At the end of October the streets and shops of Mexico fill with a mix of Halloween and more traditional Day of the Dead themed treats and costumes. On Saturday, Mexico City held its first ever Day of the Dead parade, partly inspired by last year’s James Bond film, Spectre. However, many of the monsters and myths that come out to play at this time of year are inspired by pre-scientific misunderstandings of diseases. The birth of a child with an abnormality or deformity for example was often thought to mean it was in some way connected to the supernatural.
The vampire myth has been linked to porphyria, a blood condition that made skin blister in sunlight and caused some sufferers’ gums to recede, giving the appearance of longer teeth. In addition, villagers dug up their dead to check on them and found bloating and blood around the mouth, thought to be a sure sign of vampirism but actually part of the normal decomposition process. Tuberculosis has also been associated with the myth as one of its main symptoms is coughing blood.
Mexico has its own host of dark creatures, such as La Llorona, a jealous woman that according to legend drowned her own children, a story in which we can see the flowerings of mental disease. Chaneques, from the Veracruz area, are small humanoids of around 1.20m that take care of animals in mountains and forests, capable of both good and bad. More likely, they were ostracized sufferers of achondroplasia or dwarfism, officially defined by the association Little People of America as a person under 1.47 m, with an average height of 1.21m. The aluxes are a similar Mayan version of chaneques that originates from Yucatan and help farmers with their crops, although it is thought that the aluxes myth may have crossed the Atlantic with the arrival of the British in the Caribbean, finding common links with Germanic helpful elves such as in the later Brothers Grimm tale The Elves and The Shoemaker.
The nahual is the Mexican werewolf. The werewolf myth traditionally finds its origin in rabies, a disease transmitted in great part through bites of infected dogs. Furious rabies caused sufferers to be hyperactive and caused hydrophobia. In addition, hypertrichosis is a rare disease characterized by excess growth of hair over the body and face, known as werewolf syndrome.
The myth of the chupacabra is more recent, arising in the 1990s. It emerged that livestock was being attacked, responsible for the name “goat sucker”. As several of these have supposedly been captured scientists have been able to take a closer look and have determined the legend most likely originates in coyotes or wolves with mange, known as scabies when infecting humans, and may have rendered them unable to catch their usual prey and instead target livestock.
The Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican celebration in which the living celebrate the dead with lively festivals, instead of insulting them with grief. Death is considered a normal part of the natural cycle and on the 1st of November, the dead walk among the living to celebrate that cycle. It was recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2008.