Much like werewolves, vampirism is sometimes referred to now as a “disease” rather than a “curse” (although let’s face it, werewolves face that far worse and more often than vampires do; they’re often little more than a plague now). How accurate is that to folklore?
Well, it isn’t if you’re referring to the curse of vampirism itself, but vampires being associated with illness and disease in general – such as plagues of rats, illnesses spreading mysteriously, diseased air, swarms of flies, and many more examples – does indeed have a much older basis… Let’s dive right in.
Firstly, just to get this off the table, no, being a vampire was not considered a “disease” in folklore, generally speaking. In fact, vampires in folklore generally came in two types: people who were cursed to rise from death – or demons, individuals that were never human in the first place. Neither of these were considered “diseased” in a traditional plague or illness fashion. The former were, however, considered cursed or even possessed in some way.
However, scholars often like to speculate what caused a belief in vampires in the first place, and much like they do with werewolves, this – especially in the mid to late 1800s – caused an uproar of the belief in vampires existing being attributed to individuals with certain diseases, like porphyria, among many, many others.
It, of course, isn’t uncommon for scholars to point to diseases to “explain” and “justify” a belief in monsters and other legends. In later historical periods, especially starting around the 1500s and gaining more traction in the following centuries, perhaps reaching its height in the 1800s but still going on today, it became wildly popular for scholars to come up with all manner of “new” “explanations” for assorted legends and beliefs therein. Vampires are no different; same with werewolves and many other things.
Naturally, if you see an overwhelming amount of scholarship and publications linking something like vampires with disease, you’re going to see that leak over into popular culture. That does not, however, make it “folkloric,” if I may use such a term. That is to say, during the time periods in which they were believed in according to the legends we’re drawing from, being a vampire was not associated with having a “vampire disease” or any disease at all.
Vampires in folklore, in fact, often couldn’t “reproduce” or spread their curse. This was not always strictly the case, but by and large, that’s a very modern pop culture concept.
That being said, however, vampires in folklore were not infrequently associated with causing disease (unrelated to causing “vampirism”) or associated with the presence of disease or the concept of it in general. This doesn’t mean a “vampire disease,” as in spreading the state of becoming a vampire to others through disease, it means illness.
There are several examples of this…
Firstly, Montague Summers offers some examples in his book Vampires and Vampirism. Summers is one of the foremost scholars on vampires, but more on him another time. He mentions the fact that vampires are often associated with turning into mist, and he draws a connection between them such as…
There are other cases in which vampires are associated with spreading illness, such as Summers mentioning that several vampire victims were killed by the same illness, some becoming vampires, themselves. He also mentions many other cases in which vampires were blamed for causing illness, including in some patients in whom doctors could find no real illness at all – yet the patients still claimed to be sick, sometimes blaming a vampire, and then even wasting away and dying from their mysterious disease.
Matthew Beresford also mentions several other vampires and disease instances in his excellent work From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a work I highly recommend. He mentions multiple cases throughout the book, such as how vampires were often blamed for various illnesses and conditions, such as diseases and even less identifiable conditions such as general lethargy.
Something else Beresford mentions is that Dracula, as in the historical Vlad the Impaler (now irreparably associated with vampires, especially in the Western mind), is sometimes speculated to have used “germ warfare.” According to Beresford, it’s rumored that Vlad paid people infected with illnesses to dress as Ottomans and enter their camps, spreading their diseases. This is just another potential connection between vampires and disease, given popular culture has turned Vlad the Impaler into the infamous Dracula, and we all know how important Dracula is to our modern day vampire concepts. Talk of Vlad using disease in warfare easily could have retroactively led to yet another link between vampires and disease.
We also can look at Nosferatu for another connection between vampires and disease, as in the film, Nosferatu is associated with swarms of rats and plagues heralding his arrival. Of course, Nosferatu is popular culture and even a massive takeoff of Dracula, but it did have some of its own concepts too. Even Nosferatu’s appearance can be argued as almost rat-like, with his teeth.
Otherwise, in popular culture, we now associate vampires with bats – specifically vampire bats, of course – also due to Dracula, wherein vampires were popularized as having fangs (not a trait in folklore), like their vampire bat counterparts. Bats are also associated with disease, so there are a lot of things pointing back to the disease association.
So, were vampires in folklore ever directly associated with disease? Absolutely. However, it was not really the disease of vampirism that they spread – it was other illnesses, often linked with plagues of flies, rats, and other vermin, as well as diseased air or mysteriously causing diseases through other means. Being a vampire in itself was not an illness. Like with werewolves, however, labeling vampirism itself as “a disease” is a very later-age concept recently put upon vampires by popular culture. Vampirism was not a disease vampires were spreading – but plenty of them spread other diseases.
In folklore, as with werewolves, becoming a vampire was generally considered a curse of some kind (if the vampire was human in the first place, anyway) or even possession. If the vampire was human, the person would have to die before they could become a vampire, rather than catch a particular illness and not technically die at all.