A few weeks back I accused the hero of Gotham of having rabies. And by accused, I mean I straight up uncovered it like Woodward and Bernstein broke Watergate. Which would make Bruce Wayne’s infection…Batgate? Rabies-Gate?
Anyway, the point is, after finding out that my favorite sociopath vigilante is carrying a lethal contagion, I decided to start poking around for other fictional icons who are secretly bearing the burden of terminal illness. And wouldn’t you know…
Irishman, moody goth, and author of Dracula (the vampires that don’t sparkle) wrote his masterpiece in a time when the sexually transmitted disease syphilis wasn’t just a horrifying mystery– but was at its freaky-deaky rampaging peak. Syphilis was so common, in fact, that the word “pox” was coined to describe syphilis symptoms. So when you slap the monocle from your foe’s face with your glove, and declare a pox on his house, you’re telling him you hope his wife, his kids, and his granny die from having their nose fall off, their genitals melt, and their brains eaten away by STDs.
Not only was syphilis the cause of widespread death in the streets of Europe from 1500 to 1950, it also turned the flesh and faces of its victims into monstrous shells of humanity over an excruciatingly long period of time, with infections that can lie dormant for more than 25 years (sorry to any syphilitic readers out there.)
So, what are the physical signs of syphilis, aside from “being a floozy?”
There are all sorts of nodes, nodules, sores, and wounds that mark a syphilis outbreak, none of which is pleasant to look at. But the infection we’re focusing on, and the type Bram Stoker likely suffered and eventually died from, is tertiary syphilis. AKA Neurosyphilis.
Neurosyphilis manifests as growths (gummas) which can crop up anywhere on the body, and can deform and enlarge the cranium. Dementia can also be a late symptom, as well as Argyll Robertson pupils, or pupils that don’t shrink when exposed to light. Hutchinson’s Teeth, or sharp, irregular teeth that look remarkably like fangs can be a sign of congenital syphilis. And lastly, sufferers at any stage of syphilis can experience weight loss, fatigue, poor balance, fever, and hair loss.
So let’s review. Large, bald head with irregular lumps. Dementia. Black, beady eyes…hunched back…shuffling gait…emaciated body…sharp teeth…wait a second…
Pictured: Nosferatu, the first film based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Then again, I could be wrong. But I will argue that if Bram Stoker never intended his story to be a parable about his own battle with syphilis (swapping fluids with strangers at night leads to misery) then I have no doubt his character was, at least partially, inspired by the the most horrifying disease of Stoker’s time.
And maybe, just maybe, if Dracula wasn’t intended to be a walking anti-STD ad for the 19th century, then certainly the message about avoiding the animal allure of men with hungry eyes was a unconscious warning to maidens far and wide. After all, something that’s remained consistent with every new iteration of the vampire lore is the wrongness that comes with becoming a creature of the night. The damnation inherent in being bitten, and turned, still draws a boatload of parallels to how we treat people with infectious diseases today.
Quarantine! The answer is quarantine!