Although vampires are common in modern pop culture, tales of blood-sucking creatures go back to ancient times, including Indian ghoul-like vetalas, Greco-Roman, bird-like strige who fed on human flesh, and much more besides. Today, we think of fictional bloodsuckers like Dracula, but proper vampires originated in Medieval European folklore.
Early Eastern European tales describe revenants or undead vessels of demonic spirits that resemble Old Norse draugr. By the 17th century, tales of blood-sucking fiends spread alongside inexplicable diseases. Through the following examples and related hysteria of the 18th century, vampires fast established themselves as one of humanity’s greatest nightmares.
1. The Alnwick Castle Vampire
Alnwick Castle was built on England’s northeast coast in the 11th century to serve as a guard to the River Aln crossing and as the Duke of Northumberland’s home. It was also the site of an early vampire legend recorded by William of Newburgh in the 12th century. In particular, after falling through a roof while spying on his cheating wife, the Lord of the estate was fatally injured. He forgot to confess his sins before dying and returned as an unrepentant revenant or walking corpse. Villagers blamed the creature for the plague, and the local priest soon organized a group to dig up the corpse and destroy it. After burning the undead Lord, Alnwick’s troubles stopped, though this was only just the beginning for the legend.
2. The Hunderprest Of Melrose Abbey
St. Mary’s Abbey in Melrose was founded in 1136 as the chief house of country. Though now partially in ruins, its Roxburghshire halls also housed a Cistercian order of monks – and a 12th-century revenant. In this case, the ghoul was a priest who perished without confession and then returned to feed on the blood of innocents. In life, he had earned the nickname “dog priest” or hunderprest because he loved hunting with dogs. In un-death, he roamed the abbey and terrorized the monks; when the creature harassed his former mistress, though, the monks organized an ambush at nightfall – striking him down with a blow to the head. After burning the fiend, its ashes were spread on the grounds, though legends tell that his shade still lingers.
3. Vlad the Impaler
Although he was a fierce warrior, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was not a vampire. Born in 1431 in Targoviste, his home was besieged by conflict because it was wedged between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. As a youth, he was even abducted and raised by Turks, only returning when nobles ousted and killed his father. Vlad was very much a clear model for Dracula, including his vicious tendencies in war and his title as the son of a Knight of the Order of the Dragon: Draculea or “son of Dracul”. The Prince also impaled enemies on spikes, including contentious noblemen invited to their last banquet, duplicitous Saxon merchants, and every prisoner of war during the invasion of Mehmet II in 1462. Vlad eventually returned in 1476, only to be killed while heading into battle – leaving a legacy of blood-letting.
4. Vampires of the Plague
The Black Death was one of humanity’s worst pandemics, as the bacterium Yersinia pestis killed around 200 million Europeans. While deaths peaked near 1350 CE, outbreaks reoccurred through the 18th century. At the same time, the plague led to vast upheavals, with beliefs changing rapidly. This included the rise of the figure of the “vampire”, which was a little known Eastern European legend until the early 1700s. Superstitions spread into Western Europe, bringing mass hysteria that vampires brought the disease or fed on its victims. Even worse, phenomena associated with decomposition, such as the stomach expunging dark fluid, were seen as evidence of the undead. Suspects were alternately staked with iron rods, buried with rocks wedged in their mouths, or decapitated to prevent their rising again.
5. Elizabeth Bathory
The “Blood Countess” is known for bathing in and feeding on the blood of innocents to maintain her youth. Yet, she started as a noblewoman in the Kingdom of Hungary who married the Count Nadasdy and managed his estates during wartime and after his death. However, trouble began in 1609, when a local Lutheran priest implicated her in the disappearance of local girls. Authorities soon uncovered decades of murderousness, though historians now point to evidence of courtly conspiracy. With several collaborators, Báthory supposedly lured peasants and lesser ladies into Csetje Castle with a promise of work or etiquette lessons. They were then beaten, burned, frozen, and starved to death. In the end, the Countess was walled-up in her home, though she only lived 5 years in such a state.
6. Jure Grando
Another variant of ‘vampire’ is the Eastern European term strigoi, strigun, or strigon, which describes a blood-sucking creature with mystical powers. Such a monster is the first documented case of a vampire, as, in 1656, peasant Jure Grando died in the village of Kringa. For the next 16 years, he terrorized this town in modern-day Croatia by wandering around at night and knocking on peoples’ doors, which caused someone to die days later. He even sexually assaulted his widow, causing their children to flee to Italy. Eventually, in 1672, the local priest warded off the strigoi with a cross. Emboldened, a group went to his grave and tried to pierce Grando’s chest with a hawthorn branch. When that failed, they decapitated his smiling corpse, releasing a howl and a rush of blood– even as they broke his wicked curse.
7. Petar Blagojevich
Another early story was that of Serbian peasant Peter Blagojevich. In 1725, he passed away from a strange disease in the village of Kisilova. However, official Austrian documents detail how, within 8 days of his death, 9 villagers had passed away from a strange, 24-hour illness. Before dying, each reported Blagojevich throttling them in their dreams. Not even his family was safe, as Blagojevich’s son died after encountering Petar in the kitchen, and his wife fled after he appeared in their bedroom. In the end, the villagers exhumed his body and found signs of vampirism including hair and nail growth and lack of decomposition. With local priests’ approval, they staked Blagojevich, releasing a rush of blood, and burned the body. After running in a Viennese newspaper, the story spread and boosted the 18th-century craze.
8. The Vampire of Croglin Grange
According to Story of My Life by Augustus Hare, Amelia Cranwell and her brothers Edward and Michael moved into Croglin Grange in Cumberland, England in 1875. That summer, Amelia spied strange lights beneath her window one night, awakening later to a creature with flaming eyes just outside. It removed the lead panes by the latch with a long fingernail before entering and attacking. Her brothers came at Amelia’s screams, but the figure escaped, having bitten her neck for blood. Terrified, the trio left for Switzerland, returning in 1876 with a plan. As Lady Cramwell slept, the brothers lay in wait for the vampire, whom they attacked and shot. The next day, they organized a group to search the graveyard and found an open vault with gnawed bones and an open coffin containing a rotted corpse that had been shot. They burned it, and the fiend caused no further trouble.
9. New England Vampires
North America experienced its own undead panic in 19th century New England. As an outbreak of tuberculosis ravaged the area, the withering of peoples’ bodies was interpreted as consumption by the spirits of deceased relatives. Treatment included their disinterring and the ritual burning or even consumption of their internal organs. For instance, after the deaths of Lemuel Ray, his father, and brothers in Connecticut in the mid-1800s, their corpses were disinterred and rearranged to prevent harm. Another case in Jewett City involved 19 bodies being burnt, while the wealthy Ransom family of South Woodstock, Vermont, had their son’s body exhumed in 1817 to prevent attacks. Most infamously, the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island, had the ashes of their daughter’s eerily-preserved heart mixed with water and fed to her brother, Edwin, in a failed attempt to save his life. While only titled ‘vampires’ by outsiders, these cases added to a shared mythos.
10. Highgate Vampire
Having opened as one of the “Magnificent Seven” burial grounds in London, Highgate Cemetery boasts over 150,000 residents, including one vampire. In this case, the sprawling graveyard and nature reserve found itself at the center of a media craze in 1969. Reports centered on a tall, dark figure in grey who exuded evil and could transfix humans and animals alike. As the number of animals found drained of blood rose, so too did reports of people being mesmerized. In one case, a man leaving the cemetery found himself face-to-face with the vampire, only to be transfixed to the spot as the vampire disappeared into the night. Though the number of so-called vampire hunters rose so high in 1970 that the graveyard’s grounds were endangered, sightings decreased within the year, and the Highgate vampire was forgotten.
In most of these cases, the real roots of vampirism seem to lay in a lack of understanding of the decomposition process, by which human bodies often exude dark fluids. In some, it may be that individuals were buried alive, especially when fingernail marks are discovered on coffin lids. More rarely, it may be that supposed vampires simply suffered from poorly-understood blood disorders like porphyria or more fatal illnesses like rabies. No matter their origins, these vampiric tales have become important standards for the larger mythos of such legendary creatures. As such, this is far from their last telling – and far from the last time that a person wonders what might lurk in the darkness of their local cemetery.
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