lesV Rabies Linked to Vampire Legends


"Rabies has symptoms strikingly similar to the traits ascribed to vampires"

SPANISH neurologist, Dr Juan Gomez-Alonso of Xeral Hospital in Vigo, has suggested rabies may have inspired the early vampire legends. His thesis can be found in the Sept 98 edition of the journal Neurology. Watching an old vampire film, he was struck by the "obvious similarities between vampires and what happened in rabies, such as aggressiveness and hypersexuality".

The similarities are many Gomez-Alonso reports in the study. Vampires generally are male, and rabies is seven times more frequent in men than in women. Because the virus affects the limbic system, part of the brain that influences emotional and sexual behavior, people with rabies tend to be aggressive, may attempt to bite others, and are "hypersexual," he writes. "The literature reports cases of rabid patients who practised intercourse up to 30 times in a day". Since rabies also affects the hypothalamus, part of the brain that controls sleep, many patients suffer from insomnia and tend to wander at night.

Rabies causes hypersensitivity to strong stimuli, as well, so patients are often repelled by light, by bright things -- such as mirrors, and by strong odors -- including the smell of garlic. Rabies victims may vomit blood, Gomez-Alonso explains. And since the disease causes hydrophobia, or aversion to water, they do not swallow their saliva, which can froth at their mouths, flecked with blood.

The disease can also cause facial spasms, in which the lips jerk back over the teeth, in an animal-like snarl. Moreover, rabies is more common among men than women, as is vampirism, at least according to most vampire tales. Finally, rabies, like vampirism, can be transmitted via a bite, Gomez-Alonso writes. The infection, however, can also be transmitted via a scratch or across mucus membranes. Consequently, it can be contracted during sex with an infected partner, or by inhaling air in caves heavily populated by infected bats.

In addition to the medical evidence, Gomez-Alonso provides historical support for his theory. He maintains that early tales of vampirism frequently coincided with reports of rabies outbreaks in eastern Europe, such as the widespread epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves and other animals in Hungary in 1721-28. Digging through centuries-old European archives, Gomez-Alonzo found records of a rabies epidemic among dogs, wolves and other animals in Hungary between 1721 and 1728, the time people first began to report sightings of "vampires." There were reports, for instance, of people "who have been dead for several years, or at least several months? seen to return, to talk, to walk, to infest the villages? to suck the blood of their close ones, making them become ill and eventually die."

The legend of vampires transforming themselves into animals may come from the way rabies affects bats, dogs and wolves in a fashion similar to man. Vampires' aversion to garlic and mirrors could be ascribed to rabid hypersensitivity. "Men with rabies," he says, "react to stimuli such as water, light, odours 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." In the past, he contended, "a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror".

Rabies, a virus usually transmitted via the bite of an infected animal, can be tricky to diagnose, Dr. Gomez-Alonso told Reuters Health in an interview. Symptoms usually do not appear for at least a couple of weeks, and by then the bite has healed. Once symptoms have appeared, antirabies treatment is ineffective, and the infection is most often fatal.

"Even now we miss diagnoses in cases of rabies," Gomez-Alonso said. Citing an example in his study, Gomez-Alonso describes a relatively recent case in which a man presumed to be a "wandering lunatic" was found to be infected with rabies during an autopsy. "These missed diagnoses probably happened much more commonly in the 18th century," Gomez-Alonso added.

Gomez-Alonso also found accounts of bodies, exhumed after burial, that appeared lifelike, and were filled with still-liquid blood. This also fits in with the rabies theory, he writes. When people die of collapse, shock or asphyxiation -- as is often the case with rabies -- their blood is often slow to clot. Moreover, the region of Hungary where the outbreak occurred is damp and cold many months of the year, significant because corpses take longer to decompose in the cold. "Their good appearance would also suggest the presence of saponification," he explains. "This process, characteristic of burials in humid places, transforms the subcutaneous tissues into a wax-like substance."

"Much evidence supports that rabies could have played a key role in the generation of the vampire legend," later popularized in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" and numerous other books and films, Gomez-Alonso concludes. "This would be in accordance with the anthropologic theory that assumes that many popular legends have been prompted by facts. Under this approach, saying that the vampire is 'mere fiction' may be somewhat inappropriate."

Sources : Rueters Ny Sept 21 98
Neurology 1998 September