Fwd:- Halloween: The Truth Is Out There
- "From ghoulies and ghosties and long leggety beasties, and things
that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us!," begs an old
Scottish prayer. Fear can have a powerful grip on the unenlightened
mind, but there is tantalizing evidence to suggest that legends of
ghoulies and ghosties may be based in boring old reality.
Consider, for example, this description of the title character of
Bram Stoker's Dracula:
"His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and
with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The
mouth ... was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp
white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable
ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years ... The
general effect was one of extraordinary pallor."
The bloodthirsty Count's physical features could have been caused,
say some researchers, by a rare disorder called porphyria cutanea
tarda (PCT). The disease is the most common form of a group of
inherited disorders that result in abnormal production of pigments
that are essential components of proteins such as hemoglobin, the
oxygen-carrying part of red blood cells.
According to the American Porphyria Foundation, PCT primarily causes
skins problems such as blisters that appear on sun-exposed areas of
the body such as the hands and face. Even after minor trauma like a
cut, the skin in these areas can peel or blister. In addition, people
with PCT may also have darkening and thickening of the skin, as well
as increased hair growth. In another, extremely rare form of the
disorder called congenital erythropoietic porphyria, the teeth can be
stained a reddish brown due to the buildup of pigments.
The symptoms of PCT and other forms of the disease can be alleviated
by avoiding sunlight (direct exposure to which can destroy a
vampire). And because certain forms of the disease involve a
deficiency in red blood cells, it is sometimes treated with repeated
"These symptoms, disease management strategies, and treatments are
clearly reminiscent of characteristics typically associated with
vampires and werewolves, and it is widely assumed that folkloric
reports of such beasts may, in fact, be based on the suffering of
unfortunate individuals afflicted with porphyria," writes plant
geneticist Crispin B. Taylor, in the July 1998 issue of the journal
After the Flood
Many myths and legends probably have a basis in fact. For example,
the ancient tale of a great flood, recorded in the Babylonian Epic of
Gilgamesh around 2000 B.C. and later in the Biblical tale of Noah,
probably refers to a cataclysmic deluge that occurred in the Middle
East many millennia ago.
Similarly, ancient tales of witchcraft, vampires, werewolves, and
other assorted phenomena may have come from superstitious
misunderstanding of the natural world. People with epilepsy, for
example, were thought to have been possessed by demons or to be under
the spell of witches. Acromegaly, a chronic disease of the pituitary
gland that causes over-secretion of growth hormone, results in
enlargement and distortion of many parts of the skeleton, and may be
responsible for stories of misshapen giants such as Goliath in the
Bible and the boy-eating ogre in the tale Jack and the Beanstalk.
The ancients believed that the birth of a child with physical
deformities was a sign of evil. The word "monster" itself comes from
the Latin word "monstrum," meaning omen or portent.
But with the rise of evidence-based science in the 19th and 20th
centuries, fear of the unknown began to wane, as exemplified in
Dracula. The book represents "a conflict between a modern way of
looking at the world and an ancient one," says Carol Senf, PhD,
professor of literature, communication and culture at Georgia
Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "I think that Stoker, two of
whose three brothers were physicians, was interested in thinking
about that. He's up on transfusions for example, and he's up on all
kinds of scientific stuff."
Yet the death of Dracula -- with a stake right through his old undead
ticker -- didn't end the legend of the vampire. It lives on in
countless (no pun intended) movies, comic books, and even in the
persona of the obsessive enumerator Count Von Count from Sesame
Nor are vampires the only reality-based specters that still haunt our
imaginations. Werewolves really exist -- or at least they do in the
minds of people with the rare psychiatric disorder known as
In the March 2000 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, J.
Arturo Silva, MD and Gregory B. Leong, MD describe the case of "Mr.
A" who suffered from a case of partial lycanthropy -- the delusion
that one is being transformed into a wolf.
"Mr. A is a 46-year-old male who experienced delusional episodes that
lasted up to several hours. During these episodes, he had sensations
of hair growth on his face, trunk, and arms. Occasionally, he became
convinced that the hair growth was real. He also complained that he
experienced structural facial malformations and lesions that took
place within minutes and remained for hours. He thought these changes
would make him appear to be a wolf, and avoided seeing his face or
body whenever possible. However, he did not believe that he was a
wolf. He denied that his mind was changing into a different mind or
that he was a different person from his objective self."
Silva, who is a staff psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical
Center in Palo Alto, Calif., tells WebMD that lycanthropy, "can be
due to a hysteria or a psychosis -- in other words madness -- or it
can be due to other kinds of illnesses, such as depression associated
with a lot of self-deprecating thoughts. But often, once you start
getting into a real belief system where somebody says 'I think I'm
turning into a werewolf,' and he looks at his body and his hair, and
the shape of his face changing -- once you get to that level it
usually is a clear loss of contact with reality."
Silva says that lycanthropy is uncommon today -- probably because
we've killed or banished most of the wolves to the remote wilderness
and thus no longer live among them. However, people in other cultures
in other parts of the world suffer from similar delusions, involving
other types of animals, such as crocodiles or eagles.
Such transformations may seem to be the stuff of fantasy, but they
still occur every year.
Originally published Oct. 29, 2001.
Medically updated Oct. 16, 2003.
By Neil Osterweil
more goto <http://content.health.msn.com/content/article/11/>