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.
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.
The ancients believed that the birth of a child with physical deformities was a sign of evil. The word "monster" itself comes from the Latin word "monstrum," meaning omen or portent.
But with the rise of evidence-based science in the 19th and 20th centuries, fear of the unknown began to wane, as exemplified in Dracula. The book represents "a conflict between a modern way of looking at the world and an ancient one," says Carol Senf, PhD, professor of literature, communication and culture at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "I think that Stoker, two of whose three brothers were physicians, was interested in thinking about that. He's up on transfusions for example, and he's up on all kinds of scientific stuff."
Yet the death of Dracula -- with a stake right through his old undead ticker -- didn't end the legend of the vampire. It lives on in countless (no pun intended) movies, comic books, and even in the persona of the obsessive enumerator Count Von Count from Sesame Street.
Nor are vampires the only reality-based specters that still haunt our imaginations. Werewolves really exist -- or at least they do in the minds of people with the rare psychiatric disorder known as lycanthropy.