Graveyard Shift

How 19th-Century Disease Panic Created 'Vampires' As We Know Them 

Jim Rowley
March 20, 2020 4.8k views 12 items

Today, pop culture includes vampires of all shapes and sizes, from the lovelorn teenagers of the Twilight and True Blood franchises to the bloodthirsty antagonists of the Blade series to the militant version of Dracula found in Castlevania. All modern vampires can trace their origins to Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was published in 1897, but the aristocratic shapeshifter in Stoker's novel can trace his origins to diseases that ravaged North America and Europe. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, epidemics like tuberculosis and rabies swept across populations almost unchecked. Since disease and its causes were poorly understood, contemporary medicine offered little help. Facing the very real possibility of a fatal illness, many people turned to superstition for something to blame: vampires. 

Here's the story of how the "vampire panics" of the 1800s - like The Great New England Vampire Panic - inspired the vampire archetype that still scares us today.  

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Townspeople Then Mutilated The Remains, With Rituals Varying By Region

After a suspected vampire was dug up, what happened next varied depending on the region. In some communities in Massachusetts and Maine, the cadaver would simply be flipped over and reburied. In other parts of New England, townspeople would often check the exhumed body's heart for blood. If it contained blood, they concluded it was most likely a vampire.

Typically, the heart was then removed and burned, and family members would sometimes inhale the smoke to prevent further spread of the disease. Other times, family members would eat the ashes.

In one incident in 1892, 19-year-old Mercy Brown of Exeter, RI, succumbed to tuberculosis. Her mother and sister had already passed due to the illness, but then her brother Edwin became sick. Worried townspeople dug up Mercy's grave and discovered blood in her mouth and heart. Thinking she was a vampire, they burned her heart and mixed it into a potion for Edwin to drink. He perished a few months later. 

Families would even dig up relatives who had passed years before, which raised a different issue: what do you do with remains that had decomposed to the point of being a skeleton? If the townspeople decided the skeleton was still a threat, they would often rearrange the bones into a skull-and-crossbones pattern. This served to prevent the undead from menacing the living.  

In Europe, townspeople also dug up suspected vampires and used a variety of rituals to stop them. Suspected vampires are known to have been burned, rearranged, or had a stake driven through their heart - a ritual that made its way into fiction as a way to slay vampires. 

Shocking Archaeological Finds In The 1990s Shone New Light On The New England 'Vampire Panic'

Multiple recent archaeological discoveries have given us much of our knowledge of the Great New England Vampire Panic. In the early 1990s, two boys playing in Griswold, CT, discovered a gravel pit containing 27 graves that collectively belonged to the Rays and Waltons, two families that were ravaged by tuberculosis.

In the 1850s, two sons of Henry and Lucy Ray, Lemuel and Elisha, passed from tuberculosis. By 1854, a third son, Henry Nelson Ray, contracted the disease, and according to contemporary newspaper records, the family dug up Lemuel and Elisha and burned them. Unlike Edwin Brown, Henry Nelson Ray is believed to have lived for many more years, and Lemuel and Elisha were reburied. 

Burning cadavers wasn't the only way the people of Griswold dealt with a suspected vampire. In the burial plot, archaeologists also unearthed a coffin marked with tacks that spelled out "JB 55." In 2019, DNA testing would reveal that "JB 55" was probably a farmer named John Barber.

Inside the coffin, archaeologists found signs that Barber had most likely passed from tuberculosis. They also discovered that five years after his burial, he was dug up, his head hacked from his spine, his femurs placed in an "X" pattern, and evidence suggests someone tried to remove his heart.  

Rabies, Another Prevalen... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list How 19th-Century Disease Panic Created 'Vampires' As We Know Them
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Rabies, Another Prevalent Illness, Caused A Hypersensitivity To Light And Smell; Hence, The Roles Of Sunlight And Garlic

Tuberculosis wasn't the only disease that may have inspired the vampire legend. Rabies was also common in the 1700s and 1800s, especially in Europe. 

Dr. Juan Gomez Alonso of Spain first made the connection between rabies and vampirism in 1998, when he noted that a rabies outbreak in Hungary from 1721 to 1728 was followed shortly after by a "vampire epidemic." 

Rabies symptoms also made their way into vampire lore. As Dr. Gomez-Alonso noted, both rabid animals and rabid people often bite others, which passes along the disease. In vampire lore, a bite from a vampire will turn the victim into a vampire themselves.

Rabies also causes hypersensitivity to sunlight and strong smells, like garlic, which is how vampires came to be vulnerable to sunlight and garlic. Even the belief that vampires can't see themselves in mirrors comes from rabies; as Dr. Gomez-Alonso put it, "a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in the mirror." 

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Photo: Philip Burne-Jones/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Some People Infected With Rabies Were Known To Become 'Hypersexualized'

From Dracula all the way up to Twilight, vampires often have erotic undertones, and this is believed to have originated from rabies as well. Rabies affects the centers of the brain that govern sleep cycles and libido. This can lead to insomnia - which contributed to the notion that vampires are nocturnal - and a heightened sex drive.

In 2014, a rabies patient was found to be able to have intercourse 20-30 times a day. Others were reportedly able to maintain an erection for days. Some depictions of vampires were thought to emerge from their crypts to seduce their victims.

In other words, vampires have been sexualized from the very beginning.