In 2012 I began researching what proved to be my very strangest and indeed most life-changing book. Having acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the world expert on Medicinal Cannibalism in 2011 with the first edition of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (and somehow survived making 'cannibal medicines' for Channel 4 in a hospital lab with Tony Robinson) I now moved into the dark and fecund labyrinths of vampire folklore. I called this book The RealVampires not because the vampires were exactly real, but to distinguish it from the very different recreations of fiction and film since John Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819.
The research proved to be life-changing because it led me through winding shadows into the world of poltergeists and ghosts, which I realised (after much frowning and reluctance) actually are real. But what was hardly less real was the epic terror which supposed vampires sparked in Vampire Country - sometimes just over ten years ago. Here are some examples from a country which has tended to be left out of vampire film.
Richard Sugg on top of the Notre Dame
In 1988 I worked as a postman for a few weeks before heading off in July for an epic trip around Europe by train. (The Post Office initially refused to let me take two weeks' holiday in peak season, until I threatened to just leave anyway - little knowing that I was off for two months and had no intention of coming back.) And yes, that really is me on top of Notre Dame in July 1988 - demonstrating the happy folly of youth on one of those two towers you can see against the skyline. I think it was the left. Whether deservedly or not, I survived this photo opportunity, and by August was in Greece. By pretty random chance I went island hopping to Aegina and Poros, thus beginning a lifelong love affair with Europe's greatest country. Little did I know that, had I chanced to go east of Athens instead of southwest, I might have found myself in Vampire Country.
The Notre Dame (top left tower in the image is where Richard stood in the previous picture)
A late warm night in the Greek mountain village of Ambèli. Twenty people are crowded into a single room. Some are drowsy; some already sleeping. Cicadas stitch their incessant tapestry of sound across the still night behind the windows. Cigarette smoke mingles with the steam from coffee cups. In the centre of the room a woman's corpse lies on a low table, a solemn straight line bisecting the loose circle of watching kin and villagers. A small child begins to cry. A woman speaks quietly to him; tries to soothe him. The crying only worsens. Presently his mother nods from across the room: the helpful woman picks up the boy to pass him to her. He is lifted over the corpse and into her arms. Suddenly, the room is shot through with an electric charge of horror. The bristling air of fear and disbelief is so powerful that the child instinctively stops his crying. In sickened confusion, the mother passes him back again to the woman, as if she might by this means undo the terrible damage. But a few moments’ fevered discussion with the oldest villagers confirms their fear. The damage is irreversible. The corpse has been vampirised.
The belief behind this was simple. Anything which passed over a corpse (a child, a cat, a cup of coffee) would vampirise it. Burying the cursed woman makes no difference. For several nights after her funeral 'the dead woman returned as a great heavy woolly apparition, terrifying her husband and children'. Presently the telltale hole over her grave was discovered. 'For three Saturdays the villagers poured boiling oil and vinegar' into this cavity, 'while the priest read the service'. Finally, the evil departed and the village was quiet once again. But the cost of this exorcism was impressively high.
This is a true story - though the name of that mountain village on the island of Evia was changed by the French anthropologist Juliet du Boulay, who stayed here across many years from 1966 to 1982. It was widely believed across the world that cats or birds posed great danger to a corpse when laid out in a house after death. The author Lynn Picknett was sharply warned about this in 1970s Yorkshire when her grandmother's body was in the house. But that Greek exorcism of the vampirised corpse was unusually drastic, and completely heretical. This 'boiling' of the corpse was held to actually destroy the soul. No prayers were said for it or candles lit for it. Such were the terrors sounding vampires in the decade that I was sunning myself on Greek beaches, in what seemed a decidedly un-Gothic part of Europe.
When I first read du Boulay's account, I could not fully grasp the meaning of that 'great heavy woolly apparition'. It may have been a real ghost. But it was almost certainly part of a Sleep Paralysis Nightmare. I had never heard of these until 2012. Yet in that year I had three myself, and now vividly realised what those island Greeks were describing.
And there were worse stories than that. One Greek interviewed in the early 1960s recalled:
on my mother’s island a man was very ill and became unconscious. The people thought he had died, and so they prepared the funeral. After the ceremony there was a movement in the coffin and slowly the man began to arise. Well, the people there believed he was becoming a vrikolax [vampire]; in their fright they threw everything they could find at him - sticks, rocks, anything. In that way they did kill him when before he had only been in a coma.
It is very likely that these Greeks stoned the hapless man because they were too terrified to go near him.
The Real Vampires is now out in paperback for the first time. I hope you enjoy it. I'll be writing presently in compelling detail about the unforgettable journey it took me on, when I complete my book, We Need to Talk About Ghosts. Readers are advised not to imitate the author in climbing atop cathedrals. As you can probably guess, he had special skills and training. Oh - and the Post Office kept sending cheques well into September, God bless them.
You can find all information on Richard, his books and links to all featured podcast episodes with him over on Haunted History Chronicles here