Monster of the Week: The Syphilitic Vampire

Syphilis and vampirism are more closely related than you think... Getty

We've discussed humanoid sanguivores and Mexican vampire women before, but this week we turn our attention to Count Spirochete, the vampiric embodiment of syphilis.

Meet Count Spirochete...
Meet the Count...

Just as the Russian sailing ship The Demeter delivered Dracula to the shores of England, so did the U.S. Navy introduce this grotesque creature aboard the 1973 animated short "The Return of Count Spirochete."

The Navy produced the film to help educate sailors about the dangers of venereal disease. Death himself presents the Count with the coveted Fourth Horseman Award, honoring his achievements in ravaging the human race with crippling, disfiguring and lethal illness.

Let's watch. It's really quite an excellent educational short:

Syphilis: The Basics

Syphilis is a chronic sexually transmitted disease caused by the spirochaete bacterium Treponema pallidum pallidum. The illness spread through Europe from the mid-15th century onward. Despite the 20th-century advancement of antibiotics, syphilis remains a global health concern, especially when you consider that more than a million pregnant women pass syphilis on to an unborn child each year [source: WHO]. This form, known as congenital syphilis, causes severe, disabling, and lethal health complications for the developing fetus.

You might easily assume that Count Spirochete is just a handy metaphor for sexually-transmitted disease, but the relationship between unnatural vampire and natural-world syphilis may be very close indeed.

The Three Stages of Syphilis

For starters, remember that syphilis ravages its victims in stages.

Tertiary Syphilis.
Wikimedia Commons

The primary infection occurs when T. pallidum enters the body, leaving a sore (or sores) at the site of transmission for 3-6 weeks.

The secondary infection pops up in the weeks following the primary infection. At this point, the initial T. pallidum invasion is over and now the enemy moves through the host. A rash spreads across the entire body, accompanied by varying symptoms such as fever, lethargy, headaches, aches and hair loss.

At this point, the host human will enter a latent or hidden stage of the disease. The T. pallidum invasion is still present in the body, though it's no longer contagious.

(Paul Komoda/Coilhouse)

Finally, in roughly 15-30 percent of those infected, the syphilis enters its late stage (also known as the tertiary stage). This occurs 10-20 years after the initial infection and the cavalcade of symptoms include tissue damage, muscle damage, organ damage, coordination problems, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, dementia and death.

Consider the image to your right for an idea of how monstrously disfiguring an unchecked tertiary syphilis infection can be.

Illness as Monster

And here we return to the unnatural world of vampires. The cultural impact of syphilis in the Western world is difficult to overstate. The illness was widespread and, until the advent of antibiotics, incurable. It was a thing to be feared -- and in monsters our fears take on a form, face and force all their own.

(Creative Commons)

According to Slavic and comparative literature professor Tomislav Longinovic, commentators have often drawn a line of comparison between the vampire and hereditary syphilis. It twists and decimates the features, inducing sharp pointy teeth (AKA Hutchinson teeth), long nails and elongated skulls. Consider the 1863 medical illustration "Syphilitic malformations of the permanent teeth" to your right.

Superficially, it's easy to look at extreme cases of late syphilis and compare them to Count Orlok from the 1922 film "Nosferatu," but the roots go deeper than that. Nosferatu is of course based on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel "Dracula," which helped cement the vampire's place in popular culture. While the official cause of Stoker's 1912 death remains a mystery, some biographers attribute his death to tertiary syphilis.

What if "Dracula" and its iconic vision of vampirism is itself a metaphor for the cultural paranoia surrounding syphilis and the author's own experience with the debilitating illness? What if our modern vision of the vampire, like Count Spirochete himself, is but a shadow cast by a monstrous disease?

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.