Vampirism: Spooky Fiction Or Bloody Truth?

Spooky season is upon us! Even in this unprecedented year, we’re off searching for Halloween costume ideas and donning our homes with ghostly decorations. All this ghoulish talk calls for a good old-fashioned scientific investigation on a very unique monster, the vampire. Despite this almost house-hold name, scientific literature on this topic is meager but fear not because we’ve sifted through rather interesting articles to put this together. After all, this creature is very popular and even romanticized in the form of novels and television. However, in the 20th century, it was not only a character much-feared upon but was also more predominantly known as a real-life clinical condition.

The argument for vampirism as a medical issue arises from a class of diseases known as porphyria characterized by defects in red blood cells. As the condition progresses, it can form these clumps of biochemical molecules called porphyrins (Maranda et al. 2016). Interestingly, these accumulations cause “photo mutilation” in areas of the skin exposed to the sun and result in cracking skin and blood-red eyes. These symptoms were thought to possibly influence Bram Stoker’s horrific novel Dracula which first introduced us to this creepy ghoul (Prins 1985).

One of many covers of the infamous novel Dracula by Bram Stoker

Porphyria definitely paints a solid picture of vampires but we’re missing a key element here: the human blood-sucking curse that we all know and fear (or love). Interestingly, scholars of the 20th century had suggested that this unique, presumably fictional, feature was inspired by the treatment of porphyria. Their idea was that doctors at the time not only advised patients to avoid sunlight but also persuaded them to drink blood to replace that lost by bleeding (Prins 1985). This connection to vampirism, however, has never been proven true but it leads us to our next issue – that thirst for human blood does exist. 

“…doctors at the time not only advised patients to avoid sunlight but also persuaded them to drink blood…”

The abnormal action of human blood-feeding has been documented and attributed to a mental disorder known as Renfield’s syndrome. This illness characterizes an obsession over drinking blood; a thirst for one’s own blood is called auto vampirism while seeking other humans’ or animals’ blood is zoophagia. According to Psychology Today, the disorder begins at puberty when the act of seeing or ingesting blood as part of an injury blend in with the teenager’s natural sexual development. In other words, the line between growing sexual fantasies and blood blurs, and consuming blood becomes a compulsive desire. 

Actor Dwight Frye in his role as Renfield in Dracula (1931). The blood-thirst illness, Renfield’s syndrome, is named after his character.

So should we be taking this seriously? Is vampirism really a form of mental illness? A case study by Sakarya et al. (2012) demonstrates how vampirism is a type of dissociative identity disorder and even has elements of post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of the symptoms – apart from the bloodthirst, of course – seem to mirror these anxiety disorders which further steers vampirism toward a psychology route.

Dissociative identity disorder is often a reaction to trauma in which the mind develops two or more distinct personality states.

But psychiatric focus on vampirism has long but worn off over the decades. A thorough review study on vampirism by Suibhne and Kelly (2011), discusses the incredible interest in this odd illness by many psychiatrists in the 1960s and 70s. Both the physiological definition of vampirism in terms of porphyria and the mental aspect of the disease were hot topics to doctors and psychologists of the time. However, each group of scholars had their own ideas as to what vampirism entailed. Some described it as a social phenomenon caused by trauma or stress, some focused on the red blood cell defect, and others claimed it was a disorder similar to schizophrenia. According to Suibhne and Kelly (2011), it was these different interpretations of vampirism that led to its slip away from the medical field. 

So the real scare this Halloween season is that this fictional character that some fear and others adore actually mirrors an eerie disorder in real life. What’s scarier is that there isn’t much information, both from a medical and research standpoint, that could help people who potentially display vampirism. So in reality, being a vampire is not as flawless as Damon Salvatore or Edward Cullen make it to be.

Actor Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore on the TV series, The Vampire Diaries

Do you think vampirism is a legit medical issue or an incredibly rare and misunderstood thing of the past? Do you believe its roots lie in physiological or mental problems? Do you know of any other odd illnesses? Let us know in the comments below. Happy Halloween!


References

Mac Suibhne, S., & Kelly, B. D. (2011). Vampirism as mental illness: myth, madness and the loss of meaning in psychiatry. Social history of medicine, 24(2), 445-460.

Maranda, E. L., Heifetz, R., Estes, W. A., Cortizo, J., Shareef, S., & Jimenez, J. J. (2016). Porphyria and vampirism—a myth, sensationalized. JAMA dermatology, 152(9), 975-975.

Prins, H. (1985). Vampirism—a clinical condition. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 146(6), 666-668.

Ramsland, K. (2012, November). Vampire Personality Disorder. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201211/vampire-personality-disorder 

Sakarya, D., Gunes, C., Ozturk, E., & Sar, V. (2012). ‘Vampirism’ in a case of dissociative identity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 81(5), 322-323.

One thought on “Vampirism: Spooky Fiction Or Bloody Truth?

  1. Interesting indeed….
    During this pandemic, whether it is a fiction or a truth , it really triggers shivers in the spine.

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