The first slide of Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy’s informational presentation on rabies last night at The Strand read: “Be Afraid.”
Though their tone was for the most part sweet and mild, their subject was not. The husband and wife are the authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, out last month from Penguin, which chronicles the cultural evolution of what remains the world’s deadliest virus.
Though rabies only kills about five people in North America each year, it claims 55,000 lives worldwide annually. Once infected, the chance that a victim will die is almost 100%—the highest fatality rate of any disease. Though victims can be cured of rabies if they receive a vaccination before symptoms appear, the virus often remains undetected—especially in young children, who are less apt to report animal bites—throughout its long latency period. As Alice Gregory described in her review of Rabid for n+1, “the literalness of the disease’s course is revolting: its ‘time of onset depends on the distance of the wound from the head.’”
But, of course, the symptoms of the disease itself are most terrifying. The virus manifests itself in hyper-excitability, hallucinations, and hydrophobia—a literal fear of drinking, in which the diaphragm involuntarily contracts, the throat spasms, and the patient cannot bring himself to ingest liquids.
That the disease not only results in increased anger and aggression on the part of the victim, but a simultaneous fear is part of what makes it ripe material for horror genres, Mr. Wasik explained. As detailed in the cultural history components of Rabid, legends like vampires, werewolves and zombies all have inspirations that can be traced back to rabies.
Early vampires in Eastern European literature were associated with dogs and gradually bats came to figure more prominently, as is the case by the time of Bram Stoker’s archetypal masterpiece. “I think that’s so interesting because our consciousness that bats are important rabies vectors was evolving along a similar timeline,” Ms. Murphy told The Observer after the presentation, explaining that now in North America nearly all rabies deaths are the result of bat infection.
“I think the possibility that these unknowable biological things somehow feed into our subconscious and are expressed in our literature is really cool,” Ms. Murphy said.
Rabies can also have a number of sexual manifestations, including frequent arousal and involuntary orgasm. In his review for the Times, James Gorman couldn’t get over a section of the book that analyzes case reports describing victims suffering from “up to thirty ejaculations in a single day.”
Mr. Wasik spoke to another dimension of the disease’s sexual connotations, describing a popular theory that emerged in the nineteenth century, purporting that rabies in dogs was the result of sexual deprivation.
“It wound up being a big impediment to people who correctly understood rabies as being a contagion, because you had some people saying that when there’s a rabies outbreak you have to keep your pets inside, and then there are these other people saying, to hell with that, they’ve got to be out on the streets doing it!” he explained.
Following the presentation, Mr. Wasik and Ms. Murphy took questions from audience members. One woman inquired about the possibility of humans giving other humans rabies.
“I think it’s been a concern,” said Ms. Murphy, “though humans have never been terrifically effective vectors for rabies. Our teeth aren’t bite-y enough, even if the passion is there.”
Another audience member inquired, somewhat facetiously, “If you had to pick a celebrity to die of rabies, to promote your book sales, which celebrity would you pick?”
The couple considered this. “I wouldn’t wish death by rabies on anyone,” Mr. Wasik began, though Ms. Murphy interjected, noting that there are a lot of older celebrities who “really love the little pets.”
“Is Bob Barker still alive?” Mr. Wasik pondered. “Because, I mean, ‘Barker…” he trailed off, before quickly changing his mind: “Mary Kate and Ashley,” he said conclusively. “Okay, next question.”
Afterward, The Observer asked the authors what they hope readers will take away from the book.
“I hope they’ll vaccinate their pets” Ms. Murphy said, explaining, “I mean, I’m sort of joking. We didn’t feel like we had a really strong public health message, like, to educate the world on how to keep this terrible infection at bay, but I do really care about those things.”
“When one or two people who reviewed the book came up with [vaccinating your pets] as the takeaway, I was delighted,” she continued. “It is important. Like a lot of public health stuff, if you’re doing a good job you don’t see the disease, and that’s sort of where we are with rabies now,” she explained, though noting that there’s still a lot of scientific progress left to be made, especially in less developed areas.
“We’re really looking forward to the announcement that all of the Americas are dog-rabies free, since that’s probably coming in the next decade,” Ms. Murphy said. “And maybe we’ll live to see a dog-rabies-free world. That would be great.”
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