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Halloween: The Truth Is Out There

Science says there's no such thing as vampires or werewolves -- doesn't it? Come with us now as we take a look behind the veil of legend. The facts may be scarier than you think.
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"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:

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"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 extraordinary pallor."

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 pigments.

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 millennia ago.

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.

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