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Four Real-Life Illnesses that Inspired the Vampire Mythos



Vampires have been a mainstay of paranormal fiction and TV for generations, from Dracula to Twilight to The Vampire Diaries. We all know and (mostly) love them. Who wouldn’t want a sexy bad boy feasting on their blood?


The origins of vampires aren’t exactly shrouded in mystery—unless you count the fact that there are so many “origin stories” that things have become a bit confused. Bram Stoker borrowed a real-life person (Vlad the Impaler) as the inspiration for his story, and since then we’ve seen any number of different variations on vampires. But is it any wonder that there’s a lot of confusion (do vampires burn in sunlight? Or do they glitter?) when they appear in the folklore of every country and language under the sun, and people used to believe they really existed?


That’s right, there is real-life evidence that people believed in vampires. How do we know this? Because they used to exhume corpses that were suspected of vampirism and deface them: cut off limbs, stake them, or otherwise take measures to prevent them from rising from the grave.

But where did this very real fear of vampires actually come from? Would it surprise you to find out that it may have had its roots in medical diseases? Probably not—these days everyone’s probably heard of porphyria, which had symptoms remarkably similar to the modern conception of vampirism. But in fact, porphyria is not alone in inspiring the vampire mythos. Here are four illnesses that contributed to rising paranoia about vampires in the eighteenth century.


Vampirism: Symptoms and Signs


But first, what is a vampire?


Developed a sudden allergy to sunlight? Hate the smell of garlic? Feel a sudden, burning desire to chow down on someone’s neck? You may be a vampire. Here’s a handy checklist of symptoms to look out for:



Disclaimer: This is by far not an exhaustive list. Consult your doctor if concerns persist.


Got any of these? Probably nothing to worry about. Here are four other illnesses that explain these symptoms.


1. Porphyria


Porphyria is an illness affecting the production of heme, a part of the haemoglobin in our blood. Although today severe cases are fairly rare, and treatable (albeit not curable), at the height of the vampire hysteria in Europe it may have been particularly common in rural areas with limited gene pools. The symptoms include skin blistering when exposed to sunlight, gums receding (which would have made teeth appear more prominent and fang-like), and urine turning reddish-brown (the same colour as blood). Interestingly, one of the prescribed treatments was drinking animal blood to replenish their own.


2. Rabies


Rabies is a disease which has been linked both to the vampire and the werewolf mythos. Although there is now a vaccination, it used to be fairly common in Europe. Conferred by bite or blood-to-blood contact from animals to humans, it caused symptoms such as aversion to light, aggressive/delusional behaviour, and biting. Many early tales about vampires, particularly in Slavic folklore, refer to them as having beastlike behaviour, rushing at their victims, and biting them. Interestingly, there was also a major outbreak of rabies in eastern Europe around the time that the vampire was gaining traction in folklore.


3. The Plague


Even with modern medical understand, pandemics are scary things. In the past, with limited knowledge of the spread and treatment of diseases, they were even more terrifying. It’s not surprising, therefore, that vampire scares often coincided with waves of the Plague, which spread around Europe in the 1300s and 1400s. Humans contracted it from rats, and would develop symptoms such as fevers, chills, and weakness. Although it extremely rare today, the disease is still fatal if left untreated.


Suffers of the plague would often develop lesions around the mouth or emit a black purge fluid from their mouths after death. This led to the belief that they were drinking blood to keep themselves alive. Archaeologists have uncovered bodies amongst plague victims who had been buried with bricks in their mouths. This is thought to have been a method of preventing them from climbing out of their graves to drink the blood of the living.


4. Tuberculosis


Tuberculosis (also known as consumption or TB) is a virus which destroys the tissue of the lungs. Although there is a vaccine, and it can be treated with modern antibiotics, the illness is fatal if untreated. It could be transmitted from person to person by air and spread particularly in poorer communities in the 19th century.


Tuberculosis suffers exhibited symptoms such as physical weakness, coughing up blood, and fevers. If one person in a household became sick, they would often infect the other family members. Because people at the time didn’t understand how diseases spread, it wasn’t a leap of logic to believe that a recently deceased relative was draining the life out of their family members, like a vampire would. The most famous case of this belief was Mercy Brown, in New England, USA… But that’s a story for another day!



Evidence of belief in vampires in Slavic folklore dates back to the 9th century, with notable periods of vampire hysteria over the centuries following that. These periods are often linked to the spread of highly infectious diseases. The vampire has been used as a symbol for all sorts of things over the centuries, often representing the unknown or the foreign, but it may well have found its origin as an early attempt to understand what we now explain through science and medicine.


Sources:

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161031-the-real-life-disease-that-spread-the-vampire-myth

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/primate-diaries/a-natural-history-of-vampires/

Sledzik and Bellantoni: Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the NewEngland Vampire Folk Belief (http://www.yorku.ca/kdenning/+++2150%202007-8/sledzik%20vampire.pdf)

https://www.visiblebody.com/blog/3-real-diseases-that-influenced-vampire-folklore

https://news.virginia.edu/content/how-spread-disease-juiced-lore-vampires-pandemic-proportions

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/vampires-europe-new-england-halloween-history

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© 2022 Margot de Klerk.

Art commissioned from hushpuppyillu