The witches, zombies, vampires, and werewolves associated with Halloween may be rooted in more than just old-world superstitions. Health researchers say there is fairly strong scientific evidence that real-world medical conditions may be behind at least some common supernatural figures, according to a report on the LiveScience
Witches: Historical accounts of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s suggest something other than the devil might have driven the young women accused of witchcraft to engage in strange behavior and speak of disturbing visions. Many researchers have speculated that the consumption bread tainted by a hallucinogenic fungus known as ergot, which thrives in cool wet weather, could account for the alarming idiosyncratic symptoms of the accused covens.
Ergot contains an LSD-like compound that can cause hallucinations, convulsions, spontaneous muscle spasms, crawling sensations on the skin, and other symptoms not unlike those reported noted among the Massachusetts women accused of witchcraft.
Werewolves: A rare genetic disease known as hypertrichosis (sometimes called "wolfitis") causes unusual growth of hair on the body and even the face — the likely inspiration for myths about hairy half-wolf, half-human creatures that came to be known as werewolves, scientists say.
In some cases, the growth of dark, dense hair all over the body is accompanied by a form of gum disease that results in narrow, longer-looking teeth.
Zombies: The walking dead are among the most celebrated horror-movie stars. Some scientists now believe zombies may have been inspired by voodoo practices in Haiti involving potent neurotoxins taken from pufferfish that are used to put people into temporary coma-like states — from which they ultimately awake.
Harvard botanists who examined "zombie powder" used by voodoo priests found it contains tetrodotoxin, which can cause a person to appear deceased. Theoretically, such a person could be presumed dead, buried, then later rise to walk the earth again — striking fear, surely, into anyone he or she encounters.
Vampires: The legend of Count Dracula and his ilk may have arisen from a rare group of blood diseases known as porphyria that affect how oxygen is delivered to the body's cells. The condition can give the skin a characteristic ghostly pale cast and causes extreme sensitivity to sunlight.
In some cases, exposure to sunlight can even cause blisters and nasty infections of the skin — remarkably reminiscent of the symptoms suffered by the lifeless characters on "True Blood" who venture outside during the day. What's more, porphyria can cause receding gums, giving the teeth a fanglike appearance.
And the traditional treatment? Blood transfusions.
"In principle, it is possible to relieve the symptoms of porphyria by drinking blood — another possible link with the vampire stories," reports Scientific American.
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Here's an additional detail that might make for a good conversation starter at your next Halloween party: Britain's Prince Charles is reported to be a distant relative of the ruthless Romanian warlord known as Vlad the Impaler — widely believed to be the inspiration behind Dracula — and the genetic form of porphyria is thought to run through the British royal family.
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