Debunking the vampire myth

Debunking the vampire myth

How science can explain the phenomena that led many people to believe in the undead

Legends of beings that defied death and preyed on the living date back to ancient times. Many early civilisations featured vampiric creatures in their lore, such as the child-eating demon Lamia of ancient Greek mythology and the life-sucking edimmu ghosts of Mesopotamian legend. The belief in vampires became particularly common in the folklore of medieval Europe and persisted for hundreds of years, the superstitions often resurfacing during outbreaks of plague and other illnesses. But as our scientific understanding improved, the mysteries at the root of these beliefs were unravelled. Large fangs, hypersensitivity to sunlight and blood around the mouth could all be explained by then-unknown diseases and the natural process of decay after death.

Fangs, sunlight and garlic
The classic vampires of legend have prominent fangs to pierce their victims’ necks, are nocturnal and have pale skin due to their aversion to sunlight. They can also be warded off with garlic.
Thanks tomedical advances, these days we know of several conditions that could actually explain some of these features. Porphyria is a group of conditions that may have contributed to the vampire
myth. One type, called congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), causes a toxic build-up of light-activated molecules in the skin. When sufferers are exposed to sunlight these toxins can eat away at the skin, damaging the gum tissue to make teeth look longer and fang-like. As well as Sun sensitivity,
porphyria can also make people hypersensitive to foods high in sulphur, such as garlic.

Similar symptoms can be experienced by those suffering from rabies, a deadly virus that can be transmitted to humans if bitten by an infected animal. Rabid people can develop insomnia, become
aggressive – even trying to bite people – and demonstrate an aversion to strong stimuli, including bright light and strong smells like garlic. The diagnosis of rabies also fits the common depiction of male vampires pursuing female victims. The condition is seven times more common in men and can cause an increased libido by affecting the body’s limbic system.

Buried alive
Fear of the dead rising again meant that the living would sometimes take some rather macabre precautions to ensure this didn’t happen. Positioning a sickle around the body’s neck in the coffin, stabbing the corpse through the chest or slicing its knee tendons were just some of the methods used during burials to make sure the dead couldn’t escape. The belief that the dead might not stay that way
was likely influenced by horrifying cases of people being buried alive. Poor medical knowledge meant that victims could be mistakenly declared dead and buried prematurely, only to regain consciousness when it was too late. For example, people with catalepsy can have seizures in which the body goes stiff and the breathing and heart rate slows dramatically, which could easily lead to a false diagnosis of death.

A thirst for blood
In times when people were wary of vampires, corpses were occasionally dug up to check they were still dead. People’s fears were exacerbated when bodies were found to have blood oozing from the nose andmouth. In reality, what looked like blood was actually ‘purge fluid’, the result of the natural decay process as the internal organs start to break down.

Symptoms of disease also contributed to the blood-sucking myth. Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs and causes sufferers to cough up blood. Before the illness was understood people blamed these mysterious deaths on supernatural forces. The New England ‘vampire panic’ in the early 1800s, for example, was a TB outbreak that affected entire families. The deaths were blamed on the first victim of the family somehow feeding off their surviving relatives frombeyond the grave. When they exhumed bodies to try and prevent what they assumed was vampiric activity, their worries were (mistakenly) ‘confirmed’ by the fact that TB victims would often be found with their mouths full of blood.

Mange and movie mania
In the 1990s, stories of a mysterious creature feeding on the blood of livestock started to emerge in Puerto Rico. Locals called the culprit the chupacabra (‘goat eater’), describing it as a beast with long claws and spikes along its spine. Its victims would be found with vampirelike puncture wounds on their necks but no sign of other injuries. The tale of the chupacabra soon spread across Latin America and the southern US, but by the 2000s witnesses’ descriptions became far less alien. The creature was said to be hairless and canine. Investigator Benjamin Radford, a research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, set out to find the truth. Over five years he interviewed witnesses and collected evidence, including specimens of livestock victims and alleged chupacabra bodies. DNA analysis of the ‘chupacabras’ revealed they were coyotes, dogs, or even racoons that suffered from mange, which causes itching, hair loss, inflammation and gauntness. It’s also not unusual for dogs and other canines to kill prey with a bite to the neck and not eat them. Interestingly, the first sighting of a chupacabra came not long after the alien horror film Species was released in Puerto Rico. Radford tracked down the first chupacabra witness and discovered she had watched the film sometime before her sighting, making it likely that the initial reports were the product of an overactive imagination.

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