Entombed Too Soon

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On October 22, Britain’s Lost Ghosts posted a scan of an intriguing article (above) on its Facebook page, titled “Vampire Superstition in Servia [Serbia]” from the Manchester Courier, February 15, 1888. Here’s my transcript:

The Pester Lloyd reports from Belgrade a case of superstition which almost had a fatal result. The police found, some nights ago, lying in the street, the body of a man apparently frozen to death. Efforts to revive him failed, and his identity having been ascertained, he was handed over to his family for internment. The cemetery was a considerable way distant; and as it was being reached, the driver of the hearse told the Pope, who attended for the religious service, that he heard some noise in the coffin. The clergyman and others drawing near also heard the noise, and all ran away lest a vampire should issue from it and attack them. The driver, terrified at finding himself alone, turned about and drove the hearse to the nearest police-station. By this time, a knocking was distinctly audible. The coffin was forced open, and the man was found alive but in a very exhausted state. He complained pathetically of the attempt to bury him despite his remonstrances. He was taken to the hospital, and had nearly recovered. He had been spending the evening with some boon companions, and wandering in a state of intoxication fell and became insensible from the cold. Probably the jolting of the hearse revived him. It is a superstition in Servia and among many Slav people that when a man dies suddenly his spirit returns as a vampire, and preys on his near relatives and friends.

Incidentally, the Pester Lloyd is a German language paper published in Budapest, Hungary, initially published from 1854 to 1945  (“Pester Lloyd” 2013).

What I find particularly intriguing about this case, is its direct tie-in with the premature burial theory, often used to explain vampire belief. It holds that certain folk were buried alive after being declared dead, and if they somehow emerged from their tomb, or worse—were exhumed and found with signs indicating that they had still alive in their grave—people thought they’d returned from the dead in a vampiric state.

I was struck by its similarity to another case in a book I recently borrowed (Hogg 2013). Richard and Eva Blum recount a story they were told by a Greek informant:

My grandfather was a doctor on one of the islands. He was treating a little girl who was very ill, but in spite of his care she lapsed into a coma. The parents were convinced that she had died, but my grandfather tried to explain to them that she was still alive and that he might be able to save her with continued treatment. The parents were very upset saying that she was dead; if he brought her back to life, she would be a vrikolax. In spite of his entreaties the parents insisted she was dead and that she must be buried. So they had a funeral, and she was put into the earth. The doctor was terribly upset because he knew they had buried her alive; late that night he went by himself to the graveyard to unearth her. He pulled the lid off the coffin and took her in his arms. Her breathing was very weak so he put his lips to hers to give her his breath, but it was too late. She died in his arms (1970, 71–2).

These examples give some merit to the theory, often stymied by pertinent questions like these from Herbert Mayo:

But how could they, you ask, be alive after an internment of days or weeks? How is it possible they could lie without air, boxed up in a manner which would certainly kill a strong and healthy person in a few minutes or houses, and yet retain their vitality? (1847, 436).

But he also offered a possible answer: the victims were in an induced state of suspended animation. On being exhumed, these bodies were still fresh—in the “vampire state”—because they were still alive. With these cases in mind, is it possible Mayo was onto something?

References

Blum, Richard, and Eva. 1970. The Dangerous Hour: The Lore of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece. With fieldwork assistance by Anna Amera and Sophie Kallifatidou. London: Chatto & Windus.

Hogg, Anthony. 2013. “Books I’ve Borrowed.” The Vampirologist, October 22. https://thevampirologist.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/books-ive-borrowed/.

Mayo, Herbert [Mac Davus, pseud.]. 1847. “Vampyrism.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, April, 432–40.

“Pester Lloyd.” 2013. Wikipedia, last modified 4 June, at 14:00. Accessed October 25, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pester_Lloyd.

“Vampire Superstition in Servia.” 1888. Manchester Courier, February 15.

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