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Rabbit Hole of Research
Okay, now that you stopped laughing, let me say it again, “Vampires Suck!” The first Vampire movie I remember seeing was Fright Night—I was probably around 10 years old and I had seen my fair share of monster movies. Zombies, werewolves, serial killers, supernatural creatures, xenomorphs, and The Thing, but vampires freaked me out the most.
The way they slink around acting all friendly, their pale skin, lust for blood made my skin crawl. But, while recently watching Lost Boys I thought about the science of vampires. What’s up with the sun avoidance, why blood, and why are they so sexy-cool?
I only see my neighbor at night. Do you think they are a vampire?
While this is the classic start of vampire B-horror movies and some A-movies, let’s not jump to any conclusions, because this movie has to have a runtime over 1.5 hours. So, what makes a vampire a vampire?
A vampire is a folklore creature (thought to have existed for millennium, though-out all cultures) that subsist by feeding on the blood (or life energy, looking at you Lifeforce, and those space vampires).
The term vampire, and the idea we most associate with vampires (blood, garlic, sun, sexy-cool) was first popularized in 18th-century Eastern Europe, which lead to corpses being staked and hysteria over a pale faced stranger. The charismatic, sophisticated, sexy vampire created in 1918 when “The Vampyre” was published by John Polidori (writer and physician). And the 1897 novel “Dracula” sealed the deal for what we consider a blood sucking, super chill, wearing sunglasses at night vampire.
A lot of the folklore surrounding vampires and propagating the myth comes from pre-industrial cultures trying to resolve the mysticism surrounding death and decomposition.
When “vampire hunters” checked on buried corpses, they based their accusations of a vampire on how decomposed the body was, how dark the skin looked, and how much the hair, nails, and even teeth grew (this is because of the shrinking of surrounding tissues and fluids not real growth). Unfortunately, these vampires sleuths lacked any scientific method, and staking the heart seemed to work, the corpse never did rise again.
Taking one more step back, premature burial also had a lot to do with the myth of vampirism, because it seems back then being buried alive was common.
Imagine, as this poor person wakes up in a dark box screaming, scratching, trying to beat their way out, the people standing some feet above would freak out and call their Uncle Lenny who just got their license as a “Vampire Hunter” to check it out. And sure enough, Uncle Lenny would discover the scratch marks, bloody nose and mouth on the corpse from thrashing around—and good Ol Uncle Lenny would have his handy stake and the legend of the vampire grows stronger. Because as I stated above, no scientific method and the staked corpse stayed dead.
And when all else fails, blame contagion. That’s right, the handy stand by. Most of our monster lores have some disease at the root, and vampires are no different. A family falls ill mysteriously—vampire; tuberculosis running rampart—vampire; bubonic plague, bloody swollen lips—vampire. Disease is a favorite of fiction and movies—Maybe … but more on this later.
So are you saying we should call the police and tell them about our shift neighbor who only comes out at night carrying a lumpy carpet roll to the dump—drained of their blood—
Wait one garlic cheesy bread second, what’s up with the blood?
Could you have a creature that needs to drink 10-12 pints of blood (that’s how much is in an average human adult) a night to stay alive? And why?
So, one theory, by a biochemist David Dolphin, is that Porphyria causes vampirism. For those that don’t know, Poporphyria is a disease that causes porphyrins to build up in the body. The best known is heme, the pigment in red blood cells, part of the protein hemoglobin (If you remember I did a deep dive into the rabbit hole on blood a bit ago, ‘’).
If porphyrins build up in the body, it affects the skin and nervous system causing abdominal, chest, vomiting, high-blood pressure, high-heart rate, confusion (none of these sound very sexy-cool), and to complicate matter your skin could blister if exposed to sunlight.
So, the idea is that vampires suffer from Porphyria and have to drink blood to replenish their heme supply and somehow this heme will go from stomach to the bloodstream easing their symptoms so they can be sexy-cool (I’m looking at you Team Edward).
Yeah, I’m not spending a dollar on that Handwavium. Neither did the biochemist, David Dolphin, who did not publish this work, but it still gained media attention. Look I’m talking about it. The idea was interesting, there are a lot of diseases and disorders that require blood transfusions (anemia, cancers, hemophilia, liver disease, kidney disease, sickle cell, etc), but these are direct transfusions into the bloodstream. Remember the stomach has acid and breaks down proteins and then off to the intestine where nutrients are absorbed, so the blood a vampire drinks never makes it to their bloodstream.
I guess the vampire’s teeth would need to work more like a needle and directly transfer blood from the victim directly into their bloodstream. Maybe that could work—
Okay, it seems the blood thing is just weird and not really part of the original folklore, just a creepy fictional vampire lifestyle, someone being a sanguinarian (looking at you, Lady Gaga and your American Horror Story: Hotel).
Or the vampires could have Renfield’s syndrome, which is named after a character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. People with this syndrome actually feed on blood, human or animal, and believe it makes them healthier.
Just to circle the wagon on this one, drinking blood is not recommended. Human bodies are not designed to handle the excess iron in the blood. If you digest large amounts of blood (more than a teaspoon), you could get a condition called hemochromatosis (harmful iron build up in the body).
Okay, enough about blood. What about this death by sun thing?
Sunlight is essential for human health and well-being (generating Vitamin D, bone heath, lower blood pressure, mental health). So, being in the sun is good, but not if you are a vampire.
Digging down this rabbit hole, there are people who have sun allergies, and will get an itchy rash leading to sun poisoning. Sun allergies seem to have some genetic factor (you’re more likely to have a sun allergy if someone in your family has one also), but can be caused by medicines or chemicals in lotions and soaps.
This may have lent a hand to the lure of vampires, but no one is bursting into flames, just an irritating red, itchy rash. That may feel like burning, but not as dramatic, cue the special effects department. But still this is something and could explain why vampires only come out at night, all sexy-cool.
Okay, that’s the real reason we all want to become vampires—the sexy-cool thing—right? Can we make that happen?
Did you say, Rabies?
That’s right, all the cool kids that want to become vampires are doing it—Rabies (please don’t) . Dr. Juan Gómez-Alonso, a neurologist in Spain, connected all the dots, from rabies to vampires.
1) Rabies makes infected hypersensitive to garlic and sunlight.
2) Rabies affect the brain and sleep cycles (sleep all day and party all night)
3) Rabies causes hypersexuality.
4) Rabies can drive an infected person or animal to bite others, causing a bloody frothing at the mouth.
Rabies for the save!! Maybe this vampire thing isn’t all Handwavium. The only thing I forgot to mention is since 2016, only 14 people have survived a rabies infection after showing symptoms (Rabies causes ~59,000 deaths/year).
Okay, rabies leaves a bit to be desired, but it reduces the amount of Handwavium we need to use to make this vampire thing work. There is one last issue I’d like to tackle (ignoring psychopathy, politics, psycho dynamics)—The human to bat issue.
Human to bat, is that possible?
Can a human transform into a bat in seconds? I did an episode about werewolves (Everything You Wanted to Ask a Werewolf Under a Full Moon, but Were Afraid to Ask.) and I’m going to go with 100 percent pure Handwavium on this one.
This part of the vampire legend is a recent addition to the folklore, and stems from the discovery of the vampire bat in the 16th century (leaf-noosed bats found in South America and feed on blood). There are no vampire bats in Europe, but they did associated other bats and owls with vampires because of their nocturnal habits.
Also, vampire bats were named after the folkloric vampire and not the other way around.
Okay, okay. I hear y’all groaning out there about the fact Dracula transforms into a bat several times in the novel and in the 1931 film, Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi transformed into a bat. Maybe I will have to go down this rabbit hole at some later date, but human to wolf was very difficult and I’m sure human to bat would need an enormous pile of Handwavium as well.
What’s it all mean, is my neighbor a vampire?
No, your neighbor works from home, likes to party, and doesn’t enjoy cleaning rugs when someone spills Chardonnay on them. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep some garlic handy, check his medical records for surviving rabies, and snoop around looking for their sleeping chamber and coffin. Yet, be careful, sunlight nor a stake through the heart may work to stop the vampire—but what can we do—Camera #2 fade to black—
As the vampire, Jerry Dandrig, in Fright Night said, “You have to have faith for that to work Mr. Vincent…”
But that’s for another rabbit hole…