Polish 'Vampires' May Have Actually Been Cholera's First Victims

Bran Castle, famous as 'Dracula's Castle,' stands among Transylvania's mountains in Bran, Romania. Ludwig Rohbock

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Except for vampires.

For hundreds of years in Europe and elsewhere, people came to believe that an unhappy few wouldn’t stay dead, but might rather come back from the grave to inflict pain and suffering on the living. And in some cases people tried to prevent this return of the undead quite literally.  

Sorting through about 300 graves in a rural Polish cemetery, researchers found six graves in which bodies were buried with sickles (the curved blades used for harvesting crops) and/or rocks placed on top of the neck. The idea being that if the person came back to life, they would have trouble getting up, or their head would be cut off, says Lesley Gregoricka, a bioarchaeologist at the University of South Alabama.

It was widely believed at the time this cemetery was made, in the 17th and 18th centuries, that certain people could become “vampires” and come back from the dead, possibly to suck the blood of the living, she tells Newsweek. Gregoricka and colleagues have been studying these graves to find out more about these people.

Their analysis suggests that these “vampires” may have been patient zeros for cholera—the first victims of the disease in that area. This bacterial infection spread through eastern Europe at the time and killed those it infected quickly, says Maria Liston, a biological anthropologist at the University of Waterloo who wasn’t involved in the study.

skeleton-sickle A skeleton from a 30- to 39-year-old female (and suspected vampire) is shown with a sickle placed across the neck. Amy Scott

It’s “very frightening” to witness somebody die of cholera, Liston tells Newsweek. “Perfectly healthy people can be dead in 12 to 24 hours. The flesh can almost melt away from them.”

“In a world where you don’t understand germs, these people might be terrifying,” Liston adds. It’s believable that others might treat them as “vampires,” capable of coming back from the dead and spreading this new, and unknown malady.

The scientists had other guesses as to why people might be viewed as vampires: being foreign and thus feared as suspicious, suffering a violent or untimely death, or not being baptized. Unfortunately the bones can’t speak to either of the latter possibilities, but Gregoricka and colleagues tested the first hypothesis, by examining the skeletons of the six “vampires” to see if these people were locals or immigrants.

After looking at bone levels of strontium, an element that varies chemically between different locations, Gregoricka concluded that these “vampires” were indeed locals. So, in this case, the immigrant hypothesis doesn’t hold up. Instead, cholera remains amongst the most likely of explanations.

Regarding the term vampire, Liston says it’s unclear if they were called this at the time, but the word is nevertheless a good one “for somebody who could come back from the dead.” Although they were probably not “sexy men who look like Tom Cruise and bite you on the neck,” she says, laughing. The modern conception of vampire is a little more specific than it was hundreds of years ago, she adds.

Leszek Gardela, an archaeologist at the University of Rzeszow in Poland, took slight issue with the use of the term vampire, suggesting that unusual “deviant” burials such as these might be practiced for many reasons, including for people accused of magic or heinous crimes. But Gardela did add that the study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, was a “well-researched and well-written article demonstrating cutting-edge scholarship.”

Vampires, at press time, could not be contacted for comment, as they were still waiting for night and sequestered in their coffins.