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Fwd:- Halloween: The Truth Is Out There

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  • Keith Armstrong
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 2, 2003
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      "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
      blood transfusions.

      "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
      Plant Cell.

      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/>
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