Looking At The Science Of Halloween

At the end of the 19th century, Bram Stoker created what we now know as a ‘vampire’ – a blood-sucking charismatic pale man with an endless fashion sense. Since then, several movies, books and songs have been created to tell the legendary stories of these creatures. But are they really real? In the 1970s, people thought the Highgate Cemetery in London was haunted by a vampire. In 2002, mobs from Malawi attacked several people on the premise that the government was conspiring with vampires. Every year there are urban stories about them, but how did they really begin? Why did someone decide to create such a creature in the first place?

When a person with just a bit of medical background spends a little time thinking about vampires, they can’t help but also thinking about a disease called porphyria. Porphyrias are a group of rare disorders in which there is a defect in an enzyme responsible for synthesizing heme (the main component of hemoglobin). In this disease, porphyrins tend to accumulate in various organs, leading to toxic effects. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria (or Gunther disease) is the subtype most commonly associated with vampirism. Patients suffering from this condition have photosensitivity and are extremely prone to developing scars if exposed to light. Porphyrins accumulate in the bones and teeth, giving rise to erythrodontia (red discoloration of the teeth), resembling someone who just drank blood. Coincidentally, garlic has a compound that exacerbates the anemia found in these patients, which probably gave rise to the characteristic aversion of the vampire to garlic.

Rabies may well also have played a key role establishing the vampire myth, especially since it was very common in the 18th century. People started noticing the similarities between rabies and vampirism as early as 1733. Patients with rabies often have hydrophobia (showing panic when they see water), and, according to folklore, one of the substances known to repel vampires is streaming water. Insomnia and beastly biting behaviour are also present in rabies, which could explain the nocturnal routine vampires perform to bite their victims.

The diet of a vampire is a little bit odd, to say the least. They need to stick their fangs into a human neck, sucking their blood and, as a consequence, turning that human into a vampire. Looking at the mathematics of this blood-sucking behaviour, things don’t really add up. If you assume vampires feed only once a month (far less than what you see on movies), the human race would survive a little bit more than half a year. If we assume the first vampire was born in 1600 AD, given the world population in that year (more or less 536 million people), we expect to see one person to die and one new vampire to be born in the first month. In the second month, we expect the two vampires to kill two humans and transform them into two new vampires, and so forth. By the end of the 29th month, 100% of the population is a vampire! Like Efthimiou says: ‘whomever devised the vampire legend had failed his college algebra course’.

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