Batty or Bacterial?

On The Origin of the Western Vampire

The myth of a devilish creature draining the life force (blood) of a community was brought to life by European peasants. In the 1730s, this being was dubbed “vampire”, which came from the Slavic word “vampir”. The story of the vampire was spread throughout Europe by Austrian conquerors, who observed Eastern European protection rituals, such as removing the organs from corpses, and became swept up in the terror. Eventually, European immigrants carried the legends of the vampire to America.

Bodily Basics

Superstitions and mythology originate from some kernel of truth, some observable phenomenon. What were all these people seeing that made them believe an undead body was preying on the living in the night?

Aspects of vampire mythology describe actual events that happen as a body decomposes. A corpse may appear to have “feasted” recently due to remaining liquid blood in the lungs being forced into the mouth. The appearance of a vampire victim as being “eaten” is typical of bloating that occurs during decay. The “screams” of a vampire is usually just gases escaping from the body. Additionally, bodies buried in colder areas may not appear decomposed at all, like the “living dead”. Taken together, it is easy to see why someone with no knowledge of the natural and scientific nature of these events would interpret them as supernatural.

Contagion Explanation

Vampire panics are not confined to a single spooky body. Over hundreds of years, small towns in America and Europe were terrorized by the idea that a vampire had come to turn family members and drain the community when in fact, these towns were being terrorized by outbreaks of contagious diseases.


A chart showing symptoms/effects of rabies, tuberculosis, and syphilis, and how these are similar to descriptions of vampires' appearance and behaviors.
Similarities between some contagious diseases and common vampire mythology.



Tucker, A. (2012, 10). THE GREAT NEW ENGLAND VAMPIRE PANIC. Smithsonian, 43, 58-65. Retrieved from

Hammer, K. O. (2005). Vampires: The dark fantasy of the 18th and 19th centuries (Order No. 1449350). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: Literature & Language; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global: Literature & Language. (305363212). Retrieved from

Burcum, J., & Writer, S. (1998, Oct 28). Putting the undead to rest // researchers have tried to shed light on the vampire myth, saying the horrific blood feasters were merely the victims of rabies, blood disorders or superstitious imaginations. Star Tribune Retrieved from

Sabrina is a fourth year student studying Computational Media and Industrial Design at Georgia Tech. She enjoys writing about the fantastic and strange, mindlessly scrolling through memes, and drinking a lot of tea.