Ask A Scientist
Are vampires a myth?
Asked by: Emily Banker
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Teacher: Kevin Wagstaff
Career Interest: Paleontologist, doctor or teacher
Answer from Michael A. Little
Distinguished professor of anthropology, Binghamton University
Research area: Human adaptation to the environment
Ph.D. school: Pennsylvania State University
Family: Wife, Adrienne, and two grown children
Interests/hobbies: Swimming, choral singing, antique toys and books
Web page address: http://anthro.binghamton.edu/LittleM.html
People love vampires, partly because they are creepy, exciting, exotic, blood-drinking ghouls and they are also fascinating. Folk superstitions about vampires date back to the distant past and are present in many societies, especially among Central and Eastern Europe farmer-peasants. In fact, several 16th century human skeletons from tombs in Bulgaria were impaled with iron stakes suggesting that at that time people believed they were vampires. Vampires were made popular by a book (Dracula) written by Bram Stoker in 1887 about a Count Dracula from Transylvania (a place in Romania). Many of the modern ideas about vampires arose from this book and later views, including beliefs that vampires cannot tolerate light or garlic and can only be killed by driving a stake through the heart. Since that time, hundreds of books, including Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series, have been written about vampires. There are many movies (more than 150) about Dracula or vampires dating back to the German film, Nosferatu, from 1922 and the U.S. movie, Dracula, with the great horror-film actor, Bela Lugosi, made in 1931. There are also vampires in children’s TV shows from the present and the past, such as The Count (Sesame Street) and Vincent the Vegetable Vampire (Electric Company – played by Morgan Freeman). There was even a horror-like soap opera during the 1970s called Dark Shadows that featured vampires and other supernatural creatures. It was broadcast in the late afternoons – my mother loved it!
The connection between human vampires, Dracula, and the vampire bat has been elaborated on in U.S. films. Although human vampires are not real, vampire bats are real. There are lots of blood-eating insects, but only one blood-eating mammal – the vampire bat. There are three species of vampire bats that live in Mexico and South America. They are quite small at about 2 ounces, but can drink up to about an ounce of blood at one feeding. I spent several nights sleeping in an open hut in the Peruvian jungle many years ago where there were vampire bats. I remember sleeping fearfully under a heavy blanket to protect myself, despite the hot temperatures at night.
So why are human vampires so popular and why do so many people seem to believe that they are real, especially when there is absolutely no evidence that they exist? Well…Dracula can be thought of as a “romantic figure” or even a figure to be pitied in literature and films; supernatural, dark, and mysterious and being cursed with immortality. Since we have been surrounded with stories about vampires from early childhood that are fun to hear, read and watch, these stories seem real and it is difficult to convince some people that the stories are myths taken from a long tradition of folk beliefs, fiction and films. It doesn’t hurt to enjoy these stories; but just stay away from ticks, mosquitos, and…vampire bats!