Coffin Medicine

New research explodes the bloody myths of vampirism

Scary tales about vampires and werewolves continue to be a lucrative Hollywood staple. The evil bloodsuckers who slept in caskets, hid from sunlight, and feared crosses and garlic, have experienced a movie renaissance with the recent sawtooth cinema of Blade and John Carpenter's Vampires, while the premise of hairy, lupine creatures baying at a full moon resulted in the Christmas 1997 release of An American Werewolf in Paris.

Now comes an explanation for these devilish stories. Professor Tikkanen of the California State University at Los Angeles believes these so-called vampires and werewolves instead suffered from porphyria, a blood disease that affects one in 100,000 people. While nowadays porphyria is easily recognized and treated with medication, it was quite another situation in Romania and Hungary during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Porphyria causes sensitivity to sunlight, hence the habit of roaming about at night. As symptoms worsen, the skin blackens and ruptures; abnormal amounts of hair grow around the scars; the face takes on a cadaver-like appearance; and burned lips peel back to make the teeth more prominent while the nose erodes. In extremely advanced cases, the fingers disintegrate, making the hands resemble the werewolf paws of the cinema.

Tikkanen reports that while porphyria does not produce a thirst for blood, some individuals afflicted with the pain caused by the disease may have drunk animal blood as a folk remedy.

The fear of crosses may be connected to a dread of religious inquisitors who wanted to destroy these individuals: As an extreme example, a 16th-century judge had 600 people burned at the stake. The myth of the vampire fearing garlic also seems related to porphyria: Garlic stimulates the creation of certain substances in the blood of porphyria sufferers, which can make them violently ill.

Tikkanen discovered a few case reports in which disease victims were found hiding from the sun in coffins or buried under a few inches of dirt in the woods--which led to the superstitions that vampires like to sleep in coffins and can rise from the dead.

Next time we see a vampire or werewolf movie, we should be aware of the real monsters: The individuals who executed hundreds of sick people because they mistook their disfiguring disease as evil.

Author: Sam Graceffo, M.D.
Source: Syracuse New Times
Originally published: July 20, 2005


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