By Ryan Wittingslow, PhD student in Film and Philosophy at the University of Sydney.
If the latest spate of news stories coming out of Serbia are anything to go by, the tiny and otherwise unassuming village of Zarožje has something of a vampire problem.
Local legend tells of Sava Savanović, a fearsome character said to inhabit an abandoned watermill on the banks of the Rogačica river, who had the nasty habit of drinking the blood of those who desired to mill their grain in his home.
The mill, long abandoned to the elements, proved a hit with macabre tourists, and enterprising villagers treated the area as a tourist attraction, running tours to the shack (during the day, of course). However, years of privation and lack of maintenance took their toll, and the building recently collapsed.
The revelation sent shockwaves through the village. Locals fear that Sava Savanović has been roused by the destruction of his home, and the malevolent spirit is now out for blood.
Zarožje mayor, Miodrag Vujetic, said, “People are worried, […] the thought that he is now homeless and looking for somewhere else and possibly other victims is terrifying people. We are all frightened.”
Meanwhile, the local council has enacted certain public safety measures: garlic in the windows and doorways of residents, crosses in each room of their houses. Some residents have begun carrying stakes. “I understand that people who live elsewhere in Serbia are laughing at our fears, but here most people have no doubt that vampires exist,” Mr Vujetic said.
It is tempting to think of these people as foolish (humblest apologies to those labouring under the delusion that vampires exist). I certainly laughed when I read the story.
Nonetheless, stories such as these do serve a pedagogical purpose, in that they throw into question our shared conceit that we are rational creatures.
After all, these villagers are, in the interest of being charitable, neither madmen nor children. They are grown men and women who, despite being in all important respects just like us, not only believe that vampires exist, but are terrified of them.
A psychiatrist might well consider this an instance of mass hysteria: the spontaneous manifestation of inappropriate emotional excess by more than one person. It is spontaneous because it lacks a meaningful trigger; it is inappropriate because they are afraid of something for which there is no evidence.
Many of us the Anglosphere might like to think that we are immune from such superstition. Certainly very few of the notable cases of mass hysteria appear in the English-speaking world; most are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. Perhaps our chest-thumping scientism has rendered us impervious to such naïve folk beliefs?
Although a pleasant fiction, I am disinclined to agree with that claim. After all, though we may not believe in vampires, we certainly have our own bogeymen.
Once upon a time, it was mobile phone towers and fears that the radiation would cause brain cancer. Although that particular bogeyman has been put to bed, it has instead been replaced with the spectre of “wind turbine syndrome”.
Unmentioned in 22 million peer-reviewed medical papers in PubMed (the US National Library of Medicine’s repository of peer reviewed research), the “syndrome” got its name as a result of an informal study that drew upon interviews with only 23 people and used anecdotal evidence from 15 others. Ever since, “wind turbine syndrome” has had an inexplicable staying power in the Australian public consciousness.
Despite the fact that reputable scientists have shown that wind turbines would have to produce noise levels approximately one million times higher than they currently to do to produce any adverse health effects, groups such as Wind Watch allege that symptoms of wind turbine syndrome can be apparent as far as 100 kilometres away from wind farms. This would mean that the entire populations of Melbourne, Adelaide and the ACT are suffering, unbeknownst to themselves.
The wealth of side effects for which wind farms are supposedly responsible is enormous: exploding the lungs of bats,suicidal thoughts, herpes (cold sores), weight loss, weight gain and lip vibrations are but a small selection. Indeed, the sheer wealth of conditions for which it is supposedly responsible lends weight to the thesis that wind farms catalyse a form of collectivised nocebo effect: a form of mass hysteria.
It is inconceivable to me that we indulge such conceits, but indulge we have. Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence in favour of wind farm syndrome, and the overwhelming evidence in favour of wind farm syndrome being a kind of psychosomatic effect, it remains a point of contention — to the point that a Senate committee investigated the proposal to impose noise restrictions on wind farms in the interest of public health.
Although we might laugh at Serbian villagers for believing in the ill-intent of a homeless vampire, thousands of Australians hold beliefs that are equally without merit and equally worthy of being considered folk superstitions. If we are to be consistent, we should grant wind turbine syndrome the same treatment we give Serbian vampires: laughter, derision and outright mockery.