The Psychology of Immortality (1) – Early Literature, and Vampires


This blog was orginally posted by Shazzbot. Now that she has left the site she has asked for it to be removed.

Comments are still below.


  1. @Shazzbot — Very interesting post. Very interesting indeed. For me, the key appeal of the vampire tropes was best articulated by Joss Whedon — that they are ‘in the world but not of it’. He argued that this was why it was so attractive to teens — who generally feel like that a lot of the time anyway. But I’d say it’s not a sensation generally restricted to teenagers these days.

    Polidori was probably a key influence on Stoker for Dracula but don’t forget that the vampire was a popular trope in Victorian ‘penny dreadful’ literature anyway, with both Rymer’s Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla both predating Dracula and both I think undoubtedly being a big influence on him.

    (If you can get hold of it, an interesting book on Stoker’s influences is Origins of Dracula by Clive Leatherdale, which doesn’t focus so much on the literary antecedents but some interesting historical documents, ranging from various burial rites throughout the ages to ‘serious’ monographs on vampirism that were available at the time.)

    I think that the vampire is such a popular trope because it is just so pliable and can be pressed into service in so many ways. In Buffy and Twilight, it is often a metaphor for emerging teenage sexuality, in Rice it’s for homo/bisexuality, in Stoker it’s much more colonial, a xenophobic fear of the foreigner. There are seemingly limitless ways in which you can use it.

    Personally, I’d only really rate The Vampire Lestat as the only really interesting of the Rice books. Interview lays on the Southern Gothic a bit too much for my liking and they get increasingly, well, anaemic after Lestat. I wouldn’t dismiss the Twilight books/films quite as readily as some would but they do tend to plunder Buffy a bit too much to really be taken that serious in their own light. And I tend to find True Blood just a bit too shonkily written and again too heavy on the Southern Gothic for my taste.

    For me, the best vampire book of the past few years has been Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Interesting and ambitious in a way that Meyer, Harris et al just don’t seem capable.

    The question of immortality and would it drive you bonkers is an interesting one — one that I’ve been toying with recently myself. In terms of Who, I’ve always found it interesting that pre-Time War that the only time that we’ve heard of the Time Lords being involved in a war was in State of Decay and that it was with another race of ‘immortals’ — the Great Vampires. I always found myself wondering if the immortality thing was part of it — jealousy or fear that the Great Vampires were the only ones old enough to know some dark secret of the Time Lords. Or that the Vampires were themselves Time Lords that had gone bad, having lived for too long. Or that regeneration technology relied on something like Vampire Blood or Souls or suchlike…

  2. Thank you @JimTheFish for your response, and thanks for the additional vampire references.  I hope other commenters will see your information too.

    the key appeal of the vampire tropes was best articulated by Joss Whedon — that they are ‘in the world but not of it’. He argued that this was why it was so attractive to teens — who generally feel like that a lot of the time anyway.

    There are so many ways to address the vampire myth, and why they’re attractive to any of us could be a blog series all of its own.  I threw them into my first of this ‘immortals’ series because, let’s face it, they’re sexy.  A blog full of nothing but Utnapishtim and other ancient texts which include an immortal would have been lead balloon time.

    You mention toying with, yourself, the concept of immortality driving one bonkers.  I’d like to know more about that – or will that be in a blog of your own?  I don’t feel I fully fleshed that out in this first instalment, but I do have a series in my mind and hope to pull it all together coherently, eventually.  But I wouldn’t want to step on your toes.

  3. @Shazzbot   Captain Jack was very much in the mould of The Wandering Jew as he waited for the Dr in the 1st series of Torchwood.

    It’s funny to think of a vengeful Jesus, or The Saviour Victorious, if you will. Very Old Testament.

    There are some good vampire literature documentaries on the ‘State of Decay’ dvd.

    This one:

    and another called ‘Leaves of Blood’.

  4. @wolfweed – thanks for that Frayling / State of Decay clip.  It had lots of good historical information, and was a nice way to bring the immortal vampire topic of my blog back into the DW world.

    The vampire of the 18th century [European] epidemics was an agricultural labourer … this was a rural agricultural phenomenon.  When he or she gets into literature, the vampire becomes an aristocrat.   And the reason for that is, it’s to do with the public image of British aristocrats in Europe, which was roughly similar to the public image of football hooligans today.

    he he he.

    For what it’s worth, it appears that the ‘vampires’ of State of Decay were in the mould of my second option: ridiculously cruel, like (to re-use my examples from above) those of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and unlike the overbearingly philosophical vampires of the Anne Rice series.

    I’m still interested to hear if anyone has any other paths that popular fiction / film / graphic novel writers have taken vampires into.

  5. the emphasis was primarily on the prevention of Death: that most great fear of Man, and which is the genesis of almost every religious theory

    @Shazzbot – oh, dear. This is where my MA in religious studies kicks in. No. Definitely not. Most religious theories are not concerned with preventing death – owing to the fact that you can’t. What they do mostly have is a concept of a life after death. This may take the form of a rebirth in another body, it may be as a ghost flitting about a rather gloomy underworld, or it may be a dreamless sleep that you will eventually get woken up from.

    Or it may not be hugely important. Early Jewish doctrine, as seen in the early parts of the Bible, has no real concept of an immortal soul.

    But what you do get, yes, is an exploration of the concept that while there might be some beings who are immortal you, personally, are going to die. There might be some chaps and chapesses in the misty era of mythology who had immortality bestowed, but everyone who lives in historical time (like Gilgamesh) dies. And this means you. 🙂

    I think you’re right about the Wandering Jew; by the Middle Ages it was taken for granted that immortality was a curse. Linking this vaguely back to Doctor Who – The Lone Centurion’s longevity is also a punishment. A self-imposed one, an apology and reparation to Amy – but it’s a punishment.

    Similarly Dracula, in the original novel, has an expression of relief when he’s finally killed. His immortality is a curse he’s glad to be freed from.

    Looking at the Doctor’s immortality – his major problem is boredom. Matt Smith’s Doctor, especially, is bored. Bored. Bored! He can only stave off the boredom by finding these pretty young girls and showing them the universe – in a way, he’s a bit of a vampire himself. He’s always desperately looking for something new, even if the ‘something new’ is being asked for help by the Daleks. 🙂

    Vampires themselves, I’d say, generally represent ‘transgression of the decade’. Sexual disease/immorality, funny people with weird accents coming to our wonderful country, that appalling boyfriend who your mother just knows is going to ruin your life (ooh, look, it’s Tennant’s Doctor!). In the earlier forms, they’re not predators, they’re parasites.

    In the later forms, such as Dracula and Buffy, they become predators. That’s an important difference; parasites disgust us, but we have a sneaking admiration for the predator. We can imagine being a predator; to suggest that we might become a parasite is an insult.


  6. @Bluesqueakpip – I think you mis-interpreted what I wrote, sorry.  I was trying to say that Death is the greatest fear of Man, and that Death is the genesis of religion.  (not ‘prevention of death’) As you say, life after death is always one of the main draws of organised religion.  🙂 I’ve corrected my original post for clarity on this point.

    Thanks for pointing out the parallel between the Wandering Jew and Rory as the Auton Centurion.  Nice catch.

    In the earlier forms, they’re [vampires] not predators, they’re parasites. … In the later forms, such as Dracula and Buffy, they become predators. That’s an important difference; parasites disgust us, but we have a sneaking admiration for the predator. We can imagine being a predator; to suggest that we might become a parasite is an insult.

    That was well-put.  And you’re right – the third of the trinity (so far) of possible psychological issues from being a vampire (i.e., immortal for centuries) certainly is boredom.  It’s just that we haven’t seen that possibility that much in vampire fiction.  Writers tend to take the ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m fascinated by my navel lint’ paths (and quite often the former leading directly to the latter).

    Even, as you say, Dracula who appears to be relieved to be done with it all at his end, comes at it from the ‘I’m so tired of bouncing between evil and contemplation of evil’, rather than, ‘I’m so bored and telly isn’t getting any better the longer I live’ angle.

    I’d even argue that Matt Smith’s Doctor isn’t bored (in this analogy only); I’d posit that he too is very tired of the massive amount of effort he’s expending in not contemplating the effects of his actions, and looking for distractions so he doesn’t descend into terminal navel-gazing.

  7. I think you mis-interpreted what I wrote, sorry.  I was trying to say that Death is the greatest fear of Man, and that Death is the genesis of religion.

    @Shazzbot – yup, and I was trying to say that you are wrong on both counts. 🙂 It’s a popular non-academic theory, but it mainly relies on the point that burials leave lots of lovely archaeological evidence and stuff like weddings and naming ceremonies leave nothing at all. Hey, look, so many graves with evidence of ritual – religion was all about burying people! So religion got started because people were scared of dying! 😀

    As to death being the greatest fear of Man, pop surveys usually end up with slightly over a quarter of the population having it as their greatest fear – though I’m pretty sure very few people are looking forward to it.

    I cheerfully admit that life after death is often the main draw of Christianity. Inevitably so; that was how Christianity got started. But other religions are available; often with completely different views.

    Anyway, back to vampires and the Doctor. Vampires have a problem that the Doctor doesn’t have. Lunch. Seriously; when the Doctor ran off with the TARDIS, he basically stole an eternal free lunch. And free breakfast, and free dinner, and free transport, and free housing … no wonder he doesn’t understand money. Whether Gallifrey is an example of post-scarcity economics, or whether its simply that as one of his people’s aristocracy he’s never been poor, he’s never, ever had the ‘lunch’ problem.

    Vampires do have that existential problem with the next meal, especially if they’re not necessarily Evil Soulless Monsters (TM). If your next meal is capable of carrying on a conversation with you, there is going to be something of a difficulty; and the more philosophically minded are likely to wonder why they are here if their purpose in life is, seemingly, eating people.

    Matt Smith’s Doctor is often played as, very specifically, easily bored. Think Vincent and The Doctor, or Power of Three. When his Companions ask him why they’re along for the ride, the first lie he comes up with is to explain that he needs them to see the universe as if for the first time. He’s seen it all before. He can travel from Earth’s beginning to its death – and it doesn’t affect him emotionally. Why should it; he’s been there before – both times.

  8. @shazzbot

     I wouldn’t want to step on your toes

    No, no, you go right ahead. I was just meaning more that I dwelt on it more in my book (coming soon to all good bookstores and tax-dodging online retailers, folks!)  so don’t really have any intention of blogging on the subject. So would be very interested in your own thoughts on the subject.

    Also, an oft-ignored modern-ish take of vampire mythology is Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. It might be a little arthouse and pretentious for some tastes but I think it’s definitely worth a look. And it has Christopher Walken as an old, jaded vampire in it. What’s not to like?

  9. Some interesting stuff here. I’d echo some of the discussion about Vampires being a route for whichever issue is flavour of the month. A good one for reference is the C4 series “Ultaviolet”. In that there is a confrontation between the priest who leads the hunt for them (Philip Quast) and a Code 5 (“V”, as the Vampire term is never used) (Corin Redgreave). The Code 5 claims that Vampires are the source of “life after death” philosophy that Religion adopted in competition. “We are the only source of redemption”. It’s good stuff, and left deliberately ambiguous (as much of the series is).

    Just on representations of immortality in Who specifically, it is often seen as something to be pitied or avoided. It largely comes in two forms.

    1. The desire for Immortality demonstrates low moral fibre (and in many cases being mad as a box of frogs).

    Most people who seek it are intrinsically going to be bad eggs. You see this in the Five Doctors and in the new series, Human Nature. Both feature the people who seek it gaining it in a way they would never would wish for (you’ve seen Human Nature, but Five Doctors sees Rassilon turning immortality seekers to living stone).

    2. The effect of living forever makes you hollow, empty and less than human.

    This really does feature heavily in the old series. Each of the Minyans in Underworld has undergone Regeneration thousands of times. They are tired, in some cases actually willing themselves to die. The Scientists in Mawdryn Undead don’t want their immortal state cured. They actually want death.

    A non-Time Lord story “Enlightenment” sees the introduction of “The Eternals” (a couple of references in RTDs run places them as the natural inhabitants of the Void or “Howling”). They are powerful, wondering why there are Lords for such a small Domain as Time, but it wouldn’t really occur to them to use their powers, because they have absolutely no imagination. They seem to pity, but are largely envious of “Ephemerals” (everyone else) because they have what they lack. Whether they were born like that or developed that way is left open to question. They use telepathic powers to draw on experience and emotions of Ephemerals like … well, Vampires.

    The Doctor telling Madge in tDtWatW that he “couldn’t feel” like her could be an indication of that sort of philosophy setting in, but he seems to come back at the end. Perhaps that’s why he keeps picking up companions?

  10. Thanks for all your comments @Bluesqueakpip @JimTheFish @PhaseShift @wolfweed

    I added vampires into this post (the first of a putative series on various kinds of fictional immortality) because they are, frankly, both sexy and cool nowadays.  But they admittedly are such a cultural touchstone, and so flexible in their myriad of interpretations, that it’s easy to get lost up a number of avenues of debate.

    @wolfweed – I’ll keep your Captain Jack / Wandering Jew comment aside for when I get to ‘the immortals who die but keep coming back to life’ [those who resurrect’] part.

    @Bluesqueakpip -oh,  you, and ‘lunch’!  I remember this from your discussions of the Weeping Angels.  🙂 But it also makes me think I should park that for a later part of other immortal types … which the Angels certainly seem to be.  I’m happy to agree to disagree with you on Doctor 11’s ‘boredom’ though – I still think his freneticness is anchored more in his desire to never slow down long enough to realise that he’s really not very happy right now, rather than what a normal human might label ‘boredom’.

    @JimTheFish – I’ve heard about The Addiction but will now definitely search it out.  Anything about vampires and addictions reminds me of what I read long ago about the genesis of Being Human – three flatmates, one a recovering addict, one bi-polar, and one agoraphobic.  Apparently, it was never meant to be supernatural, but the vampire, werewolf and ghost tropes fit the treatment so well they just ran with it.

    @PhaseShift – immortality: ‘something to be pitied or avoided’.  That’s exactly where I hoped to end up, eventually:  Immortality as affliction, not blessing.  Thanks for your DW-specific examples.

  11. @Shazzbot – With regards to my Jack – Jew comparison. He was forced to wander the Earth, waiting for the Dr’s Second Coming, in the (unfulfilled) hope of a ‘cure’…

  12. I could be wrong here, but the character I believe was the first true immortal in Doctor Who was an archetype of the bored immortal. Kidnapping travellers and making them play childish but deadly games, the Toymaker was the first of many. Boredom was his motive: he was even pleased about the Doctor destroying his realm because rebuilding it would give him something to do!

    By the way, one form of immortality in Doctor Who particularly intrigues me, which is that of the Guardians: so long as I exist, he exists. I took this as meaning that it is possible to destroy them both, but neither individually. Or maybe, if you destroy the White Guardian, the Black ceases to exist as well? Since White can survive Black’s apparent destruction, though, I doubt that explanation. That concept of shared immortality is one that really intrigues me.

  13. This is a really interesting topic. Especially re: vampires/timelords and immortality. Mostly because it is, when you look at it, an absurd title. Literally, it means not going to die, but as used in literature and legend, it just means hard to kill and won’t die by natural causes. Anything that can die is mortal. And it is interesting that in most vampire stories, vampires tend not to be more than a few centuries old. When they get really old, they tend to change into a deamon form from whence they half came (Buffy), or become more literally then anyone else ever does, Statuesque (Anne Rice) and, again, very literally, bat-shit crazy.

    I loved Whedons’ take on vampires, because there was a lot going on under the surface. (for example, what was difference between Spike and Angel regarding William and Liam- a lot. Why did Willow go so very dark as a vampire- and then as a human witch.)

    I think personally I fear immortality more than death. To me that seems like a good explanation for regeneration for Timelords. ‘A change is as good as a rest’, changing personality every so often, even if you retain memories, gives a nice re-set. But I do still think that a: changing personality represents death for the personality being changed from, b: the 12 regerations limit is possible a practicality- how many sets of memories can a timelord sanely hold, and c: all creatures are moral, but some are more moral than others.

  14. @arkleseizure – that’s an interesting point you’ve made about the Toymaker, with respect to boredom as an inevitability with immortality.  I wonder if there are more fictional immortal characters who appear to have a ‘self-destructive’ streak, but who really are just so bored of endless days and endless nights that they – subconsciously or overtly – desire someone to smash everything they have simply so they can have a new rebuilding project to look forward to?

    I don’t know much about The Guardians – your description of ‘shared immortality’ intrigues me, too.  Do you want to expand on that?  I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the Black v the White Guardians.

  15. @Miapatrick – you are of course absolutely correct, which is why I had the bit at the beginning about ‘Types of Immortality’ but you’re the only one to pick up on the absurdity of calling a fictional character ‘immortal’ who can actually die.  Well done!

    From the vampire stories I know – I’m not as familiar with Buffy, although on that you seem to concur – it does indeed seem that they all go ‘bat-shit crazy’ after enough time.  I had split them into two paths, overly philosophical or ridiculously cruel – but whichever path they took, after too many centuries they’re still a fruit loop.  One that agonises and beats its breast over having to kill to satiate the bloodlust, or one that gleefully and pointlessly tortures its victims; but still, mad as a box of frogs either way.

    And in the context of vampires, I couldn’t find any fictional characters who just ended up ‘bored’.  I wonder if this is due to their need to kill to stay ‘alive’?

    Good point about regeneration for Time Lords, too – if I do continue and complete this proposed series, the final ‘episode’ is of course back to Doctor Who and regeneration.  I hope you don’t mind if I incorporate your thoughts (properly attributed, natch!) in that final piece.

  16. @JimTheFish– I like The Addiction. Mind you I also like ‘Driller Killer’, there’s something wrong with me… I think the acting in The Addiction does cut through a bit of the pretension. I liked the addiction angle, but I’m always irritated with Vampire ideas that have vampirism so easily passed on (if you survive, your a vampire). For one it makes vampirism in the film two things: addiction, and a contagious disease, rather than just one, which confuses things. For another, the logistics always irritate me. We’d be overrun in no time, and the faster it spreads, the more competition for a rapidly dwindling food source.

    @Shazzbot– incorporate (and attribute, double natch) away. I love the way Doctor Who involved, rather than being created at the start with all these things in place- and what was at first, really, ingenious way to preserve the program when the lead actor was leaving, became something quite complex and interesting.

  17. @OsakaHatter – you referenced this blog in your comment on another blog, which made me happy that you’d read it and thought positively of it, but sad that you’d not left a comment here.

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts, not least because it’s putatively the first of a series and I’d like to mould the remaining parts to what people would like to read and respond to.

  18. @Shazzbot: I actually forgot the other half of what the White Guardian said at the end of Enlightenment:

    While I exist, he exists also. Until we are no longer needed.

    The second part of that is just as important, of course. It interests me that the Guardians are not polar opposites: the Black Guardian seeks to destroy the White and plunge the universe into chaos, but the White appears to believe that his rival is needed also, and only seeks the maintain the status quo. The White Guardian maintains the balance of order and chaos, using the Key to Time when necessary, but it remains a mystery to me what purpose the Black Guardian serves. He wanted the Key for “an evil purpose”, but we never learned what that was. So I have to admit that I’m really not sure what a situation where they are no longer needed would look like. Or indeed what would happen then: would they just cease to exist?

    My best guess is that the White Guardian knows very well that they will always be needed as long as there is a universe to protect. But presumably they would die with the universe (and just as well: never mind immortality in this universe, just imagine an eternity of having outlived it! That would be unbelievably bad).

    As you can see, I’ve never really managed to marshal my thoughts about the Guardians, so sorry about all that being a bit “stream of consciousness”!

  19. @Shazzbot – Apologies!  I fully intended to come straight here from the other blog, but work deadlines have meant I’ve taken a longer route than intended.  Also lost the response I started writing earlier through sheer ineptitude!  Anyway, here at last… 🙂

    I think it’s an interesting topic, and one that we’ve already touched on in discussions about the regeneration limit for the Doctor – with no limitations, the future consists of no jeopardy and probably a descent into madness.   I struggle to think of any examples in any media where those seeking immortality are portrayed as being anything other than between flawed and downright evil and where for those who achieve immortality it proves to be anything other than a curse.

    You provide some interesting examples – I’ve added John Polidori to my ‘to read’ list.  I’ve never been able to get into Anne Rice’s novels though.  As @miapatrick mentions, as far as vampires are concerned, immortality is an almost absurd title given the number of ways they can die. I guess this is why, in most portrayals, vampires are purely in a fight for survival – feed, hide, move on.  It’s only if they can rise above this daily grind that they can show us what they would do with their extended years.

    Admittedly, vampires are unique immortals in that they are carnivorous, feeding off humans

    I’d argue that many examples of immortals, or near immortal feed in some fashion (admittedly, not always as literally as vampires.)  Neil Gaiman comes back to this several times – American Gods has Gods feeding off belief, with blood sacrifice the greatest of all, Stardust has witches who appear to dedicate their extended existence to pursuing the means to continue it (consuming a living star).  In both cases these immortals largely exist to keep existing, nothing more.

    You mentioned Gods, and other than the Douglas Adams/Neil Gaiman variety, classic mythology is perhaps ripe for exploration for this topic – the classic Gods seemed unusually comfortable with their immortality, but demonstrated the boredom thing by interfering with the affairs of men and the recklessness that immortality could cause e.g.  Achilles, reckless in battle, Thor picking fights, Zeus disguising himself and descending to earth.

    I’ll leave it there for now but I’m wondering whether the various portrayals of Merlin may also be relevant.  I’ll think on that and get back to you 🙂

  20. @OsakaHatter – well, your comment was well worth waiting for!  Thanks for replying.

    In all the discussion about ‘immortality’ and how it doesn’t really mean anything unless a character truly is actually un-killable …  I would debate your point about the Doctor and his future consisting of no jeopardy.  Because even with regenerations, he’s manifestly kill-able.  (Putting aside the meta reference to a character in a popular TV programme who simply cannot be killed for marketing reasons.)

    It’s interesting that you used the phrase ‘those seeking immortality’ – this opens up a whole new category for future instalments of this blog series.  I hadn’t considered that, and it’s a wonderful area ripe for discussion.

    I’m going to have to re-read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  Thanks for bringing that up, it’s quite pertinent to my thesis.

    The putatitve next instalment of this series is about the mythological gods, and you’ve gone straight to where I was hoping to lead with that part – boredom (and the concomitant chronic and cruel mischievousness) is the defining factor of ‘the gods’.  What does this say about us as humans – because, of course, we created said ‘gods’ – that we imagine immortality as being as boring as an endless repeat of a rainy Sunday afternoon?  And that, finding ourselves so bored, we would revert to pulling the wings off butterflies to keep ourselves ‘amused’?

    Please do come back with more thoughts on Merlin, or anything else.

  21. @Shazzbot – having to dip in and out at the mo, so only just got to your reply.

    With regards to the jeopardy thing, I was more thinking from a point of view that actions that would normally cause a regeneration can be done without fear of burning through a limited supply – there will of course be the supplementary danger of enemies trying to stop him from being able to regenerate.  Similar reason why I’ve never been a big Superman fan.

    It’s interesting that you used the phrase ‘those seeking immortality’ – this opens up a whole new category for future instalments of this blog series.  I hadn’t considered that, and it’s a wonderful area ripe for discussion.

    Perhaps it’s my reading habits but I’d say that immortals pretty much fall into three categories of those who sought out immortality, those who had it given (generally inflicted) upon them and those that just have it.  I find it interesting that the division between seeking and receiving generally falls along the lines of seeking it is flawed (or evil) while receiving it is to be pitied.  I’m sure it ties in quite closely to your point about humans creating immortal gods (who generally just ‘have’ immortality) and then portraying them as bored, mischievous and cruel – although give that gods were created in part to help explain the world around them, those particular character defects could simply be a further explanation for why would the gods allow bad things to happen.

    Look forward to the next installment 🙂

  22. @OsakaHatter – it’s possible we might be about to get a solution to the:

    actions that would normally cause a regeneration can be done without fear of burning through a limited supply

    conundrum. That is, Moffat can give the Doctor an unlimited supply of regenerations and also make regeneration a very serious matter indeed.

    The clue is in Nightmare In Silver, when the Doctor says something along the lines of ‘I don’t want to regenerate. You never know what you’re going to get.’ If he’s saying that because he’s already had a regeneration which turned out very dark indeed – and we, the audience are about to see that – then regeneration will remain something risked only at the point of genuine death.

    The Doctor doesn’t come into the category of those seeking immortality, though. He’s in the category of ‘those who just have (near) immortality’. It’s a function of his biology.

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