The ravenous half-man, half-wolf howls at the full moon and can transform you into a hairy beast with one bite. The bloodthirsty, pale creature with fangs bleeds you dry but only emerges once the sun goes down. The mindless undead walking around in search of brains to gnaw on. These creatures imprint fear in our minds, yet we love the fear they make us feel. But maybe they’re not so scary, just sickly with real conditions in need of a modern doctor who won’t perform a bloodletting to ease them of their ailment. Or bury them in an above-ground grave in winter, unaware that corpses don’t decompose so quickly in freezing temperatures.
Yes, our beloved creatures aren’t creatures at all. Instead, they are compiled from bits of folklore that stem from a series of diseases. Without the superstitious beliefs from centuries ago, these monsters wouldn’t exist.
“Folkloric creatures like vampires and werewolves are believed to have originated not from the minds of storytellers, but all-too-real diseases and medical conditions…”Real Medical Conditions that May Have Inspired Vampire and Werewolf Myths, Discover Magazine.com
In this latest Trivia edition, we dive into some of our favorite monsters, from vamps to werewolves, and the diseases that gave rise to their creation.
Who doesn’t love a lovely, seductive, yet gory tale of a centuries-old creature drinking the blood of its victims and regaling us with accounts of their long, traveled undead lives? Vampires are one of the most beloved creatures, and it makes sense why. Over time, they’ve evolved into eloquent, demure creatures with picky tastes in blood and the know-how to live in the shadows amid humans. They no longer alter their form between vamp and bat but can dwell in sunlight and walk among us with only a hint of a pale glow. But where did the inspiration for these blood-sucking creatures come from? A great question with many answers. In short, several diseases make up a slew of characteristics that vampires possess. Let’s get into a few of them.
From Vlad the Impaler to Dracula
15th century Romania, the Voivode (Prince) of Wallachia was a bloodthirsty man whose method of killing his enemies granted him the title Vlad the Impaler. Count Dracula was indeed a real person with an unquenchable bloodlust to kill, not feed, for which novelist Bram Stoker modeled one of the world’s most iconic bloodthirsty vampires to date — Dracula. From Stoker’s novel came the modern take on vampires we’ve become accustomed to. But while this brief history of vampires has been circulating for quite some time, many may not be aware that the lore of vampires goes even further back to a time when diseases and superstition went hand-in-hand.
We travel back to 1718, about 100 years before Stoker’s novel existed. Austria had just gained control over Serbia. Austrian Administrators noted Serbian communities marked “suspicious” people as vampires, condemning them to death. The bodies were then exhumed and examined for traces of dark magic because the idea that decomposition speeds had varying degrees likely wasn’t realized at the time. We can only theorize, but knowing scientific advancements weren’t thought of until much later, this idea isn’t far-fetched. In fact, in his book Vampires, Burials, and Death: Folklore and Reality, Paul Barber, a research associate at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at UCLA, makes this very claim. For centuries, the idea of witchcraft was usually the end-all response to many ailments people faced.
Porphyria and Other Autoimmune Diseases
But that wasn’t the one thing that may have sparked the influence of vampires. Autoimmune diseases share some similar characteristics with our bloodsucking friends. For instance, Lupus, a disease where white blood cells attack organs and tissue, makes people with this illness sensitive to UV light. Yet an even ghastlier but rare medical condition that stokes the idea of vampires’ sensitivity to light may be attributed to porphyrias, a group of blood disorders that affects a person’s skin and nervous system. In this unfortunate case, cells fail to change chemicals (porphyrins) into heme, the substance that gives blood its color. These chemicals build up in the body, leading to nasty blistering and painful photosensitivity to sunlight. It is also worth noting that this disease is passed down through the genes from parent to child. A family of vampires — even scarier to imagine!
So, an aversion to light? Check. But what about the paleness, the daytime napping, and the constant bloodthirst? Well, people with porphyria were also anemic due to a low red blood cell count. During this time of no blood transfusions, people were allowed to drink animals’ blood to relieve their symptoms. An aversion to garlic can also be linked to porphyria due to a person’s heightened sensitivity to sulfate-concentrated foods.
Rabies may have been another disease attributed to the myth of vampires. Experiences of distorted sounds, restlessness, and displays of wild and aggressive behavior that “made sufferers seem more monstrous than human” were symptoms of this deadly disorder, which at the time had no known cure. What about vampires’ inability to cast their reflections in mirrors? For this, we note another symptom those with rabies deal with. Extreme spasmodic episodes caused by an oversensitivity to stimuli may result in a violent response with a glance in a mirror.
Derived from European folklore, the werewolf is a human/creature hybrid who — by a curse or terrible ailment — temporarily transforms into a blood-thirsty wolf monster at the mere sight of the full moon. At one point, werewolves were actively hunted and thought to be real creatures by those who used superstition to explain away the unexplainable. There were even werewolf trials that continued well into the 18th century, the last known trials taking place in southern Austria.
Werewolves are more monster than human, but they still invoke an affectionate response from fans of this nocturnal creature. He, like his vampire counterpart, seeks the blood of humans. One whiff, and he’s ready to pounce, slashing you with wolf-like claws and feasting on you to satisfy his hunger. Or is he just a person gone mad from a deadly ailment and no cure for centuries to come?
Lycanthropy Delusion or Porphyria
The concept of werewolves stems from northern Europe, but depictions of people with wolf-like qualities date back to antiquity. Greek physician Aelius Galenus (or simply Galen, 129–216 CE) is noted to have studied a person he described as having a wolf-like appearance and appetite in what was known as “clinical lycanthropy,” or the delusion that one can turn into an animal. Unlike vampires, where claims were almost always made by others, those afflicted were known to self-diagnose themselves as having the werewolf curse. But maybe these afflicted souls weren’t werewolves at all. Perhaps it was all in their minds. 16th-century politician Reginald Scot argued this very point, considering lycanthropy more of a delusion than an actual ailment.
When it comes to physical ailments historians can link to, medical professional Lee Illis’ 1964 published work on the subject makes the argument for the group of blood disorders, congenital porphyria. The very ailment linked to vampirism. Illis argued both creatures hunted at night and shared a healthy thirst for blood. The commonalities, however, end there. While congenital porphyria causes photosensitivity, reddish teeth, abnormal hair growth, and psychosis, the idea of this malady linking back to the werewolf myth doesn’t quite hold up, as well as the link between blood disorders and vampires.
Maybe It’s Rabies Or…
Illis’ argument didn’t go unchallenged. An alternative belief pointed to rabies being the culprit since it was almost always contacted through animal bites. Muscle spasms and excess saliva were symptoms also associated with the disease. Rabies, much more likely linked to the werewolf myth, also stemmed from 19th-century French peasants’ fear of wolves and mad dogs.
Canine madness, known today as rabies, resulted in centuries of deep-seated fear in canines. Despite much more severe illnesses, such as cholera, claiming lives in higher numbers in the early 20th century, the idea of mad dogs sparked greater terror due to the notion that a single bite brought on grueling symptoms and certain death. As 19th-century historians explained, an incubation period between 4 and 12 weeks may begin with mild agitation and restlessness and progress to spasmodic episodes, labored breathing, drooling, and feverishness.
Centuries ago, many believed a person losing their rationality and bodily control resulted in a loss of humanity. A bite from a “malevolent animal” brought on supernatural powers, transforming people into terrifying monsters. It was also assumed that an animal could transfer its essence with a single bite. In short, a dog’s bite caused a person to howl and snarl like a dog. Hallucinations, spasmodic breathing, and convulsions induced fear that the rabid creature had imprinted on its human victim.
People believed the only ways to rid the suffering of the werewolf curse was to cut the animal’s tail that’d bitten them or use a small snip of hair from the creature on the bite wound to protect from the (rabies) disease. Traces of the disease were sometimes left behind, as in the case of one man in 1886. A bluish mark on his hand disappeared once he’d taken his final breath, making many speculate that the animal’s hold on the man had been released in death.
Another illness that may have spawned the werewolf myth was hypertrichosis, aptly named the “werewolf disease” due to the condition causing excessive hair growth. This condition is hereditary or acquired through drugs, certain foods, and cancers. In reality, this disease is caused by a gene dealing with hair growth going awry.
We’ve reached the zombie stage of this tour, and it seems bites are aplenty with this monstrous list. However, there’s something quite unique about zombies. They’re never that sophisticated or ravenous, just incredibly hungry. For human flesh and brains, that is. An undead human that can transfer its affliction to a living being through a single bite, they were once alive and vibrant, only to be turned into a mindless creature straddling the world of the living and the dead. While zombies are quite the horrifying monster to get mixed up with, they’re still a favorite among many horror fans. But let’s see where their origin stems from.
Lepers, Haitian Voodoo, and Bacterial Infections
It’s possible that this creature’s mythos may have been born from those seen as lepers. Those people were deathly afflicted, but no one wanted to get near enough to touch them for fear they may very well end up infected and exiled from their communities. Another idea, though highly controversial, is that the zombie myth stems from Haitian Voodoo. It’s said that Voodoo masters would ground up animal bones, barbed plants, and puffer fish remains into a fine power to elicit “zombification.” Once the neurotoxic concoction entered the bloodstream, it paralyzed and slowed a person’s heartbeat, making them appear dead. These zombified people were said to be “resurrected” by a sorcerer to be forever enslaved. Despite claims that the zombie state was due to the hallucinogenic plants and neurotoxins, this may be the result of West African religious beliefs more so than biological conditions.
Filmmaker and writer George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead film birthed a new idea of the zombie, which is the one popularized today. The reanimated corpse that desires human flesh. Romero takes inspiration from the 1954 novel penned by sci-fi novelist Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. While Matheson envisions a bacteria outbreak sparking a vampire apocalypse, Romero has something else in mind, thus bringing about the link between zombies and bacterial infections. Rabies also crops back up as a disease linked to zombies. When does it not, huh? Grave-shifting bodies may have also attributed inspiration to the zombie myth.
Centuries ago, many women and a number of men were accused of witchcraft and were condemned to death. Sound familiar? Witch lore has been circulating for ages, bearing out the old woman with an unsightly appearance who casts spells and rides her broom against a moon-filled night. However, there were true accusations made against those suspected of witchcraft, and terrible consequences followed. Yet witch lore may, too, be linked to a strange and deadly medical malady. During the pre-scientific advancement in Salem, Massachusetts, people, mostly women, marked as witches, may have been afflicted with a poison brought on by rainy weather and poor storage. Let’s get into the rise of witches during the era of the Salem Witch Trials.
The infamous Salem, Massachusetts Witch Trials may be the most well-known, darkest time in the history of witch mania that we can think of. It’s possible panic over witches could be linked to ergot poisoning. A fungus that infected the grains and rye and ruined crops during this time. Symptoms of the poison resulted in dramatic behaviors from crawling sensations over the skin to mania, psychosis, and delirium. Weather patterns in the year before the Salem Witch Trials showed that a warm, rainy spring cultivated the perfect conditions for the fungus to grow. In December 1691, shortly before the first accusations of witches were put forth, grain had been stored for months before it was used. While accusations of witches in many decades before the trials had seen a significant rise for other reasons, this particular time in history may have shed some light on what occurred in Salem, helping to birth our modern take on witches.
Classic and Modern Books and Pop-Culture
Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and witches are everywhere now and show no signs of disappearing anytime soon. Popular modern movies and books have emerged throughout the years and still top “best of” lists. Books like Twilight, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War have all imprinted themselves in our memories. They epitomize what we, as modern horror fans, consider to be the best of vampires, witches, werewolves, and zombies. But their evolution should also be enshrined in our minds, as their disease-afflicted origins opened a path to not only the ideas of modern medicine but the inspirations to ghastly, grisly, thrilling, and alluring creatures that will continue to be beloved throughout time.
Here are some classics and up-and-coming books to check out!
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Johnathan Harker visits Transylvania to assist Count Dracula in purchasing a London home. Instead, he discovers disturbing sights in Dracula’s remote castle home. Soon after, strange incidents occur when a woman is found with puncture wounds in her neck, and a ship with no crew is wrecked. Identity, insanity, and the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire come together in this enticing classic vampire novel.
Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh
The alliance between Psy, Changeling, and Human thins when the end of Silence doesn’t create a better world for future generations as hoped. The Psy must find a solution to their problems if one exists or risks going extinct. The answer may lie within an empath attuned to monsters, who will attempt to charm a wolf and make him fall in love with her despite his demons within.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
The Zombie War nearly eradicated the human race. Thankfully, it didn’t. Now, Max Brooks travels across the US states and around the world, collecting first-hand survivor accounts from men, women, and children who came face-to-face with these undead creatures. From decimated cities that once teemed with nearly 30 million souls to remote areas that lay untouched, Brooks makes his way through these places and keeps a record of the horror that plagued the world for years.
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna
Mika Moon is one of the few witches in Britain and an orphan who lost her parents at a young age. She must follow the rules, keep a low profile, and stay away from other witches so as not to draw attention. Yet Mika has already broken one rule. She has a social media account where she “pretends to be a witch.” Mika thinks she’s gone unnoticed, but a strange message arrives inviting her to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House.
Here, Mika finds three young charges she must help control their powers, an absent archeologist, a retired actor, two caretakers, and Jamie, the cute but prickly librarian. Mika soon starts to feel at home at Nowhere House. But when peril knocks at the door, she must do all she can to protect the family she didn’t even know she was looking for.
Browse these books and more on our Bookshop Trivia Bookshelf.