Fans of adventure movies, fantasy literature, and science-fiction films are used to nail-biting portrayals of strange magics or diseases that turn people to stone, into monsters, or mad. What many fans don’t know is that the authors of these fictional works were inspired by real-world phenomena. From genetic disorders that alter one’s humanity to mental conditions that shift our perception, here are the strangest medical conditions that have inspired the horrors of our favorite stories.
Believed to be the source of both vampire and werewolf lore, porphyria impairs the body’s production of heme, a protein that occurs in red blood cells. Patients typically experience sensitivity to sunlight, skin conditions, and increased hair growth. In some patients, the gums recede, leading to a fang-like appearance. The lack of heme also contributes to a paling of the skin and dark teeth and fingernails. In acute cases, those experiencing porphyria also tend to exhibit behavioral abnormalities or psychosis. Historians attribute the strange behavior of King George III, Mary Queen of Scots, and Vincent Van Gogh to this condition. The disease was portrayed in the horror film The Others and a memorable episode of “Scrubs.”
Stone Man Disease
Throughout mythology and literature, people have imagined witches and monsters who could turn people to stone. The actual medical reality, Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), is equally terrifying but thankfully very rare. In this disease, the body’s muscles and soft tissues ossify (turn to bone) as the person ages. Eventually, the patient can no longer move or even breathe properly. FOP was portrayed in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Mad Hatter’s Disease
The medical name for this condition, erethism mercurialis, refers to its onset due to mercury poisoning. While most people safely consume trace amounts of mercury in seafood, a large dose has significant medical implications. Erethism is called Mad Hatter’s disease because it drives you “mad as a hatter,” an expression that actually predates Lewis Carroll’s famous character. Historically, hatmakers often inhaled vapors when they used mercury to firm up the wool they used in their craft. Symptoms include irritability, depression, and delirium. In acute erethism, patients may experience psychosis and sducidal tendencies. This alarming side effect inspired a recent episode of “9–1–1: Lone Star” in which a group of poisoned office workers “goes Bird Box.”
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
Yet another Carroll-named disorder, this mental illness is similar to body dysmorphic disorder and other conditions in which the patient’s perception is severely altered. Those experiencing Alice in Wonderland Syndrome perceive objects to be much smaller than they are. This condition is also called Lilliput sight, after the island of tiny people portrayed in Gulliver’s Travels. The technical name for the syndrome is micropsia, and it can be a symptom of a wide range of medical conditions, from eye injuries to epilepsy.
Wicked Witch Syndrome
The Wicked Witch of the West was famously defeated when Dorothy tossed a bucket of water on her. While water has yet to melt any human, about 30 women — one of whom the author has met — have been diagnosed with aquagenic urticaria, in which patients break out into hives when water touches their skin. Not much is known about this rare allergy to water, but patients often cope by protecting their skin with baking soda and lotions.
Most of these conditions are so rare as to almost be the stuff of myth. However, there’s a bit of truth in every myth, and indeed, pop culture and mythology have drawn upon historical and medical realities for as long as humanity has existed. Yet these strange diseases are very much real, despite their fantastical nature.
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