Trick or Treated? The Real Diseases Behind the Myths of Hallowe’en

Oct 26, 2021

It’s that spooky time of year – Hallowe’en! Along with the carving of pumpkins and trick or treating, many of us relish in the opportunity to get dressed up as our favorite scary fantasy characters. From vampires to werewolves, witches to zombies – these classic Hallowe’en monsters might not be as fantastical as we may think.

So, where did the ideas of these mythological characters originate? Inspiration had to come from somewhere, and they may have in fact been influenced by real-life diseases found throughout history.

We’re taking a look at the fictional monsters and the diseases that may have helped to create these legendary Halloween characters.

Hair-Raising Werewolves:

There is a disease known as the ‘werewolf disease’ called Hypertrichosis, which is a condition of excessive hair growth on the body. It can either be either passed down genetically or can be the result of a side effect of a certain drug, food or even cancer.

Hypertrichosis is likely caused by a fault in the SOX3 gene on the X-chromosome, which is responsible for the production of body hair.

Blood-Sucking Vampires

When you think of a vampire, you think of a pale, blood-sucking, and sun-fearing character. But shock horror, the legend of the vampire may also be inspired by a real but rare disease.

The rare disease is called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) where sufferers are anemic and blood transfusions can help their symptoms, such as being pale and tired. This is because the synthesis of the heme protein from protoporphyrin is disrupted by the disease. Heme is an essential component of hemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen throughout the body.

The protoporphyrins which accumulate, due to not being made into heme, means the sufferer is sensitive to UV light. Remind you of anyone? If they are exposed to the sun, it can cause cells to burst and die out.

In the days before blood transfusions, sufferers would drink animal blood to relieve the symptoms.


The origin of the zombie has proved somewhat controversial. It came from Haiti and in the 1980s Wade Davis, an anthropologist, went to the island to explore the mythology behind ‘zombification’.

Davis discovered Haitian voodoo masters called bokors would grind up a powder of animal parts to elicit “zombification.” He found the powder contained animal bones, barbed plants, and puffer fish remains.

Davis’ theory was that if the powder were rubbed on the skin, the sharp barbs could pierce skin and allow the tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish to make its way into the bloodstream.

Tetrodotoxin is used by a puffer fish as a natural defense. Once in the bloodstream, it can paralyze its victim, slowing their heartbeat enough to make them appear dead. Once these victims were buried and the toxin wore away with time, the bokor could dig them up and compel the “zombies” into forced labor.

Davis also argued that once awoken, the zombies were fed a “zombie cucumber,” a hallucinogen which may have caused these “zombies” to believe in their own fate.

So, could the controversial potion-making voodoo masters really create the effect of ‘zombification’? It’s something to think about this Hallowe’en that these characters might not be as ‘mythological’ as we once thought! Now, there’s a scary thought.

Source: Forbes