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Halloween Research Edition! Vampires and other monsters

Scientists don’t have much patience for myths, science fiction, or pseudo-science. Legends inspire us, but irritate our sense of orderly data. But it can be fun to sleuth out the basis for some of these far-fetched creatures foisted on us by sometimes centuries of retold tales and lurid writings from previous centuries, not to mention Hollywood. What were the bases for these wildly weird and creepy creatures? Is there any scientific basis for these oft-repeated stories?  Let’s consider the red-carpet stars of creatures, shall we? 

Vampires are a staple of our stable-of-creepy, and were brought to life (pun fully intended!) by author Bram Stoker, of course, in 1897. But the story is much older than that. The basis for Stoker’s story appears to be a fusion of an actual character from European history known as Vlad the Impaler, or Dracul (which translates to “dragon’) and a terrible medical condition called porphyria—although there appears to be no evidence that the fearsome warrior Dracul actually had this affliction.

Dracul was a brutal elite warrior in the Wallachia region of what now is Romania that, in the 1400s, led battle against Ottoman incursions into what is now Turkey. His violence on the battlefield and with captives earned him both the monikers Impaler and Dracul. He apparently had little, and likely no, connection to the region of Transylvania, which is also in present-day Romania.

Porphyria is a disabling, genetically inherited disorder of the blood, and it was frequent in the inbred bloodlines of the royalty of Eastern Europe in those times. Afflicted persons cannot properly produce crucial hemoglobin, which is the primary biochemical mechanism by which red blood cells transport oxygen through the body. Multiple problematic symptoms, which would be difficult to conceal, identified the victims. Porphyriacs (the condition persists today, but now is rare) are extraordinarily sensitive to sunlight, and quicky develop disfiguring skin conditions when exposed. Their gums retract, producing the appearance of fangs. In general, their skin and mucus membranes just deteriorate over time, but sunlight exacerbates this greatly. Doctors in previous centuries, appearing to have some grasp of the basis of the problem, recommended that the patients drink blood. So, now we have persons creeping around at night, terrified of sunlight, looking for animal blood to drink. I’ve seen reference to how chemicals in garlic can worsen the condition, but I don’t know the details. Allusions to fear of mirrors and crucifixes are unclear, except that it appears that many afflicted persons were killed by religious and perhaps civil authorities trying to protect the population from the monsters that these poor victims actually did not represent.

Bram Stoker famously rolled all of this into one terrifying story, and the rest is a rich mixture of history, medicine, telephone-game folklore, and the wild imaginations of filmmakers.  More popcorn, please !

Werewolves ?!?!  Yikes, they are scary. I suppose I would be less fearful if I worked in Zoo Atlanta’s Mammal Department—alas, I do not! I’ll stick with toads and vipers, thank you very much. The basis for werewolves seems to emanate from early Greek philosophy and mythology and wolf-to-human transitions that were interpreted to take place from the evidence available to scholars at the time. Specifically, look to the particular tale in which Lycaon (Lykos = wolf, in modern Greek) is a person with sufficiently bad intentions and actions that his moral and ethical deficiencies began to manifest themselves into a monstrous wolf-like physical form.

Let me recommend the fascinating book listed at the bottom of the blog, by author Adrienne Mayor, in which she details the wealth of mostly Pleistocene fossils of mammoths, sloth bears, etc., that the ancient Greeks and other cultures regularly uncovered and how they interpreted them variously as griffons, dragons, colossal humans (e.g., The Colossus of Rhodes). Although author Mayor does not dive into the werewolf myths, she provides plenty of examples in which the ancients interpreted the abundant fossil megafaunal remains in southern Europe with gigantic or otherwise distorted human forms. In fact, in you remove the familiar skin from a large canid or felid mammal, you would be surprised at how subtly humanoid the carcass, or even skeleton alone, can appear—especially if the skull has been mixed with another nearby fossil, is missing altogether, or has been swapped out by a mischievous person with that of a human. A colleague of mine once was surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team after neighbors called in that he was skinning humans on his back porch. In fact, he was legally preparing a road-killed mountain lion he had collected as a research specimen for the natural history museum. Mayor’s book is replete with compelling examples of such (mis) interpretations in literature, art, and even ancient natural-history collections and how they wove their way into myth and legend.

Other interpretations include confusion surrounding hunters or warriors wearing animal skins, including wolf hides, during their activities. Atrocities of war, committed by someone appearing to be a wolf, may be rather convincing to a traumatized survivor of battle. I have read references to rabid humans and the terrifying symptoms deriving from that disease. Finally, hypertrichosis is a rare genetic condition in which long hair covers the entire body, as in most non-human mammals. Historically, perhaps like people with porphyria, afflicted persons with unusual behaviors or physical features may have been culturally excluded or feared.

Pop culture through the ages seems to love to spook itself with exaggerations on themes of monsters. Creative writers, and more recently filmmakers, have tapped a rich source of horror tales to fuel us through each Halloween season and many a night of movie binges. As is often the case of myths (see my Jackalope Blog from October 2021), deep in there somewhere often is a biological basis.

Loch Ness monster? Bigfoot? Chupacabra? Legend of Sleepy Hollow? The Legend of Boggy Creek? This hobby could become all consuming!

What is your favorite myth or legend? Let me know and I’ll see what I can learn about it for a future blog! I’m looking forward to seeing all you around the Zoo this fall and winter.

These resources are very informative:

https://www.livescience.com/40843-real-dracula-vlad-the-impaler.html
https://www.kevinmd.com/2020/03/the-medical-basis-of-vampires.html
Mayor, A., 2011. The first fossil hunters: dinosaurs, mammoths, and myth in Greek and Roman times. Princeton University Press.
https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/werewolf.html

Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl