More ‘Disease’ Than ‘Dracula’ – How the Vampire Myth Was Born

Yves here. I must confess to a fondness for Dracula, but not because I have a thing for pale dark haired men in evening dress wearing too much pomade. My brother wrote a screenplay, Vampire Zero, on the supposed original vampire, who precedes Dracula by a couple of hundred years. Sadly my brother was unable to sell his script, I assume due to lack of connections and not enough action/gore (his treatment has some, but it was a bit short by current standards in bodily harm infliction and wanton scenery destruction).

And don’t you agree that Elon Musk has the pasty, unsettled look required of a cinematic vampire?

By Stanley Stepanic, Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia. Originally published at The Conversation

The vampire is a common image in today’s pop culture, and one that takes many forms: from Alucard, the dashing spawn of Dracula in the PlayStation game “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”; to Edward, the romantic, idealistic lover in the “Twilight” series.

In many respects, the vampire of today is far removed from its roots in Eastern European folklore. As a professor of Slavic studies who has taught a course on vampires called “Dracula” for more than a decade, I’m always fascinated by the vampire’s popularity, considering its origins – as a demonic creature strongly associated with disease.

Explaining the Unknown

The first known reference to vampires appeared in written form in Old Russian in A.D. 1047, soon after Orthodox Christianity moved into Eastern Europe. The term for vampire was “upir,” which has uncertain origins, but its possible literal meaning was “the thing at the feast or sacrifice,” referring to a potentially dangerous spiritual entity that people believed could appear at rituals for the dead. It was a euphemism used to avoid speaking the creature’s name – and unfortunately, historians may never learn its real name, or even when beliefs about it surfaced.

The vampire served a function similar to that of many other demonic creatures in folklore around the world: They were blamed for a variety of problems, but particularly disease, at a time when knowledge of bacteria and viruses did not exist.

Scholars have put forth several theories about various diseases’ connections to vampires. It is likely that no one disease provides a simple, “pure” origin for vampire myths, since beliefs about vampires changed over time.

But two in particular show solid links. One is rabies, whose name comes from a Latin term for “madness.” It’s one of the oldest recognized diseases on the planet, transmissible from animals to humans, and primarily spread through biting – an obvious reference to a classic vampire trait.

There are other curious connections. One central symptom of the disease is hydrophobia, a fear of water. Painful muscle contractions in the esophagus lead rabies victims to avoid eating and drinking, or even swallowing their own saliva, which eventually causes “foaming at the mouth.” In some folklore, vampires cannot cross running water without being carried or assisted in some way, as an extension of this symptom. Furthermore, rabies can lead to a fear of light, altered sleep patterns and increased aggression, elements of how vampires are described in a variety of folktales.

The second disease is pellagra, caused by a dietary deficiency of niacin (vitamin B3) or the amino acid tryptophan. Often, pellagra is brought on by diets high in corn products and alcohol. After Europeans landed in the Americas, they transported corn back to Europe. But they ignored a key step in preparing corn: washing it, often using lime – a process called “nixtamalization” that can reduce the risk of pellagra.

Pellagra causes the classic “4 D’s”: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death. Some sufferers also experience high sensitivity to sunlight – described in some depictions of vampires – which leads to corpselike skin.

Social Scare

Multiple diseases show connections to folklore about vampires, but they can’t necessarily explain how the myths actually began. Pellagra, for example, did not exist in Eastern Europe until the 18th century, centuries after vampire beliefs had originally emerged.

Both pellagra and rabies are important, however, because they were epidemic during a key period in vampire history. During the so-called Great Vampire Epidemic, from roughly 1725 to 1755, vampire myths “went viral” across the continent.

As disease spread in Eastern Europe, supernatural causes were often blamed, and vampire hysteria spread throughout the region. Many people believed that vampires were the “undead” – people who lived on in some way after death – and that the vampire could be stopped by attacking its corpse. They carried out “vampire burials,” which could involve putting a stake through the corpse, covering the body in garlic and a variety of other traditions that had been present in Slavic folklore for centuries.

Meanwhile, Austrian and German soldiers fighting the Ottomans in the region witnessed this mass desecration of graves and returned home to Western Europe with stories of the vampire.

But why did so much vampire hysteria spring up in the first place? Disease was a primary culprit, but a sort of “perfect storm” existed in Eastern Europe at the time. The era of the Great Vampire Epidemic was not just a period of disease, but one of political and religious upheaval as well.

During the 18th century, Eastern Europe faced pressure from within and without as domestic and foreign powers exercised their control over the region, with local cultures often suppressed. Serbia, for example, was struggling between the Hapsburg Monarchy in Central Europe and the Ottomans. Poland was increasingly under foreign powers, Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule, and Russia was undergoing dramatic cultural change due to the policies of Czar Peter the Great.

This is somewhat analogous to today, as the world contends with the COVID-19 pandemic amid political change and uncertainty. Perceived societal breakdown, whether real or imagined, can lead to dramatic responses in society.

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  1. Iseeyoudock

    I favor erythropoietic porphyria as a disease entity which might be congruent.

    A defect in proptoporphyin X, it leads to defects in the intermediary metabolism of iron which would explain many aspects of the vampirism myth, including an aversion to sunlight causing rapid burns, and a thirst for iron sources (blood?).

    Aversion to sunlight, pale complexion, mental changes all also congruent.

    My 2c

    1. Ru

      Porphyria definitely fits many of the classic descriptions of vampires. One of the first proponents of this theory was David Dolphin, a retired professor of chemistry at the University Of British Columbia. In addition to the symptoms you’ve listed, he pointed out that garlic contains substances that can provoke a painful porphyric crisis – ample reason to fear and avoid garlic.

  2. LawnDart

    Anne Rice, “The Lost Boys” and others had quite an influence on my peer group during our youth, with us being best described as post-industrial, pre-goth and very much hardcore punk– outcasts and exiles from wherever we called home. There was a phase when many of us proudly bore bite marks that were usually delivered by the opposite sex, wounds of youthful stiring and hunger… almost romantic to think we were the practioners of an age-old tradition (sort of true, I suppose, but not as novel we might have wished to believe (we all got here somehow– not like most of us were actually dropped off by storkes in all our swaddling upon unsuspecting couples).

    I am now more curious as to see how the Dracula character evolved as a work of fiction and screenplay, and pursuit of this curiosity might be a fitting pastime as we move into the darker season– thanks for this post.

    Of a similiar vein, the demonic and the dead, you may appreciate this link that I came across: perhaps a new NC category, “Love Bites”? Now through Halloween (or at least Devil’s Night)?

  3. LawnDart

    I appologize from being off-topic, and I certainly don’t want to distract attention or concern from whatever may be happening with Jerri-Lynn, but one of my go-to sites ICH, run by Tom Feely of Imperial Beach, CA has not been updated for quite some time.

    Feely has had some major health issues over the past few years, including a bout of CV this past Summer, so yeah, I checked the obits… …nothing.

    But I did come across this:×3744026

    Not sure when it was posted or if it is even legit, so does anyone else know what happened to Tom?

    1. Ian Perkins

      I’d been wondering about Tom too. Glad to hear you found nothing in the obits! The thread/blog you linked to appears to be rather ancient. From right near the top of the page:
      Emillereid Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Aug-07-08 01:27 AM
      Original message
      Tom Feeley who runs threatened!

      Edited on Fri Aug-08-08 09:56 AM by EarlG

      1. LawnDart

        Did not see that so thanks for the info. Guess we’re not quite at the point of mass-roundups of dissidents here in the West quite yet, aside from those who stray from free speach zones or who protest in “unlawful gatherings,” bar Assange, Murray, and others to speak of.

        1. Ian Perkins

          Tom’s unwell but still going:

          “My doctor was treating me for long Covid and despite his best efforts I got to a situation where even one hours work exhausted me. It got to the point that I was admitted to hospital in San Diego and a battery of test suggested I might have leukemia, a marrow bone analysis confirmed I have acute leukemia I have been here for almost 3 weeks, where the doctors nurses and staff are working get my cancer into remission. I am having daily chemotherapy.”

  4. The Rev Kev

    There is another link to disease in this article and that is Edward, ‘the romantic, idealistic lover in the “Twilight” series’ mentioned (no, I have never seen it) here. His actual backstory is that in 1918 he was dying in the Spanish influenza epidemic in Chicago when his mother had his adoptive father/vampire turn him to save his life. So for some, there is a fascination with vampires in that they cheat death, even though at the cost of other people’s lives. Think that that would worry some of our financial/tech overlords?

    You can bet that they would be thinking of investing their money for a century or two in some ventures. And we know that they have this urge for immortality as they have been financing studies to try to develop it. In the face of death, particularly during a pandemic, any hint of immortality is to be seized on and talked about hence the popularity of the vampire tales. But at least these days there are more sophisticated story-telling of vampires as seen in a recent British/German film called “Blood Red Sky” and which shows how strong the vampire urge is when turned- (2:26 mins)

    1. TimH

      “vampire turn him to save his life”… shirley you mean “extend his existence”, since he was killed?

      Yeah, yeah, pendant, I know.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    I grew up about half a mile from where Bram Stoker was born and raised in Dublin. He was raised in what was at the time a fairly well-heeled outer suburb of the city, but just about 20 minutes walk from what were becoming some of the worst slums in Europe as people were pouring in during the long aftermath of the great famine. He would have grown up with a view of the sea blocked by a raised railway embankment and what had become a fetid marsh, where the sea had been cut off by railway works and was later converted to a tip (its now a public park. Its known he saw cholera victims at the time and its generally thought that he was very influenced by the stories he heard at the time and the terrible suffering he witnessed growing up.

    So far as I’m aware, while he was aware of eastern European legends, and these influenced Dracula, he wasn’t an expert and had never visited any of those countries, so the modern conception of vampires is largely based on his own imagination and experiences growing up.

  6. Laure

    I always associated rabies with our fascination with zombies–if you have seen a rabid animal (I have) they drool, stagger, and attack and try to tear flesh in much the way our zombies do.

    1. griffen

      Since rabies is mentioned above, and you highlighted the fascination with zombies in popular culture isn’t it high time we moved past zombies? Albeit I must give a nod to watching both “Zombieland” films. The sequel is a bit funner than the first movie.

      I enjoyed the Cujo film when I’ve watched that again. Tried reading the book but it was iterative and boring (the book).

  7. lyman alpha blob

    There is a vampire legend in the town where I grew up, also related to disease. It was mentioned a lot when I was a kid and probably still is now that it’s been immortalized on the interwebs -

    Legend has it that in 1834, in the sleepy village of Woodstock, the eldest son of the Corwin family fell ill. His skin paled. His appetite disappeared. And by day, he barely stirred from his bedchamber. Six months after he was buried in Cushing Cemetery, his younger brother was struck with the same affliction. Prominent physicians Dr. Joseph Gallup and Dr. John Powers of the Vermont Medical College examined the boy, searching in vain for a cause or cure – till rumors of vampirism spread.

    Fearing that the elder son was rising from the grave to drain the life from his brother, the townspeople gathered at the cemetery. Shovels scratched at the earth, digging deeper and deeper till a trowel hit the coffin with a thud. The coffin lid was pried open. There lay the body of the eldest Corwin son, but for the townspeople, it was not enough.

    “Vampire panic” was alive and well in New England, and they were all too familiar with methods for dealing with the undead. Turning over a body in the grave was the most innocent of solutions, but many resorted to burning the organs, inhaling the smoke or consuming the ash from the organs, or decapitation. But for the villagers of Woodstock, examining the heart was the only way to be sure. When an autopsy showed Corwin’s heart contained fresh blood, it was removed, taken to the village green, and burned.

    Today, the legend is alive and well in Woodstock, but as there’s no record of the Corwin family in town history, the question remains: is it all just a scary story? A documented account of an 1817 outbreak of the wasting disease, tuberculous – also known as consumption – seems to indicate yes. Dartmouth College student Frederick Ransom of South Woodstock died of TB on February 14th of that year.

  8. Fred

    There is a similar observation about vampires and disease in a new book about quarantines: Until Proven Safe by Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley.

    They write about the cordon sanitaire set up by Empress Maria Theresa in 1770 to protect Austria from the Ottoman Empire. The quarantine corridor stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the mountains of Transylvania, home of the vampire stories.

    The 1000 mile cordon, sometimes as wide as 30 miles, served as a buffer zone against disease and a line of military defense. It was dismantled in 1871, but still resonates as a symbol of Europe’s “conceptual and institutional dissociation from its eastern neighbors.”

    “More hauntingly, the borderlands were also ground zero for alleged vampire sightings, triggering a literary mania that swept Europe. This quarantine threshold, a zone of suspicion and uncertainty, whose inhabitants were neither healthy nor sick, neither citizen nor soldier, and constantly under threat from plagues both real and imagined, proved the perfect hunting ground for the similarly liminal living dead.”

    They quote literary historian Thomas Richards writing about Dracula by Bram Stoker, who describes vampires as “mutations at the periphery of the world – new forms, new creatures, new diseases – come back to haunt the world at its center.”

  9. PressGaneyMustDie

    “ There was a phase when many of us proudly bore bite marks that were usually delivered by the opposite sex, wounds of youthful stiring and hunger…”

    I was about to give Iseeyoudock the honorary Internet award of Comment of the Day but then LawnDart hit the ball out of the park! Golf clap begins.

  10. Rainlover

    Here’s another book to add to your beside table, Lambert. Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. It’s a new twist on the vampire tale with isolated communities made up of vampires (the Ina) and their symbiots involved in an intraspecies war over bloodline purity. Anything by Butler is usually a good read.

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