Our demons have their origins in our dread of death and the unknown. Today is Halloween, a time for costuming ourselves and confronting those fears (and, most importantly, for outsized consumption of sweets). For those of us celebrating Halloween disguised as vampires, werewolves and zombies, we owe a great debt to one of the world's deadliest and most feared zoonotic viruses, rabies. This past summer I wrote about the fascinating microbial origins of some of our most enduring humanoid monsters in "The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires."
A woodcut from 1512 of an attacking werewolf by the German painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image: Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum).
An unrecognizable family member demonically possessed by some unfathomable but instantly recognizable animal instinct. The frothing at the mouth, the lucid madness, the lost humanity: it’s all here and stems from our ancient, tragic history with rabies and canines. To be human is a sacred and inviolable thing; rabies infection breaches that principal. The animal bite and the transmission of disease represent a moment of transgressive contact between animal mouth and human flesh, the possibility of losing one’s humanity and regressing to an animal state. Our horror stories capitalize on this lurid fear.
Rabies, that bestial virus, that grand transmogrifier, has terrified generations with its guarantee of "a slow warping of the mind and a pained, gruesome demise." Its inescapable death sentence and dreadful, transformative effects in the infected have seared itself in our public imaginations while infiltrating our literature and cinemas. In celebrating this day of the dead and of temporary transformation, give a thought to one of the oldest and most untamable microbes, the rabies virus. Read more about the history and mythology of the rabies virus at "The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires."