Put aside the bats' wings and other paraphenalia of the Victorian romantic imagination in order to appreciate the very potent fear of vampires which was felt by Greeks well into the twentieth century. The soil of Greece has in most parts eroded into the sea, making deep soil deposits very valuable as much-needed farming land. Yet the Greek Church forbids cremation, so that there is still not a single funtioning crematorium in the country. As a result, land for burial is scarce.
The practice is to bury a body in the ground for three years, after which the bones are exhumed in the presence of the relatives and placed in an ossuary. When at this time it is discovered that the body has not decayed, it is believed that it remains inhabited by an imprisoned soul which feeds upon the blood of the living in order to sustain itself. Such a person has become a vampire, and preys first and foremost upon its near relatives. They may deceive people by their appearance as ordinary living beings.
Suspected vampires were exhumed on that day of the week on which the spirit rested (Saturday in most places), and if found not to have decayed, measures wuld be taken to lay them. This might involve pouring boiling water, vinegar or oil over the body, burning it, or piercing the heart with an iron spike. Coastal communities would often rebury the suspected 'vampire' on an uninhabited offshore island, since vampires were believed not to be able to cross water.
Vampire hauntings would occasionally lead to mass panics, such as one reported on Naxos during the early years of the twentieth century.
Late one evening, a man named George Nouaros was preparing to go to sleep near a stove in his barn, in the countryside, some miles from his home in the village of Othous, when he noticed that his cow began staring fixedly at the door and bellowing. He was astonished, because his animal had never behaved in such a manner before. He raised his lamp and looked into the shadows, alarmed to see that the cow was trembling, its tail standing erect, and pawing with its front paws on the ground, all the while staring fixedly at the doors, as though it was afraid of something fearful. Nouaros muttered a prayer and made the sign of the cross. He was looking carefully around, throwing the light of the lamp into different corners of the barn, but could see nothing out of the ordinary, when there was a loud knocking on the door. "Who is it?" he cried. "Me!" a familiar voice replied. It was a priest, his partner in his craft. He ran to open the door, and saw his friend standing outside. "What's the matter? He asked. "Why are you on the road at this time of night?" "We have to go to the village, quickly, he said, " our other partner is very ill." "Sit down for a moment," Nouaros said, "while I saddle up my mule." "It doesn't matter," the other replied, "I will wait here at the door." Nouaros lost no time, and his mule was soon saddled and he was ready to go. Just before mounting, he picked up a small burning brand from the stove. "What do you want that for?" the priest said. "It bothers me." "What do you think," replied Nouaros. "On a dark night like this we need something to show us the road, or else we shall have an accident."
They sent out into the darkness. But the priest first held on to the mule's tail, and nearly unseated Nouaros. Then he went in front, refusing to let the mule walk by itself, and at one point grabbed the bridle, and tried to led them towards the cliff, saying that it was a shorter road. Another time he dragged them to the outside of the path over a ravine, so that the rider could see the tops of the mountains. They went along the steep mountainside like a whirlwind. Nouaros thought that the priest was drunk, and began to fear for his life. But what could he do? The man was his partner. Several times, the priest complained about the torch Nouaros was carrying, and asked him to throw it away. And always he hastened on into the darkness, as though seeking to get away from its light. Finally, after much anguish, fear and dread on Nouaros' part, they arrived in the village.
As they passed through the streets, the priest fell behind, and seemed more subdued. Nouaras just assumed that his friend had sobered up. When they arrived at the church of the Panayia, outside which was then the cemetery, they stopped. The priest disappeared inside the cemetery. Nouaros called out "Where have you gone?" He dismounted and watered his mule at the spring there. His friend had disappeared altogether, so after waiting for a while, he decided to go home. When he knocked on the door of his house, his wife called out from inside "Who is it at this time of night?" "It's me, George," he replied, and the door opened. "What are you doing on the road at this time of night, his wife asked alarmed. When he explained about the priest his wife turned pale. "But he died today!" she cried.
It is said how all that night the dogs howled in the village; and that Nouaros was so shocked that he became ill for a very long time, and never entirely recovered his spirits after this shock.