The culminating point of all these ancient beliefs is the “Great Vampire Epidemic” of the 18th century, sometimes referred to simply as the “Vampire Epidemic,” when people believed vampires were not only real, but suddenly appearing in large numbers for unknown reasons all throughout Eastern Europe.
After a case in Serbia in 1725 where people believed a vampire had appeared and caused illness, soon another case arose in 1726 and hysteria concerning vampires began to spread through Eastern Europe and even parts of Western Europe. Part of this was misinterpretations of the process of decomposition while villagers in Eastern Europe were unearthing the dead thinking that would stop the spread of disease. Still, the question that plagued people at the time was, “What was the origin of the actual deaths that were occurring?” For where there was the perception of one “vampire,” many deaths would often follow, so what was the link? More importantly, what were the diseases? For it was disease that was also epidemic at the time.
Q. So, what were the diseases that caused people to think vampires existed?
A. Records do not provide an accurate consensus of how many bodies were being unearthed as “vampires” during the Vampire Epidemic, when bodies were being dug up to look for signs of vampirism due to fears that vampires were appearing all over Eastern Europe. That would have given us a sense of how many people died of disease at the time as well. Some have suggested hundreds or even thousands died, but unfortunately there is no way to fully verify this.
What we can verify, however, are the links of the phenomenon to disease, and from there we can hypothesize about earlier periods in Slavic history. The question often posed is, “What disease or diseases were responsible for the thing we call the vampire?” Or put differently, what diseases caused people to think vampires existed.
So, what of diseases like tuberculosis? How about the flu or typhoid? Cholera perhaps? Cholera had a direct influence on Bram Stoker while writing “Dracula” and, in fact, there was an epidemic of the disease in the 1890s as he was writing it. Such diseases can certainly be linked to vampire folklore by reading it as such, but that is the case for any disease on the planet.
What is more important is what disease or diseases could be epidemic and thus cause a multitude of deaths that would be in need of an explanation in a time when medical knowledge was primitive. This is key to the vampire’s function as a symbol of disease in original folklore; it provided an answer when science was lacking.
Do we have evidence of any such diseases? The Great Vampire Epidemic provides them.
Two diseases were largely responsible for the deaths during this period: pellagra and rabies. Pellagra is a disease caused by an imbalance in niacin (B3) and tryptophan. It causes a variety of symptoms, including sensitivity to sunlight leading to a corpse-like appearance to the skin, foul breath, anemia and several other symptoms that link with vampire folklore. The trait of foul breath, for example, is believed to have been derived from experiences of this disease in Eastern Europe at the time.