Tag Archives: vampires

Profane vampire burials

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

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.

 

 Macabre Methods

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

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 Virus Particles

Rabies Virus Particles

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.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

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.

 

Enduring Beliefs

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic.  His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic. His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

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.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/11153923/Vampire-grave-found-in-Bulgaria.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130715-vampire-archaeology-burial-exorcism-anthropology-grave/

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/vampire-burial-site-discovered-poland-article-1.1806863

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/how-fear-undead-led-vampire-burials-sick-murdered-those-born-sign-beast-1526467

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

Elizabeth Bathory–Queen of the Serial Killers

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

A portrait of the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.

Serial killers are the monsters of the modern world. They haunt the cities and countryside of America, preying upon the most vulnerable among us to fulfill their sick and twisted needs. Most often, serial killers are men who kill to derive pleasure of some sort be it sexual, psychological, or both.

Many believe the man who began this trend, the first serial killer in history, was Jack the Ripper, that mysterious madman who terrorized Whitechapel in 1888. However, as often turns out to be the case, popular opinion is wrong on this count. The first recorded serial killer in history (although I’m certain there have been serial killers as long as there have been people) lived about three hundred years before Jack the Ripper stalked his first victim that chilly London night. Her name was Elizabeth Bathory, and she stands as the queen of serial killers with a body count that is said to dwarf that of even the most vicious modern madman.

 

Royal. Beautiful. Deadly.

Elizabeth was born August of 1560 to a powerful branch of the royal family in Hungary. She was brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of 16th century elites – her every whim was satisfied, and people from all walks of life fawned over the beautiful aristocrat. And she was a beauty by the standards of the day, with her porcelain white skin and hair the color of raven’s feathers. In addition to beauty, she had brains too–she could speak four languages, ran her husband’s estate while he was off fighting the Ottoman Empire, and even defended said estates when the Ottomans invaded Hungary and struck out toward Vienna.

Beauty and brains could not compensate for the ugliness that lay deep inside her, though. Elizabeth was a narcissist who changed her clothes six times a day and was known to spend hours admiring her own beauty in the mirror. She was impulsive and had a violent temper, and was known to lash out at her servants in a fit of rage, beating them senseless for the most minor of offenses. She was not the good, faithful wife her husband (who was a brutal, unsavory fellow himself) would have liked and expected her to be–she was rumored to participate in sadomasochistic orgies, often forcing her victims to participate on the threat of severe beatings and other torture. Beside that, she took many lovers both male and female.

Rumors spoke of even darker habits. She allegedly participated in satanic rituals and other dark rites, which often involved the torture or death of her hapless servant girls.

Like any serial killer, Elizabeth Bathory had a modus operandi, or a distinct way of going about her crimes. Often in this sort of case the MO involves some kind of ritual, and victims with similar attributes are targeted each time. Most of the time the victims are vulnerable people who won’t be missed by the larger society–the homeless, runaways, and people in poverty stricken areas.

Bathory acted in a similar manner, but with one fundamental difference–in her world, she ruled. Her primary home was Cseltje Castle, which lay in the Little Carpathians. It was a fairly isolated area, and she had complete control over the lives of the peasants living in the seventeen villages on her estates. There literally was no risk of punishment–in that time, the nobles could basically do as they pleased and mistreatment of their social inferiors was commonplace and even accepted. However, the horrors to come would be appalling even for their day.

The killer aristocrat targeted lovely peasant girls and women, who she lured to the castle with promises of jobs and decent pay. Sometimes though she eschewed this formality and simply had the girls abducted and brought back to her chambers of death. When they were brought back to the castle, Bathory and four of her collaborators subjected the girls to terrible torture. She would beat them senseless then cut them with razors. She also enjoyed sticking them with pins and scissors, and burning with candles and hot pokers were two other favorites.

In addition to the torture and humiliation, she sexually assaulted her victims, often by forcing them to take part in the aforementioned orgies, and at least once by performing genital mutilation with a hot poker.

 

Was Bathory a vampire?

Many of her victims were found covered in bite marks, some having even been bitten to death. This, coupled with the tremendous vanity that marked her personality, leads many to believe that Bathory was a vampire. The story goes that once a servant girl was braiding Bathory’s hair when she pulled too hard. The enraged aristocrat walloped her unfortunate servant upside the head, so hard the girl’s nose gushed blood that spattered spots on Bathory’s face. One of her later collaborators noted that the skin where the blood had been seemed whiter and more fair than the surrounding skin. From this incident, so it goes, Bathory became convinced that bathing in the blood of slaughtered servant girls would keep her young forever.

It’s also widely believed that hearing this story, along with the story of that other alleged blood sucker, Vlad Dracula, inspired Bram Stoker to write his iconic vampire story. These stories, both of them, are nothing more than stories. There is no evidence from the earliest sources documenting the Bathory case that she bathed in or drank the blood of her victims, or that she believed doing so would make her younger. These stories are embellishments added by later authors.

Could she have done either one? It’s possible. She was allegedly involved in black magic rituals, so it could be possible she used the blood for ritual purposes. It seems more likely that she had a fetish for violence and blood, and the sadistic cruelty she subjected her poor victims to fulfilled that need, rather than any need for eternal youth. And as for Bram Stoker being inspired by her story, it’s likely he was aware of it but just because he was doesn’t mean it was the one causative idea that lead to “Dracula”. He was well versed in the folklore of East Europe, and it seems most of the attributes of Dracula were taken from the nosferatu legends endemic to that area. And on a side note, Dracula was only loosely based on Vlad Dracula…basically, Stoker liked the name Dracula and lifted it for his own use.

 

The downfall of Elizabeth Bathory

Eventually, Elizabeth Bathory began to believe she was untouchable. Who could blame her, since she was an aristocrat and royalty? But eventually she committed a crime whose consequences even her position among Hungarian royalty couldn’t protect her from.

Killing commoners got to be a bit boring, so Bathory decided it would be entertaining to go after a bit tougher prey. She decided she would open a school for the children of nobility, where they could come to her castle and learn etiquette. Once the first of her students arrived, Bathory almost immediately began to abuse them. However, when a daughter of a lesser noble died, the jig was up. There was a half baked attempt at a coverup, but soon the evidence mounted against the Blood Countess and her collaborators and they were outed for what they were – cold blooded killers.

The crime was horrendous, even by the standards of the day (remember, this a time when a plague could come through and wipe out half a city in a matter of weeks, when torture was an accepted part of the legal system and when nobles still had the power of life and death over their serfs). Two of Bathory’s collaborators were brutally executed, tortured then burned alive, while another was beheaded and the fourth jailed for fifteen years. The Blood Countess herself, being royalty,w as immune from execution. Instead, she was walled into her apartments in her own castle, where she lived out the last four years of her life. The legend goes that she couldn’t live without the blood of servant girls to sustain her youth.

That of course is only a legend, but maybe in her own way Bathory WAS a vampire. Her Ego fed off of the praise and the suffering of others. Maybe being walled away, cut off from all the praise and power she’d grown accustomed to, unable to indulge her sick fantasies, was too much for her. Maybe she just gave up living. No matter how it happened, we do know she died in 1614.

At the end of the day, Bathory stands alone amongst the ranks of the most depraved people in history. Her body count is the highest of all the known serial killers. The tallies vary wildly, and there is a lot of debate over what the right number is, but she and her collaborators were indicted on 80 counts of murder. The records from the time though put the count at upwards of 650, a number so huge as to be mind boggling. Some reject the number as too large, accepting the smaller (but still mind bogglingly huge) count of 300 victims. One source at the time counted “only” 37, but with the caveat that those where only the ones he was aware of.

It should be mentioned that some scholars believe that the entire case was fabricated to destroy Bathory. She was a powerful woman who ran her own estates, in a time when women were supposed to be meek and mild and let men run things. Perhaps the accusations were politically motivated, and allowed Bathory’s relatives to lay claim to the land that had once belonged to her husband and became hers upon his death. The lurid tales of torture and murder could have been meant to shock the public and turn opinion against Bathory.

But perhaps not. Maybe events really did transpire as laid out in court accounts. If so, that would rank Bathory as among the most deadly women in history. Whether or not the story is true, it has become the way that history remembers Elizabeth Bathory. After 400 years, it isn’t likely the truth behind the case will come to light. Only the legend remains.

 

Sources:

“Elizabeth Bathory–Wikipedia.” Wikipedia.org. February 25, 2015. Wikipedia. February 28, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_B%C3%A1thory

Malathronas, John. “On the trail of the ‘Blood Countess’ in Slovakia.” CNN.com. October 30, 2014. CNN. February 28, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/21/travel/blood-countess-slovakia/

Pallardy, Richard. “Elizabeth Bathory.” Britannica.com. February 24, 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. February 28, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1489418/Elizabeth-Bathory