MAROTINU DE SUS, Romania — Before Toma Petre's relatives pulled his body from the grave, ripped out his heart, burned it to ashes, mixed it with water and drank it, he hadn't been in the news much.
That's often the way here with vampires. Quiet lives, active deaths.
Villagers here aren't up in arms about the undead — they're pretty common — but they are outraged that the police are involved in a simple vampire slaying. After all, vampire slaying is an accepted, though hidden, bit of national heritage, even if illegal.
"What did we do?" pleaded Flora Marinescu, Petre's sister and the wife of the man accused of re-killing him. "If they're right, he was already dead. If we're right, we killed a vampire and saved three lives. ... Is that so wrong?"
Yes, according to the Romanian State Police. Its view, expressed by Constantin Ghindeano, the chief agent for the region, is that vampires aren't real, and dead bodies in graves aren't to be dug out and killed again, even by relatives.
He doesn't really have much more to say on this case, other than noting that Petre had been removed from his grave, his heart had been cut out and it was presumed to have been consumed by his relatives. Ghindeano added that police were expanding the investigation, which began in mid-January, to include the after-deaths of others in area.
"The investigation is ongoing, and we expect to file charges later," he said, referring to possible charges of disturbing the peace of the dead, which could carry a three-year jail term. "We are determining whether this was an isolated case or whether there is a pattern in the village."
Romania has been filled with news of the vampire-slaying investigation, and villagers admit there's a pattern, but they argue that that's the reason these matters shouldn't make it to court. There's too much of it going on, and too few complain about the practice.
Vampire slaying is a custom that's been passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, for generations beyond memory, not just in this tiny village of 300 huts astride a dirt cart path about 100 miles southwest of Bucharest, but in scores of villages throughout southern Romania.
Little has changed since the days that Turkish invaders rolled through 500 years ago, seeking the mineral riches of Transylvania just to the north. By day, the people are Roman Catholics. At night, they fear the strigoi, or vampires.
On a recent afternoon, the village's single store, which also serves as its lone bar, was filled with men drinking hard, as they explained the vampire facts to a stranger. Most had at least one vampire in their family histories, and many were related to vampire victims. Most had learned to kill a vampire while still children.
Theirs is not a Hollywood tale, and they laugh at Hollywood conventions: that vampires can be warded off by crosses or cloves of garlic, or that they can't be seen in mirrors. Utter nonsense. Vampires were once Catholics, were they not? And if a vampire can be seen, the mirror can see him. And why would you wear garlic around your neck? Are you adding taste?
No, vampires are humans who have died, commonly babies before baptism or people unfortunate enough to have black cats jump over their coffins. Vampires occur everywhere, but in busy cities no one notices, the men said.
Vampires are obvious when dug up because while they will have been laid to rest on their backs, arms folded neatly across their chests, they will be found on their sides or even their stomachs. They will not have decomposed. Beards will have continued to grow. Their arms will be at their sides, as if they are clawing out of their coffins. And they will have blood — sometimes dried, sometimes fresh — around their mouths.
But the biggest tip-off that a vampire is near is his or her family, for vampires always prey on their families. If family members fall ill after a death, odds are a vampire is draining their blood at night, looking for company.
"That's the problem with vampires," said Doru Morinescu, a 30-year-old shepherd who, like many in the village, has a family connection to the current case. "They'd be all right if you could set them after your enemies. But they only kill loved ones. I can understand why, but they have to be stopped."
Ion Balasa, 64, explained that there are two ways to stop a vampire, but only one after he or she has risen to feed.
"Before the burial, you can insert a long sewing needle, just into the bellybutton," he said. "That will stop them from becoming a vampire."
But once they've become vampires, all that's left is to dig them up, use a curved haying sickle to remove the heart, burn the heart to ashes on an iron plate, then have the ill relatives drink the ashes mixed with water.
"The heart of a vampire, while you burn it, will squeak like a mouse and try to escape," Balasa said. "It's best to take a wooden stake and pin it to the pan, so it won't get away."
Which is exactly what happened with Petre, according to Gheorghe Marinescu, a cheery, aging vampire slayer who was Petre's brother-in-law.
Marinescu's story goes like this: After Petre died, Marinescu's son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter fell ill. Marinescu knew the cause was his dead brother-in-law. So he had to go out to the cemetery.
The first time, he was frightened, so he had a little graveside drink, for courage. He ended up with a little too much courage and couldn't use the shovel. So the next night he returned, and with a proper amount of courage, was successful.
Marinescu said he found Petre on his side, his mouth bloody. His heart squeaked and jumped as it was burned. When it was mixed with water and taken to those who were sick, it worked.
His wife, Petre's sister, interrupted his story with a broom, swinging it at him and a stranger. She was worried that he would incur the wrath of the police, who would jail him.
But then his son Costel called what happened next a miracle. After weeks in bed, Costel got up to walk. His head wasn't pounding. His chest wasn't aching. His stomach felt fine.
"We were all saved," he said. "We had been saved from a vampire."
But how could he be sure his illness came from a vampire?
"What other explanation is possible?" he asked.