Vampires have haunted our imaginations for centuries, from the gruesome, grotesque creatures of the original European folk tales to the dashing romantic heroes of today's films and TV shows. But on the face of it, asking whether vampires have any basis in reality seems obviously absurd.
Let's not pronounce a knee-jerk judgement quite yet. There are two arguments to be made, beginning with the "sensible" one...
VAMPIRES: JUST A MYTH
As writer and paranormal expert Lynn Picknett tells us, "In Eastern Europe, the idea that the dead can rise from their graves and suck blood from the living is imprinted in the DNA of the people there, certainly in rural areas."
In fact, the "modern" vampire concept goes right back to the medieval period, so there must have been very good reasons why the dark power of this "myth" has persisted for so long. Supernatural reasons, perhaps?
Nonsense, according to Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic magazine. For her, the vampire myth arose from early ignorance about the process of dying. "We see vampire legends where there's a combination of epidemic death and where people misunderstand the process of decomposition," she says. "Things like the pH of the soil, the temperature of the environment, how deep you bury the body, all of these things play into whether people decompose in a predictable way."
The suspicious "behaviour" of corpses, regarded as vampiric by early European communities, might have simply been down to the natural consequences of death and decay. In some of the old tales, bodies were described as looking eerily plump, rosy-cheeked and with blood around the lips, but all of this was probably down to the natural bloating that occurs post-mortem, along with blood rising to the surface of the skin and being regurgitated from the mouth. Skin receding from fingernails and flesh sinking around stubble may also have given the impression of corpses that continued to "grow" and "live".
Driving a stake through the heart or abdomen of a body, in the time-honoured method of vampire slaying, could even induce groan-like sounds as the accumulated gases escaped from the punctured corpse. It's very easy to see how such factors, coupled with the varying patterns of decomposition due to weather conditions and burial sites, might terrify people from a pre-scientific age, and inspire superstitious explanations about undead creatures of the night.
VAMPIRES: MORE THAN A MYTH?
Now let's play devil's advocate and argue the opposite point: that vampires became so deeply rooted in the culture of countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Romania for reasons more profound and frightening than our logical, scientific minds can dare to believe.
As Andrew Gough, editor of The Heretic magazine, reminds us: "This wasn't just some light-hearted belief. It's a really important part of their belief system." Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of vampire burials - bodies which were buried with iron stakes through their chests, or with rocks placed on their heads to keep them from rising again.
Over 100 vampire burials have been uncovered in Bulgaria alone. But the really interesting point is that vampire burials weren't given willy-nilly to just anyone who died. To cite just one example, out of around 700 graves in the grounds of a Bulgarian castle, only two were vampire burials. In other words, vampire burials were given selectively, for real and serious reasons known only to the communities of the time.
Let's also consider the sheer number of well-known, well-recounted stories of actual, historical people regarded as "vampires". People such as Jure Grando Alilovič, who died in 17th Century Croatia and was apparently sighted by villagers for years afterwards, and was even confronted by a local priest who implored the vampire to "stop tormenting" them.
Numerous other cases like this exist in the historical record, and not all of them are just folk tales and hearsay. Take the story of Arnold Paole, an 18th Century Serbian who was believed to have become a vampire after his death - a scoff-worthy story, perhaps, but there is an account of his grave being opened to reveal an undecomposed, blood-splattered body which did indeed groan on being staked. Adding to the intrigue, a panel of army surgeons - hard-headed, scientific and thoroughly unsuperstitious - later investigated other corpses in the area linked to Paole, and described them as "undecayed" and being in "a condition of vampirism".
Remarkably, such stories of "real-life vampires" continue to be reported up to the present day. In the 1960s and 70s there was a media sensation about sightings of an alleged "vampire" in London's Highgate Cemetery, and in 2003 in Romania, the death of a man called Petre Toma triggered such a widespread belief in his vampirism that his body was dug up and his heart removed from his corpse. As his brother-in-law described it, "When we lifted the coffin lid his arms were not on his chest as we had left them but at his sides. His head was turned to the side and his lips were stained with dried blood."
There are always going to be rational explanations, of course. But should we not also at least entertain the possibility of there being more to the long and persistent concept of vampirism than hard science can admit? Have your say below...