More ‘Disease’ Than ‘Dracula’ – How the Vampire Myth Was Born

In today’s mainstream culture, the vampire may take numerous forms, from Alucard, Dracula’s dashing progeny in the PlayStation game “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” to Edward, the passionate, idealistic lover in the “Twilight” series. In many ways, today’s vampire is a long cry from its origins in Eastern European legend. I am constantly amazed by the vampire’s popularity, considering its roots – as a demonic monster closely connected with sickness – as a professor of Slavic studies who has taught a course on vampires called “Dracula” for more than a decade.

Attempting to explain the unknown

Vampires were first mentioned in writing in Old Russian around 1047, shortly after Orthodox Christianity was introduced to Eastern Europe. The name “vampire” has unknown roots, although its literal meaning might be “the creature at the feast of sacrifice,” alluding to a potentially deadly spiritual entity that people thought could come at funeral ceremonies. It was a euphemism used to avoid saying the creature’s name, and historians may never discover what it called, or when ideas about it first developed. The vampire fulfilled a similar purpose to many other evil beings in mythology across the world: they were blamed for a range of issues, including sickness, during a period when germs and viruses were unknown.

Scholars have proposed different ideas linking certain diseases to vampires. Because vampire myths evolved over time, no single disease is likely to provide a simple, “pure” origin for them.

However, two in particular exhibit strong ties. One of them is rabies, which is derived from a Latin word that means “madness.” It is one of the world’s oldest illnesses, transmissible from animals to people and spread mostly through biting — a clear allusion to a typical vampire feature.

Other strange links can be found. Hydrophobia, or a fear of water, is one of the disease’s most common symptoms. Rabies victims avoid eating, drinking, or even swallowing their own saliva because of painful muscle contractions in the esophagus, resulting in “foaming at the mouth.” As an extension of this symptom, vampires are said to be unable to cross-rushing water without carried or being supported in some way. Furthermore, rabies can cause a dread of light, disrupted sleep patterns, and increased aggressiveness, all of which are characteristics of vampires as depicted in many folktales.

The second condition is pellagra, which is caused by a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) or tryptophan in the diet. A diet heavy in grain products and alcohol frequently causes pellagra. Europeans brought corn back to Europe after landing in the Americas. However, they skipped a crucial stage in the preparation of corn: washing it with lime, a procedure known as “nixtamalization” that can lower the risk of pellagra. Dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and mortality are all symptoms of Pellagra. Various patients also have a great sensitivity to sunlight, as shown in some vampire representations, resulting in corpselike skin.