The Real Science and History of Vampires
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart star in "New Moon," the latest production to take advantage of the eternal fascination with vampires.
Credit: Summit Entertainment

Vampires are everywhere these days. Last weekend, the new vampire film "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" broke box office records, taking in over $70 million and may end up being one of the largest openings in history. The film is based on the best-selling "Twilight" series, which of course joins a long list of other vampire-themed best-sellers dating back decades.

The public's thirst for vampires seems as endless as vampires' thirst for blood.

Modern writers of vampire fiction, including Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice, Stephen King and countless others, have a rich vein of vampire lore to draw from. But where did the modern idea of vampires come from? The answer lies in the gap between science and superstition.

Impaling enemies

Some sources incorrectly trace vampires back to Romanian prince Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), who fought for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Though by most accounts his methods were brutal and sadistic (for example, slowly impaling his enemies on stakes, drawing and quartering them, burning them to death, etc.), in reality they were not particularly cruel or unusual for the time. Similar techniques were used by the Catholic Church and other powerful entities and rulers during the Middle Ages to torture and kill enemies.

Bram Stoker is said to have modeled some aspects of his Count Dracula character on Vlad Tepes.

While Tepes (partly) inspired fictional modern vampires, the roots of "real" vampires have very different origins. As a cultural entity, vampires are a worldwide phenomenon. According to anthropologist Paul Barber, author of "Vampires, Burial, and Death," stories from nearly every culture have some localized version of the vampire, and "bear a surprising resemblance to the European vampire."

The belief in real vampires stems from superstition and mistaken assumptions about post-mortem decay.

The first recorded accounts of vampires circulated in Europe in the Middle Ages. The stories follow a consistent pattern: Some unexplained misfortune would befall a person, family, or town—perhaps a drought dried up crops, or an infectious disease struck.

Before science could explain weather patterns and germ theory, any bad event for which there was not an obvious cause might be blamed on a vampire. Vampires were one easy answer to the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.

Dead but not decomposed

Villagers combined their belief that something had cursed them with their fear of the dead, and concluded that perhaps recently- buried people might be responsible, having come back from the graves with evil intent.

Graves were unearthed, and surprised villagers often mistook ordinary decomposition processes for supernatural phenomenon.

For example, though laypeople might assume that a body would decompose immediately, if the coffin is well sealed and buried in winter, putrefaction might be delayed by weeks or months; intestinal decomposition creates bloating which can force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood. These processes are well understood by modern doctors and morticians, but in Medieval Europe were taken as unmistakable signs that vampires were real and existed among them.

Though the "original" vampires are long since gone, their legacy remains and vampires continue to fascinate the world. It seems likely that neither science nor wooden stakes will ever kill vampires.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.