Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Science Saves Fiction in "The First Vampire"

Normally, filmmakers add a huge dose of fiction to a dash of science in order to make a movie that is palatable to a mainstream audience. Fiction has no limits; it takes us as far as the imagination can dream– so it’s not surprising that these types of stories often draw a larger audience than, say, practical texts that detail hard facts proved by scientific research and peer-reviewed by dozens of nerds whose vocabulary is chock full of 14 letter words that include so many x’s and y’s that not only does a population of non-scientists moan with mental agony at the mere thought of reading such articles (myself being included in this group), we also refuse to play against scientists in scrabble. All of that is to say that fiction often helps to make a scientific idea digestible– it doesn’t often work the other way around. However, I just came across an exception to this general rule of thumb at the Imagine Science Film Festival’s screening of The First Vampire.

The lighting is terrible, the costumes are cheap, and the acting is below average—but the thirty seconds devoted to a few paragraphs of scientific justification that flashed across the screen just before the credits rolled made 23.5 minutes of watching a painfully terrible story-line unravel worthwhile.

Yes, science is capable of saving more than lives: it can save fiction too! And if you choose to keep reading, I’ll save you from having to waste 23.5 minutes of your life to get to the interesting tid bit of science at the end of The First Vampire:

The legend of the vampire is likely based on porphyria, which are rare and incurable genetic diseases that strike about one in every 200,000 people. Symptoms of porphyria include a vampire-like aversion to sunlight and garlic and a craving for blood.

Something about the sun’s rays seems to irritate the skin of those who suffer from porphyria to a such a degree that the skin becomes disfigured, may sprout unbecoming patches of hair in unusual places, and sometimes a body part (a finger, for example) falls right off.

Porphyria victims also have an averse reaction to garlic, which contains a chemical that exacerbates the symptoms of the disease.

Today, those who suffer from porphyria are treated with injections of heme, a product of blood. This treatment was not available in the Middle Ages, so perhaps victims of the disease self-medicated by seeking out blood where-ever they could find it, whether from beasts or humans.

Note: I would caution anyone who may have a roommate without health insurance (or at least a friend in the medical field who could hook them up with some heme) and who is also pale, hairy, and missing a few fingers. It’s not just fiction after all…vampires are for real!

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