Vampires Exist?

Franck and Emilie Dayan wrote about porphyrins (Porphyrins:One Ring in the Colors of Life) in the American Scientist (May-June,Vol. 29) in which they brought together science and myth to explain the existence of Vampires. They even referenced a “vampire plant” so named by Crispin Taylor of the American Society of Plant Biologists because it has a phenotype similar to photosensitive patients afflicted with porphyria. They shed light on the legend of Dracula when they described Vlad III, born in 1431, the Prince of Wallachia, who was Knight of the Order of the Dragon (a Hungarian religious order organized to protect the interests of Catholicism and the Holy Roman Empire) as a very authoritarian ruler known for his cruelty to his foes. He chose Easter Sunday, 1459, to arrest and impale many of his nobles who had rebelled and killed his father and his brother. The Dayan’s note that his preferred method of punishment earned him the nickname, Tepes, which means the impaler. His methods of torture included skinning, decapitation, hacking, strangulation, hanging, boiling, and burning. Noses, ears and sexual organs were cut off. 20,000 to 40,000 European civilians were killed, most of whom were impaled. Tepes created a “Forest of the Impaled” described by Sultan Mehmed who, in 1462, encountered 20,000 rotting cadavers of Turkish captives when he entered the capital of Wallachia. While not known for drinking the blood of his enemies, his thirst for vengeance served as a model for the villain, Dracula. The Dayan’s pointed out that while most cultures describe mythical creatures that feed on the blood of the living, it wasn’t until Bram Stoker, an Irish writer, was introduced to Vlad Tepes in 1890 by professor Armin Vambery, that the term vampire became popular. Remember that Tepes was a Knight of the Order of the Dragon and “Dragon” is pronounced “Dracul” in Romanian and Dracula means son of Dracul.

What does this have to do with porphyria?  Porphyrin is a molecule that binds to metal ions which have many different biological functions that are necessary to sustain essential activities in all organisms. Genetically based increases in porphyrin in places of the body in which they shouldn’t be, can cause light-dependent swelling and itching of the skin, mental disorders that can include muscle numbness, pain, and vomiting. While the Dayans make it clear that there is no evidence that Tepes suffered from porphyria, they do assert that David Dolphin, a prolific Canadian chemist who wrote seven volumes on porphyrins, identified that porphyria victims suffer from sensitivity to light as well as withered fingers and lips and “gums may tighten to reveal fanglike teeth with reddish hues due to elevated porphyrin levels.” (Dolphin, 12978-1979).  The Dayans properly asserted that, “it is important to remember that patients afflicted with porphyria are by no means vampires…No one suffering from porphyria deserves a rendezvous with Buffy the vampire slayer.” We agree.


Boulton, J. (2000). The Knights of the Crown: The Monarchiacal Orders of Knighthood in Later Medieval Europe 1325-1520. Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press

Dayan, Franck E.. and Dayan, Emilie A., Porphyrins: One Ring in the Colors of LifeAmerican Scientist, May-June 2011, Vol.99, (3),p.236

Dolphin, D. (1978-1979), The Prophyrins. Volumes 1-7. New York, Academic Press

Dolphin, D. (1985) Werewolves and vampires, Annual Meeting of American Assoication for the Advancement of Sciences

Poblete-Gutierrez, P., Wiederholt, H.F., Merk and J. Frank, (2006). The prophyrins:clinical presentation, diagnosis and treatment. European Journal of Dermatology, 16(230).

Taylor, C.B., (1998), Vampire Plants? Plant Cell, 10(1071.

By Bizarre Behavior & Culture Bound Syndromes

Dr. Kevin Volkan is a psychologist, writer, and educator with over twenty years of clinical, corporate, and academic experience. He is Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and is on the graduate medical Faculty in the Community Memorial Health System. Dr. Volkan was one of the founding faculty at CSUCI which is the 23rd campus in California State University system where he teaches a course on atypical psychopathologies titled Bizarre Behaviors and Culture-Bound Syndromes. This course explores the outer range of extreme human behavior including paraphilias and was the inspiration for this blog. Consonant with his interest in deviant psychopathologies he also teaches clinical psychology and a course on the psychology of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Dr. Volkan has been a Silberman Seminar Fellow at The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 and 2014. Before coming to CSUCI, Dr. Volkan was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School where he researched ways to measure medical student and physician performance, and the psychological origins of medical error. While at Harvard, Dr. Volkan also taught for the prestigious Harvard-Macy Institute, a joint program run by the Harvard Business, Education, and Medical schools. In this program he taught medical students and physicians from Harvard as well as from all over the world. Dr. Volkan’s background in psychology is varied and he maintains an active interest in several psychological approaches to understanding human nature – including socio-biological, psychoanalytic, psychometric, and cognitive-behavioral. He has had a long-standing interest in the psychology of compulsive drug use (which has similarities to the psychology of paraphilias), and has published a book on the subject. Dr. Volkan worked as a clinical psychologist for many years. This experience included serving as staff psychologist and Vice Chair of psychology at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. During his tenure at Agnews, Dr. Volkan worked with patients who demonstrated many severe behavioral problems, including profoundly autistic, psychotic, self-injurious, and developmentally disabled individuals. Dr. Volkan was awarded the Sustained Superior Accomplishment Award from the State of California for his clinical work. In addition to his hospital work, Dr. Volkan also maintained a private practice in psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a psychologist for the California Victim Witness program, seeing patients who were victims of crime and/or abuse. Dr. Volkan’s clients included a diverse population of people representing a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and psychological distress. Dr. Volkan received a BA in Biology from the University of California, an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University, an EdD in Educational Psychology from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in Clinical Psychology from The Center for Psychological Studies, and a MPH in Public Health from Harvard University. In his spare time he practices martial arts and plays guitar in a rock band.

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