When we hear the word vampire, we automatically think of a human-like creaturewith long fangs that feeds on people’s blood. Vampire myths have been around for ages and they continue to be a part of our culture today.
According to popular folklore, a vampire is a creature that feeds on the life of another living being. In some Eastern and Native American cultures it represents a sort of demon. In Europe, the myth is of Slavic origin. Here the vampire is depicted as a human who comes back from the dead, drinking the blood of others in order to sustain his own “living corpse”.
Where does the vampire myth originate?
The vampire myth probably arose from mankind’s need to personify ‘darkness’, one of the primordial archetypes of our collective unconscious. An archetype refers to the way in which we symbolise the most primal of experiences, common to all of us: life, death, love, desire… They all take on different archetypes, such as “God”, “the old man”, “the spirit” or “the hero”.
Darkness often represents the atavistic and primeval personality that everyone keeps hidden, behind violence, anger, hatred, etc. The need to represent these traits may have given rise to the first “stories” about vampires in our culture.
Porphyria: a possible explanation for the personification of the vampire
Porphyria refers to a group of hereditary diseases characterised by the absence of a protein partly responsible for the synthesis of red blood cells. There are several types of porphyria, each causing a range of symptoms. These include anaemia, high blood-pressure, insomnia, madness, paleness and hypersensitivity to the sun. On rare occasions porphyria can even cause an individual’s gums to grow, making their incisors appear larger than normal!
In ancient times, healers used to give animal blood to the sick to alleviate symptoms. Also, the consumption of garlic would often aggravate the disease. Therefore, it’s not difficult to see the correlation between these diseases and the myths surrounding the vampire.
The creation of a character and an identity
It is believed that, over time, these stories began to take hold in the folklore of Eastern Europe and the characters were strengthened by certain historical events. In 1732, in Hungary, the neighbours of a village demanded that the body of a recently dead man be dug up. They claimed that he had been returning at night and disturbing the cattle. They called him a vampire and it was in the report that the word first appeared.
In contrast, in a tale written by William Polidori in 1819, the vampire appears for the first time as being seductive and aristocratic. Polidori was the personal doctor of famous aristocrat Lord Byron, expelled from England for a series of sexual scandals. From then on, many other authors, such as Bram Stoker, cinematographers and other artists have given names to these characters and contributed to the creation of a more modern, iconic image of the vampire.
But, what actually is a vampire ?
Leaving folklore and myths for a moment, we find a very different reality: vampires as animals. There is a species of bat found in forests and plantations from Mexico to northern Chile and Argentina. Besides being nocturnal, they are haematophagous animals, which means they feed on blood.
Just as bats are the only mammals that can fly, vampires are the only mammals that feed exclusively on blood. There are three species: The common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), the hairy-legged vampire bat (Diphylla ecaudata) and the white-winged vampire bat (Diaemus youngi).
To feed, vampires crawl on all fours up to their victim, which is normally a sleeping vertebrate. Thanks to the thermal sensor in their nose, they can detect where warm blood is flowing. They pierce the skin of their victims with their long incisors and drink the blood which, due to their anticoagulant saliva, fails to clot. The amount of blood they actually extract from their victims (usually cattle or wild ungulates) is minimal, and has not effect on the animal.
Vampire bats have rarely been reported to attack humans. In these cases the problem is not blood loss, but the possible transmission of rabies. Consequently, the characters from folklore, its origins, and these species of bats combine to form a profile of a vampire, which films like Nosferatu and Dracula impressed upon our minds.