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The Monsters Are Real! SEL Fall Exhibit: Vampires

The Science behind our favorite Halloween Monsters; “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ― Stephen King





Vampires are as diverse as humans. Some are blood suckers, some take life force or energy. Almost every culture in the world has a form of Vampire and they have been around for a very long time, at least as far back as Ancient Greece (Graves). The vetala of India is an evil spirit that inhabits and animates corpses. The bodies do not decay as long as they are possessed. The vetala use the corpses as a vehicle to cause harm to humans.

In Africa, there are a few creatures that could be called vampiric.

The Akan in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Togo tell tales of the Asanbosam, or more commonly sasabonsam. According to legend,

It’s been reported that the creature plays with its victims like a cat might play with a mouse, stalking prey as if by instinct, even when they’re not hungry. It might jump from tree to tree, or tap a victim’s shoulder with its tail. Once the sasabonsam has had its fill of taunting, it will stretch down to the forest floor to snatch up its prey, biting its neck, draining its blood, and gorging on its flesh and bone.  (


However sinister that may seem, the  sasabonsam serves a protector of the forest, only attacking those hunters who disobey the rules (Moonlight). Another creature, the adze takes the form of a firefly and flies through keyholes to suck the blood of children.

In Asia, there is folklore about many creatures that could be vampires. One, for example is the jiāngshī  or “hopping vampire.” It is created when burial rituals are not performed quickly enough or properly. These creatures hop about, arms outstretched and kill their victims by draining them of their life essence (or qi) (Bunsen).


Meso and South American legends describe the Chupacabra or “goat sucker” as a creature that drains livestock of its’ blood.


Probably the most familiar type of vampire, thanks to Bram Stoker and modern popular culture is the strigoi or nosferatu. The common elements of this vampire lore was more or less created by Bram Stoker in the novel, Dracula, in 1897 though the lore and the literature go much further back in Eastern Europe. This vampire is undead, must kill and drink blood to survive, casts no reflection, has an aversion to garlic and crosses, and cannot survive the sunrise unless s/he is sheltered from it, usually in a coffin – that the coffin must be in some earth from the vampire’s native land. These vampires can only be destroyed by a wooden stake driven into its dead heart and decapitation or sunlight.

But are they real?  Historical evidence for vampires is primarily anecdotal and yet, there is some physical evidence – at least of peoples’ belief in these creatures.

Note the stake where the corpse's heart would have been

Archaeological evidence of vampire “remains” exists (Pringle). For example, in Gliwice, Poland, excavation for a new highway construction site revealed a grave in which the skeletal remains showed that the head had been severed and laid on the legs. And,

In the 1990s, University of British Columbia archaeologist Hector Williams and his colleagues discovered an adult male skeleton whose body had been staked to the ground in a 19th-century cemetery on the Greek island of Lesbos. Whoever buried the man had driven several eight-inch-long iron spikes through his neck, pelvis, and ankle. (Pringle).

In Griswold, Connecticut, remains of “vampire” were discovered around 1990, the severed head and leg bones arranged in skull and crossbones formation. Forensic anthropology and DNA testing have shown that man to whom those bones belonged suffered from tuberculosis to the extent that there was scarring on his ribs (Ruane, Sledzik & Bellatoni). In fact, much of the lore around identifying vampires can be traced to symptoms of various diseases, including tuberculosis and porphyria and natural changes of decomposition post-mortem (Wilson, Barber).


These are a few:

  • Pallor (disease) or ruddiness (Decomp)
  • Gaunt, thinness (Disease) or bloated (decomp)
  • Sensitivity to sunlight (Disease)
  • Lengthening of teeth and/or nails (both)
  • “Fresh” blood in or around mouth (decomp)

Bodies of these “vampires” were exhumed and ritualistically re-“killed” to prevent the vampire from causing harm to its family and neighbors.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, we have “modern vampires,” both blood drinkers and “psychic vampires, part of a Goth subculture (Radford). According to Radford,

A few people claim to regularly drink other people's blood, and though the human digestive system isn't well adapted for digesting blood, small quantities of blood may be harmless and are merely broken down into proteins, iron, and amino acids. The real risk — assuming the vampire has a willing donor — is of contracting blood-borne diseases …

While relatively few people claim to be true vampires, some claim to be "psychic vampires." We all know people who can be difficult or emotionally draining, but that's not necessarily what "psychic vampires" are. Instead they are people who claim to drain or tap into the human body's latent "energy systems" (what some call chakra or chi) (Radford).

This is tiny amount of information on vampires, real or folklore. We’ve included a small (relative to the vast amount of resources available) list of references for you to pursue and decide for yourself:  are vampires real monsters?

References and Recommended Further Reading


Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death Folklore and Reality. Yale University Press, 2010.

Bunson, Matthew. The Vampire Encyclopedia. Random House International, 2001.

Carter, Margaret L. "Realm of the Vampires". June 2004. 

Cremene, Adrien. Mythologie Du Vampire En Roumanie. Mobaco, Ed. DuRocher. 1981.

Dundes Alan. The Vampire : A Casebook. University of Wisconsin Press 2006.

Graves, Robert. “Lamia.” The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1960, pp. 205–206,

Graves, Robert. “The Empusae.” The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex  , England, 1960, pp. 189–190, (2)

Gross, Emma Starer. “In West Africa, the Adze Is an Insectoid Source of Misfortune.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 26 Oct. 2020,

Gross, Emma Starer. “One of Dracula's Often Overlooked Inspirations Is the Indian Vetala.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 20 Nov. 2020,

Hefferon, Michael. “Vampire Myths Originated with a Real Blood Disorder.” Queen's Gazette | Queen's University, Queen's University, 29 June 2020,,origin%20of%20the%20vampire%20myth.

Lane, Nick. "Born to the purple: the story of porphyria." Scientific American 16 (2002).

Levy, Daniel S. “Tracing the Blood-Curdling Origins of Vampires, Zombies, and Werewolves.” History, National Geographic, 24 Oct. 2022,

Liao, Yiwu. The Corpse Walker : Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. 1st ed., Pantheon Books, 2008.

Moonlight. “African Vampires.” Vampires,, 16 Oct. 2010,

“Motif Index of Vampires in Folklore, Literature, and Film.” Motif Index of Vampires, California State University, 2022,

Pringle, Heather. “Archaeologists Suspect Vampire Burial; an Undead Primer.” Adventure, National Geographic, 3 May 2021,

Rosen, Brenda. “Vetala.” Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Beasts and Beings from Mythology and Folklore, Godsfield, Alresford, NY, 2008, pp. 193–193.

Ruane, Michael E. “A 'Vampire's' Remains Were Found about 30 Years Ago. Now DNA Is Giving Him New Life.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Aug. 2019,

Sledzik P S and N Bellantoni. “Brief Communication: Bioarcheological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 1994 pp. 269–74. 

Strangeremains. “Vampire Archaeology: How Scientists Identified a 200-Year-Old Vampire.” Strange Remains, 23 Dec. 2019,

Suckling, Nigel (2006). Vampires. London: Facts, Figures & Fun. p. 31

Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London. 1928. Ancient Texts and Old Books".

"vetala(s)." Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend, Thames & Hudson, Anna L. Dallapiccola, Thames & Hudson, 1st edition, 2002. Credo Reference

Wilson, Karina. “Decomposing Bodies in the 1720s Gave Birth to the First Vampire Panic.”, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Oct. 2020,

Recommended Further Reading

Byron, George Gordon. The Giaour. (1813)

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ballad Christabel. 1926.

Crow, Melissa M. “The Romantic Origins of the Vampire Story in English Literature .”, Academia . Edu, 15 Feb. 2017,

Day, Peter. Vampires Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Rodopi, 2006.

Le Fanu, J. Sheridan. “Carmilla.”

Polidori, John. The Vampyre. (1819) Project Gutneberg release 2004-07-01. <<>>

Saler, Benson and Charles A. (Charles Albert) Ziegler. "Dracula and Carmilla: Monsters and the Mind." Philosophy and Literature, vol. 29 no. 1, 2005, p. 218-227. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/phl.2005.0011.

Senf, Carol. The Vampire in 19th Century English Literature. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1988.

Signorotti, E. “Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in ‘Carmilla’ and ‘Dracula.’” Criticism (Detroit), vol. 38, no. 4, 1996, pp. 607–32.

Southey, Robert. Poems of Robert Southey. London: Oxford University Press, 1909.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. (1897)

Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 1981.