Blood-Sucking Vampires? Nope, Says Forensic Scientist, Just Nature’s Way of Recycling

By Tom McLaughlin

For centuries, tales of blood-sucking vampires have scared the daylights out of people around the world.

These fictional tales largely originated in eastern European folklore, says Kimberlee Moran, but they are actually rooted in the natural – but little understood – science of human decomposition.

Moran explains that reports of bodies moving are actually due to the changes in decomposition that cause the body to bloat and shift.

For instance, explains the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, disturbing reports of bodies moving – surely evidence of late-night blood-sucking binges, right? – are actually due to the changes in decomposition that cause the body to bloat and shift.

“So if a body is buried in a shallow grave and moves around, and you combine that with environmental conditions, such as a heavy rain washing away the soil, it could unearth this moving body,” says the associate teaching professor of chemistry and director of forensics.

Along the same lines, she says, when people feared that a dead person had become a vampire, they would dig the body up and discover that it wasn’t in its original position any longer – leading to much bone-chilling speculation.

“They concluded that the person must’ve been out roaming the night,” says Moran. “What they didn’t realize is that bodies actually move around quite a bit after death.”

This belief and fear of the roaming dead, she adds, then led to the common practice of blaming every inexplicable or unfortunate event on vampires.

“If a cow died or your favorite sweater was missing, it must have been a vampire,” says Moran with a laugh.

But what about those blood-curdling reports of talking dead? How do you explain that?

Moran notes that the belief and fear of the roaming dead led to the common practice of blaming every inexplicable or unfortunate event on vampires.

Moran notes that, as the human body fills up with gases during decomposition and can no longer contain them, it “evacuates” through any orifice in the body, which can actually make some strange sounds in the process.

“Sometimes these gases can pass through the trachea and over vocal chords, and actually make noises,” she says.

And those classic images of blood around the mouth? Likewise, she says, they are due to the evacuation of gases.

“As the gas is pushed out, it pushes out a decomposition fluid in the body cavity that has a type of bloody look to it,” she explains.

In Slavic lore, the Rutgers–Camden researcher continues, vampires were thought to have a “ruddy complexion,” which is due to a human decomposition process called hemolysis. In this process, she explains, red blood cells break open, releasing a pigmentation that stains the skin.

“So instead of the pale, emaciated vampires that we think of today, these Slavic vampires were reported to look like they just had a really full meal,” she says.

To alleviate people’s fears, Moran notes, they came up with clever ways to prevent vampires from awaking and feeding on the living, such as the practice of putting a rock in a body’s mouth – sort of like giving a dog a bone.

“Naturally, if a vampire already had something to nibble on, they wouldn’t be interested in coming out of their coffin,” she says.

People also buried bodies facedown, “so they didn’t know which way was up,” she says, and buried heads at the feet of the corpse.

Moran adds that Dracula author Bram Stoker created the myth of driving a wooden stake through a vampire’s heart, along with many other popularized images and ideas associated with vampires today.

Dracula was a game-changer in terms of giving vampires intelligence and agency,” says Moran. “Stoker was the first to make them seductive, to give a dimension of sexuality to vampires. Really, much that we think about vampires today comes from him.”

So we shouldn’t fear vampires after all?

Nope, says Moran. Underneath it all, it’s actually just nature’s way of recycling.

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.