People in every time and place have harbored fears of the restless dead. In medieval England, suicides were given profane burials at crossroads to prevent their tormented spirits from returning to wreak havoc on the community. In Haiti, people live in fear of being made into a zombie, one of the living dead in the thrall of a witchdoctor. And even today in 21st century America, many fear the modern zombie, a walking incarnation of death and pestilence.
But a far older folkloric beast has haunted the feverish dreams of humanity through the ages: the vampire. While the stories vary from culture to culture, the basic concept is the same: a vampire is a person who came back to life after dying, and needs the blood of the living to continue its unholy existence. These beings are, for the most part, regarded as mere superstition today; subjects of horror movies and tv series, nothing more. But as recently as the 19th century, the belief in vampires was very real and they were regarded by many as an urgent threat to the community. The actions superstitious locals took to vanquish this evil remain in various burial sites throughout Europe and in New England, where profane burials of suspected vampires continue to be uncovered.
Skeletons that underwent profane burials meant to protect the community from vampires have been discovered in Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, and New England. The macabre methods used to destroy the undead monsters varied from country to country. In Italy, corpses tend to be found with bricks jammed into their mouths, to prevent them from feeding on the living. In Poland and Bulgaria, the methodology was more variable. The ancient Slavic custom for dealing with suspected vampires was to sever the corpse’s head and lay it on or between its legs.
Another common method would be more familiar to modern audiences: the vampire was staked through the heart, but with a metal rode rather than a wooden stake. Skeletons have also been found buried with a sickle over their neck, so when they rise they would decapitate themselves. Some bodies were buried face down, so that when the corpse reanimated it would dig deeper in the earth rather than be able to emerge and assault the living. Some suspected vampires might be buried in coffins rather than winding sheets, so that they would have a harder time escaping. In New England, a man was found with his head and upper leg bones arranged in a skull and cross-bone pattern.
Disease, Death, and Decomposition
While these methods may seem bizarre and gruesome to modern eyes, in the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, many believed they were the only way to protect their community from destruction. Knowledge of the causes of epidemic disease was non-existent, and such illnesses ran rampant. Two ailments in particular seem linked to the legend of the vampire: rabies and tuberculosis.
Rabies is a virus that spreads via bodily fluids, particularly the saliva of infected animals. It is a mammalian virus, typically spread to humans by dogs, bats, and wolves. While the virus can be dormant for long periods of time, when it becomes symptomatic death is all but assured. It begins with flu like symptoms, but in late stages the symptoms become more extreme and include: hydrophobia (aversion to water), sensitivity to light, aggression, anxiety, delirium, increased saliva production, and eventually, death. It is thought that some of the folklore around vampires developed after outbreaks of rabies, when deranged individuals suffering the late stages of the infection could be found wandering at night due to their light sensitivity, showing aggressive behavior. It is interesting to note that vampires were often reported to shape shift into wolves and bats, two animals associated with the transmission of rabies.
Tuberculosis is perhaps more strongly linked to vampire folklore; after all, rabies has been pretty well known to humans for thousands of years, and while the idea of a virus being responsible was a mystery, people knew that getting bit by a rabid animal caused rabies. Tuberculosis was more mysterious, as its causes could not be as well documented by medical professionals of the day.
Tuberculosis is an airborne bacteria that typically infects the lungs. Onset of symptoms could take months, beginning with a fever and leading to coughing, fatigue, weight loss, chills, and night sweats. It was typically called consumption, because the victims of the disease would typically lose weight, fading way, appearing to be “consumed.” It was not much of a leap to connect the appearance of one infected with TB to that of a person drained of blood, and so the thought arose that someone was stealing their blood. In addition, TB doesn’t spread as readily as, say influenza. It is more likely to spread to people who are in constant contact with an individual, such as family or caretakers. This might explain one piece of vampire folklore that is often overlooked in the modern world: Old World vampires seemed to torment their families in particular, rather than any random stranger.
So, to illustrate how a vampire panic might have begun, say that one member of a family came down with TB. They grew progressively sicker and sicker, only to pass away. Then, another family member falls ill with the same ailment perhaps weeks or months after the original death. If vampirism was suspected, the family might dig up the body of the deceased. Decomposition was not well understood back then, so they might see a body with blood around its mouth that was pushed out by gasses generated by decomposition. It would appear then that the body had been “feeding,” reinforcing the belief in vampires by a combination of observation and ignorance. The next step would be to ritually desecrate the body in order to protect the family and the rest of the family from the undead menace. This, of course, would do nothing to actually stem the tide of infection, but it would give some sense of control over the unknown, and in that sense the rituals were effective.
There is still much to learn about the connection between vampire folklore, profane burials, and epidemic disease. Not every desecrated body is found to have suffered from a TB or any known disease that can be discerned from their remains. Indeed, plenty have been found who are not observably different from any other skeleton buried around them. It is unclear then what the exact criteria were that made a person prone to becoming a vampire. It is clear that generally speaking, becoming a vampire was something that happened to someone, rather than something they did deliberately. In other words, their dead bodies become taken over by some other entity, rather than it being some evil inherent in the person themselves. But this does somewhat run counter to the evidence from Poland that suggests that some who suffered desecration had emigrated from other parts of Europe; so, social class and standing in the community played some role in determining who was a vampire and who wasn’t. It remains to be seen then exactly what people believed about vampires then, and how they conceived of what today are considered ghoulish acts of desecration.
However, the belief in vampires is not limited to the distant past. Plenty of people today seem to believe in the undead. As recently as the mid 2000s, reports have come out of Romania of villagers disinterring the body of a suspected vampire and burning its heart. There are even those who embrace vampirism as a lifestyle. Some feed on blood, human or animal, while others are “psychic” vampires who believe they feed on the psychic energy of the living. Strange, perhaps, but these facts do attest to the lasting impact that vampires have on the human psyche. They appeal to something primal in the mind, the innate fear of death we call carry. Because of that, vampires will remain a part of human culture for time immemorial.