Is there a scientific basis for the existence of vampires? A certain website—Steve Leighton’s www.Vampirewebsite.net—would have you believe there is. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to it called “Vampires are Real,” which as of this writing, has 1,160 likes.
On September 25, 2013, one of my Facebook friends discussed the site with me and I promised a breakdown of why it had it all wrong—which I delivered to two days after their query.
The following quotes are from the site and my accompanying commentary are my responses from the September 27, 2013 reply to him; with some minor formatting alterations, i.e. removing quotation marks and numeric divisions. I will provide amendments after this section’s done.
Yale University ”Endogenous retroviruses contribute to the evolution of the host genome and can be associated with disease.” The belief that being a vampire was caused by a disease dates back at least as far as the black plague. Making this far from being a new belief, and the black plague happened long before movies were even thought of.
Firstly, no, people didn’t believe that back then. Most Europeans wouldn’t even have heard of vampires, who were popularised in the 18th century. Back then, people believed the plague was spread by bad air. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the actual cause was discovered.
The main reason behind why real vampirism isn’t as widely believed as one would think, is due to a failure of the general public’s’ understanding of the endogenous retrovirus which for this website will be referred to as vHERV. A majority of the general public doesn’t believe, and do not want to believe, that human DNA can be altered in such a way to create such a being.
That’s not the “general public’s” fault – it’s because those viruses are not directly linked to the virus. That’s the website author’s explanation for how the virus *might* explain vampirism as a condition – after all, there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Except the author wrongly makes this sound like a factual statement. It’s not.
The term “Real Vampire” for purpose of this site is going to be used as a medical term and therefore must be separated from the “Vampire” myths, such as Dracula. A Viral Vampire is an infected human. Though the DNA in the host human has been greatly altered, the organism remains human in the medical sense, as the number of chromosomes have not been changed. The entire human race has the same number of chromosomes. The number of chromosomes is what separates humans and animals (except for those born with Down’s Syndrome – these people have an extra copy of chromosome 21 but are, of course, human). It must be kept in mind that DNA can be altered in many ways. Many endogenous retroviruses can alter their DNA to become stronger and survive even more intolerable conditions. Superinfection among vampires also enhances the vHERV’scapability of doing this, read the superinfection page to learn more about it. This is what happens with the human DNA with the vHERV endogenous retrovirus.
This *sounds* scientific – but read it closely. The author is basically making up a disease, but using scientific terms (without any evidence) to back it up. Calling something a disease does not make it one. No such studies have been done. The author is pulling this stuff out of his ass.
Technically the Real Vampire is still a human. However, for sake of discussion let us think of vampires as non-human or as the next step in human evolution. This is difficult to believe because many of the attributes of a Real Vampire are considered far more developed than those of a human. Strength, speed, enhanced mental and/or psychic abilities, the ability to digest human and animal blood more efficiently are but a few of the differences. The reason this happens is the basic human DNA is altered by the endogenous retrovirus.
Does it? So where’s the proof an endogenous retrovirus can do any of that? None is offered. Don’t you find it a little strange that someone making such claims provides absolutely no proof of it?
The endogenous retrovirus, which we call vHERV, is NOT the same virus as HIV. To simplify, it is transmitted through a simple exchange of blood which can later be passed on either through birth or the more traditional way of an exchange of blood.
By “we” he means him – after all, he made it up.
According to Yale university as well as other well respected universities these are the differences that make humans more evolved than the chimpanzee. In such a child, the endogenous retrovirus remains dormant until the catalyst of the onset of puberty.
Except Yale University is commenting on retroviruses, not retroviruses that cause vampirism. But the last bit’s the killer…
Meaning it really is not a stretch to say that introducing one or more new endogenous retroviruses to a human will cause them to become a vampire, in effect giving the vampire some definite new advantages.
In other words, the author is *speculating* that such diseases could cause vampirism. Hence “really not a stretch”, not that it actually does. So, in summary, all this crap is intended to make it *sound* scientific, but the conclusions are dodgy and falsely presented as accurate. The author has even invented a disease.
I will now take the opportunity to elaborate on the points raised in my breakdown and discuss Leighton’s points in more depth:
1. “The belief that being a vampire was caused by a disease dates back at least as far as the black plague”
The connection between vampires and the plague derives from the premature burial theory on the origin of vampire belief. One proponent, Olga Hoyt, wrote
A more cogent reason for the spread of vampirism throughout Europe, beginning in the Middle Ages, however, was the terrible plague that began in the thirteenth century and lasted until the eighteenth.” (1984, 56). She added, “Still another factor, which certainly burgeoned during the plague decades, was premature burial [. . .] When the plague came along, the people were so frightened of it, and of other diseases and fevers, that when the sick person stopped moving, it was presumed that he or she was dead.” (1984, 56)
The idea, of course being, that when the “dead” woke from their slumber, they’d try to return to the living or later exhumations would prove that the “vampire” had tried to get out of its grave due to movement of the body or scratching on the coffin lid’s underside.
Both notions may have some truth to them in the context of the development of belief, though. For instance, I stumbled upon a case from 1738 that made a direct connection between local belief in vampires and the plague (Hogg 2011) and I have read certain vampire cases that do feature premature burial (Hogg 2013b)—but the notion of vampirism being a disease going back “as far as the black plague”? No.
The vampire trope we know today, is of fairly recent vintage. Jan L. Perkowski tracks its development thusly:
The term vampire first occurs as a proper name in an East Slavic (Old Russian) manuscript of 1047 A.D. in which a Novgorodian prince is listed as Upir’ (cf. South Slavic vampir) Lichyj which means ‘Wicked Vampire.’ The vampire concept, in macrocosmic terms, first appears in a Serbian manuscript of the XIIIth century in which a vuklodlak (vampire/werewolf) is described as a creature which devours the sun and moon, while chasing clouds. The term vampir is attested in the South Slavic area from the XVth century. (1989, 18)
This Slavic term was not used in conjunction with plagues, though, nor framing the vampire as a “disease.” Indeed, “vampire” did not even enter Western European languages until the 18th century—it first appeared in English in 1732 (Hogg 2013a).
As to Medieval notions on the cause of the plagues, a variety of natural and supernatural explanations were conjured, but “vampires did it!” is a notable absence from the list:
Medical knowledge had stagnated during the Middle Ages. The most authoritative account at the time came from the medical faculty in Paris in a report to the king of France that blamed the heavens, in the form of a conjunction of three planets in 1345 that caused a “great pestilence in the air”. This report became the first and most widely circulated of a series of “plague tracts” that sought to give advice to sufferers. That the plague was caused by bad air became the most widely accepted theory. The word plague had no special significance at this time, and only the recurrence of outbreaks during the Middle Ages gave it the name that has become the medical term. (“Black Death” 2014)
Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. The governments of Europe had no apparent response to the crisis because no one knew its cause or how it spread. The mechanism of infection and transmission of diseases was little understood in the 14th century; many people believed only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays. (“Black Death” 2014)
2. “The main reason behind why real vampirism isn’t as widely believed as one would think, is due to a failure of the general public’s’ understanding of the endogenous retrovirus”
The general public might be ignorant on endogenous retroviruses which “are endogenous viral elements in the genome that closely resemble and can be derived from retroviruses” (“Endogenous Retrovirus” 2014), but equating that ignorance with the general public not believing in “real vampirism” is a hell of stretch—considering that there’s no evidence endogenous retroviruses cause “real vampirism” in the first place.
The retrovirus can alter the host’s genome—their genetic makeup—but that doesn’t mean they start craving fresh blood or exploding in sunlight. Instead,
The majority of ERVs that occur in vertebrate genomes are ancient, inactivated by mutation, and have reached genetic fixation in their host species. For these reasons, they are extremely unlikely to have negative effects on their hosts except under unusual circumstances. Nevertheless, it is clear from studies in birds and non-human mammal species including mice, cats and koalas, that younger (i.e., more recently integrated) ERVs can be associated with disease. This has led researchers to propose a role for ERVs in several forms of human cancer and autoimmune disease, although conclusive evidence is lacking.
In humans, ERVs have been proposed to be involved in multiple sclerosis (MS). A specific association between MS and the ERVWE1, or “syncytin”, gene, which is derived from an ERV insertion, has been reported, along with the presence of an “MS-associated retrovirus” (MSRV), in patients with the disease. Human ERVs (HERVs) have also been implicated in ALS.
In 2004 it was reported that antibodies to HERVs were found in greater frequency in the sera of people with schizophrenia. Additionally, the cerebrospinal fluid of people with recent onset schizophrenia contained levels of a retroviral marker, reverse transcriptase, four times higher than control subjects. Researchers continue to look at a possible link between HERVs and schizophrenia, with the additional possibility of a triggering infection inducing schizophrenia. (“Endogenous Retrovirus” 2014)
Despite claims of public ignorance and conspiratorial overtones on the website—”A majority of the general public doesn’t believe, and do not want to believe, that human DNA can be altered in such a way to create such a being”—it’s far more likely the public doesn’t “believe” such straw man arguments because the claim is found on an obscure website that promotes flimsy speculation on the properties of endogenous retroviruses as fact.
In this case, it’s a good thing the “general public” is ignorant about such nonsense.
3. “The term “Real Vampire” for purpose of this site is going to be used as a medical term and therefore must be separated from the “Vampire” myths, such as Dracula.”
No it shouldn’t. Representing vampirism as a genetic mutation without any reliable evidence, only speculation on the supposed superhuman capabilities of endogenous retroviruses is creating a myth in its own right—that makes it no different to Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire count. Dressing it up with scientific terminology doesn’t disguise that fact.
It’s not the only example of using science to orchestrate a “creation story”, either. In 1985, Dr. David Dolphin, a Canadian biochemist, promoted the porphyria theory to explain the origin of vampire belief. One of porphyria’s defining characteristics is the suffer’s skin blistering in contact with sunlight. This, of course, ties in with the “lore” that vampires were destroyed by sunlight.
An intriguing theory—if one accepts fictional/cinematic “lore” preceding folkloric representations of vampires (it doesn’t). Despite the affliction’s connection to vampire belief being debunked (e.g. Cox 1995)—not to mention the stigma ladled on actual porphyria sufferers in the wake of the theory’s promotion in the media (Dresser 1989, chap. 6)—Dolphin still promotes the theory today (Miller 2007).
4. “Technically the Real Vampire is still a human. However, for sake of discussion let us think of vampires as non-human or as the next step in human evolution.”
Sure, let’s think about that. Now let’s think about the attributes the website’s author gives them: “Strength, speed, enhanced mental and/or psychic abilities, the ability to digest human and animal blood more efficiently are but a few of the differences.” Are they vampires or students in Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters?
Suffice it to say, the website doesn’t provide any case studies of “real vampires” exhibiting these traits, little alone justification for these qualifiers—despite having a page dedicated to “myths, exaggerations, and facts” (Leighton 2005). A website built on post hoc reasoning should not expect readers to begin with the notion of accepting “vampires as non-human or as the next step in human evolution” if it has no case to back it up in the first place.
The reality is, the Vampire Community—the banner under which many “real vampires” operate—is incredibly diverse, as this checklist by one of its authorities, Merticus, points out (2014):
Some vampi(y)res have medical and/or mental conditions which they’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer for.
Some vampi(y)res have medical and/or mental conditions which they’re in denial over.
Some vampi(y)res incorporate magickal or ritual practices with a spiritual blend of ‘vampirism’.
Some vampi(y)res are left-hand path leaning ‘vampire’ spiritualists or esotericists.
Some vampi(y)res don’t believe ‘vampirism’ has anything to do with religion and/or spirituality.
Some vampi(y)res believe their soul is inhabited and/or are fallen angelic or demonic ‘vampires’.
Some vampi(y)res believe ‘vampirism’ to be an evolutionary advancement in certain humans.
Some vampi(y)res believe ‘vampirism’ is caused by a virus because they read certain websites.
Some vampi(y)res simply enjoy the ‘lifestyle’, wearing fangs, and dangling an ankh around their neck.
Some vampi(y)res really wish they could emulate fictional (perhaps even folkloric) ‘vampires’.
Some vampi(y)res felt a void in their life and have ‘attempted’ to fill it with ‘vampirism’ and the O/VC.
Some vampi(y)res have no clue who or what they are and don’t care either way – ‘vampire’ sounded good.
Some vampi(y)res have no desire to define their own identity because they never learned to think for themselves.
Some vampi(y)res are still searching for their own answers (physiological, medical, spiritual, or otherwise).
Some vampi(y)res are completely deluding themselves (regardless of whether ‘vampirism’ exists or not).
Some vampi(y)res really wish they could close their eyes and wake up somewhere else.
Some vampi(y)res won’t be here this time next year because they will no longer identify with ‘vampirism’.
Some vampi(y)res are just bat @&*# crazy.
Some vampi(y)res think ‘vampirism’ is a combination of ‘everything’ because they think this is an appealing idea.
Some vampi(y)res will think I didn’t cover some element of their own personal experience in any of the above.
Some vampi(y)res will be correct in this thinking.
In other words, not even “real vampires” have a consensus on what a “real vampire” is. By all means, think about “real vampires” being “non-human or as the next step in human evolution”—but don’t take Leighton’s statements at face value.
5. “The endogenous retrovirus, which we call vHERV, is NOT the same virus as HIV. To simplify, it is transmitted through a simple exchange of blood which can later be passed on either through birth or the more traditional way of an exchange of blood.”
By “we” Leighton is referring to himself. After all, it’s his theory and his copyright notice doesn’t mention any co-authors. Also, “vHERV” is his term, too: “The main reason behind why real vampirism isn’t as widely believed as one would think, is due to a failure of the general public’s’ understanding of the endogenous retrovirus which for this website will be referred to as vHERV.”
HERV is short for human endogenous retroviruses—the “v” suffix is clearly meant to be “vampire.” In other words, Leighton invented his own retrovirus definition to cloak his theory in scientific terminology—despite bringing no scientific evidence to the table.
He’s right about one thing, though: it’s not the same virus as HIV. That’s because HIV is a real thing; vHERV is not. HIV can be passed through a “transfer of blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate, or breast milk” (“HIV” 2014) though, so trying to convince people “vHERV” and its superhuman properties can also be transferred through “an exchange of blood” is probably not the most responsible thing to do.
6. “According to Yale university as well as other well respected universities these are the differences that make humans more evolved than the chimpanzee.”
Leighton’s website cites an inaccessible (defunct) document link titled “Endogenous retroviruses contribute to the evolution of the host genome and can be associated with disease.” The original article appears to be ”Many Human Endogenous Retrovirus K (HERV-K) Proviruses are Unique to Humans” (Barbulescu et. al. 1999), because the exact same sentence is found in the article’s PubMed abstract.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that the article has nothing to do with vampires—and therefore irrelevant to Leighton’s “case.” However, he’s added a little something extra to the mix—a logical fallacy called “appeal to authority.”
When you hear “Yale university as well as other well respected universities” mentioned (indeed, Leighton also links to “The Top 10 Universities of The World for 2010”), it makes the theory sound legit. However, the context in which those authorities are discussed is much more important than their well-respected positions:
Fallacious examples of using the appeal include any appeal to authority used in the context of deductive reasoning, and appealing to the position of an authority or authorities to dismiss evidence, as, while authorities can be correct in judgments related to their area of expertise more often than laypersons, they can still come to the wrong judgments through error, bias, dishonesty, or falling prey to groupthink. Thus, the appeal to authority is not a generally reliable argument for establishing facts. (“Argument from Authority” 2014)
In this case, the authorities in question don’t actually uphold Leighton’s theory, they merely agree that certain manifestations of the endogenous retroviruses are unique to humans—which, again, is irrelevant, if the authorities don’t discuss “real vampires” in conjunction with Leighton’s theory.
The moral of the story? Don’t be fooled by fancy names and vague allusions to respected universities without double-checking out what they’ve actually say on such matters.
7. “Meaning it really is not a stretch to say that introducing one or more new endogenous retroviruses to a human will cause them to become a vampire, in effect giving the vampire some definite new advantages.”
Yet another logical fallacy: the appeal to probability. In reality, it’s a big stretch. Why? Because to arrive at that conclusion, you’d need to verify each of its components, the biggest one being that endogenous retroviruses actually bestow people, “real vampires”, with the superhuman attributes in the first place. There is zero evidence for that and Leighton’s case is extremely weak; virtually non-existent.
In sum, Leighton’s website should be taken with a massive grain of salt—or better yet, dismissed altogether as a hodge-podge of pseudo-scientific gibberish and faulty reasoning. If you want proof of vampires, look elsewhere.
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