Bram Stoker’s Dracula has become a staple of Gothic horror literature since its publication in 1897, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not heard of it. The novel and its eponymous character are arguably responsible for many of the modern depictions of vampires seen today, thanks to the staggering 217 films featuring Dracula in a leading role. Scores of children take to the streets on Halloween dressed as witches, devils and, of course, vampires.
Superstitions regarding vampires in Western Europe increased in the early eighteenth century, as legends surrounding vampires arrived from areas where they were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It has been said that these legends let to mass hysteria across Europe and it led to a phenomenon similar to medieval witch-hunts; people were occasionally accused of vampirism and corpses were staked.
This staking of corpses can be seen in areas such as Bulgaria, where archaeologists have recently uncovered what they believe to be a vampire burial site. The skeletons were discovered with metal stakes in their chest cavities where their hearts would have been, which demonstrated the fact that contemporaries believed that vampires could rise from the dead if they were not staked after death or buried properly.
In Eastern European folklore, it was believed that common criminals such as thieves and murderers may have a disposition to become vampires. Some people believed that vampires were created from the souls of outlaws who died away from a civilised society, while others believed that those who died violently were destined to become vampires. Perhaps the most unusual superstition was that a cat jumping over a corpse’s body before burial would lead to vampirism.
It is interesting to note that the belief in vampires increased massively despite being the Age of Enlightenment, during which many superstitious and folkloric legends were quelled. Sightings in Eastern Europe increased a large amount during the eighteenth century and led to increased vigilance against vampire suspects, so much so that even government officials were involved in the hunting and staking of suspected vampires. There were also occasions of village locals digging up bodies and occasionally staking them, along with so-called epidemics of reported vampire attacks. The area most affected by this hysteria was East Prussia, as this was where the panic surrounding vampire attacks is said to have originated.
Ultimately, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria commissioned her physician to investigate the supposed vampire attacks, and it was concluded that vampires did not exist. Laws were passed to prevent further grave digging and damage of the deceased, but the legend of the vampire continues to thrive even in modern popular culture.