Creatures of the Night


October 31st - Halloween - is just around the corner, a date that historically marks the end of the harvest and the slow ushering in of long dark winter. A time of year humans long believed saw the fading of the boundary between the living and the dead, so that shades again walked the earth, among them - Vampyres - stalking the living for their blood. In the programme we'll be talking to a leading expert on the vampire myth, as well as with an archaeologist who uncovered a notable "vampire" burial site just outside of Prague 30 years ago. Human remains there date back to the 10th century; like other grave sites in neighbouring Moravia and Slovakia corpses there were tied down - even beheaded - to prevent suspected vampires from returning to terrorise local villages.

Despite wide-spread condemnation by the Church, the belief in spirits and vampirism remained rampant in Europe, prevailing in parts of the continent up until the late 19th century.

Giuseppe Maiello is a professor at Prague's Charles University who specialises in pagan rituals and beliefs. We met to discuss the historic belief in vampirism in the Czech lands, asking how deep the rabbit hole ran.

"From the beginning of Slavic settlements here in Bohemia - that means from the beginning of the 6th century - you can find a percentage of graves that you can recognise were considered "vampire" graves. But, of course, for example, if you study also the Celts you find that they too had the same graves. So, the belief in vampires has roots that go very, very deep, before the coming of the Slavic people here. I think that the belief in vampires is as old as the use of graves themselves. If the first ones go back 70, 000 years you see it is very, very old indeed. In short, wherever you have "graves" you have a 'possibility' of vampires."

Belief in vampires during the Middle Ages took several different forms, experts point out that there were four basic types people believed in: the so-called revenants, or reawakened, who repeatedly left their graves; the "Mora", who caused nightmares and strangled humans in their sleep, werewolves we all recognise from more recent tales, and the vampiri - upiri in Czech - who terrorised the living at night.

All were blamed for the coming of plague, mysterious misfortune and unexpected accidents: if something went badly wrong in a village suspicion quickly fell on the graves of those who had recently been returned to the earth.

"Of course if in a small community there was a typical epidemic and people began to die, if the people started to die, in this case they were sure it was the action of one or more vampires."

Graves were reopened, bodies dug up, and what terrified villagers found only confirmed their very worst fears: hair and nails that had continued to grow after death, corpses' cheeks ruddy from blood moving to the surface that gave the appearance the vampire was "well fed", and finally even the occasional "erection" caused by gases leaving the body.

Still, difficult to explain to a terrified villager in the Middle Ages. If the deceased had an especially pretty wife that was taken as an obvious explanation (for the vampire's return!); up until the Enlightenment all would be taken as signs the person was a vampire.

"And that's why they opened the graves and they, for example, put a wooden stake through the heart, or cut off the head or cut up the whole body. But the strongest system to destroy the 'vampire' was to cremate the whole body. There is just one interesting thing: when they cremated the bodies of these supposed vampires, the epidemic came to an end! That's very interesting! How was that possible? It's something I wasn't able to understand! We have lots and lots of documentation, really, so you almost start to 'believe'! It could be interpreted as either a kind of collective illness or the opposite a kind of collective medicament. But, it worked! {laughs}"

As we know today many bodies of suspected vampires were not completely destroyed but only buried apart in separate graves, often heads lopped off to face the ground so the "vampires" could not find their way back up, bodies tied or weighed down to further prevent any movement. Such sites had been found in Moravia and neighbouring Slovakia, but one of the more notable vampire burial grounds was discovered in Celakovice just outside of Prague in 1966. Archaeologist Jaroslav Spacek, who today heads Celakovice's museum, oversaw the dig at the time.

"A local from Celakovice made the discovery while renovating his property. While digging a space about 30 or 40 metres in length he uncovered the unusual graves and at first police were called in. But, they weren't really needed - it turned out the graves were very unusual - they dated back to the 10th and 11th centuries."

Mr Spacek worked on the project eventually having the bodies removed for research. All bore the tell-tale signs that showed that locals had once believed all the bodies had belonged to vampires. Interestingly, Jaroslav Spacek says the individuals could have been labelled vampires or Mora or werewolves even in life, leading to their being shunned.

Qualities that led to suspicion were unusual appearance or deformities: poor pigment, thick or joined eyebrows, a hairy body, or crooked teeth.

Giuseppe Maiello also points out that since ancient times all communities had figures who stood out, who were believed to secretly possess magical powers.

"Every village has its witch. Of course after the 17th century they were no longer called witches or sorcerers because they had been completely wiped-out in Europe. But, people still remained who were convinced they could read your future, or your palm, or prepare special teas. Many villages had someone like that, and it was thought when these people died there was a greater possibility they could become vampires."

Vampirism represents an ancient fear that has been with us since the beginning of time. Today vampires are probably only feared by children (at least in the Czech Republic), though some experts says there remain extremely remote parts of former Yugoslavia or Russia where life continues pretty much like in the 19th century - without electricity, without the comforts of the modern world, where one would find believers in vampires even today.

It seems the vampire will continue to emerge from the shadows as long as we survive, a symbol of our darkest dreams, an abomination that enjoys what we'd all crave - eternal life.

But, at a terrible price.