If it’s blood-sucking vampires you’re after, head to Romania

We love vampires, there’s no point denying it. They’re everywhere.

We love vampires, there’s no point denying it. They’re everywhere. And if don’t think this is true, turn your TV on and chances are you will stumble upon an episode of The Vampire Diaries or True Blood, or a rerun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Go to a bookshop and you will find many shelves dedicated to these mysterious and alluring creatures, from Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and you will probably also trip over a few copies of the Twilight Saga on your way out of the shop. They’re also in cinemas (Van Helsing, Underworld, Let the Right One In, the upcoming Tim Burton project Dark Shadows) and even in music (Theatre des Vampires comes to mind). 

We are compelled by these creatures of the night, who are still similar to us in appearance, but so different in behaviour and lifestyle (aside from the ones who keep going through high-school – I’m looking at you, Cullens). Most authors have tried to add their own twist in the myth. Vampires can now walk in the sun, some because they have magical rings which prevent them from burning, and some because sunlight doesn’t affect them in the traditional way. Many try to come to terms with their fate and their relationship with humanity. What they all have in common though is an awareness of where their ancestors supposedly came from. In The Vampire Diaries, one of the vampires grew up in Bulgaria. In Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Louis and Claudia embark on a journey to Europe to find other vampires, and their first stop is Eastern Europe. Even in Twilight, two Romanian vampires show up to examine Bella and Edward’s half human half blood drinker baby. Dracula lived in a fancy castle in the Transylvanian mountains. But what would you actually find in Romania if you went looking for vampires and how different would that be from what you might expect?
Let’s start with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, probably one of the most famous vampire novels out there. Dracula is what we would now call a ‘textbook vampire’. He’s rich,  lives in a secluded castle in the mountains, and is portrayed as a negative, dangerous character. Stoker researched folklore thoroughly before writing the novel, and he chose the vampire’s name after reading about Vlad Dracul, the father of Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler. Dracul was not his real name, but a nickname he received due to his ongoing support of the Order of the Dragon, a military order from the 15th century with the main purpose of protecting the Christian people from the growing threat of the Ottoman Empire. In contemporary Romanian however, ‘dracul’ means the devil. There is no evidence suggesting Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Impaler were suspected of any vampiric activity by their people at the time, although the latter was particularly cruel and liked to execute wrongdoers by impaling them – driving a long wooden stake through their body. 
But Count Dracula has little in common with Romanian superstitions concerning vampirism. In fact, Bram Stoker’s noble blood drinker was better off financially and socially than the traditional Romanian vampire, called ‘strigoi’, who is homeless and generally hated by the family they left behind. The superstitions in the area have always been strong and even Christianity couldn’t make people forget them. Traditional religious beliefs say the spirit of a deceased family member can wander unseen among the living for up to forty days after their death, and many families leave open windows and a glass of water out to ease this passing. But what about the real vampires, the ones who wake from the dead with a thirst for human blood?
There are two categories of vampires or strigoi, and as you can see, we have so many old superstitions about the undead we had to classify them to keep track. The first group are not exactly undead, they are demons who use the body of the recently deceased to walk amongst the living and drink their blood. Sinners, unbaptised children, and witches who already sold their souls to the devil were the most likely victims of demons after death. These vampires terrorised their communities and returned to their graves to rest. If the living had reasons to believe they had a demon on their hands, they would attempt to perform a posthumous exorcism which included various practices such as incineration and the now classic stake through the heart. Alternatively, they would place the body face down in the coffin, hoping to confuse the spirit who would be compelled to dig their way out of the coffin, but would reach the afterlife instead of the surface.
The second category, mostly encountered in Moldova and Wallachia (now Muntenia, the southern part of Romania), are human spirits who refuse to move on after death and come back as vampires. Unlike the aforementioned demons who prefer to stay among their former relatives, these strigoi travel long distances to different villages and towns to start a new life. They would occasionally return to their graves and legends suggest they would hold regular meetings with other vampires.
Aside from the recently deceased, some of the living were also considered to be prone to vampiric activities, either after death or during the night whilst they slept. Anyone suspected of having any chances of turning into a vampire would have their body destroyed after death before burial, but in some cases they could easily practice their vampirism unnoticed. A type of strigoi were basically sleepwalking; their souls would allegedly leave their bodies during the night and possess any living beings in the surrounding area, such as wolves. The only indication that they were up to something after sunset came if the animal they were possessing suffered any injuries. Otherwise they would be able to continue to plague the village undetected every night.
It’s worth mentioning that most of the traditional ways of keeping vampires away would work on Romanian strigoi. Garlic is definitely one of the main repellents, although you would probably have to work a bit harder than just hanging some around. It needs to be present at every gateway into a house should you wish to keep the vampires and evil spirits away. The stake through the heart is also a popular method according to legends, although you should combine it with other destructive actions if you wish it to be foolproof. If this is all too much for you, or aren’t a fan of investigating superstitions, you could always follow the Bram Stoker trail and sign up for one of the Dracula tours which will take you in key locations from the novel and from the lives of historical figures Vlad Dracul and Vlad the Impaler.