This Halloween, as you see kids dressed up as zombies or witches, threatening neighbors into giving them candy it’s easy to forget that these terrifying creatures once had a less sugary purpose: in the absence of modern science, our ancestors needed a supernatural technique to explain the plagues and diseases that reason couldn’t.
One of the most timeless of those monsters is the vampire.
Haunting our myths and folk tales since the times of ancient Greece, vampires are seen in one form or another in almost every culture the world over. The most common characterizations describe a haunting, pale figure that rises from the dead at night to feast on the blood of the living with huge, terrifying fangs. Vampires are also said to be able to turn into animals like bats, fear garlic, and avoid mirrors.
Tonight, I would like to shed some light on this nightmare, and share with you some of the science behind the two of the real medical disorders that could have inspired the tales of vampires.
One possible explanation for vampire-like symptoms could be the family of diseases known as Porphyrias. Caused mostly by genetic mutations (but in rare cases acquired by environmental triggers), these disorders are a dysfunction of the enzymes that make heme, an essential component of hemoglobin, which carries the oxygen in our blood. When these heme-producing enzymes stop doing their job, porphyrins (the precursors to heme) build up to toxic levels in our organs and cause damage that ranges in severity from skin disorders to nervous system malfunction.
In particular, Erythropoietic porphyria most closely describes the vampires of folklore, and could even be responsible for inspiring the myths. First, it causes those suffering from the disease to become chronically anemic. This causes them to look very pale and have increased photosensitivity. Chemicals may build up in the blood that damage surrounding cells when the skin is exposed to light. This fact could lend credence to why people thought that vampires were hurt by sunlight and could only come out at night.
Furthermore, porphyria could explain the stories of vampires being warded off by garlic. Garlic contains oxygenase-1, which degrades heme, further worsening the symptoms of anemia. Toxic levels of porphyrins also build up in the teeth, causing erythrodontia, or red discoloration of the teeth. This could also help explain how these symptoms would be associated with the terrifying fangs of a hungry vampire. While these forms of porphyria are rare nowadays especially congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), they may have contributed to the vampire myth due to higher rates of inbreeding in days past.
Rabies is a deadly virus that is spread through animal saliva. Incidentally, bats are the most common vector for rabies to be transferred to humans, which could explain why vampires are most commonly associated with those cute flying mammals. Symptoms start out as flu-like, but eventually cause mouth and throat spasms, leaving the lips open and exposing one’s teeth. This may help explain the prominent fangs of vampires, a critical part of their description.
Vampire folklore also shows a relationship between vampires and dogs or wolves. Some tales even describe vampires being able to turn into dogs and wreak havoc. This observation, combined with the more popular characteristics of vampires like spreading their condition through bites, led Dr. Juan Gómez-Alonso to draw the connection between rabies and vampirism in a 1996 publication of Historical Neurology. Gómez-Alonso argues that the increased aggression and insomnia attributed to vampires may be explained by disorders of the limbic system, a part of the brain that controls our more primal instincts and emotions. A clear link has been established between aggressiveness and the dysfunction of limbic system regions in patients with rabies.
One last major symptom of rabies is hydrophobia, a severe aversion to water. Just the sight of water can cause violent laryngeal muscle spasms and coughing up blood. Even seeing ones’ own reflection can trigger hydrophobia in rabies patients, which could explain the antagonistic relationship between vampires and mirrors.
But have no fear. Thanks to modern science, we now know that rabies is only spread to people by the saliva of infected animals and vaccines are available, so you don’t have to worry about contracting the disease from your next bowl of Count Chocula. However, there is a need for more research into the science of porphyria, so that treatments can be developed to better help those that suffer from this disease in modern times.
Deaths of loved ones and inexplicable outbursts of violent aggression that were caused by these diseases likely left people confused and desperate for answers. Without germ theory or the ability to look into a microscope, our ancestors likely had to turn to religious texts and superstition as the only way to begin to answer these questions. Like most monsters, the tales of vampires were created to help mankind protect itself against the only thing scarier than a monster: the unknown threat you can’t explain.
About the author:
Mike Choromanski is the former President of UGA’s Cellular Biology Graduate Student Association and a Ph.D. student studying Neuroscience and Cellular Biology. He attended Armstrong State University where he obtained a B.S. in Cell Biology with minors in Neuroscience and Philosophy while serving as an editor for his college newspaper, The Inkwell. Before teaching at UGA, he organized STEM trecks and taught environmental science for Philmont Scout Ranch. In his spare time, he loves to hike, cook and play video games, and competes on UGA’s fencing team.