I first met psychologist Richard Noll in 1989 when I was writing a cover story for Psychology Today on the popularity of vampires. He’d examined accounts of clinical vampirism, and in a fang-in-cheek style, he “invented” a syndrome.
Author at the time of Bizarre Diseases of the Mind and Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons, Noll had noticed that some of these patients behaved like a demented character named Renfield from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
He's a delusional mental patient in a lunatic asylum who eats spiders and flies to absorb their life force. Dracula uses him to gain entrée before enslaving him. Noll saw this as a human counterpart to the vampire, so late one night in 1990 when he was writing his book’s introduction, he jokingly suggested that clinical vampirism be renamed Renfield's syndrome.
“That was when we were all learning how to do Chinese menu checklist ‘DSM-Speak,’” he explained, “and I remember chuckling to myself when I thought of how I could do a pastiche of a DSM mental disorder centered on our good friend, Renfield.”
I found this amusing, so I interviewed him as the creator of this pseudo-diagnosis and included his ideas in The Science of Vampires – also fang-in-cheek.
Accordingly, people with symptoms of this syndrome are primarily male. For them, blood has a mystical quality, as if it can enhance their lives. In a pseudo-serious vein, Noll followed diagnostic protocol and identified a specific set of stages.
"The first stage is some event that happens before puberty where the child is excited in a sexual way by some event that involves blood injury or the ingestion of blood. At puberty it becomes fused with sexual fantasies, and the typical person with Renfield’s syndrome begins with autovampirism. That is, they begin to drink their own blood and then move on to other living creatures. It has…compulsive components."
Neither of us took this seriously. Several documentary makers contacted me about it and I told them it’s just a joke.
Then, lo and behold, the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences published Regis Olry and Duane E. Haines’ article, “Renfield’s Syndrome: A Psychiatric Illness Drawn from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Well, that’s not totally funny, since they kind of usurp Noll’s idea (although they acknowledge that he coined the term and offered diagnostic criteria).
When he read the article, Noll said, “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!”
These authors write quite seriously that the “etiology remains unknown.” Maybe that’s because Renfield’s syndrome doesn’t actually exist on any established professional lists.
But clinical vampirism does. Psychiatrists have long been aware of certain cases in which someone has a delusional notion that he or she is a vampire and therefore needs blood. This arises not from fiction and film but from an erotic attraction to blood and the idea that it conveys certain powers. It develops through fantasies involving sexual excitement.
During the mid-1880s, German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing noted the sexual presentation of the attacks, in that they were compulsive and often aimed at a victim in a way that suggested lust. He included descriptions in Psychopathia Sexualis.
For example, a 24-year-old vinedresser who murdered a twelve-year-old girl in the woods, he admitted that he also drank her blood, mutilated her genitals, tore out and ate part of her heart, and buried her remains. There was also the man who cut his arm for his wife to suck on before sex because it aroused her so strongly.
Renfield, with his excitable “sanguine temperament,” is their fictional counterpart.
So, clinical vampirism has been around for a while. Calling it Renfield’s syndrome is just a more entertaining way to address it. But does “its symptomology obviously lead us to include it in psychiatrical and/or neurological diseases,” as these authors suggest? They do admit that popular characterizations fail to get at the root of the clinical condition and “rarely or never” offer treatment. Why, then, should we take it seriously?
Perhaps we need a little more bite before we embrace it.
Let me suggest an alternative. For The Science of Vampires, I invented a diagnosis as well. I called it vampire personality disorder (VPD). I included clinical vampires but also killers compelled by bloodlust and people who exploit the vampire image to act out fantasy scenarios in a way that harms others. I even described psychological vampires, who encourage a codependent relationship so they can use up others’ resources. Shouldn't this get some traction?
But so far, no prestigious journal or diagnostic manual has taken VPD seriously. Maybe I should think of a better name. Perhaps Mina’s disorder or the Edward Cullen condition. How about Lestat’s lament? Dracula’s disease? I’ll keep working on that. Renfield's syndrome is already staked out, but I welcome all other suggestions.