Vampires are a very prevalent monster in almost all areas of fiction. Whether its folklore, literature, video games, comics, movies, and television, vampires or vampire-like beings have been consistently present and their popularity only seems to grow every year. Even in 2017 shows like ‘Preacher,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ and ‘The Strain’ that heavily rely on the vampire myth are going strong. In addition, at least one comic, video game, and film will focus on vampires or have vampires as an enemy per year.
This is not a coincidence or some weird conspiracy, in truth, the vampire mythos has fascinated humans probably since the very beginning and, like zombies, the folklore has been fueled by early humanity’s lack of understanding of scientific phenomenon.
While not necessarily the vampires we all know and love (or fear), ancient cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demonic creatures and spirits with many vampire-like traits. However, the modern vampire originates almost exclusively from the early-eighteenth-century in southeastern Europe. Vampires in those days were usually revenants of evil beings, suicide victims, or witches, but could be created by spirits possessing a corpse or by being bitten by a vampire.
They were usually undead, like zombies, but could also be living beings. Vampire hysteria was so prevalent that many loved ones performed crazy rituals to prevent a recently deceased family member from becoming one. These included burying a corpse upside-down, placing earthly objects like a scythes near the grave to satisfy any demons nearby or the corpse itself, severing the tendons at the knees or placing poppy seeds, millet, or sand on the ground at the grave site because it was believed that vampires would be occupied all night by counting the fallen grains.
In addition, there were many rituals to identify vampires that were just as strange as the preventative rituals. These included leading a virgin boy through a graveyard or church grounds on a virgin stallion. The horse would supposedly balk at the grave in question if it contained a vampire. Corpses identified as vampires were described as looking healthier than expected, plump or bloated with little to no signs of decomposition.
Sometimes the corpses were even described as having fresh blood from a “victim” all over its face. The hysteria about vampires eventually got so bad that mass executions occurred to suspected vampires and its not uncommon to find many graves with decapitated corpses or metal pieces or wooden stakes in them at the time when the hysteria was at its greatest.
However, like many creatures, the vampire originates from scientific misunderstandings. Many symptoms of vampirism in corpses actually resemble human decomposition. Decomposition is a natural process, but is also a strange one, especially for those who do not understand science too well (like pre-industrial civilizations). The idea of vampirism was probably the best explanation for these people to explain decomposition. For example, bodies were identified as vampires because they lacked decomposition or were bloated. Decomposition rates vary depending on temperature and soil composition which can cause slower decomposition in the right circumstances.
Also corpses bloat from the gases created during decomposition explaining why a body might look well-fed. This bloating often causes blood to ooze from the nose and mouth which often made people think the “vampire” had just eaten. Bloating can also cause the body to groan or fart after death because of gas build up which many thought was a sign of life. Finally, the skin and gums contract making it seem like the hair, nails, and teeth continued to grow. It is likely that all vampires were just naturally decaying bodies that people mistook for evil beings.
However, it is possible that disease plays a part in the vampiric myths. People who may not have understood how disease works might have seen a small cluster of deaths as a vampire attack instead of a disease outbreak in a close group of people. In fact, tuberculosis outbreaks are known to occur in places where historians described an onset of vampire attacks.
In 1985, David Dolphin suggested that the rare blood disorder porphyria might have also contributed to the myth because the condition makes individuals sensitive to sunlight and it is treated by intravenous heme. He thought that that the consumption of large amounts of blood in pre-industrial sufferers may replace heme and alleviate their symptoms. This theory is interesting but has been debunked by modern science because consuming blood would not alleviate symptoms of porphyria. However, there is another theory that rabies contributed to the vampiric legend.
The susceptibility to garlic and light could be due to hypersensitivity, a common symptom of rabies. Rabies can affect portions of the brain that could disturb normal sleep patterns and cause hyper-sexuality. In addition, an old way to detect rabies was to make someone look into a mirror and if they could, they were not rabid which might possibly be an allusion to the legend that vampires have no reflection. Wolves and bats, which are common in vampiric lore, can be carriers of rabies. Also the disease can cause aggression and sufferers to bite others and bloody frothing at the mouth.
Surprisingly though, vampires are real. Well kind of real, but not in the way we expect. Vampire bats are real creatures. These little bats actually do consume blood as their primary food source. There are three species of vampire bats in total and they all live in Latin America. Ironically, because of this they had no real impact on vampiric lore. These bats are still pretty cool though as they use infrared radiation to locate the best spots on their victims bodies to drink from, and are one of the few bats to not only fly, but run, jump, and walk, and their saliva has anticoagulant properties which are being studied to help save stroke victims.
Whether you love, hate, or fear them vampires are definitely here to stay. Their mythology might only exist because of scientific misunderstandings, but now they are a cultural phenomena. They may not have much of an impact on science, but they inspire people to create new stories and further evolve the legend and I can not wait to see them.