"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:
How can you tell if a guy's wife has cheated on him?
Well, it depends on the guy, of course, but I do recall my wife and I having
dinner with a couple she knew better than I, and thinking that the husband was
being awfully rude to the mother of his children.
"What was that about?" I asked my wife later.
"I think he's mad at his wife for cheating on him," she said.
"Wow. You mean he just found out?"
"No, this all happened five years ago."
For most guys in most matters, five years would be...
"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
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
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
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.