Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
In The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases, E. J. Wagner includes a series of facts that writers of horror stories, seeking to balance claims concerning the supernatural origin and existence of vampires with natural explanations for the belief in such creatures can use in their own stories:
In real life, exhumations of reputed vampires provided helpful information to medical science. In the eighteenth century, during a vampire panic in central Europe, a number of graves were opened by physicians of the occupying Austrian army. Their reports gave a detailed picture of the unexpected effects that burial can have on cadavers--effects that in less educated minds gave credence to the vampire legends. Bodies of males, for instance, were sometimes discovered showing “wild signs,” or penile erections, no doubt caused by bloating from gases. The same gases caused corpses to split open, often with sufficient noise to be heard aboveground. Some burials were in earth so rich in tannin that the bodies were extraordinarily preserved, even after centuries underground. All of this served to immortalize the belief in the “undead.”Occasionally, unconscious or catatonic men and women were buried alive by accident, and, when they regained consciousness, experiencing claustrophobia and seeking to escape the confines of their buried coffins, they flailed at the lids, tore the linings, and writhed and rolled about. If their bodies were later exhumed for some reason, the damages to the interiors of the caskets and the repositioned corpses might also be taken as signs that the supposedly dead were really the “undead.”
. . . In many nineteenth-century country villages the disease [consumption, or tuberculosis] meant that infected descendents of diseased victims often showed the first signs of illness after their progenitors were buried. It was not recognized that the disease was the result of contagion within the household. The symptoms of weakness and anemia caused by poor lung function and bloody coughs suggested to the credulous that the dead had returned to feed on their young.
Opening the graves of suspected vampires sometimes disclosed that the corpses had changed position, a result of effects of decomposition and ensuing gas formation. Insect activity affected the visage of the dead, contraction of the skin made it appear that the hair and nails continued to grow, and what was thought to be fresh liquid blood could be found in the mouths or chest cavities. It was not generally realized that blood, which coagulates after death, can subsequently return to a liquid state, so when a stake was driven into the chest of an exhumed corpse and a plume of blood erupted, it satisfied the observers that a vampire had been quelled (202-203)
. . . The belief that hair and nails could grow after death was taken as evidence of vampirism in some primitive rural communities (207).
Note: George Washington, who suffered from taphephobia, ordered that he not be buried until twelve days after his death, and others who feared being buried alive ensured that their coffins and graves were equipped with means of escape and egress. Vestal virgins who violated their oaths of chastity were buried alive as a form of torture and execution. The antagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was likewise immured, and the protagonist of “The Premature Burial” was buried alive. In reality, before modern medical knowledge provided safeguards against live burial, people were accidentally buried alive more often than one might suppose; as Christine Quigley points out, in The Corpse: A History, “William Tebb records 149 such cases, as well as several 219 near misses, ten live dissections, and two awakenings during embalming. “10 Horrifying Premature Burials,“ an Internet article, also describes additional live burials. Maybe being a vampire wasn’t all that bad, compared to the virgins’ fate!