Since Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, vampires have seized the Western world’s imagination—and the past few years’ influx of vampires in pop culture has shown that they have no plans of letting go. But traces of real-life vampires (or, at least, the belief in real-life vampires) predate Stoker. Here are seven fascinating facts about the real vampires of Eastern Europe and beyond.
1. THERE ARE AROUND 100 MEDIEVAL VAMPIRE GRAVES IN BULGARIA.
Starting in the early 2000s, archaeologists across Bulgaria unearthed skeletons of people believed to be vampires: In 2004, six skeletons were discovered near Debelt; in 2012 and 2013, two were found in Sozopol; and in 2014, archaeologists uncovered another while excavating the ruins of Perperikon, near the Greek border. What set these skeletons—which are believed to be from the 13th century—apart from ordinary remains was the rod driven through each of 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. EARLY BELIEF IN VAMPIRES WAS FUELED BY A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING 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 terrorize his village, killing dozens, after his own unexpected death. To stop his murderous rampage, the villagers drove a stake through Paole’s heart, which confirmed his vampirism: Flückinger reported that Paole’s corpse groaned and bled after being stabbed, proving that the body was still alive. However, we know today that Flückinger’s recordings instead show that the Serbian villagers understood little about how the human body behaves after death, and that they invented vampire stories in order to explain the unknown.
In fact, decomposition of the human body takes much longer than even the average modern person realizes. Since cold temperatures slow decomposition, a body buried underground during the winter months could remain largely intact for weeks or months. It’s also not unusual for a body to bloat or bleed from its orifices (as the liquefied brain and sanguineous fluid from the lungs leave the body) after death. Eighteenth century villagers saw this blood around the corpses’ mouths, noses, and ears and jumped to the conclusion that the bodies must be leaving their graves at night to feast on blood. Add to this the fact that dead lungs will emit a noise when pierced (with a stake or steel rod, for instance) as gases are pushed out, and the vampire myth was solidified.
3. VAMPIRE GRAVES WERE ALSO FOUND IN POLAND.
While Dracula has forever linked vampires to Transylvania, the bloodsuckers weren’t relegated to the Balkans. Just as fearful people in medieval Bulgaria pinned corpses to their graves in order to prevent their rise from the dead, villagers in 17th and 18th century Poland took precautions against the return of the undead. In Poland, people would stick large rocks under potential vampires’ chins and lay sickles across their bodies to keep them underground. While Balkan folklore speculated that the unbaptized, people considered bad, and those who died untimely deaths were at risk of returning as vampires, a 2014 report revealed that the Polish “vampires” were likely the first victims of a cholera epidemic.
4. 18th CENTURY “VAMPIRES” MAY HAVE SUFFERED FROM RABIES.
In 1998, a Spanish neurologist set out to explain the 18th century “vampire outbreaks,” in which vampires were allegedly spotted killing animals and terrorizing communities at night. The best possible explanation, he found, was not supernatural, but medical. Rabies, he concluded, would account for nearly all vampiric behaviors, including sensitivity to garlic and light (rabies patients have hypersensitivity), nocturnal habits (rabies affects the part of the brain that helps regulate sleep cycles), and fatal bites (25 percent of rabid people are known to bite others, and rabies can be transmitted via saliva).
5. BELIEF IN VAMPIRES PERSISTS IN RURAL ROMANIA TODAY.
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 breech 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. COUNT DRACULA WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL PERSON.
It’s a commonly held belief that Bram Stoker based his 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 III was known for impaling his enemies on stakes. Most famously, 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.
But Vlad had one other name: Vlad Dracula. And it’s this moniker that Stoker was so drawn to. Historians have recently concluded that Stoker knew next to nothing about Vlad the Impaler and his practices, and simply came across the name Vlad Dracula in a book’s footnote and thought it would be perfect for a vampire character he’d been working on. In modern Romania, drac refers to the devil.
7. THERE ARE REAL VAMPIRES LIVING AROUND THE WORLD TODAY.
A 2015 study published in a social work journal reveals 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. According to studies done in 2008, 2009, and 2013, however, real vampires do not present a danger to others, and are considered psychologically and socially stable.
Join Josh Gates as he investigates the world's most intriguing legends—from Blackbeard’s hidden treasure to the real vampires of Bulgaria and Romania—on Expedition Unknown, Wednesdays at 9/8c on Travel Channel.