. . .I could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one's flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer, nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the super sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited, waited with beating heart.
from Jonathan Harker's Journal
Vampires. Love them. Hate them. They're everywhere in one form or another. We all know them--mythological undead that feed on the blood of the living. Often described as gaunt and pale, vampires have dated back from the early Nineteenth Century. Although they have been recorded in most cultures, the term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe.
But what makes a vampire?
In the mid-1980s, police in Virginia arrested twenty-year-old Jeffery Wainwright for murder. The vic? Charles Brownell, a forty-three-year-old brick mason and self-proclaimed vampire and although he called himself a vampire all his adult life, no one took him seriously. After Brownell disappeared for two weeks, neighbours became suspicious when they found a trail of blood outside his apartment. What the police found inside, was a gruesome sight of human organs, tissue and blood. The police suspected Brownell of murdering an innocent then fleeing.
Scientific evidence proved otherwise, finding that the bloody evidence was of Brownell himself. What was most intriguing of all, were that tests of the victim's liver showed that Brownell had suffered from porphyria, a rare genetic disease in which heme (the red pigment of the blood) is not properly biosnthesized, occurring in 1 of every 30,000 people.
To a sufferer, even mild exposure to sunlight can be devastating, creating lesions of the skin that can be so severe that the nose and fingers are destroyed. Although teeth don't become longer, the lips and gums were said to recede dramatically. Not only that, but some sufferers were said to become hairy. Could what some people call vampirism simply be a case of porphyria sufferers trying to alleviate the symptoms of their disease? It is thought, that perhaps if a large amount of blood were drunk, the heme in it would supply the missing heme in the sufferer, although this method is not very efficient. Today, porphyriacts are treated with heme injections, however, in the Middle Ages, when injections were impossible, drinking large amounts of blood would have been the only way of getting the necessary supply of heme. Since death can result from heme insufficiency, it is expected then, that personality changes and dementia are psychiatric symptoms would occur.
And because porphyria is genetic, it is noted that many siblings share the same defective gene, with only one showing disease symptoms, creating local pockets of porphyriacs (such as mountainous, isolated Transylvania). It has also been noted that a strain on th system, such as the sudden and major loss of blood, can trigger the disease in a person already genetically pre-disposed.
What about garlic? In vampire folklore, garlic was used to ward off vampires. In many drugs and chemicals that destroy heme, there is a feature in common with the principal constituent of garlic (dialkyl disulfide). Which could result in both a deterrent and an increase of severity.
Of course, although we now know that porphyria patients are NOT vampires, porphyria might have contributed to the origin of the vampire legends.