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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.

After the Flood continued...

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.

In the March 2000 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, J. Arturo Silva, MD and Gregory B. Leong, MD describe the case of "Mr. A" who suffered from a case of partial lycanthropy -- the delusion that one is being transformed into a wolf.

"Mr. A is a 46-year-old male who experienced delusional episodes that lasted up to several hours. During these episodes, he had sensations of hair growth on his face, trunk, and arms. Occasionally, he became convinced that the hair growth was real. He also complained that he experienced structural facial malformations and lesions that took place within minutes and remained for hours. He thought these changes would make him appear to be a wolf, and avoided seeing his face or body whenever possible. However, he did not believe that he was a wolf. He denied that his mind was changing into a different mind or that he was a different person from his objective self."

Silva, who is a staff psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto, Calif., tells WebMD that lycanthropy, "can be due to a hysteria or a psychosis -- in other words madness -- or it can be due to other kinds of illnesses, such as depression associated with a lot of self-deprecating thoughts. But often, once you start getting into a real belief system where somebody says 'I think I'm turning into a werewolf,' and he looks at his body and his hair, and the shape of his face changing -- once you get to that level it usually is a clear loss of contact with reality."

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