Are Vampires "Real?"
Vampire myths date back thousands of years and originate from many different regions, from Asia to Eastern Europe, and reach as far back as ancient Babylonia and Greece (1). They are demons, the undead, living off of the blood and flesh of other beings (most prominently humans). They can take the form of many beasts, most memorably the bat. Vampires are characteristically pale, burned by sunlight and deterred with holy water, with prominent teeth and a penchant for seducing their victims. The only way to become a vampire is to be bitten by one. They sleep in coffins and only come out during the night. But what is the origin of this myth, of vampires? Is their origin rooted in biology? Are vampires “real?”
The rare and unusual disease, porphyria, may have been the beginning of vampires (1). Porphyria is a metabolic disorder that causes a malfunction in the production of heme, an iron-rich pigment essential in transporting oxygen in the blood. Symptoms from this disease include hypersensitivity to light, resulting in burning or blistering, psychiatric symptoms (like hallucinations), and seizures (3). People with more severe forms of porphyria suffer from extreme abdominal pain and acute delirium, and, due to irregularities in heme pigment, can have reddish mouths and teeth (1). Porphyria can also cause tissue damage and could make people’s teeth appear larger and more prominent due to gum tissue recession (5).
Traditional treatments for anemias like porphyria involved the consumption of animal blood. As a hereditary disease, porphyria would appear in families, small Transylvanian villages (where inbreeding probably occurred), and groups including the eastern European aristocracy (where more inbreeding definitely occurred; you’ve got to keep the blood line pure, after all) (4).
It is not difficult to draw connections between sufferers of porphyria and the vampire myth, ranging from hypersensitivity to sunlight, to pointy-looking teeth, to acute delirium and other hallucinations. It probably didn’t help that they were told to drink animal blood, either.
Another disease often attributed to inspiring vampire legends is rabies. Rabies is caused by a virus transmitted through wildlife, through an infected animal’s saliva, most commonly bats, skunks, raccoons, and other medium-sized mammals (2).
Since bats are commonly associated with vampires, (a second form), it could be inferred that people who contracted rabies from bats were thought to have been bitten by a vampire.
Rabies causes excessive saliva and foaming of the mouth and uncontrollable, painful throat spasms. The sufferer suffers from overwhelming thirst but cannot drink; they experience restlessness, agitation, paranoia, insomnia, hallucinations, and seizures. Eventually, if untreated, a person with rabies will enter a coma and die (2). It is also common for a sufferer of rabies to experience a hypersensitivity to, well, almost anything: light, strong smells (like garlic), and noise.
So, after a person was bitten by a bat or another animal behaving unusually, (with no fear of humans), they would present with symptoms not unlike the vampire of legend— unable to quench their thirst, hypersensitive to light and strong smells, and unable to sleep (causing them to roam around at night). Now, throw in the fact that the rabies sufferer would probably be agitated and might act violently toward other people, maybe even trying to bite them. As a Transylvanian villager, what would you believe?
Catalepsy, a physical condition that often presented with epilepsy, schizophrenia, and other disorders that affect the central nervous system, could also be attributed to inspiring vampire legend. During a cataleptic episode, a person “freezes up;” their muscles become rigid, heart rate and respiration slow down… they could very easily be mistaken for a corpse (1).
So imagine yourself a mourning relative, thinking your family member dead… when you find them clawing their way out of their casket, seemingly one of the “living dead.” What would you do?
Break out the garlic and holy water, that’s what.
Unexplained behaviors caused by unexplained diseases and disorders could have easily been the origin of vampire legend. It was their biology, not their damned soul or “uncontrollable thirst for blood” that made them vampires. Porphyria, rabies, and catalepsy, among other neurological and physical disorders, could have led people to believe that they were dealing with something, or someone, unnatural. It’s not that the cases weren’t real –according to this evidence, to these different diseases, they were—it’s that the so-called “vampires” were little more than people with unfortunate metabolic disorders, those who encountered a rabid skunk, or cataleptic schizophrenics.
“There are mysteries which men can only guess at,” wrote Bram Stoker, “which age by age they may solve only in part” (6). We cannot say for certain if these diseases were the cause, but through a summary of observations we can at least hope to decipher some of the mystery the creator of Count Dracula alludes to.