Not all vampires clamber out of coffins to go about their nightly depredations. In folk belief, the dead could prey on the living without ever leaving the grave.
In 16th century Europe, for instance, there was the nachzehrer, or “after-devourer,” a buried corpse that chewed its shroud, gnawed its fingers, and by some mysterious process thus killed its remaining family members. Not only were the horrible smacking sounds audible aboveground, they were also believed to herald—if not actually cause—outbreaks of bubonic plague. In 1581, as one such epidemic raged through Marburg in Germany, sepulchral grunts and gurgles were reportedly heard all over town. To forestall the plague, such “chewing dead” were to be exhumed and their gaping jaws stopped with stones, coins, or handfuls of dirt to prevent them gnawing.
A close association between vampires and epidemic disease is deeply rooted. Tuberculosis, or consumption, for example, once wiped out entire families. In parts of 19th century New England there lingered a belief that the heart and lungs of recently-buried tuberculosis victims still flickered with a malevolent afterlife, somehow consuming their next of kin’s vitality and so killing them in turn. If such a corpse was disinterred and those organs found to be fresh then they were ripped out of the carcass and burned to halt the contagion. As an 1884 magazine article picturesquely put it:
“Among the superstitions of those days, we find it was said that a vine or root of some kind grew from coffin to coffin, of those of one family, who died of consumption, and were buried side by side; and when the growing vine had reached the coffin of the last one buried, another one of the family would die; the only way to destroy the influence or effect, was to break the vine; take up the body of the last one buried and burn the vitals, which would be an effectual remedy…”
Mark Collins Jenkins, a former historian with the National Geographic Society, is the author of Vampire Forensics. His other titles include The Book of Marvels: An Explorers Miscellany and Worlds to Explore: Classic Tales of Travel and Adventure from National Geographic.
IMAGE:The Premature Burial by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), published in 1919.