Last week, six men were jailed for ripping out the heart of a corpse they believed was ‘undead’. As Monica Petrescu in Bucharest writes, to many Romanians, vampires are not legend but terrifying reality
It was just before midnight as Gheorghe Marinescu and five of his relatives crept into the graveyard in the small Romanian village of Marotinul de Sus. They knew which plot they were looking for – a simple earth grave with a wooden cross bearing the name Petre Toma – and quickly, but quietly, set about digging.
When they had dragged the body out, they waited. Then, at the stroke of 12, Marinescu began the ritual that they had been planning for weeks, one that had passed from generation to generation in their family. They drove a pitchfork through Petre Toma’s chest, opened it, drew out his heart and then put stakes through the rest of his body. They sprinkled garlic over the mutilated corpse and then, carefully, laid it back in its grave.
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They left the cemetery with the heart impaled on the end of the pitchfork and went to a crossroads where Marinescu’s wife, son and daughter-in-law were waiting. There the group burnt it, dissolved the ashes and then drank the solution.
The scene last July would fit readily into any number of films about vampires and the Dracula legend but Gheorghe Marinescu is real. Last week he and his five relatives – Mitrica Mircea, Popa Stelica, Constantin Florea, Ionescu Ion and Pascu Oprea – were sentenced to six months in jail for the unlawful exhumation of the body of Toma, 76, a former teacher and a man they believed had risen from the dead to drink their blood while they slept.
News of what the Marinescu family did made headlines in Romania, but in a country where a large minority of the population admit to openly believing in the “undead”, football bosses employ witches to cast spells on foreign teams and a couple recently named their newborn son Dracula after premonitions of impending danger to him, many were unsurprised by what they read.
Mihai Fifor, an ethnologist at the Centre for Studies in Traditional Cultures and Societies in Craiova, said, “This particular ritual is quite unique but there have been many cases of people claiming that they are being hunted by the dead and vampires. There are a number of other rituals that exist for this type of situation where people believe they need to kill vampires.”
Romania has been associated with vampires in the minds of many Westerners ever since Bram Stoker wrote his classic horror story, Dracula, in 1897. But in Romania the belief in vampires and the threat of the undead stretches as far back as the 15th century leader of Wallachia – modern-day Transylvania and other parts of Romania – Count Vlad Tepes Dracula, who was the inspiration for Stoker’s novel. Stoker merged the Middle Ages belief in vampires, which had become entrenched in Romania and many other parts of central and eastern Europe at the time, with the historically documented bloodthirstiness of Tepes’s rule. In doing so, he created the story of Count Dracula who rose from the dead to haunt the deep, dark forests and castles of Transylvania, preying on young victims and drinking their blood.
Today, the country’s tourist industry still makes millions from his legend. His castle in Bran in Transylvania – Dracula Castle – draws tens of thousands of enthralled holidaymakers every year. There is even a Dracula theme park under construction.
But while Dracula and vampires are just a fascinating legend to most people outside the country, to many Romanians, mostly in rural areas, they are a terrifying reality. After his arrest, Marinescu said: “If we hadn’t done anything, my wife, my son and my daughter-in-law would have died. That is when I decided to `unbury’ him. I’ve seen these kinds of things before.
“When we took him out of the grave, he had blood around his mouth. We took his heart and he sighed when we stabbed him. We burned it, dissolved the ash into water and the people who had fallen sick drank it. They got better immediately. It was like someone took away all their pain and sickness.
“We performed a ritual that is hundreds of years old. We had no idea we were committing a crime. On the contrary, we believed that we were doing a good thing because the spirit of Petre was haunting us all and was very close to killing some of us. He came back from the dead and was after us.”
Marinescu explained to police when he was arrested that Toma, who he said had been a respected and well-liked teacher in the village for years, had been buried on Christmas Day in 2003. But soon afterwards he had begun to appear to members of Marinescu’s family in dreams as a vampire. Although he did not see the man himself, he saw his family become sick and they told him that Toma was not just a dream but a vampire whose spirit had come back from the dead.
He, like the rest of his family, had been told how to recognise vampires and how to deal with them by his parents who had been taught that knowledge from their own parents and they from theirs. He said he had had to act quickly to save his family.
Paula Diaconu, who has lived in Marotinul de Sus for decades, praised the ritual carried out by Marinescu and his relatives. “It was all a good thing to take his heart out because people were in danger. Villagers in Romania know about rituals for driving away the evil spirits of the dead,” he said.
Another man from the village, Dumitru Moineasa, once drank a solution containing the ashes of his uncle’s heart. “An uncle of mine died in 1992 and a few days after we buried him I started to feel very sick,” he said. “The doctor had no idea what was wrong with me. One day, an aunt brought me a glass of water. I drank it all. I got well almost immediately. I only found out later that it was my dead uncle’s ashes.”
His friend, Domnica Brancusi, said that hearts had been taken out of dead men’s chests many times before. “There have been dozens of dead men who turned into vampires and were haunting us,” he said. “But usually the family of the dead man who was haunting people made a pact with those people and agreed not to say anything about the rituals. Until this case, no fuss was ever made about it.”
Local police laid charges against the six men after Toma’s daughter, Floarea Cotoran, who has since left Marotinul de Sus, complained about what happened to her father’s body. They admitted that they were aware of similar rituals having been performed in the region. A policeman in nearby Celaru, which has jurisdiction over Marotinul de Sus, and who asked not to be named, said: “We’ve known about it for years. There’s never been anything we could do about it as no one ever complained.”
Marotinul de Sus, in the south-west, is far from the only village in Romania to take the threat of vampires seriously. In many rural communities like it across the country, belief in vampires is pervasive and superstition often governs people’s lives. “Fear and great challenges in life are sometimes met by people with rituals and superstitions, a set of rules built over generations which has been verified over time,” said Sabina Ispas, an ethnologist at the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore in Bucharest. “Rural Romania has conserved excellently this system of rituals and beliefs.”
Deep superstition and belief in the paranormal and pagan permeates all levels of society in urban Romania as well. Maria Tedescu, a 21-year-old law student in Bucharest, said: “We all have our little superstitions, like taking three steps back if a black cat crosses your path to stop something bad happening. But vampires are different. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I know it may sound silly and I can’t totally explain it, but I think they exist. I always wear a crucifix… just in case.”