The Great Vampire Epidemic of the 1720s

The Great Vampire Epidemic of the 1720s
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Why you should care

Because vampires remain a cultural barometer for what we fear the most.

Even the least superstitious person in the world couldn’t ignore this headline: BLOODSUCKER DEVASTATES VILLAGE.

That was the news spreading like wildfire across the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 1720s. Mysterious epidemics had been linked to chilling reports that captured the imagination. Across language divides, from poor villages to mighty imperial cities, whispers spread of long-buried corpses with fresh blood in their mouths, savage attacks and communities shattered by individuals thought to be deceased.

The ingredients to this story sound familiar for a reason. Somewhat incredibly, two small-town calamities in what is now rural Serbia ignited a worldwide phenomenon. From Dracula to Edward Cullen, vampires all derive from the combination of folklore and coincidence that drove the world’s first bloodsucker craze.

In his mouth did I see fresh blood, which, after the general opinion, he had sucked from those killed by him.

 

It started in 1725 in a tiny village called Kisilova (now Kisiljevo). Life was already hard for Kisilova’s poor residents, who endured harsh winters and had recently been occupied by the Ottomans. God seemed very far away among a slew of problems, all of which were about to show up in the form of a monster with a familiar face: Local Petar Blagojevich knocked on his wife’s door and demanded she hand over his shoes — 10 weeks after he’d died.

That’s the account that panicked villagers related to a military representative. Needless to say, he was a little skeptical, but what followed was no joke. Within days of Blagojevich’s reported reappearance, eight villagers died after short, brutal illnesses. Supposedly, Blagojevich crept into their homes at night, laid on top of them, and crushed the breath from their lungs, thus sealing their fate. It sounds like fiction, but the reaction of Kisilova’s residents made sense at the time. Illness was a terrifying prospect after the village’s ordeal of occupation and hunger, and a monster was easier to blame than God.

After a heated debate, the whole of Kisilova decided to march to the graveyard and dig up Blagojevich’s body. According to the amazed military representative, “There was not the slightest smell of death…. The face, hands and also feet, and the whole body, were so recreated that they, in his lifetime, could not have been more complete.” And here comes the scariest bit: “In his mouth did I see fresh blood, which, after the general opinion, he had sucked from those killed by him.”

No one had a name for what this monster was. But what the villagers did next — perhaps prompted by medieval Balkan folklore about the walking dead — set the precedent for hundreds of vampire movies to come: They sharpened a stake and drove it through Blagojevich’s heart. Witnesses said blood gushed from the corpse’s mouth and ears, signaling an end to his brief reign of terror.

A few years later, a highwayman named Arnold Paole was entertaining the locals in his central Serbian village with tall tales about a Turkish vampire he’d known. The vampire had bitten him, he claimed, but not to worry — he’d taken precautions against infection by eating dirt from the vampire’s grave. Garlic and holy water, it seems, hadn’t caught on just yet.

Despite Paole’s efforts, his untimely death in a farming accident led to him “rising” from the grave as a vampire. His killing spree was even deadlier than Blagojevich’s, with more than two dozen people dying within just a few months. As with Blagojevich, the villagers dutifully dug Paole up, to be rewarded with another ghastly sight — the apparently recomposed Paole gasping as they drove a stake through his heart.

These stories were certainly enough to make headlines, and made for great folk stories. But Europe had been full of strange folklore for centuries, so why did these accounts take hold so thoroughly? The answer, historian Gábor Klaniczay writes, might be the clue to vampires’ lasting appeal. Medieval Europe had been preoccupied with witch trials. A few hundred years later, though, they’d lost some appeal. Vampires were distinctly more modern — and therefore scarier — supernatural beings. And to people only tangentially aware of the rise of technology and medicine, vampires seemed a plausible mystery for the new field of science.

In other words, vampires represented what seemed weirdest and most frightening about the present for 18th-century peasants. Today, says author G.K. Hansen, they’ve become a tool for exploring oddities and unknowns in our ever-shrinking world. Series like Twilight and True Blood suggest that vampires have a whole other world we humans don’t know about, a tantalizing possibility in our high-tech present.

“Vampires are a fertile playground, and once Stephenie Meyer let absurdity creep in — her vampires sparkle — people started finding it everywhere,” Hansen says, noting that “there’s so much territory left unexplored.” The undead might not be killing Serbian peasants anymore, but vampires will likely survive, stakes or no, to reveal more about the stranger side of the human imagination for years to come.

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