What is a vampire? Every author has his own version of the 'rules' (stake through the heart, no reflection in a mirror, etc.), but there are some commonalities: the need to live on blood (usually human), an inability to endure sunlight, superhuman strength, immortality, and some supernatural 'living-dead' status. Often they are able to shift shape (to bat, but frequently also to wolf, and sometimes - mirabile dictu - to a vapor or mist). Many other secondary qualities are inconsistently associated with the vampire - the need to sleep in a coffin or in his native soil, inability to traverse running water, fear of a cross, lack of a reflection in mirrors, the necessity of an ash stake through the heart to kill him (or sunlight, burning, beheading). He (or she) is also often thought to be able to control his victim's mind, to influence weather and to have a number of 'magical' abilities. He is usually extremely ugly or extremely attractive; either incapable of normal sex, or highly sexed.

Either a being exists that has given rise to these legends, or it does not. If it does not exist, why this immense body of vampire literature? Why this mighty upwelling of the vampire archetype in the collective human subconscious? If it does exist, how does it relate to other beings usually thought by science to be mythical - say, werewolves or witches, and what indeed are the hard realities of its nature, and what accounts for the lengthy list of (sometimes contradictory) mythical attributes. Most, or all, of these fantastic qualities must have a kernel of truth to them, a seed from which a myth grew.

I once saw a film clip of a chimpanzee, that had been raised in a human home, being exposed for the first time in its life to a snake. The chimp leapt back in instinctive fear. Evolution had imprinted in its DNA a safety message - This is what a snake looks like. Beware! Even with never having seen a snake, the chimpanzee subconscious knows of its existence and knows to fear it. (I was able to find a site referencing this fact, but not the film I saw long ago:

Most of modern humanity has never even seen a vampire, yet we know of its existence. We know to fear it.

Few humans indeed have met or spoken with a vampire. They are extremely rare. There are no true vampire clubs scattered about the world, because all the full vampires extant, gathered together at once, would scarcely fill a good sized club - that is, all the vampires able to make the change, able to shape shift even a little. These few avoid gathering, either because they are enemies or because they don't want to be a target for their enemies. Their nests are distributed far and wide, from St. Petersburg in Russia to the city of Salvador in Brazil.

There are many more vampires, who, unaware, have only a touch of the vampire disease (for disease it is), who cannot shift but who have more than normal strength, manifest a hint of the other characteristics (quick healing, bloodlust), and find themselves 'outsiders' to their own societies. There are somewhat more werewolves (especially in Canada), wer-jaguars (Central and South America, nowadays centered in the Pantanal of Brazil), and even a few other human-animal crosses. All of these arise from the same phenomenon - the introduction of an animal genome into the chromosomes of a human, which gives the gift (or curse) of being able to assume two shapes - that of a human or that of their animal (called their totem animal) - or any stage in between, or some other shape that they can force their bodies into by virtue of the fact that they are liberated from the tyranny of a single shape. And that process occurs through the agency of a virus - a mutant strain of the rabies virus.

How do animal genes get inserted into a human genome? Now there are various creative scientific techniques (including enzymes that cut or bind DNA, or coating foreign genes onto microscopic gold pellets and shooting them into a cell), but the true master of genetic manipulation is the virus - the vector most often used by human scientists. But a virus is a willful little imp that has worked its tricks for hundreds of millions of years for its own ends. (There are plenty of informative virus websites.)

Viruses fall into different categories. One such is the retrovirus, which is a virus whose genome consists of RNA (instead of DNA). Such a virus cannot replicate itself. It relies on the host it infects to reproduce it - it hijacks the cell's own DNA and commands it to reproduce more copies of the virus. In the cytosol of the cell of a host, the RNA of the virus is transcribed into DNA (known as reverse transcription, since normally DNA is copied into RNA) by use of an enzyme called "reverse transcriptase". The virus then uses another enzyme, named "integrase", to insert this little piece of DNA (the virus's entire genome) into the host cell's genome. This tiny stretch of RNA (converted to DNA) is called a provirus, and is permanently integrated into the host's genome. Along with its own genome, the virus might also import into the new host various snippets of the DNA of the previous host. Viruses are thought to have been a vector responsible for importing mitochondrial genes which are now standard in the human makeup. (See also Question 33 in the next section, The Truth in the Myths, for a recent article concerning an AIDs-like virus bringing part of a tiger genome into a monkey.)

Viruses existed long before multicellular animals took form, and they learned to take advantage of the new life forms, through an incredible ability to mutate. Indeed, sometimes it seems they were tailored to inhabit mammalian hosts.

Rabies is a retrovirus - a rhabdovirus, which is a membranous sack of fatty material containing a single RNA helix strand. The strain called 'furious rabies' infects most warm-blooded animals (including birds), but prefers carnivores as hosts - wolves, foxes, skunks, and bats. It can infect non-carnivores, including humans, (where it is almost invariably fatal), but these victims are dead-ends for the virus - people do not pass it on to new victims. It has been tailored-made for the hunter. The disease has been known to man since the most ancient times and all across the Old World landscape, from Rome to the Russian steppes, where the disease made wolves and dogs rage (rabies means 'rage' or 'rave' in Latin). In their fury they will attack and bite humans with terrifying results. [There are some interesting connections among rabies, summer and Sirius (the dog star)]

The virus passes to a human victim through the carrier's saliva in the bite wound. (Occasionally the virus can enter the human system through inhalation of tainted air in bat caves.) It multiplies in the muscle cells near the bite, then penetrates the nerves, establishes itself in the central nervous system and travels to the brain, then back out to all parts of the body. The virus might then incubate for weeks or even months. The closer the bite is to the head, the quicker the virus finishes its circuit. When the virus awakens, it causes a short period of horrific symptoms in humans: first irritability and even viciousness, then the victim's teeth clench uncontrollably and his lips freeze into a rictus, he thirsts but cannot drink water (thus the name 'hydrophobia', which means 'fear of water') because of the muscle spasms in his throat (paralysis of these muscles causes the high-pitched change in the bark of dogs and wolves). He will froth at the mouth and vomit blood. This stage corresponds to the attack stage in dogs and wolves. In humans, if the victim has not received a vaccine or serum within twenty-four hours of the moment of infection, a death-like coma soon takes over after the attack stage, followed within a few days by death. Indeed, the coma stage itself is so intense that it can be mistaken for death. Although extremely rare, spontaneous recovery can occur, and can seem as though the dead had risen. (At least one expert is of the opinion that furious rabies might be behind the vampire legend.)

But I am not concerned here with furious rabies or any of the other strains of rabies to be found in the textbooks, or with other rabies-like diseases, such as Makola, from which there are more spontaneous recoveries. I am concerned only with a mutant strain of rabies, which now does not exist in the wild, but only in controlled reservoirs. I name this mutant version "Wepwawet's strain" (shortened to Weprabies or Wepvirus). It developed in the regions close to the Black Sea, perhaps in the steppes, but became concentrated in the wolf population in the area called Wallachia in Romania.

For the rest of this section on the disease aspect of vampirism (or wer-animals in general), I'll quote, or paraphrase, material from Jean LeDoux. Most of this material and more can be found in more complete form in the book Saragossa: the Vampire Legacies.

Wepwawet's strain differs from common rabies in several respects. For one thing, it usually passes from blood to blood, saliva being a very rare route of infection. (It can also be passed from mother to child via the blood tie in the womb.) The incubation period is normally shorter - one to two weeks. Also, it is much less deadly than common rabies. A person may carry the virus in weakened form without symptoms, and it is not uncommon for an infected person to survive the coma. A pre-scientific peasant, seeing a person rise up from the coma of a disease he knew to be fatal, or especially observing a victim dig himself from his shallow grave, would naturally spread the story of the living dead.

The most important difference, however, is the degree to which Wepwawet's strain brings with it snippets or strands of the DNA of the previous host - originally and normally a wolf. This is the vector by which wolf DNA is introduced into a human. If much of the wolf genome tags along, this results in the new human host having two, more or less, complete genomes - human and wolf.

Such a situation is not unique in the animal world. Caterpillars have two sets of genes. When one set is functioning the animal is a worm. When that set switches off and the other activates, the animal turns into a slurry of cells, and then reforms, becoming a butterfly - a transformation as extreme in its own way as changing from a man to a wolf or to some stage in between, resulting in a wolf-man or a werewolf.

But there are marvels beyond the simple transformation - increased strength, rapid healing, acute senses. These have to do more with the liberation of the body from its genetic tyranny than from any special design in the wolf's blueprint. Living flesh is infinitely malleable - as testified by the myriad forms evolution has created from the original single cell organism. But this malleability is curtailed by chemical signals which tell each cell what shape to assume and what place to occupy. This is good because without some structure imposed by the master plan, the body would become a jumbled, gooey mess. For instance, I have seen x-rays of a man's foot which had a tooth growing in it. The tooth was not implanted, but grew simply because some mix up in the chemical signals told a tooth to grow there. This in itself is sufficient demonstration that the body can, in potential, assume any shape. That you cannot change your form is because your body is forced to conform to one plan of growth, by the body's own chemical signals. But if you could take over the supervision of the plan, you could design your own body with an infinity of improvements.

To harvest those benefits requires special training even for the werewolf. If your body has only one set of instructions, it's very hard to free yourself from them. But if there are two sets, two poles between which the body shifts, then during the shift a trained mind can take command and steer the body somewhat in a direction not inherent in either pole. In other words a master werewolf has options neither the man nor the wolf has. Thus he can keep his human brain even when in wolf shape; otherwise, strange things happen to human memories mapped into a wolf brain.

The werewolf, or vampire or other wer-animal, must spend years in training to learn to take control of his body - a training which is a combination of yoga, zen, biofeedback and science. The would-be initiate needs a master to train him, infect him and guide him through the coma and advanced lessons. Occasionally a truly gifted individual can get through this process by himself, by dint of will-power (v. Dracula) or by a special harmony with his body (v. Wepwawet). But the usual course for a new werewolf who does not have a master to train him, is to die, or (if the strain is weak, or the individual strong) to survive, but to succumb to the malice inherent in the wolf genome and in the virus - for the virus was bred to induce a killing rage.

Step Pyramid
Wolf - more playful than evil
The werewolf's evil reputation stems in part from the natural disposition of wolves as hunters (though there are few verified accounts of their being wantonly vicious), but much more so from the effect of the Wepwawet rabies. The blood lust and madness inherent in normal rabies is concentrated and magnified in the Weprabies. Only through special training and great force of will can a werewolf overcome this natural lust for the kill.

Because of the following factors, it is seldom a full wer-animal is created: The virus is passed not through the saliva - not by a bite - but through the blood, and is not virulent. The rabid animal and the human have to be injured, blood exchanged, and the human has to survive the encounter with the wepwolf. This in itself would be extremely rare. (Or a werewolf must intentional transfer some of his blood to a disciple.) Then the victim must survive the coma (maybe one in ten people might do so). Then the victim must survive the change from man to animal, when the new genome is activated. This is perhaps the greatest bottleneck - few can survive that change without guidance. It's actually quite difficult to make the transition to werewolf or especially to full vampire. If this were not so, then the world would be teeming with werewolves and vampires. It is not.

Much more common is for the weakened virus to be passed on in an attenuated form. Blood can purposely be passed from a wer-animal to a human, and from him to another and another. Each time the virus passes through an immune system, it is weakened. Or simply if it stays long enough in one immune system, it will be weakened, and finally overcome by the immune system, other than in the vampire.

Each generation of wer is weaker than the previous (except, as always, for the vampire). The disciple is always weaker than his master (although the disciple will continue to grow stronger as time passes, until his system begins to conquer the virus). The primary infection that Wepwawet received granted him a life-span of thousands of years. His wer-child, Anubis also lived a few thousand years, but his grandchildren lived at most a thousand years, and so forth, each generation weaker and shorter lived. Simply, as the virus became tamed, weakened, and finally conquered, the humans lost the wer advantages the virus bestowed.

How does the virus bestow long life? Living cells regularly commit suicide for many reasons - because they have become infected with a virus, or injured, or simply to make way for new growth. You can easily see what happens if this suicide process goes awry. As an example, cancer causes cell suicide to shut down. The cells don't kill themselves. They become immortal. But, of course, this results in a tumor, and sooner or later the process, if unchecked, will kill the body. Yet cancer demonstrates the fact that cells are potentially immortal, since any cell can become cancerous and cease to die.

Viruses have the ability to inhibit cell suicide. Viruses disrupt the genetic material of the cell in order to reproduce. This disruption would normally signal the cell to commit suicide, which in turn would keep the virus from reproducing. To counteract this, the virus produces an apoptosis (suicide) inhibitor. In the case of the wer virus, this results in immortal cells, much like cancer, except they don't run amok, and the effect reverses if the disease is cured. This is one of the factors which gives wer long life, or even immortality.

The infected person will live as long as the virus lives. If the immune system destroys the virus, the person will die, too. This happens eventually to all wer-animals from werewolves to wer-jaguars, excepting only wer-bats, vampires. This is for the simple reason that bats can carry rabies asymptomatically. (Although some rabies infected bats do act ill.) People who are infected with rabies from bats do not normally display the attack stage, although they will go into the coma. Werbats, like their bat 'parent', don't get sick from the virus, and therefore their immune systems do not fight the virus, and therefore the virus is never conquered. It lives on and on, and the wer-bat, the vampire, lives on and on without end. He is truly immortal.

The longer the wer-animal, be he werewolf or vampire or aught else, lives, the stronger he becomes (until his immune system kills the virus, and then aging proceeds normally). As I mentioned above, the wer-animal has the ability to alter its body, to guide it with his mind, once the body is freed from the tyranny of its genomically mandated form. He can be man or bat, or much else. These changes can be guided consciously, with training. But even without training, the process goes on unconsciously. The body is constantly experimenting, finding better and better ways to operate, to increase bone density and muscle strength, nerve speed and endurance. As the ages pass, these incremental improvements accumulate, and the wer-animal grows mighty.

We are now in position to say what the realities of the vampire condition are. First, it is not a supernatural being. He obeys the laws of nature as scrupulously as a tadpole does when it turns into a frog - another amazing transmutation. He can indeed live on blood (human or animal), but he can also live on anything a normal human can live on. He may have a craving for blood, and may suffer from the rabies-induced rabidity, but, with time and training, he can suppress these things. Blood is not an absolute need, unless he is completely in the bat form and has not been trained. He is immortal in the sense of not dying of old age, but he can be killed. The longer he has lived, the more improvements he has made on his body, so that he is stronger, faster, and heals more quickly than mortals, but he can be killed in most ways a human can be killed - if you can corner him, catch him, restrain him. He can shift shape to his animal form, the alternate genome in his cells, but it can take weeks or months for the change, and there must be conservation of mass or a shedding of unused cells. For this reason, wolves and jaguars are good wer candidates. The bat is not. It is too small, and when a human shape-shifts, his full mass will be poured into the bat shape. Bat bones are fragile and their strength depends on cross section. Cross section scales in two dimensions, weight in three. In other words, as size increases, the weight of the body augments faster than the weight-supporting strength of the bones grows. (For this reason, among others, there was an absolute limit to the size attainable by the dinosaurs.) So a blueprint that is good for a half-ounce creature, is unsatisfactory for a one hundred fifty pound creature. The bones break. The wings tear. Hemorrhaging occurs. Only with time and training will the vampire learn to alter and strengthen his body enough to make the bat shape viable. The quick change artistry of tiny movie vampire bats changing into a fully grown adult human wearing a tuxedo is sheer nonsense. The change is messy (some cells will be sloughed off in a slurry), slow and painful. A naked man will end up as a naked bat, huge and, if trained, horrific.

If their viral ancestry includes more than one animal, they might be able to change into both of them, but certainly not into anything like mist, or a tiny animal that can escape through cracks in the wall.

The inability to endure sunlight is real enough, but only affects vampires from the strain of Quetzalcoatl, the original vampire. This strain comprises all but a handful of vampires, so it is generally true that vampires must avoid the sunlight. This is simply because Quetzalcoatl suffered from a disease resulting in phototoxicity (Erythropoeia porphyria), and this disease runs true in his line. Of course, one can use sunblock lotion and sunglasses, but it is hard to apply the lotion perfectly and the sun can harm even eyes protected by expensive lenses. So vampires by and large truly are creatures of the night.

Let's sort through some other realities and myths. The next section can be dealt with in a question and answer format.