27. In German folklore, Nachzehrer chewed on their burial shrouds
A Nachzehrer (‘night-waster’) is a vampiric creature from Germany. Legend has it that a Nachzehrer is created when a coin is not placed in a dead person’s mouth. Other explanations say a Nachzehrer is the first victim of a plague. The creature remains undead, chewing its burial shroud and sending its spirit out to harm the living. When the shroud is consumed, the Nachzehrer‘s family dies. They sometimes leave the grave physically to eat the dead bodies surrounding them. Vampire shroud-eating is grounded in reality. Mouth bacteria often decayed the burial shroud, which thus looked like the corpse had nibbled it.
26. The Greeks had their own vampire tradition of the vrykolakas
In Greek folklore, the closest entity to a vampire is the vrykolakas. The vrykolakas is a dead body that returns to scourge the living. A vrykolakas is created when someone dies excommunicated or after committing a serious crime. Their attacks on the living include vandalism, threatening behavior, and spreading plague. Like the draugr, the vrykolakas is not a pretty sight. Witnesses described pale skin pulled taught over the body, like a drum. In the 17th century, Leo Allatius reported that people on the Greek island of Chios never answered the door on the first knock, in fear of a vrykolakas.
Vlad Tepes (‘the impaler’, 1428-c.77) is a Romanian national hero. Ruling Wallachia in the 15th century, his brutal scare tactics saved Europe from a full-scale Ottoman invasion. His nickname, Dracula, means ‘son of the dragon’, but this isn’t a reference to the devil, as sometimes assumed. His father, Vlad, was nicknamed ‘Dracul’ (‘the dragon’) because he belonged to the Order of the Dragon, an eminent chivalric society. Although Tepes’s enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons, said he dipped bread in human blood, he wasn’t called a vampire. Dracula existed alright, but gives only his name and military background to his fictional namesake.
24. There were still plenty of vampires in Romanian folklore
Romanian folklore is however rich in vampires, usually called Strigoi. The real Dracula’s home, Wallachia, called its vampires murony. An illegitimate child of illegitimate parents inevitably became a murony, as did anyone killed by the creature. A murony drank the blood of the living, often in the form of a wild beast. The Wallachians lived in great fear of the murony. When a sudden death occurred, Wallachians summoned a skilled midwife to nail the body’s forehead and smear it with pork fat. A wild rose made sure the murony‘s clothes caught on the thorns if it tried to leave its coffin.
If you met a vampire from Slavic folklore, you’d have no doubt you were talking to a walking corpse. A Strigoi or vampyr looked about as different from Robert Pattinson in Twilight as you can imagine. Slavic vampires were simply corpses that couldn’t decompose properly and had no time to dress well or comb their hair. Accounts of vampires being exhumed always echo the description of a corpse in early decomposition we saw earlier. Bloated, their mouths bloodied, skin taut, with long fingernails and savage teeth, it’s no wonder people feared these vampires.
22. Venice seems to have blamed a vampire for its plague of 1576
In 1576, a terrible plague ravaged Venice. Famous victims, such Titian, got elaborate memorials, but normal people were chucked in a big pit together. On Lazzaretto Nuovo, a tiny island used as quarantine, archaeologists found the skeleton of an old woman with a brick shoved between her jaws. Historians posit someone found her bloated corpse, decided she must be a vampire, and blamed her for the plague. 16th-century Italians thought vampires spread plague, and fed on the corpses by eating their burial shrouds like the Nachzehrer. The brick was meant to prevent shroud-munching and thus stop the plague.
21. Elizabeth Bathory probably didn’t bathe in blood, and no one thought she was a vampire until recently
You’ve heard of the Blood Countess, right? The one who bathed in the blood of virgins every night? Well, have you heard of the wealthy Hungarian widow slandered by her male relatives to steal her property and money? Indeed, there is no real evidence that Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) ever killed anyone, let alone bathed in their blood. But the legend of a mad woman trying to achieve eternal beauty in her mighty castle soon entered folklore. And that’s precisely where writers of vampire fiction in the 19th century found it. Until then, no one ever called her a vampire.
20. Jure Grando’s career as a vampire lasted 16 years
In 1656, Jure Grando died in Istria (modern Croatia). He lived his life quietly and won the respect of his neighbors, but that all changed when he died. For Grando didn’t stay resting for long. The night after his burial, Grando began roaming the village and terrorizing the locals. Grando knocked on doors, and soon afterwards one of the inhabitants would die. After 16 years, locals finally found the courage to put a stop to this. Disinterring the corpse, they found Grando’s smiling body bloated, ruddy, and fully intact. After saying a prayer, they beheaded him. Grando never came back.
19. When the great European witch panic ended, the vampire one soon replaced it in the Habsburg Empire
Every society needs its scapegoat. During the witchcraft hysteria of early modern Europe, people blamed witches for all manner of ludicrous things. Witches caused livestock deaths, crop failure, child mortality, unfaithful spouses, and epilepsy in their heyday. But after a century or so, people noticed the innate stupidity of witch trials, and prosecutions tailed off. So who could you blame for everything bad? In the Habsburg Empire, another monster quite literally stood knocking at the door: the vampire. Vampire folklore had circulated in Slavic countries for centuries, but in the early 18th century aristocrats started listening. Vampire mania had arrived.
Forget Transylvania, Silesia was the place to be for a vampire in the 18th century. In fact, the region had long been home to vampires. The first recorded instance of a vampire in Silesia dates to 1599, and concerns the Shoemaker of Breslau. This cobbler committed suicide, then prowled Breslau tormenting the living and sucking the life from them. Eventually, locals decapitated the corpse, removed the heart and limbs, and burned it on fire. 18th-century Silesia became notorious for vampires and grave desecrations. One Silesian vampire slaying was so gross the Habsburgs passed laws against all anti-vampire measures.
17. People suspected Eleonore von Schwarzenberg of being a vampire and gave her a vampire burial
‘Eccentric’ is the best word to describe Princess Eleonore von Schwarzenberg (1682-1741). She kept wolves as pets, and drank their milk, believing wolf milk made her fertile. It worked – well, she gave birth to two children – but later in life, Eleonore suffered from cervical cancer. With no proper treatment, she gradually wasted away, becoming pale and thin. And it seems this made people think her a vampire. No one attended her night-time funeral in Český Krumlov and, in an unusual event for the time, a surgeon performed an autopsy. Oh, and someone placed a massive stone slab over her coffin…
16. The vampire Petar Blagojevich allegedly killed 9 people
In 1725, Petar Blagojević died in Kisilova. In the 10 weeks following his death, 9 other people fell ill, and died within 24 hours. On their deathbeds, all swore that Petar had come to their bedroom and lay on top of them. Eventually, people threatened to abandon Kisilova altogether if their Austrian overlords didn’t get rid of Petar. Reluctantly, a state representative took a priest with him to supervise the disinterment. Peter’s body hadn’t decayed and exhibited wilde zeichen (‘wild signs’, probably blood around the mouth and sexual arousal). The locals staked the corpse and burned it.
15. An account of a vampire slaying in Serbia became a bestseller in 1732
The pamphlet Visum et Repertum Est (‘as seen and reported’) described attempts to kill a vampire in Medvedija, Serbia. In the report, the villages exhumed Arnold Paole 40 days after his death, and drove a stake through his heart. The corpse, which had killed 4 people and also drank the blood of livestock, shrieked. Villagers feared people who ate cattle he’d sucked dry were also now vampires, and thus 8 other corpses were burned. The report came from an Austrian army surgeon, and was thus thought credible. A month after its publication in 1732, copies were printed all over Europe…
14. The word ‘vampire’ first entered the English language around this time
With Visum et Repertum Est, the Slavic vampire crawled from the Habsburg Empire all over Europe. Within 2 years, the pamphlet seems to have taught the English a new word. In 1734, the word ‘vampire’ appeared in English for the first time. Up to that point, texts written in England didn’t have a proper catch-all term for the hungry dead. This first appearance came in The Travels of Three Gentlemen. This narrative described three men’s experiences traveling around Europe. At Laubach, Germany, the men heard tales of ‘the Vampyres, said to infest some Parts of this Country’.
13. There’s very little historical evidence that vampires don’t like garlic
If there’s one thing most modern mythologies agree upon, it’s that vampires hate garlic. However, this is largely a myth created by Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Although in parts of Romanian folklore there are references to garlic shoved in the mouth of a suspected vampire to stop it rising, garlic doesn’t seem to have been a popular deterrent elsewhere. Far more common in Slavic accounts are rosemary, roses, and mustard seeds. All are pretty fragrant plant matter, though, so garlic isn’t exactly an illogical choice. It’s more accurate to say that vampires hate smelly plants.
12. Much European folklore links vampirism to suicide
Suicide is still a cultural taboo today, despite our greater understanding of mental health issues. Centuries ago, people weren’t as empathetic. Suicide is a Christian sin, and older Christianity explicitly states that people committing suicide go to hell. Thus it isn’t surprising that in much vampire folklore people who commit suicide return as vampires. After all, the vampire in these legends nearly always has an axe to grind or sins preventing them from rotting. It’s little wonder therefore that people feared those who committed suicide would come back to wreak havoc on earth.
11. There are records of 60 known anti-vampire rituals in 19th-century America
Between 1883 and 1891, several members of the Brown family of Rhode Island were sickened and died. Doctors diagnosed them with consumption, but locals thought otherwise. They convinced George Brown to exhume his dead family to check for signs of vampirism in 1892. They found that George’s daughter, Mercy, who’d been dead some time, hadn’t decomposed. The superstitious Rhode Islanders cut out Mercy’s heart and liver and burned them. They used the ashes to make a tonic for her sick brother, who died 2 months later despite drinking it. Amazingly, we know of 59 other similar incidents from 19th-century America.
10. In 1811, an angry mob staked a dead murderer through the heart of London
In December 1811, someone bludgeoned 7 people to death in London in 2 separate incidents. Police arrested a shady character called John Williams, but before he could be tried for murder, Williams committed suicide. A cart carried his body to be buried at a crossroads near where the first murders took place. Fearful that he would rise from the grave, locals hammered a stake through his heart. For years, the end of the stake could be seen above ground on the street. Fear of the restless undead clearly affected the English as much as their Eastern European cousins.
9. The image of the modern vampire came from John Polidori’s The Vampyre
In 1816, the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron vacationed in Switzerland. With their companions, including Percy’s wife, Mary, they passed one stormy night near Lake Geneva telling scary stories. That night, not only Frankenstein but also the modern vampire were born. Byron’s physician, John Polidori, quickly wrote down notes on the famous poet’s vampire story. 3 years later Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre, appeared in print. Polidori’s vampire hero, Lord Ruthven, is clearly modeled on Byron: handsome, aristocratic, mysterious, and irresistible to women. Ruthless, sexy, and tragic, Lord Ruthven is the model for all subsequent vampires.
8. Varney the Vampire ran for two years in British newspapers and is one of the most influential versions of the vampire legend
Polidori’s tale proved an instant hit, and soon a market for vampire fiction developed in England. But before Dracula, the most famous vampire in England went by the name of Varney. Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood ran for 2 years as a weekly penny dreadful. Most penny dreadful were soon forgotten by their mostly lower-class audiences. However, people loved Varney so much that it appeared as a lengthy, bestselling book for the genteel classes in 1847. Hugely influential, Varney depicted another aristocratic vampire and established many familiar vampiric tropes, such as long teeth and puncture wounds.
7.And soon after that, the Croglin Grange Vampire rose from the grave in England
According to Augustus Hare, writing in 1896, a vampire plagued Croglin Grange in Cumbria in the 1870s. One night, a female tenant awoke to see a figure coming towards her from the nearby graveyard. It broke through the window, and before she could escape, clamped down on her neck, leaving her bloodied. Hearing their sister’s screams, the brothers chased it off. The vampire returned a few months later, but this time the brothers managed to wound it before it fed. They tracked it to a crypt, dragged it outside, and burned it. Did they read Varney, by any chance?
6. This wouldn’t be a history of vampires without mentioning Bram Stoker
In 1897, the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre published the definitive vampire story. Bram Stoker said he came up with Dracula after having a nightmare caused by bad crab meat. He then spent years researching Slavic folklore and travelogues, especially Emily Gerard’s essay, ‘Transylvania Superstitions’. He also drew heavily on novels such as The Vampyre, Varney the Vampire, and Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla. Although he never visited Transylvania, Stoker did spend his holidays in Whitby (above), which features prominently in the novel. Far from original, and far from perfect, Dracula is still a very entertaining and oft-terrifying novel.
5. The nicest vampire in history lived in Slovenia
There’s an unusual vampire tale from the region of Ig in modern-day Slovenia. After dying in the 1830s, Zirovec rose again from the grave. Locals called him a vedomec, a dialect word for vampire, but he was actually pretty nice, as vampires go. Zirovec talked to people while they worked, tried and failed to put on socks, and visited his wife. But people feared he might turn into a bloodsucker, and the parish priest took action. He dug up Zirovec, and drove a stake through his heart. ‘Now you have caught me!’ shrieked Zirovec, who never returned.
Almost as soon as the technology developed, vampires appeared on film. The first vampire film, Le Manoir Du Diable (‘The Devil’s Mansion’), came out in 1896. The most famous silent vampire film is F.W. Murnau’s chilling Nosferatu of 1922, an unofficial adaptation of Dracula. Vampires translated well to the big screen and, for many people, the definitive vampire movie is the 1931 Dracula. The Hungarian star, Bela Lugosi, is how most people visualize Count Dracula. Unable to speak English, he learned his lines phonetically, giving them an eerie, undead cadence. Vampire movies have been big-business throughout cinema history.
3. Max Schreck did such a good job in Nosferatu, some people thought he must be a vampire
Legal action from Stoker’s family delayed the release of Nosferatu and forced the destruction of most copies. However, Nosferatu survived, and is still hailed as a classic horror film. The cadaverous Count Orlok is a world away from handsome Bela Lugosi, and so convincing that sinister rumors spread. Some people feared the actor playing Count Orlok, Max Schreck, was a real vampire, paid in the cast members’ blood! His eccentric personality didn’t help. Schreck was a method actor, keeping character between takes. Preferring his own company, Schreck also had a dark sense of humor. He died in 1936.
2. A vampire panic in 1970s London saw numerous arrests and a body burned
In 1970, David Farrant told a local newspaper he’d seen a tall, grey figure in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Other people wrote in saying they’d seen similar ghosts in the same place. One correspondent, a self-proclaimed vampire hunter and (alleged) bishop, Sean Manchester, said it was a vampire. In the lunacy that followed, a mob of vampire hunters broke into Highgate despite the police’s best efforts. A charred and headless corpse turned up one morning. Police later arrested Farrant, armed with a crucifix and wooden stake, at Highgate. Don’t worry, though: ‘Bishop’ Manchester exorcised the vampire the same year. Phew.
1500 or so years after the first vampires appeared in Slavic folklore, they show no signs of going away. Ever since the outbreak in the Habsburg Empire, vampires have stalked popular culture and folk belief around the world. Today, vampires are not just monsters but metaphors. The creature’s burning desire for blood has come to represent all manner of things: sexual desire, profound love, substance addiction. The parasitic nature of the vampire also equates to contagious disease and big businesses draining nations of financial resources. One thing’s for sure: vampires may not exist, but they’re certainly immortal.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: