In 1732 Johannes Fluckinger, an army medical officer, went to the village of Medvegia, in the former republic of Yugoslavia, to investigate reports of vampire killings. The villagers told him about Arnod Paole, who had fallen off a wagon and broken is neck some five years earlier, Paole had claimed to be troubled by a vampire, and had smeared himself with its blood and eaten earth from its grave to get rid of it.
When Paole had been buried, people began complaining of being persecuted by him, and four died. Forty days after his death, the villagers dug up Paole’s corpse and found fresh blood flowing from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Skin and nails had fallen off, but there was new growth. Fluckinger reported that since the people “saw from this that he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.” They burnt the body before exhuming and dealing with the other four corpses who, having been killed by a vampire, were now themselves vampires.
The villagers assured Fluckinger that even people who ate the flesh of cattle attacked by vampires became vampires. When Fluckinger opened the graves of 17 people who had died in the previous three months, he found corpses with similar features to Paole’s.
Had Fluckinger found vampires? Most of the traditional vampiric marks on the corpses can be plausibly explained as the result of normal postmortem processes. Such macabre effects are most noticeable when graves are shallow – not surprisingly, people destined for folkloric vampire status, such as murder and plague victims, were often buried hastily.
According to folklore, the vampire – a living corpse – drinks blood not only to drain the vitality of the living and spread infection, but also to be reanimated. The belief that vampire-like beings spread epidemics existed as early as the twelfth century, when a chronicler wrote that “the air became foul and tainted as this fetid and corrupting body wandered abroad, so that a terrible plague broke out.” People used garlic to ward off vampires. Its smell was also said to dispel the odor of corpses and prevent them from spreading disease.
True vampires belong to Eastern Europe – vampir in the Magyar language of Hungary, nosferatu in Romanian. They can supposedly be destroyed by the methods thought to stop ghosts “walking” – burial at a crossroads, a stake through the heart, burning or decapitation. Like other evil creatures, it is believed they can be killed with a silver bullet and routed with a crucifix. Sinners, suicides, sorcerers, and alcoholics are thought particularly likely to become vampires. Others at risk include children born with teeth, murder victims whose death goes unavenged, and corpses not given Christian burial.
Eroticism has long been part of the vampire legend. Balkan tales speak of married vampires rising from the grave to force their attentions on terrified wives and husbands. Unmarried vampires visit young innocents of the opposite sex. In the late eighteenth century this erotic element was one reason for the appearance of vampires in Gothic horror novels and poems by romantic poets. To fit their new role vampires were upgraded from peasant stock to the aristocracy.
In the anonymous best-seller of 1847, Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood, Sir Francis Varney had eyes that looked like metal, talons, sharp teeth and a penchant for ladies. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, published in 1870, introduced a beautiful young lesbian vampire who was finally unmasked by a supposed long-dead countess. Carmilla inspired Bram Stoker to begin researching his famous vampire-hero Dracula, whose story was published in 1897. Part folklore, part history, part fantasy, Stoker’s gaunt Transylvanian count was loosely based on Vlad V of Wallachia (now part of Romania). In the six years of his rule, 1456-62, Vlad earned the nickname “the Impaler,” for having allegedly impaled tens of thousands of his people. His victims included captives from his wars against the Turks. He was also known as Draculaea, Romanian for “son of the devil,” hence “Dracula.”
With his hypnotic eyes and long canines, Dracula has since appeared in numerous plays an films. Always elegant and sexually predatory, as portrayed by the actor Christopher Lee, among others, he has become the model for the modern vampire.