Monster of the Week: The Blood Countess Báthory

Doctors (and villagers) HATE her! Bayram TUNÇ/Getty Images

We've covered quite a few blood drinkers here on Monster of the Week, but we've yet to cover that most curious form of sanguivore: the vampiric bather. Yes, these decadent vamps absorb the blood of their victims through their skin, generally by immersing themselves in an extravagant bathtub or vat of freshly-drained blood.

Elizabeth Báthory

The most famous of these extravagant monsters is Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614), who allegedly murdered 650 victims during her reign and delighted in their torturous ends. In her trial, the so-called Blutgräfin or "Blood Countess" stood accused of torturing, cannibalizing and bathing in the blood of female virgins in order to maintain her youthful appearance.

Historians continue to argue the validity of these charges. Some posit that Báthory was nothing more than a victim of slanderous conspiracy, while others paint her as a legitimate serial killer and the product of a murderous time and upbringing. Virtually no one believes she actually bathed in blood, yet her name has become synonymous with the practice -- as well as the sexist/racist trope of the dangerous East European temptress [source: Kürti].

But let's turn the page. Let's consider the mythic, unnatural monster through the lens of natural-world science...

Hagfish and Hungry Skin

We've already explored the nutritional side of humanoid blood drinking, so let's consider the Blood Countess' ability to drink blood not only through her mouth, but also through her pristine skin.

The hagfish.
© Gerald & Buff Corsi/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

First of all, the notion of dermal absorption is hardly alien to us. Various toxic, medicinal and even recreational agents can enter our bodies through the skin. But Báthory takes this to extremes, feeding through the skin in a manner reminiscent of the Pacific hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii).

This vile slime eel is little more than a blind, oozing flesh tube with a mouth on one end and an anus on the other. Among its more repellent scavenging strategies is its ability to burrow into the rotting body of its prey, tunneling through the meat and consuming it from the inside out. It eats with its mouth, certainly, but it also absorbs dissolved organic matter directly through its gills and skin [Source: Edwards]. You'll find various invertebrates with this ability, but the hagfish is the only vertebrate that can truly eat through its skin -- at least in the natural world.

One can only assume that Báthory's own unnatural bloodline evolved from some primitive hominid that excelled in burrowing through the cadavers of fallen mega-fauna. While they abandoned their scavenging ways, this monstrous human subspecies continued to obey the hunger in its skin.

Drinking Young Blood

According to legend, Báthory's virginal blood baths served as a ghastly fountain of youth. Through immersion in their vital fluids, she was able to maintain her own ageless appearance. It's easy to dismiss this vampric transference of youth as a mere mythic trope rooted in sympathetic magic -- what James Frazer called "homeopathic magic." Like cures like, the thinking goes, so the blood of the young must cure the old and turn back the clock.

Skin treatment?
Tom Fullum/Getty

It's also easy to dismiss the idea as mere metaphor for the worst examples of youth-grasping and youth-obsessed middle age, yet recent research proves that young blood can actually revitalize the old.

According to a 2014 Stanford University Medical Center study, an infusion of young blood recharged the brains of old mice, enabling them to learn faster and grow more neurons. Meanwhile, young mice received an infusion of old blood and scored correspondingly worse. Meanwhile, a series of recent Harvard studies proved that by sewing a young and old mouse together (a process known as parabiosis), the old mouse benefited from a rejuvenation of muscle stem cells, liver, spinal cord and brain.

In either case, researchers hope to use these findings to treat neurodegenerative diseases, but Countess Báthory casts a long, vampiric shadow across human history. Has science opened a door to a horrifying realm once accessible only in myth and fantasy?

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.