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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.

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Let's Take a Stab at the Medical Myths Surrounding Vampires

Posted: 10/29/2012 11:17 am

If you buy into the current pop-culture craze about vampires, they're simply the most intriguing, seductive creatures around, trapped in torrid love triangles with young, beautiful people. With super-speed, super-strength, killer wardrobes and a thirst for blood that can't be slaked, the "undead" now dominate the box office, rack up ratings and top the bestseller lists. Whether it's vampire Bill guzzling True Blood in the swamps of Louisiana, Edward Cullen brooding in the twilight of the Pacific Northwest, or revenants hunted by Abraham Lincoln (?!), the public never has seemed more obsessed with saying fangs you very much to these mythical demimonde.

But let's dig deeper into their past, racing beyond creepy Count Orlok of black-and-white cinematic fame and dashing across historical Europe to ask whether whispers of health, medicine and science can stake out a different view of vampires: A considerable body of scholarly work seeks to explain what might have created the folklore of the vampire or Nosferatu -- a name that comes from the Greek nosophoros, or plague-carrier.

Records of vampire-like creatures can be found in ancient religions of Tibet, India and Mexico. Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian and other ancient cultures also appear to have held beliefs involving a dead figure who returns to life in its own body and feeds off the living. Similar myths exist in European, Chinese, Polynesian and African cultures.

Our modern ideas about these monsters probably originated in Scandinavia and the British Isles but really took hold in Central and Eastern Europe in medieval times. In a region of what is now Romania, the unspeakable deeds and a reputation for barbarism gave rise to the posthumous name for Vlad III Dracul, a prince of the region, as "Vlad the Impaler." In turn, this inspired author Bram Stoker's legendary tale, making Dracula a synonym for vampire. Of course, even in modern times, we occasionally read about a psychotic killer who cannibalizes his prey (remember Jeffrey Dahmer).

Even more fundamental to vampire lore may be a misunderstanding of the death and disease people once encountered in their everyday lives.

Take for example a theory that stoked considerable debate when it debuted in 1985, written up in the New York Times. David H. Dolphin, a biochemist from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the group of porphyria diseases could have inspired both werewolf and vampire myths.

He noted that this rare class of genetic illnesses in which chemicals involved in the synthesis of hemoglobin called porphyrins are deposited in the skin and other organs and can cause extraordinary sunlight sensitivity: even mild sunlight exposure can be disfiguring to the skin and make the lips of the afflicted so taut that their teeth gain a menacing prominence. He also theorized that before modern treatments were available, victims instinctively might have sought to replenish biochemical needs by biting others and drinking their blood.

Porphyria, which is thought to be the malady that struck King George III, causing his madness, since has been dismissed by other scholars as a cause for vampires -- or werewolves. For starters, the most disfiguring form of the disease is rare. Further, the vampire myth itself has shifted over time, so the creatures of the 18th and 19th centuries were believed to be able to exist outdoors, in daylight; they weren't thought, as is the case now, to writhe and vaporize when exposed to the sun. So there's another medical theory that seems drained.

Other culprits? Rabies and tuberculosis have been linked to the myth. Another possibility is pellagra, a dietary deficiency of niacin -- a B vitamin -- and tryptophan, which is more often written about in conjunction with Thanksgiving rather than Halloween.

Pellagra became a common malady after American corn was introduced to Europe. As the poor relied increasingly on cornmeal as a staple in their diet, pellagra outbreaks rose. The disease is marked by dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea and death. The dermatitis causes skin sensitivity, including redness, cracking and swelling of the lips -- reminiscent of Stoker's infamous count and his vampire brides.

Exactly how diarrhea contributes to the vampire myth is a stretch. But those suffering pellagra often stopped eating because they had lesions in the esophagus, stomach and colon, also causing their diarrhea. The vampire myth says the undead shun normal victuals. Pellagra patients also often suffered dementia, leading to their incarceration in the oft-terrifying mental asylums of the day, contributing to others' fears about the dangers of the diseased. Because pellagra tended to infect entire communities, it could be common for one recently ill and deceased to leave behind family and neighbors who, in turn, developed the disease. To others, this could create the illusion that the departed had returned from the grave to afflict the living all around with a horrible wasting.

Part of what makes vampires so intriguing is that there are historical accounts: official reports from priests, surgeons and magistrates. Bodies were exhumed and dissected by surgeons who wrote reports. The vampires were, as Paul Barber writes in the widely cited article "Forensic Pathology and the European Vampire," documented by the scientific method. Military officers, physicians, village authorities and others all describe clearly the dead rising, groaning, dripping with blood, flushed and un-decayed. Contrast this to what we know happens to corpses -- they turn pale, blood in them coagulates, limbs and torsos stiffen from rigor mortis and decomposition occurs with alacrity.

So what to make about these inaccurate portraits of death and the dead? Well, they may partly be explained by the general and widespread ignorance by a largely uneducated, unenlightened society about processes the body undergoes after death. We need to remember that, while death was brutal and common, handling of the dead often was surrounded with rite and ritual and reserved to a few at the extremes -- clerics, on the one hand, and some of the most abject and sketchy -- grave diggers and the like.

Science and medicine, it's worth recalling, also were still in their infancy, with the ancients thinking, for example, that four "humors" (blood, phlegm and black and yellow bile) were essential to the bodily health and they needed to be "balanced." Blood-letting became a common and widespread practice, with leeches, special knives and extraction, in some cases, of considerable volumes from patients. The best minds of the day could, at best, make superficial observations about the workings of the body and such key functions as the blood, with scientists lacking such crucial advancements and tools as the microscope.

Barber compares the depictions of vampiric death processes to Ptolemy's astronomy: Wrong, but ultimately valuable. And while Ptolemy developed his theories on his own, we also need to remember that the vampire mythology was created bit by bit over the course of centuries, so it's hard to trace and dissect with precision.

Despite all the wrong elements in this long-running saga of the undead, there are truths told, too. You may think you know everything about the postmortem body based on what you've picked up by watching all those police procedural shows. Dead bodies, for example, don't groan and they're not all that gruesome, are they? Pathologists, coroners, undertakers and others who spend time around cadavers might correct you: as part of decomposition, the face swells and discolors, the abdomen distends from gases, a blood-stained fluid may bleed from the mouth and nostrils, hair may appear to grow because the facial skin sinks back.

Apologies if that's too frank and gory. But it does begin to sound like a description of your garden-variety Nosferatu, doesn't it?

A reminder, too, that decomposition occurs slower in lower temperatures or in extreme heat where mummification may occur, instead. The lore claims that those who are murdered or who die of plague are most likely to become vampires. These also the same poor souls, who, alas, history tells us were likely buried in hasty, shallow graves. The carelessly disposed of bodies may have disturbed loose dirt as they decayed, so it may have seemed the corpses were rising -- or perhaps they were dug up by feral dogs or wolves, leading to the notion that vampires and werewolves are supernatural enemies.

By the way, if you're hoping for some garlic-based protection from blood-suckers like vampires, Norwegian researchers have found that, at least as far as leeches are concerned, the stinky bulb attracts rather than repels such pests.

Meantime, there are, of course, some friendly folks eager today to get your blood -- for all the medically sound and beneficial reasons of course: They're the Samaritans at your local blood donation center. They can tell you that the gift of blood is life-saving and life- sustaining. At my medical center alone, we use nearly 60,000 units of blood and blood components for care for patients confronting cancer, heart disease, transplants and other serious medical conditions.

While you donate, you can even watch television, movies and surf the Internet to catch up on all those vampire movies you've been missing. I can't think of a better way to ensure you have a Happy Halloween!

 
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