Vampires have long been seen as a threat to society. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, they’ve had us humans transfixed. As for how they came about, theories range from the anthropological to the otherworldly, but one thing’s for sure: they’re here to stay.
And for better or worse—as these 10 ghastly tales go to show—our means of slaying them haven’t changed much either.
10. Bulgaria, 1200s
Some of the earliest evidence of vampire slaying comes from the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria, close to the border with Greece. Excavating the ancient city of Peperikon—thought to have been inhabited from as early as 5000 BC—archaeologists uncovered a 13th-century skeleton with an iron rod hammered through its chest. The left leg had also been hacked off below the knee and buried next to the corpse. Such measures are believed to have been taken to prevent the dead from wandering out of their graves, the stakes serving to pin the bodies to the ground. Other skeletons found at the nearby Voden Fortress site had their legs bound or feet cut off for presumably the same reason.
Vampire slayings were common in medieval Bulgaria, especially in cases of suicide or where the deceased had been wicked in life. Another skeleton found staked with iron in the coastal town of Sozòpol, for instance, is thought to have belonged to the notorious Black Sea pirate and “ evil mayor” Krivich. According to archaeologists, iron stakes were reserved for the wealthier vampires, while wood was used for the poor.
9. Bohemia, 1336
‘Myslata of Blau‘ is a entertainingly far-fetched—and allegedly true—vampire story from what is now the Czech Republic. In it, the young shepherd boy Myslata returns from the grave to call out the names of his neighbors, each of whom later dies. The villagers are said to have exhumed the boy, driving a long wooden stake through his body and into the earth. But Myslata just laughed, sarcastically thanking them for a stick to fend off the dogs.
When the apparitions became more violent, suffocating and frightening people to death, an executioner was called in to help. He spiked the corpse with whitethorn and carted it off for cremation. Myslata cried out like a madman during transit, lashing out with his hands and feet until somebody staked him again. As the boy’s screaming, swollen body was burned, blood spewed from its numerous stab wounds. The vampire was slain and the villagers returned to normal.
8. Venice, 1576
By the time the Black Death hit Venice in 1576, vampires were already being held to blame. Throughout Europe, they were thought to spread the plague as a means of amassing corpses, draining them of residual life energy in the hope of leaving the grave.
It’s an understandable superstition. Bodies tossed into open plague pits exposed all the strange and frightening processes of human decomposition—from plumping up and groaning with gas to leaking blood from the nose and mouth. Most shocking of all were the corpses that appeared to have chewed through their burial shrouds, revealing bared teeth and bloody gums. Historians ascribe the bizarre phenomenon of ‘shroud-eaters’ to the acidic quality of purge fluid. As the moistening cloth sagged into the mouth of a corpse, it would gradually dissolve in secretions from the decaying stomach. In the middle ages, it was simply assumed that the shroud must be some kind of basic food source for transitioning vampires—similar to breast milk for a baby. As a precaution, what was left of it between the teeth was torn away and replaced with something less edible.
The skeleton of one such ‘shroud-eater’ was unearthed in a mass grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. Belonging to an older woman in her sixties or early seventies, the skull’s jaw was savagely fractured where someone had jammed a brick down her throat. Given the woman’s advanced age, she was likely the subject of distrust in life too. Old widows were generally suspected of making pacts with the devil, as well as eating children, because everyone assumed they were unhappy.
7. Mykonos, 1700-1702
There’s a long tradition of vampires in Greece. Known as vrykolakas, they’re said to inhabit the rotting bodies of murder victims, improper burials, and anyone either cursed or excommunicated by priests. The corpses clamber out of the grave to visit former friends and family, pounding on doors and looking for blood. Traditionally, the most effective way to deal with a vrykolaka is to stake, decapitate, or burn the body that hosts it.
On an otherwise tranquil botanical expedition around the Greek islands in the early 1700s, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort recorded such a slaying in detail. Staying on the island of Mykonos, he observed a growing tension among the locals and learned that a man who’d been murdered two days before was seen hurriedly walking around town. According to frightened witnesses, he’d also been into their houses, throwing things and putting out lamps. At first, the “better sort of people”—the priests or Papas—were just as skeptical as de Tournefort, laughing it off as mere superstition. But when they saw the dead man’s “monky Tricks [sic]” for themselves, they decided it was time to act.
On the tenth day, they gathered for mass at the chapel that held the dead body. There, the town butcher set to work on the corpse. An “old clumsy Fellow,” he groped around in the entrails looking for the heart, wincing at the near-unbearable stink of putrid flesh and frankincense. He remarked on the warmth of the body and vibrancy of its blood, confirming everyone’s suspicions of vampirism. When he finally located the heart, it was taken to the seashore and burned.
Things only took a turn for the worse. Among the new complaints were vicious beatings in the night, doors being kicked in, clothes getting torn, and windows being rattled. In desperation, the town held meetings and debates, religious processions, and even periods of fasting. Some turned to holy water, splashing it over their doors and pouring it into the corpse. Others left Mykonos for good, upping sticks to escape the demon. In the end, the town had no choice but to defy Orthodox tradition and dispose of the body with fire. Their troubles ceased immediately and the vrykolaka was ridiculed with ballads.
6. Serbia, 1725
Vampires reached epidemic levels in 18th-century Europe, propagating westward from tales in the east. One early account from Kisiljevo, Serbia concerns a man named Petar Blagojevich. Following his early death in 1725, he reportedly spent just ten weeks in the ground before rising to ask his widow for shoes. It was after she fled town in terror that people started dying. Over a period of eight days, nine of their neighbors were mysteriously killed and in each case Blagojevich was blamed. By the victims’ own accounts, he appeared at night and throttled them with his hands.
Panicking villagers appealed to the Imperial Provisor of Gradisk District. They demanded permission to open the grave, threatening to leave Kisiljevo if he refused. Upon reluctantly exhuming Blagojevich’s body, the Provisor was astonished to find it seemingly undecomposed. According to his official report, the hair and nails had continued to grow, the skin looked fresh and new, and the weeks-old cadaver didn’t even smell. Aside from the decaying tip of its nose, the corpse looked no different from a sleeping man. For the villagers, the presence of blood in Blagojevich’s mouth was proof enough of vampirism. They hauled the corpse out of the grave and pinned it with a wooden stake, causing fresh blood to erupt from the chest, ears, mouth, and nose. Finally, they heaped Blagojevich onto a bonfire and burned his body to ashes.
In southern Slavic folklore, vampires (usually male) start out as a kind of shadow being, sucking blood from the living to become a gelatinous, boneless mass. Eventually, they come to resemble a human being and can wander around unnoticed. At this point they can even impregnate women, their children becoming vampires themselves or using their skills to hunt them.
5. Serbia, 1727
While stationed in Kosovo as a hajduk, Arnold Paole claimed to have been attacked by a vampire. Following the local custom, he dug up and set fire to the creature, smearing himself with its blood for good measure. He then resigned from the military and returned home to Medvedja, hoping to settle down as a farmer. But fate had other ideas. Shortly after marrying his wife, Paole fell from a haywagon and died of a broken neck.
One month later, he was back in town, walking the streets and feeding on cows. The mere sight of him was apparently fatal, as each of the witnesses died within weeks of their encounter. By now people knew what to do. They disinterred Paole’s body and found all the usual signs of vampirism: lips coated in blood, nails growing on the hands and feet, an appearance of vitality in the skin, and so on. Even his shirt was covered in blood—a sign that he’d gorged on the living. The villagers staked and burned the corpse, threw the ashes into the grave, and filled the hole back in. But people kept on dying.
Gradually it dawned on the villagers that Paole must have spread the contagion to others—not only through direct transmission, but also by way of the cattle that he’d fed on and people later ate. The Holy Roman Emperor sent Regimental Field Surgeon Johannes Flückinger to investigate. Guided by the suspicions of the locals, Flückinger and his team opened a total of 13 recent graves to examine the dead. Some were in a state of obvious decay—barely recognizable as human, let alone vampire—while others, including earlier burials, were practically alive.
One of the bodies—a 20-year-old woman named Stana—had been carelessly buried and half eaten by dogs, yet two months later was entirely undecayed. Upon dissection, Flückinger found fresh, not coagulated, blood in her arteries and veins. Furthermore, her intestines, lungs, liver, and spleen were as healthy as any living person’s. The corpse of another young woman—who complained of nightly throttlings from her dead neighbor Milloe—was found with a strangled face and a bloodshot, finger-length bruise on her neck. As they lifted her body from the grave, fresh blood flowed from her nose. Just like Stana’s, her internal organs were healthy.
Other vampires unearthed by Flückinger were a ten-year-old girl, two teenage boys, an eight-day-old baby, a mother and child, and two 60-year-old women. The corpses were beheaded and burned by local gypsies, and their ashes thrown into the Morava.
4. New England, 1800s
Mercy Brown’s mother and sister had already succumbed to consumption by the time she died in 1892. Her brother Edwin had also fallen ill, but managed to resist death by leaving town. When he returned home ready to die, neighbors suspected vampirism and persuaded his father to exhume the three Brown women. The mother and eldest daughter were both fully decomposed, but Mercy—having been in the ground for just a few wintry months—looked vibrant and well preserved. Declaring her a vampire, the town set fire to her heart and fed the ashes to Edwin. Although he died horribly, nobody else followed and the intervention was deemed a success.
Consumption—or tuberculosis—was commonly blamed on vampires. Evidence from all over New England shows how widespread the superstition was. By the 19th century, vampires had replaced witches as Public Enemy No. 1 and heart burnings were often public, even festive, affairs.
In Griswold, Connecticut, a smashed open, red-painted coffin was found to contain the decapitated corpse of a man called J.B. Its skull and thigh bones had been arranged on the ribcage in the form of a Jolly Roger, while fractures to the chest area indicated that his heart had been removed. Journalists of the 1800s blamed inbreeding and ignorance for the practice, but it wasn’t limited to the poor. Frederick Ransom, for instance, a respected Dartmouth student, was also suspected of vampirism. When he died, his father tore out his heart and burned it in an unsuccessful attempt to save the rest of the family.
3. London, 1969-1974
When David Farrant visited Highgate Cemetery in 1969, he came across several broken coffins with exposed skeletons and a mysteriously dead fox. The paranormal investigator was intrigued by reports of a tall, dark specter haunting the Victorian graveyard, apparently able to transfix people to the spot. Returning at night, he saw the being for himself: a black shadow with red eyes, glaring at him through the rusty bars of the top entrance.
Highgate has long been associated with vampires. In 1862, Elizabeth Siddal was exhumed by a relative wishing to retrieve some poems from her corpse. Although buried in 1855, she was in a resplendent condition—her “luxuriant red-gold hair” filling the coffin she lay in.
In 1970, Farrant began to suspect that cultists may have awoken a dormant vampire in the cemetery. Not only were there occult symbols on the walls of a tomb-turned-temple, but several more dead foxes were discovered—each with bloody wounds to the throat. As public interest grew, the findings made front page news, with headlines asking “Why do the foxes die?” and “Does a wampyr walk in Highgate?” Farrant received a number of letters from other witnesses, along with warnings written in blood from disgruntled wizards. Most startlingly, during a filmed interview at the cemetery, he saw a cameraman being strangled by invisible hands.
While Farrant was attempting to make psychic contact with the entity—culminating in a ‘white magic’ ritual in 1971—another man was getting more drastic. Live on television, Bishop Seán Manchester declared war on the “King Vampire” of Highgate, scheduling a vampire hunt that very night—Friday 13th March. People converged from all over Britain, descending on the cemetery with stakes, crosses, and garlands of garlic. While no vampires were found, at least one corpse was staked.
It wasn’t until 1974 that Manchester slew the real King Vampire—at least according to his book. Stowed in the basement of a nearby mansion, its eyes were red and yellow and its lips contorted into a cruel expression. The bishop impaled its heart with a wooden stake, causing the shell of the body to cave in and quickly turn brown, reduced to “human slime and viscera in the bottom of the casket”. After burning the remains, the leftover bones were ground up and scattered to the “four winds of the Earth”.
Bishop Manchester continues to see himself as a kind of spiritual warrior for the British Isles, citing Ephesians 6:12 in his efforts: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against […] the darkness of this world.”
2. Malawi, 2002
Not all vampires live in coffins. In fact, some may not even be dead. In 2002, villagers living near Blantyre, Malawi became extremely suspicious of strangers. Barricading their roads and refusing to work, they claimed vampires were stealing their blood. These strange entities, they explained, were preying on women and children at night before vanishing into thin air. They wore dark clothing and walked quickly, carrying flashlights, syringes, and sleeping gas.
Police refused to investigate and the government denied the claims. They even arrested a journalist for covering the story. But none of this surprised the villagers. The government, they said, was colluding with the vampires as part of a global conspiracy; in return for charitable aid, they allowed Western agencies like Oxfam to steal blood and sell it to Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, the villagers had to fend for themselves. Forming vigilante groups with makeshift weapons, the men patrolled for suspicious activity. During the panic, they killed at least two people, attacked three Catholic priests, and hospitalized the regional governor with a brutal stoning. They also destroyed a foreign aid camp, believing it to be the vampire HQ.
Police intervened and events drew international attention. Journalists offered several explanations for the superstition, including hunger, folklore, thieves, or, as then-president Bakili Muluzi believed, politically motivated fear-mongering. But the villagers were having none of it. After all, just thirty years earlier a man had actually been caught with syringes of blood in his refrigerator.
1. Romania, 2004
Romania is the beating heart of ‘vampire tourism‘—the birthplace of Vlad Dracula and the land of Transylvanian castles. But for rural communities up and down the country, vampires are more than just a tacky attraction. These country folk know the importance of second burials; they know to wash corpses in wine seven years after the death. They also know how critical the first 40 days are, that if a strigoi, or night vampire, isn’t dealt with in this time, it’ll transform into a moroi and attack during the day.
So when a young woman in the village of Marotinu de Sus accused her uncle of vampirism, she was taken very seriously indeed. Visibly weak and increasingly delirious, she claimed the corpse of Petre Toma was drinking from her heart at night. Her brother was also suffering with a crippling headache and stomach pains, so their father Gheorghe Marinescu went to examine the body.
Without a doubt, his brother-in-law had become a strigoi, the stomach swollen and its mouth stained with blood. At midnight, a little drunk on liquor, Marinescu cut into the old man’s chest with a scythe and lanced out his heart with a pitchfork. He carried it to a crossroads and burned it over smouldering coals, catching the ashes in a tea towel and then stirring them into water. In the morning he fed the potion to his family and, before long, their symptoms had improved. His daughter was healed and his son could stand up.
But for some people, the ritual was just a little too medieval for 2004. Toma’s city-dwelling daughter reported it to the police and Marinescu narrowly avoided jail. The villagers were bemused; they failed to see any victims. Either the corpse was just a corpse, they reasoned, or they had slain an actual vampire.
Despite the legal iffiness of the practice, vampire slaying continues in Romania to this day. The ancient ritual is passed from generation to generation and some even learn it as children. Vampires, they say, are everywhere—even now. In cities, they’re just harder to notice.