Throughout human history, a mythical figure has lurked in the darkest recesses of our minds. This figure has captivated our imaginations, fueled our fears, and haunted our collective consciousness, depriving humans of their sense of safety for centuries. The legendary figure responsible? The vampire.
Vampires have long been associated with fangs, the terrifying act of bloodsucking, and the chilling sounds of fear and screams echoing in the dead of night. But how did this mythical creature come to be? Its ability to scare both children and adults has persisted for centuries, leaving us to wonder: could there actually be such a thing as a bloodsucking creature? Well, in a sense, yes. There are mosquitoes, vampire bats, and other creatures that bite and feed on the blood of their hosts.
So, it's not entirely implausible, is it? But what about the transformation of a human into a vampire? This question ignited my curiosity and propelled me on a quest for answers, and I soon found a wealth of information online to satisfy my thirst for knowledge.
Let’s start with the fact that there are things out there that bite us and drink our blood to live. One major pest that we all hate when outside is mosquitoes (I swear they target me!). According to Wikipedia, “Mosquito mouthparts are very specialized, particularly those of the female, which in most species are adapted to piercing skin and sucking blood. For this, their mouthparts are perfectly adequate. In contrast, male mosquitoes are not bloodsuckers; they only drink sugary fluids. Accordingly, their mouthparts do not require the same degree of specialization as those of females.” Oh, so it’s only the females that bite and drink blood, um so let’s move on. After all, there’s another creature that thrives on the blood of its victims that’s more similar to humans than we realize…
That creature is none other than, the vampire bat. Vampire bats are important because they maintain our ecosystem by preventing overpopulation of insects that would otherwise cause infestations. However, their similarity to humans is not because they’re good for the environment (we know humans are not) but rather because both humans and vampire bats are mammals. While other bats have lost the ability to maneuver on land, vampire bats can walk, jump, and even run by using a unique, bounding gait, in which the forelimbs are recruited for force production, as the wings are much more powerful than the legs (Hedenström & Johansson, 2015).
A vampire bat has front teeth that are specialized for cutting and are known to attack their unsuspecting prey at night. The inferior colliculus, the part of the bat's brain that processes sound, is well adapted to detecting the breathing sounds of sleeping animals that serve as its main source of food (Wikipedia, 2023). Once the vampire bat locates a host, it lands and approaches silently on all fours. It then uses what’s known as thermoception to identify warm spots on the sleeping animal before penetrating the victim’s skin with its fierce teeth. From this evolutionary trait derives the stories of vampires creeping through our windows at night to feed on us.
Fun fact: The saliva of vampire bats contains a glycoprotein known as draculin which functions as an anticoagulant and is named after the most famous vampire of all, Count Dracula.
So far, we have learned that there are things in this world that do in fact drink blood to survive, such as female mosquitoes and vampire bats. We have also learned that the method that vampire bats use to locate and prey on sleeping mammals led to the current narrative that exists for vampires. Now, let’s investigate the history of vampires and see what else we can unfold.
I found this awesome TV show on Animal Planet, Mythical Beasts. The episode I watched was, "The Curse of the Vampire." The remainder of this blog are notes taken from this episode.
How about we travel back to 1728 where there are claims of a Serbian man named Arnold Paole, who instigated a vampire scare in his village by sneaking into his neighbors' bedrooms while sleeping and feeding on them like a vampire. Eventually, his coffin was unsealed and Paole was found as fresh as the day he died. A stake was driven through his heart and an eerie sound escaped from his mouth. The stake was intended to fasten the vampire in place, not to kill it.
Eastern Europeans used different approaches to prevent vampires from leaving their coffins. One way to immobilize a vampire would be to place a heavy stone onto their chest or hammer a stake into them. Another gruesome method would be to cut off the legs. Sometimes, a sickle was used across the neck to decapitate them if the vampire happened to arise. This got me thinking, how difficult would it be to stake someone? Hollywood makes it seem easy, one thrust to the heart with a wooden stake and the vampire becomes a pile of dust.
An experiment was done by Sarah Hainsworth, the world’s leading expert in forensic engineering; she wanted to know how much force would be needed to stake a human body. A drop tower was used to plunge a wooden stake into a set of raw pork ribs. The experiment revealed several blows were needed to go completely through, which would be exhausting for a human to do. This experiment explains why a hammer was used to stake a vampire to the coffin. So, what made people think the dead were coming back to feed on them?
In the late 1700s, a common link between all the dead bodies of supposed vampires was suicide; which was considered a sin. The bodies of those that committed suicide were buried on the outskirts of society; they were referred to as "lost souls." When a loved one passed away, the body was removed through a window and immediately boarded up. If they were to return home as a vampire, they could not get into the home. The porch was covered in long, thorny branches that would hang above the doorstep. The front door was adorned with a pungent garlic wreath.
What about their thirst for blood? Why do vampires drink blood?
From watching a lot of vampire movies, they always had several victims. The understanding is they want to consume as much blood as possible to grow more powerful. Why is this? Well, medieval people believed blood contained one’s life force, the same energy that kept them alive. When the 17th century English King Charles the 1st was beheaded, people believed that the blood of a king was the most potent of all. People would gather around waiting for the king’s blood to squirt from his neck and stain their handkerchiefs. They also theorized that young blood was to carry the greatest concentration of life force.
Another interesting myth also takes place in the 17th century, with a Countess in Hungary. One day while the maid was brushing the Countess’ hair, she accidentally tugged too hard, causing the Countess to become angry. She slapped the maid and her nails dug into the maid’s skin, splattering blood onto the Countess’ face. A day later, she noticed her skin, where the blood was, now looked younger. The Countess started luring young girls to her castle and killed over 600 of them, allegedly so she could bathe in their blood, remaining forever young. She earned the title of a real-life vampire.
An experiment was done by Sheelagh Heugh, a biomedical scientist and an expert on human blood. She investigated an alchemist who distilled young blood to make it easier to drink the life force. She followed the alchemist’s account by heating up the blood until it boiled, to separate its components to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This process breaks down formed elements in the blood and plasma flows through a tube for collection. It is a golden liquid, also known as pure blood plasma. In medieval times, it was pure life force and was believed that the color gold was the color of the spirit. Sheelagh conducted another experiment; samples of old and young blood were dyed blue. By running an electric charge through the samples, Sheelagh separated the proteins. The more blue there was, the more protein that was present. Old blood showed a light blue indicating little protein and the younger blood was a dark blue, indicating more protein. Young blood had been shown to improve the memory of older mice and reverse systems of aging.
What made people think dead bodies were crawling out of their graves in search of blood? There is an 18th century Serbian tale where a peasant noticed a strange smokey form in front of him. It appeared to be his father who had died three days earlier. The father demanded food, which the son denied. The next day, the son was dead. The monster would feed on others while they slept, biting their necks and drinking their blood. When the body was exhumed, they discovered he had new skin and nails; his hair had grown, and blood had oozed from his mouth.
Dr. Anna Williams, a forensic anthropologist, believes the answer lies with how the body decays. Our ancestors may have misunderstood what they were seeing. The experiment is with a piglet that died fourteen days prior of natural causes. It was buried two feet below the surface. The piglet’s abdomen appeared bloated. This is because gas builds up in the abdominal cavity and causes the body to swell and bloat. This could make it look as though they had a recent meal. Dr. Williams further explains that bacteria that are in the pigs’ intestines are still working after death, instead of digesting the food that is being sent down, they start digesting the body around it. That can create noises and could be misconstrued as the body still being alive.
We are getting closer to the truth now! This all makes sense. Things a medieval villager may have seen while digging up a corpse would be frothing at the mouth; desiccation of the lips causes exposure of the teeth. The skin is dying and receding away from the nails, causing the nails to look as though they are growing.
Decaying corpses undergo a natural but gruesome transformation. As the skin dries and tightens, it pushes beard stubble further out. Skin shrinks back on the hands making nails seem longer as if a corpse is growing claws. As the body’s tissues break down, it becomes infested with gas-producing bacteria. Pressure builds inside the corpse forcing bodily fluids from the nose and mouth making the corpse look like a vampire who has just feasted on blood.
There it is! Scientifically speaking, the myth of a vampire can be explained. Of course, the unknown can be freightening, coupled with our imagination and our own scary fears. But does that mean they don’t exist? That is for you to decide.
I did not go into how the TV show tied vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters together; I can save that for another time. But do you believe vampires are real? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
Next month’s blog will be about the vicious and sadistic ruler known as Vlad the Impaler. You won’t want to miss it!
Hedenström A., Johansson L. (2015). The Journal of Experimental Biology. Bat flight:
aerodynamics, kinematics and flight morphology.
Wikipedia Contributors. (2019, April 16). Mosquito. Wikipedia; Wikimedia
Foundation. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosquito.