Late October is a fine time to curl up with a mug of hot cider and watch a favorite horror movie, possibly involving a terrifying marauding beast. Monster movies have a long history and the legend of the vampire has inspired enduring fascination. This cultural interest can be traced back to the novel Dracula. Dracula was not the first time a vampire appeared in literature, but it’s truly the book that established vampires as a horror staple. The question is, where did the author Bram Stoker gain inspiration for the vampiric flaws and habits of Dracula? The origins may be surprising.
In 1735, a new disease was recognized in Europe. This disease was called pellagra and would haunt Europe and the United States for the next two-hundred years. Pellagra is not a contagious disease. Rather, it is caused by a diet lacking in niacin and tryptophan. These nutrients come from meats, eggs, and peanuts. In the modern day, pellagra is easily avoided by maintaining a healthy diet. However, it is still seen in some developing countries that have less access to nutritious food.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a big change to the European diet occurred – Corn. Corn is a crop that originated in the Americas, domesticated by Native Americans over the course of many generations. Corn could produce more calories per acre than traditional European staple crops, and corn cultivation slowly spread. However, corn is lacking in many vital nutrients. Where corn cultivation went, pellagra was soon to follow.
To societies with little medical knowledge, pellagra was a spooky illness indeed. People with pellagra (called pellagrins) developed high levels of sensitivity to sunlight. Areas exposed to sunlight became thickened and scaly. Those who avoided the sunlight became pale. Avoidance of sunlight is a classic vampire trait and one of the foremost symptoms of pellagra.
The tongues of pellagrins became swollen and beefy red. Lips became red and cracked. The reddened mouth and tongue might have led to suspicions of blood drinking. In Dracula, the count himself is described as having very red lips.
Mental problems also plagued pellagrins. The lack of niacin led to degradation of the neurons, causing dementia in sufferers. Insomnia is a fairly common symptom of this, leading pellagrins to adopt the vampire-like habit of staying awake into the night. Increased levels of irritability and aggression occurred as well. Did this lead their neighbors to fear attack from red-lipped people in the dead of night?
Death was the end result of pellagra for many unfortunate people in those times. After one person died from pellagra their family members might have appeared to be wasting away due to sustained supernatural attack. In traditional vampire folklore, the vampire returns night after night to slowly drain its victim of life. However, the real reason for entire families declining was the result of shared poor dietary conditions. If one family member died from pellagra, it was likely that the other family members were sickened as well.
When Bram Stoker researched for Dracula, he delved into the folklore of the communities most affected by pellagra. With this in mind, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Stoker’s description of vampires bears resemblance to the symptoms of pellagra. Vampire legends may have arisen as an explanation for a frightening illness that people back then encountered every day.
So what’s the best way to defeat a vampire? Maybe it’s time to put away the crosses and holy water, and instead feed the vampire some chicken and eggs.
- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow
For more information, see: Hampl, Jeffrey S., and W. S. Hampl 3rd. "Pellagra and the origin of a myth: evidence from European literature and folklore." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 90.11 (1997): 636.