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Blood & Horror

By Paula Guran
July 2002

"Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we're opened, we're red." -- Clive Barker

Like horror, blood both attracts and repels. Needed for life, directly connected to death, the sight -- even the thought -- of blood elicits an immediate and deep-seated emotional response.

The vampire is one of our most persistent myths, a creature who "lives" by drinking the blood of others. The infamous crimes of Transylvanian Countess Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathory (1560-1614) may not have included actually bathing in the blood of her female victims, but her blood-thirsty sadism was probably one of Bram Stoker's inspirations in the invention of the fictional Count Dracula. Modern-day serial killers have been known to have an obsession with blood. Who among us -- as "normal" as we are -- has not marveled at the color, the texture, the power of blood?

Throughout history blood has held a special fascination. It literally holds the power of life and death and humans have always assigned it magical capabilities, sacred meaning, and ritual significance. Blood can be taboo; blood can sanctify. Ancient Egyptians thought blood carried the essence of life. Roman gladiators drank the blood of defeated foes to gain their strength. The Bible mentions blood over 400 times. "For the life of the flesh is in the blood," says Leviticus, then prohibits the children of Israel from consuming blood or allowing strangers who do so to live with them.

Red wine was associated with the blood of the Greek god Dionysus, and his followers symbolically drank it as the god's blood. The blood of Christ is signified by the wine of the Eucharist. Conversely, religious sacrifice marked by the spilling of the victim's blood, "fed" and nourished ancient deities.

BLOOD From the Greeks through the middle ages, "scientific" theory held that the body was a microcosm of nature. Since natural phenomena was thought to be produced by combinations of the four elements -- air, fire, water, and earth -- it was assumed there were four analogous elements, or "humors," governing the body. The four humors were phlegm, choler, bile, and blood. Blood was the Paramount Humor. It supposedly carried the vital life-spirit throughout the body, sloshing about through "pores" in the heart, ebbing and flowing back and forth through the veins and arteries. To maintain good health, one "balanced" these humors. Bleeding -- intentional bloodletting -- a person help achieve this. Phlebotomy -- the "medical" practice of bloodletting -- originated in ancient times and was practiced through the second Industrial Revolution. Indian and Arabic medicine included the practice of bloodletting, too. For more than twenty-five hundred years, patients were bled for every ailment imaginable (and some that were frankly imaginary) -- yet there was never a shred of evidence that it did any good.

Even as blood's "magical" powers were transformed by modern science into a component of human anatomy that could be therapeutically transfused, perverse mythology still outweighed reason. Blood prejudice has been used to exclude and include. "Royal" blood was once held in special regard. The Nazis refused transfusions from non-Aryans and thus condemned their armies to constant shortages. During World War II, the American military shamefully separated blood stocks from black and white donors.

But, more importantly, just before World War II (and isn't war the largest of all blood sacrifices?) medical science had finally learned how to collect and store blood and to separate plasma. (Blood separates into three parts: oxygen-carrying red cells, white cells and platelets, and a mixture of water, salts, and proteins called "plasma.") A technique to "fractionate" plasma into its constituent parts and the ability to freeze-dry plasma gave the Allies an major advantage over the Axis powers. And it set the stage for a global industry.

BLOOD The blood industry brought life to millions in the last few decades. But distribution of blood and plasma products to millions also introduced the pathogens they carried. In the 1970s, blood-related hepatitis rates soared. As this problem seemed solved, another virus -- HIV -- brought its taint. Blood-borne hepatitis C has become another health crisis.

Modern science taught us that blood's true magic lies in its ability to help heal. We outgrew the notion that vampires could feed on us or that a werewolf's bite would turn us into a lycanthrope. We no longer drink blood to acquire strength or bathe in it to restore youth. Yet, even now, the horror of HIV and other blood-borne viruses has brought the medieval idea of blood as the bearer of death and "bad humors" back into our cultural consciousness.

A new reading; an old fear from our books of blood.



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Copyright © 1998 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.