Book review – Vampirology: The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend

6-minute read

You would think that science and monsters are strange bedfellows. And yet, there are plenty of science geeks, myself included, who get a good giggle out of pondering the science behind mythical beings and worlds. Clearly, somebody at the Royal Society of Chemistry has a similar sense of humour, for they have just published Vampirology. Here, chemist and science communicator Kathryn Harkup trains a scientific lens on the fanged fiend – not so much to ask whether vampires do or do not exist, but whether they could exist given our scientific understanding today.

Vampirology

Vampirology: The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend, written by Kathryn Harkup, published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in June 2021 (paperback, 262 pages)

In ten chapters, Harkup investigates a diverse range of vampiric traits or facts associated with vampire lore. For some, she does not necessarily provide a scientific blueprint for how vampires would achieve what are obviously supernatural feats but looks at how other animals achieve something comparable. Could you actually live on a diet of blood? Vampire bats can, but they have had to make all sorts of compromises to manage it. If vampire metabolism is anything like a human’s this presents problems: blood is not very energy-rich, it is poor in the needed minerals and vitamins, and it is far too salty and iron-rich. Or what of Dracula’s ability to transform himself into other animals? Given the relationship between mass and energy, Dracula would not be able to rapidly transform into a much smaller bat, which “would release the sort of energy seen in atomic explosions [which] would result in the total destruction of [London]” (p. 130). But some animals are capable of extreme feats of camouflage or mimicry of objects. Octopuses can squeeze themselves through very small openings, as long as their hard beak can fit, so that is the kind of flexibility Dracula would need to squeeze himself through small cracks. And the question of how Dracula might crawl up and down vertical walls naturally leads to a piece on the way geckos adhere to surfaces.

Equally often Harkup will use vampires as a springboard to marvel at the natural world inside and outside of us. There is, for example, an extended section on how blood works and the hit-and-miss character of early blood transfusions when blood compatibility was not yet understood. And the question of whether vampires might exist alongside us as another species of Homo leads into a discussion on human evolution and the revelations of ancient DNA, how large a viable population would need to be, and what genetic changes would have to evolve to, for instance, ensure extreme longevity.

“Our limited understanding at the time of how the human body decomposes led people to take anything out of the ordinary as evidence of a vampire [alllowing] Harkup to discuss all sorts of delectable details of decay”

Another approach Harkup employs is to try and find rational explanations for historical reports on vampirism. Several researchers have suggested that the symptoms of diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera fed into vampire lore, while the Spanish neurologist Juan Gómez-Alonso theorised the same for rabies. As Harkup discusses here, not all of these claims can stand the light of day. Other powers, especially psychic ones, are harder to explain. Dracula’s mastery of the weather? This is something we are not capable of even today. The psychic connection that Dracula formed with Mina? Equally unlikely, though it could well reflect the Victorian craze for mesmerism and spiritualism at the time that Bram Stoker wrote his famous book.

The state of human knowledge, or lack thereof, is particularly useful when it comes to explaining the eyewitness testimony of people exhuming the corpses of suspected vampires. Our limited understanding at the time of how the human body decomposes led people to take anything out of the ordinary as evidence of a vampire. This allows Harkup to discuss all sorts of delectable details of decay, such as the suspiciously ruddy complexion of some corpses (due to blood vessel and tissue breakdown), the blood-stained lips (so-called purge fluid being forced out of the mouth), and their occasional well-preserved appearance (due to the formation of grave wax or adipocere on the skin when fatty tissues are broken down). There is a range of environmental factors that influence how decomposition proceeds and death can be a restless respite: corpses move.

“One particular challenge in writing a book like this is that our conception of what a vampire is has changed through time: from sinister fiend to seductive villain”

From the above, it is clear that Harkup takes stabs at her topic from many angles. One particular challenge in writing a book like this is that our conception of what a vampire is has changed through time: from sinister fiend to seductive villain. As the introduction explains, they have a surprisingly long lineage in history and folklore. Our picture today, however, is still strongly influenced by Stoker’s Dracula, with subsequent theatre plays and the 1931 movie starring Bela Lugosi adding certain tropes such as the opera cape. Even Nick Groom, who charted the history of the vampire before Dracula in his well-received book The Vampire, could not get away from him, writing that: “all the paths of the (un)dead lead to Dracula, just as they all lead away from it” (p. xv). Stoker, for example, introduced the association with bats. An interesting tidbit Harkup reveals here is that the sensitivity to sunlight was, however, an invention of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 movie Nosferatu – Dracula walked the streets of London in broad daylight. That knowledge makes attempts at explaining this particular vampiric trait by retrofitting medical conditions look a bit silly. This has been attempted for pellagra and porphyria where patients are very sensitive to sunlight.

Although I do not have it at hand, a quick comparison with Ramsland’s book The Science of Vampires suggests that, despite some inevitable overlap, the two authors have different takes on the subject. Ramsland comes at it as a forensic psychologist. Vampirology is entirely in keeping with Harkup’s previous macabre trio of books with Bloomsbury on the science of Frankenstein and how Shakespeare and Agatha Christie shoved their characters off this mortal coil. I expect that any negative reviews will probably come from the small contingent of people who take vampires and vampirism extremely seriously. For the vast majority of us mere mortals there is less at stake here. Vampirology is a fine piece of popular science that has its tongue firmly planted in its ruddy cheek and comes recommended if you enjoyed e.g. Kaplan’s book The Science of Monsters.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Vampirology

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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