Sunday, July 16, 2017

Peter Plogojovitz: Barefoot Vampire or Shoeless Ghost?


“They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were shoes, beautiful shoes” – Imelda Marcos

We’re creeped out by the idea that we might be something else’s food source. This is no doubt a vestigial reaction to our rocky relationship with apex predators as we scampered up the evolutionary tree. Our species largely overcame this hang-up by inventing sharp, pointy sticks and eventually, projectile weapons and developing a healthy appreciation for stand-off distance. You’re a lot less frightening when you’re dead thirty feet before you can sink your teeth in. Thus, if you really want to give us little monkeys nightmares, tell us about monsters that are (1) already dead, and (2) find us delicious. Vampires drink our blood. Zombies eat our brains. And Werewolves, well let’s just say nothing goes to waste. Scholars of monstrosity tend to have a field day with undead critters that want to serve us with fava beans and a nice Chianti as they speak to those things that we’ve pushed into liminality. To my knowledge, little research has focused on those revenants who are looking for a good pair of shoes (and want to eat us). Luckily, we have the illustrative 1725 Serbian case of Peter Plogojovitz, one of the earliest and best documented instances of what skeptics call “vampire hysteria”, and what I consider a strange example of an undead shoe fetish.

In 1718, the Kingdom of Serbia was wrestled away from the Ottomans and established as a province of the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire, which it remained until 1739 when it was handed back to the Ottomans in the Treaty of Belgrade that ended Austrian involvement in the larger Russo-Turkish War. Ostensibly, this was simply a recovery of the territories which the Ottomans had ceded to the Hapsburgs in the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718. Savvy readers will have the sneaking suspicion that Austria was tired of dealing with an officially recognized outbreak of vampirism or at least a heightened vampire-awareness, and decided to make it the Ottoman’s problem. By 1726, the more famous case of Serbian vampire Arnold Paole (the official reports were widely distributed in Western Europe and led to much of our understanding of vampires, not to mention body decomposition after death) was in the news and sparked what came to be referred to as the “18th-Century Vampire Controversy”, where intellectual luminaries debated whether vampires actually existed. But in 1725, the Serbian vampire frenzy was just getting started. “Beginning with the year 1720, there spread through Lower Hungary and Serbia and Wallachia a rumour that filled the people with terror; and this was that vampires were about, sucking the blood of living persons” (Baring-Gould, 1928, p132-133). To make matters worse, commanders of the Austrian troops stationed there were busy sending in official reports to the government regarding the problem, so they couldn’t just ignore it and hope it would go away.

Peter Plogojovitz (Serb. Petar Blagojević) was a rather unremarkable Serbian peasant in the town of Kisolova who died in 1725 and was buried with the usual Roman Catholic ceremonies. Apparently the standard rituals didn’t take. Between the media hype and the military dispatches regarding the issue, there are a few variations on Plogojovitz’s return from the grave, including how quickly he managed to rise again, estimates ranging from two days to ten weeks after death. The contemporary French Benedictine monk and occult scholar Antoine Augustin Calmet suggested, “This man appeared by night to some of the inhabitants of the village while they were asleep, and grasped their throat so tightly that in four-and-twenty hours it caused their death. Nine persons, young and old, perished thus in the course of eight days” (Calmet, 1850 ed., p341-342). Another account maintained that “A few days after the funeral several persons suddenly became sick, and within nine days there died in that village nine persons, some young and some old, after a short illness which exhibited the symptoms of nervous exhaustion. All of these persons most positively declared upon their dying bed, that the ghost of Peter Plogojovitz was the only cause of their death; because he had come to them at night in the shape of a vampire, placed himself upon them and rendered them helpless, and in this state sucked from them their strength” (Hartmann, 1895, p102-103). Either way, folks seemed to be dropping dead a little faster than usual, and blaming it on nocturnal visits from Plogojovitz. Perhaps one of the most curious details was reported by Plogojovitz’s widow.

The widow of the same Plogojovitz declared that her husband since his death had come and asked her for his shoes, which frightened her so much that she left Kisolova to retire to some other spot (Calmet, 1850 ed., p341-342).

This is clearly a strange and uncommon request from the living dead. And I become fixated on instances where preternatural beasties ask for odd favors or behave unexpectedly. Aliens requesting a Dr. Pepper. Grim Reapers on skis. Demons doing something nice or arguing about the rules of Latin grammar. Vampires looking for shoes. It’s not clear whether Plogojovitz was buried without shoes and looking to rectify the situation, or perhaps lost his shoes while clawing his way out of the grave, but it seems that before commencing with his reported undead killing spree, he thought a decent pair of footwear might be in order. Once properly shod, he set about his nefarious vampiric business. The citizens of Kisolova were not terribly concerned about the state of Plogojovitz’s feet and instead of calling a podiatrist, opted to alert the Austrian military, who were initially unimpressed.

The inhabitants demanded permission of the commandant to exhume and burn the body. The commandant having refused it, they declared that they would all leave the village unless their request was complied with. The commanding officer thereupon came to the village in company with the curé of Gradisca (Assier, 1887, p276-277).

Once you get the government involved, they tend to make a record, so we have a pretty good idea what happened next. The local Austrian Commandant of Gradisca, Kameralprovisor Frombald, and the priest Veliko Gradište were already facing a declining population problem, what with all the wars and uncertainty involved with the Kingdom of Serbia changing hands, so a bunch of peasants threatening to pull up stakes and hit the road was actually a matter of some concern. The commandant ordered the exhumation of Plogojovitz’s corpse.

The emperor’s officer, who wrote this account, seeing he could hinder them neither by threats nor promises, went with the curé of Gradiska to the village of Kisolova, and having caused Peter Plogojovitz to be exhumed, they found that his body exhaled no bad smell; that he looked as when alive, except the tip of the nose; that his hair and beard had grown, and instead of his nails, which had fallen off, new ones had come; that under his upper skin, which appeared whitish, there appeared a new one, which looked healthy, and of a natural color; his feet and hands were as whole as could be desired in a living man. They remarked also in his mouth some fresh blood, which these people believed that this vampire had sucked from the men whose death he had occasioned. The emperor’s officer and the curé having diligently examined all these things, and the people who were present feeling their indignation awakened anew, and being more fully persuaded that he was the true cause of the death of their compatriots, ran directly for a sharp-pointed stake, which they thrust into his breast, whence there issued a quantity of fresh and crimson blood, and also from the nose and mouth; something also proceeded from that part of his body which decency does not allow us to mention. After this the peasants placed the body on a pile of wood and saw it reduced to ashes. (Calmet, 1850 ed., p341-342).

Note that nobody mentioned his shoes. Living as close as they do to Transylvania, the folks of Kisolova knew their vampire dispatching business. These days, we know a lot more about what happens to the human body after death. We in fact have whole “body farms” where forensic graduate students can expose corpses to all sorts of environmental conditions and document what happens. Later commentators pointed out that the state of Plogojovitz’s corpse was rather mundane if you know a thing or two about human decomposition. This of course allows the unwary to comfortably write the entire episode off to mass hysteria, completely ignoring (1) the numerous individuals who died insisting that undead Plogojovitz had fed upon them, and (2) the curious idea that the dead are in dire need of shoes. Perhaps we could get along better with the living dead if we just took the time to understand their sartorial requirements. As Garon Whited said, “It’s one thing to be an undead fiend of darkness, but it takes an immense amount of work to look cool while doing it.”

Assier, Adolphe d’, 1828-. Posthumous Humanity: a Study of Phantoms. London: G. Redway, 1887.

Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Folk-lore. London: Collins’ clear-type press, 1928.

Calmet, Augustin, 1672-1757. The Phantom World: the History And Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, &c., &c. Philadelphia: A. Hart, 1850.

Hartmann, Franz, d. 1912. Buried Alive: an Examination Into the Occult Causes of Apparent Death, Trance, And Catalepsy. Boston: Occult Publishing Co., 1895.


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