One dark and stormy evening, Spanish neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso was watching a vampire movie when he realized something strange; he noticed that vampires behave an awful lot like people with rabies. The virus attacks the central nervous system, altering the moods and behaviors of those infected. Sufferers become agitated and demented, and, much like vampires, their moods can turn violent.
Rabies has several more vampire-like symptoms. It can cause insomnia, which explains the nocturnal portion of the legend. People with rabies also suffer from muscular spasms, which can lead them to spit up blood. What’s stunning is the fact that these spasms are triggered by bright lights, water, mirrors, and strong smells, such as the scent of garlic. (Sound familiar?) After watching the Dracula movies a few more times, Dr. Gomez-Alonso felt compelled to continue studying vampire folklore and the medical history of rabies. Eventually, he discovered an even more profound connection between the two phenomena: Vampire stories became prominent in Europe at exactly the same time certain areas were experiencing rabies outbreaks. This was particularly true in Hungary between 1721 and 1728, when an epidemic plagued dogs, wolves, and humans and left the country in ruins. Gomez-Alonso theorized that rabies actually inspired the vampire legend, and his research was published in the distinguished medical journal Neurology in 1998.
The Madness of King George
Dr. Gomez-Alonso wasn’t the first scientist who tried to pin vampirism to a real illness. In 1985, Canadian biochemist David Dolphin proposed a link between vampires and porphyria—a rare, chronic blood disorder characterized by the irregular production of heme, an iron-rich pigment found in blood. The disorder can cause seizures, trances, and hallucinations that last for days or weeks.
As a result, people with porphyria often go insane. (Britain’s King George III, the one who inspired our founding fathers to start their own country, is thought to have suffered from it.) Porphyria sufferers also experience extreme sensitivity to light, suffering blisters, and burns when their skin is exposed to the sun. Another symptom of porphyria is an intolerance to sulfur in foods. Which food contains a lot of sulfur? That’s right, garlic.
In addition to explaining away vampires, medicine also has some answers for werewolves. In The Werewolf Delusion (1979), Ian Woodward explains that rabies may have also inspired the werewolf myth.
Rabies is transmitted through biting, and dementia and aggression of late-stage rabies can make people behave like wild animals. Now, imagine that you are living in a village in medieval Europe and you see your friend get bitten by a wolf. A few weeks later, he starts foaming at the mouth, howling at the moon, and biting other villagers. Suddenly, that story your grandmother told you about the Wolfman sounds like a decent explanation for what’s going on.