You SEE them in horror flicks as blood-thirsty, nasty villains with ferocious-looking fangs and sharp claws. We know them in folklore and legends as werewolves and vampires, but is there really a scientific rationale behind all these mysteries? So before you get scared by them this Halloween, better know the rare diseases that have contributed to their legends.

According to Prof. Marc Eric Reyes of the College of Science, Psychology department, “werewolves” are people exhibiting symptoms of lycanthropy, a mental disorder long recognized by the medical world but never listed in the official psychology manuals because of its rarity.

“Lycanthropy is a mental disease where a person actually believes that he/she is a werewolf,” Reyes said. “They don’t actually turn into a wolf in the physical sense but they act like one.”

Reyes added that lycanthropes experience a form of delusion as a defense mechanism against emotional and mental breakdown. However, he said reports of lycanthropy might have been influenced by mythological beliefs as it only became rampant during the Dark Ages in Europe.

“It’s a neurotic coping mechanism for some people with inferiority complex where they identify with mythological creatures,” Reyes said. “It’s like an escape for them—people suffering from psychological problems believe they gain power from becoming mythical creatures,” he said.

However, some experts argue that lycanthropy is caused by a parasitic organism since it is believed that a person becomes a lycanthrope if he survives a wolf bite.

Reyes said that a certain Dr. Luis Figuera at the Center of Biomedical Research in Guadalajara, Mexico said a certain genetic mutation can cause bodily fur-like hair growth.

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for psychologists also discussed some “culture-bound disorders” like windigo, a mental disorder in which the affected becomes anxious, agitated, and craves for human flesh. In Japan, there is “kitsunetsuki,” where the afflicted thinks he/she is possessed by foxes, while “amok” is a mental disorder common among Malays characterized by sudden outbursts of homicidal aggression.

Meanwhile, vampirism is said to be related to porphyria, a group of allergic disorders characterized by excess accumulation of porphyrins. This is caused by deficiency in an enzyme essential in forming heme, a component of hemoglobin in the blood.

“People link porphyria to vampirism, but it doesn’t necessarily give a full explanation for this phenomenon,” Reyes said.

Porphyria came from the Greek word “porphyrus” meaning “purple”, and was once known as a royal disease. Some of the said victims include nobles Mary Queen of Scots, James I, George III, and the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gough.

Dr. Maria Rosario G. Aguila, resident dermatologist of the UST Health Service told the Varsitarian that photosensitivity is one major symptom in Porphyia cutanea tarda, a more common form of porpyria, afflicted with this disease hide in dark places and away from sunlight because the sun aggravates the disease.

“Upon exposure to sunlight, they develop blisters, and it’s because of this discomfort that they shun daylight,” Dr. Aguila said.

The victim’s teeth also grow prominent because of gums degeneration while his face experiences hypertrichosis or rampant “wolf-like” hair growth causing his hands to resemble paws.

However, simple heme injection can treat the disease and this explains why blood drinking is linked to porphyria. Further, the belief that garlic keeps vampires away may arise from the fact that garlic also aggravates porphyria.

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Meanwhile, catalepsy, a schizophrenic condition where the afflicted seems dead may have been linked to vampires waking up after they have supposedly died.

According to Reyes, those who have catalepsy are sometimes paralyzed. They lie motionless, which probably leads people to believe they are actually dead.

Although these diseases seem bizarre, Reyes said people, particularly the uneducated, are easily swayed by superstitious belief.

“Let us not be too hasty if we see individuals with different physical manifestations out of the ordinary for they may just be suffering from porpyria—for all we know it is not too serious,” said Aguila. With reports from, Essentials of Anatomy and Physiology, and The World’s Greatest Mysteries.


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