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  • Mark Gorton

Vampires - the facts behind the fiction

Can the science of disease help explain how vampires have scared the pants off us for hundreds of years?

Once upon a terrible time in the 15th century lived a man called Vlad. That’s him up there.

Despite looking like a cocker spaniel Vlad was bad.

Very bad.

He was born in Transylvania and became the Prince of a place called Wallachia.

He was also known as Vlad the Impaler because he used big wooden spikes to do horrible things to his enemies.

Vlad had a painful habit of impaling his enemies on upright, sharp wooden skewers. In other words he turned people he didn’t like into kebabs. That’s what impaling is, although, unlike prawns and chicken and suchlike, Vlad skewered human beings when they were still alive. Ow! That smarts! There were rumours that afterwards he dipped his bread in their blood as if it was soup or gravy.

By the way, Vlad the Impaler is no relation to Vlad the Impala. Vlad the Impala is a kind of antelope from Africa. Here’s a selfie he sent. Hi, Vlad!

Vlad the Impaler had another name - Dracula. In fairness he probably didn’t feed on blood. This was just a story made up by people who hated him. But centuries ago the people who lived near Vlad probably had bad dreams about a monster who wasn’t satisfied by a nice cup of tea or a diet cola.

You can imagine Wallachian parents saying to their children, “If you don’t eat everything on your plate/go to sleep/be quiet/stop farting, well, mark my words, Dracula will come, stick a big wooden spike right through you and drink your blood! SO DO AS YOU’RE TOLD, YOU LITTLE *!%!!*@*!!!S!”

Slowly but surely a new, fiendish creature was being added to those who creep around in the shadows of our imaginations. The vampire!

Vampires got another lease of life - or death, depending on how you look at it - because in the distant past people suffered from diseases no one really understood.

In fact, the word vampire comes from the old Slavonic word obiri, which changed into the Bulgarian word vampir. Some experts believe that the Greek word nosophoros, which means ‘plague carrier’, evolved into another old Slavonic word, nosufuratu. Soon the two words meant the same thing and described a spooky creature linked to disease and death.

These words became particularly popular in the 18th century when vampire stories started to spread faster than a bat flying out of hell.

Between 1721 and 1728 in Hungary there was a deadly outbreak of the terrible disease called rabies.

Look at this dog. It is either suffering from rabies or disagreeing with the judges on Britain's Got Talent. Take your pick.

Rabies is spread by biting and saliva and was transmitted to dogs, wolves and humans so quickly that parts of Hungary were devastated. There was nothing to stop rabies then and it was almost always fatal - and still is today if a victim hasn’t been vaccinated.

Rabies makes humans agitated and violent. It also causes insomnia, which means you can’t sleep - so back then there were lots of people wandering around at night behaving very weirdly.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it seems some people believed they had seen the dead come back to some sort of life.

Rabies also makes its victims have spasms and spit blood. (I hope you’re not reading this while having your tea.) These spasms are caused by bright light, mirrors and strong smells, and few things have a stronger smell than...DA DA DAH!


The vampire legend was really taking shape.

  • What do rabid dogs and wolves (and vampires) bare? Their fangs.

  • What do vampires have on their lips and teeth? Blood.

  • What do vampires hate? Sunlight, mirrors and garlic.

  • When do vampires come out to play? At night 

In 1897, a man called Bram Stoker took these ideas and facts and published a novel called Dracula. It tells the story of how a vampire travels from Transylvania to London.

Bram knew the stories about Vlad-You-Wouldn’t-Want-Him-For-A-Dad and in his book he imagined what a bloodthirsty undead creature from the past might do in the modern world.

In London Dracula planned to get his teeth into the job of creating more vampires, partly because he was Dracula No Mates, but mostly because he was determined to bite his way to world domination by spreading the curse of the undead.

That's Bram up above. His novel was a smash hit.

Thanks to him the modern vampire rose from his coffin and has haunted our books, comics, TV shows and movies ever since.

Why? Probably because, no matter how modern and high tech we feel, human beings are designed to be afraid. Fear helps us survive, and stories about creatures of the night allow us to experience and understand fear without actually being in danger.


Bats are the only mammals that can fly and vampire bats are the only mammals that feed entirely on the blood sucked from their warm blooded prey.

They are nocturnal, which means they come out at night and sleep in the day while hanging upside down in dark places like caves.

They live in groups of around 100 and are found in Central America, South America and Mexico.

Vampire bats suck the blood of sleeping animals like horses, cattle and pigs, and do so for about 30 minutes. They have also been known to have a nibble at humans, though this is rare.

WARNING! If you can’t work out how they got their name we'll send Dracula round to your place to be a right pain in the neck.


The best early vampire movie was made in Germany in 1921. Called Nosferatu it was loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, and starred Max Schreck as vampire Count Orlok.

Nosferatu is a masterpiece of shadows and scary suspense which pushed the boundaries of what was still the new technology of cinema. Unfortunately the film’s director, a man called F. W. Murnau, hadn’t asked permission to borrow the story told in Bram Stoker’s book.

Unlike his creation, Count Dracula, Bram was now anything but undead having popped his clogs in 1912. However, his widow, Florence, was very much alive and the theft of her husband’s work made her blood boil.

She won a legal case against the movie makers and almost all of the copies of Nosferatu were destroyed - which also meant there was no chance of there ever being a sequel called Nosferathree.


Count Dracula is lying in his casket in the back of a horse drawn carriage when it drives over a pothole on a steep hill and the casket falls out and starts to speed down the slope.

Halfway down Dracula manages to get the lid open and jump out as the casket continues to zoom down the hill.

Dracula sees a chemist’s shop and runs into it and says to the chemist, “Excuse me, have you got anything that will stop my coffin?”

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