A (Longer) History of the Vampire
[This essay is the original version of the condensed post: "A Brief History of the Vampire" on Books, Health, and History.]
I was inspired to write this blog post after reading a BBC article titled “The Real-Life Diseases that Spread the Vampire Myth.” Published on October 31, 2016, it was timely for Halloween and made an appropriately-spooky morning read. But after I finished it, my librarian-brain was left wanting more — more context! More history! The gaps in my vampire-knowledge led to this post’s publication, the content of which still only grazes the surface of the veritable surfeit of vampire-related research out there. With that in mind, I invite the brave among you to read further. I hope it is as satisfying to read as it was to research.
“The phenomenon of the vampire is ancient, ubiquitous, and fascinating…” (Prins 74)
Most people associate vampires with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. However, the vampire has ancient and ubiquitous roots. Jungian analyst and professor Robert McCully reports that “the earliest known depiction of a vampire appears on a prehistoric Assyrian bowl and shows a man copulating with a vampire whose head as been severed from her body” (38). He continues, describing how the ancient vampire was often associated with the “destructive side of the feminine” and appeared in many cultures throughout the Near and Far East, even popping up in Mexico (50). Specifically, vampire-related phenomena appear within a group of Vajra deities in Tibetan Lamaism and within stories from the Indian Atharva Veda and the Baital-Pachisi (Tales of a Vampire) (McCully 38). In ancient China, vampires were called Ch’ing Shih, and in ancient Mexico, they were called Ciuateteo (“associated with women who had died in their first labor”) (McCully 38). Much later came the vampiric texts with which we in the West are familiar, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christobel (1797), Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1791), and John Keats’s Lamia (1819) (McCully 38). Finally, in 1897, comes Bram Stoker’s famed Dracula (McCully 38). Around the same time as Dracula came the Victorian appropriation of the vampire as a stand-in for class and sexual struggle. This was followed by Karl Marx’s and François-Marie Arouet’s (nom de plume Voltaire) similar co-option of the myth for socio-political reasons. All the while, the vampire was also being referenced throughout a rich psychiatric history of patients (mostly schizophrenics) with various blood fetishes.
Perhaps the easiest place to start a history of the vampire is with the differentiation between the folkloric vampire and the fictional vampire. Paul Barber warns that “if a typical vampire of folklore, not fiction, were to come to your house this Halloween, you might open the door to encounter a plump Slavic fellow with long fingernails and a stubby beard, his mouth and left eye open, his face ruddy and swollen”(2). Further, his “nose [would be] fallen in somewhat, the hair, beard, and nails [would be] grown, and new skin [would have] formed under the old” (a lovely phenomenon called ‘skin slippage’) (8-13). Other telltale signs of folkloric vamps are that people usually kill them with stakes (the act of which causes them to bleed and emanate ‘painful’ sounds); they like to attack cattle; and they can regenerate (Barber 19). There are even instances in which people reportedly took out the hearts of these vampires and boiled them in wine, so that they definitively could not rise again (Barber 25). Another unique trait of the folkloric vamp is that his/her weapon of choice is biting, rather than blood-sucking (Barber 32). According to the Kashubes (a Slavic people from Northern Poland), vampires bite “the area of the left breast” (Barber, 32). Similarly, “among the Russians, they leave a small wound in the area of the heart; and in Danzig (now Gdansk), they bit on the nipple . . . More rarely, [they bite] between the eyes”(Barber, 32).
The fictional vampire, on the other hand, is the creature with which we are all likely more familiar. According to the historical sources, these guys’ main behavioral attribute is that they are “power mad” and want “nothing less than to take over the world, with the aid of an army of subordinate vampires”(Barber, 83). These vamps are also quite exuberant. One source says that they need to take both their coffins and some dirt from their original burial places if they want to travel (Barber 83). A stark contrast between the two types of vampires is that the folkloric vampire can go about his business during the day and is quite sluggish (due to his swollen body), while the fictional vampire is nocturnal and easily flits about wherever he wants disguised as a bat (Barber 84-5).
This fictional vamp is the creature to which the real-life disease porphyria (the subject of the BBC article) can be linked. Porphyria is the umbrella term given to multiple specific diseases that involve “enzyme defects in the haem biosynthetic pathway,” which cause “excessive accumulation of either porphyrin precursors or formed porphyrins in the excreta or tissues relat[ed] to the location of the enzyme defect in the haem pathway” (Youngs, 1). Porphyrins are “light-activated chemicals that can be used to combat ills including tumors and diseases of the eye” (Lane). Coming from the Greek word πορφύρα (pronounced “por-FOO-ra”), meaning purple, porphyria sufferers usually have red- or purple-tinged urine. This discoloration is caused by an excess of porphyrins (McEwin 6). The rest of porphyria’s symptoms, however, are so similar to other diseases that the scientist Jan Waldenström gave it the epithet la petite simulatrice (Youngs 11). Diseases result in an excess secretion of porphyrins are: obstructive jaundice, infectious hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, alcoholic cirrhosis, haematochromatosis, haemolytic and pernicious anaemia, lead poisoning, aplastic anaemia, and pellagra (McEwin 6). It is also the disease many think plagued King George III (Youngs 11).
The specific type of porphyria most link to vampires is congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), otherwise known as Gunther’s Disease (McEwin 43). Roderick McEwin writes that “this extremely rare disease presents on first exposure to light . . . blistering [the] exposed skin,” and that the urine, teeth, and bones, all stained pink, fluoresce in ultraviolet light (McEwin 43). These symptoms would explain why we usually associate vampires with burning in the sun. In the magazine Scientific American, reporter Nick Lane describes CEP as one of the rarest forms of porphyria, having up to 18 documented unique mutations of “the gene encoding enzyme uroporphyrinogen III cosynthase” from different families. He goes onto describe how, at its worst, “CEP causes appalling photomutilations from the light-activated porphyrins, including loss of facial features and fingers, scarring of the cornea and blindness” and that “the condition may have been less rare in the past, especially in isolated pockets where inbreeding could occur such as the valleys of Transylvania—perhaps giving rise to the tales of vampires.” The disease is so rare, and its symptoms so devastating, that today Denmark has a national registry of all porphyria patients and their families (McEwin 2).
Regarding the blood-sucking behavior of typical (fictional) vampires, Lane writes that it is possible early scientists linked vampires to porphyria patients because the “heme pigment is robust enough to survive digestion, and is absorbed from the intestine (even though the protein parts of hemoglobin are broken down). This means that, in principle, it is possible to relieve the symptoms of porphyria by drinking blood.” Not all scholars buy this argument, however. Many, like Eric Maranda et al., now believe the link between the two to be scientifically unsubstantiated. In their article “Porphyria and Vampirism—A Myth, Sensationalized,” Maranda et al argue that there is no “scientific explanation for why people with porphyria would benefit from drinking blood” and that true porphyria patients suffer from scarring, which does not complement the world’s perception of (fictional) vampires (Maranda et al. 975). Falling somewhere in the middle of Lane and Maranda et al is Ann Cox who wrote the article “Porphyria and Vampirism: Another Myth in the Making.” In it, she quickly dismisses the idea that porphyria could be linked to the ruddy-complexioned folkloric vampire, but leaves some room for a possible connection to the fictional vampire. However, she is still doubtful. She tells us that porphyria sufferers would gain nothing by drinking blood, nor do they crave it because the enzyme haematin that is “necessary to relieve the symptoms is not absorbed intact on oral ingestion” (645).
As mentioned in the BBC article, another belief is that vampires arose from real people getting rabies. In “Rabies: A Possible Explanation for the Vampire Legend,” Juan Gómez-Alonso writes about how rabies sometimes presents in spasms and the emission of hoarse sounds that together make someone’s teeth clench and lips retract like those of an animal. The spasms are “generally triggered by some stimuli,” which include light (“photophobia”). Rabies might also explain vampires’ relationships to mirrors. Gómez-Alonso tells us that “a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror.”
Regarding the origins of the folkloric vamp, Barber puts forth a forensic and socio-political argument. In short, Barber thinks that the idea of the folkloric vampire arose from the exhumation of decomposing bodies. These bodies normally have a little blood at their mouths, they get bloated, they smell, and they bleed when cut (Barber 121). Socio-politically, he believes that these bodies were likely scapegoats for society’s fears: they were usually plague or murder victims whose bodies were buried in shallow graves, meaning that they decomposed faster (Barber 124-5). When these ‘vampires’ were exhumed for inspection (which happened when a corpse was accused of being a vampire) and were ‘killed’ with stakes, it would be normal for a decomposing body to lack rigor mortis and also to let out a painful sound, like the one mentioned previously. In reality, this sound is just the bloated body expelling methane (Barber 158).
Moving onto the psychiatric condition of ‘vampirism,’ we start losing the differentiation between the folkloric vampire and the fictional vampire and moving towards what the two share psychologically: a blood fetish. As a caveat to this section, I echo Philip Jaffé and Frank DiCataldo’s words from the abstract to their article on clinical vampirism:
It may be legitimately asked whether or not "clinical" vampires have much to do with the vampire of tradition. One could argue, for instance, that the label "vampire" is only a convenient metaphor for a form of mental pathology which includes the ingestion of blood. On the other hand, it might also be contended that whatever the underlying causes of the mental pathology might be, they could in fact be related to the underlying ultimate origins of the folkloristic vampire.
So, I will let you decide which came first in this eerie chicken-or-the-egg history, but, either way, the mental conditions associated with vampires make for a great read.
In terms of psycho-social developments over time, Richard Noll reminds us that “the drinking of blood—particularly human blood—is one of the oldest taboos of the Judeo-Christian tradition” and cites as evidentiary Deuteronomy 12:23 (how to dispose of sacrificial animals) and St. Matthew 26:26-29 (the ritual wherein believers drink Jesus’ blood, invoking “the powerful symbolism of blood as a life-force”) (3). Noll refers to clinical vampirism as a perfect example of “the excitement experienced by engaging in a forbidden act,” which “only reinforces the behavior and increases the likelihood that it will be repeated again and again” (17).
Classic examples of vampiric psychological conditions are autovampirism, zoophagia, and traditional, clinical vampirism. Autovampirism is usually developed in childhood by self-inducing scrapes and cuts from which the child sucks/licks blood (Noll 18). Later in life, this person figures out how to open major blood vessels in order to “drink a steady stream of warm blood more directly ” (Noll 18). This is the stage in which masturbation usually accompanies such activities (Noll 18). Zoophagia is “the eating of live creatures, but more specifically the drinking of their blood” with which “sexual activity may or may not” pair (Noll 19). Finally, traditional vampirism is the “procuring and drinking the blood of living human beings . . . Usually this involves some sort of consensual sexual activity, but in lust-murder type cases and in other nonlethal violent crimes, the sexual activity and vampirism may not be consensual” (Noll 19). Noll presents these three disorders as a continuum of severity.
Clinical vampirism is also called Renfield’s syndrome, after the infamous character in Stoker’s Dracula (Noll 19). Richard Vanden Bergh and John Kelly detail two particularly harrowing cases of clinical vampirism. One involves a little girl who was very fond of watching dog fights and got excited when there was lots of bloodshed (Vanden Bergh and Kelly 29). Later in life, she developed a behavior wherein she would cut herself or her husband (consensually) and suck her own/his blood during intercourse (Vanden Bergh and Kelly 29). The other involves an 11-year-old boy who would cut himself and, when not drinking his own blood, would keep his blood hidden away in jars for later (Vanden Bergh and Kelly 30-1). In the shower, he would nick his arteries, so that he could have a steady stream of blood to drink. Reportedly, he felt no pain while doing this, and there was always a sexual/masturbation-related element to his rituals (Vanden Bergh and Kelly 30-1). He was later hospitalized for schizophrenia. If you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend visiting the Academy’s Library to read more fascinating cases like these.
And since I am writing as an employee of The New York Academy of Medicine, let’s circle back around to doctors. Physicians and vampires have a complicated relationship. Basically, people are scared of doctors, and people are scared of vampires. This results in people describing doctors and medical practices as vampiric. One of the most conspicuous time at which people mapped the fear surrounding vampires onto doctors is during England’s anti-vaccination movement of the late nineteenth century. In 1881, James John Garth Wilkinson, an activist and physician, published a pamphlet titled “The Vaccination Vampire.” This pamphlet warned that, if one allowed a doctor to vaccinate him/her, the “vaccination vampire” would pollute the “‘pure babe’ precisely at the point of its ‘suckling’ . . . for the mother’s milk [would be] ‘blighted’ by fear of the ‘poisoned lancet’” (Durbach 138-9). In Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907, Nadja Durbach writes that “the vampire served anti-vaccinators as the perfect foil for the vaccinator who ‘invad[es]’ the blood, inserts ‘a foul enemy,’ and leaves his victim monstrously disfigured or dead” (140).
Like a disease, the strategy of using vampires as synecdoche for cultural phenomena spread throughout Europe. Durbach writes that "the vampire's relationship to the doctor was also bound up in medicine's social position as an aristocratic profession . . . the vampire operated in many ways as a symbol of the ancien régime that lingered and haunted Britain's own stately homes" after the French Revolution (140). She goes onto say that "the aristocracy's power in the nineteenth century derived from its being both dead and in fact not dead. The vampire's preoccupation with blood has thus been read as an aristocratic concern for the perpetuation of hereditary bloodlines" (140). Stoker's own Count Dracula reflects this tension when he "hoards his bounty in the back passages of his decrepit castle and 'bleeds' a stream of gold coins when attacked” (Durbach 141).
If we backtrack a little to the eighteenth century (the period of Enlightenment), we can trace this role of the vampire back even further. Peter Bräunlein writes that the vampire became "a sociopolitical metaphor" whose "birth was closely bound up with the construction of the Austrian military border" of 1718, which was its greatest land accumulation since the end of the Turkish wars until the Treaty of Belgrade in 1739. After a series of surgical inspections carried out by Belgrade military personnel of the corpses of rumored-vampires, the birth of a new "scientific genre of 'Vampyrology'" was formed (Bräunlein). This new field of study bloomed quickly and the intelligentsia were soon reading topical treatises and dissertations in Leipzig, London, Amsterdam, and Vienna (Bräunlein). This is likely how luminaries like Karl Marx and Voltaire latched onto the idea of the vampire as a metaphor for the economically-divided societies in which they lived. For Marx, the vampire was capital, which was "'dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour''' (qtd. in Bräunlein). For Voltaire, the vampires were "stock market speculators, merchants, and tax-collectors” (Bräunlein).
In contrast to the ways in which Marx and Voltaire co-opted the vampire as a rhetorical tool, the Orthodox church became particularly interested in how to use the vampire as well. When someone (i.e. a corpse) was accused of being a vampire by night, it was common practice to exhume him/her in order to stake or decapitate the body. This process, however, had to be done in the presence of Orthodox clergymen, "and priests were paid well for the rite of rehabilitating a (dead or living) excommunicant" (Bräunlein).
And do not think that the idea of the vampire-as-social-machine is gone in our times. Stephanou astutely observes that
vampires are defined in terms of a threatening darkness instilled within American whiteness. As nocturnal creatures, they are associated with the night, the kill, and the demonic darkness hiding underneath the safety of American domesticity. Like capitalism's nocturnal bloodsucking with its oil derricks rhythmically penetrating the earth, so the vampire's blood drinking is invisible, hidden in the darkness, in seedy motels and dark southern arteries. Reduced to blood-drinking and animalistic behaviour, these American outcasts litter the landscapes of Reagan's America.
Perhaps recent events have revealed another ready canvas onto which we might also map the vampire...
In conclusion, there is almost too much that could be said about the vampire and the real-world phenomena that might have contributed to its rise. Whether we are talking about diseases like porphyria, psychological maladies, or strategies of social-political warfare, it is clear that the vampire has been around for a long time and is not going anywhere soon. If you need more proof, just look up when you are next on the 6 train. You will likely see this spooky ad for Casper mattresses (above). If you dare to wake a vamp, I wish you luck.
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Bräunlein, Peter J. “The Frightening Borderlands of Enlightenment: The Vampire Problem.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43.3 (2012): 710–719.
Cox, A. M. “Porphyria and Vampirism: Another Myth in the Making.” Postgraduate Medical Journal 71.841 (1995): 643–644.
Durbach, Nadja. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Gómez-Alonso, J. “Rabies: A Possible Explanation for the Vampire Legend.” Neurology 51.3 (1998): 856–859.
Jaffé, P. D., and F. DiCataldo. “Clinical Vampirism: Blending Myth and Reality.” The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 22.4 (1994): 533–544.
Lane, Nick. “Born to the Purple: The Story of Porphyria.” Scientific American. December 16, 2002.
Maranda, Eric Laurent et al. “Porphyria and Vampirism-A Myth, Sensationalized.” JAMA dermatology 152.9 (2016): 975.
McCully, Robert. "Vampirism: Historical Perspective and Underlying Process in Relation to a
Case of Auto-Vampirism." Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature, edited by Richard Noll, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992, pp. 37-56.
McEwin, Roderick. Porphyria in Australia: A Review of the Literature, and the Australian Experience. Sydney: Health Commission of New South Wales, 1975.
Noll, Richard, ed. Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992.
Prins, Herschel. "Vampirism: A Clinical Condition." Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature, edited by Richard Noll, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992, pp. 74-80.
Vanden Bergh, Richard, and John Kelly. "Vampirism: A Review with New Observations."
Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature, edited by Richard Noll, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992, pp. 27-36.
Youngs, Giles R., ed. Dobson’s Complaint: The Story of the Chester Porphyria. London: Royal College of Physicians of London, 1998.