Rabies: An Explanation for the Vampire Legend?

Article ID: 8854

Released: 21-Sep-1998 12:00 AM EDT

Source Newsroom: American Academy of Neurology (AAN)


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Sarah Parsons
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Rabies: An Explanation for the Vampire Legend?

ST. PAUL, MN -- The legend of vampires who bite their victims and suck their blood may have developed from men infected with rabies in the 1700s.

So says a Spanish neurologist, writing in the September issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The rabies virus, which affects the brain through the peripheral nervous system, is fatal when untreated and is usually transmitted through the bite of an animal.

Many of the characteristics attributed to vampires also appear in people with rabies, according to Juan GÛmez-Alonso, MD, of Xeral Hospital in Vigo, Spain. Vampires are generally said to be male; rabies is seven times more frequent in men. Some rabid men have a tendency to bite other people. Other examples:

Aversion to garlic and mirrors--Men with rabies become hypersensitive to stimulation, and react to stimuli such as water, light, odors or mirrors with spasms of the facial and vocal muscles that can cause hoarse sounds, bared teeth and frothing at the mouth of bloody fluid.

Nighttime searches for conquests--Men with rabies develop insomnia and the tendency to wander. They also become hypersexual, as the disease affects the brain's limbic system, which regulates emotions and behavior.

Other aspects of the vampire legend can also be explained:

Transformation into bats or other animals--The rabies virus can affect animals such as bats, dogs and wolves in the same way it affects humans. "It would be imaginable that men and beasts with identical ferocious and bizarre behavior might have been seen as similar malign beings," said GÛmez-Alonso.

Lifelike appearance of corpse after death--In the 1700s, corpses were often exhumed to determine whether the dead person was a vampire. Signs of vampirism were a lifelike appearance and blood flowing from the mouth. Deaths from rabies can leave blood liquid long after death, and corpses can have blood flowing out of the mouth. Burial in a cold, humid place (such as the Balkan region in Eastern Europe) can preserve any corpse for months or years.

Origin of the legend--A major epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves and other animals was recorded in Hungary around 1721-28, a time and place where the vampire legend began.

GÛmez-Alonso notes that others have attempted to explain the vampire legend with theories of schizophrenia, misinterpretation of the appearance of corpses or just superstition. "The connection with rabies is the most comprehensive explanation, especially given the coincidence in time and the striking similarities between the two conditions," he said.

The neurologist always thought vampires were fictional characters. "Then one day I saw a classic Dracula film," he said. "I was surprised when the presenter said that the vampire stories had been historically documented. I watched the film more as a doctor than as a spectator, and I became impressed by some obvious similarities between vampires and what happens in rabies, such as aggressiveness and hypersexuality. As soon as the film ended, I rushed to my books and learned that 25 percent of rabid men have a tendency to bite others, and that rabid patients often cannot stand mirrors or smelling substances."

GÛmez-Alonso decided to devote his thesis to this topic. "This research shows us that sometimes things that are apparently bizarre and senseless can have a logical explanation," he said. "It also reminds us that the limbic system, or the 'brutish, animal part of our brain,' plays an important role in our behavior, and violence or unusual sexual behavior can easily be misinterpreted and be the result of a limbic system disorder."

Improving care for patients with neurological disorders through education and research is the goal of the American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 15,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals.

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