Since the dawn of Dracula, vampires have become the most tried-and-tested terrifying fictional character in Halloween history.
From Brahm Stoker’s Dracula to Disney Pixar’s Hotel Transylvania, we are all totally obsessed with the blood-sucking undead, and most of us believe the hype that vampires really do walk among us.
We even dress up in capes and hiss at people who don’t give us sweeties every year on Halloween. But where does the myth of the bat-like creatures who walk in eternal darkness come from?
In a time before trained doctors with microscopes, antibiotics on tap and even basic diagnostic abilities, if people got sick their ailments were explained with the supernatural.
Even civilisations we think of as incredibly advanced, such as the Ancient Egyptians and Romans held the strong belief that the spiritual world influenced our physical realm, and the bodies which inhabited it.
So with hindsight, and our medical advances, it’s no surprise to find certain illnesses which have pretty familiar consequences, the likes of which we’ve read about in book and seen in films.
For example, porphyria, a disease affecting the haemoglobin in our blood, has some alarmingly visible consequences. Sufferers can experience itching of the skin and rashes when in direct sunlight.
The aversion to sunlight caused by the disease could be so severe at times, it would results in the loss of ears and noses.
Sound familiar? Enter: Nosferatu.
People with porphyry even reported discoloured bodily waste, which was a deep purple, reddish hue, something similar to the colour of blood.
In extreme cases of porphyria, patients’ gums can rot away, causing the teeth to appear more prominent – almost like fangs.
As there are probably no more than a few hundred of these severe cases in the entire world at any one time, you’re unlikely to turn vampiric if you catch the disease.
However, small Medieval communities left relatively untouched by the outside world may have seen a larger proportion of severe cases, due to a smaller gene pool… Such as rural hamlet community, Transylvania, which is nestled into the depths of Romanian forest.
The author and academic, Roger Lockhurst has spent a lifetime researching the origins of the ‘Vampire Myth’.
He told the BBC:
The first mention of the word vampire in the English language is in the 1730s, in newspapers which carry reports from the edge of Europe, of bodies being dug up and looking bloated, and having fresh blood around their mouths.
These occurrences, reported largely by the uneducated masses of the age, have some pretty grisly explanations.
The fresh blood around the corpses’ mouths?
Well, it was not uncommon to be buried alive due to a lack of understand regarding many diseases of the time, such as catalepsy, which gave the impression of death.
When individuals awoke from the catatonic state to find themselves buried, they were driven mad with fear and often hunger. Many would have chewed on their own flesh in their delirium.
Further to that, rabies was a common problem in these small villages where animals kept for food would roam freely and wild animals from the forest would venture into town.
If bitten, the human inhabitants would go feral due to the symptoms of illnesses like rabies.
Roger Lockhurst believes these stories and suspicions were perpetrated by the mass media to feed the cities’ own superiority complex, saying:
The way these vampire stories work for the 18th Century people living in London and Paris and reading these stories in their papers, is that it tells a good story about how civilised and advanced we are, and look these superstitious Catholic peasants who lived on the boundary of Europe.
But vampiric tendencies weren’t just reported in Transylvania, despite the region being home to Dracula, the most famous vampire of all time.
In fact, other cultures have similar myths and legends: The blood-sucking manananggal live in the Philippines, and the peuchen plague Chilean horror stories; the Baobhan Sith of hide out in the Scottish highlands and the Yara-ma-yha-who are the indigenous Australian answer to our vampires.
Lockhurst adds the myths have all been developed and permeated into our histories over centuries of storytelling, and worryingly they all reflect negatively on the ‘other’ or the unknown neighbouring countries or tribes.
It seems that the history of the vampire is just our fear of the ‘other’ manifesting in our fables and moralising stories.