There are accounts from the 12th century of villagers in Scotland exhuming a corpse in the search for a monster who had beaten people black and blue.
But according to an article in New Scientist, “The Real Vampire Hunters”, a more scholastic approach began in 1693 when a journal in Paris published accounts of a plague of undead corpses in Poland and Russsia.
A scholar called Pierre de Noyers reported that these undead came out of their graves to search out relatives or friends and suck their blood until they too succumbed and died. The only solution he said was to behead the corpse and drive a stake through its heart.
That came later in Victorian melodrama, Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles in the 1980s, followed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recent films and TV series such as Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and my favourite, True Blood.
The early undead stank and were more likely to be your bad-tempered neighbour than a member of the nobility (such as Countess Bathory, the famous Hungarian serial killer who died in a bricked-up room in 1614). It seems that the stories of vampires spread over the next hundred years peaking in Hungary in the early 18th century. This was a time when scholars were looking for proof to verify such phenomenon.
A rampage in what is now Serbia in 1725 by a peasant called Peter Plogojowitz, who allegedly rose from the dead to kill nine neighbours and demand shoes from his wife, led to an Imperial investigation. At the same time an ex-soldier Arnold Paole apparently returned from the dead and killed 17 neighbours who became vampires in their turn, over a four-year period. His case was reported across Europe and led to the use of the word vampire for the first time in a letter to the London Journal in 1723.
Eventually the Hungarian Queen’s physician, who didn’t believe in the supernatural, was asked to investigate and he reported that the findings in these exhumations were naturally occurring processes well-known to gravediggers but treated by ignorant peasants as supernatural events with religious significance. The Queen banned exhumations and the panic eventually died down.
For those of a sensitive nature stop reading now! Otherwise you can see how natural processes of decomposition could lead to these supernatural beliefs.
Timetable for decomposition after death (typical of sheltered environment in a warm climate)
- Within minutes gravity cause blood to settle in lowest parts of body giving the face a pale complexion
- After 2 hours muscles stiffen as rigor mortis sets in due to chemical changes due to lack of oxygen
- After 2 days body begins to putrefy as bacteria in gut produce gas and bloat the body making it look well fed. Gases can also push blood through lungs and out through mouth giving effect of consuming blood. Skin begins to shrink making it look like hair and nails are still growing.
- After 5 days the maggots have taken over starting at the head while putrefaction continues in the body
- After 19 days only the skeleton, hair and leathery skin are left.