Werewolves and Vampires: Myth or Disease?

“The blood sucking disease (porphyria), is somewhat of an explanation for the origin of vampire and werewolf myths, based on similarities between the disease and the folklore.”

“The theory has since faced criticism, especially for the stigma it has placed on its sufferers. A book  called American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners deals with this issue. The theory also operates on a flawed premise, mainly in regard to a perceived harmful effect sunlight had on vampires, a property that came after the vampire belief. The book talked about there being eight different types of porphyria. Four of these can sometimes cause sensitivity to light: Erythropoietic Protoporphyria, Congenital Erythropoietic Porphyria, Porphyria Cutanea and Variegate Porphyria.”

The informant was a Neuroscience major at UC Berkeley and one night we were talking about our experiences in certain science classes. The topic of conversation was “the craziest thing you hear in science class,” and he mentioned a disease he learned in his Biochemistry course in relation to folklore. He couldn’t remember all the details, but he was able to describe the relation of porphyria to werewolves and vampires. Briefly, porphyria is a genetic disease that causes inability to produce red blood cells, which is a major component of blood. Therefore, it seems logical to link vampires and werewolves to the disease, because vampires and werewolves lust for blood and largely depend on it. He seemed to like this explanation of these mythological creatures, because he noted that he was very interested in mythological and unexplainable phenomenon.

Further, my informant found this piece particularly interesting, because it provides a basis for the cultural creation of vampires and werewolves rooted in science. He chose to perform this explanation of the vampire/werewolf phenomenon, because it is often undervalued in conversations and marginalized due to the fantastic desires of most humans. In addition, this myth provides him with a window of curiosity through which he looks at a lot of myths, like “mermaids, satyrs, dragons, golems, giants and other creatures” that are said to be made-believe but may have scientific merit in their origins.

I found this piece compelling, because the informant claimed that vampires and werewolves had “scientific merit” and should therefore not be discredited. I, too, am a science major, and found this is a very interesting premise, because we normally attribute mythological characters, like werewolves and vampires, with having some kind of supernatural ability that cannot be explained by science. In January 1964, L. Illis’ 1963 paper, “On Porphyria and the Etiology of Werwolves”, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. Later, Nancy Garden argued for a connection between porphyria and the vampire belief in her 1973 book, Vampires. In 1985, biochemist David Dolphin’s paper for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Porphyria, Vampires, and Werewolves: The Etiology of European Metamorphosis Legends”, gained widespread media coverage, thus popularizing the connection. With that said, this is one of few instances where there is an explanation for mythological phenomena (e.g. werewolves and vampires) by using scientific methodologies (e.g. human disease). This could have arisen from increasing advances in scientific research. Also, it seems analogous to the idea about folk medicine and western medicine, where the majority of our understanding of the curative effect of drugs and therapies derive from folklore. On the other hand, it can be reasonably argued that the porphyria disease may not have stimulated the creation of werewolf and vampire myths for two reasons. One, porphyria is a rare and recently discovered disease and could not have been prominent or known at the time these myths were created. Finally, science was a slow and evolving field that may not have been widely accepted during the time of these myth creations. Therefore, more investigation would be needed to validate scientific origins of myths.