Explainer: Myths and realities about vampires
"Eclipse," opening June 30, is the third big-screen adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series of vampire romance novels. The stories revolve around the tangled relationship between the human Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and the vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Heartthrob vampires are, of course, fictional creatures drawn from a rich history of myth and reality. Click ahead to learn more.
Bloodsucking humans in medieval times
This 16th-century woman, whose remains were excavated during an archaeological dig near Venice, apparently had a brick shoved into her trap because she was thought to have a thirst for human blood.
Scholars trace the myth that humans rise from the dead and suck the blood of others to medieval ignorance about how diseases spread and bodies decompose.
When mass graves were re-opened during epidemics to deposit fresh corpses, the diggers often encountered older, bloated bodies with blood seeping out of their mouths — conditions that scientists now know result from the buildup of gases in decomposing organs. In earlier times, however, this was regarded as a sign that the corpses were drinking the blood of others.
Medieval Italians thought that the only known way to kill the undead was to stick a brick in their mouths so that they would starve, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University.
This skull with a mouthful of brick, he said, is "evidence of exorcism against a vampire."
Bloodthirsty bats in the mythological mix
Bloodthirsty bats entered the vampire mythology when explorers of the New World returned to Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries with tales of winged mammals that fed on the blood of humans and their livestock under the cover of night, biologist Bill Schutt says in his book "Dark Banquet." Schutt distinguishes between the real-life bloodsuckers of the animal world ("vampires") and the mythical creatures ("vampyres" with a "y").
"Gradually, the folklore of vampyrism began to incorporate the bat and batlike characteristics into its lexicon. Bats were prime candidates for superstition and unwarranted fear, and they would become forever linked to vampyrism in 1897 with the publication of Bram Stoker's novel, 'Dracula,'" he writes.
Dracula based on a Romanian warlord
The Dracula character was inspired by a 15th-century Romanian warlord who impaled his victims with a wooden stake and then covered the landscape with the decaying bodies to scare off his enemies.
This warlord was named Vlad III. Vlad II, his father, was indoctrinated into the Order of the Dragon around 1431 and was thereafter known as Vlad Dracul.
Vlad III's impaling ways had earned him the nickname Vlad Tepes, or Vald the Impaler. Those who preferred to avoid the "impaler" title instead called him Dracula, which translates to "son of the Dragon."
The historical Dracula, however, was never associated with vampire lore until Stoker's novel, Paul Barber notes in a Skeptical Inquirer essay entitled "Staking Claims: The Vampires of Folklore and Fiction." This fact seems lost on thousands of tourists each year who visit Romania to see Bran's Castle, marketed as Dracula's Castle.
Porphyria: The 'vampire disease'?
An Internet search on the words porphyria and vampire results in hundreds of links to Web pages explaining — and often debunking — the association between the group of rare blood disorders and the origins of vampire myths.
Porphyrias are characterized by irregularities in the conversion of chemical compounds called porphryins into a substance called heme, an iron-rich pigment in the blood. This irregularity causes a buildup of porphryins.
Symptoms of some forms of porphyria include sensitivity to sunlight, a la Dracula, that causes skin rashes such as the one shown here.
A few scholars have suggested that vampires of folklore actually suffered porphyria and sought to treat themselves by drinking blood. Barber notes in his Skeptical Inquirer essay that this idea is widely perpetuated "even though we have no evidence either that drinking blood would alleviate the symptoms of porphyria or that any live people were accused of drinking blood — it was always corpses."
Vampire bats lick, not suck, blood
Perhaps sucking sounds sexier than licking — but truth be told, vampire bats lick their victims' blood instead of sucking it down, according to scientists who study the creatures. The bats use heat sensors to locate veins and cut into them with sharp teeth. As blood oozes out, the mammals lick it up. A chemical in vampire bat saliva prevents the victim's blood from clotting, allowing the bat to feed uninterrupted. Side note: A drug based on this bat-saliva chemical helps prevent strokes and heart attacks in humans.
Bats aren't the only blood-feeders
The infusion of bats into vampire lore has given the winged mammals extra attention, taking the spotlight off even creepier critters and creatures that reap their nutrition from human blood.
High up on Bill Schutt's list are bedbugs, which have staged a historic comeback in recent years to the torment of everyone, even guests at ritzy hotels. Experts blame the resurgence on everything from the bugs hitching a ride back to the States in the luggage of international travelers to ineffective means of pest control such as bait traps in lieu of pesticides.
Another bloodsucker occasionally in the news is the leech, which is widely used in medicine for skin grafts and reattachment surgeries. An infamously notable application of the latter was the repair of John Wayne Bobbit's widely publicized penile amputation in 1993.
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