Research Rabbit Holes: Vampires, Zombies, and Jiangshi

Every writer knows what it feels like to find yourself in a research rabbit hole.  We intend to find the answer to a single question, and then find ourselves, hours later, with no idea how we got neck deep in research.

I once found myself looking up what a “bastard sword” was (thanks to George R.R. Martin and John Snow) and four hours later was investigating the traditional methods of making katanas, looking up ways to build a kiln in my backyard, and then examining the differences between types of kiln fired pottery.

This week, however, my father asked me a question that led me down a research rabbit hole I had briefly visited years ago. 

“Why do you think zombies re such a big trend in the recent years?”

We briefly talked about the political and environmental factors which lead people to think the apocalypse and the end of the world is nigh. 

But most cultures have some version of “undead” or “revived” bodies in folklore or religious beliefs.

I had previously fallen into a research rabbit hole concerning vampires, and I found lots to be fascinated by (as have many others).


Vampires stemming from the Hungarian and Transylvanian areas are due to a few factors.  Vlad the Impaler, of course, was made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Countess Elizabeth Bathory was made famous by her serial killing of young women to bathe in their blood as a beauty elixir. 

But scientists have also posed logical explanations for the pale blood-drained corpses and bite marked bodies that refused to stay in the ground.

The Hungarian and Transylvanian areas can be mountainous, and it can be difficult to dig a deep enough grave, especially in the winter when the ground is frozen. 

Without the heart pumping, blood follows gravity and pools at the lowest part of the body, which in a corpse lying in a grave, would be the back.  Thus, the blood drains from the face, giving the pale and bloodless look. 

Additionally, frequent baths were not common, and wearing furs for warmth in the winter in combination with non-stellar hygiene could encourage fleas and biting insects.

And when a grave was not deep enough, the body would them be exposed by the weather or animals, leading people to see a pale, “bloodless” body with bite marks that refused to stay in the grave.  Rumors of “undead” and “vampires” spread.


Zombies are reanimated corpses with a need to feed, and have been the subject of many Hollywood films (blockbusters and not).  I discovered that their origins are attributed to folklore stemming from West African slaves brought to Haiti to work on the sugar cane plantations.

Some believe that the image of a brainless zombie shuffling around looking for sustenance actually comes from the depiction of the life of slaves forced into mindlessness due to hard labor and a lack of food.

Others note a connection between zombies and voodoo, a religion based in West Africa and brought to the new world with the slave trade. 

Zombies were thought to be people brought back to life by a voodoo practitioner.  Traditional voodoo practices used combination s of herbs and animal parts, including the toxins found in pufferfish.

The toxin in pufferfish can cause zombie-like conditions of difficulty walking (slow and shambling), mental confusion (brainless), and respiratory problems (wheezing and groaning).  Higher doses of the toxin can lead to temporary paralysis and even comas, leading to reports of people being buried alive and then digging themselves out of their graves.

Reports of people being buried alive contributed to the development of the “safety coffin,” which could have a bell system in case the “corpse” woke up and needed to let those topside know they were awake, or even air vents and a ladder.

But then I began to wonder, why do many movies depict the zombies with their arms outstretched?  Is it due to rigor mortis?


Another undead folklore that I had heard of but never researched was the Jiangshi, or the Chinese “hopping vampire” or “hopping zombie.”  Every time I saw the jiangshi in media, I always saw it depicted as a reanimated corpse wearing a civil official’s uniform with a paper talisman pasted over its face and the arms outstretched, although they were not always depicted as such.

Jiangshi survive by absorbing the qi, or life-force of others, according to folklore.  Over time, the stories evolved to the point where they would also suck blood. 

The depiction of the jiangshi in an official’s uniform was thought to reflect the populace’s opinions of the corrupt government officials and politicians who did not treat the citizens well.  They were corrupt and “sucked the life” out of the ordinary people.

The origin of the jiangshi was fascinating to me.  There is a tradition in China (and many other countries) to transport a body back home if someone passes away while far from home.  This is so that the spirit does not wander and can come home to rest and protect the rest of the family.

Some stories say that Taoists could partially revive a body and teach it to hop home, thereby avoiding the cost of transporting a body via carriage or ship.  The thresholds of morgues and homes were build to be high enough to prevent Jiangshi from hopping over.

But one description of body transportation that I found had a more plausible explanation.  Bodies were tied upright onto a pair of bamboo poles (likely by tying the arms to the poles – arms outstretched) that would rest on the shoulders of the men who would transport the bodies.

They would travel at night to avoid the heat of the day and keep from bringing “bad luck” to those they met.

So from far away, and in low light, as the transporters walked, the bamboo poles would flex and the body would appear to “hop.”

Isn’t that fascinating?

I knew that Jianshi were known as “hopping” vampires or zombies, but I didn’t know the reason.

Now I do, and so do you!

I hope you enjoyed this mini Research Rabbit Hole.

Let me know what kinds of research rabbit holes you usually fall into.

June Writing Challenge Week 4 will be live 6/22/2020 at 10 AM EST.