If you were to characterize the symptoms of vampirism as an illness, what would you call it? Would it be a psychiatric illness? An auto-immune disease? A vitamin deficiency? Well, would you have guessed that vampirism has a real-world and legitimate illness to blame? Apparently, it does. Pellagra, an illness developed by individuals suffering from a niacin deficiency is associated with symptoms that may have inspired European peasants to believe that their friends, enemies, family and neighbors were afflicted with vampirism. Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise to you since the zombie caterpillar article has paraded around the world via Facebook. Regardless, it surprised and intrigued me!
This week, I found a reference to vampires in the oddest of places. I was skimming through the winter 2014-2015 edition of a magazine called Heirloom Gardener. Go figure. The magazine belongs to my boyfriend who is a big into gardening, farming, permaculture and the like. There’s no way this magazine would have wound up in my hands otherwise and normally I wouldn’t pick up any of his reads because they do not really fall into the subjects I read about. It was a lazy afternoon and we were enjoying some time on the couch before we had to return to work after the holidays. I picked up the magazine which he had purchased while I was out of town and started to flip through.
As a writer, I frequently contemplate different ways I can kill off characters. And, while I am currently trying to plot out a lengthier version of my detective story, poison has been a subject of interest to me lately. Surprisingly, this particular issue had a fantastically titled article which immediately caught my eye. The article, “Deadly Dinner,” turned out to be just what I was looking for and more.
In the article, writer Amy Stewart gives information about 6 deadly plants that are a part of people’s diets. “Some of the world’s most important food crops contain toxic compounds that require them to be cooked or combined with other foods to make them safe,” she writes. These plants include the Grass Pea, Rhubarb, Red Kidney Bean, Cashew, Cassava, Elderberry and Corn.
The paragraph about corn really caught my eye initially because corn is a huge staple in the midwest (and around the world) and I have never heard of corn being deadly. According to the article, if corn makes up most of a person’s diet and the corn is not prepared properly, then a person is at risk for a severe niacin deficiency, an illness called pellagra. Symptoms of pellagra are dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea and, eventually, death. Stewart references a British medical journal which states that the symptoms of pellagra could have inspired European vampire myths. References to pale skin that blisters when exposed to sunlight, the inability to sleep due to issues of dementia, the inability to eat regular foods due to digestive concerns and a “morbid appearance just before death” are all traits of a person suffering from pellagra and they all inspire thoughts of vampires. It takes years to die from pellagra, so this wouldn’t work for my detective story. But the mythology of vampires being perpetuated by food and real-world illness took me completely by surprise. Fascinating stuff!
A glance around the Internet reveals some more interesting information. According to the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), maize became a staple crop among the poor in Europe because it was cheaper than other grains. This lead to a spread of the illness known as pellagra. Concerning vampire legends, the EUFIC states “There are many who think that the development of beliefs in vampires was associated with pellagra. Just as folklore states that vampires must avoid sunlight to maintain their strength and avoid decay, sufferers from pellagra are hypersensitive to sunlight. Clinical symptoms of pellagra include insomnia, aggression, anxiety, and subsequent dementia, all of which may have contributed to the vampire legends and European folklores of the 1700s.”
And that’s true. If you look at the 1700s, they are pervaded by vampire folklore and fear across Europe and scientifically/historically speaking, I suppose the corn issue lines right up with all of that. I haven’t done much of any research into the history of the spread of corn as a dietary staple in Europe, but it appears that the two incidents could be related. According to KnowledgeNuts.com, corn became a staple of the poor across Europe starting in the 16th century and wherever corn went, people developed pellagra. Europeans developed pellagra because the culture of preparation of corn did not follow the crop out of the new world. If prepared properly, a person can avoid developing a niacin deficiency. The Europeans missed that kernel and thus developed this painful disease.
Seen in this light, vampirism almost seems to be a sort of folk illness. A folk illness is one that is a culture-specific illness whose symptoms are recognized as a disease by that specific culture but whether or not it is actually a disease is naturally up for debate. Wandering womb and hysteria are notable historical folk illnesses which, thanks to modern medicine, are clearly not real diseases but whose symptoms could lead to the diagnosis of legitimate problems. The vampirism mythology appears to be connected in some way to the very real illness of pellagra, though the cause is not attributed to the correct source. While the belief of how vampires developed involved adultery and other sins, I imagine that the rising of a neighbor as a vampire would simply have satisfied the suspicions of their ungodliness.
This just adds a whole new level of intrigue to vampires and the history of their mythology in Europe.