The review of the film Vampires was quite on point; it was not the
best of its genre. However, Dunea's reference to erythropoietic porphyria
as an explanation for the vampires of folklore was rather far a field.
This medical myth may have originated in a 1985 article in the New York
Times where porphyria was reported as an explanation for the vampire of
The 18th and 19th centuries were the time of the folkloric vampire.
This lore was so deeply ingrained that in parts of Serbia scores of
vampires were exhumed and `killed' weekly.(2) The belief in a literal
vampire was so rampant that one Victorian surgeon commented that
"Vampyrism [sic] spread like a pestilence through Servia [sic] and
Wallachia, causing numerous deaths and disturbing all the land with fear
of the mysterious visitation, against which no one felt himself
Erythropoietic porphyria is one of a group of rare genetic diseases
(it being the rarest with about two hundred cases diagnosed since its
discovery in 1890) in which the production and synthesis of haemoglobin go
awry. (4,5) Erythropoietic porphyria manifests itself in extreme
sensitivity to sunlight. On exposure to light the skin blisters, and with
infection can become so severely scarred disfigurement results. Such
disfigurement can result in the loss, sometimes spontaneously, of
extremities (fingers, etc.) and parts of the face (nose, eyelids,
With the signs and symptoms of erythropoietic porphyria being as they
are, it is easy to see where one could infer vampiric associations.
However, when one takes into account the high incidence of vampire
exhumations that were occuring in the 18th and 19th centuries, the rarity
of porphyria in the general population, erythropoietic porphyria's
disfiguring properties, and that the folkloric vampire on being exhumed
was always described in terms of being quite healthy looking ("as they
were in life"), it is highly unlikely that this is a valid explanation for
the almost pathological belief in vampires at that time.
1. Boffey PM. Rare disease proposed as cause for `vampire'. New York
Times May 31, 1985;A15.
2. Barber P. The real vampire: forensic pathology and the lore of the
undead. Nat Hist (October)1990;74-83.
3. Copper B. The vampire in legend fact and art. Secaucus, N.J.: The
Citadel Press, 1974:153.
4. Meola T, Lim HW. The porphyrias. Dermatol Clin 1993;11:583-596.
5. Moore MR. Biochemistry of porphyria. Int J Biochem 1993;25:1353-
6. Kauppinen R, Timonen K, Mustajoki P. Treatment of the porphyrias.
Ann Med (Feb.)1994;26:31-38.
Competing interests: No competing interests