Humanity’s greatest nightmare stalks us through the past
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
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
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 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 Petar 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
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
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.
This Story Was First Published on Occult Museum.
Featured photo of Vlad the Impaler: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: Alchetron; Josh