Could rabies explain the vampire myth?

Vampires are so entrenched in our psyche that there’s probably not one adult in the whole of the Western world that doesn’t know who Dracula is.

There is something about these nocturnal blood-crazed characters that captivates our imaginations. But where did the legend come from?

According to some researchers, the origin of the vampire myth could be rooted in a very real menace: rabies.

Rabies is a deadly virus that is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected animal. Globally, it kills an estimated 59,000 people each year — that equates to almost one death every 9 minutes. Initial symptoms are only flu-like, but once they appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

Creatures that carry the virus include skunks, dogs, coyotes, foxes, and, you’ve guessed it, vampire bats — but that’s not the connection with mythical vampires that we are discussing today.

The birth of vampirism?

In the 1700s, vampires were not just legends; as far as normal folk were concerned, vampires were a genuine worry. As Voltaire said, “Vampires were the sole matter of conversation between 1730 and 1735.”

And, it just so happens that there was a rabies epidemic in Hungary in the 1720s — the very time and place where the vampire legend appears to have taken root. But the similarities run deeper still.

The following links were made by Dr. J. Gómez-Alonso, a Spanish neurologist, who published his intriguing theory in the journal Neurology in 1998. Below, we outline some of his major observations.

A male affliction. Vampires are almost always depicted as male, and rabies affects men seven times more often than women.

Biting. Individuals with rabies become particularly aggressive and sometimes bite, or attempt to bite, other people. Also, once a vampire bites you, you become one of them, as is the case with rabies — it is by being bitten that the virus is most commonly spread. However, it is very rarely transmitted by a human-to-human bite.

Aversions. Rabies might cause people to become averse to strong or surprising stimuli, including odors (such as garlic), light, and mirrors. In fact, according to Gómez-Alonso’s paper, “A man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror.”

When someone with rabies comes into contact with such stimuli, their face can become contorted as the facial muscles spasm; their lips curl back to display their teeth, and their vocal cords may contract, producing hoarse sounds. They might also froth or bleed from the mouth.

Insomnia and wandering. Rabies sometimes makes it difficult for the afflicted to sleep, and they therefore become prone to night wandering.

Hypersexual. Vampires have a reputation for being rather lascivious. Similarly, people with rabies can be easily aroused. This is thought to be because the virus influences the limbic system, which controls emotions and behavior.

In some cases, men with rabies can experience priapism, which is a painful erection that lasts, sometimes, for days.

Transformation. Vampires are often depicted turning into other animals — the bat being the most common. Animals with rabies behave in much the same way as humans with rabies.

It is not too much of a leap of the imagination to think that somebody living in the 18th century who saw a human and an animal acting similarly might make some kind of link; they might assume that animal and beast were morphing into each other.

After death. When someone dies from rabies, it is commonly due to asphyxia or cardiorespiratory arrest. In these cases, blood can remain liquid for some time after.

Because of the vampire-based concerns of the day, bodies were often dug up to check that they weren’t vampires. Seeing liquid blood oozing might raise concerns.

Also, as tissue breaks down, parts of the body and internal organs can become swollen as gases are produced. This distension can force blood out of the mouth. If a corpse were to be exhumed, the sight of what appeared to be fresh blood in the mouth may be taken as confirmation that the undead had been feasting on humans during the night.

These could all be coincidences, but the parallels are striking.

The connection with rabies is the most comprehensive explanation, especially given the coincidence in time and the striking similarities between the two conditions.”

Dr. J. Gómez-Alonso

He adds, “This research shows us that sometimes things that are apparently bizarre and senseless can have a logical explanation.”

“It also reminds us that the limbic system,” says Dr. Gómez-Alonso, “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.”

We cannot say that the vampire-rabies connection is solid fact, but it does fit rather neatly. More research will be needed, but it is unlikely to receive much funding.

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