Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Legend of the Vampire

Vampires seem to be everywhere. From the starter series Twilight, whose books and movies sparked a craze of "I Heart Vampire" tshirts on an array of window shops and teenage girls, to a bombardment of new novels and pictures such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, the mysterious and intriguing subject of vampires have become quite a fad over the past year. But vampires have been around much longer than since sparkly Edward was introduced. Where did they come from? Why has the world had such a fascination with these mythical creatures for hundreds of years?

Dr. David Dolphin, a scientific authority who has studied liver disorders and other diseases, introduced a theory in the early 80s attempting to explain the origin of vampires. Dolphin suggested that porphyria, a liver disease that results in heme deprivation in the bloodstream, could have inspired the notion of vampires.

Dolphin explains that in the Middle Ages, unlike today when injections of heme into the bloodstream of porphyriacs is possible, the diseased would attempt to aleviate the pain that the illness caused by drinking large amounts of blood. Though not very efficient, many could consume enough blood to pass through the stomach wall, which would temporarily switch off the malfunction.

Other components of the myth, such as their appearance can also be easily explained: "Lesions of the skin can be so severe that the nose and fingers and destroyed [by exposure to the sun.] Although the teeth become no larger, the lips and gums recede dramatically." (The Odd Brain, Dr. Stephen Juan) Moreover, the lack of heme in their blood, and the crucial need to stay out of the sun, would have given porphyriacs the pale skin and gloomy nocturnal existence that is so common in vampire folktales.

Furthermore, the infamous placement of Transylvania as home to the vampires can also be explained. It is a mountainous area, isolated, and intermarriage in the Middle Ages there could have been common.-- Porphyria is a genetic disorder. Biting, another obviously common characteristic, Dolphin claims, could easily have happened, since porphyriacs were so desperate for the blood neeeded to survive. Once a person was bitten by the diseased, if they carried this same gene, it could have been activated, making porphyria wildly contagious in a small area or clan.

Several sources, the most popular being the 1994 film "The Madness of George" suggest that King George III may have suffered from porphyria, explaining his bouts of madness (porphyiacs were known to go into rages; the constant need for enough blood to be healthy would drive a person to insanity at times). However, without DNA testing, there is no way to be sure. Other people through history who are thought to have been afflicted include the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and Vincent Van Gogh.

Though Dolphin's theory may be persuading, many disagree. Other scientific experts suggest the origin is from rabies, or perhaps just the concoction of a good imagination; they resent the label that porphyrias are now haunted with. Modernly, women and men with this disease are few and far between, and the common person knows little to nothing about the illness. Today people can get heme injections, but most are just advised to have a good dietary change and to be careful about sun exposure. No one ever suggests neck biting.

But why is such a far-fetched legend such as vampires still so popular with the people? Why are there still men and women, every once in awhile, who believe themselves to vampires? The display of movies, books, clothing, TV shows and mysterious clubs and religions (such as the officially recognized Vampire Religion) show that the story of vampires is one that will be sticking around for a long time to come.
So help me understand the fascination, and let me know what you think about the porphyria theory and other ideas!

1 comment:

Mira (writing for the American Porphyria Foundation) said...

I can't explain the persistence of the vampire myth, but it is unfortunate that it has given David Dolphin's notions about porphyria so much traction. It is traumatic enough to be diagnosed with a rare and sometimes life-threatening disease — the additional insult of being told they are mythical predators is a cruel trick on patients. I recommend the American Porphyria Foundation's website at for current & accurate medical information about the porphyrias. For example, people with porphyria do not in fact suffer from any shortage of blood, and the part of blood that their bodies have difficulty producing cannot be absorbed through the digestive tract.