Graveyard Shift

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

Jim Rowley
March 20, 2020 5.1k 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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Photo: Cristóbal Rojas/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
A Tuberculosis Outbreak In The 1800s Caused A Lot Of People To Painfully Wither Away

Tuberculosis, or consumption, is an infectious disease that originates from bacteria, and it plagued New England in the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries. Contemporary medical science had little knowledge of the disease's causes or its potential treatments; germ theory wouldn't be proposed until the 1870s and not widely accepted until the 1880s. The disease would ultimately wipe out 2% of New England's total population, making it one of the deadliest in human history.

There was no vaccine or antibiotic to treat it. The only commonly available treatment option would have been to send a tuberculosis patient to a sanatorium. Those who couldn't afford a sanatorium turned to folk remedies and mythical explanations. 

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Photo: Edvard Munch/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Tuberculosis Acted As Though It Was 'Draining' A Person's Life Force

People were rightfully terrified of tuberculosis itself, but they were also afraid of tuberculosis patients. One 18th-century doctor wrote, “The emaciated figure strikes one with terror. The forehead covered with drops of sweat. The cheeks... a livid crimson. The eyes sunk... The breath offensive, quick and laborious.” 

It's easy to see how such a frightful disease can also captivate the imagination, and many symptoms of tuberculosis would eventually become the characteristics of vampires: fatigue, appetite loss, and weight loss. It was "almost as if something was ‘sucking the life’ out of them,” according to retired Connecticut state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who has excavated the remains of New England "vampires" buried in the 1800s. This is how people came to believe that vampires would suck the blood of their victims. 

Other tuberculosis symptoms inspired more details about vampires we know today. It was known as "The White Plague" because tuberculosis patients would often become pale - just like classic depictions of Count Dracula.

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Photo: Edvard Munch/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Panicked Citizens Worried That The Deceased Were Rising 

The way tuberculosis spreads also contributed to the vampire panic. Those infected can take days to show symptoms, and because the disease often spread among family members, an infected relative might not begin displaying signs until after the original carrier had passed.

Lacking a modern medical understanding of the disease, people concluded that their own relatives were rising from their graves and returning to suck the life force out of their living family. Others believed deceased family members still had spiritual connections that allowed them to contact their living relatives without even leaving their graves. 

These beliefs would inspire the first versions of the vampire legend. “This was not... bats flying through the night,” says Nicholas Bellantoni, a retired archaeologist. “This is not Bela Lugosi.”

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Photo: R. de Moraine/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Desperate Townspeople Responded By Digging Up Graves

Since people believed that their own undead family members were a threat to their safety, and since there was still a very real possibility of contracting tuberculosis, fear and paranoia were widespread. Some communities responded by digging up the deceased and "[eradicating] the vampire again" to stop them from bothering the living.

Author Michael E. Bell describes these as “therapeutic exhumation[s]." Often, it was the living family members themselves who would be digging up and ritualistically mutilating their relative's body. Bell has recorded 80 instances of therapeutic exhumation in New England in the 1800s. The practice also occurred in Europe for centuries.