While the sexy and stylish vampires of HBO’s True Blood might have been more than willing to “step out of the coffin” and make the world aware of their presence, in real life, people who regularly enjoy drinking blood prefer to stay in the shadows of obscurity. Despite their unique palate, however, the modern-day vampire has less in common with Bram Stoker’s beloved Dracula, and is more like your average boy or girl next door — that is, if your neighbor also happens to enjoy drinking human blood.
A Mysterious Illness
Puberty is hard for everyone. From awkward hair growth to hormone-fueled crushes, Mother Nature leaves no teen unscathed. However, for a small amount of the general population — about 5,000 or so for every major U.S. city, according to The Washington Post — puberty comes with an additional twist: a thirst for drinking blood.
Like many of puberty’s surprises, this need to feed is both uncontrollable and confusing. While this may sound strange, Dr. John Edgar Browning, a researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology who investigated the real vampire community in a 2015 study, explained that in most true vampires, it's far from supernatural.
“Its members are people who developed, usually during puberty, a sort of energy deficiency, and afterward found that if they consume blood they feel better,” Browning told Medical Daily.
Browning explained that many modern-day vampires don’t identify with the dark, gothic culture of stereotypical vampires. Instead, they believe they have a mysterious illness that requires them to drink blood. Without it, they become weak and crippled, often experiencing severe headaches and stomach cramps.
“It’s not until later, often much later, that the term 'vampire' is adopted as a means of communicating their identity and to bring meaning both to their lives and to a bodily process they don’t fully understand,” said Browning.
To date, there is no medical proof or explanation for vampirism, although scientists have been fascinated by the practice for centuries. Renfield’s Syndrome is the term used to define those with clinical vampirism, a distinct compulsion to drink blood, The Huffington Post reported. According to a 2011 paper on the condition, those with Renfield's Syndrome often have a childhood experience causing them to associate blood with excitement. During puberty, they may also come to associate this excitement with sexual arousal. However, Renfield’s Syndrome is considered a psychiatric illness, not medical, and according to Browning is not the same as true vampirism as we understand it today.
In the past, doctors theorized that vampirism may be related to tuberculosis, seeing as TB patients often cough up blood, implying they had just digested it. Even as early as 2002, researcher Nick Lane theorized that porphyria, a rare blood condition that also causes intense sensitivity to sunlight, may have inspired the tales of blood-thirsty creatures of the night.
Still, despite the lack of an empirical explanation, the symptoms are real enough for the sufferers.
“Without feeding the vampire will become lethargic, sickly, depressed, and often go through physical suffering or discomfort,” self-proclaimed real vampire “Merticus” told The Daily Beast.
CJ!, another real vampire, told the BBC that she suffers from irritable bowels that can only be cured by “consuming a sizeable quantity, somewhere between seven shot glasses to even a cup” of blood.
What’s more, Browning told The Washington Post that one vampire he interviewed even required hospitalization following a prolonged absence from her “medicine.” It was only after her husband visited her in the hospital and gave her some of his blood that she was able to recover.
Most real-life vampires get their blood supply from willing donors in an ethical manner — any deviation from this would result in expulsion from the vampire community, Browning explained. Although many vampires have sought treatment or diagnosis from medical professionals, Browning said the outcome is always the same: “No condition or abnormality can be found.”
Dr. DJ Williams, an associate professor of social work from Idaho State University who recently authored a 2014 study regarding real vampirism, told Medical Daily that vampires consider their condition very much real, regardless of what the rest of society thinks of them.
“From my experience, many vampires seem to think that there is likely an undiscovered genetic or medical explanation for their condition,” said Williams. "'Real' vampires believe that they do not choose their condition. In other words, they report that they have a need for extra energy, which defines their vampiric identity.”
Harmless Habit Or Health Concern?
While drinking blood may seem like a perverse yet harmless habit, the practice carries a number of actual medical risks. First off, humans aren’t meant to drink blood. While a blue steak every now and then isn’t likely to do much harm, according to Live Science, blood can be toxic when consumed in large enough quantities.
Blood is rich in iron, which is why it has such a metallic taste. Although iron is an essential nutrient for our health, we aren’t able to effectively get rid of excess iron if we accidentally have too much. If iron builds up in our bodies we can develop a condition called haemochromatosis, which essentially causes a number of serious health conditions like liver damage, depression, dehydration, fluid in the lungs, and even death.
Not only is the blood itself potentially dangerous, but the pathogens it carries could also harm the real life vampire. HIV may be the illness most commonly associated with blood transmission, but it is by far not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, blood can also carry Hepatitis B and C, and also a rare yet serious virus called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease that is essentially the human version of Mad Cow Disease.
However, it seems that modern-day vampires understand these risks and have taken safeguards to protect their health. Firstly, Browning explained that most real life vampire and donor situations “generally both the donor and the vampire undergo first a blood test to safeguard against transmitting any pathogens.” In addition, Browning told Medical Daily that real life vampires usually consume far too little blood to cause them any serious harm.
“I, personally, have not met a New Orleans vampire who’s caused harm to him, or herself, by drinking too much blood, nor have I heard of this happening to anyone in the greater community.”
Despite these safeguards taken by the real vampire community, the medical needs of this demographic may still be overlooked by health professionals.
For his study, Williams interviewed several real vampires and found that many were uncomfortable sharing their blood drinking habits with their doctors due to the fear of being ridiculed and possibly diagnosed with a mental illness. According to Williams, being open about drinking blood is integral to real vampires’ physical and mental well-being.
“I think it is very important that doctors and clinicians are open to their clients' diverse beliefs (including personal identities), meaningful experiences, and lifestyles,” Williams told Medical Daily. “The more open and nonjudgmental clinicians are, the more likely they can help their clients.”