This post is the third and final installation in our Monsters of Prague series, leading up to Halloween with the sometimes even more eerie truths behind some of Bohemia’s best loved scary stories. So far we have visited a demon-possessed house and the streets where Prague’s Golem once walked, but this week the lines between fact and gruesome fiction are blurred beyond recognition with a look at the Czech Republic’s vampiric history.
As a city so intrinsically linked with the Gothic, it comes as little surprise that Prague has its vampires. Since the 1935 Bela Lugosi thriller, Mark of the Vampire – also known as The Vampires of Prague – the city has been mentioned in modern myths of vampirism. However, digging a little deeper into this association uncovers roots far older than Gothic tropes and buried not in the splendour of the city itself, but in the simple fears of country people. In the early 1990’s, in the town of Čelákovice just north of Prague, a graveyard was discovered, dating from the late 10th to early 11th Century. An examination of the fourteen residents of this necropolis led archaeologists to believe that the graveyard was used exclusively for the remains of vampires.
We know from certain graphically written scenes in Dracula that certain gruesome measures must be taken to keep a vampire’s body in its grave. The body of Lucy Westenra is beheaded, with a stake through its heart and its mouth filled with garlic. The remains in the Bohemian vampire graveyard tell a similar story: skulls are shattered with nails driven through them, hearts are impaled, and jaws have daggers forced between them. In some cases the head was removed from the body and placed at its feet. Some of the skeletons were tied to their coffins, or weighted down by rocks. Archaeologists agree that these measures were often taken in pre-Christian Slavic societies to prevent vampires from leaving their graves, and that this discovery signifies a deep-held belief in vampirism dating back to the 10th Century.
The concept of revenants, or spirits that return from the grave, is one central to Czech folklore, enduring into the burial traditions of the 19th Century, which included measures to keep the spirits of the deceased at rest. While such customs became easily mingled with Catholic beliefs in the afterlife, they date back to far older lore concerning the upir and the nelapsi. Both names refer specifically to reanimated corpses of the recently dead. It is believed that these creatures were born into mortal life with two hearts and two souls, meaning that when one heart stopped beating and one soul expired, a second immortal life could begin. Descriptions of both entities’ behaviours also involve drinking the blood of their victims, although nelapsi have been said to kill with an evil look, and both variants are also said to bring deadly diseases.
The latter trait of vampires is notable as a possible explanation for the rise of such superstitions. Giuseppe Maiello, a professor at Prague’s Charles University, states, “If in a small community there was a typical epidemic and people began to die… they were sure it was the action of one or more vampires.”
He suggests that this suspicion may have led villagers to open the graves of the recently deceased, and discover qualities that are now explicable through science: hair and nails continuing to grow, and blood moving to the surface of a cadaver’s skin, making it appear more ‘healthy’ than it did immediately after death. Combined with the commingled fear and reverence given to Death and the dead by Czech tradition, this unexpected appearance would have seemed evidence enough to inspire first terror and then preventative measures, such as those seen in Čelákovice.
Once again in my exploration of Bohemian legends, I am struck by the duality of the story’s horror: on the one hand, the discovery of a vampire graveyard is delicious fodder for the macabre imagination, lending credibility to Prague’s innate feeling of Gothic horror. On another level however, the story of a town struck by inexplicable plague and driven to mutilating the corpses of young men and women in order to escape it takes on a bleakness devoid of all romanticism. Whether or not you choose to believe that the Bohemian vampires were truly the walking dead, the fate that awaited their remains is undoubtedly a horror story all of its own.