Happy Halloween 🎃🕸🕷!
Pumpkins 🎃, ghosts 👻, spiders 🕷, witches 🌒 and the undead ⚰
For one day each year they fill you with dread 🦇
But no matter what haunting 👻 and creepy 🕷 things fill you with fear 👀
For this year’s 🎃 Spooky Science💀 post there’s something I want you to hear
They hide in the shadows and long for the light
For they are vampires ⚰, forever imprisoned by night 🌒
The moon 🌒 is their sun, the night is their day
Blood is their life, and you are their prey ⚰!
But are these tales just tales, or could these characters be reality?
Let’s see if science can unlock the secrets behind what real life vampires ⚰ would be?
My poetry skills still leave a lot to be desired, but I sense they might have been a slight improvement on last year’s spooky Halloween poem attempt. But I’ll leave the rhyming to the poets and switch instead into the science.
Vampires! What do we know about them? They are sensitive to light. They are sensitive to garlic. They have a terrifying obsession to consume blood. They are fictional characters. Or are they?
While the legends and myths have created the vision of a vampire that we all know and thousands of Halloween costumes will be based off of this year, there might actual be some scientific reasons behind those blood-thirsty traits, such as sensitivity to light, garlic and an obsession to consume blood.
Photosensitivity, fangs and blood lust
No matter what your favourite vampire show is, whether it is the classic Dracula or the more recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is always a reason why they can’t step outside into the sunlight. Usually they will burn up. Sometimes they can go out but are weakened. And then there’s Twilight which I won’t go into. But needless to say the origins of this vampire characteristic lies in nutrient deficiency or a genetic mutation. Of which, both can cause sensitivity to sunlight.
Pellagra is a disease resulting from the lack of niacin or vitamin B3. When corn was discovered and brought back to Europe in the 1500s, it rapidly became a dominant staple crop consumed by the poorer classes. But it turned out that the explorers didn’t bring back the processing technique and so these people were eating it raw. But here is the problem – corn contains the essential vitamin niacin, but it is inaccessible in its raw form and so wasn’t digested leading to a vitamin deficiency. The processing technique allowed the release of niacin and thus it’s digestion. But the deficiency lead to pellagra and sufferers are hyper-sensitive to sunlight. If exposed, the skin would often turn shiny with scaly areas, or red with blisters – altogether giving them the appearance that the sun was burning them. Also, the brain starts to degenerate causing the person to have insomnia, anxiety, aggression, and depression. Often the persons stomach bleeds, meaning they can not eat normal food and can often digest only blood – which all points towards other behaviours characteristic of vampires.
Porphyria is a group of diseases often claimed to be the vampire disease because of a photosensitive trait. This one though is the result of a genetic mutation and results in the accumulation of red and purple pigments in the body. Heme is a component of haemoglobin aiding in the transport of oxygen around the body, but it is also produced in eight stages all of which are catalysed by different enzymes. In each step, the intermediate products are porphyrin. At any stage, should there by a malfunction due to a genetic mutation the process halts and porphyrin accumulates. Because the malfunction can occur at any step in the process, a different porphyrin can build up and result in different symptoms. The malfunction in turn results in the lack of heme for normal red blood cells. Interestingly, one possible method of treatment is a blood transfusion because the heme pigment can survive digestion and be absorbed by the intestine. Therefore it has been suggested that drinking blood can relieve symptoms, further contributing to the vampire myth. Despite being rare, the fact it is genetic means that in isolated pockets inbreeding could have increased its occurrence such as in Transylvania! I do wonder if the producers of Blade were inspired by this disease: In developing the serum for Blade, Karen asks Whistler why vampires need to drink blood to which he replies ‘because their own blood can’t sustain haemoglobin’. Karen responds by saying that it is a genetic defect showing similarities to this genetic disease.
Some forms of this condition, such as cutaneous erythropoietic porphyria (CEP), lead to deposition of toxins in the skin. Sufferers are often sensitive to light since light activates these toxins. When active, toxins eat away at the skin causing disfigurement and blistering to look like the sun is burning their skin away. Or those toxins can even eat away at that person’s gums making their teeth look longer. Perhaps fang like. These factors could have led to the corpse-like, fanged appearance that we associate with vampires and their dislike of sunlight.
Interestingly, people who suffer from porphyria also have an intolerance to foods that have a high sulphur content … such as garlic. You know that food that vampires really dislike! But this part of the myth could stem from the anti-microbial properties of garlic and vampires not wanting to drink the blood of people who had just eaten some for fear it would heal their ‘vampire disease’. There’s even a scientific study that was published back in 1994 that asked if garlic does protect against vampires!
Another possible explanation for vampires is tuberculosis (TB). This is a lung disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The reason this disease has been suggested as the origin of the vampire myth is because victims turn very pale, often avoid the sunlight and cough up blood. This is actually due to the disease damaging the lungs, but it’s easy to see how it could be misinterpreted as someone having recently drunk blood. According to this study, the vampire myth may also have arisen from the fact that TB spreads rapidly and easily from person to person. The infectious nature of this disease may have led to the belief that the vampire rises from the dead to feed on his loved ones, causing them to suffer the same symptoms.
An intriguing alternative explanation is catalepsy. This is a disease of the central nervous system leading to a slowing of the heart and breathing rate, with sufferers often seizing up completely. These symptoms may have led people to mistakenly believe the sufferer to be dead. Therefore, since these individuals were perceived to have risen from the dead, it is easy to see how this disorder could be linked to paranormal mythology.
So, it turns out that the legend of vampires may very well have arisen from a simple misunderstanding of human biology. It is a fitting example of how we need to communicate science and medicine clearly otherwise it could provoke misleading news headlines or an eruption of fake news! But I can kinda let this one slide as it has given us so much inspiration for books, movies and costumes over the years. But at least this Halloween you can explain a little bit more about the science behind your vampire outfit!
So, back to my question, could we all become vampires? Unlikely, although we could accumulate vampire like symptoms and behaviours from a range of different conditions and disorders including many other ways that I haven’t even mentioned in this post – Rabies being one of them!
What other vampire traits do you think could be backed up by science? Or maybe there are other Halloween themed creatures that you have some science behind that you can share? Whatever your plans are, I hope you have a Happy Halloween! Remember to share some spooky science as you go!
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