Black Death victims were buried face down to stop them becoming zombies, a study suggests.
A burial sites uncovered across Europe showed bodies arranged this way in the 14th century.
The practice was believed to be a way of showing respect to God.
But researchers have discovered folk tales of the "nachzehrer" – a monster that gorged on corpses – were widespread at the time.
Prior to 1300, ghosts of the dead were considered a friendly presence.
But Matthias Toplak, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said: "There was a theory that someone would become a Nachshehr if they were the first to die in the community during a pandemic.
"This transformation into evil spirits takes place around the year 1300 or 1400.
"It stands to reason that people would blame supernatural spirits and take action to prevent the dead from returning."
People in Germany, Switzerland and Austria are thought to have believed the plague was a curse from God that turned them into zombies.
And that burying victims face down was a way of stopping the transformation as their spirits could not escape upwards back through the ground.
Face-down burials continued long after the bubonic plague killed one in three Europeans during the 14th century.
Academics at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland found examples dating as recently as the 17th century.
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