“Scary monsters are like Hula Hoops. They come in and out of fashion” – John Malkovich
If I was looking to do battle with sinister revenants sucking out the souls of the living (and just for the record, I’m not), apart from joining one of our many modern political think tanks, the southern borderlands of Hungary historically have seemed like a good place to start. Whether the undead are truly thick on the ground or simply have higher quality publicists is a matter of debate. Certainly, as the gateway between Europe and Asia, a lot of blood has been spilled on the ground there, strewing the area with tasty snacks for the ghoulish or living dead for about 1000 years. The early 1700’s were a particularly nasty time for the Kingdom of Hungary (1526-1867). While technically not part of the Holy Roman Empire, the land of Hungary was the possession of the Hapsburg Monarchy that would later became Austria. The Ottomans ruled about 70% of Hungary until a series of defeats in1699. The Hapsburg rulers of Hungary wanted to maintain peace with the Ottomans, while the Hungarians wanted to give them the boot. The nominally associated Principality of nearby Transylvania was in continuous turmoil, and most of southern Hungary had been heavily depopulated during the never-ending wars. The Hapsburgs needed serfs to support the 90% agricultural economy, so they started importing peasants from Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, and Germany, nearly tripling Hungary’s population between 1720-1787. Presumably a few of the living dead tagged along.
By about 1715, things were starting to settle down a little in the Hungarian south, although the rest of Europe had not long before plunged into the War of Spanish Succession. There were lots of contenders for the Spanish crown, but ultimately Felipe de Anjou, grandson of King Louis XIV of France got the job. Spanish territories in the Netherlands, Flanders, Naples, Milan, and Sardinia were ceded to the Austria, and by 1714 the last of the anti-Bourbon resistance to Felipe was quashed, and numerous Valencians, Catalans, Castilians, and Aragonese were forced into exile in Italy and Austria. One such individual was Juan Gil de Cabrera y Perellos, later know to history as “The Count de Cabreras”, a title granted to him in 1719 by Emperor Charles VI of Austria.
After another war with the Turks concluded in 1714 with the Treaty of Passarowitz, Austria reclaimed bits of Hungarian territory on Hungary’s southern border, and a number of Spanish exiles moved in as settlers. One particular gentleman was the Valencian Juan Gil de Cabrera y Perellos, then Captain of the Grenadiers in the Ahumada regiment of the Austrian Army, later merged with the Alcaudete regiment, and stationed along the southern Border of Hungary (later translations would bastardize the name Alcaudete as “Alendetti”, leading to some needless confusion as to whether de Cabrera was Spanish or Italian). This is of course, the rather convoluted way in which a Valencian monster hunter wound up disinterring corpses in the southern hinterlands of Hungary (connections uncovered by scrupulous research by author and vampirologist Javier Arries). The details of the case were reputed to have been heard from the Count de Cabreras, at Fribourg, in Brigau, in 1730.
About fifteen years ago [roughly 1715], a soldier who was billeted at the house of a Haidamaque peasant, on the frontiers of Hungary, as he was one day sitting at table near his host, the master of the house saw a person he did not know come in and sit down to table also with them, The master of the house was strangely frightened at this, as were the rest of the company. The soldier knew not what to think of it, being ignorant of the matter in question. But the master of the house being dead the very next day, the soldier inquired what it meant. They told him that it was the body of the father of his host, who had been dead and buried for ten years, which had thus come to sit down next to him, and had announced and caused his death. The soldier informed the regiment of it in the first place, and the regiment gave notice of it to the general officers, who commissioned the Count de Cabreras, captain of the regiment of Alandetti infantry, to seek information concerning this circumstance. Having gone to the place, with some other officers, a surgeon and an auditor, they heard the depositions of all the people belonging to the house, who attested unanimously that the ghost was the father of the master of the house, and that all the soldier had said and reported was the exact truth, which was confirmed by all the inhabitants of the village. In consequence of this, the corpse of this spectre was exhumed, and found to be like that of a man who has just expired, and his blood like that of a living man (Calmet, 1850, p33-34).
Talk about dying and leaving a beautiful corpse. Ten years after his expiration date, dear old dad was looking pretty good, and even occasionally popping up out of the grave to drop in for a prophetical visit. When you’re a little too close to Transylvania for comfort, it behooves one to take suspected cases of revenant return rather seriously. The friendly neighborhood Count took his job seriously, and wanted to put an end to this infestation. With military efficiency, he set about his job. And just for good measure, he tracked down a few other suspected vampires and dispatched them as well.
The Count de Cabreras had his head cut off, and caused him to be laid again in his tomb. He also took information concerning other similar ghosts; amongst others, of a man dead more than thirty years, who had come back three times to his house at meal time. The first time he had sucked the blood from the neck of his own brother, the second time from one of his sons, and the third time from one of the servants in the house; and all the three died of it instantly, and on the spot. Upon this deposition, the commissary had this man taken out of his grave, and finding that, like the first, his blood was in a fluid state, like that of a living person, he ordered them to run a large nail into his temples, and then to lay him again in the grave. He caused a third to be burnt, who had been buried more than sixteen years, and had sucked the blood and caused the death of two of his sons. The commissary having made his report to the general officers, was deputed to the court of the Emperor, who commanded that some officers, both of war and justice, some physicians and surgeons, and some learned men, should be sent to examine the causes of these extraordinary events. The person who related these particulars to us had heard them from the Count de Cabreras, at Fribourg, in Brigau, in 1730.” (Smedley, 1855, p67).
It seems that perhaps Eastern Europe was getting a little tired of overly bold bloodsuckers. Rather than solicit a monster specialist, they sent in the infantry. Well, a Captain of the infantry, at any rate. The rise of bureaucracy no doubt made it harder to be a vampire in general. Once people have to keep track of things and write reports it’s harder to hide in the shadows. These days, it seems like vampires, rather than fearsome ghouls striking fear in our mortals hearts, are just trying to get by. As author Stephen Graham Jones said, “Vampires have become tragic or romantic figures. Vampire are largely seduction tales. They’re no longer the scary creature in the dark”. Consequently, monster hunter employment outside the entertainment industry has been on the wane for a long time. And the modern vampire would probably get nailed on tax evasion.
Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757, and Henry Christmas. The Phantom World: Or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, &c. London: R. Bentley, 1850.
Smedley, Edward, 1788-1836, Elihu Rich, Henry Thompson, and W. C. (William Cooke) Taylor. The Occult Sciences: Sketches of the Traditions And Superstitions of Past Times, And the Marvels of the Present Day. London: R. Griffin and company, 1855.
I’ve always assumed that vampires honor the kinship systems of their natal cultures insofar as it is possible to do so in their liminal state. So it comes as a surprise that the vampires cited in this post are preying primarily on their lineal descendants. Vampire fathers are observed to kill their sons by drinking their blood. I’m not familiar with the finer points of kinship roles of 18th century Eastern European peasants, but I’m willing to bet that the act of killing one’s sons is frowned upon. It just doesn’t bode well for the continuation of the lineage. It can’t have been that difficult to find a victim in some other town, or at the very least, a different household. I have to conclude that the behavior of vampires is not culturally guided. Becoming a vampire is to lose all sense of propriety.