The informant is a Romanian American who was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1957. At age 19, my informant left Ceausescu’s Romania and arrived in the United States in 1976. She is a real estate agent who currently resides in Los Angeles, California.
My informant and I just finished watching Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I asked my informant how she liked the film. The conservation soon change to me asking the information if she had ever been told any stories about Dracula growing up as a kid in Romania. My informant told me in response that she was told a story as a child that has to do with vampires, but it’s different. She prefaced her account by stating that what people now see in horror movies about Dracula did not influence the stories she was told because, according to my informant, at the time my informant was told this story and people were circulating this story, few Romanians had read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. My informant also mentioned that it was her grandmother who shared this folk belief with her when she was a child and that when she asked her grandmother if she saw this happen herself, her grandmother said she didn’t but she knows her grandmother saw it.
(Audio recording transcribed)
“It used to be believed in the countryside that if somebody died…you know, in the old days, people, when they died…they were not taken to a chapel. They were, you know, tended to at home…and then the first night after they passed away before they were actually buried, the entire family stayed around, and they spent the night staying up and talking, telling stories about the departed one, and so on and so forth…but another reason that this was done was to prevent any animals, especially a cat, from jumping over the table where the dead person was, because if that happened, they would become undead. And…but they wouldn’t be any difference in the way they look. And people would bury them. But they would come back and take family members with them. And they would see this happening where somebody died, and thirty days later or sixty days later, another family member died, and so on and so forth. Or maybe even six months. And it’s not just one family member that can die, it can happen to more. And that’s because they’re coming back to take their family. And so my grandma said that what they needed to do, if that happened…they needed to go back and…with the priest…and they would have take them out of the ground and do this entire, almost like an exorcism, using a wooden stake to the heart. And lo and behold, my grandmother said, and when they did that, the person would just turn.”
It is interesting to note that this folk belief seems to have some strong connection, or perhaps even inspired, the whole mythology behind vampires and Dracula, especially the part where a wooden stake to the heart can kill a vampire. It seems very likely that Bram Stoker’s stories about Dracula came from old folk beliefs like the one shared above.
However, that still doesn’t answer the question why this folk belief was passed down generation to generation. My theory is that the reason this folk belief interested people was because this belief appealed to people’s fear of disease. The notion that there is a risk of disease in dead bodies combined with the notion that animals often spread disease (consider the Bubonic Plague) perhaps formed the foundation of this folk belief, and so people then perhaps believed that by ensuring this didn’t happen, they would be able to protect themselves.