Vampirology – Kathryn Harkup

It is the process of science and the nature of scientists to ask questions, sometimes difficult ones which have no clear answer, and unlike the relative purity of physics, underpinned always by the clear lines of its cousin mathematics, biology is often messy in both theoretical terms and practical application: organisms are adaptable, changing through their lives and across populations, and evolution continues its haphazard path away from the predictability of a static state.

It is on this basis that chemist and science communicator Kathryn Harkup has asked what on the face of it might seem an impertinent and outrageous question, but to an enquiring mind no question is truly redundant until it has been answered, and in Vampirology she presents the findings of her research into one of the most widespread and enduring of the creatures of mythology and folklore.

Subtitled The Science of Horror’s Most Famous Fiend, conclusions are sparse, but the purpose is not so much to look for proof as precedent: it is not whether vampires do or ever have existed, but whether they could, the investigation complicated by their multifaceted cross-cultural and often contradictory antecedents in antiquity and history which was reshaped, certainly in the west, relatively recently by the literature which transfixed the previously malleable form of the vampire.

The bloated, shambling corpses dressed in stinking, filthy rags having been born to darkness anew in the works of John Polidori, James Rymer, Sheridan Le Fanu and most of all Bram Stoker whose creation Count Dracula, carefully researched and crafted, would take on an immortality beyond the pages of the fiction in which he appeared, it was the adaptations of these on stage and screen which created the vampire of the twentieth century, a pale, accented nobleman of nocturnal habit and inevitably dressed in black.

Through historical record and anecdotal accounts, Harkup considers the body of evidence and the reliability of witnesses, aware that few people have seen a dead body and certainly not one in the early stages of decomposition to be expected when vampiric suspicions prompt an exhumation; when even the best medical knowledge was as much guesswork and poorly informed bias as reasoned analysis, how could these desperate and terrified people properly assess the variation in death processes?

Emphasising that unusual does not necessarily mean unnatural, Vampirology takes different approaches in each chapter, considering the functions of blood and the possibility of blood-based therapies beyond simple transfusion, the early experiments in such having been more trial and frequent error than beneficial treatment, with a variety of medical conditions considered in regard to the correlation of their symptoms to aspects of vampires as described.

Giving the impression that some avenues are explored out of a sense of fun as much as completeness, Harkup dismisses no idea out of hand, asking how a vampire could function, what corrupted metabolic pathway or genetic mutation could prompt the changes in them to lead them to these behaviours, urges and needs, or cause them to give the impression – either instinctively or as a learned defence mechanism – of manifesting the signs associated with vampirism?

Asking which animals exhibit attributes which parallel the myths of vampires and could perhaps have shaped traditional beliefs or been inspiration for fictional works, the remit is wide, assessing even the educational value of Sesame Street, but given the expanse of the subject Vampirology can only be an overview, though an informed and entertaining one, throughout Harkup balances her Mulder side, wanting to believe and open to extreme possibilities, while her Scully side soberly and persistently counters – yes, but is it likely?

Vampirology is published on Tuesday 8th June by the Royal Society of Chemists



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