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Medical Origins of Vampire Folklore and Mass Hysteria: A Historical Case for Scientific Literacy

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Image from Niranjan Photographs on Unsplash (2021)

Despite the well-known symbolism of blood as a symbol of life and its use in life-preserving medical procedures, there remains a pervasive connection between blood and fear in Western culture. One of the most salient examples of this cultural association is, of course, the vampire. The mythology of what we call today a “vampire” is rather ancient and diverse. It has been suggested that some of the oldest accounts of a vampire-like creature in Western culture come from Ancient Greece. However, the best accepted origins of the vampire come from Eastern Europe in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although the details of different culture’s concepts of vampires differ greatly, here is an account from a French periodical, the Mercure galant (1693) that does well to sum up the vampire of the era:

“They appear from midday to midnight and come to suck the blood of living people and animals in such great abundance that sometimes it comes out of their mouths, their noses, and especially, their ears, and that sometimes the body swims in its blood which has spilled out into its coffin [...] This revenant or vampire, [...], comes out of his tomb and goes about at night violently embracing and seizing his friends and relatives and sucking their blood until they are weakened and exhausted, and finally causes their death.”

As with much of folklore, recurring anthropological themes often serve as underlying reasons for their invention. For vampires, these origins seem to revolve around unexplained patterns of illness and death. As a result, vampire mythology and its origins reveal a much broader relationship between folklore, scientific misunderstanding and the causes of culture-wide fear, and represents a human tendency to speculate in the absence of scientific knowledge which persists in the modern era.

First, vampire mythology resulted partially from a lack of public knowledge about death and decomposition. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Eastern Europe crawled with suspicions of vampirism. Series of unexplained deaths coinciding with the “inciting” death of a community member caused Slavic communities to invoke long-held beliefs about vampires that had persisted since the 9th century. Take, for example, the story of Arnold Paole of Belgrade. Shortly after Paole’s passing sometime in the 1720s, locals reported strange deaths, citing “vampirism” as the cause. As was the custom amid fears of vampires, they exhumed Paole’s body 40 days after his burial and found “that he was complete and incorrupt, also that completely fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, ears, and nose.” In Kisiljevo, Serbia, during another vampire scare of the 1720s, villagers reported to a local health and safety official that a dead man named Petar Blagojević had risen from his grave and physically attacked ten people. Again, upon examination, the official found fresh blood around the mouth and no evidence of decay. People were convinced by such consistent and extraordinary descriptions. However, most of these conditions can be explained with a modern understanding of forensic science that was unavailable at the time. For example, it is now known that bodies may take an incredibly long time to decay. In fact, in Eastern European winters, temperatures in the ground easily exceed the temperature of a typical cellar, and is likely to keep a body fresh for weeks. Bloating, which was used as evidence of the “vampire” being full of fresh blood from its victims, is also very common due to the gases that escape from decaying internal organs. Blood on the lips and nose is also common due to the bloating and rupturing of the highly-vascularized lungs. This rupturing can cause blood to be expelled from oral and nasal cavities. The list of vampire indicators and coincidences that can be explained with modern forensic science goes on and on. Ultimately, it is clear that a lack of knowledge of the biological processes surrounding death profoundly contributed to the spread of vampire folklore in influential settings like Eastern Europe.

Another explanation for the spread of the vampire myth relies on the historic paucity of accepted knowledge about epidemics and vectors for disease. One of the prevailing 18th-century myths about death was that proximity to decaying bodies could cause disease. Up until the end of the 19th-century, contemporary thought held that disease was caused by unpleasant odours and mysterious spiritual forces. It wasn’t until Robert Koch established that certain bacteria were responsible for causing specific diseases in the 1880s that people had any accurate knowledge of how disease spread. This caused ever-increasing dread as epidemics continued to sweep through communities all across Europe and its colonies due to rising populations in crowded urban centres and booming global trade facilitating the spread of pathogens. These shifts and their resulting catastrophic epidemic required the implementation of large mass graves caused overflow in existing graveyards. Victims of such epidemics were often buried in fabric as opposed to a coffin in graves only about two feet deep to allow them to be piled atop existing bodies in churchyards. These factors compounded, generating a palpable fear and confusion surrounding death and disease. While misunderstandings of forensic science certainly played a large role in perpetuating vampire hysteria, contagious disease was likely at the root of most of the “unexplained deaths” attributed to vampirism in the absence of knowledge about pathogens. Most famously, the 18th-century New England vampire panic is a direct result of the ongoing tuberculosis epidemics which were responsible for nearly 25% of deaths in the Eastern United States in the 19th century. It is well documented that rural communities of New England were desperate to avoid the fate associated with a tuberculosis diagnosis - or “consumption” as it was called (rather fittingly). We now know that tuberculosis is a contagious disease, and if one family member were to fall ill and die, the other family members were likely soon to follow. However, the prevailing belief in contemporary New England was that deceased tuberculosis victims would rise from the dead to drain the blood and life force of surviving family members. Tuberculosis served as an especially compelling “vampire disease,” as victims were described as “thin, languid, bloodless” - just what one would expect if a hungry vampire were to blame. New Englanders drew upon superstitions originating in European folklore, and modern investigations reveal that hundreds of corpses were exhumed and violently disfigured in an attempt to deter the vampiric curse upon families. One famous example is that of 19-year-old Mercy Brown. After she died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892, both her mother and sister quickly passed, and her brother fell ill. The townspeople convinced Mercy’s father that this must be the work of a familial vampire. They exhumed the bodies of Mercy, her mother, and her sister. While her relatives appeared justifiably decomposed, Mercy’s body appeared eerily fresh. Mercy was assumed to be a vampire. Her heart and liver were removed and burned, and her sick brother consumed the ashes. Unsurprisingly, her brother died nonetheless. Clearly, an understanding of germ theory and proper preventative measures against contagious disease would have offered these communities a significantly better chance of survival and alleviated the hysteria about vampires. Once again, lack of medical knowledge directly translated to unsettling and unfortunate superstitions and an ensuing panic.

Finally, it has been suggested that real diseases have been responsible for certain aspects of vampire folklore. One such disease is porphyria. Generally, porphyria is a disease which obstructs one of the eight steps of heme synthesis. The type of porphyria with possible relevance to vampire folklore, also happens to be the rarest.16 It is known as congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP). Although only 220 cases have ever been reported, this disease has become closely associated with vampirism through a series of misunderstandings and speculation. The best-known account of the vampire-porphyria association was popularized by Dr. David Dolphin, a chemist specializing in porphyria from the University of British Columbia. In 1984, Dr. Dolphin addressed the Royal Society, claiming that symptoms of porphyria (namely protruding teeth, sensitivity to sunlight, occasional disfigurement, and purported “thirst for blood”) could have been responsible for the generation of vampire folklore. His implication was that societies, without advanced medical knowledge to provide explanation, would interpret symptoms of porphyria as proof for the existence of vampires and to elaborate on vampire folklore. Dolphin’s thesis gained mainstream media attention, and he was even invited to elaborate on the 1984 Halloween special of “The Today Show.” He addressed his hypothesis again on numerous occasions. However, Dolphin’s claims are dubious for several reasons. First, although vampires of the 18th century were thought to be creatures of the night, there were several accounts of them roaming during daylight hours. Indications that vampires were harmed by sunlight, as sufferers of CEP would be, did not appear in the original mythology. Second, with only 220 known cases, it is incredibly unlikely that enough people witnessed the symptoms of vampirism to an extent that these observations would have permeated folklore. Finally, drinking blood would not have been helpful for those with CEP, and they would not crave it, as the therapeutic components would not have been absorbed with oral ingestion. Altogether, the association between the porphyrias and vampirism is incredibly weak, and mainly fueled by public frenzy about the possibility of “real” vampires and a lack of critical thinking. Additionally, this theory ignores the potential harms caused by such an association. One account writes: “These stories and the television programs that followed had the effect of creating a morbid interest in a disease and ridicule for those who suffer from it. As a result, the American Porphyria Foundation in Montgomery, Alabama, was deluged with telephone calls and letters from concerned patients and their relatives.” Although this example differs from the other two, it still holds a powerful message about the importance of scientific accuracy and critical thinking in our accounts of unexplained phenomena. While misunderstandings of diseases and their symptoms may have played a role in forming a patchwork of ideas about vampires throughout history, this lack of scientific rigor and its consequences contains echoes of the correlation between knowledge gaps and mass hysteria.

Although modern society is graced with an advanced understanding of death and contagion, we are not immune to the confusing and alarming consequences of misinformation. This is helpfully exemplified by this passage on “,” an active website that states its main purpose as helping people “figure out if you are a real vampire or not”:

"According to Yale university, [...] The release of hormones is believed to activate the endogenous retrovirus system. Meaning it really is not a stretch to say that introducing one or more new endogenous retroviruses to a human will cause them to become a vampire, in effect giving the vampire some definite new advantages."

I don’t feel I need to expend energy debunking this leap of logic. Inaccurate or incomplete interpretations of scientific information are not always so far-fetched, but nonetheless concerning. For example, only 42% of Canada’s population has been found to “demonstrate a basic level of scientific literacy.” The worst part is that this figure was the highest out of 35 countries surveyed. The consequences of this kind of inability to grasp basic scientific concepts are many, but can be reflected in widespread resistance towards valuable topics such as climate change, artificial intelligence, genetic modification, and vaccines.

In conclusion, scientific literacy enables societies to move away from fear-driven approaches and towards informed, inclusive, democratic approaches to science. Echoes of fear and confusion from the past should not guide our reactions to the unknown. Even if medical misinformation has historically resulted in haunting folklore, there are enough real challenges for science to tackle without fabricating new monsters.


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