Clinical Vampirism: Renfield's Syndrome

Intelligent discourse that relocates vampires from the mythos associated with Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, Lestat and Spike has become much more commonplace in contemporary society. Society is just a few decades removed from placing under psychiatric care anyone who raised the specter of vampirism in reference to reality. Not to be confused with those lost souls desperately in search of the identity they were unfortunately born without—those goths who believe that wearing only black and who labor under the delusion that drinking another person’s blood somehow endows them with a personality—is the very real medical disorder that is typically labeled clinical vampirism.

Clinical vampirism is also frequently referred to by the name Renfield’s Syndrome. This name derives from the bizarre supporting character found in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula; he was the Count’s little toady and is best remembered for his propensity for eating spiders and flies. Just Freud looked back to literature for a name to give his theory that became known as the Oedipus Complex, so too is Renfield’s Syndrome only tangentially related to Renfield’s problems in Dracula. Renfield had been institutionalized because he honestly believed that his very existence was dependent upon consuming the blood of those insects and bugs upon which he feasted. Clinical vampirism is a disorder based upon the belief of sufferers that without the ingestion of blood they will die. Among the strange aspects of clinical vampirism is that almost all documented cases have been male. What may actually case clinical vampirism remains an even bigger mystery.

What is common to most sufferers of Renfield’s Syndrome is that the men have almost universally been capable of discovering a catalytic episode in his past that has created his delusion that continued existence is dependent upon the consumption of blood. As might be expected, this turning point usually is an event during which the patient got their first real taste of blood and the result was a deviant experience, quite often one that created an intensely sexual excitement. It is not yet known exactly how the pleasure associated with this initial taste of blood develops into a full-blown mental disorder, but three distinct phases appear to be common to all sufferers. The first phase has been termed autovampirism and is based upon the inescapable fact that one’s own blood is the easiest to get to in order to fulfill the need. Autovampirism is the act of drinking one’s own blood, often by lightly cutting the surface of one’s skin before the need become so great that the self-mutilation becomes far more dangerous. The end of phase one often finds those suffering from clinical vampirism actually cutting into veins and arteries in order to create a gushing fountain of blood from which to drink. The second phase is the stage at which readers met Renfield in the novel. This stage is known as the Zoophagic phase and, as the name implies, revolves around the eating of bugs or the drinking of animal blood. The final phase of clinical vampirism represents the next logical step: drinking the blood of other humans. Normally, the drinking of another’s blood is done in an entirely consensual set of circumstances. The clinical vampirism sufferer will locate other human beings willing to share their own blood. In extreme cases, however, a Renfield’s Syndrome patient who is absolutely convinced that immediate survival depends upon consuming another’s blood, lethal measures have been taken. These cases are exceedingly rare, however, as animal blood is far more abundant and easily procured than taking the step of harming or even killing another human being.

Stories of clinical vampirism are not to be confused with those who make a show of going to underground clubs and drinking the blood of other confused and misguided individuals. Those are people who seek to create an identity based on going as far outside the mainstream as possible while stilling confining themselves to a legal lifestyle. The Renfield’s Syndrome patient, on the other hand, is not actively seeking a shortcut to a personality; he is suffering from an actual mental disorder based on the delusion that without a daily supply of blood he will perish. As a result, clinical vampirism ironically has less to do with the desire to be a vampire than the aforementioned individuals. Clinical vampirism is not about pretending to be a potential victim of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it is instead a very sad psychological delusion.