The Plague Behind the Zombies





'I hereby resolve to kill every vampire in America" writes the young Abraham Lincoln in the best-selling 2010 novel "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." Honest Abe doesn't quite make good on his promise, and the grim results are all around us. Today, vampires spring from the shadows of our popular culture with deadening regularity, from the Anne Rice novels to the Twilight juggernaut to this year's film adaptation about the ghoul-slaying Great Emancipator. Lately we've also endured a decadelong bout with the vampire's undead cousin, the zombie, who has stalked films from "28 Days Later" to "Resident Evil" (the next sequel of which is due out this fall) and the popular TV show "The Walking Dead."

Purists will hold forth on the differences between vampire and zombie, but the family resemblance is unmistakable. Both are human forms seized by an animal aggression, which manifests itself in an insatiable desire to feed on the flesh of innocents. (Blood, brains, whatever; it's a matter of taste.) Moreover, that very act of biting, in most contemporary versions of both myths, transforms the victims into undead ghouls themselves....

Known and feared for all of human history—references to it survive from Sumerian times—rabies has served for nearly as long as a literary metaphor. For the Greeks, the medical term for rabies (lyssa) also described an extreme sort of murderous hate, an insensate, animal rage that seizes Hector in "The Iliad" and, in Euripides' tragedy of Heracles, goads the hero to slay his own family. The Oxford English Dictionary documents how the word "rabid" found similar purchase in English during the 17th century, as a term of illness but also as a wrenching state of agitation: "rabid with anguish" (1621), "rabid Griefe" (1646).

The roots of the vampire myth stretch back nearly as far. Tales of vampire-like creatures, formerly dead humans who return to suck the blood of the living, date to at least the Greeks, before rumors of their profusion in Eastern Europe drifted westward to capture the popular imagination during the 1700s.

In its original imagining, though, the premodern vampire differed from today's in one crucial respect: His condition wasn't contagious. Vampires were the dead, returned to life; they could kill and did so with abandon. But their nocturnal depredations seldom served to create more of themselves.

All that changed in mid-19th century England—at the very moment when contagion was first becoming understood and when public alarm about rabies was at its historical apex. Despite the fact that Britons were far more likely to die from murder (let alone cholera) than from rabies, tales of fatal cases filled the newspapers during the 1830s. This, too, was when the lurid sexual dimension of rabies infection came to the fore, as medical reports began to stress the hypersexual behavior of some end-stage rabies patients. Dubious veterinary thinkers spread a theory that dogs could acquire rabies spontaneously as a result of forced celibacy....



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