Just in time for Halloween, Secrets of the Dead investigates why vampires have such a hold on our imagination, and whether the undead might still lurk among us.
In 1897, Bram Stoker penned his gothic novel Dracula and popularized the modern vampire myth with the introduction of Count Dracula. But the discovery of manuscripts dating back to medieval England suggest the belief that the dead could rise from the grave originated during a much earlier era. These accounts were written hundreds of years before Stoker created his nocturnal creature, long before the Eastern European legends gained popularity.
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In modern popular culture, the vampire is a creature that's both alluring and terrifying in equal measure. Dressed in evening wear, he sinks his fangs into the jugular of unsuspecting victims, luring them to their fate using charm and charisma perfected over centuries of immortality.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: Without a doubt Bram Stoker's created the most recognizable and potent monster of all time.
But in the past, vampires weren't seen as fictional and belief in them was driven by genuine fear.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: They cut off the men's heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies with earth again.
Could it be that the myth of the vampire isn't a myth at all? Medieval records and disturbing archaeological finds are beginning to shed light on shocking rituals from our own past… Rituals that dated from hundreds of years before Bram Stoker ever imagined Dracula.
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: I had in front of me the remains of a vampire.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: Wow! He looks like he's had a messy meal of blood.
This is a horror story far more visceral and far more frightening than any fiction writer could create.
Ketton Quarry, Rutland, England. Archaeologist Ian Meadows is called to the site after the chance discovery of some bones.
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): On excavation we found it was a complete Anglo Saxon chapel with associated cemetery and these generally don't survive because they've been built over by later medieval churches. Around the church there were 73 burials in total, ranging from small children through to mature adults. This particular piece is about where the Anglo Saxon church and its associated cemetery were before they were quarried away.
At first glance, they appeared to be unremarkable Anglo Saxon burials.
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): Laid in graves sometimes in parallel lines and the bodies were all laid with their feet to the east and the head to the west.
But then, Ian and his team uncovered something extraordinary.
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): One of the bodies was unlike anything I'd ever seen in churchyards of this period and that was the burial of a juvenile where the head had been taken off and placed on the legs within the grave. All the other bodies were complete and undamaged but this one had obviously been singled out for a different treatment. As an archaeologist you are used to finding skeletons and you quite often find bodies in unusual positions but to find such a burial within a Christian context was a great surprise.
While Ian and his team were digging up bones, John Blair, professor of medieval history at Oxford University, was studying a 12th-century text known as The Life and Miracles of Saint Modwenna.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: In the 12th century an Abbott of Burton-on-Trent wrote a book about the miracles that had been performed by their own local saint, Saint Modwenna.
One section tells the story of two peasants who died and were buried, but then came back to terrorize villagers.
From The Life and Miracles of Saint Modwenna: "They appeared at evening… carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village."
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: They spread disease, people die and so eventually the local people ask the bishop to allow them to dig the bodies up.
Reading from The Life and Miracles of Saint Modwenna: "They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood."
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: So they think this is clear evidence that these corpses aren't quiet.
Reading from The Life and Miracles of Saint Modwenna: "They cut off the men's heads and placed them in the graves between their legs. Tore out the hearts from their corpses and covered the bodies with earth again. They brought the hearts to the place called Dodecrossefora and there burned them from morning until evening."
The Saint Modwenna text is one of several medieval manuscripts recounting events that took place nearly a thousand years ago. These folktales tell ghastly stories of the walking dead.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: The walking undead in medieval texts do quite a lot of different sorts of bad things. Some of them come back and attack their own relatives and friends, some of them spread disease, some of them do suck blood just like Dracula. Some of them just spread fear. People were in terror of them until they have to do something about it, so it's the whole range of disruptive, destructive, frightening activity caused by people who have no business to be walking around anymore.
More than 500 years after Saint Modwenna, the English were again terrified by the undead. This vampire wasn't a peasant returning from the grave but a count from Transylvania named Dracula who stalked the literary imagination of the Victorian era.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker (reading): "My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from that window and began to crawl down the castle wall, face down, with his cloak spread out around him like great wings."
Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker has studied this creature who refuses to lie down and die.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: Bram's not a normal author. He knew how to put together, like a master chef this vampire, taking existing folklore and putting it together to create this ultimate horrifying creature.
Pop culture has fixated on vampires, thrilling audiences with the horror of a deadly monster… A nocturnal predator from Eastern Europe who rises from the grave to feed off the blood of its victims. But what if Dracula, and all the other vampires that have captured the public imagination, have a basis in reality? A tantalizing clue lies in the meticulous research Bram Stoker undertook as he shaped his character. His great grand-nephew has a set of notes in Stoker's own hand which reveal his fictional count wasn't simply the product of his own imagination.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: Well through his research at the British Library, he would actually go and collect notes on specific characteristics that he wanted to place into his vampire. And, and for instance, if I may, I'll actually read from the notes themselves. The first one is that, "The vampire goes through fog by instinct and has white teeth." Well we, we can see that, that actually has emerged in time to anything you see about a vampire has to do with his very bright white teeth and he can also sort of shape shift and blend into fog and out of fog, as he just moves at will. "Power of creating evil thoughts or banishing good ones in others present." Mesmerism and ESP and hypnotism was an emerging science back in the late 1800s and here Bram inserts it into the novel as a power that the vampire can actually have over his victims.
"No looking glass in Count's house, never can see him reflected in one, no shadow." Other ones: "Enormous strength. He can see in the dark and he has the power of getting small or large." Which is something that I believe has emerged into his shape shifting again and makes him horrifying because we never know where the guy is. We're actually starting from the backside and seeing what Bram used to put together this character that to this day has most all these as very famous tropes.
The monster Stoker created is still stalking us more than 100 years later, in movies and TV. But could Dracula's popularity have blinded us to a chilling truth? Could the vampire have its true origins not in fiction, but in fact?
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: Bram's vampires and all the others today are for entertainment purposes, but you've got to realize where these came from. The myth of the vampire really terrorized villages. People had no idea what was going on in their towns and counted it on vampirism and that certainly was not entertainment, that was real fear.
In England, the medieval folk story…
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford (reading): "They tore out the hearts from their corpses and covered the bodies with earth again."
…And the skeleton in the quarry may have remained forever unconnected, if not for chance. In 2005, John Blair attended a lecture in Oxford given by archaeologist Ian Meadows on his Ketton Quarry find.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: One thing he said made me jump, which was that one of the burials had had the head cut off and placed between the feet, and of course that's exactly what the Modwenna story is describing.
Blair was so intrigued he set up a meeting to examine the decapitated skeleton.
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): This is burial six, the burial that you've heard about and seen the pictures but here is the actual skeleton.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: When you see it like this that you realize that this is a real person and then you start to ask what was their story. It's not in a very good state is it?
It's a skeleton of a young girl. One logical explanation for her severed head might be that she was executed. But criminals weren't normally buried in consecrated ground and this skeleton was found within the church boundaries at Ketton Quarry.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: Where was this grave in the churchyard?
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): Well that's one of the interesting things about this one, it was actually within the churchyard on the main approach to the church itself. So here is the area that's been kept clear almost certainly for the entrance to the church and our burial is on the front row.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: So this is certainly not an excluded or marginal burial is it?
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): Certainly not, it's, it's one of the people who is probably in prime position within the churchyard, it would be one of the very visible graves as you were going to worship.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: I think that makes it most unlikely that this is an execution. This is somebody who's been given a proper Christian burial.
Something else is strange… If this little girl was buried normally, she must have been dug up later and only then had her head cut off. But why?
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: To judge from that churchyard, it was not a very big community was it?
IAN MEADOWS, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology): Indeed, I mean with only 73 graves I would have thought the community's probably only 3 or 4 families.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: With such a small community it's very likely that it was relatives in some way, and it could be that it's this child's own family. Maybe they were ashamed or worried that their recently deceased child is thought to be walking around and behaving in this fashion, so they take steps themselves, to make sure that this person doesn't move. And I think we have to take this as definitive, this is an energetic, deliberate, decisive measure, to keep this person down in the grave so they can never walk around again.
The deviant burial at Ketton Quarry and the Saint Modwenna text might have simply been an odd coincidence. But 140 miles north of Ketton, in Yorkshire, a dig in an Anglo Saxon graveyard has revealed more cases of deviant burials. Once again, this mirrors a medieval folktale set in a Yorkshire village.
Reading: "Two brothers went to the cemetery and began to dig. After a short while they laid bare the corpse which was grotesque and distended with a swollen reddened face. Undaunted, driven by their anger, the young men struck at the lifeless corpse, from which such a continuous flow of blood gushed and soaked the earth that they realized the creature must have been a bloodsucker."
Could this bloody tale from 900 years ago be further proof of a link between medieval folklore and real life vampire rituals? Blair wants to find out for himself. At West Heslerton in Yorkshire, archaeologist Dominic Powlesland has excavated more than 10 deviant burials from another Anglo Saxon graveyard.
DOMINIC POWLESLAND, Landscape Research Centre: There were a series that were buried face down, and some that were buried in graves that weren't big enough for them. This one here is the best preserved. It's a female, but she was buried face down. So if we look at the skull, it really ought to have been like this, but it's been turned right the way round and up, which I think probably would have broken the upper vertebrae anyway.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: Yes I think it's amazing to see all these here, because I know these very well from the pictures of them but now I'm meeting them in person as it were, and what's remarkable about this group is that you can see virtually all the ways of keeping a dead person in their grave. That one is very interesting because the legs have been flexed and broken. That could never have happened naturally. So that's clearly a way of stopping the person, literally stopping them walking.
DOMINIC POWLESLAND, Landscape Research Centre: Yes, there's absolutely no doubt that you couldn't get the body into that position during normal burial. You'd have to be deliberately bending the body round and probably breaking quite a lot of parts.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: Yes. Yes.
These finds are particularly startling because they date from a two hundred year period around the year 1,000, when the Catholic Church had clear rules about how a body should be buried. Archaeologist Andrew Reynolds is an expert on Anglo Saxon burials.
ANDREW REYNOLDS, University College London: People were mainly buried inside enclosed churchyards, with feet buried east-west, with the head to the east, arms by the side or crossed over the body so in a very formulaic way. So any burial that we find which is different to that say buried away from a consecrated area or the body's treated in a different way we describe that as a deviant burial.
To medieval Britons, the eternal life was as important as this earthly one. A proper burial gave you a greater chance on judgment day of joining the ranks of those entering the bliss of heaven rather than being condemned to the fires of hell. A burial that didn't conform to this standard was something to be avoided at all costs. Despite this, Andrew Reynolds' research has uncovered deviant burials all over Anglo Saxon England.
ANDREW REYNOLDS, University College London: We find corpses, in some cases with the heads removed, in other cases with the hands or perhaps the feet chopped off. In other examples we find people buried face down, in some cases with large rocks or stones piled over the corpse, and in the more extreme cases we find bodies that have been staked down to the ground.
Archaeological finds showing evidence of the brutal mutilation of corpses… Medieval manuscripts which talk about bloodsuckers... People in Anglo Saxon England genuinely feared the walking dead, while today, they are just the stuff of scary movies… Or are they? Could there be somewhere in the world where the terror of the vampire still exists?
In 2004, 1500 miles from England, a story makes headlines in Romania. A group of villagers has performed a vampire-slaying ritual on a recently buried corpse. The incident occurred in the remote town of Marotino de Sus when a 26-year-old woman began complaining of a mysterious illness.
ROMANIAN WOMAN (Translation): Let me tell you something, this is not a lie. This is something real.
The girl said the decaying body of her uncle, Petra Tomas, who died three months earlier, was visiting her during the night and drinking blood from her heart. Her cousin speaks of the family's fears.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): How was your cousin feeling when she was dreaming of the vampire?
COUSIN (Translation): During the day she was feeling good / but during the night she was not good at all. They saw that something wrong was happening with her. She was seeing weird things on the walls.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Do you believe in vampires?
COUSIN (Translation): Of course I do. I know from my mother and father than vampires exist.
The villagers understood what was going on. This was the work of a vampire…and they knew just what to do about it. Six men from the village including the victim's father, Gheorge Marinescu, went to the man's grave. The men chiseled open the tomb, and removed the body. The say they found the man's mouth stained with blood and his stomach swollen. They cut open his chest, impaled his heart and burned it at the village crossroads. Then they made a potion from the ashes of his heart and gave it to the girl to drink. This, they say, finally laid the troubled soul of Petra Tomas to rest and the girl was cured. Marina Andronache is the local journalist who investigated the story at the time.
MARINA ANDRONACHE, Journalist: It is a ritual in which everybody from Celaru from Dolj County believes. They are small communities and they pass the ritual from generation to generation. "This person from our family is not feeling well, what shall we do?" And everybody says at this point, "Oh, the dead man from our family, he will be a vampire, so we have to perform the ritual." Our first image of Marinescu was very shocking because he was so proud, we can say he was proud.
GHEORGE MARINESCU: Look! This is the pitchfork I used. Film it!
MARINA ANDRONACHE, Journalist: He recognized he was a little afraid to perform, when he saw the body, when he saw the blood on the dead's mouth. But he was convinced he has to perform and knew how to do it, despite his fear. Just to save his daughter and his family from the vampire.
For most of the villagers, this vampire slaying ritual was welcomed. It was a clearly defined tradition that had been passed down through generations.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Were they right to take out his heart?
ROMANIAN WOMAN #1 (Translation): Yes, otherwise many people would have died.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): They did nothing wrong?
ROMANIAN WOMAN #2 (Translation): No, they had to do this, otherwise those people will be dead now.
ROMANIAN WOMAN #3 (Translation): A lot of times this has happened. This is not the first time.
But this time the Romanian Orthodox church could no longer stand by.
FATHER APOSTOLACHE IONITA (Translation): This is a real problem for our church. Yesterday, today and in the future it will be a problem. Because this kind of manifestation is opposite to the teachings of the church. The scriptures teach us about the resurrection. It will be for all people, bad or good.
And, the wife of the so-called vampire complained to the police.
WIFE (Translation): I feel just pain because he was my man, my husband… I have been working with him. And now I see him like this.
The resulting investigation and media storm sent the man who actually cut open Petra Tomas' chest into hiding. This latter-day vampire slayer is named Mirca Mitrica and his account of the ritual has never been documented. In 2015, Marina Andronache received a tip that Mitrica may have returned to the area. Since the police investigation, the villagers have closed ranks and Marina's previous attempts to find out more have been met with aggression, and threats of violence.
MARINA ANDRONACHE, Journalist: I'm very nervous about, I don't know who we can find and if they want to speak and how they will react. I don't know I'm very, not panicked but I'm nervous.
Rumors circulated around the village that Mirca Mitrica had fled to the forest and was living in hiding. Marina has an address where he may be living but she doesn't know what she'll find there. The woman says that Mitrica's in the area, looking after a herd of sheep two miles away. So Marina heads out of the village to find him.
CREW MEMBER: Is this him?
MARINA ANDRONACHE, Journalist: Yes, it's him. Hide the camera. Come. Let's hurry.
Here, told publicly for the first time, is Mirca Mitrica's account of a modern-day vampire-slaying ritual which unfolded in Romania one night in 2004.
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): The girl was sick, she could barely stand, and everyone was in agreement, "Let's go and dig up her uncle, he's turned into a vampire." The dead man's wife said to us: "Do whatever it takes to save the girl, to prevent her dying." So six of us went to his grave. The men dug him up. I took the lid off the coffin. I found him with his head to one side. There was blood on him, fresh blood. A puddle of fresh blood, which he'd taken from the girl, so we knew he'd become a vampire. Then I opened him up. I cut him with a scythe from top to bottom. I used a hammer to open his ribcage and I took out his heart.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Weren't you afraid?
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): No. No. I took his heart. I took it to the crossroads and set fire to it. It has to be done at the crossroads.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Was the family happy?
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): Of course they were happy the girl had been saved. That's how you know it's worked, you see the victim coming back to life. It would have been terrible for someone so young to die and rot in the ground, she has two young daughters. I did a good thing, not a bad thing.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Weren't you afraid the soul of Petra Tomas would come and hurt you?
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): No! No, because he can't. I wasn't afraid because his blood isn't the same as mine. The vampire looks for his kin and since I have different blood he won't come for me. They go to their own family, they choose to suck the blood of the person who loved them the most.
INTERVIEWER (Translation): Aren't you afraid?
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): No. I'm absolutely not afraid! I'm not afraid of anybody except God, because he is greater than us.
Back in Oxford, John Blair read about this case in the newspapers at the time and was struck by how closely it resembled the texts from Anglo Saxon England. Now, hearing Mirca Mitrica's testimony for the very first time, the similarities between them are even more striking.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: Well amazing, amazing The whole story is so extraordinarily like the story of the vampire killing at Burton-on-Trent in The Miracles of Saint Modwenna. They open the grave, they found the body hasn't decayed, there's blood there, they cut out the heart, they take it to a central place, a special place, they burn it and after that the victims get better.
The other thing that struck me about this story is that we don't have a word for the walking dead in the English language precisely because these beliefs died out so long ago, so no word has come through. But of course there is a word in Eastern Europe, a Slavic word - Vampire - and since the practices and the beliefs do seem to be so very similar, I think it's fine to talk about these English walking dead as England's vampires.
Medieval belief in vampires helps explain the discovery of deviant burials with decapitated skeletons and twisted limbs found all over England.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: I do think that by making these comparisons we can make sense of things that otherwise seem to us to be inexplicable. Why on earth should people behave in this way? It seems bizarre, it seems deviant, abhorrent behavior. What I think an example like this shows is that normal members of a community can think it perfectly sensible to behave like this. In other words it makes the medieval stories make sense.
Today, these English villages, with their duck ponds and village greens, appear to be the epitome of romantic, rural bliss - but life in Anglo Saxon England was very different. Archaeologist Stuart Prior has spent many years excavating medieval graveyards, and has created a picture of what life must have been like in a community dominated by superstition.
STUART PRIOR, University of Bristol: Imagine a period where the only light source that you have is a burning branch, a burning firebrand or a tallow candle, Ok. No headlights, no torches. Once you go beyond the hearth in the fireplace or the fire pit that you've got in your forest clearing you're out there into a world of complete darkness. Are you going to be eaten? Are you going to be killed? Are there enemy warriors out there, or are there even things that are even worse that have come from these folk tales and these superstitions and stories that you've been told ever since you were a child.
You're living in this isolated medieval community and things start to go wrong around you, in the world around you, your crops fail, your cattle die, your sheep die. It's very, very difficult in that period to work out, with their limited knowledge of the world what's causing these problems. So when things start to go wrong you start to look for things to blame, reasons. It's about self-preservation you know. If your cattle are dying if your children have become sick there's got to be a strong motivating force. If you can't explain events in the world around you and you're blaming them, on somebody that's recently died or somebody that's been dead for a while that's in living memory, to actually go and desecrate that grave it's a dreadful thing to do, but at the same time it's an understandable thing to do because it's about the preservation of the community. They really feel that actually going and desecrating someone's grave is going to have an effect on the world about them, that's going to be beneficial nothing's going to stop them from doing that.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: It does seem as though there is a basic willingness of people to believe in the walking and dangerous dead in certain circumstances. When people are afraid and they're afraid of things that are unknown, are very threatening because they're unknown it's natural to look for scapegoats. It's like executing criminals except these criminals are dead and it's much easier to execute people who are dead already than to execute the living.
Seen in this context, it becomes clear why ritual mutilations, which today seem more gruesome than the darkest horror story, were performed on corpses. To understand the root causes of the medieval fears, we must again look at the folklore of the era. At the heart of vampire stories is the terror of unknown sickness, and pestilence.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: One of the great unknowns that all pre-modern societies have feared is disease. Where does it come from? Nobody knows. How do, how do you get rid of it? Nobody knows.
It's hard to imagine just how terrifying the arrival of disease must have been for an Anglo Saxon community. This was a world of scientific ignorance. Blaming the dead was as logical as anything else. There was no understanding of germs or contagion, no rational explanation for why sickness struck. And if death was the great unknown, then disease would be the first step to death. Lindsey Fitzharris is a historian of medicine and medieval disease.
LINDSEY FITZHARRIS, Queen Mary, University of London: So the way that contagion works is, it's a bit like a domino effect. There's an incubation period in which the virus takes root inside the body and this can take a few days. So let's say someone dies of plague, maybe a few days later their family member dies, a few days after that another family member catches it, maybe a villager catches it, someone who's actually taking care of them catches it. They're all looking for an explanation and they turn to the dead person.
But were some of the dead more likely to have been singled out for blame? Lindsey believes that some of the most disfiguring diseases that struck medieval Europe might have been triggers for the belief in vampires.
LINDSEY FITZHARRIS, Queen Mary, University of London: Diseases that were much more likely to contribute to a fear of vampirism would be things like leprosy which really manifests itself in a very visible way, and would have been very scary. With leprosy there's facial deformities, the hands and the feet become very, very deformed. Another disease that we're all very familiar with during this period is the Black Death, or bubonic plague. Now, bubonic plague again is a very visible disease, and resulted in pustules all over your skin, they turned black they erupted with blood, it was horrible. Another disease that was very prevalent during this period was tuberculosis, again a highly visible disease, you would be coughing blood, you'd form pustules on the face, on the hands, and these kinds of diseases were very prevalent in the medieval period.
Dacre Stoker has even come across a revealing article in Bram Stoker's notes for Dracula that documents a genuine, vampire craze in the not so distant past. An outbreak of tuberculosis in early 20th-century America had folks fearing the undead.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: In Bram's notes for Dracula we find an article telling us that in New England in the United States there was a serious vampire scare in the late 1800s-early 1900s, and it turned out that this was simply tuberculosis but people were believing that this disease was vampirism and so they actually had state forensic authorities allowing exhumations from the grave and staking the hearts, burning the hearts, doing different ceremonial practices to rid these villagers of vampires and it was only TB.
It's difficult to know for certain which illnesses were common in Anglo Saxon England, but we do know that leprosy came right at the beginning of this period and that tuberculosis was endemic. It's possible the dead were scapegoats for these horrifying illnesses. Is there any evidence to suggest that belief in vampires was a way to explain disease? To find out, we need to return to Eastern Europe. In 2014, Bulgarian professor Nikolay Ovcharov discovered the bones of two bodies dating back to a time when the plague first hit Bulgaria.
NIKOLAY OVCHAROV, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences: Here we have a middle aged man probably in his 30s. The grave dates back to the first half of the 13th century. You can see that he was buried according to Christian tradition, hands placed across his chest. What was shocking here was that a blade from a plough had been thrust into the neck. This person had not yet turned into a vampire. This was an ordinary person, whose parents performed an anti-vampire ritual on him. Here is another skeleton buried in the necropolis. It has also undergone a ritual but it's different this time. On the left hand side of the skeleton we can see where a blade has been driven into the chest. This skeleton has also been dismembered. The right leg has been severed and left next to the body. This was done during the funeral. It's an anti-vampire ritual, a preventative measure.
It would seem that in 13th-century Bulgaria, the fear of vampires spreading disease was so great, the bodies of potential vampires were mutilated before they even had a chance to rise from their graves. One archaeological dig in Venice reveals an even more explicit link between a time of disease and evidence of a vampire ritual. In 2006, Dr. Matteo Borrini, a forensic anthropologist examining a burial site in Venice, found this: the skeleton of a 60-year-old woman, who had a large brick forced into her mouth, buried in a pit for victims of the plague.
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: It was strange to see in a mass grave in a cemetery, built for the plague in that period, this kind of handling of a body. That was the only one skeleton that showed us a manipulation, an uncommon manipulation of the remains. With this piece of brick put inside the mouth. So I decide to start an investigation. Books from the 16th and 17th century was describe exactly the ritual that I found in Venice. The ritual was linked to a belief of a specific kind of undead, called in some areas Nachzehrer, that was responsible, or better was believed to be responsible to spread the plague. This kind of undead or this kind of vampire could be killed only putting inside his or her mouth a piece of stone or a piece of brick. This meant that I had in front of me the remains of a vampire.
In times of plagues, gravediggers -- unable to keep up with the scale of the losses -- dug huge pits for the dead, returning daily to deposit more bodies. They saw corpses in advanced states of decomposition with apparently blood-stained shrouds and bloated stomachs. To the 16th-century mind these were clear signs of vampirism.
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: The Nachzehrer, or shroud eater, were believed to be eating their own shroud inside the grave. When they grow up enough, they were able to go out of their own graves and drink the blood of the people like a traditional vampire basically.
The Venetian gravedigger's account sounds eerily similar to the medieval Anglo Saxon texts…
Reading: "The linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood. They laid bare the corpse which was grotesque and distended, with a swollen, reddened face."
And the same as what was seen at the grave of Petra Tomas...
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation audio): A puddle of fresh blood which he'd taken from the girl…
The existence of what looks like fresh blood around the mouth of the corpse is a theme across centuries and countries, and people saw it as proof the dead were feeding on blood. But perhaps science can help us explain this. Police rely on Dr. Anna Williams' knowledge of how the human body decays to help them with their investigations. Working at the University of Huddersfield in England, she is an expert on what happens to a corpse post-mortem.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: In the UK at the moment it's almost impossible to use human bodies for this kind of research. The pig carcass that we're using has died of natural causes. We chose a pig because actually there are quite a lot of similarities between human bodies and pig bodies. So for example, they have quite similar fat-to-muscle ratios, they have quite similar physiology, and their skin is very similar. So that helps us extrapolate data from pig research to humans.
So we're using this pig as a model for a human burial. We're wrapping it in a shroud similar to what they would do in medieval times and we are monitoring its decomposition over a period of weeks.
After four weeks, Anna's joined by Dr. Matteo Borrini, who found the remains of what medieval Venetians believed to be a vampire.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: So this is the box, we've got to open it. Wow. The first thing that hits you is the smell isn't it?
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: Yeah. Yeah.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: OK, so that's caused by all the bacteria. Let's see what it looks like underneath. Its belly is about two or three times the size that it was.
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: Yes it's really bloated. It seems like he has been eating. Yeah exactly.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: He's been eating quite a lot. Yeah. We can see there's some staining around the nose and mouth area.
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: This brownish reddish stain?
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: Yes, it looks a bit like dried blood
MATTEO BORRINI, Liverpool John Moores University: What happened especially during the medieval period, is that people also saw holes in the area of the mouth, like the shroud was eaten and so they probably imagined that the undead was eating the shroud.
ANNA WILLIAMS, University of Huddersfield: You can easily see how people could have come to that conclusion. He looks like he's had a messy meal of blood and his belly is full. But we now know that it's the result of bacterial activity or possibly maggots around the mouth.
The bloody mouth and distended belly are specifically referred to in both the medieval texts and the modern Romanian account as proof that corpses were rising from their graves. But today, science can explain what the Anglo Saxons and Romanians were seeing. Even though medieval Anglo Saxons didn't have this scientific knowledge, their beliefs in the walking dead seemed to fade away by about the year 1200. Belief in the supernatural -- witches or demons -- continued as a way to explain the unknown, but belief in vampires did not.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: Why do beliefs in the undead start and why do they stop? That's a really difficult question. One reason may be that England after about 1200 was quite settled, politically, religiously, with a very strong church culture quite a high level of education. Maybe these are all factors that help to explain the disappearance of these beliefs.
These early vampire rituals and beliefs died out centuries ago in England. They have remained unknown and unacknowledged until only recently. But they've also been obscured by a far more recent vampire: the vampire of novels and films.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: I think Dracula and the popular image of him is quite an obstacle to understanding the medieval beliefs in vampires. I mean when you talk about vampires especially to other archaeologists maybe who've excavated some of these burials, they tend to react against the idea because they immediately think of horror films and aristocrats in black cloaks or whatever and think well this is fantasy, it's not something people could really have believed in, but what the Romanian story is showing us is that there it's real to people they do believe in it. It's a threat to the community. It's got to be responded to accordingly and I'm quite sure that the medieval communities whose actions we can see in the excavated burials and in these narratives thought them just as real. It's mainstream. It's something that is a genuine threat and it's got to be dealt with.
Dracula, with his charm and sophistication, is the vampire who's captured our attention for more than a century. Unlike his peasant ancestors, the image of the urbane count was cemented by the first theatrical staging of Bram Stoker's story, as his great-grandnephew has discovered.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: On the stage Dracula is performed and for the first time we actually see this creature that Bram created, but we see him in a way that's much more acceptable and much more scary. The early vampire was much more like this ruddy peasant that has just come out of the grave. When Bram describes his Dracula he's got hairy palms and has foul breath. On the stage he's demonic but he's also very attractive. He suits the audiences because he's suave, Eastern European. He's very charming looking. But the scary thing is he'll also suck your blood and kill you at the same time.
People who have read the book Dracula haven't actually seen the creature. And now on stage you get this strong visual and the suggestion of both sexy and suave and debonair but also supernatural and deadly. The cape obviously makes Dracula look like a bat so he connects the natural world with this decoration but also it's a stage prop. The high collar that we've got to know as every Halloween costume was actually a way to get Dracula off stage. Two wires were attached to the collar that went above the head and so when Dracula turned away from the audience he could disappear out the trap door and the audience wouldn't see him disappear.
The suspended cloak hid his departure before it dropped to the floor empty -- demonstrating his supernatural abilities before the audience's very eyes.
DACRE STOKER, Great-Grandnephew of Bram Stoker: I've got a set of stage directions and script of Hamilton Deane's Dracula and I'm going to read you some of these directions. It's fantastic. "Dracula enters from a trick panel. Stands with arms outstretched to form bat wings with his cloak. Green spotlight on him. Mina screams. Exit Dracula by trick panel rapidly."
The stage really was a springboard for this visual to enter into popular culture. It ran for a number of years and then of course you've got to realize it got turned into opera, it got turned into musicals, it got turned into comedy. Then of course the wonderful film legacy, the television legacy and all the figures, the Halloween costumes, the role-playing, the tourists to Romania. I mean this was the genesis point, this jumping off point for this whole franchise of Dracula that just really took the world by storm.
Dracula's responsible not only for throwing us off the scent of the historical evidence, but the medical evidence too. The fictional vampire became so engrained that people began associating diseases with vampire qualities.
LINDSEY FITZHARRIS, Queen Mary, University of London: So for instance porphyria was actually known as the vampire disease and it creates a sensitivity to light. If the skin is exposed to the sunlight it creates this very distinct rash. The patient is very pale because they can't go out into the sunlight. Also what happens is that the skin around the mouth tightens and the incisors become very prominent and this again reminds us of the vampire look in the popular literature. The other thing that happens is that you start to crave iron, and so a lot of people who have porphyria start to eat a lot of bloody meats and again, associated with that blood drinking image we have of the vampire. The other disease that may have fuelled the imagination was a disease called pellagra and this too creates a sensitivity to light, a very distinct rash. It's a wasting disease, so there's a lot of dehydration. You actually start to look like a walking corpse in a way.
These interpretations may be as misguided as the medieval belief in shroud eaters. But whether folkloric or literary, from medieval England to today, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for vampire stories.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: I think there's a natural human fascination with monsters. One can see that in literature really of all periods and countries. Maybe there's a spectrum between what's essentially the modern vampire craze which is just recreational. It's nice to be frightened in that sort of way, it's not serious. But the further you go back in time or go back and into other societies where these beliefs have been general, it becomes real.
For the medieval Anglo Saxons, the walking dead embodied the fears and taboos of their era, but they were also real.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: The people who were believed to be undead fall into some fairly clear groups, they're mostly nasty people. They're either criminals or they're untruthful they're unfaithful, they're suspicious they're disliked by their neighbors, they may be loners in some way. They're people also who die bad deaths. Their lives are cut short and I think the sense we get is that their lives therefore haven't really ended properly, they haven't moved on to the next world as they should, they're still hanging around.
The human remains at Ketton Quarry were those of a young girl. It's unlikely she was a criminal but any child's death -- a life cut short -- is deeply unsettling.
ANDREW REYNOLDS, University College London: People were genuinely scared of people who died a bad death in the middle ages and we can show that this was the case through archaeological discoveries of people staked down, buried face down buried with their head cut off and so on.
JOHN BLAIR, The Queen's College, University of Oxford: It's a response to a threat and the threat is that the dead person has not moved on and what these people are doing is making sure they go on, they move on along that road and complete it. So it's not a hostile act, it may seem to us to be a violent act, but actually it's completing a rite of passage which is a pretty physical thing anyway.
But have we moved on from our medieval ancestors? Could our smodern vampire craze exist in part because it resonates with our deepest primal fears?
STUART PRIOR, University of Bristol: Human beings have always had a reverence and a respect for the deceased, you know the body of a fellow human being does something to us as a person. All of us have a natural reaction a natural instinct to shy away from it, to feel sick, to sweat, to feel uncomfortable around a corpse so actually to go and disturb the dead in their resting place is contrary to human nature.
In the past, people overcame this revulsion to the dead in order to protect themselves from the unknown, the inexplicable. Perhaps now, when science can explain so much, we actually seek out fear and through fiction look into the last great unknown, death itself. In some small pockets of the world, the visceral fear of vampires lives on, even as modern thinking takes hold.
MIRCA MITRICA (Translation): We used to dig them up at night and take their hearts out, that's how it was done in the old days. But, that's really old fashioned. People are smarter now. Now we have new medicine. Now we pierce the heart during the funeral and that's that.
But is this enough? As we've discovered in one form or another, vampires have a habit of coming back.