Vampires: A Medical Explanation
By Angie McKaig
As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.
Derived from the Greek word for “bloodlessness”, anemia is a blood disease in which the red-cell count is usually low. Red cells are the carriers of oxygen throughout the body. When a person suffers from anemia, their symptoms are caused by inadequate oxygen. These symptoms may include:
A pale complexion
Shortness of breath
These are three main causes of anemia: disease, heredity, and severe blood loss. Over the ages, a person suffering from these symptoms may have been under suspicion of a vampire attack. Once again, myth warps to suit the needs of the believer. Although the victim may have contracted a disease or simply have inherited the blood disorder, society would have found it easy to believe that the symptoms resulted from a vampire attack. Indeed, these symptoms may even have suggested to our ancestors that the victim was beginning his own transition to a vampire, marked with a pale complexion and trouble eating food.
Catalepsy is a disorder of the nervous system that causes a form of suspended animation. It causes a loss of voluntary motion, a rigidity to the muscles, as well as decreased sensitivity to pain and heat. A person suffering from catalepsy can see and hear but cannot move. Their breathing, pulse, and other regulatory functions are slowed to the extent that to an untrained eye, it would seen as though they were deceased. This condition can last from minutes to days. Before 20th century medicine came along, there were few diagnostic tests that could be done on a body to ensure it was in fact dead, and so it is possible and even likely that persons suffering from catalepsy could have been declared dead prematurely. Embalming a corpse before burial is also a 20th century idea, so it’s very possible that these bodies were declared dead and buried while the person still lived. Upon recovering from this catalytic state, the person would try to dig their way to the surface. Many myths may have arisen from this single condition alone.
Of all the disorders and diseases even loosely linked to vampirism, the most bizarre must be porphyria. It is rare hereditary blood disease; its symptoms so closely match the myths associated with our modern conception of vampirism it’s eerie. A victim of porphyria cannot produce heme, a major and vital component of red blood. Today, this disease is treated with regular injections of heme into the body. However, as little as fifty years ago, this treatment was unavailable and the disease unknown. In the past, a porphyria sufferer would show symptoms that include:
Extreme sensitivity to sunlight
Sores and scars that break open and will not heal properly
Excessive hair growth
Tightening of skin around lips and gums (which would make the incisors more prominent)
This disease would likely cause the victim to only go out at night, in order to avoid the painful rays of the sun. In addition, while garlic stimulates the production of heme in a healthy person, it would only cause the symptoms of porphyria to become more painful and severe. Porphyria was eventually discarded by scientists as a reasonable explanation of the vampire myth that has pervaded out history. Although vampire accounts of the past bear little resemblance to the dashing figure we romanticize today, these may have been contributed to out look at the vampire in film and fiction: pale skin, extended incisors, even the fear of the sun!