An Eternal Search For a “Cure”: How Real-World Diseases May Have Led to the Modern Vampire

By Anastasiia Gryshyna and Ayushe Sharma

Vampires have been a source of fascination for centuries. Whether portrayed as bloodthirsty killers, immortality-seeking psychopaths, or misunderstood romantics, these creatures of the night have been immortalized through folklore, mythology and popular films and books. While stories may differ on some aspects, such as sun sensitivity or methods of destroying vampires, some of the common characteristics of many vampires are dietary preference (blood being the mainstay), pale skin, and often manic behavior. Could the traits commonly attributed to modern vampires be inspired by real-life diseases? This article looks at three diseases that may have played a role in the development of modern vampire folklore and examines how they could possibly be used to explain the enduring qualities of vampires in popular culture.

Rabies

In Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire and the CW show The Vampire Diaries, vampires become agitated, hyper-aggressive, and bloodthirsty immediately after transforming from human to vampire. They feel compelled to bite and suck the blood of a living human to complete their “turn.” These behaviors can be caused by rabies, which also may explain the “vampirism” reports throughout history (Gomez-Alonso, 1998). For example, there were multiple cases of humans claiming to have been attacked by vampires in Eastern Europe from 1693 to 1735—which is around the same time several rabies epidemics occurred (Baer, 2007; Gomez-Alonso, 1998). Surprisingly, the first documented comparison between rabies and vampirism was published in the Le Glaneur Historique on April 23, 1733 (Gomez-Alonso, 1998). In this issue, an anonymous physician first described vampirism as “a contagious illness more or less of the same nature as that which comes from the bite of a rabid dog” (Gomez-Alonso, 1998).

The rabies virus is usually transmitted through saliva, typically through the bite of an infected animal (usually a dog; Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). Rabies can be spread through bat bites, which may explain why so many vampire stories involve vampire-to-bat metamorphosis (Gomez-Alonso, 1998; Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). The way rabies is transmitted may be how the idea of vampires turning their victims into other vampires came about. The virus then spreads along the peripheral nerves and muscle fibers to the brain and spinal cord, also known as the central nervous system (Hankins & Rosekrans, 2004; Tian et al., 2019). Symptoms of rabies can include fever, headache, confusion, muscle weakness, and paralysis (Hankins & Rosekrans, 2004). In the later stages of the disease, patients may experience hallucinations, agitation, and even seizures (Hankins & Rosekrans, 2004). It is possible that the symptoms of rabies have been misinterpreted or exaggerated over time, leading to the legend of vampires. Rabies is fatal in almost all cases, if left untreated.

(Vampire) abilities parallel the increased state of arousal caused by rabies.

Vampires in popular media (from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Blade to the Vampires Diaries television series) are often depicted as having superhuman strength and speed, as well as heightened senses. These abilities parallel the increased state of arousal caused by rabies (Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). In addition, rabies can cause paralysis, which could be represented in modern films and books by the fact that vampires cannot enter homes unless they are invited inside (Gomez-Alonso, 1998; Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). The rabies virus has been linked to hypersexuality, which is exemplified in characters from Anne Rice’s books and historical accounts of supposed “vampires” biting and sexually pursuing their victims (Gomez-Alonso, 1998; Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). These qualities are evident in a case report by Utpal Goswami and his colleagues (1984), which vividly describes a patient suffering from rabies:

“An unknown, middle-aged man . . . was seen as a ‘wandering lunatic’ on the road, wearing dirty clothes, talking in excess, dancing, singing and occasionally weeping. He made sexual advances and remarks to the ladies passing by. When he tried to assault a lady on the road, he was severely beaten up.”

The rabies virus can also cause extreme agitation and confusion that could easily be mistaken for supernatural activity (Gomez-Alonso, 1998; Hankins and Rosekrans, 2004). In addition to the extreme aggressiveness and biting behavior of rabid patients, frothing of the mouth and vomiting bloody bodily fluids may also why people believed that rabid patients were actually “vampires” who drank blood (Gomez-Alonso, 1998).

Two Rare Genetic Diseases That May Explain Vampires’ Sensitivity to Light

“This is the only sun that you will ever see again… a millennium of nights will be yours to see light as no mortal has ever seen it…”  –The vampire Lestat, Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”

The film Nosferatu (1922) introduced the idea of a vampire who shuns sunlight (photosensitivity) and is only active at night. This characteristic has been present in many other films and books about vampires (with notable exception being the Twilight series). For example, in the 1994 film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire, the child vampire Claudia literally crumbles to dust when imprisoned on top of a sun-drenched tower. Many diseases and modern medications cause photosensitivity, which forces sufferers to be nocturnal. Two such examples are porphyria and xeroderma pigmentosum.

Porphyria

The vampire myth is often linked to porphyria, a group of rare genetic disorders in which heme protein accumulates in organs and tissues (Puy et al., 2010; Thadani et al., 2000). Heme is a vital part of many proteins in the body, including hemoglobin. Red blood cells use hemoglobin to carry oxygen throughout the body. If too much heme builds up, it can damage organs and tissues. The severity of symptoms depends on which organs are affected. Examples of these manifestations include light sensitivity, abdominal pain, fatigue, purple or red patches on skin, and nausea (Puy et al., 2010; Thadani et al., 2000). Furthermore, porphyria is linked to emotional instability and anxiety disorders, and in severe cases, psychosis (Duque-Serrano et al., 2018). Although similarities between symptoms of porphyria and modern-day characteristics of vampires exist, medical experts and folklorists doubt whether it can account for the original emergence of the vampire myth (which had slightly different characteristics that are not easily explained by porphyria). Porphyria is also an exceedingly rare condition, further decreasing the likelihood that the many reported “vampires” were porphyria patients. We include porphyria here in the spirit of completeness (it has been invoked many times as a potential explanation for the vampire myth), but it is worth considering how drawing parallels between porphyria patients and murderous monsters may further stigmatize an already marginalized group of patients.

Some of the “vampires” reported in past centuries may have actually suffered from xeroderma pigmentosum.

Xeroderma Pigmentosum

While some aspects of vampire folklore may have been inspired by porphyria and rabies, these disorders certainly don’t explain everything. Although both cause photosensitivity, there are many medical conditions that can explain why someone might want to avoid sunlight. For example, some of the “vampires” reported in past centuries may have actually suffered from xeroderma pigmentosum (Lehmann et al., 2011). Xeroderma pigmentosum is a very rare genetic disorder that causes individuals to be highly sensitive to ultraviolet light, with even the slightest exposure quickly causing severe sunburns (Kraemer et al., 2022; Lehmann et al., 2011). Twenty to thirty percent of patients with xeroderma pigmentosum also suffer from neurodegeneration, which progressively destroys brain cells. This can cause deafness, impairments in movement and reflexes, as well difficulties with cognition and eyesight (Andrews et al., 1978; Bradford et al., 2011).

Conclusions

These are just a few of the diseases that could explain the qualities of a modern vampire. But, why did people in past centuries create stories about vampires? And were these tales based on patients suffering from real diseases? Stories of vampires were likely inspired by real diseases and epidemics from long ago, when people didn’t have the same medical knowledge as we do today. People attributed these patients’ symptoms to the supernatural rather than understanding them as actual physical ailments, which had the ultimate effect of equating their real-life suffering with fiction and superstition. In that way, vampire folklore could be an enduring relic of a time when lack of understanding led to the creation of tall tales that further isolated and marginalized those afflicted by serious, life-changing diseases.

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Written by Ayushe Sharma and Anastasiia Gryshyna
Illustrated by Kayla Lim
Edited by Shiri Spitz & Mariella Careaga

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References

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