Please join us in welcoming author Cassie Alexander to Heroes and Heartbreakers. Cassie's most recent book, Shapeshifted, is the third in the urban fantasy Edie Spence series. Edie is a nurse who treats paranormal creatures, and in her real life, Cassie is a nurse as well. Today she's here to talk about how normal some paranormal stuff actually is. Thanks, Cassie!
Since my books deal with supernatural creatures in the hospital, I’ve had to look around for a lot of plausible reasons to put them there, and have discovered that there’s more overlap between our world and ‘theirs’ than the casual reader might think.
In the 1970s a medical theory was floated for all the vampire legends – the blood disease of porphyric hemophilia. You may have seen people suffering from this on the TV show House. One of the symptoms of porphyria is painful photosensitivity, with burning and itching rashes under exposure to light, and in one episode they almost cut a girl’s arm off because of her reaction to the operating room lights. (Contracting porphyric hemophilia is also the way you become a vampire in the video game Oblivion, which I find hugely amusing.) While people still debate as to if this actual disease is the cause of the mythology, it’s easy to imagine people who had to hide indoors in olden days because of intense reactions to light being labeled as vampires.
And while most people know about the zombies they see on The Walking Dead, or before that, the ones based on Haitian beliefs from The Serpent and the Rainbow (or Passage of Darkness, The Serpent and the Rainbow’s slightly more scientific cousin)—did you know there’s a mental disorder that causes you to believe that you’re actually dead?
It’s called Cotard’s Delusion, and afflicted people believe they’re dead, or that parts of themselves are, to the point where they don’t bathe or eat. Scientists were recently able to do the first PET scan ever on a patient with this disease and found out that that parts of their brain suffered from an extraordinarily low metabolism, essentially putting them into a vegetative state—which could be why zombies are always looking for more energetic brains to eat!
There’s another fascinating mental disorder called Capgras Delusion that could be considered very close to shapeshifting—where it’s everyone else in the world who’s shifted but you. People with Capgras feel like the people who are closest to them are no longer the people they are. It’s due to brain damage, organic or trauma, that makes them unable to access feelings associated with certain memories. Without those keys to unlock their relationships with other people, they feel like everyone around them is an impostor, even their own father or mother. They can also be convinced that places they’re familiar with are no longer the same—that even their houses, cars, and dogs are imposter versions of the home, car and pet they used to have. This youtube clip shows an interview with a man who has Capgras, who even sometimes is convinced that he is not his actual self anymore. While it’s probably a stretch to assume this is where legends of shapeshifters came from, it’s interesting to consider the ramifications of what would have happened to someone suffering from Capgras back in the Dark Ages without any scientific or medical aide.
But speaking of shifting—before werewolves got sexy their mythology had a high overlap with cannibalism, back when being were-anything was more about violence than charisma. The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould is a great resource which details stories of animalistic human attacks from the middle ages. It helps to remember too that wolves used to be ravenous killing machines—in 1450, a wolf pack trapped Paris under its collective paws, killing forty people. The softer side to werewolf myths possibly came about much more slowly from people afflicted with hypertrichosis, like Jo-jo the Dog-faced boy and others who made the side-show circuits early last century.
Not even mind controlling powers are entirely made up—there’s a type of fungus that attacks ants and turns them into zombies as part of their lifecycle , sending them up certain stalks of grass to die and release fungal spores. And the hairworm infects crickets and spiders—when its lifecycle is complete it makes the infected creature jump into a body of water (like a dog dish or a swimming pool) and essentially commit suicide so that the worms can emerge from the host and copulate. (Do not look up this last one on youtube. I’m warning you now. Just don’t.)
While sometimes researching weird things is depressing, or worse yet, disgusting, I get a great deal of comfort knowing that no matter what I’m writing about, it’s all barely plausible, because as long as I can handwave some magic into the mix, there’s nothing I can think of that mother nature hasn’t thought of first.
Cassie Alexander is a registered nurse and author of the Edie Spence urban fantasy series, beginning with Nightshifted (5/12), Moonshifted (11/12), Shapeshifted (coming out 6/4/13), and Deadshifted and Bloodshifted forthcoming. She likes alchemy, blood, and science, in that order.