickory bark taken from the lodge, making it long enough to last until she could run home. Taking the pail, she stole out, but once outside of the door she quickly dropped the pail, and ran through the woods with all her might. She had gotten more than halfway home when the dead man, the vampire, found that she was gone. At once he rushed out, whooping, and ran after her. She heard him, and knew that he was following her. The sound of the whooping came nearer and nearer, and for a while, unnerved completely by fear, she could scarcely move, but at last, having regained her strength, she ran on. Again the vampire whooped, and the woman fell down from fear and exhaustion; but she arose again and ran on, until finally she came within sight of a place near her own village where there was a dance. The pursuing man-eating skeleton was gaining on her, and her torch was almost gone; but, running ahead, she fell into the lodge in which the dancing was in progress, and then fainted. When she came to her senses, she told what had occurred to her and her husband.
In the morning a body of men went over to the cabin, in which they found the bones of her husband, from which all the flesh had been eaten. Taking down the bark box, they looked at the skeleton of the dead man and found his face and hands bloody. The chief said it was not right to leave dead people in that way; therefore they dug a hole, in which they buried the man-eating skeleton, and took the bones of the other man home. The chief had him buried and ordered that thereafter all dead people should be buried in the ground. At first the dead were put on scaffolds, but the people used to see sights which frightened them, for the dead would rise and run after the living. Then it was resolved to build bark lodges for the dead and to put them on shelves therein. This plan did not work well, as the foregoing story shows. About one hundred years ago, says the relator, the present system of earth burial was begun. Before the burial system was adopted they used to put the corpse on the ground, into a chamber like a room dug into a hillside. If the deceased was married, the husband or wife had to watch with the corpse in this place, and every ten days for a year friends brought food to the watcher. If the watcher lived through the year, he or she was then brought out and became free to marry again. The watcher often died in the excavation, however, for it was dark and foul.
Once a man left with the body of his wife heard, after a time, an occasional noise of craunching and eating. The next time his friends came with food he told them of this. Thereupon they held a council, and the chief sent several men into the excavation to ascertain the cause of the noise. They found that the bodies had been eaten, and that a deep hole led down into the ground, which must have been made by a great serpent. After that the Seneca ceased to bury in this way and put their dead into the ground as they do at present.
When it was the custom to place bodies in the bark lodges the husband or wife had to remain in the lodge and look after the dead for a year. At the end of this period the bones were taken out and fastened to a post in an erect position, and a great dance was held around them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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