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Vampirism: Reality or Myth?

The term 'vampire' has its origins in the Balkans and Eastern European folklore and has since been used to describe mythical creatures subsisting on others’ blood or vitality (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006). However, modern medicine and science have offered alternative explanations for vampire legends, such as the effects of certain diseases, cultural beliefs and practices, and psychological disorders. This article aims to explore the evolution of the vampire archetype and its impact on popular culture and evaluate the evidence for and against the existence of vampires.

The Oxford online dictionary defines 'vampire' as a dead fictional character who leaves its grave at night to bite living people and drink their blood. Interestingly enough, the Croatian online dictionary 'Znanje' offers three definitions:

  • a superhuman being, generally believed to be a reanimated corpse that sucks the blood of sleeping humans at night.

  • a deceased moved by the spirit of a demon (excommunicated from the church or who died without the sacraments); according to Eastern European folk beliefs, they rise from the grave at night to suck people's blood until they are burned or their heart is pierced with a hawthorn stake.

  • one who exploits others; bloodsucker.

Figure 1: The Vampyre's Midnight Visit (Rymer, 1840)

While 'vampire' has definitions oriented more towards myths, 'vampirism' refers to the supposed act of becoming a vampire, either through supernatural means or through the transfer of a virus. Again, while the Oxford Dictionary offers only one explanation for the term 'vampirism' as behaviour or practices of vampires, the 'Znanje' offers three definitions:

  • belief in vampires.

  • a psychological illness manifesting in a pathological need for blood.

  • the greed of those who get rich by exploiting other people's work and goods; insatiable greed.

Folklore and oral traditions as methods for reporting unusual occurrences, such as vampirism, offer little elements for verification because of the few traces left in historical records. Nevertheless, there is substantial documentation of regional variations in the depiction of European vampirism, with different names used in different regions. For example, in Croatia, they were known as pijavica, while in Serbia, they were referred to as vlkoslak or dampir, and in Romania as strigoiul or moroiul. In Macedonia, the term used was vrykolakas. Despite the differences in cultural practices associated with vampirism, there are sufficient similarities among regions, particularly in Eastern Europe, to suggest a common mythological origin (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006). This may explain why the Croatian encyclopedia 'Znanje' provides a broader range of definitions and variations than the Oxford English Dictionary.

Figure 2: The Premature Burial (Wiertz, 1854)

The belief in the existence of blood-drinking beings has a long and storied history, with roots in ancient mythology and cultural traditions (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006). The Greek myth of Lamia, a demon transformed into a blood-drinking monster by the goddess Hera, is one example of the long-standing association between vampiric behaviour and the supernatural (Rajković-Iveta & Iveta, 2017). The portrayal of vampires in literature and media has evolved, shaped by popular imagination and cultural beliefs, and characterised by distinctive physical attributes and behaviours such as paleness, sharp fangs, supernatural beauty, nocturnal habits, and a fear of garlic (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006). The complex interplay between history, mythology, and cultural traditions has contributed to the fascination with vampires and the continued evolution of the vampire archetype.

The vampire myth has been deeply intertwined with cultural traditions. It is often associated with fear and unease, reflecting the belief that the souls of vampires are restless and unable to find peace in death (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006).

“Although death is seen as a final frontier, some of the most powerful images of the supernatural occur when the line between the world of the living and the realm of the dead blurs.” (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006, p.177)

According to folklore, there are four ways in which a person can become a vampire: Predisposition, which holds the belief that a wicked life leads to an evil death and the soul is unable to find rest; Predestination, which entails that a person has no control over their fate, often for being born illegitimate; vampirism as a consequence of an evil act, usually being bitten by another vampire; and the failure to perform proper posthumous rites (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006). These various modes of becoming a vampire offer different cultural and historical explanations for the persistence of the vampire myth, reflecting the beliefs and values of other societies and times.

Figure 3: The Kiss of the Enchantress (Gloag, 1890)

Vampires have been a popular literature subject for centuries, attracting the attention of well-known authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Alexander Dumas. One of the earliest and most influential works of vampire fiction is J.S. Le Fanu's novella Carmilla, published in 1871. Considered one of the first works of vampire lesbian fantasy, the lead vampire is a woman (Paul & Ghosh, 2018) described as beautiful, pale, and gentle, who can shape-shift into a black cat. Contrary to later literary and cinematic depictions of the genre, which focus on male characters, Carmilla centres around a female vampire and draws blood from the breast of her victims rather than from the neck. This is in line with the folklore that places the vampire bite around the heart (Leal, 2007).

However, it is not until the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897 that the vampire myth reaches new heights in the literary world (Rajković-Iveta & Iveta, 2017). The novel is a blend of historical fact, folklore, and gothic horror, and it narrates the vampire Count Dracula's attempt to move from Transylvania to England. It introduces several iconic elements of the vampire genre, such as depicting vampires as immortal, blood-sucking, shape-shifting bat creatures who can only be killed by a stake through the heart. It also establishes the vampire as a romantic and seductive figure, a portrayal that has since been adopted and popularised by numerous other works of fiction. Dracula has been adapted for theatre, film, television and other media on numerous occasions, arousing the interest of the public and leading to the updating of the myth with new interpretations and adaptations. The novel has also profoundly impacted the cultural perception of vampires, remaining one of the most famous and influential works of horror fiction (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006; Rajković-Iveta & Iveta, 2017).

Figure 4: First American edition of Dracula (Doubleday & McClure, 1899)

The characteristics of vampirism introduced by Stoker were incorporated into the film industry, captivating audiences with its alluring themes and motifs after over a century (Lecouteux, 2010). From Roberto Vignola's Vampire in 1913 and the critical success of Murnau's Nosferatu in 1922, vampire films have always explored the unknown and the macabre. The silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is considered a classic of early cinema and a seminal work in the horror genre. It is an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Although the names of the characters and some details were changed, it remains one of the story's first and most influential screen adaptations. (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006; Lecouteux, 2010). Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula in 1958 and Roman Polanski's Ball of the Vampires in 1967 further solidified the popularity of vampires on screen. Between 1913 and 1970, 58 films about vampires were produced, reflecting each era's cultural and social moods.

In the 1990s, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula and Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire became major box-office hits and reinforced the enduring interest in these creatures. Interview with the Vampire (based on the novel of the same name by Anne Rice) is notable for its exploration of the psychological and emotional aspects of vampirism; it presents vampires as complex and multi-faceted characters rather than mere monsters. The film's portrayal of vampires as beings struggling with their own desires, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and moral ambiguities is a departure from previous depictions of vampires in popular culture. In addition to its contributions to the vampire genre, Interview with the Vampire is also significant for revitalising the vampire film genre in the 1990s and 2000s (Bartlett & Idriceanu, 2006; Lecouteux, 2010). These films explore various themes and motifs, but at their core they all revolve around the central question of what happens after death (Lecouteux, 2010).

Figure 5: Interview with the Vampire (Jordan, 1994)

While the vampire legend has captivated audiences for centuries, the medical and scientific community view it as a purely imaginative construct with no factual basis. From a medical and scientific perspective, the vampire corpse is a dead body with residual organic energy. This residual energy can manifest as observable physical changes, such as hair, nails, and skin growth. These changes are not the result of a supernatural process but a normal biological decay process. For example, as the skin of a dead body begins to deteriorate, it can retract and create the illusion of growth in hair, nails, and skin. Anatomists and pathologists have widely documented this phenomenon, which is not considered evidence of any supernatural activity (Lecouteux, 2010).

Porphyria is a group of rare genetic disorders caused by an enzyme deficiency in the haem synthesis pathway. The word comes from the Greek porphyrus, which means a bright red-purple colour. The symptoms of porphyria vary depending on the type of the disease, involving sensitivity to sunlight, causing skin lesions and disfigurement. The condition is popularly referred to as 'vampire syndrome' due to its association with vampire mythology. Porphyria patients often experience pain, itching and burning sensations on their skin when exposed to sunlight, leading to blisters formation, wounds and burns. In severe cases, the skin may become so sensitive that the affected individuals are forced to avoid sunlight and lead a nocturnal lifestyle. The skin may also become deformed and scarred, and the nose, ears, and gums may disintegrate, giving the appearance of a vampire-like physiognomy. Despite its association with vampire mythology, porphyria is an actual medical condition that can significantly impact the quality of life of patients diagnosed with it (Cox, 1995; Akerman, 2020).

Figure 6: Similarities between a vampire (Nosferatu) and a porphyric (Añel, 2022)

Interestingly, porphyria was most prevalent in small villages in Transylvania about 1000 years ago. In the Middle Ages, the fresh blood of warm-blooded animals was used as medicine and food to alleviate the symptoms of porphyria. Additionally, before the discovery of a vaccine, rabies was a common disease with symptoms such as aversion to light and water, aggression, biting, and delirium, which could easily be misunderstood as vampirism (Japec, 2016; Akerman, 2020). In 1972, Lawrence Kayton suggested that the vampire myth could have arisen from undiagnosed schizophrenic patients who feared being segregated and experienced periods of exhaustion due to poor nutrition and a reversal of their day and night sleep cycle (Lecouteux, 2010).

Psychology has also identified emotional vampires as individuals who prey on the emotions of others, bringing them to a sadder or angrier state while leading their victims to emotional distress. As modern vampires, they lack self-awareness and may react defensively when confronted, sometimes exhibiting anger and adopting a victim mentality (Bernstein, 2012; Conte, 2016). Psychologists frequently detect specific characteristics that fit the diagnostic criteria for personality disorders, such as neurosis or psychosis, potentially leading to self-injury despite a particular propensity towards a detrimental impact on those around them (Bernstein, 2012). Furthermore, energy vampires lack empathy as an essential quality of maturity, as they see others as a means to satisfy their own needs (Bernstein, 2012).

Figure 7: Representation of an emotional vampire (Udjuk, 2021)

In conclusion, are vampires real or a still valid myth? Throughout history, the supernatural has always been a popular topic of discussion and fascination. The success of vampire-related themes in literature and film is a testament to the enduring appeal of the supernatural. These works provide a welcome escape from reality and allow us to explore deeper themes through fiction. However, from a scientific and medical perspective, vampires, as creatures of the night that drink human blood, do not exist. This idea is merely a product of human imagination, rooted in an attempt to explain real diseases and conditions that were not understood in ancient times. The old prejudice against vampires in folklore and mythology can be linked to the modern concept of emotional vampires through fear of the unknown and different, loss of control, and societal fears about power and manipulation. Both reflect anxieties about the negative impact that specific individuals can have on an individual’s life and well-being. While we may enjoy reading and watching vampires in literature and media, we should beware of the real-life emotional vampires among us. These individuals have the potential to drain our happiness and vitality, just as the mythical vampires of folklore once threatened the lives of communities. It is fortunate that we only encounter them in our imagination, but it is essential to be aware of their existence and negative impact on our well-being.

Bibliographical References

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Visual Sources

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Deborah Zaccai