The virus behind the horror legends

Zombies, vampires, werewolves – they dominate current pop culture but the legends are a staple in folklore across the globe, so where do they come from?

Zombies: not so mythical after all?
Zombies: not so mythical after all? Photo Jamesrdoe via Flikr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

It’s possible that the beginnings of the myths for all three began with rabies. Biting, extremely aggressive behaviour, fear of light and water; sound familiar? They’re all symptoms of encephalitic (or furious) rabies and also behaviours associated with the horror legends of zombies, vampires and werewolves.

Rabies is a virus transmitted through saliva and so is often contracted from the bites of animals like feral dogs and bats. Once inside the body, it travels to the spinal cord and then onto the brain. Once there it begins to replicate itself inside nerve cells, destroying them in the process. Eventually the virus travels to other parts of the body and causes ‘rabid’ behaviour.

Spanish neurologist Dr Juan Gomez-Alonso suggested in 1998 that rabies could be the basis for the vampire mythology. He was struck by the “obvious similarities between vampires and what happened in rabies, such as aggressiveness and hypersexuality” when watching an old vampire film. When he looked back at reports of rabies outbreaks in eastern Europe during the 18th century he found that these outbreaks coincided with the first reported sightings of “vampires”. Gomez-Alonso found stories of people “suck[ing] the blood of their close ones, making them become ill and eventually die”.

Similarly, many of the symptoms of werewolves can be explained by the action of the rabies virus, according to Ian Woodward in his 1978 book The Werewolf Delusion. The late stage aggression and dementia could have caused people to think the infected person was becoming more bestial, especially if they received the bite from a wolf in the first place.

Zombiism is again a condition passed on from coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, most commonly through a bite. Mindless aggression and a need to bite are definitely some of the zombie-movie set of symptoms, as are the losses of speech, coherence and lucidity.

I want to suck your blood...
I want to suck your blood… Photo: Selby and Llly via Flikr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The evidence for rabies being responsible for the legends we know and love is compelling, but it’s not the only disease that causes horror movie symptoms. Porphyria is a disease that causes the sufferer to display a distinctly vampiric set of symptoms: receding gums giving the appearance of fangs, blistering skin when exposed to sunlight and a treatment involving injections of blood.

Congenital Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa is another disease that could be partially responsible for the werewolf myth. People with this disorder exhibit excessive hair growth over the upper body and face, combined with stories of bestial men bitten by wolves, this could have created the werewolves we know and love today.

So are these diseases the inspiration for zombies or are they simply a way for us to attempt to explain the legends living in the folklore and literature? It’s difficult to say for certain but one tip I would give to avoid becoming a rage-filled zombie/vampire/werewolf is stay away from rabid animals!