Every Tenet Of Vampire Folklore Could Be Attributed To A Rare Blood Disease
Photo: Nosferatu / Film Arts Guild

Every Tenet Of Vampire Folklore Could Be Attributed To A Rare Blood Disease

Vampires - mischievous creatures who wander the night in search of human blood - evoke fear and fascination alike. Perhaps best represented by Dracula, vampires hold a distinct place in literature, folklore, and popular culture - representative of an existence somewhere between life and death, of potential immortality on the mortal plane of existence.

Throughout history, the belief that vampires exist has been perpetuated by myth, unexplained phenomena, and active imaginations. Some individuals even self-identify as vampires, giving validity to the term. Typically thought of as pale, sun-sensitive beings with fangs who abhor garlic, many of the attributes of vampires resemble symptoms of medical conditions, most notably porphyria.

Often referred to as the "vampire disease," porphyria refers to a group of blood diseases caused by a rare genetic disorder. Whether or not porphyria is a real-life vampire disease remains the subject of debate among scholars, but there are stark similarities between its symptoms and the development of vampire lore. 

  • Porphyria Diseases Affect Hemoglobin Levels, Resulting In A Variety Of Symptoms
    Photo: Abraham Janssens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Porphyria Diseases Affect Hemoglobin Levels, Resulting In A Variety Of Symptoms

    There are eight types of porphyria, all of which involve a malfunction of the body to create heme. In an individual without porphyria, heme is made from porphyrins - organic compounds that bond with iron. Hemes gather into groups, four of which constitute a molecule of hemoglobin.

    Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth between the lungs and bodily organs and tissues. Hemoglobin is essential for healthy respiration and metabolic function.

    When someone has porphyria, the precursors to heme - porphyrins - ineffectively or unsuccessfully link with iron, ultimately hindering heme development. Porphyrin buildup and insufficient heme in the body lead to one of the porphyria disorders.

    Porphyria disorders are classified into categories - acute and cutaneous. The symptoms of acute porphyria affect the nervous system but often only last for a short time. Cutaneous symptoms manifest themselves in the skin. Experts also distinguish further among porphyrias, identifying erythropoietic porphyrias that affects the bone marrow, as well as liver-specific hepatic porphyrias. 

    The symptoms of porphyria have striking similarities with the physical characteristics of vampires. Depending on the type of porphyria one has, the disorder can cause sensitivity to light, pale skin, anemia, and numerous other attributes that have become synonymous with vampirism.

  • Those With Porphyria Have Extreme Reactions To Sunlight

    Symptoms of erythropoietic porphyria - a form of the disorder that often develops in children - include blisters, rashes, and burns on one's skin.

    Also associated with so-called sun allergies, erythropoietic porphyria causes fatigue and a pale appearance, "with increased photosensitivity because they can't come out in the daylight," according to Dr. Barry Paw of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Paw continues, "Even on a cloudy day, there's enough ultraviolet light to cause blistering and disfigurement of the exposed body parts, ears, and nose.

    Vampires have long been presented as sensitive to light - even subject to combustion when exposed to the sun. In Dracula, the title character makes daylight appearances, only to have his powers weakened as a result. More modern depictions of vampires on television and in movies feature painful, burning reactions to the sun. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampires can be wiped out by direct sunlight, comparable to its fatal effect on vampires in movies such as From Dusk till Dawn.

  • Many With Porphyria Become Literal 'Creatures Of The Night'

    Because of the sensitivity to light, burns, and pain caused by porphyria, many individuals with the disorder find solace in the dark. To avoid blisters and skin irritations, those with porphyria may avoid light altogether or wear dark clothing to protect themselves.

    Porphyria can also result in pain and restlessness at night, causing those afflicted to become so-called "creatures of the night," whether they want to or not.

    The inability to tolerate sunlight experienced by many with porphyria shouldn't be confused with the choice by so-called "real vampires" to make nighttime their own. While studying a community of self-proclaimed vampires in New Orleans, John Edgar Browning spent numerous nights with blood-letting individuals who derive energy and psychic strength through their efforts.

  • Porphyria Can Cause Severe Anemia

    Porphyria can lead to additional medical conditions, namely anemia. Caused by iron deficiency resulting from low hemoglobin, anemia results in pale skin, insomnia, and fainting spells. Weakness brought on by anemia was also thought to be a sign of vampirism, generally identical to the aftermath of a vampire attack in fiction.

    The appearance of someone with anemia resembles that of a vampire, but treatments for the secondary affliction may further contribute to links between porphyria and vampirism. In 1985, Dr. David H. Dolphin posited that anemic individuals with porphyria may have craved blood, trying to alleviate their own symptoms. 

    Modern treatments for anemia include supplements and blood transfusions, but drinking blood has been offered as an alternative in the past. In the ancient world and during the Middle Ages, individuals with anemia were sometimes given blood to drink, something that continued well into the 19th century. In 1921, physician and nutritionist John Harvey Kellogg wrote:

    More than 40 years ago, when the writer was a young practitioner, the drinking of blood was for a time almost a fad with persons suffering from anemia. Prominent physicians regularly recommended their patients to visit city abattoirs to drink blood from the cut throats of [slain] animals.

  • In Some Cases The Disease Has Caused Teeth To Resemble Fangs
    Photo: Dracula / Universal International

    In Some Cases The Disease Has Caused Teeth To Resemble Fangs

    In severe cases, porphyria can cause inflammation of the mouth, tongue, and gums, a condition that may cause one's teeth to appear red. Additionally, scarring and tightened skin around the face can lead to receding gums and lips, making canine teeth look like fangs.

    Unlike vampires, who appear to possess larger teeth than their human counterparts, individuals with porphyria have regular-sized teeth. It wasn't until the 20th century that the widespread representation of vampires with fangs took hold, in part driven by developing film and television media.

  • Porphyria Can Cause An Aversion To Garlic
    Photo: Edouard Manet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Porphyria Can Cause An Aversion To Garlic

    You may have always wondered why vampires don't like garlic, but the explanation could be based in a symptom of porphyria. Traditionally, it's been thought that garlic was able to ward off vampires thanks to either its curative properties or its pungent odor. Throughout history, garlic has been used to both treat various diseases and keep evil spirits at bay.

    According to Dr. David H. Dolphin, however, garlic contains a chemical that seems to exacerbate the symptoms of porphyria. It's possible garlic makes anemia worse, or that overconsumption can cause certain types of the condition.