History’s Mysteries: Historical Halloween Hits

It’s almost Halloween, so we wanted to have a little fun with this post and tell everyone about our favorite spooky stories (and add in a little bit of history too). This week we dive into tales about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a Serbian vampire Petar Blagojević, and the infamous Blood Countess, Elizabeth Báthory. 

Clayton: History is a great source for entertaining fiction, with many movies, books, and short stories basing their narratives and ideas around a piece of history. This is especially true for the Halloween season, since so much from history, from local legends to actual events, can be twisted into a spooky tale. From this category, one of my all-time personal favorite stories that has been spun into movies, TV series, and much more is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Written in 1820, the legend that is haunting the featured town has its origins in, for the time, recent American history, mainly centering around the American Revolution and the years after it. The story is set in 1790 and features two men competing to marry a woman in the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York. The town is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a Hessian soldier who lost his head to a cannonball during “some nameless battle” of the Revolution and has since been haunting the town and surrounding valley. Eventually one of the suitors, the famous Ichabod Crane, is chased by the Horseman, and whether the Horseman was real or the other suitor in disguise and the fate of Crane is left ambiguous.  

This story has proven to be incredibly popular and one of the earliest examples of American folklore. The supernatural horror of the legend has proven to have strong staying power in American culture, and the Headless Horseman is still a recognizable horror figure. Irving’s story has maintained a place in pop culture as well. The story was adapted into a feature movie in 1999, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp (one of my personal favorite Halloween movies too!) and was also made into a horror TV series in 2013. Besides those, many other TV movies, plays, games, and cartoon specials have been made about Sleepy Hollow, Disney even made a cartoon about it in the 1940s! The legend has even seeped over into the real world: in 1996 the town of North Tarrytown in New York, the original village Irving based Sleepy Hollow off of, officially changed its name to Sleepy Hollow. Irving’s legend has shown itself to be one of America’s most enduring folktales, and the perfect story for the Halloween season.   

Dragana: It’s spooky season and you know what that means? Scary stories. As Clayton has mentioned, history is a great source when looking for inspiration—think of Dracula or the Salem Witch Trials. As I focus on the Balkans, I’d like to share a story of Serbia’s vampire problem. Everyone knows about Count Dracula, Romania’s vampire, but few people know about Petar Blagojević (also known as Peter Plogojowitz) who is Serbia’s most famous vampire and one of the earliest sensational and most well documented cases of vampire hysteria in Eastern Europe. Petar was a peasant living in the late 17th-early 18th century village of Kisilova (modern day Kisiljevo) which at the time was part of the Hapsburg Empire. Told by the Imperial Provisor, after his death in 1725 Petar visited his wife looking for his shoes causing her to flee the village perhaps out of fear. Not long after, nine villagers became ill and died within 24 hours. While on their deathbeds they claimed that Petar had come to them at night in their dreams, bit them on the neck and sucked their blood. It was believed that Petar had become a vampire and was preying upon the people in his village. The remaining villagers, scared that they might be next, decided to exhume his body and examine it for any signs of vampirism. They found his body undecomposed, his hair, beard and nails had grown, he had new skin, and there was blood smeared on his mouth—all clear signs of vampirism. To be safe, the villagers staked the body through the heart which caused blood to spur out from his mouth and ears and burned it. The other nine villagers showed no signs of vampirism, but garlic and whitethorn were placed in their graves for safe measure. If you have the time, I would suggest reading the very short first chapter of Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality for more information on Petar and a translation of the Imperial Provisor’s account.

         In 2012, an article published in USA TODAY discusses another more famous vampire from the village of Zarozje (bordering Bosnia). The villagers have become fearful that the vampire Sava Savanovic has reawakened after a wooden mill that was thought to be his home, and where he drank blood from his victims, had collapsed. While many believe he is just a fairy tale, they are still being cautious by carrying garlic in their pockets and keeping wooden crosses in their rooms. The article states that the villagers are hoping to bring in more tourists to the region through their story, so maybe next time you’re thinking about visiting vampire sites consider adding Serbia on your list. 

Kiri: Vampires are certainly a popular topic for Halloween, and like Dragana I’d like to retell a story likened to that of Dracula—the tale of Elizabeth Bathory. Elizabeth’s story presents us with an interesting case study because we are certain that she was a real person, who was really tried for the crimes she allegedly committed. But her story becomes so sensational, even in contemporary times, it’s hard for historians to tease out the fact from the fiction. Nonetheless, what’s Halloween without a retelling of the story of the infamous Blood Countess?

In the early seventeenth century, a Hungarian noblewoman named Erzsébet Báthory (or, as she’s more commonly known today, Elizabeth Báthory) stood trial against accusations of witchcraft and the murder of at least eighty—though some argue as many as six hundred—young girls. The trial supposedly contained witness accounts from two hundred individuals, each one detailing the gruesome and horrifying ways that Báthory and a select number of her servants murdered young girls from around the village. According to legend, Báthory was a particularly cruel mistress who punished girls for even the most minor offenses. One day after striking a servant so hard that blood splashed on Báthory’s hand, she noticed that her skin was noticeably smoother where the blood landed. Obsessed with vanity and her own beauty, Báthory’s cruelty grew as she devised ways to bathe in the blood of her servants. Because of her noble status, there was little that anyone could do. Báthory’s crimes against peasants was hardly a concern for surrounding nobles or the Church. Once she had depleted the pool of young poor women, however, Báthory opened a school to teach noble daughters how to properly behave in high society. When a few of these girls went missing, Báthory had crossed a line. The afflicted noble families had enough power to finally grab the Church’s attention, and soldiers raided the Báthory castle. Scores of dead bodies were found, and with the trial Báthory and her accomplices were all found guilty—her servants all executed in varying painful ways, and Báthory herself sentenced to confinement in her room behind a brick wall.

As mentioned above, Báthory’s story even in her own time was quickly sensationalized, and it is hard for historians to pick apart fiction from fact. While nineteenth and twentieth century authors and creators embellished Báthory’s actions, more recent scholars have attempted to rescue the Báthory name, citing an over-reliance on fabricated sources. Either way, Báthory’s tale gives historians insight into the cultural world of both the time Báthory lived in, and the periods where her story became popularized. Although today she is remembered as the “Blood Countess,” her story offers more to us than simply a hauntingly frightening tale.

For more on Elizabeth Báthory, I recommend these sources, which I also relied on for this blog post.

 Kürti, László. “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous—the Elizabeth Bathory Story.” Croatian Journal of Ethnology & Folklore Research / Narodna Umjetnost , 2009, Vol. 46 Issue 1, 133-159.

Adam, Wayne. “Elizabeth Bathory–COUNTESS AND KILLER.” Renaissance Magazine 22, no. 5 (2018): 62+. Gale General OneFile. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A635559558/ITOF?u=tall85761&sid=ITOF&xid=8ad5cdb8

For funsies, I recommend The Countess by Rebecca Johns. It’s a historical fiction, but a very good read. 

Stephen: The Greek and Roman world is just as spooky as today! The ancients did not celebrate Halloween, but they sure did like phantoms, witches, magic, and even zombies?! Scary stories about ghosts and werewolves were being told more than 2,000 years ago. 

A Greek Zombie?: “I know of a man who came to life twenty days after he was buried; I was his doctor both before his death and after he came back to life.” -Lucian, Philopseudes 26

Here is a list of modern works on ancient Greek and Roman Halloween related subjects: 

  • Greek and Roman Folklore (2006) by G. Anderson
  • Greek and Roman Necromancy (2019) by D. Ogden
  • Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity (1999) by D. Felton
  • Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook (2002) by D. Ogden
  • Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (2013) by S. Johnston 

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