Darkening days bring thoughts of bats and "trick or treat," but 250 years ago a vampire scare in eastern Europe had terrified villagers driving stakes through bodies dragged from their graves.
A recent report claims that the vampire legend, which inspired Bram Stoker to create Dracula in 1897, may have a medical explanation. Writing in the September issue of Neurology, Dr Juan Gomez Alonso MD, of Vigo, Spain, claims the symptoms of "furious" rabies closely resemble behaviour attributed to vampires.
This claim was put forward in 1733 by an anonymous physician who argued that vampirism was "a contagious illness more or less of the same nature as that which comes from the bite of a rabid dog." Debate on the validity and origin of the vampire epidemic raged for over a generation.
In Rabies, a possible explanation for the vampire legend, Dr Gomez Alonso claims that in certain cases rabies appears similar to vampirism.
The study asserts that many "vampire" traits are similar to disorders of the limbic system, or the brutish part of the brain. In some cases these diseases are transmitted from vertebrates to humans through bites. This is the same way vampires were meant to transfer their affliction to victims.
Of these "zoonoses", only rabies resembles vampirism in its fatal prognosis and in the implication of animals, according to the report. Bats, wolves and dogs have long been associated with vampires and these animals are known to transmit rabies to humans.
"Similar to the case in vampirism, rabies is seven times more frequent in males than females, both in animals and in humans, and prevails in rural areas. In addition, a major epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves, and other wild animals was recorded in Hungary around 1721-1728."
Rabid patients may rush at people, biting and tearing at them like wild beasts, but "during quiet intervals the patient lies alert but terrified and has bloody saliva drooling from its mouth."
One of the main characteristics of rabies is spasms of both the mouth and throat, which may cause the lips to be retracted.
Spasms are caused by stimuli such as air draughts, water, light, noises, odour, a minimal excitement or the sight of mirrors. A man was not considered to have rabies if he could stand the sight of his own image in the mirror.
"The untreated patient with furious rabies frequently manifests a wandering tendency, restlessness . . . persistent insomnia and an increasing agitation." Similar traits were linked to vampires who bared their bloody fangs, shrank from mirrors and garlic and avoided sunlight.
Vampires were thought to come from their crypts to seek sexual intercourse. Male patients in the final stages of the disease have been reported to maintain an erection for days and to have been able to have sex 30 times a day, or make violent rape attempts, according to the research.