Stop Medicalising Vampirism!

Just a quick comment on an article that appeared on the usually excellent Atlas Obscura a little while back. It starts out OK, but fairly quickly we hit an error. The first image is of the alleged home, not of Vlad III, “Dracula” but his father Vlad II “Dracul”. We could simply read between the lines here, since Vlad III is further alleged to have been born in that house (both claims are shaky, in fact, as I will eventually get around to explaining). However, the caption states that the real-life Dracula was “was born in Romania in the 14th century”. That’s a century out, not to mention that Vlad’s contribution to the Stoker novel was actually very limited, being limited to a brief fictionalised biography that also confuses Vlad II and Vlad III, and a Victorian equivalent of a copy/paste of “Dracula” and “Transylvania” for the original draft’s “Count Wampyr” and “Styria”. The author of this article ought to know this, and I wonder if this is an editorial cockup inherited from the original ‘The Conversation’ article (on a related note, why do people keep buying articles from that site?). 

Then it gets really wrong in the thrust of its argument, which is a rehash of several post-hoc medical/scientific explanations for vampirism that have been debunked numerous times:

“…two in particular show solid links. One is rabies, whose name comes from a Latin term for “madness.” It’s one of the oldest recognized diseases on the planet, transmissible from animals to humans, and primarily spread through biting—an obvious reference to a classic vampire trait.”

The massive problem with this explanation is that the vampires we’re taking about here are strogoi mort – animated corpses that the villagers identified as such, to the point of often digging up the suspect and trying to (re)kill them (and yes, I’m familiar with the strigoi vui, which were not thought to suck blood and were directly analagous to the western [living] witch). This is classical post hoc BS history; X disease resembles our modern impression of what Y folklore concept might have been, therefore X caused Y. When in fact there’s zero evidence for this and at best it’s unfalsifiable speculation. Based upon one article in a neurology (not a history or folklore) journal, the author also concludes that the rabies sufferer’s fear of water must be related to folklore tales of vampires being unable to cross running water (nope, that was witches again), and disturbed sleep patterns (yet again, the vampires we’re all talking about here are animated corpses, not insomniacs) plus increased aggression (I suppose any amount of aggression from a corpse qualifies as “increased”). Even the original rabies article from 1998 says that this explanation is just one possible cause of the vampire myth. You don’t have to be a folklore buff to realise that disease symptoms in the living cannot explain them in the dead. 

The second alleged vampire disease cited in the Conversation/Atlas Obscura article is pellagra, and is even less convincing since the author himself admits that it (and this is the second of his two top candidates for the origin of the vampire myth, remember);

“…did not exist in Eastern Europe until the 18th century, centuries after vampire beliefs had originally emerged.”

As Doctor Evil would say, “riiiiiiiiight…”. So how is there in *any way* a causal link between the two? There isn’t even any tradition of the classical blood-drinking vampire in the Americas; only its tuberculosis-causing cousin. No, sorry, these and in fact all disease explanations for vampirism have been, remain, and always will be, terrible. Just stop. Now, to redeem Atlas Obscura, here’s a much, much better article of theirs that completely agrees with me, and makes the excellent point that these lurid claims are not victimless, since real living people have to suffer with diseases like porphyria. 


4 thoughts on “Stop Medicalising Vampirism!

  1. Uhmm. What about photophobia? Or spending years forcefully eating garlic-rich food in Hungary? And detesting what one sees in the mirror? It doesnt have to be diseases of the body, but of the Soul.

    1. What about it? Sensitivity to light is not part of vampire folklore, nor are mirrors. I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the garlic thing but garlic actually IS a folkloric apotropaic against vampirism – but in no case has any living person been accused of being a vampire due to sensitivity to garlic. Again, you need to look beyond Dracula to actual folklore. I recommend Paul Barber’s book ‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’ as a good starting point.

      1. Garlic is indeed apotropaic After the 15th century.

        “Equally, in late 19th-century and early 20th-century folklore, garlic – which, incidentally, was reputed to repel wolves – became important in deterring vampire activity in countries suchas Romania and Moldova; garlic pieces might be added to graves or placed inside dwellings to restrict the movement of vampires, and domestic entrances might be rendered impassable by anointing them with crushed garlic[…]”.

        “Sensitivity to light is not part of vampire folklore, nor are mirrors.”
        Exactly! So that might be an explanation why Stoker wrote these about ‘count’ Dracula. These novelists couldn’t do that by themselves. They must have picked these supernatural ocurrences from data about which we do not know of. You see, as you explained to me in other thread, these vampire constructs were borrowed, right? Stoker borrowed it from one writer, who borrowed from another, and so on, so forth. But — borrowings from whom/what? There needs be a research going beyond Western Europe literature, going into oral tales in Eastern Europe.
        As Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. But — who/what was great before these borrowers?

      2. Yes, I am very familiar with the vampiric association with garlic. At no point have I said otherwise. You’re the one who brought it up.

        Your logic in your final paragraph is entirely circular. You assume that Stoker took these aspects from prior writers, then you further assume that these writers must necessarily have picked them up from the real world? Your thesis seems to be that all vampire attributes in ‘Dracula’ come from actual folklore or medical aspects of real history. No. The onus is, I’m afraid, on you to provide evidence of this. However, I wouldn’t advise rushing out to try to prove it, since we know very well from what sources Stoker took his inspiration and his ‘information’ on vampirism. Can I suggest that you get hold of Elizabeth Miller’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula’ and read it before taking this conversation any further? I’m very happy to discuss but you seem to know little of the necessary background here.

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