The concept of vampirism and the existence of vampires dates back thousands of years, to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. These cultures each had their own versions of “vampires” which share some similarities to the modern-day legends of immortal pale-skinned, bloodsucking monsters that are both averse and vulnerable to sunlight.
But curiously, the modern-day vampires we see in pop culture have more in common with the “creatures” that were “discovered”, feared and actually hunted in 17th century Europe. In this article, we delve into the most probable “conditions” that were mistaken for vampirism, and how to avoid such a fate.
Vampirism doesn’t exist
To be clear, there isn’t and hasn’t been any real scientific evidence to prove that vampirism or vampires actually exist, in the past or present time. Every “vampire” that has been reported by elder civilizations was borne out of legend or superstitious belief, with no supporting scientific evidence.
For vampires or vampirism to even be a thing, they would have to possess the same evolutionary traits of vampire bats – their digestive systems would have to be able to protect their bodies from the excess iron derived from a diet consisting exclusively of or supplemented by consuming large amounts of blood. Note that drinking blood, whether human or animal, isn’t advised as a way to supplement your diet, even in a survival situation, as doing so can eventually lead to Hemochromatosis or “iron overload”, a sickness that leads to severe organ damage and eventually death.
The 7 “Vampire Signs”
Historically, there have been at least 7 ailments throughout history that have been appropriated by vampire-believers to be signs or symptoms of vampirism. Of these illnesses, most are psychological, at least two are genetic and one is spread by the bite of infected bats or dogs. Curiously, all of them have been lumped together in vampire movies, to describe and “prove” that a person is a vampire.
One of several unusual mental illnesses tagged as a symptom of vampirism was alliumphobia, or simply the fear of garlic, and other pungent plants like onions, chives and shallots. Alliumphobics’ intensity of fear of garlic varied from simple disgust or aversion, to full-on panic attacks that included shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating excessively, dry mouth and nausea.
Garlic was long believed by people from the southern Slavic regions (including Romania) to be an effective ward against evil spirits, so anyone who “feared” garlic or displayed an intense aversion to it was automatically suspected of being a vampire. Alliumphobia can be a mix of a hereditary and a psychological condition that can be treated by a professional psychiatrist.
Also known as hydrophobia, rabies causes its victims to exhibit at least one very vampire-like symptom; those afflicted want to bite other people. Rabies is a virus present in the saliva of infected bats, but can be transferred to other wild animals, livestock, dogs and cats, which can then infect humans that they bite. The virus attacks the nervous system, causing sleeplessness, hallucination and in some cases extremely aggressive behavior.
If you’re ever bitten by an animal and suspect it has rabies, seek medical attention immediately. It’s rare for infected patients to survive a rabies infection, and once infection has set in there is no cure.
A genetic defect and hereditary disease, porphyria is a disorder that causes too much natural chemicals that produce porphyrin to accumulate in the body. Porphyrin is a vital substance that links up with hemoglobin in the blood to enable red blood cells to metabolize iron and carry oxygen to organs and tissues. Having too much porphyrin leads to porphyria, which in turn can produce symptoms that affect the patient’s nervous system, skin or a combination of both.
Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, pain in the chest, legs or back, nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, muscle pain, muscle tingling, numbness, paralysis, brown or red urine (which is mistaken as a result of drinking blood), high blood pressure, breathing problems, palpitations and seizures. Other notable “vampire-like” symptoms are extreme sensitivity to sunlight, such that the patient would feel burning pain, painful redness and swelling of the skin when exposed, and which sometimes worsens into blisters. Itching and changes in skin pigment, and excessive hair growth in the affected areas were also symptoms that would invariably label a porphyria sufferer as a “vampire”. It probably doesn’t help that some medical establishments label porphyria as “vampire disease”.
Also known as catoptrophobia, eisoptrophobia is the fear of mirrors. As vampires are depicted to be “soulless” and therefore cast no reflection in mirrors, it was conveniently concluded in Europe during the 1700s rabies epidemic that anyone who feared mirrors did so for fear of being “discovered” as a vampire. Rabies causes its victims to be fearful of or unable to withstand looking at their image in a mirror so, unsurprisingly, many rabies sufferers, due to their symptoms of wanting to bite others and avoid mirrors, helped to further perpetuate the vampire myth.
A little-known but deeply-rooted belief in the Middle Ages, vampires were supposedly possessed of an obsessive need to count things. Apart from garlic and crosses, an effective way to defend against vampires should you encounter one, was to toss a handful of rice or seeds and run away. Their supposed arithmomania would force a vampire to pause and count every single grain or seed tossed on the ground. This is why in the children’s show “Sesame Street” the numbers-obsessed Count von Count is depicted as a vampire-like character who’s obsessed with numbers and is compelled to count anything he sees.
6. Hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia
This is a rare genetic disorder that affects tooth development, causing a person’s teeth to grow at a later-than-average age, and to grow inwards in an abnormal manner. In some cases, those with hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia are missing some teeth, and the teeth they do have are usually small and pointed. Those afflicted by this rare condition also have fewer or no sweat glands. Other notable symptoms of this disorder are sparse scalp and body hair, and the hair that is present is prevalently light in color, brittle and grows slowly. This condition may also cause the patient to have a prominent forehead, thick lips and a flattened bridge of the nose. Thin, wrinkled and dark-colored skin around the eyes, eczema and odorous nasal discharge are also characteristic of this condition.
Pellagra is a disease common in underdeveloped countries, brought about by subsisting exclusively on corn or corn-derived food (such as cornmeal) for extended periods. First identified in 1735, Pellagra spread after American corn (maize) became popular in Europe after it was found to yield more food calories per acre than rye and wheat. Pellagra became the sickness that ravaged Europe and became a scourge in the U.S. for at least 200 years.
The main cause of pellagra is subsisting on a diet that consists exclusively or mostly of corn, a diet bereft or severely lacking in niacin or what’s commonly known as Vitamin B-3, and tryptophan. Consuming a mostly-corn, niacin- and tryptophan-deficient inevitably brings about pellagra and the following symptoms:
- Canker sores
- Memory loss
- Swollen mouth and a bright, red tongue – this is one of the symptoms that gave credence to the vampire myth; it was assumed that those stricken with pellagra had their tongues turn red from consuming fresh blood.
- Thick, scaly rash with an unusual pigment on skin that gets exposed to sunlight – this is the second “symptom” that supposedly indicated that a person was a vampire.
In the American South, at least 3 million people suffered from pellagra in 1906 to 1940, with about 100,000 deaths during the period. A disease triggered by malnutrition from poverty, those in the South lived mostly on a diet composed of the “3 M’s”—meat (pork fatback), molasses and meal (cornmeal). All three food sources contained very little amounts of niacin, or in the case of corn, the niacin was in a form that couldn’t be readily absorbed by the body. Curiously, Mexican and Native American Indians didn’t have the same pellagra epidemic, despite having corn (maize) or cornmeal occupying a large part of their diet. Their secret was that they mixed lime with their cornmeal, which allowed the release of the niacin.
While pellagra was identified in places like Spain and Italy, pellagra took on a more sinister guise in Eastern Europe, no thanks to poverty, superstitious culture and a lack of medical knowledge; it’s this dangerous mix that prevented pellagra from being diagnosed and properly treated until 1858. It’s suspected that author Bram Stoker took all these folkloric beliefs and tales of vampires and vampirism from Eastern Europe, then combined them into his one character and seminal work, Dracula.
Back in the days when people were ignorant of sicknesses, their causes and preventive measures, it was believed that those who died “mysteriously” were killed by vampires and were on the way to becoming one. Another telltale symptom of vampirism that led credence to this assumption, was that the hair, toenails and fingernails appeared to still be growing on recently-buried corpses. The simple truth is, the hair, fingernails and toenails only seemed to be growing, since part of a corpse’s decomposition process was dehydration of the skin, causing the skin of the scalp, fingers and toes to retract, creating the illusion that the hair and nails on corpses were still growing. So, “growing” hair and nails on a supposedly dead body gave rise to more panic, giving more life into the undying (pun not intended) myth of the vampire.
Ailments like those listed above and learning how they shaped the myth of vampires and vampirism makes for an interesting discussion. While some of the listed ailments may turn up on occasion, they remain quite rare and most of them can be prevented or treated. And even though these ailments and their symptoms may appear horrific and vampire-like, none of them give credibility to the existence of any bloodsucking denizens of the dark.
Thanks to the wealth of information now easily accessible to the average person, most illnesses and the myths they inspire are thankfully a thing of the past; people now know enough about genetic disorders, psychological illnesses and the importance of simple practices like keeping a balanced diet coupled with good hygiene. If any lessons are to be gleaned from the vampire myth, it’s to remember to guard against myths and always defer to scientific facts, and not rely on the colorful imaginations of uninformed people.