There are few archetypal icons in history that have been as pervasive and enduring as the vampire. Since 1819, when the characterization of the vampire was first seen in John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the idea of the blood-sucking predatorial creature of the night has matured, swept across the globe, and encaptivated the minds of pre-teens and historians alike.
However, the iconic vampire, as it is known today, truly began with Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, first published in 1897. In his rendition, Count Dracula, a reclusive, Transylvanian vampire, was based loosely on a historical figure by the name of Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was well known for his brutality, impaling his enemies (the Ottoman Empire) on large stakes, and presenting their bloodied bodies outside his castle to all those that dared enter his domain. As for the fictional Count Dracula, his methods of murder were more secretive, and his personality less vicious. He is portrayed as a seductive and affluent man, with a demeanour that one may attribute to nobility. But as the story goes, he also hides a bestial rage; a rage that rears its ugly head in the presence of blood.
It is these traits that would lay the foundation for the vampires that we see today in films like Twilight, Blade, and Underworld, but where did they first originate? What inspired Polidori and Stoker’s tales?
To answer this question, one could look into real-life conditions, the kind that leave people in a state that others may assume to be vampiric. This is, after all, how many legends are born. Why not the vampire?
Take porphyria for example, an inherited blood disorder that results in the body producing less heme (a component of hemoglobin—the protein in blood responsible for carrying oxygen).
Porphyria is a disease characterized by symptoms that are very similar to the fictional curse of vampirism. Those with porphyria have an extreme sensitivity to light, their gums recede which makes their teeth appear fang-like, their urine turns red (so those who saw the symptom believed they may have been drinking blood), and they adopt a revulsion towards garlic (due to its sulphur content as it could exacerbate a painful porphyric attack). On top of all these terrible symptoms, the condition would disfigure the face, making them understandably avoidant of mirrors, and due to their unwarranted prosecution by Christians during the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), they were often afraid of those that carried the crucifix.
Another ailment, albeit, a psychological ailment, is known as Renfield’s syndrome (first referred to as clinical vampirism). Jokingly named after the character from Stoker’s Dracula, this condition leaves the sufferer with an obsession surrounding the drinking of blood as an erotic experience, or for a sense of power and control. Since 1892, over 50,000 people have been recorded as having clinical vampirism, and, according to the literature of forensic psychiatry, Renfield’s syndrome was often connected with extremely violent crime. Though Renfield’s syndrome was never listed as a valid diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, it nonetheless was recorded as an issue in the past. Psychologists today would characterize Renfield’s syndrome as a form of schizophrenia or paraphilia.
So, perhaps the idea of the vampire was not solely a creative manifestation, but an adaptation of actual human conditions. That being said, despite the glaring similarities between the actual ailment of porphyria and what was written in Dracula, porphyria was first classified by H. Gunther, a physician, in 1911 (14 years after Stoker’s first publication of Dracula). Renfield’s syndrome, however, was first recorded in 1892 (5 years before Dracula) by Richard Von Krafft-Ebing who studied human sexual behaviour. Perhaps Stoker caught wind of Von Krafft-Ebbing’s research.
Whatever the case, perhaps a wooden stake and a clove of garlic aren’t the worst items you could bring with you on a midnight stroll.