Commentary — October 31, 2011, 12:53 pm

An Excerpt from “Twilight of the Vampires”

Téa Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, was published by Random House in March 2011. This is an excerpt from “Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the Real-Life Undead,” which was published in the November 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Subscribers can read the entire piece here; non-subscribers are invited to sign up here.

Three days before my flight to Serbia, the Devil intervenes: my mother, who is supposed to meet me in Belgrade, falls into a chasm on a Moscow sidewalk and shatters her ankle. That she has gone through life without ever having broken a bone before makes her, according to her own mother, a casualty of my intentions. It is a bad sign. My grandmother, waiting for me in Belgrade, advises me to cancel my trip; her fears are reinforced the following morning by a phone call from one of my Serbian contacts—a journalist who was supposed to meet with me has gotten wind of my mother’s accident and pulled out of her agreement to help. “What now?” my grandmother asks, and fumes when she hears that I am determined to press on.

It may seem strange that I have returned to the Balkans to hunt for vampires when I get so many of them in my adoptive homeland. Since immigrating to the States in 1997, I have formed an uneasy acquaintance with the legion undead peopling the American imagination: Anne Rice’s beautiful, tortured ghouls; Buffy’s ridge-faced villains and morally confused male leads; countless cinematic and literary variations on Bram Stoker’s nightwalker, from Elizabeth Kostova’s historical reinterpretation of Vlad Tepes to Francis Ford Coppola’s shape-shifting, costume-changing warrior-beast. But the power of the newest trend is incredible: vampires of all shapes, sizes, convictions, and denominations are swelling the national bestiary. My undergraduate students at Cornell deny reading Stephenie Meyer, but whenever I ask them to compose lists of their favorite books, it seems like fully half include Darren Shan’s The Vampire’s Assistant. My office window looks over the Commons and into the living room of a young woman from whose walls Twilight’s Robert Pattinson leers up, his smile signaling with indecently little ambiguity that it is sexytime.

Two days later, when I call to tell my grandmother I’ve missed my connecting flight in Paris, she answers the news with silence. This latest cosmic setback has turned her worst fears—heretofore an unpleasant possibility—into something inevitable. When I finally arrive in Belgrade, I discover that she has placed an open pair of scissors under my bed, blades turned doorward, to keep the Devil at bay.

Despite my immigrant’s success in acclimating to many things American—I too now buy fruit based on its appearance—I have never been able to reconcile myself to the domestic breed of vampire. Where is the figure of terror, the taloned monster, the walking corpse, the possessed animal? How are they vampires at all when they are so busy righting humanity’s wrongs and bewailing their ethical conundrums instead of mischieving and murdering like my grandmother seems to think they should?

Unlike his Western relation—that handsome, aristocratic, mirror-wary antihero—the Balkan vampire is typically confined to living and hunting among the laboring classes and is most accurately categorized as an evil spirit or demonically possessed corpse that frequents graveyards, crossroads, and other areas devoid of the protective powers of domestic spirits. Also a Western conceit is the vampire’s pallor; whereas female vampires are beautiful and white-robed, most firsthand accounts indicate that male vampires are ruddy, corpulent peasants, whose affect—once unearthed—is that of a freshly gorged mosquito. In animal form, the vampire is not strictly limited to the bat but can appear to its victims as a cat, a dog, a rodent, or even a butterfly. These manifestations are not to be confused with vampires that were never human in the first place, which may even assume a vegetal guise (among numerous indignities through history, the Roma suffered the obscure nuisance of vampire watermelons). To further complicate matters, and despite recent trends that have marketed the werewolf as his archenemy, the Balkan vampire is often conflated with his lycanthropic cousin, since both share more or less the same agenda; in Croatia, both vampires and werewolves are known by the term vukodlak.

Vampir is probably the only Serbian word used the whole world over, and its significance in the lexicon of former Yugoslavian nations is evidenced by its derivatives, among them vampirisati: to engage in vampire-like behavior, an accusation directed at drunk husbands returning home at dawn, teenagers hovering over drug deals in doorways, or anyone caught stealing leftover cake from the fridge at 2 a.m. This is not to be confused with the more specialized povampirisati se: to turn oneself into or become a vampire, a process that is unnervingly easy, and that does not require a sanguinary exchange with another vampire. If a man’s life ends abruptly, unexpectedly—if he is murdered or accidentally killed, if he commits suicide, if he falls victim to a sudden illness, if his last rites or burial are improperly conducted—he becomes more susceptible to the influences of demons that can possess and reanimate him. That is not to say that evil spirits in southern Europe have nothing better to do than float disembodied through fields, waiting for a cat to jump over a newly buried corpse so that they can dart into it. Whether a spirit will revisit the living is above all influenced by the dead man’s own character and by how he was regarded in society: if a man is known to be a sinner, an alcoholic, unneighborly in any way; if his life is marked by conflict or degeneracy, then he is, in those villages where public perception and gossip are as good as truth, predisposed to vampirism.

Once risen, the vampire makes his way to the nearest village—this is sometimes his hometown, or the place of his death, and almost always a community sufficiently isolated so as to demand the combined effort of all residents in order to stake him. His mission is to visit sundry misfortune upon the locals. This rarely involves the consumption of blood; he prefers to enter villagers’ homes and asphyxiate them by sitting on their chests while they sleep. A less malevolent spirit will indulge in simple mischief—flinging dinnerware, inducing uncharacteristic behavior in domestic animals.

Whereas garlic, holy water, and crucifixes are commonly accepted apotropaics across the Balkans, scissors under the bed are also popular, as is the black-handled knife buried in the doorstep to cleave incoming evil in half. None of these methods cause the vampire’s flesh to burst into flame; nor is there any indication that direct sunlight poses a lethal threat to vampires, although vampires do tend to be nocturnal and recoil from the crowing of roosters. Methods for destroying vampires are many—some, such as the boiling and disposal of vampire vegetables, are fairly simple, while others necessitate complex, clerically assisted rituals—but the most reliable weapon against vampires has always been glogov kolac, the blackthorn stake. The vigilant vampire hunter must find the vampire’s grave, open it, and, having determined that the body shows the appropriate signs—the absence of rank odor and rigor mortis, a vibrant flush to the cheeks, the growth of “new” hair or fingernails, a quantity of fresh blood welling in the mouth—plunge the blackthorn stake through the heart, at which point the corpse lets out a blood-curdling shriek. Afterward, depending on the region, the head or limbs may be severed, the body turned over, the mouth filled with garlic. In some instances, the entire corpse is burned and the ashes scattered in the nearest body of water to carry whatever may be left of the spirit on its way.

The village of Kisiljevo lies some seventy-five kilometers east of Belgrade, where the Danube borders western Romania. Its name did not appear on any map of Serbia I had been able to find, nor does it hold an impressive position in the country’s political or religious history; but three hundred years ago, its fields and streets were the stage for a vampire drama of unprecedented international significance. The attacks at Kisiljevo probably would not have warranted a mention had the village and its troubles not fallen under the watchful, disbelieving eye of Austria following the Peace of Požarevac in 1718. Austrian accounts of the case, detailed in the newspaper Wienerisches Diarium, tell the story of Petar Blagojević, a peasant who began appearing to Kisiljevans in their sleep ten weeks after his death in the summer of 1725. Those he visited—a total of nine villagers in seven days—reported that they awoke to find Blagojević strangling them, and later died of what witnesses called a twenty-four-hour illness. Blagojević’s widow, who fled Kisiljevo in the aftermath of these tragedies, claimed to have encountered her dead husband in their home, where he demanded his shoes. In an attempt to regulate mounting hysteria in the region, Austrian authorities intervened, sending a delegation of priests to investigate.

We strike out for Kisiljevo in the early morning. At the wheel: Goran Vuković, our driver, who moonlights as a fountain builder. In the back seat: Maša Kovačević—seventh-year medical student at the University of Belgrade; lifelong friend and token skeptic—who has requested that we wrap her in a bloody shawl and turn her loose in the village to inspire the locals if things start off too slowly.

We take dusty one-lane roads through wheat fields and sprawling vineyards yellowing in the sun. Beside the chicken-wire fences and staved-in roofs of derelict farms, the vacation homes of Belgrade families are slowly coming together, their yards littered with bricks, coils of wire, chunks of Doric columns, marble lions, upended flowerpots. We almost miss the Kisiljevo turnoff, indicated by an unspectacular arrow affixed to a lamppost; I am a bit surprised, having expected to find the village name chiseled into a roadside boulder by a quivering hand, or a beflowered shrine of the Virgin to turn back evil spirits, or perhaps a little blood smeared across a sign as a warning to us. Instead, the road tapers past bright white houses and window boxes of red carnations brimming with such welcoming Riviera charm that I find myself wishing the town would invest in a fog machine.

The village square is empty except for three shirtless old men sitting on a low wall in the shade; but here, at last, we catch a hint of something otherworldy: opposite the community center—where the death certificates of recently deceased villagers hang in the window—stands a blood-red house. We sit in the car staring at it, the silence around us—which has, until this moment, felt disappointingly like the silence of a lazy day in the hot countryside rather than the silence of a haunted village—tightening. The paint looks newly applied, thick and shining, and to the left of the door, above a shuttered window in shivers of black, hangs an enormous, spread-winged bat, its profile sharp and maniacal. I am raising my camera to document it when Maša explains, “That’s the Bacardi bat. This must be the bar.”

We obtain the cell-phone number of Mirko Bogičić, the town’s headman, from the convenience store on the corner, and Mirko, without being forewarned of our arrival, drives down to accommodate our quest, abandoning preparations for the summer fair in nearby Požarevac. He is a potbellied, strong-jawed man, and he takes us to his house, where his wife serves us homemade zova juice, made from elderberries, in flowered cups. The walls are adorned with pictures of spaniels—Mirko, in addition to being a village headman and full-time farmer, is employed as a dog-show consultant.

He is also working on a book about Petar Blagojević. In 1725, at the height of Kisiljevan hysteria, when the Austrian officials supervised the exhumation of Petar Blagojević’s body, it was acknowledged by everyone present that it was entirely undecomposed. His hair, beard, and nails had continued to grow, and a new layer of skin was emerging from beneath the old one. “Mind you, this was forty days after the burial,” says Mirko. “And when they ran the stake through his heart, fresh blood rushed from his ears and nostrils.”

Mirko has clearly rehearsed this story; but he does not laugh it off, and the authenticity of the vampire is a point about which he is adamant: Petar Blagojević is the genuine article, the first vampire to be officially certified by the Austrian government. “Here, just across the Danube, is Transylvania and the Romanian Dracula,” Mirko says, gesturing toward the river. “But we know him to be merely a legend. They made of him a profitable business.”

Kisiljevo has had less success with the salability of their ghoul, but this has not kept the town off the radar of true vampire aficionados. The previous year, two German students came to interview Mirko; that same summer, a paranormal researcher came to sweep the graveyard above town with a detector that led him to an “enhanced energy field” around one of the oldest headstones. In fact, Mirko gets so many visitors asking the same questions that he has the whole itinerary preplanned: he gives me a photocopied page from the legendary Serbian almanac of all things supernatural, which I have been unable to find in Belgrade, and takes us to see Deda Vlastimir, who is said to have encountered an actual vampire.

“Not Petar Blagojević,” Mirko says, assuring us that, once disposed of, a Kisiljevan vampire stays dead.

Vlastimir Djordjević—affectionately known as Deda Vlastimir—is a ninety-two-year-old Kisiljevan with whiskered cheeks and kind, sleepy eyes, who greets us delightedly in the garden. While we arrange ourselves around the patio table, his white-haired daughter fusses over us, bringing our day’s second round of homemade zova juice. A great-great-grandson hovers in the kitchen doorway in his pajamas.

“Hear, now, how it was,” Deda Vlastimir says, obliging us with high Balkan oratory. “In this village much was said about these vampires, and every once in a while there was something to be seen as well. It is 300 years since that vampire, that Petar Blagojević—and thus he is practically a legend—300 years since they found him fresh in his grave and he caused much grief here. And some people believe, and some people do not believe—but there was another vampire, this Baba Ruža, whom I myself met one night. I had been visiting a friend and was returning home when suddenly before me appeared a woman, a tiny little woman, whose face I did not see. She appeared before me, and I said, ‘Who is this?’ and she turned to me and vanished.”

I am disappointed that he does not say anything about pursuing Baba Ruža with a blackthorn stake, so I ask: “Did you believe?”

“Well, hear me,” he says. “I was afraid. My friend’s father had to take me home. And there is something in that belief, because three days later, in the house in front of which I saw her”—he taps the table with his knuckles as he says this—“there was a murder. A father killed his son-in-law. Three days later. And right away around the village it was said that these vampires were responsible.”

“Evil forces,” Mirko cuts in, “evil spirits. Things like that never happen on their own, we must accept that.” Deda Vlastimir agrees. “These beliefs,” he tells us, “are not written down—but this makes them stronger.”

A few months before my expedition, I finally got around to watching Djordje Kadijević’s legendary 1973 film, Leptirica. The film is based on a short story by the celebrated Serbian writer Milovan Glišić, and, due to the communal nature and rarity of film premieres in the former Yugoslavia, immediately became, upon its airing on national television, a cultural touchstone of my mother’s generation. The film was something she used to tell me about when late-night conversations turned toward the horrific and the bizarre—which, in my family, happened on a weekly basis. In some regards, Leptirica (The She-Butterfly) is a love story. Its plot follows Strahinja, a young shepherd from Zarožje, who, in an effort to prove himself a worthy husband for the beautiful Radojka, volunteers to spend the night in the village watermill, where the vampire Sava Savanović has supposedly been strangling millers. Accustomed as I am to American vampire films—especially those that combine love stories with Gary Oldman dropping from the ceiling dressed as an oversized green bat or Hugh Jackman shooting Dracula’s snake-jawed brides out of the air with an improbable crossbow—I scoffed at my mother’s warning. How scary could it really be, this Serbian throwback to the campy Hollywood monster flicks of the 1950s?

As it turns out, the success of Leptirica—shot on a shoestring with a cast of ten actors who, combined, have a total of some ninety lines—hinges on the power of suggestion, palpable even from behind the sofa cushions, where I spent the majority of the film’s runtime. Whether with the steady pulse of the mill wheel at night or the simple but unforgettably odious black hand in the flour, Leptirica paralyzes by holding forth the possibility of a glimpse, never completely revealing what the victims face. In what it does reveal, however, the film overcomes its budgetary and technological limitations by leaving absolutely no room for romantic notions of redemption: Radojka, corrupted by the butterfly carrying Sava Savanović’s spirit, changes before the viewer’s eyes from a delicate-featured ingenue into a gasping, razor-toothed creature with a hairy face, something much closer to a werewolf than a vampire. The result is both tragic and obscene; the viewer feels tainted simply by having witnessed her ghastly transformation.

Whereas such imagery evokes the southern European vampire’s status as an ineradicable spiritual plague, capable of wiping out entire villages, the Western tradition has always, and especially recently, treated vampirism as a source of provocatively desirable sexual power and physical prowess, a force that, with the correct application of human affection, can be overcome. The model for this elegant revenant was perfected on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, during the Year Without a Summer, when persistent rain drove Lord Byron and his guests indoors, forcing them to amuse themselves by composing ghost stories: Byron wrote the apocalyptic “Darkness”; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; and John Polidori, “The Vampyre”—which blazed the trail for Bram Stoker’s more enduring Dracula (1897).

In their brutally single-minded pursuit of sustenance and lack of remorse for their own monstrous compulsions, both Polidori’s Lord Ruthven and Stoker’s Count Dracula are faithful to their origins. But whereas the original vampire desires seclusion and anonymity to pursue his bloodlust, recast as a figure of nobility he ventures into society—suggesting loneliness, a desire to rejoin the living, a touch of self-reflection. Add to this various other liberties, and 150 years later vampires are sleeping in canopy beds, refrigerating sheep’s blood, and breeding armies of little vampirelings to infiltrate the world’s most exclusive guest lists.

As for old-school Sava Savanović, there is no desire for redemption, nor evidence of his having been slain; at the end of the film, his butterfly-guised spirit flutters away, presumably to generate more black-clawed bloodsuckers elsewhere. Moreover, research into his origins suggests that his water mill still exists. If Petar Blagojević, whose fate at the hands of all those stake-wielding Austrians was well documented, continues to haunt contemporary Kisiljevans beyond the grave—indeed, beyond beyond the grave—then surely, I reason, the presence of an undefeated vampire must be that much more palpable in the community he once terrorized.

To read the rest of “Twilight of the Vampires,” subscribe here to Harper’s Magazine.

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