Dracula’s Pellagra and Lois Lane’s Lungs: Further Gleanings From the Medical Literature

by Christopher D. McManus Silver Spring, Maryland

Laypeople, many of whom are laypersons, mistakenly think that medical researchers care only about real people and their diseases. Not so. Maladies of fictional characters are the focus of a large body of medical literature. Of course, one expects some analysis of the maladies of Lear, Don Quixote, Medea, and other figures of classic tragedy. The surprise is that articles about characters in light, popular fiction are also numerous. These imaginary personalities include the denizens of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, novels, comic strips and comic books. Their physical, psychological and psychosomatic afflictions have all received the clinicians’ careful ministrations. Here is a small sample of the researchers’ earnest solicitude.

All the references below appeared as authentic articles in respected journals. Despite their sensational associations, the articles (at least, those which I have been able to get copies of and read) are all carefully researched, soberly written, and rewarding to study. The articles are listed, below, alphabetically by character.

In-Depth Analysis
Intentionally not included here are the case studies which use fictional characters simply to designate a syndrome observed among real patients. For example, “Rapunzel syndrome” describes a gastric complication characteristically found in girls. “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” is a manifestation of acute Epstein-Barr virus infection. The “Mickey Mouse sign,” “Snow White syndrome,” and “Pinocchio’s nose” are just a few of the medical terms derived from the realm of literature and applied to real patient classes. There are other journal articles, also not mentioned here, that use storybook names simply to characterize some medical procedure or process; Cinderella and Humpty Dumpty, to name a pair, are common labels in journal articles.

Heavies and Lightweights
The characters chronicled below can be divided into two categories: (a) horror figures (such as Dracula, Wolfman, the Terminator, Darth Vader, and Frankenstein’s monster), and (b) lighter figures (all the rest). Of the articles below about horror figures, four principally treat their psychological conditions, and one treats a physical condition. For articles on lighter characters, the ratio is 42 articles about the characters’ psychological health to 12 concerning physical conditions. Chi-square analysis confirms that the two ratios do not differ with any statistical significance. So, at least in the medical literature, Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and their horror-genre compatriots are no more mentally conflicted than their comic counterparts.

As previously reported, however, both horror and lighter fiction characters have significantly more reported psychological problems than real-life celebrities. (See “Dante’s Hair, Buddha’s Teeth, and Tutankhamun’s Breasts: Intimate Gleanings From the Medical Literature,” C.D. McManus, Annals of Improbable Research, vol. 8, no. 5, September-October 2002, pp. 14-19.)

Real Conclusions About Imaginary Characters
Four further conclusions must be faced squarely:

1. The reported conditions of imaginary celebrities are, most of them, psychological. This flies in the face of common sense. Most fictional characters face none of the existential angst of real life, so they should have fewer psychological problems than real people, not more.

2. It is especially worrisome that we find serious medical conditions in characters from light fiction. One would expect neuroses and psychoses in Lear, Othello, the Brothers Karamazov, and other denizens of dramatic literature. But Snow White, Peter Pan, the Little Mermaid, and the other subjects of the articles listed below should be untroubled by such mental burdens. After all, they live in a fairy-tale world.

3. Instead, the distribution of articles may reveal an alarming imbalance in medical care. Perhaps the physical problems of fictional characters are being undertreated. Perhaps that’s because in storybook land, only psychological problems are covered by health insurance.

4. The most alarming question is: with all the expert medical attention that they have received, why haven’t any of the imaginary characters been cured yet? Every time we read about them, their psychological and medical problems are essentially unchanged.

“About the Symbolization of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” M. Grotjahn, American Imago, vol. 4, 1947, pp. 32-41.

“Psychoanalytic Remarks on Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll,” P. Schilder, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 87, February 1938, pp. 159-68.

“An Analysis of Baba-Yaga in Folklore and Fairy Tales,” C. Scielzo, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 43, no. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 167-75.

“Calvin and Hobbes: Postmodern and Psychoanalytic Perspectives,” E.H. Spitz, Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 80, no. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 55-82.

“Are We Going Round in Circles, or Standing Still (and Did the Cheshire Cat Smile Enigmatically Because of Resorptive Lesions?),” C.E. Harvey, K.F. Lyon, R.B. Wiggs, Journal of Veterinary Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, March 1995, pp. 27-8.

“The Speech Disorder of Doc in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” I. Biran, I. Steiner, Neurology, vol. 57, no. 2, July 24, 2001, p. 363.

“Disease Panorama Among the ‘ Donald Ducks’,” K.I. Lodsby, Tidsskrift-For den Norske Laegeforening, vol. 114, no. 30, December 10, 1994, pp. 3630-5. [article in Norwegian]

“Dopey’s Seizure,” B. Dan, F. Christiaens, Seizure, vol. 8, no. 4, June 1999, pp. 238-40.

“Sleep of the Great,” W.A. Whitelaw, A.J. Black, Respiration Physiology, vol. 119, nos. 2-3, February 2000, pp. 209-17. (The authors report that “The somnolent dormouse in Alice in Wonderland... is subject to modern treatment for obstructive apnea.”)

“Fear of Reproduction and Desire for Replication in Dracula,” C. Colatrella, Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 17, no. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 179-89.

“Did Dracula Suffer From Pellagra or Pica?” N.B. Nordlander, Lakartidningen, vol. 95, no. 18, April 29, 1998, pp. 2100-1. [article in Swedish]

“Dracula. Disorders of the Self and Borderline Personality Organization,” J.M. Raines, L.C. Raines, M. Singer, Psychiatric Clinics of North America, vol. 17, no. 4, December 1994, pp. 811-26.

“Heat Loss in Dumbo: A Theoretical Approach,” P.K. Phillips, J.E. Heath, Journal of Thermal Biology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001, pp. 117-20. (The authors hypothesize that “he may need the large ears to help lose the excess heat produced while flying.”)

“Huckleberry Finn: A Psychoanalytic Study,” J. Barchilon, J.S. Kovel, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 14, no. 4, October 1966, pp. 775-814.

“Problems in the Application of Psychoanalysis to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” F.D. Baudry, International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, vol. 9, 1982- 83, pp. 647-56.

“The Frog Prince: Tale and Toxicology,” D.M. Siegel, S.H. McDaniel, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, vol. 61, no. 4, October 1991, pp. 558-62.

“The Second and Third Night in the Fairy Tale ‘Das Gruseln’,” C.H. Mallett, Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, vol. 14, no. 6, August-September 1965, pp. 216-20. [article in German]

“Hansel and Gretel, My Favorite Fairy Tale,” B. Bettelheim, Psychotherapie, Psychosomatik, Medizinische Psychologie, vol. 37, no. 1, 1987, pp. 1-9. [article in German]

“Did the Mad Hatter Have Mercury Poisoning?” H.A. Waldron, British Medical Journal, vol. 287, no. 6409, December 24-31, 1987, p. 1961. (The author’s conclusion, surprisingly, is: “he certainly was not poisoned with mercury.”)

“Hercules and Superman: The Modern-Day Mythology of the Comic Book: Some Clinical Applications,” E. Caruth, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, vol. 7, no. 1, January 1968, pp. 1-12.

“From Humpty-Dumpty to Rapunzel: Theoretical Formulations Concerning Borderline Personality Disorder,” I. Lonie, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 19, no. 4, December 1985, pp. 372-81.

“The Tragedy of Humpty Dumpty,” T.A. Petty, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 8, 1953.

“The Fairy Tale of the ‘Marienkind’ : Adolescence in a Fairy Tale,” P. Dettmering, Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, vol. 41, no. 3, March 1992, pp. 90-4. [article in German]

“The Little Mermaid: An Icon of Woman’s Condition in Patriarchy, and the Human Condition of Castration,” E. Tseelon, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 76, no. 5, October 1995, pp. 1017-30.

“The Anatomy of the Mermaid,” D. Heppell, Reports of the Proceedings of the Scottish Society of Historical Medicine, nos. 93-4, 1992-3, pp. 21-6.

“Of Mice and Men: An Introduction to Mouseology, or, Anal Eroticism and Disney,” A.A. Berger, Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, 1991, pp. 155-65. (The author concludes that “Mickey Mouse is sadistic, asexual, and anal while Ignatz Mouse, the hero of Krazy Kat, is playful, sexual, and phallic.”)

“The Peter Pan and Wendy Syndrome: A Marital Dynamic,” C. Quadrio, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 16, no. 2, June 1982, pp. 23-8.

“The Myth of Peter Pan,” F.L. Meisel, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 32, 1977, pp. 545-63.

“The Archetypes in Peter Pan,” R.J. Hallman, Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, January 1969, pp. 65-73.

“From the Archives of Psychoanalysis: Pinocchio,” G. Roheim, Psyche, vol. 39, no. 1, January 1985, pp. 62-8. [article in German]

“Pinocchio: A Psychosomatic Syndrome,” A. Sellschopp-Ruppell, et al., Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, vol. 28, no. 1-4, 1977, pp. 357-60.

“Harry Potter and Obesity,” G.F. Adami, Obesity Surgery, vol. 12, no. 2, April 2002, p. 298. R

“Rapunzel: The Symbolism of the Cutting of Hair,” J.J. Andresen, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 28, no. 1, 1980, pp. 69-88.

“Morris’ Rapunzel as an Oedipal Fantasy,” M.D. Reed, American Imago, vol. 30, no. 3, Fall 1973, pp. 313-22.

“Using Sexton to Read Freud: The Pre-Oedipal Phase and the Etiology of Lesbianism in Sexton’s Rapunzel,” M. Fitzgerald, Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 19, no. 4, 1990, pp. 55-65.

“A Dream of the Red Shoes: Separation Conflict in the Phallic-Narcissistic Phase,” L.E. Berman, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 72, no. 2, 1991, pp. 233-42.

“Poor Rumpelstiltskin,” M. Miller, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 1, January 1985, pp. 73-6.

“Enchantment and Alchemy: The Story of Rumpelstiltskin,” D.B. Rinsley, et al., Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, vol. 47, no. 1, January 1983, pp. 1-14.

“Who Was Rumpelstiltskin?,” H. Rand, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 81, no. 5, October 2000, pp. 943-62.

“Rumpelstilzchen on the Couch: An Ensemble of Shame, Identity and Father Themes,” G.H. Seidler, Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, vol. 39, no. 7, September 1990, pp. 261-6. [article in German]

“Tom Sawyer: Early Parent Loss,” A.J. Palmer, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, vol. 48, no. 2, March 1984, pp. 155-69.

“D’oh! An Analysis of the Medical Care Provided to the Family of Homer J Simpson,” R. Patterson, C. Weifer, Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol. 159, no. 12, December 15, 1998, pp. 1480-1.

“Hypnotic Overdoses and Fairy Tales: Snow White and the Uses of Disenchantment,” X. Pommereau, J.M. Delile, E. Caule, Suicide and Life- Threatening Behavior, vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 1987, pp. 326-34.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A Symbolic Account of Human Development,” H.M. Arnold, Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, vol. 17, no. 5, September-October 1979, pp. 218-22, 236.

“Star Wars: The Modern Developmental Fairy Tale,” J.F. McDermott, Jr., et al., Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, vol. 44, no. 4, July 1980, pp. 381-90.

“Star Wars as Myth: A Fourth Hope,” L. Villela-Minnerly, R. Markin, Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 74, no. 3, Fall 1987, pp. 387- 99.

“Thoughts on the History of the Origin of the Hippie Based on an Analysis of the Struwwelpeter,” N. Schneemann, Zeitschrift fuer Psychotherapie und Medizinische Psychologie, vol. 20, no. 6, November 1970, pp. 213-23. [article in German]

“Superman as a Male Latency Stage Myth,” A. Lotterman, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, vol. 45, no. 6, November 1981, pp. 491-8.

“Superman and the Malboro Woman: The Lungs of Lois Lane,” P. Magnus, New York State Journal of Medicine, vol. 85, no. 7, July 1985, pp. 342-3.

“On the Plausibility of Superman’s X-Ray Vision,” J.B. Pittenger, Perception, vol. 12, no. 5, 1983, pp. 635-9.

“Tyrannical Omnipotence in the Archetypal Father,” W. Colman, Journal of Analytic Psychology, vol. 45, no. 4, October 2000, pp. 521-39. (The authors report that “The Chronos myth is amplified through the use of two modern variants in the films The Terminator and Star Wars.”)

“From Tinkerbell to Rogers (How a Fairy Tale Facilitated an Understanding of Rogers’ Theory of Unitary Being),” L.R. Fisher, M.A. Reichenbach, Nursing Forum, vol. 23, no. 1, 1987-88, pp. 5-9.

“The Tooth Fairy: Part 1: The Tooth Fairy and the Fairy World,” R. Wells, CAL: Certified Akers Laboratories, vol. 43, no. 6, December 1979, pp. 2-7.

“Associations to the Fairy Tale About the Ugly Duckling,” B. Slok, Sygeplejersken, vol. 81, no. 43, November 4, 1981, p.
10. [article in Danish]

“Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A.A. Milne,” S.E. Shea, K. Gordon, A. Hawkins, J. Kawchuk, D. Smith, Canadian Medical Association Journal, vol. 163, no. 12, December 12, 2000, pp. 1557- 9. (“[Winnie the Pooh et al. are] Seriously Troubled Individuals, many of whom meet DSM-IV criteria for significant disorders.”)

“The Wizard of Oz: A Parable of Brief Psychotherapy,” D. Magder, Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 25, no. 7, pp. 564-8.

“The Wolf Phobia in the Fairy Tale of the Wolf and the Seven Little Lambs: Development and Meaning of a Type of Anxiety Neurotic-Phobic State,” R. Plassmann, Psyche, vol. 37, no. 9, September 1983, pp. 841-6. [article in German]

“The Comic-Book Superhero: A Study of the Family Romance Fantasy,” M.E. Widzer, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, vol. 32, 1977, pp. 565-603.

“The Mother Goose Syndrome: A Lighthearted Look at Paediatric Literature,” J.M. Dunlop, Public Health, vol. 88, no. 2, January 1974, pp. 89-96.

“The Psychology of a Nursery Rhyme,” T. Mintz, American Imago, vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 1966 , pp. 22-47. (The author explains that “the progression in the rhyme [‘One, two, buckle my shoe’] is obvious: birth; separation from the breast; interest in pregnancy and parental sexual activities; awareness of the penis and its erections; intercourse.”)

“Pearls and Pitfalls in the Horror Cinema,” R.M. Pascuzzi, Seminars in Neurology, vol. 18, no. 2, 1998, pp. 267-73. (“Count Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster ...illustrate a variety of pearls in the diagnosis of a variety of neurologic disorders.”)

Although it is slightly off topic, some readers may recall a famous passage from the medical literature, concerning the cartoon character Popeye:

German chemists reinvestigating the iron content of spinach had shown in the 1930s that the original workers had put the decimal point in the wrong place and made a tenfold overestimate of its value. Spinach is no better for you than cabbage, Brussels sprouts, or broccoli. For a source of iron Popeye would have been better off chewing the can.

The article in which this appears is “Fake!,” T.J. Hamblin, British Medical Journal, vol. 283, December 19-26, 1981, pp. 1671-3.


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2005 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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