Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Hmmm

vampire-teeth

(Photo: Uka/Shutterstock)

Drinking Someone Else’s Blood Doesn’t Make You a Vampire

• April 21, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: Uka/Shutterstock)

Do vampires exist? No, they do not. But that hasn’t stopped a handful of researchers from clinging to the myth of “clinical vampirism.”

Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the Hungarian countess born in 1560 and descended from various princes of Transylvania, was publicly accused of murdering 80 young girls; it’s often speculated she killed over 650. Considered the “most prolific female serial killer in history,” a dubious superlative if ever there was one, Báthory has been nicknamed “The Blood Countess.”

As a well-connected noblewoman, Báthory never faced trial for her crimes. In 1610, a few years after rumors of the atrocities taking place inside the castle began to spread, the Palatine of Hungary began a formal investigation. Testimony was collected from over 300 witnesses, who described severe beatings, burnings, mutilations, and starvation. In some cases, Báthory was seen biting the flesh off the victims’ bodies. Four people were tried and convicted for acting as Báthory’s accomplices; two were burned at the stake, one was beheaded, and another was sentenced to life in prison.

Her family placed the Countess under house arrest for the duration of her life. Four years later, in August of 1614, a guard found her dead in her chambers.

“The Blood Countess” sounds fantastic. But surely, in the few cases of so-called Renfield syndrome examined thus far, the unembellished facts—complex and nuanced and difficult—are horrifying enough.

Báthory’s initial victims were the daughters of peasants, drawn inside the castle’s walls with offers of highly paid maidservant work. From there the Countess climbed one rung up the hierarchical ladder, inviting the daughters of the lesser gentry to the castle to learn courtly etiquette. There were alleged kidnappings, too. The common strains among the Countess’s victims, then, were poverty, subordination, and, perhaps most symbolically important, young age: the Blood Countess so named for bathing in the blood of her victims, in hopes that Báthory herself could soak up their youth and beauty like a sponge.

The 2005 Discovery Channel documentary Deadly Women suggests that not only did Báthory bathe in blood, she also drank it—thus making the Blood Countess one of the earliest (and arguably the most notable) examples to be cited as support for the existence of real-life vampires.

RENFIELD SYNDROME, THE POPULAR term for clinical vampirism (a diagnosis that, most simply put, means an obsession with drinking blood), began as a joke. Clinical psychologist Richard Noll, currently an associate professor of psychology at DeSales University, coined the term (and its diagnostic criteria) in a 1992 book called Vampires, Werewolves & Demons: Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature. He meant it, he’d later tell fellow psychology professor Katherine Ramslad, as parody. Noll had noticed a 1980s psychiatry trend toward what he called “new DSM-speak”: routinized, sometimes arbitrary categorization derived from an overly simplified “Chinese menu checklist” diagnostic process.

Like a Daily Currant article set off around Twitter, diluted, and eventually presented as legitimate news, “Renfield syndrome” showed up, in total seriousness, in a variety of academic papers, including a study called “Renfield’s Syndrome: A Psychiatric Illness Drawn From Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” published in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences in 2011. Write the authors, Régis Olry and Duane E. Haines: “The etiology of Renfield’s syndrome remains unknown.” In her interview with Noll, Ramslad quotes him as saying, “I’m continually amused and horrified by the monster I created on a whim. At this rate, it may very well end up in DSM-VI!” Last year, Noll gave a lecture on the 20-year history of his “monster” at Penn State. (Interestingly, Noll has long been an outspoken critic of the psychiatric profession’s complicity in the late-20th-century moral panic associated with Satanic and other occult practices. One is even tempted to view Noll’s accidental runaway parody as something of a deliberate long con, meant to teach us something about insufficient skepticism.)

What confused the joke, perhaps, was the already existing literature on “clinical vampirism,” a set of symptoms that, if it had not yet been given a catchy, Dracula-informed name (Renfield is the name of the Count’s blood-sucking assistant in Stoker’s novel), had been written about by medical professionals since the late 19th century. Psychiatric reports dating to that period occasionally described patients who derived sexual pleasure from consuming blood, sometimes their own. This behavior, though very infrequently reported, continues to show up in psychological studies, and sometimes in serial killers.

A 1983 study called “Clinical Vampirism: A Presentation of 3 Cases and a Re-Evaluation of Haigh, the ‘Acid-Bath Murderer,'” argues that 1940s English serial killer John Haigh, indeed known as the “Acid Bath Murderer,” fits the Renfield bill, even if that terminology had yet to be applied. Authors Hemphill and Zabow cite Haigh’s own confessions, in which he claimed to have killed nine people, cut into their necks, and drank a cup of blood from each. He dreamed of blood, he’d said, dripping off trees. (Curiously, in what I guess is an attempt to highlight the weirdness and notability of Haigh’s blood fixation, the authors write: “Haigh, non-violent and sociable, murdered 9 people.” So, almost non-violent.)

What the authors of this study fail to discuss, though, is that Haigh’s confessions were offered after arrest, while in custody, in what seems a transparent attempt to win an insanity plea. During his first questioning, by Detective Inspector Albert Webb, Haigh is recorded as having asked, “Tell me, frankly, what are the chances of anybody being released from Broadmoor?”

Haigh killed his victims and dumped them in barrels of acid because he incorrectly interpreted the term “corpus delicti” to mean that the absence of a body prevented a murder conviction. He killed them in order to sell their possessions (which he did through forgery) and keep the profits. Haigh was not a vampire, or even a vampirist—Haigh was dumb, and he was greedy.

There have been other killers and case studies offered up as more fitting examples of “Renfield syndrome;” Richard Trenton Chase (whose Wikipedia page, I’ll warn, is among the most graphic I’ve ever read) grew up drinking animal blood. And in the span of a month, between the end of 1977 and 1978, he killed six people. Because he drank some of the victims’ blood, he was popularly dubbed “The Vampire of Sacramento.”

But Chase was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, a violent, deeply disturbed man who performed countless other, non-vampiric horrors on his human victims (and many animals before them). And Elizabeth Báthory, the product of several generations of inbreeding, undeniably sadistic and cruel, owes much of her legacy to legend: The stories detailing her blood baths were recorded many years after her death, while witness accounts published in 1817 mentioned no such thing. Some tellings of her story used the vampire angle to moral effect (hers would be far from the last story shaped to denounce vanity in aging women), and others for simple entertainment value. It’s an understandable (if indefensible) impulse; “The Blood Countess” sounds fantastic. But surely, in the few cases of so-called Renfield syndrome examined thus far, the unembellished facts—complex and nuanced and difficult—are horrifying enough. Who needs the help of Stoker’s literary legend?

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

More From Katie Heaney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.