With mainstream media placing the vampire subculture in the spotlight, society has begun to wonder who or what causes an individual to choose such a lifestyle. Society also ponders and searches for reasonable yet scientific explanations that would cause an individual to exhibit vampiric-like traits. One of these scientific explanations comes from the medical field, and that explanation is called porphyria.
The word porphyria comes from the Greek word porphyros, meaning reddish-purple (Melton 486). A reference to reddish-purple or purple color is made because people who suffer from the rare disease typically have darker urine. This urine may appear even darker after exposure to light. The purple color is caused by an excess of porphyrins, a substance found in bone marrow (Guiley 231). These porphyrins normally do not accumulate in strong concentrations (APF “About Porphyria”). The disease was first recognized in the case of King George III, and the disease manifested itself in the sovereign with symptoms such as abdominal pain, fever, constipation, dark urine, headaches, and convulsions (Ramsland 71). Using King’s ailments as a general guideline, porphyria can be described as a condition with any of the following:
* Severe sensitivity to light
* Reddish brown or purple urine and teeth
* Severe anemia
* Jaundiced skin
* Skin lesions
* Progressive deformation of cartilage and bone especially around the face and fingers
* Nervous disorders including hysteria and bipolar disorder (Guiley 231)
However, the American Porphyria Foundation has recognized eight forms of porphyria, and each form displays different combinations of the conditions listed above
(APF “About Porphyria”). The most common of the eight are acute intermittent, and cutanea tarda.
Acute intermittent and cutanea tarda porphyria appear to be the most common of the eight types of porphyria. Acute intermittent porphyria masks itself by appearing as other common ailments. This type is commonly hereditary and causes an enzyme deficiency. The deficiency alone does not trigger the condition. It has been shown that hormones, drugs, and dietary changes amplify the problem. The symptoms of acute intermittent porphyria are abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, back pain, muscle weakness, urinary retention, palpitation, and seizures (APF “About: Types of Porphyria, AIP”). The other most common porphyria, cutanea tarda, focuses more on the vampire idea. The most significant problem in individuals who suffer from cutanea tarda is sun inflected skin blisters. They have increased hair growth as well as darkening and thickening of the skin (APF “About: Types of Porphyria, PCT”). One could see clearly, then, how one with this type of porphyria could be labeled as a vampire by those who are not educated in true vampire folklore.
While those who are educated in vampire folklore would be quick to argue against porphyria being linked to vampirism, one argument could still hold. In 1985, David Dolphin speculated in a writing offered to the American Association for Science that porphyria may explain some reports of vampirism. In the paper, Dolphin analyzed a treatment for porphyria that included the injection of heme. Additionally, he hypothesized a concept in which those who suffered from the disease drank blood from others as a means to fight it off. One could argue that Dolphin came to this conclusion due to the iron deficiency found in some porphyria sufferers. While some have dismissed this paper altogether, it has gained both attention and negativity from the medical and vampiric communities (Melton 486).
Porphyria is a rare disease that has a variety of symptoms that could be mistaken for vampirism to those who are not readily acquainted with vampire folklore. Some of those symptoms include an aversion to sunlight and excessive hair growth. Furthermore, although it is highly debatable, those diagnosed with porphyria may try to use blood to combat their plight. Therefore, one could see where it is possible to debate how one could consider porphyria the true vampire disease.
American Porphyria Foundation. 2009. American Porphyria Foundation. 26 Apr. 2009 < http://www.porphyriafoundation.com/about-the-apf>.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Checkmark Books, 2005.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Vampire Book. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1994.
Ramsland, Katherine. The Science of Vampires. New York: Berkley Boulevard Books, 2002.