How the Spread of Disease Juiced the Lore of Vampires Into Pandemic Proportions

October 28, 2020 By Jane Kelly, Jane Kelly,

The vampire is a powerful symbol. Over the years, it has been used to illustrate societal fears and conflicts, from race relations in the 1972 film “Blackula” to gender identity, like the homosexuality explored in Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, “Interview with a Vampire.”

Today, vampires have become somewhat idealized – take actor Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of the dreamy vampire Edward Cullen from the Twilight movies. And so the question often arises: “What was the vampire originally?” Was it sexy and cool?

In actuality, the vampire was not cool, nor was it sexy. It was something to fear and, most important, in folklore it served as a symbol of disease.

In our current pandemic, the causes of disease are fairly well-understood because we have medical knowledge. For the ancient Slavs in parts of what is today Eastern Europe, the vampire was used as a way to explain away mysterious deaths caused by then-unknown diseases, thereby becoming the thing that caused disease. In fact, almost any disease could have been connected to vampires, and a particular period in the 18th century led to a literal and figurative “Vampire Epidemic.”

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UVA Today reached out to Stanley Stepanic, an associate professor of Slavic languages and literature and an authority on vampires who has taught a popular course, “Dracula,” at UVA for more than 12 years, to learn more about the interplay between the Slavic folklore of vampires and the evolution of disease discovery.

Q. Can you describe the vampire in original folklore?

A. Though folklore is known for variation, the original Slavic vampire is easy to explain. In most cases, the creature was a reanimated corpse that returned to prey upon the living.

Today, most people assume that means it drank blood, and though it could do this, it did not necessarily need to do this. Sometimes it merely collected blood, and other times it could devour its prey, including the bones. Animals were also one of its potential targets, especially those that were central to rural life, such as cows or horses. It was, in essence, an entity that could harm human beings in almost any way, whether directly or indirectly.

One of its most important features was its ability to spread disease. One of the most well-known terms for vampire, “nosferatu,” which has been translated as “bringer of plague,” is actually an incorrect transliteration of a Romanian word that became famous through the 1922 German film “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” (“Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror”); Bram Stoker’s novel, “Dracula” (published in the United Kingdom in 1897 and in 1908 in Germany) upon which it was based; and before that “The Land Beyond the Forest” (the 1888 book version), in which Stoker found the word “nosferatu” for his novel.

shadow creature
According to Slavic folklore, vampires represented both the cause and the result of yet-undiscovered diseases. (Photo by Matt Whyman via Creative Commons)

Some think that “The Land Beyond the Forest” was the first appearance of the word, but it can be found in German sources 20 years older and based on other inaccurate representations of the Romanian language in these sources, it is most likely an incorrect transliteration of the Romanian word “nesuferit,” which can be translated as “the insufferable one.” In Slavic culture this word brings to mind the idea of “the unclean,” which can include disease, but as far as being exclusively about disease this is inaccurate.

So, in spite of its roots in disease, how did the vampire even arise as the pop culture icon it is today? It is largely due to the rapid movement of folklore outside of Eastern Europe during what is today called the “Great Vampire Epidemic.”

Q. What was the Great Vampire Epidemic?

A. There are some people who incorrectly assume the vampire arose in Slavic belief in the 18th century, largely due to misconceptions concerning a very important event in Eastern Europe in the middle of the century.

Evidence of vampires in Slavic belief in particular dates back to the 9th century, but it is likely much older than that. Further, evidence of official attempts to quell vampire belief by both the church and rulers in Eastern Europe are accessible in records of Serbian legal codes in the 14th century to ban what are called “vampire burials,” or any methods used to hinder the vampire from coming back by desecrating its grave or mutilating its corpse (burning, beheading, etc.). This shows quite simply that the belief of the vampire was not just old, but a problem significant enough that attempts were made to eradicate it.

The culminating point of all these ancient beliefs is the “Great Vampire Epidemic” of the 18th century, sometimes referred to simply as the “Vampire Epidemic,” when people believed vampires were not only real, but suddenly appearing in large numbers for unknown reasons all throughout Eastern Europe.

After a case in Serbia in 1725 where people believed a vampire had appeared and caused illness, soon another case arose in 1726 and hysteria concerning vampires began to spread through Eastern Europe and even parts of Western Europe. Part of this was misinterpretations of the process of decomposition while villagers in Eastern Europe were unearthing the dead thinking that would stop the spread of disease. Still, the question that plagued people at the time was, “What was the origin of the actual deaths that were occurring?” For where there was the perception of one “vampire,” many deaths would often follow, so what was the link? More importantly, what were the diseases? For it was disease that was also epidemic at the time.

Painting of villagers unearthing vampires

Villagers would unearth and desecrate corpses believed to be vampires to prevent them from killing again. (Lithograph by R. de Moraine, 1864)

Q. So, what were the diseases that caused people to think vampires existed?

A. Records do not provide an accurate consensus of how many bodies were being unearthed as “vampires” during the Vampire Epidemic, when bodies were being dug up to look for signs of vampirism due to fears that vampires were appearing all over Eastern Europe. That would have given us a sense of how many people died of disease at the time as well. Some have suggested hundreds or even thousands died, but unfortunately there is no way to fully verify this.

What we can verify, however, are the links of the phenomenon to disease, and from there we can hypothesize about earlier periods in Slavic history. The question often posed is, “What disease or diseases were responsible for the thing we call the vampire?” Or put differently, what diseases caused people to think vampires existed.

So, what of diseases like tuberculosis? How about the flu or typhoid? Cholera perhaps? Cholera had a direct influence on Bram Stoker while writing “Dracula” and, in fact, there was an epidemic of the disease in the 1890s as he was writing it. Such diseases can certainly be linked to vampire folklore by reading it as such, but that is the case for any disease on the planet.

What is more important is what disease or diseases could be epidemic and thus cause a multitude of deaths that would be in need of an explanation in a time when medical knowledge was primitive. This is key to the vampire’s function as a symbol of disease in original folklore; it provided an answer when science was lacking.

Do we have evidence of any such diseases? The Great Vampire Epidemic provides them.

Two diseases were largely responsible for the deaths during this period: pellagra and rabies. Pellagra is a disease caused by an imbalance in niacin (B3) and tryptophan. It causes a variety of symptoms, including sensitivity to sunlight leading to a corpse-like appearance to the skin, foul breath, anemia and several other symptoms that link with vampire folklore. The trait of foul breath, for example, is believed to have been derived from experiences of this disease in Eastern Europe at the time.

drawing of villagers attacking a dog that is attacking a villager
Data from the period of the Great Vampire Epidemic links rabies to a large number of deaths in Eastern Europe, some stemming from rabid wolves.

But it is important to note that pellagra did not exist in the region until the 18th century, after corn was introduced. Diets high in corn products, without enough variety, lead to pellagra, which means anyone can get it. Thus, as an origin, though data is available linking pellagra to deaths during the Great Vampire Epidemic, it primarily works as a verifier of original folklore, with some potential alterations such as the foul breath.

Rabies, however, which was also epidemic at the time, is a virus that existed in Eastern Europe before the 18th century. Though information concerning earlier time periods is scarce, we luckily possess a wealth of data from the period of the Great Vampire Epidemic that links rabies to a large number of deaths in Eastern Europe where vampire hysteria was particularly strong. Several hundred cases of the disease were recorded, spread initially by rabid wolves, and then in at least some cases, people. The wolf and the vampire have a well-known link as being a creature the vampire can change into, but further, the disease is spread through biting, victims avoid sunlight, and they can be repelled by strong odors (garlic being a possibility). These are only a few of the links. Rabies certainly existed before the 18th century, and there are many diseases that likely led, piece-by-piece, to what the vampire became as a whole. Eventually we reached what one could call the “Great Vampire Pandemic.”

Q. So what is “The Great Vampire Pandemic,” exactly?

A. What I mean is the spreading of vampire folklore throughout the world into the current pop-culture symbol it is today. The key to this moment and the link with disease rests on the Great Vampire Epidemic.

Calling it a “pandemic” is simply a figurative way of highlighting the vampire’s proliferation in popular culture. The answer of how it got there is not the novel “Dracula,” nor is it a film like “The Lost Boys.” The Great Vampire Epidemic is not merely disease history, but also cultural history, for it was this period that caused the vampire to become a topic of heated discussion throughout Western Europe, starting in Austria and Germany due to soldiers coming home from Serbia who had witnessed the reality of vampire folklore.

playbill of Dracula with Frank Langella
A playbill from a 1978 performance of Dracula, starring Frank Langella (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The hysteria that started to spread into the rest of Europe led to the word ‘vampir’ (from the Serbian) first entering German as “der Vampyr” around 1726 and later into English as “vampire” by 1734 at the latest. So the vampire’s “viral” status, so to speak, at the time lasted at least eight years as the Great Vampire Epidemic raged from 1725 until roughly 1755.

After Western European doctors and scientists debunked the idea as something true, the vampire had stuck as a topic of discussion, so that by the 19th century it was slowly adapted into literature, then theater, later film, and over time into the wide variety of examples we have today.

Had the Great Vampire Epidemic not occurred and had two diseases not been largely responsible for it happening, the vampire’s spread as a symbol into other cultures may have never occurred. Disease is often something to fear, and its cultural effects great, but at times its impact is beyond the realm of economics and medicine and transcends the human race itself.

Friday at 8 p.m. UVA Clubs is hosting a virtual Halloween program with Stephanic and Zandor Vorkov, who played Count Dracula in the 1971 American horror film, "Dracula vs. Frankenstein,” All are welcome to join.

Second photo published under Creative Commons.

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Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications