Halloween, the time of year when vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, and other spooks of the night are about, is just around the corner. In costume, of course. Lately, the most popular of these fictional creatures is undoubtedly the vampire.
From the amazingly fashionable young-adult books-to-film series Twilight, by author Stephanie Meyer, to the older yet still popular Anne Rice novels, vampires have been very popular in TV series, books, and movies over the last couple decades. The concept of the vampire is iconic: tall, pale, immortal, seductive, powerful, and sophisticated. He or she wears black or dresses in style, prefers to come out at night, has a hankering for the blood of young, attractive individuals, and doesn’t like garlic or being stabbed in the heart much. (Who does, really?) There are endless variations of this theme. Amazingly, most of these conceptions were influenced by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, and modern fictional vampires are actually almost unrecognizably removed from their centuries-old folkloric origins.
Historical Context: While “vampire” stories exist in many cultures throughout the world, some of the most well-documented and relatively recent cases are from Europe. Vampires were widely brought to the attention of the European public in the early 1700s. In 1718, through the Treaty of Passarowitz, Austria came to occupy parts of Eastern Europe (Serbia and Walachia, previously part of the Ottoman Empire), and the Austrians documented some “unusual” traditions in those areas. Traditions such as regularly exhuming corpses to make sure they’re actually dead, and then killing them again for good measure.
Vampires of Folklore: The vampire folklore stories that circulated in Europe in the early 1700s usually went something like this: Someone in a small village died and was buried, and then days or months later unusual and seemingly inexplicable things began to happen in the village, such as more people dying and/or people reporting being visited and harassed by the deceased in their sleep.
What did the town folk do to stop this activity? Dig up the suspicious corpse and make sure it’s dead, of course. Often, possibly most of the time, when the people inspected the exhumed corpse they found that it was, as suspected, actually a vampire. Consequently, the villagers killed the corpse again by staking in the heart and/or decapitation, followed by cremation, just to be on the safe side. Sometimes the unusual activity would then cease, but often it would continue for years and further measures would be taken.
Looking at some specific, documented incidences can help us better understand the biology behind what was actually going on. The book Vampires, Burial, & Death by Dr. Paul Barber is full of such documented European vampire sightings from this time and earlier, along with scientific explanations. One representative story is from the early 1700s, when an ex-soldier from Serbia named Arnod Paole died by falling off a hay wagon and breaking his neck. Twenty to 30 days after he died, several people claimed to have been harassed by him and four people died. Accusing the corpse of wrongdoing, they dug up Paole, found he was a “vampire,” and duly staked and cremated the body. In this instance, the villagers thought the vampirism was transmitted to the ones Paole had supposedly attacked, and consequently dug up the four more recent corpses and disposed of them similarly.
But this wasn’t the end of Paole’s beyond-the-grave plague upon the town. The villagers reported he had also attacked several cows, and that anyone who ate that meat would also become a vampire. Probably retroactively, they thought this was responsible for the deaths of 17 more people, young and old, who died within a few months of Paole, most after being sick for two to three days. All the new corpses were exhumed and most showed signs of vampirism, though a few didn’t.
That seems like quite a plague of vampires. But how did the villagers determine if a corpse was actually a vampire? What criteria did they use to judge?
Decomposing Corpses: When we take a modern, educated look at these and similar stories, in detail, it’s obvious that the “vampires” were nothing more than decomposing corpses. Lacking the medical and physiological knowledge we have today, it’s easy to see how people back then, upon witnessing friends and family all around them dying for seemingly inexplicable reasons (perhaps plague and other mysterious diseases), would devise an explanation: something (or someone) to pin the blame upon. (It’s also easy to imagine that in such fearful circumstances they might have nightmares in which they thought the deceased visited them.)
Many vampire reports like these were probably due to localized epidemics (especially evidenced by the fast-acting illnesses that people died from), as people didn’t understand how disease was spread, but knew that somehow death caused more death. To compensate for their lack of knowledge, it was accepted that just about any recently deceased social outsider could be a vampire, creating a seemingly endless list of suspects: robbers, suicides, prostitutes, alcoholics, people with illegitimate parents, a seventh child, treacherous barmaids, people who talked to themselves occasionally, someone buried improperly, a murder victim, an excommunicated Christian, or people suspected to be witches or werewolves.
Reported descriptions of what these “vampires” looked like strongly correlate with what we know today happens to a corpse when it decomposes. For example, villagers often found the corpse to be swollen and reddish in color and interpreted this to show that the corpse had, as suspected, been devouring the villagers. However, we now know that bloating is a very normal part of decomposition: Microorganisms, which are present in the intestines during life, upon death break down tissues and produce gas (mostly methane) that can get trapped in body cavities. The corpse can amazingly double in size this way.
There are other ways the “vampire” may look like it’s still alive. According to reports, the fingernails, hair, and sometimes teeth may have “grown,” it may be growing a new, fresh layer of skin beneath an older layer that it was shedding, and may even bleed when cut. But the nails, hair, and teeth only look like they’ve grown because, as the corpse dries out, it shrinks (the average person is about 60 percent water). Likewise, the appearance of a “new skin” is normal; it’s actually due to the epidermis breaking away from the underlying dermis (a process called “skin slippage”). Lastly, after death, blood can coagulate or liquefy depending on the conditions surrounding the death. In a sudden death (e.g., concussion, suffocation), blood is often liquid and consequently the corpse appears to bleed when cut. Liquid blood can even pool in the intestines, giving the appearance of a corpse that has dined on blood (which gushes out when stabbed). Villagers may have even found liquid blood by the mouth, more incriminating evidence of a recent meal. This is again due to gases in the abdomen and/or lungs, this time pushing blood and liquids out through the mouth and nostrils.
Alternatively, an exhumed corpse may be a “vampire” if it displays a lack of decomposition (although most accounts do record some signs of decay, even when they contradictorily claim the corpse was “intact”). While all of the above can happen during normal corpse decomposition, it’s important to note that a corpse rarely decomposes in a predictable manner. Many variables, such as the cause of death, the previous health of the individual, how quickly they died, how they were buried (and whether scavengers could access the corpse), the amount of air, moisture, and heat present upon burial, the time of year they were buried, and other factors, can affect how the deceased decays. For example, someone who dies suddenly decomposes more slowly than one who had suffered a long infection.
Forensic pathologists are familiar with this today. Just 12 to 18 hours after people die, they can show signs of advanced decomposition or even become a skeleton in mere weeks, while another body may be buried for two months and show fewer signs of decay than one buried for a week. (Or, as with mummies, a corpse can be preserved for thousands of years.) So we have quite a well-detailed understanding of tissue decomposition now, but Slavic tradition from centuries past held that a 40-day-old corpse should not be intact when exhumed.
It becomes apparent that just about any corpse suspected of being a vampire, upon being exhumed, could indeed be found to be one: If the body is changed, it’s a vampire. If it looks too unchanged—it’s a vampire. Dr. Barber notes that when he surveyed the vampire literature, only two reports of exhumed corpses concluded with a finding that they were not vampires. But of course, historical records are biased; if no vampire was found, such a story probably did not stay in the vampire canon for centuries.
The Vampire of Modern Fiction: The folklore vampire morphed into the fictional vampire we’re familiar with today starting in the written literature of the 1700s. To create a sinister yet attractive vampire, authors like Bram Stoker omitted features that weren’t so appealing, such as its being bloated and ruddy. Other characteristics were tweaked. Fictional vampires would bite the necks of their victims (a delicate area), while folklore vampires attacked the chest. Garlic became a ward against vampires; in folklore, garlic countered the foul fumes of death in general, which were thought to cause further death.
Other Proposed Explanations: A number of explanations have been created to account for vampire mythology, although most are actually based on the vampire fiction and not the original vampire folklore and consequently have been largely discredited.
One of the theories made prominent in 1985 by biochemist Dr. David Dolphin was that “vampires” were actually people suffering from porphyria, a group of rare, largely genetic disorders that can affect the nervous system and/or skin. People with porphyria cannot make heme, a red iron-linked pigment that is primarily found in blood and bone marrow (as hemoglobin in red blood cells). Heme has many important functions in the body, but it’s the buildup of its precursor, porphyrin, which can have the most deleterious effects on the body. Some of these toxic effects include photosensitivity (possibly severe disfigurement from even mild sunlight exposure), abnormal teeth, purple urine, increased facial hair, neuropathy, hallucinations, depression, and more, depending on the type of porphyria. It is a devastating disease.
But, as is apparent from the stories above, porphyria victims have nothing to do with the vampires of folklore. The latter could go out in daylight, did not have fangs (even though it’s become a symbol of fictional vampires), and certainly weren’t rare. Originally, it was claimed that drinking blood may have alleviated porphyria symptoms, but this has been shown to be false (the necessary enzymes are digested and destroyed when consumed).
Alternatively, it’s been proposed that vampires were people who were buried while still alive but in a coma. However, this doesn’t account for how they could live for weeks without food, let alone air. Nor would it have probably ever been a common occurrence.
While it may be easy for us today to look back and comment on how ignorant people were centuries ago, it should serve as a reminder to constantly evaluate what we hold as “facts” for explaining various phenomena today. Tune in to “Biology Bytes” next week when biological explanations are explored for the origins of other fictional spooks, including werewolves and zombies.
Teisha Rowland is a science writer, blogger at All Things Stem Cell. and graduate student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UCSB, where she studies stem cells. Send any ideas for future columns to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.