Vampires: Myth or misunderstood?

Vampires have been part of the human menagerie of nightmares for quite some time, and have experienced a recent surge of popularity due to books like Twilight and shows like “True Blood” and “Supernatural.” But while these dangerous (and oft-times charming) denizens of the night are ubiquitous in modern culture, one can’t help but wonder what spawned the myth in the first place. Before vampires were demons, fiends and forbidden lovers, what were they?

Perhaps the most obvious precursor to the vampire myth is the presence of bloodsucking creatures in the animal kingdom. Vampire bats are even named for the monsters they may have inspired, and many vampire stories claim the dapper undead can transform themselves into bats.

There is more than what meets the eye with vampires these days. Image from Dr. Macro’s Movie Scans.

But out of the 1,000 known species of bat, only three species feed on blood, and it turns out that even these aren’t as sinister as might first be thought. Two of the species (the hairy-legged and the white-winged) don’t gravitate towards humans or even towards mammals — they feed mostly on birds. The common vampire bat, however, does feed on humans, though more usually on cattle, horses and other livestock.

Unlike the monster it may have inspired, the bite of the common vampire bat alone is not enough to kill a person. The bite of an infected bat can transmit rabies, however, making the seemingly-innocent creature more dangerous than it might appear at first glance.

But it turns out bats aren’t the only ones to blame for our nightmares. Storytellers and local gossips spinning tales of fanged fiends might have been inspired by people suffering from porphyria.

Porphyria is a hereditary, non-contagious disease caused when the body can’t manufacture hemoglobin properly. Symptoms include a negative reaction to sunlight (to the point of blackening skin and bursting sores), seemingly-elongated teeth (caused by receding gums) and even sensitivity to certain chemicals present in garlic. To top off the parallel, some porphyria patients were rumored to drink blood in an attempt to get hemoglobin into their systems and ease their pain.

The link is speculative at best, though, and has been criticized as being tenuous and unscientific. Dr. Joe Schwarcz explains that while patients do excrete purple urine, it has nothing to do with drinking blood — and in fact, drinking blood would not provide any beneficial results or relieve any symptoms. He also suggests that it’s detrimental to porphryia patients to equate their disease with vampirism, and creates an unnecessary and harmful stigma.

It’s also possible that vampire myths arose largely from ignorance about what happens to a body after death. Due to natural process of gas buildup and bloating in a corpse, it’s not unusual for blood to start seeping from the dead person’s mouth.

Regardless of which (if any) of these speculations are true, one thing seems clear. Vampires and tales of the undead arose from misunderstandings of natural processes, and a need to be able to explain frightening things about our environment. While such fantastic attempts to explain serious realities such as disease and death might seem sad or even sadly amusing, the bright side of the story is shown by humanity’s desire to learn and investigate. In light of this consideration, it may even be possible to forgive such creations as the “Twilight” films.