"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:
As a child, I never would have guessed I'd one day be paid to type the phrase "jock itch."
Actually, I'm sort of surprised now as an adult to find that jock itch, and its southerly cousin athlete's foot, still exist. There's something sort of quaint about these and other minor locker room infections — they seem to belong in the moldering realm of short shorts and tube socks that marked our fathers' Saturday mornings at the Y. Surely today's athletes, with their x-treme cross trainers and x-treme...
"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.