7 Frightening Facts About Europe’s Real-Life Vampires

Men prevent a vampire rising from its grave in a Romanian cemetery in this 19th-century illustration.
Men prevent a vampire rising from its grave in a Romanian cemetery in this 19th-century illustration. / Leemage/Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, vampires have seized the world’s imagination. But traces of real-life vampires—or at least the belief in real-life vampires—predate Stoker's literary vision. Here are seven fascinating facts about the real vampires of Eastern Europe and beyond. 

1. There are about 100 medieval vampire graves in Bulgaria.

Beginning in the early 2000s, archaeologists across Bulgaria unearthed skeletons of people believed to be vampires: six skeletons were discovered near Debelt, two were found in Sozopol; and another was uncovered in the ruins of Perperikon near the Greek border. What set these 13th-century skeletons apart were the rods driven through their chests, pinning them to the ground. When people who were considered bad or evil died in medieval Bulgaria, this precaution was taken so that they could not rise from the dead at night and feast on unsuspecting victims. Researchers believe there are around 100 of these vampire graves in Bulgaria.

2. Belief in vampires stemmed from the mysteries of decomposition.

In 1732, an Austrian medical officer named Johannes Flückinger investigated the death and subsequent crimes of a man named Arnold Paole, who was believed to have risen from his grave to kill dozens of villagers after his own unexpected death. To stop his murderous rampage, the villagers drove a stake through Paole’s heart, which confirmed his undeath—Flückinger reported that the corpse groaned and bled after being stabbed, proving that the body was still alive. Today, it's clear that Flückinger’s recording illustrates how townspeople used vampire tales to explain the odd behaviors of decomposing bodies.

Decomposition of the human body takes much longer than you might think. Since cold temperatures slow decomposition, a body buried underground during winter could remain intact for weeks or months. It’s also not unusual for a body to bloat or bleed. Eighteenth-century villagers saw blood around the corpses’ mouths, noses, and ears and concluded that the bodies must be leaving their graves at night to feast on the living.

3. Vampire graves have also been found in Poland.

'The Vampire II,' a 1900 lithograph by Edvard Munch
'The Vampire II,' a 1900 lithograph by Edvard Munch / Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

While Dracula has forever linked vampires to Transylvania, a region in modern-day Romania, the bloodsuckers weren’t confined to the Balkans. In Poland, people stuck large rocks under potential vampires’ chins and lay sickles across their bodies to keep them underground. While Balkan folklore speculated that unbaptized persons and people considered bad or who died untimely deaths were at risk of returning as vampires. A 2014 study in the journal PLOS ONE suggested that the Polish “vampires” were likely the first victims of a cholera epidemic.

4. 18th-century “vampires” might have been infected with rabies.

In 18th-century Spain, vampires were allegedly spotted killing animals and terrorizing communities at night. The best possible explanation for these "vampire outbreaks," a Spanish neurologist suggested in 1998, was not supernatural, but medical. He said the symptoms of rabies would account for nearly all vampiric behaviors, including sensitivity to garlic and light (rabies patients are hypersensitive), nocturnal habits (rabies affects the part of the brain that helps regulate sleep cycles), and fatal bites (25 percent of rabies-infected people are known to bite others, and the virus can be transmitted via saliva).

5. Some in rural Romania still believe in vampires.

In the small villages of rural Romania, many people still turn to vampires as an explanation of confounding circumstances. As recently as 2004, the body of a man from Marotinu de Sus was exhumed so villagers could perform an ancient anti-vampire ritual. The man, who died suddenly in a farming accident in 2003, was believed to have returned as a strigoi (a restless spirit who returns to suck the life-force from his living family members) and made a distant relative sick. Six villagers dug up the man’s corpse to cut out his heart and put stakes through his body. Only then did his relative return to health. 

Stories like this aren’t unusual. In fact, many rural villagers believe that children born legs first (known as a breech birth) or with the placenta still attached are likely to become strigoi when they die, and are therefore buried when the time comes with knitting needles poked through their eyes and bodies to prevent their return. 

6. Dracula was inspired by a real person.

It’s a commonly held—but erroneous—belief that Bram Stoker based his character Count Dracula on the 15th-century Romanian ruler Vlad III, prince of Walachia, known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes in Romanian). During his rule, Vlad was known for impaling his enemies on stakes. It’s believed that in 1462 he filled a battlefield with thousands of impaled victims in order to send a message to Ottomans intent on invading his territory. 

Despite that bloody provenance, historians have concluded that Stoker probably knew nothing about Vlad the Impaler when outlining his novel. While on holiday in Whitby, Yorkshire, Stoker borrowed An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, a book about the two Romanian provinces, from the public library and made a telling note: "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL." This book, and not the Romanian prince, is believed to be the source of the legendary name.

As for the real-life inspiration, historians think Stoker based Dracula's physical appearance and manners on his employer, the famous theater actor Henry Irving, for whom he worked as a business manager. Apparently Irving's ceaseless demands sucked all the life out of the novelist.

7. Living people identify as vampires today.

A 2015 study revealed that an unknown number of people from around the globe self-identify as real vampires. These individuals keep their practices private so as to not be judged and discriminated against. The study draws an important distinction between these “real” vampires and “lifestyle” vampires, or people who adopt vampiristic behaviors common in pop culture (such as sleeping in coffins or wearing fangs). Real vampires, in comparison, believe that they must feed on a willing donor’s energy or blood to maintain their own psychic and physical health. Fortunately, real vampires do not present a danger to others, and are considered psychologically and socially stable.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.