Immortal Fear: A 400-year-old corpse, locked in a tomb

If accounts of the time are to be believed, 17th-century Poland was rife with revenge—not vampires, but proto-zombies who harassed the living by drinking their blood or, less embarrassingly, by stirring up commotion in homes. In one account, from 1674, a dead man rose from the grave to curse his relatives; When his grave was opened, the body was unnaturally preserved and showed traces of fresh blood.

Such reports were widespread enough that a wide range of remedies were used to prevent corpses from reviving: cutting out their hearts, nailing them in their graves, driving stakes into their legs, opening their jaws with bricks (so they wouldn't bite their way in. In 1746, a Benedictine monk named Antoine Augustin Calmette, published a popular treatise which, among other things, attempted to distinguish genuine revenants from impostors.

Four centuries later, European archaeologists discovered the first physical evidence of the suspected baby's appearance. Near the Polish city of Bydgoszcz, on the outskirts of the village of Pieni, researchers from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun discovered the remains of a mass grave widely described in news reports as a “vampire baby”. The corpse, which was about 6 years old at the time of death, was buried face down with a triangular iron padlock under the left leg, presumably to bind the child to the grave and keep her family and neighbors away. .

“The padlock would have been closed all the way to the toe,” said Dariusz Polinski, the study's lead archaeologist, through an interpreter. After the burial, the grave was desecrated and all the bones were removed except for the lower legs.

“The child was buried in a prone position so that if he came back from the dead and tried to climb up, he would have bitten the dirt instead,” Dr. Polinsky said. “As far as we know, this is the only example of such a child's burial in Europe. The remains of three more children were found in the pit near the child's grave. In the pit was a fragment of a jaw with a green stain, which Dr. Polinsky suggested was the remains of a copper coin placed in its mouth, an ancient and widespread burial.

The necropolis, a self-made cemetery for the poor and what Dr. Polinsky called “forsaken souls ostracized by society,” was discovered 18 years ago beneath a sunflower field on a hillside. It was not part of a church or, as far as historical local records show, consecrated ground. So far, about 100 graves have been discovered at the site, including one just a few feet from a child's grave, which had a female skeleton with a locked leg and an iron sickle around her neck. “The sickle was intended to cut off the woman's head if she tried to stand up,” Dr. Polinsky said.

Chemical analysis showed that the green stain in his mouth was not from the coin, but something more complex. The residue contained traces of gold, potassium permanganate, and copper, which Dr. Polinsky believed may have been left behind by a drug he had prepared to treat his ailments. The woman's cause of death is unclear, but whatever it was must have terrified those who buried her.

Martin Read, a historian at University College London, says that the woman and the child are not considered vampires. Vampires, he noted, are a specific type of revenant; Their characteristics were first identified in the 1720s by Austrian Habsburg officials who encountered suspected vampires in present-day northern Serbia and wrote reports that made it into the medical journals of the time.

“They were very clear that the vampire in popular local legend had three characteristics: it was recumbent, it feasted on the living, and it was contagious,” Dr Reddy said. The Austrian definition shaped the mythology of the literary vampire.

Polish legends depict two types of reversals. The vampire, later replaced by the vampire, resembles the cinematic Dracula played by Bela Lugosi. Strzyga was more like a witch — “in the old fairy tale sense, an evil female spirit or demon that hunts people, can eat them or drink their blood,” said Al Ridenour, a Los Angeles folklorist. said. In Pien, locals sometimes refer to the sickle-wielding woman as Strzyga, a wrath that is usually born of two souls. “An evil spirit finds no rest in the grave, so it rises and breaks,” said Mr. Ridenour.

He pointed to the tumultuous nature of the Counter-Reformation in Poland, which allowed pagan beliefs about the dead to persist. “In reaction to the Protestants, the Catholic Church revealed drama and emotion, as you can see in Baroque art, memento mori paintings and the like,” he said. The sermons became more fiery and instilled a fear of the devil and demons, which turned into a fear of the dead being resurrected and brought back to life.

By the end of the Middle Ages, placing padlocks on graves became a tradition in Central Europe, especially in Poland, where locks and keys have been found in three dozen necropolis graves for Ashkenazi Jews. In Lublin's 16th-century Jewish cemetery, iron locks were placed on the shrouds, around the head of the deceased or, in the absence of a coffin, on the plank that covered the corpse. So far, the cache from Lutomiersk is the largest: of the 1,200 graves examined, almost 400 had padlocks.

Although the meaning of this ritual is now obscure, one of the Talmudic terms for the tomb is “a lock” or “something locked,” which has led some scholars to conclude that the custom symbolizes the “permanent sealing of the tomb.” The custom continued in Polish Jewish communities at least until World War II. Kalina Skora, a researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Łódź, said the purpose, according to mid-20th-century practitioners, was to “prevent the dead person from speaking, from speaking evil. Talking about this world in another world.

Dr. Polinsky suspected that the woman and child buried near Piene were Jewish. “If they were, their bodies would be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” he said.

So why did they stand out? Perhaps the reason was social stigma, such as being unbaptized or suicidal, exhibiting strange behavior while alive or the accident of being the first to die in an epidemic, said Leslie Gregorica, an anthropologist at the University of South Alabama. who did not participate in the excavations. “Since Poland was only minimally affected by plagues such as the Black Death, other epidemics such as cholera could have been to blame,” said Dr Gregoricka. “This may explain why children were sometimes seen as potential avengers of death.”

Cemeteries were sometimes searched in search of “Patient Zero” during the raging disaster. Dr. Skora said up to ten corpses could be decomposed. Like the villagers in Shirley Jackson's horror story The Lottery, entire communities will participate in this activity. “Some local residents participated in finding out who caused the death, while others, mostly adult men, sometimes accompanied by a priest, participated in digging up the dead and searching for the culprits,” Dr. Skora said. .

In Revenant's breath, the lack of disintegration was literally a dead giveaway. “The body was still ‘fresh' weeks or months after death,” said Dr. Skora. “Very often, the grave of the first dead person – the alleged criminal – was dug up and to prevent further death, they were placed face down, heads were cut off, limbs were cut off. Padlocks, sickles, and other objects made of iron, a metal said to possess anti-demonic powers, were buried in the grave as a precaution. If that didn't work, the body was removed and burned, the ashes scattered or submerged.

As appalling as the treatment of this supposed revenge may sound, faith may still provide closure to their often melancholic afterlife. A quote from Mr. Lugosi in “Dracula”: “To die, to be truly dead, is to be glorious.”