The particulars of the vampire exhumations, though, vary widely. In many cases, only family and neighbors participated. But sometimes town fathers voted on the matter, or medical doctors and clergymen gave their blessings or even pitched in. Some communities in Maine and Plymouth, Massachusetts, opted to simply flip the exhumed vampire facedown in the grave and leave it at that. In Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, though, they frequently burned the dead person’s heart, sometimes inhaling the smoke as a cure. (In Europe, too, exhumation protocol varied with region: Some beheaded suspected vampire corpses, while others bound their feet with thorns.)According to Bell, these incidents almost always correspond to tuberculosis outbreaks. I have to say that this makes me wonder, because tuberculosis is not the kind of highly contagious disease that has frequent outbreaks. It was endemic in Europe and America throughout this period, and most people were exposed to the bacteria. Only a minority got very sick. But clusters certainly do occur, and in a small town three or four serious cases at once might seem like an epidemic.
Often these rituals were clandestine, lantern-lit affairs. But, particularly in Vermont, they could be quite public, even festive. One vampire heart was reportedly torched on the Woodstock, Vermont, town green in 1830. In Manchester, hundreds of people flocked to a 1793 heart-burning ceremony at a blacksmith’s forge: “Timothy Mead officiated at the altar in the sacrifice to the Demon Vampire who it was believed was still sucking the blood of the then living wife of Captain Burton,” an early town history says. “It was the month of February and good sleighing.”
I know I am not a reliable barometer of contemporary American opinion, but it seems to me that the fear of the dead, I mean the real dread that they might be tormenting the living and sucking their life out, seems to have completely disappeared from our world.