Throughout various forms of media, including books, television shows, and movies, vampires have really made a name for themselves as a universally recognized villain, and sometimes even hero. We seem to be drawn to these immortal night dwellers on some instinctual, primal level, and they never cease to amaze, yet is it all mere fiction and fantasy? Is there some chance that some of these legends may be based on real occurrences? From the Balkan region of Serbia come many tales of supposedly real vampires, to the point that it seems to have been once infested by the fiends, and here we will look at a few of the more well-known of these supernatural nightstalkers.
Looking into the past of this region it should come as no surprise at all that Serbia should be steeped in vampire legend and lore. The Balkans have a long history of folklore and traditions concerning vampires, and for centuries these were creatures that were seen as very real features of the landscape. Indeed, the very word “vampire” comes from the Serbo-Croat word vampir, which caught on in western languages sometime in the early 1700s and stuck. Here is a place where stories of supposedly real vampires prowling the night going way back, where villagers cowered in their homes at night clutching any protective objects they had at hand, and one of the first that really became well-known on a wide scale was a man by the name of Petar Blagojević, also often referred to as the German Peter Plogojowitz.
The grim story begins in the early 18th century in the isolated, rural village of Kisolava, in the dark mountians of the northern part of central Serbia, where Blagojević was a mere humble peasant. There was nothing really much remarkable about his life, and it would not be until his death that he would really become known. In 1725, Blagojević died suddenly and was buried in the local cemetery, but by all accounts it did not seem that he stayed there for very long. In the days after his death, people from all over the village and surrounding areas began falling victim to a mysterious illness, which would come out of nowhere to cause severe symptoms and kill the victim within 24 hours. No one could figure out what was going on, until some of those who had fallen ill began to make some bizarre claims while wasting away on their death beds in dim candlelit rooms.
According to quite a few of these sick, dying people, none other than the late Petar Blagojević had come to them in the night to bloom from shadow, attack them, and drink their blood, and it was after these visits that they had fallen ill. As word got out that Blagojević was roaming the night as an undead revenant, his own wife also came forward to say that her dead husband had appeared to her on the night after his burial to shamble about looking for his shoes. It was even said that he had murdered his own son after returning from the grave and being refused food. As people continued to fall ill and die, the rumors that Blagojević was an actual vampire prowling the countryside caused mass panic, and forced the village vicar to make preparations to open Blagojević’s grave, as well as to kill him for good if he turned out to be a creature of the night. He was joined by a posse of brave villagers and an Imperial Provisor Frombald, who had been sent by the Austrian Empire to oversee the macabre proceedings.
When the grave was dug up and the casket opened, all present were shocked at what they saw. There Blagojević was, looking just as he did on the day he had died, and none the worse for wear considering that by that time he had been buried for two months. Indeed his hair and fingernails had grown and he seemed to have a healthy glow to him. Making it even more shocking still was that there was allegedly fresh blood smeared across his mouth. The terrified priest then had the body impaled with a stake, which according to the account caused an absurd amount of fresh blood to spray everywhere, even spurting out of his ears, mouth, and nose, and the terrified villagers then burned the body to ash for good measure. Seeing now that Blagojević was in fact a vampire, they then marauded through the cemetery staking the bodies of all of those who had died from the mysterious illness and reburying them with garlic and whitethorn, lest they too return as vampires.
This case was all documented in great detail by Provisor Frombald, and his report would go on to be considered one of the first truly documented testimonies about vampire beliefs in Eastern Europe. The case of Petar Blagojević would appear in the newspapers of the time far and wide, including Vienna’s widely read Wienerisches Diarium and other publications throughout Europe and beyond, and this would make it a sensation at the time, putting the idea of real vampires into the public consciousness and causing not a small amount of panic. People began checking graves of suspected vampires all over Serbia, and the Austrian Empire would even carry out an official investigation in the region to confirm whether vampires were real or not. This case would indeed cause quite a vampire craze all over Europe, and Blagojević remains one of the best documented and earliest cases of allegedly real Serbian vampires, although he would turn out to certainly not be the only one.
A perhaps even more famous case of a supposed actual vampire in Serbia is that of the man called Arnold Paole, also sometimes referred to as Arnaut Pavle. A Serbian soldier in the Austrian army, in 1727 Paole returned to his village of Meduegna from military service in the Turkish-controlled part of Serbia with a rather strange story to tell. He would claim that while there he had been visited by an undead revenant and that he had managed to track it down and destroy it, but not before it had managed to bite him in their melee. This was seen as mostly just a weird tall tale, and Paole managed to settle down to a normal life with no apparent side effects to his spectacular confrontation, which he believed was because he had taken precautions such as eating soil from the vampire’s grave. Even so, he would often confide to his wife that he felt the evil creature had somehow cursed him, and that he saw visions of meeting an early death.
Paole’s prediction would come true, as one day as he was working on his farm he fell from a hay wagon and severely injured his head. Although this initial fall did not kill him outright, his health deteriorated rapidly and he would die a few days later. He was buried in the local graveyard, but about a month later frightened villagers began to report seeing the dead man lurking about and hiding in the shadows like some wild beast. Considering his story of being bitten by a vampire, this caused a bit of panic, and this would only get worse when some people began telling of having been actually physically attacked by the ravenous undead Paole, and after that people began turning up dead and drained of blood. Four people would be purportedly murdered by this phantom attacker, and because villagers mostly blamed it on the undead Paole his grave was exhumed.
Much like with Blagojević, Paole’s body was supposedly found to be very fresh and supple, with no sign that he had been buried there in the earth for a full 40 days, and the corpse had also changed position. On his mouth was found blood, and this was all taken to mean that he had turned into a vampire just as had been feared. The body was staked, vomiting forth copious amounts of blood and writhing about in a fury in the process, and then decapitated and burned. The four victims were also dug up and their corpses were staked and burned as well, which at the time was thought to be the end of Paole’s reign of terror. However, it would seem that it wasn’t quite over yet.
In the winter of 1731, Meduegna fell into the grip of terror yet again when a mysterious illness began killing villagers at a fast rate. Apparently over a dozen people would die of this sickness within just a few weeks, and it would turn out that a woman named Milicam, who was the first to fall ill, had by her own admission eaten a sheep that Paole had killed, and another named Stana had smeared herself with vampire blood in a misguided attempt to protect herself. The bodies of the two women were exhumed, staked, and burned, but this did little good, as villagers were starting to claim that other victims of the illness had returned from the grave as well. One of these was a 16-year old boy named Miloje, the son of a Heyducq Millo, who allegedly attacked a girl in the night after having died and been buried. One report of this written by the monk Antoine Augustin Calmet would explain of this:
A girl named Stanoska, daughter of the Heyducq Jotiutzo, who went to bed in perfect health, awoke in the middle of the night in a tremble, uttering terrible shrieks, and saying that the son of Heyducq Millo who had been dead nine weeks, had nearly strangled her in her sleep. She fell into a languid state from that moment, and at the end of three days she died. What this girl had said of Millo’s son made him known at once to be a vampire: he was exhumed and found to be such. The principle people of the place, with the doctors and surgeons, examined how vampirism could have sprung up again after the precautions they had taken years before.
This would not be the only body that was then dug up, as the panicked villagers began exhuming and defiling the corpses of anyone at all who had died under suspicious circumstances or had any relations or contact with those that did. A total of 40 bodies would be dug up, with 17 of them supposedly found to be in a state of vampirism, which were dutifully staked, beheaded, and burned. All of this was confirmed and documented by several army surgeons who had been sent to the region to investigate, and indeed the mass exhumation of the graves had been ordered by a Regimental Field Surgeon Johannes Flückinger. The causes of the mystery illness and this second outbreak of vampirism were never totally explained, but the main theory at the time was that Paole had somehow passed on his vampirism through sheep or cows that he and his victims had either fed off of or killed, which were then consumed by others to pass on the dark affliction. The case of Arnold Paole is also interesting in that it was documented and officially investigated by the Austrian government at the time, and it further spread the vampire panic gripping Europe in the era.
These accounts and stories like them led to a surge in vampire sightings and superstition throughout Europe that culminated in an almost mass hysteria of epic proportions, despite this being the supposedly progressive Age of Enlightenment, when most folk beliefs and myths were considered to be on their way out. Many mysterious deaths at the time were superstitiously attributed to vampire attacks and it was not uncommon during this time for people to dig up corpses they suspected of being vampires and perform various mutilations meant to put an end to their evil, such as staking, beheading, or cutting out the heart. Staking corpses was a particularly common practice during this time, with the desired material of stakes varying depending on the region and ranging from iron to different kinds of wood that were thought to work best. In addition to this defilement of suspicious corpses, there were even regular public executions of those suspected of being vampires themselves, often with the accused having very little chance to prove their innocence.
Another legendary supposed vampire from 18th century Serbia that helped fuel the fire is the one called Sava Savanović. He is said to have in life been a livestock trader, who became an angry, reclusive hermit after being forbidden to marry a woman much younger then himself. Even after marrying a different woman his lost love remained in his mind. By all accounts Sava became completely obsessed with her, and began following her around stalking her, finally killing her. The angry villagers then set upon him to beat him to death and he was buried where his body fell. However, after this he was said to rise at night as a vampire, eventually causing concerned villagers to dig up the grave, but it was supposedly empty, having been secretly moved by his wife. The new vampire would then make his lair at an isolated watermill on the Rogačica river, near the village of Zarožje, where he is said to have preyed on unsuspecting farmers who came to grind their grain.
Sava Savanović is not as officially documented as the others we have looked at, but he is perhaps the most famous, appearing in books and movies, and is well-entrenched in the local folklore, to the point that he is even the official touristic mascot of the nearby city of Valjevo. In fact, in modern times he was being much talked about when the watermill he had long been said to haunt collapsed in 2012, after which some locals in the tiny, remote village of Zarožje feared that Sava would be on the loose, roaming about looking for a new lair and running amok. One Miodrag Vujetic, a local municipal assembly member, would say of this to ABC News:
People are very worried. Everybody knows the legend of this vampire and the thought that he is now homeless and looking for somewhere else and possibly other victims is terrifying people. We are all frightened. Villagers are all taking precautions by having holy crosses and icons placed above the entrance to the house, rubbing our hands with garlic, and having a hawthorn stake or thorn. I understand that people who live elsewhere in Serbia are laughing at our fears, but here most people have no doubt that vampires exist.
This might seem silly in the modern world, but this is a rural area full of legends and superstitions, where many people still follow the old ways of life and are imprisoned by the fear of old beliefs. Indeed, many rural areas of Serbia still fully believe that vampires really do stalk the night, and that these are not mere figments of the imagination. Balkan historian Dr. James Lyon has said of these beliefs:
In the dark forested mountains of Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia, many people still believe in vampires and take them quite seriously. In local folklore, vampires are not potential boyfriends. Rather, they are hideous, blood thirsty creatures with red eyes and iron teeth that bloat when they feed, and are able to shift their shape.
For some of the villagers in Serbia vampires seem to definitely be real, but are they really? What can we make of cases such as we have looked at here? Is there somehow some basis in it all beyond mere folklore? There is perhaps a rational explanation for all of this that doesn’t involve supernatural bloodsuckers. All of the supposed vampire cases in Serbia and elsewhere share some things in common. Every case revolves around the ever present specter of disease in the era. In each alleged vampire account, a person dies of some sickness, after which more people, usually close to the original victim such as family members, grow weak and die too. This was a classic sign of being fed off of, so it was interpreted as the dark work of vampires and subsequently the suspected offender would be dug up and their heart burned or the body otherwise traditionally disposed of in order to protect the community from further attacks. It is most likely that the weakening and deaths were the result of some disease being passed on to people in close vicinity, not from the work of actual vampires.
In this age of a poor understanding of illnesses it makes sense that superstitious people who believed in the folklore of vampires might have used these creatures to explain the deadly spread of the disease and its deteriorating effects. The condition of corpses said to exhibit vampirism could also have been the result of an incomplete knowledge of the forces of decomposition. The classic signs of vampirism, such as bloating or the leaking of blood from orifices, as well as apparently growing fingernails, are all normal signs of decay and decomposition, but the rural people seeing these were unlikely to have known this and thus would have seen it as signs of the corpse feeding on blood. Add in fear, panic, and hysteria, and you have a recipe for a vampire corpse. Is all of this explainable through such rational means, or was there ever anything more to it? Whatever the case may be, real or not, Serbia is ground zero for cases like these, and they remain firmly entrenched within the lore and history of this place.