Matteo Borrini of Florence University/AP
The 16th-century remains of a woman
"vampire" with a brick stuck between
her jaws.

Vampire Discovery in Venice May Add to Growing Vampire Mania

March 16, 2009 12:20 PM
by Cara McDonough
Researchers discovered the remains of a female “vampire” in Italy, a brick lodged in her jaws; the find may help explain superstitions that were rampant in the 16th century.

Vampires and the Bubonic Plague


Researchers found the body in a mass grave, located on the small island of Lazzaretto Nuovo in the Venice lagoon, where victims of the Venetian plague of 1576 were buried.

The brick, explains anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence, would have been shoved in her mouth to prevent her from chewing through her shroud and infecting people with the plague. 

Belief in vampires was already part of European culture before the bubonic plague reappeared in the 1500s in several outbreaks across the continent.

In the absence of modern medical knowledge, the vampire myth grew in the face of a rampant plague in Venice that killed as many as 50,000 people, reports Live Science.

Many believed dead bodies became vampires because of the way they looked. The gruesome activity of dumping bodies into mass graves due to the plague meant gravediggers saw the dead at every stage of decomposition, something they hadn’t witnessed before, says Borrini. This included abdominal bloating, combined with “purge fluid” emitted from the nose and mouth, which “could easily be confused with the blood sucked by the vampire.” 

Borrini recently presented his findings at a meeting of the American Association of Forensic Sciences. He said it is impossible to tell if the brick-in-mouth tactic was truly based on a fear of vampires, or was simply a precaution in troubled times.

“From a forensic point of view, we can accept the reports about the ‘vampire corpses’ as real descriptions, but we can also realize why those legends spread especially during plagues,” he said.

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Related Topic: Vampire fever

The discovery may add to a recent obsession with vampires, thanks in large part to the “Twilight” book and movie series by Stephanie Meyer. USA Today reports that the “best-selling Twilight series has been the biggest story in publishing for months.” 

Because of the genre’s popularity, other authors are churning out vampire fiction as well. Publisher HarperTeen, in an effort to make the most out of the phenomenon, will send five of its young adult authors on a “Supernatural Summer” tour in June.

Teen paranormal fiction is “one of our strongest and growing categories,” according to Sandee Roston of HarperCollins Children’s Books. She adds that it’s “not just vampires.” Werewolves, zombies and other monsters are also in vogue.

Background: The vampire myth and Vlad the Impaler

Many Romanians view Vlad the Impaler as a national hero because of his success in fending off the Ottoman invaders. But much of the world sees him as a bloodthirsty villain because Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”—featuring the most well known vampire in history—is allegedly loosely based on his life.

In fact, the title of the novel was drawn from Vlad’s nickname for himself, derived from the Romanian word meaning “Dragon.”

Time magazine reported on Vlad’s vampire-like qualities in a 1977 story. Prince Vlad Dracula “was fond of dining outdoors, surrounded by a veritable forest of impaled men, women and children,” and “once gathered a ‘multitude’ of sick and poor citizens in a castle, then bolted the doors and burned them alive so ‘there should be no more poor in my realm, leaving only the rich.’”

Vlad was eventually imprisoned for 12 years by King Matthias Corvinus of Transylvania. He was assassinated in 1476, shortly after his release.


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