Fog has fallen on the plains. Between them runs an empty road, recently mended at its centre, where a black line of fresh tar winds into the distance. The dark earth of the flat fields is churned for the planting season, and retreats into the horizon of mist. As our car moves through the farmland, crows take to the air, glide in the breeze, return to the field, and strut across the ground, searching for more seeds to thieve.
We pass v-shaped irrigation channels, their concrete sidings thick with weeds, and strewn with yoghurt tubs, tissues and crushed cans and plastic bottles of beer.
Turning off this country road in Dolj county, southwest Romania, onto a dirt track, we enter an expanse of pasture. Straying in and out of the fog are sheep, heavy with winter fleece, and patrolled by thin black dogs. We drive alongside an empty concrete tower to a sheepfold with a green tarpaulin roof, overlaid with branches. In front is a wooden shack, piled with stacks of hay, where a filthy white sheepdog sleeps with a loose chain around its neck.
At the back of the hut, hens wander free from their enclosure. A pair of black puppies, dusty from the dirt, snap at each other in a play-fight. A cock swaggers near a rusted chicken wire fence, and a brood of chicks float on water inside a used tyre.
Here 63 year-old shepherd Mircea Mitrica sits on a wooden bench, in a thick woollen cap and worn zip-up fleece jersey. His voice is stilted, and his memory is sometimes confused, but his conviction remains fierce, as he tells us why he cut out the heart of his neighbour’s corpse.
One evening in 2003, a pensioner Petre Toma was driving his wagon through the southwest Romanian village of Marotinu de Sus, his hands slack on the reins as the horse trotted forward. But the 76 year-old had been drinking, says his neighbour Mircea Mitrica, and was so intoxicated that he tumbled off the wagon and onto the road. The horse stepped on Toma’s head and chest, and killed its master.
Toma’s family buried him in the local cemetery at the edge of town. A few weeks later, the deceased’s nephew, Gheorghe Marinescu, called Mitrica to his house to meet his father-in-law and drink a glass of plum brandy tuica.
But this was not a fraternal toast to mourn the passing of a relative. When inside, Marinescu showed Mitrica how his wife had fallen seriously ill with an unknown condition.
“She was talking to herself, shouting: ‘He’s on top of me! He’s eating me! He’s killing me!’ She couldn’t stand on her feet,” says Mitrica. “She had lost a lot of weight. But that young woman was suffering from no disease.
“So her husband and her father asked me what I could do to save her. She had two baby daughters, and it would have been a shame for their mother to die so young.”
Marinescu gathered three other men to his house, and the six of them talked and drank until midnight, when they agreed on a diagnosis: a restless spirit from the afterlife - known as a moroi - was possessing the woman, crushing her body and draining her lifeforce.
“When people die, they can transform into a moroi,” says Mitrica. “We realized that Toma Petre had turned into a moroi, had attacked the young woman, and was sucking her blood. We had to do something or she would soon be dead.”
The men did not call the local Orthodox priest to perform an exorcism. “If the priest would have known, he would have had to tell the authorities and get a permit,” says Mitrica. The shepherd believes that this includes an approval from the church and the local Government for such a ritual. “But by the time the permit arrived the woman could have been dead. Or maybe the priest would have said no, or the city hall and the police would have said no.”
Mitrica believed only he knew the correct treatment.
“I said: ‘let’s go to the cemetery”. We went at midnight. I wasn’t afraid. My heart is strong. I go at any hour of the night in the cemetery and I am not afraid.” He pauses, and speaks with more force. “I am not afraid.”
The Tea of the Human Heart
On a plain at the edge of the village, the cemetery was surrounded by concrete walls, sections of which were loose or broken. It was easy to break inside at night. The plots of stone and concrete tombs were lined close to each other, many without names, alongside wooden crosses, waiting for a headstone when the family had enough money to commemorate their dead relatives.
“We dug up Petre Toma,” he says. “His body had changed colour. His face was red, and his beard had started to grow. At the corner of his mouth was fresh blood. I cut into the chest with a pitchfork, and opened the ribcage. Inside his body was a pool of blood. As we pulled out the heart, it was still beating. That’s when we knew he was a moroi.”
Mitrica put the heart in a plastic bag, and says he laid the body in the coffin, and covered the remains with earth. But some villagers who we speak to claim that Mitrica and his gang did not put back the corpse with care, and left the remains in a filthy state.
A local ritual dictated that the men should take the heart to a crossroads. This is a place where the worlds of the living and dead meet or clash. Here they wanted to break the Moroi’s curse on the woman. At a junction of two roads, the men arranged a bonfire, lit the branches, and as it burned, Mitrica held up the heart on the pitchfork, and singed the tissue of the organ.
Returning to the village, they built a second fire in the court of the young woman’s house.
“We cooked the heart, burnt it into ashes, boiled some water, made a tea out of the ashes, and gave it to the sick woman to drink.”
Each of the six men then returned home to their houses and their wives.
The next day the young victim of the sickness arrived at Mitrica’s house. She could walk, and could talk freely, and told him to come to her place to eat, drink and celebrate her sudden recovery.
“She was healthy again,” says Mitrica.
But the police discovered what happened during the night. They found the body, examined the remains, saw the ribcage was broken and the heart had been stolen.
Mitrica was afraid, so ran away to the woods to hide in his sheepfold.
“It was a good deed - we saved a life”
But the cops caught up with Mitrica. The six men who desecrated the grave and butchered the corpse were condemned to six months in jail, but this was a suspended sentence. None of them spent time in prison. Instead they had to pay a total of 900 Euro in damages to the family of the dead man and the village.
“It was a good deed,” says Mitrica. “We saved a life. Toma Petre would have eaten the woman. She came back to life after she drank tea made from the heart of the moroi.”
In the village of Marotinu de Sus, residents claim that between the 1970s and 1990s, they often feared that when a villager died, a Moroi was possessing the living. It was common to dig up the bodies of the dead and cut out their organs to save a life. But since 2004, there has been no public case.
“There is a new ritual here,” Mitrica says, “to take a knitting needle and stick it through a dead man’s heart to make sure he will not turn into a moroi. You must pierce the heart to block it from continuing to live. Another ritual is to put a piece of iron under the tongue of the dead man, and you must say the words to the corpse: ‘Only after you finish eating this iron, can you then eat me!’”
The Vacant Country
Driving is easy in rural Dolj. The roads are clean and straight and on an early November afternoon, there is no traffic. The villages are full of one-level houses from the first half of the century with classical motifs of columns, pediments and cornices - a miniature pastiche of an aristocratic mansion. But their paint is peeling, the concrete fences are crumbling, and on some buildings the roof has fallen in, and the place is abandoned. As we pass through one village, nobody is walking the streets, except an old woman in a black headscarf limping at the edge of the road, talking to herself.
Moving through a larger town, we see two large women in their fifties, both wearing bathrobes, and waving at every car, asking to hitch a ride. There is one shop in a new two-floor building of naked concrete, with a single door and no sign. Outside a teenage girl is sitting bareback on a horse, her head bowed as she checks her telephone.
In a small valley, we drive into the town of Bulzesti, known as a village of stories. Here there is a legend that 200 years ago, a part of the village called Gura Racului was possessed by the spirits of a demon, known as a strigoi. To escape the curse, the residents dismantled all their houses, and moved them to another part of the hill.
Myths are sketchy in Romania, and monsters have multiple names and overlapping qualities. To many, the strigoi are the undead who walk at night, bringing together the spirits of the zombie and the vampire. Meanwhile the moroi are creatures who stay stationary in the coffins after death, but infect the living with their spirit. Some folk literature states the moroi died in tragic circumstances, such as children who were never baptised, suffocated in their swaddling clothes, or drowned in a pig’s trough. These dead children haunt their parents by sitting on their chest at night, and stopping them from breathing.
But there is no agreement on what actually is a moroi or a strigoi, because Romania is a large country with a strong oral culture, where there has been little communication between its extremities, its neighbouring counties, or even villages on the same stretch of road.
“Mythologies and rituals are different from one village to the next”
Bogdan Halic is a doctor of history and specialist in the medieval age at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) in Bucharest. The 54 year-old lecturer speaks candidly about the problems of detecting the provenance of myths in Romania.
Holding up his thumb and forefinger, he describes a space of barely two centimetres.
“ Between the 13th and 16th Centuries,” he says, looking at his hand, “this is the amount of volumes of history produced on Romania.”
No one knows from where and when such myths appeared because no one was there to write this down. Only at the end of the 19th century did interest in folklore emerge, but this was discouraged during 43 years of Communism, and only restarted in the 1990s.
“Mythologies and rituals are different from one village to the next,” says Halic. “The strigoi were mentioned in the 15th Century, so have existed ever since the late medieval period. People can be born with a predisposition to become undead and thus [villagers] take precautions: they are buried in a special way, such as with branches over the body so they cannot escape or, in extreme cases, the stabbing of the heart or the pulling out of the heart.”
The Village that Moved
Gura Racului has no road sign. But the location appears on Google Maps. On our phones, the app's blue dot flashes below its place name. This is a street of detached farmhouses. Only one resident is here - a man in his sixties in a flat cap and walking stick. We ask him if this is Gura Racului, and he tells us this is Bulzesti, and Gura Racului is in a different place, a strip of 15 houses two kilometres away, and set against the side of a hill.
The ghost village has tricked Google.
In front of the row of houses is an orchard of apple trees, their branches damp from the dew of the mist. Cows move between the trees. Behind them lies a dried-out canal and a bridge, where a man in his seventies is sitting on a stool in brown slacks and a loose jacket, overseeing the herd. His name is Marin, and he smiles with a gold molar on the right side of his mouth.
We ask Marin: “Is this village Gura Racului?”
“Yes,” he says, “but actually this village is known by the name of Natarai.”
Natarai is not a normal name for a village.
But neither is Gura Racului, as you can see below, where we translate these two place names into English.
We ask Marin: “Is this village the Mouth of the Crab?”
“Yes,” he says, “but actually it is known by the name: the Village of the Imbeciles.”
“Do you believe in moroi?” we ask the cowherd.
“I believe in nothing.”
But Marin goes on to elaborate how the myth of the moroi manifests itself in the Village of the Imbeciles.
The most important asset to anyone in the village is land. Neighbours argue over the border of where one strip of farmland ends and the other begins. When they do not get their way, the neighbours curse each other. If this still does not resolve the dispute, they go to court. But here truth is relative to an individual’s needs. Not all deeds are written down. Not all plots are accurately mapped out. Therefore, in front of a magistrate, plaintiffs will often lie.
A farmer loses his rightful claim to another who gave false testimony in court. If the honest farmer dies, his mendacious rival will become possessed by the spirit of the dead man he wronged.
Therefore the legend of the moroi has today become a curse that haunts the living - if they lie before a judge.
The solution to resolving the problem is similar to the techniques used in the community in Marotinu de Sus, 60 kilometres away.
“The villagers would dig up the bodies of the newly dead, take out the liver and the heart, grill them and give them to the people who were sick,” says Marin. “Then they burnt the body of the dead man.”
We ask the cowherd whether he knows about the moroi... or the strigoi... of Gura Racului, and whether the town was moved because of a haunting. He says this is not true, as the people from a nearby village of Dobretu wanted more land for their children’s houses, so they built on the plot which became Gura Racului.
But when we ask for more proof of what he says, he adds: “Not much is known. There are no more elders who know.”
“We gathered the crosses together - and made a bonfire”
We try and find someone even older than Marin. Outside a smallholding of goats and chickens we discover eighty year-old Golica Papusa, who has no front teeth, and lives alone with his animals.
Golica never stabbed a corpse in the heart, but he says that moroi-killing in the village was not just a tradition, but a business.
“I knew a man who was cutting up dead people,” says Golica. “He was three or four years older than me. So he was telling me that he was digging up the bodies and cutting and sticking a stake in their hearts - and he was getting money for that.”
Bulzesti is a hive of fiction. The 20th century Romanian poet Marin Sorescu was born here, and the villagers are proud of his legacy. There are stories that residents never go out at night, for fear of meeting the moroi. Sorescu writes in his poem ‘Dumneata’ (You), how the houses in Bulzesti are built far apart, so that at night the moroi have space to wander up and down the hill without disturbing the villagers. Golica says this is not a myth. It is true, but also, it is not true.
So he spins out a story where he was in a church on the other side of the hill, in the next village, with a priest from the neighbouring county of Valcea. The sun was going down. They were sitting on the church porch.
But they were afraid of what would happen when the night came.
“We gathered all the old wooden crosses together,” he claims, “and we made a bonfire with them - and then there were no moroi to eat us.”
Sorescu’s poem follows a character, Grigore, who encounters a sick and putrid-smelling figure who addresses him with the polite form of ‘You’ (‘Dumneata’ in Romanian, the equivalent of ‘Vous’ in French), who he believes to be a moroi. Another villager, Coza, tells him the moroi of Buzesti are high-strung and impulsive, and terrifies Grigore by stating: “When the moroi are angry with someone, they frighten them so much, that the victim’s body goes as limp as a rag used to clean a lamp.”
At the poem’s end, it becomes clear that Coza is mocking Grigore. He just wants to see how easy the man is to fool. Grigore’s gullibility means the local peasants end up giving him the nickname of ‘The Softy’.
So we drive out of the Village of the Imbeciles. Night begins to fall as we take a road over a hill back towards the highway. In front, we catch a shape moving, two shapes, hurtling across the road, and we stop the car suddenly. The vehicle brakes, we shudder and almost hit our heads on the dashboard. Two young deer nimble across the asphalt and leap into a small forest, and we sigh, almost breathless.
No signs or lamps are here to help us find our way back. Our route is only illuminated by headlights, which expose the sides of the roads, overgrown with weeds, and scattered with plastic and paper trash.
Additional reporting by Nicoleta Banila.