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Vampires: Delving Into the Medical Mystery

Oct 23, 2014 01:58PM ● By MED Magazine

by Brandy Schillace

The medical mysteries of the known world have long fueled fires of the superstitious.

Diabetes used to be a death sentence; children rarely lived past toddlerhood—their emaciated, sunken forms appear in some of the old photographs. Diabetic children “withered” away, mainly because, before insulin, the only real way to treat the disease was a starvation diet of extremely reduced calories and carbohydrates. On the other end of the spectrum, we have diseases like syphilis that affected adults through sexual transmission—and yet, it frequently affected children, too, through congenital birth defects.

These two conditions and their treatments can tell us something beyond medicine, something that gets at the heart of what it means to be human. Consider, for a moment, what such illnesses were like before they were medically explained? Children who waste away, eruptions on the skin, eating away the flesh like some sort of zombie contagion…Medical history often includes byways into folklore, fiction, and the Gothic imagination itself. It’s certainly influences my imagination, firing it to light with the tangible, the real. Touch the strange stretched skin of the obstetrical mannequin, remove the tiny ivory organs from the model on my desk, handle the tools of surgery that, while effecting a cure, were also horrors in their own right. Suddenly, you find yourself considering the people behind the objects, their hopes, their dreams, their dread. This has been my experience, and research into medical histories and mysteries ultimately led me to write fiction. About a vampire. And I’m not the first.

In 1732, a vampire “outbreak” happened at Český Krumlov, not far from Prague. I say a bit more about this in an article for Disinfo (“What’s a Vampire, Really?), but the question, for me, was this: Why outbreak? Why not, for instance, call them vampire attacks? Because the fear of vampires at the time were linked to contagion and spread of disease, and by some accounts, vampirism sounds much more viral than supernatural. The “vampire debate” of the 1730s borrowed from science and from folklore. Some 40 years later in 1775, Kirby’s Miscellany carried the story of a young woman struck by palsy who could not eat. She must have been starving and dehydrated, but the witness describes something else entirely: “her cheeks [are] full, red, and blooming. […]she slept a great deal and soundly, perspired sometimes, and now and then emitted pretty large quantities of blood at her mouth.” Such descriptions probably sound familiar, and it’s no surprise; Bram Stoker spent years researching strange tales of folklore for Dracula, and the vampire-infected Lucy is described much the same way.

What if vampirism was a contagion of the blood? The biggest fear for those at Český Krumlov was not that the bodies would reanimate, but that their fluids might contain a kind of pollution, an infection. In Bram Stoker’s day, syphilis certainly fit the bill. Some estimates suggest as many as one in three people had syphilis, but it passed—like the vampire, perhaps—unnoticed in its secondary phase, allowing the infected to spread disease without check.

Worse, syphilis could enact its rage on the innocent—on children born from afflicted parents. According to a popular treatise on syphilis at the time of Dracula’s publication, children might be born apparently “healthy and vigorous.” However, symptoms begin to appear within the first three months: “the skin is loose and wrinkled […] the hair dry and scanty”—the child appears to age rapidly and unnaturally. Like the diabetic children, they wither before the anxious eyes of their parents who, knowingly or not, have passed the deadly poison through transmission of fluid. It’s worth noting that Stoker himself likely had syphilis. He didn’t affect his own child, as he contracted the disease afterwards, but the shame attached to the disease remained—it was, in fact, called a “taint” in the blood, something “monstrous.” And considering the numbers of blood-born diseases we now know of (and the myriad others that we probably don’t), it isn’t any wonder that these blood-sucking creatures still intrigues us today.

Brandy Schillace, Ph.D. is an author, historian, and adventurer at the intersection. She spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, she writes Gothic fiction with a medical twist. Dr. Schillace is a research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, a book reviewer for the Huffington Post, and chief editor for the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blog. Her non-fiction book Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell us about Life and Living will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson. She also co-edited a collection titled Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity (Cambria 2014) and contributed a chapter on vampires and disease. Her short fiction appears in Hauntings, An Anthology (by Hic Dragones Press).

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