Express an interest in vampires in today’s Croatia and you’ll probably be told that you’ve come to the wrong country – and yet belief in the supernatural creatures was widespread hereabouts until a couple of centuries ago. Europe’s first documented case of vampirism took place in an Istrian village in the 1670s, when the nocturnal roamings of Jure Grando were recorded by Slovenian chronicler J.J. Valvasor. One of the last known outbreaks of vampire mania in Croatia took place on Lastovo in 1737, when officials from Dubrovnik had to dissuade the local populace from carrying out mass exhumations of those suspected of walking with the undead.
According to Croatian folk belief, the most common form of vampire was a vukodlak (often translated as “werewolf”, although it clearly means something quite different), which basically consisted of the skin of a human corpse puffed up with the breath of the devil and further bloated with the blood of its victims. The vukodlak was an all-purpose bogeyman whose existence could explain away all manner of crises and conflicts: anything from listlessness among the local livestock to marital problems were blamed on the bloodsuckers (it was said that vukodlaci visited the beds of bored wives and pleasured them in the night). A mora was a female equivalent of a vukodlak, nightly sapping the strength of the menfolk; while macići were mischievious young vukodlaci who created envy and discord by bringing good luck to some villagers, misfortune to others – if a farmer got rich, neighbours would say that he had a macić in the house.
People were said to turn into vukodlaci after their death if a dog, cat or mouse passed under their coffin while it was being borne to the grave. The only cure was to dig up the body and cut its hamstrings to prevent it from wandering about at night. Visiting the Dalmatian hinterland as recently as the 1770s, the intrepid Venetian traveller Alberto Fortis discovered that some of the locals asked their families to carry out this operation as soon as they died, just to be on the safe side.