Origins of Vampire Lore: Part II

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In my previous post, we got into the gory saga of Vlad III Dracula (1431-1476), the Transylvanian-born prince of Walachia whose penchant for bloodletting led Bram Stoker to borrow his name for the central character in his seminal 1897 novel.

As detailed by scholars Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu in their fascinating book In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires, Vlad III became famous for impaling his defeated Turkish enemies on the battlefield on stakes in the ground and leaving them to die, and also is said to have dipped his bread in their blood while dining. (When his own subjects offended his notoriously prickly sensibilities in any way, they got similar treatment.) 

Vlad’s home, Castle Bran, which is still in existence, bears an unmistakable similarity to Dracula’s castle in both the novel and the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi. Eventually, after being overthrown and imprisoned and then regaining his position as ruler, Vlad III was killed in battle with the Turks in 1476. 

After his death, his head reportedly was sent to Constantinople, where it was exhibited as proof that the dreaded impaler actually was dead. The rest of Vlad was then buried inside a monastery in Snagov, though when his grave reportedly was exhumed in the 1930s, there are differing accounts of whether or not a body was found there. (Today, one Romanian tourism guidebook lists Dracula’s burial place as a popular attraction.)

Judging from this 16th-century portrait of the original Dracula, he looked and dressed more like one of the Doobie Brothers than Stoker’s pale, thin-nosed, feral-looking villain (though they both had moustaches). And he bears even less resemblance to the aristocratic, elegantly-attired ghoul of modern horror cinema. Dracula’s most distinctive sartorial flourish – the high-collared cape – actually was invented by producers of the 1924 stage adaptation of Stoker’s novel, according to David J. Skal’s Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. It actually had a special-effects function – it obscured the actor’s head when he stood with his back to the audience, which allowed him to slip out of the cape and exit through a hidden door to give the impression that he had vanished. 

You’ll also notice in the portrait that Vlad III doesn’t have pointy fangs protruding from his lips. Stoker depicted Dracula as having “sharp white teeth,” but the feral-looking fangs seem to have been added to the vampire persona by director F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (which essentially was an unauthorized adaptation of the novel).

The most distinctive characteristic of vampires, of course, is that they bite people on the neck and drink their blood. Oddly, of all the extreme depravity that’s been attributed to our friend Vlad, that’s the one thing he wasn’t accused of. The notion of a blood-drinking supernatural creature goes back thousands of years, perhaps to the ancient Mesopotamian female demon Lilitu. As J.M. Dixon explains in the Weiser Field Guide to Vampires, thirst for blood seems utterly creepy in part because normal humans can’t tolerate swallowing much of it, due to the high iron content. 

However, some have hypothesized that vampires’ craving for blood might actually have been inspired by an actual medical condition called porphyria, an enzyme deficiency that causes victims to excrete hemoglobin in their urine rather than send it to their blood cells. (England’s King George III is probably the most famous sufferer.) According to the hypothesis, porphyria victims might conceivably have the desperate urge to drink blood in an effort to boost their levels of heme, the iron pigment in hemoglobin. They also can’t tolerate sunlight, which would explain the vampiric aversion to going out in the daytime. 

The disease also can induce mental disorders, which might explain other aspects of vampire-like behavior. It sounds plausible, right? The problem with this explanation: we haven’t been able to find any documented instances of real-life porphyria sufferers who actually took up vampirism…

Explorer: Vampire Forensics airs Feb. 27 at 7p et.