Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The government wants to lure visitors to “the world’s largest vampire burial.”
Come to Bulgaria this summer and enjoy our pristine mountains, sandy beaches, historic cities and piles of vampire corpses. That’s the message coming this summer from Bulgaria’s Ministry of Tourism.
The ministry is currently promoting one of Europe’s most ghoulish historical remains: the world’s largest “Vampire Funeral,” discovered 11 years ago in the 4th century ruins of Deultum, near the Black Sea Coast. In 2004, archaeologists discovered the burial place there of 17 adolescent skeletons. Their distinctive characteristic? Each body had had a nail driven through it to attach the corpse to its coffin.
The macabre find is the largest yet discovered, but is far from unique in Bulgaria. The country has evidence of over 100 bodies so treated, and there have been subsequent new finds of staked corpses in both 2012 and 2013. Given the ongoing global obsession with vampires, the government reckons it can use such discoveries to lure more visitors to the country, presenting itself as a kind of Louvre for the undead.
They could well be right. Thousands make the trip to neighboring Romania’s Bran Castle each year because of its (actually tenuous) links with Vlad the Impaler and (inaccurate) reputation as Bram Stoker’s model for the castle in the novel Dracula. It’s probably the beautiful Carpathian setting that has cemented Bran Castle’s tourist status, but in the vampire stakes (sorry) Bulgaria has more than just rumors and associations—it has an actual row of skeletons staked to ground to prevent them rising from the dead. Short of providing tour guides that don’t cast a reflection in the mirror, it’s hard to see how anywhere else could top that.
Look closer at the true background behind Bulgaria’s vampire corpses, however, and you’ll find a story quite different from anything in Dracula. The discovered bodies were actually interred in the pre-Christian era, in the period before most of the Slavic element of Bulgaria’s genetically diverse population had arrived in the region. They were probably staked because belief of the period stated that evil people’s souls remained in their bodies after death, and that pinning them down could prevent them becoming revenants preying on the living.
This sounds familiar so far, but more recently recorded Balkan vampire superstitions paint a picture of the creatures that only vaguely resembles the elegant hyper-sexualized bloodsuckers popularized by Stoker and other 19th century Western novelists.
This part of the world’s returnees from the dead were supposedly disheveled, dirty and bloated, characteristics probably derived from the appearance of recently dead bodies. Rather than being demonic masterminds, they could be deterred by a simple scattering of grain over the threshold, which a vampire would apparently feel compelled to stay and count all night rather than preying on the occupants within. As such, the various vampires of the Balkan imagination were more akin to zombies than any character played by Robert Pattinson.
Given the yawning gap between the realities of Bulgarian vampire lore and the Anne Rice model, Bulgarian archaeologists are understandably a little wary about the idea of peddling vampire tourism. Some local commentators have denounced the ministry’s plan as trashy, akin to reinforcing the Madara Rider with silicone. The reality gap notwithstanding, there’s no denying the power of these reminders of our ongoing fear of, and fascination with, the unruly dead. As symbols, they still play more than a walk-on role in our collective consciousness. And as the director of Bulgaria’s National Historical Museum joked to Balkan Insight:
“Vampires exist, but they are in the parliament, in the government.”
H/T Balkan Insight.