Myths, beliefs and half truths; Where does our fear of vampires come from?

Vampires of Europe

Thus, vampire scares often coincided with plague outbreaks. In 2006, archaeologists in Venice, Italy, unearthed a 16th-century skull that had been buried among plague victims with a brick in its mouth. The brick was probably a burial tactic to prevent the strega (Italian vampires or witches) came out of the grave to eat people.

Not all vampires physically came out of their grave. In northern Germany, the Nachzehrer, or “later devourers,” remained on the ground, chewing on their shrouds. Again, this belief probably has to do with the purging fluid, which could cause the shroud to sag or tear, creating the illusion that a corpse had been chewing on it.

These immobile chewers were still thought to cause problems on the surface, and were also believed to be more active during outbreaks of plague. In the treaty of 1679 About the chewing deada Protestant theologian accused the Nachzehrer to harm their surviving relatives through hidden processes. He wrote that people could stop them by exhuming the body and stuffing its mouth with dirt, and maybe a rock and coin for good measure. Without the ability to chew, the treatise claimed, the corpse would starve.

Vampire stories continued to flourish in southern and eastern European nations in the 17th and 18th centuries, much to the chagrin of some rulers. In the mid-18th century, Pope Benedict XIV declared that vampires were “fallacious fictions of human fantasy“, and Habsburg ruler Maria Theresa condemned vampire beliefs as “superstition and fraud.”

(Related: The bloody legend of the murderous Countess of Hungary)

Even so, the efforts against the vampires continued. And, perhaps most surprising of all, one of the last great vampire scares occurred in 19th-century New England, two centuries after the infamous Salem witch trials.

From the Old to the New World

In 1892, 19-year-old Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, died of tuberculosis, then known as consumption. Her mother and sister were already dead, and her brother Edwin was sick. Concerned neighbors feared that one of the recently deceased Brown women might be hurting Edwin from the grave.

When they opened Mercy Brown’s grave, they found blood in her mouth and on her heart and considered it a sign of vampirism (although they didn’t call it that). The neighbors burned Mercy’s heart and mixed her ashes into a potion for Edwin to drink, a common tactic against vampires. The potion was supposed to cure him; instead, he died a few months later.

This was not an isolated incident. The folklorist and author of Food for the Dead, Michael Bell, estimates that there are 60 known examples of anti-vampire rituals in 18th and 19th century New England, and several more in other parts of the country. These rituals were most common in eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island, he says. Brian Carrolla history professor at Central Washington University who is writing a book on the subject.

Carroll believes that these anti-vampire rituals were “introduced as a medical procedure around the time of the American Revolution” by German doctors working for the Hessian forces. Thus, he believes that the New England vampires were based on the Nachzehrer German. Unlike the bloodsucking Romanian vampires, the New Englanders stayed in their graves, harming the living with “sympathetic magic” from a distance, he argues.

Bell, however, believes that anti-vampire practices in New England came from many places and that suspected New England vampires were actually more similar to Romanian vampires than to the Nachzehrer. Like the Romanians, New Englanders “were looking for liquid blood in vital organs, not evidence of shroud chewing,” he says. The anti-vampire remedy of “ripping out the heart, burning it to ashes and giving the ashes to the sick person(s)” was also practiced (and is practiced) in Romania.

(Related: Vampires loose in Serbia)

Myths, beliefs and half truths; Where does our fear of vampires come from?