Real-Life Vampires? Historical Evidence of Blood-Sucking Fiends

Let’s talk about vampires, shall we? From Dracula to Edward Cullen, we’ve been fascinated by these immortal blood-drinkers for centuries. But is there a historical basis in the enduring legend of vampires?

Vlad the Impaler

Although vampire mythos spans the globe, most of us think “Dracula” when we’re asked to name a vampire. Bram Stoker famously decided to base Count Dracula on Vlad III, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad III ruled Wallachia in the 15th century. His reputation for cruelty–including the impaling of his enemies on big wooden spikes–is probably exaggerated. There’s also no evidence to suggest that he was an actual vampire; Stoker likely took creative liberties by combining Hungarian folklore with the Medieval ruler.

Elizabeth Bathory

Another possible source for modern-day vampire lore is Elizabeth Bathory, a countess who lived in early 17th century Hungary. It’s rumored that she was the most prolific female serial killer who ever lived.

Born in Transylvania, she allegedly tortured her servant girls in creatively horrible ways. Eventually, she began killing them and–this is the really awful part–eating their flesh or bathing in their blood.

The legend surrounding Countess Bathory is that she believed the blood of young, innocent girls would keep her young forever. However, some feminist historians have proposed a counterargument. Bathory became a very powerful land owner following her husband’s death. It’s possibly that she was maligned by rumors of witchcraft and murder–by her own family, no less–in order to seize control of her property.

Mercy Lena Brown

Flash forward to Connecticut in 1990. Kids discovered 29 bodies that were at least a hundred years old. Most of the burials were typical of a New England graveyard from that era. But one of them was buried beneath large rocks, inside a red coffin, with the bones rearranged to resemble a Jolly Roger.

Weirdest of all, the body had been beheaded five years after it was buried. The grave turned out to be one of several that were disturbed during the New England Vampire Panic of the 1850s.

The most famous victim of the vampire panic was Mercy Lena Brown, a 19-year-old living in rural Rhode Island during the late 19th century. Her entire family succumbed to tuberculosis, or consumption over the course of a few years. Then Lena, as she was called, passed away from the same disease in 1892.

George Brown, Lena’s father, became convinced that a malevolent force had preyed upon his wife and children. He agreed to let the superstitious villagers dig up the bodies. Lena’s body had been mostly preserved thanks to the cold conditions. The villagers removed her heart and liver, burned them to ashes, and fed them to her sick brother in the hopes of curing him.

Guess what? It didn’t work. The story of Lena Brown spread across the world, thanks to sensation newspaper reports. A certain young man named Bram Stoker heard the tale, and it’s likely that he based Lucy on Mercy Lena Brown.

A Scientific Answer?

Scientists are always searching for a rational explanation for life’s weirdest mysteries. Two possible diseases to explain the myth of vampirism are porphyria and rabies.

Porphyria causes people to become extremely sensitive to light. As in they’ll blister horribly when exposed to some UV rays. Because they’re stuck inside all the time, people with porphyria often appear very pale. They may also suffer from severe anemia, to the point that they need regular blood transfusions.

As for rabies, the disease can lower people’s inhibitions and cause them to behave violently and erratically. They may also be hypersensitive to strong smells (you know, like garlic) and sunlight. In an intriguing theory to explain certain elements of vampire lore, wolves, and especially bats can carry rabies.

However, the vogue for vampires can also be linked to tuberculosis. Before being largely wiped out by a vaccine, tuberculosis caused people to waste away until they looked like walking corpses. The sick often coughed up blood, emphasizing the aura of supernatural menace. Worst of all, it would strike seemingly healthy young people in their prime. Was it some comfort to think of them as the victims of a vampire instead of a disease?