Although vampires have been particularly popular in modern pop culture, tales of blood-sucking creatures go back to ancient times, including the Indian ghoul-like vetalas and the Greco-Roman bird-like strige, who fed on human flesh. Today, vampires make us think of fictional bloodsuckers like Dracula, but proper vampires originated in Medieval European folklore.
Early Eastern European tales describe revenants, undead vessels possessed by demonic spirits that resemble Old Norse draugr. By the 17th century, tales of blood-sucking fiends spread alongside inexplicable diseases. By the 18th century, vampires had 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. It was also the site of an early vampire legend recorded by William of Newburgh in the 12th century.
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. At the same time, the plague descended on Alnwick. Villagers connected the plague to the arrival of the creature, believing that the victims of the disease were actually victims of the vampire. The local priest soon organized a group to dig up the corpse and destroy it. After burning the Lord's body, Alnwick’s troubles stopped for a time, though some maintain that the Lord's troubled spirit still haunts the castle grounds.
2. Vampires of the Plague
The Black Death was one of history's worst pandemics—the bacterium Yersinia pestis killed around 200 million Europeans. While deaths peaked near 1350 CE, outbreaks reoccurred through the 18th century.
During that period, 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. Superstition 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 bodies from rising again.
3. The Hunderprest of Melrose Abbey
St. Mary’s Abbey in Melrose, Scotland was founded in 1136 as the chief religious house of the county. Though now partially in ruins, its Roxburghshire halls also housed a Cistercian order of monks–and so the legend goes a 12th-century revenant. In this case, the ghoul was a priest who perished without confession then returned to feed on the blood of innocents. In life, he had earned the nickname “dog priest” or hunderprest thanks to his love for hunting with dogs. In un-death, he roamed the abbey and terrorized the monks. The monks organized an ambush at nightfall–striking him down with a blow to the head. After burning the body, its ashes were spread on the grounds, though legends tell that his shade still lingers.
4. Jure Grando
Another variant of the vampire is the Eastern European term strigoi, strigun, or strigon, which describes a blood-sucking creature with mystical powers. Jure Grando, who died in 1656, is perhaps the first documented case of a person described as a vampire in historical records. For the next 16 years after his death, Grando allegedly returned from the grave to terrorize his hometown, Kringa, in modern-day Croatia. He wandered around at night and banged on peoples’ doors. The unfortunate souls behind those doors would then die days later. He also sexually assaulted his widow. Eventually, in 1672, the local priest warded off the strigoi with a cross. Emboldened, a group went to Grando's grave and tried to pierce the corpse's chest with a hawthorn branch. When that failed, they decapitated Grando's smiling corpse. So the story goes, the ghoul howled as blood rushed out. Peace then returned to the village.
5. Vlad the Impaler
Although he was a fierce warrior, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was not actually 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. Vlad was very much a clear model for our present-day vision of Dracula, including his bloodthirsty 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 was known to impal enemies on spikes, including contentious noblemen, duplicitous Saxon merchants, and prisoners of war. Vlad perished in battle in in late 1476 or early 1477–leaving a blood-soaked legacy in his wake.
6. Elizabeth Bathory
The “Blood Countess” is known for bathing in and supposedly even feeding on the blood of innocents to maintain her youth. Yet, she started as a noblewoman in the Kingdom of Hungary, married to the Count Nadasdy and managing his estates during wartime and after his death. Trouble began in 1609, when a local Lutheran priest implicated her in the disappearance of local girls.
Authorities came to believe that Bathory led a dark and violent life behind the closed castle doors. With several collaborators, Báthory supposedly lured peasant girls and lesser ladies into Csetje Castle with a promise of work or etiquette lessons. They were then beaten, burned, frozen, and starved to death. Historians believe the tales of blood baths and blood consumption are exaggerated, and some point to evidence of courtly conspiracy. In the end, the Countess was walled-up in her home, though she only lived four years in such a state.
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 eight days of his death, nine villagers had passed away from a strange, 24-hour illness. Before dying, each victim reported Blagojevich throttling them in their dreams.
Not even his family was safe: Blagojevich’s son died after allegedly encountering Petar in the kitchen, and his wife fled the village entirely after he appeared in their bedroom. In the end, the villagers exhumed his body and found supposed signs of vampirism including hair and nail growth and lack of decomposition. With local priests’ approval, they staked Blagojevich's body, releasing a rush of blood. They then burned the corpse. After running in a Viennese newspaper, the story spread and boosted the 18th-century vampire craze.
8. 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.
Most famous is the story the Brown family of Exeter, Rhode Island. After multiple family members died of consumption, the surviving Browns came to believe that they were cursed—and an undead family member was to blame. So the Browns dug up the bodies of recently deceased family members, and found the corpse of daughter Mercy to be eerily well-preserved. Convinced they had found their vampire, the Browns cut out Mercy's heart and liver and burned them. The ashes were then fed to Mercy's sick brother Edwin, in an attempt to save his life. The ritual failed; Edwin died within two months. The remainder of Mercy’s violated body was buried in Exeter’s Baptist Church Cemetery.
9. The Vampire of Croglin Grange
According to a tale in Augustus Hare's Story of My Life, 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. The figure broke through the window with its long fingernail before entering the room and attacking Amelia.
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, which 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.
10. Highgate Vampire
One of the “Magnificent Seven” burial grounds in London, Highgate Cemetery boasts over 150,000 eternal residents, including one alleged vampire. The sprawling graveyard and nature reserve found itself at the center of a media craze in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Reports centered on a tall, dark figure who exuded evil and could transfix humans and animals alike. Animal corpses were found, allegedly drained of blood. In one case, a man leaving the cemetery found himself face-to-face with a sinister figure, only to be transfixed to the spot as it disappeared into the night. The frenzy culminated on the night of Friday the 13th in March of 1970, when a public vampire hunt occurred in Highgate. While no ghoul was found, some claimed to have encountered a strange figure lurking in the cemetery.
In most of these cases, the real roots of vampirism seem to lay in a lack of understanding of the decomposition process, during 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.