Renfield’s Syndrome: It Was All a Joke

Clinical psychologist, Richard Noll, concocted a syndrome often used synonymously with clinical vampirism—a condition characterised by an obsession for drinking blood. In discussing the work of Prins and Bourguignon in the field, he

proposed that sexual blood-fetish syndrome defined here as clinical vampirism should bear a new eponymous label in future psychiatric treatments and be renamed Renfield’s syndrome in honor of the character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula who bore many of the classic signs and symptoms of the disorder” (Noll 1992, 18).

He also drummed up a list of symptoms for the syndrome, specifically a “pivotal event” sparking off a desire to consume blood, a progressive desire to take the blood from others, leading on from drinking blood from oneself, a “strong sexual component” to drinking blood, attaching a mystical significance to the action and that people with Renfield’s Syndrome are mostly male (18–19).

Renfield’s Syndrome caught on. It’s appeared in numerous books, like Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters (2005, 68, 242) and many articles have been written about it (e.g. Oppawasky 2010).  But it turns out, Noll was pulling our leg.

Noll shared the origins of the syndrome with forensic psychologist, Katherine Ramsland. While writing the introduction to his 1990 book, Bizarre Diseases of the Mind, he noticed many parallels between clinical vampirism cases and Stoker’s character—a fly-eating lunatic eagerly anticipating Count Dracula’s arrival to England:

“That was when we were all learning how to do Chinese menu checklist ‘DSM-Speak,’” he explained, “and I remember chuckling to myself when I thought of how I could do a pastiche of a DSM mental disorder centered on our good friend, Renfield.”

I found this amusing, so I interviewed him as the creator of this pseudo-diagnosis and included his ideas in The Science of Vampires – also fang-in-cheek (Ramsland 2012).

Ramsland added, “Neither of us took this seriously. Several documentary makers contacted me about it and I told them it’s just a joke.” So there you have it, psychs and laypeople alike: we’ve been had!

References

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 2005. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Checkmark Books.

Noll, Richard. 1992. Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature. New York: Brunner/Mazel, Publishers.

Oppawasky, Jolene. 2010. “Vampirism: Clinical Vampirism—Renfield’s Syndrome.” Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association 13 (4):  58–63.

Ramsland, Katherine. 2012. “Vampire Personality Disorder.” Shadow Boxing (blog), Psychology Today, November 21, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing/201211/vampire-personality-disorder.

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