Columns > Published on July 15th, 2013

7 Horrifying Ailments Named After Literary Characters

Photo by Rob Krause

When you're immersed in a good story, it's easy to lose yourself in a character's world. But what would life be like if you actually had to experience what they experience? From ten-month-long sleep sessions to extreme vanity and delusional jealousy, walking in your favorite protagonist's footsteps might be more of a nightmare than a dream come true. Here are just a few of the fascinating (and horrifying) physical and mental illnesses named after the quirks and adventures of some of literature's most interesting characters.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Named after: Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who used the “Drink Me” potion and “Eat Me” cake to grow and shrink her way into Wonderland.

Symptoms: If you have AiWS, you perceive your body parts and objects around you as being larger or smaller than they actually are—not in an “OMG! My butt looks so big in this bikini!” way, but more in a "seeing everything through a funhouse mirror" way. Once you’re down this rabbit hole, all bets are off. Your toes might appear to be several feet long. Your hand might look enormous. The door to the bathroom could shrink until it seems miles away. To make matters worse, your muddled perception may also extend to things like sounds and the passing of time. Is that a helicopter landing in your living room or the quiet hum of the dehumidifier? Have you been writing for four minutes or four hours? Tough to say.

Causes: AiWS is a neurological condition that usually hangs out with its BFF, the migraine, though it can also be caused by brain tumors, drug use, the Epstein Barr virus, and temporal lobe epilepsy. It’s more common among kids, and some people do grow out of it. Wonderland author Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) himself suffered from migraines, and there’s some speculation that Alice’s changing size may have been inspired by his own AiWS experiences.

Misery factor: 9 out of 10. Noticing your office chair is the size of an elephant seems more quirky than life-destroying at first, but as the poor guy who wrote “I have Alice in Wonderland syndrome” for The Guardian points out, having no idea whether you are perceiving anything accurately is significantly disruptive. He moves clumsily because he has difficulty figuring out where the ground is and doesn’t dare cross streets because he can’t tell how large or small—and thus how near or far away—cars are.

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Rapunzel Syndrome

Named after: Rapunzel, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, who let her flowing hair down to allow the prince to climb into the tower where she was held captive.

Symptoms: How disgusting could a condition be if it’s named after a beautiful maiden with golden tresses tantalizing enough to get her royal booty calls on the reg? Pretty damned disgusting. Rapunzel Syndrome is a condition in which someone ingests enough hair that it forms a dense hairball—“trichobezoar” if you’re feelin’ fancy—in their stomach that eventually spawns a long rope of hair (Rapunzel, see?) that trails into the victim’s intestines. The intestinal hair rope can be several feet long. Trust me when I say you do NOT want to Google Image Search this.

Causes: The good news, unless you suffer from trichophagia (the urge to compulsively eat hair), is that only people with trichophagia are at risk. If you don’t munch on your locks, you’re not going to develop a giant ball of hair in your guts.

Misery factor: 10 out of 10. Once it’s large enough, the hairball causes abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, vomiting, and, without surgery, death.

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Dorian Gray Syndrome

Named after: The protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, who sells his soul so that his portrait will age instead of his body.

Symptoms: While not a scientifically accepted medical condition, Dorian Gray Syndrome is thought to be a form of body dysmorphic disorder in which sufferers are preoccupied with their perceived physical defects. Like Oscar Wilde’s character, people with DGS are obsessed with aging and cling to the fading bloom of youth with both gnarled hands. Since deals with the devil aren’t as readily available as Botox, most affected narcissists shell out big money for weight-loss pills, hair-growth serums, pore minimizers, erectile dysfunction medications, laser resurfacing, skin elixirs, and plastic surgery. After all, what’s more attractive than aging gracefully? That’s right: Stretching your facial skin taut until the contours of your skull show through like an evil papier-mâché puppet struggling to look human.

Causes: DGS is more of a societal phenomenon than a medical condition, so if we have to point a finger, we’ll point to the usual instigators of self-hate: the media, photoshopped models, Hollywood starlets, cosmetics ads, the fashion industry, etc., etc., blah blah blah. A 2005 German study claimed that about three percent of people show signs of DGS—about the same percentage who think it’s okay to wear booty shorts after age 19.

Not to be confused with: Peter Pan Syndrome, named after the flying, ever-young boy created by author J. M. Barrie, in which adults shun responsibility, buck social norms, and generally act like immature assholes in an attempt to maintain their youth.

Misery factor: 2 out of 10. DGS can lead to serious depression when sufferers realize their attempts to forever look like a 20-year-old are doomed to fail, but it is, generally, not life-threatening.

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Othello Syndrome

Named after: Shakespeare’s Othello, who killed his wife, Desdemona, because he wrongly believed she was being unfaithful.

Symptoms: Also called morbid jealousy or delusional jealousy, Othello Syndrome causes people to stubbornly believe their partners are cheating on them, despite a complete lack of evidence. People with Othello Syndrome make Overly Attached Girlfriend look pretty balanced. They set up elaborate tests of fidelity, relentlessly make unwarranted accusations, install recording devices and spy cameras, hire private detectives, stalk, and read emails and texts. Many sufferers obsessively fixate on these paranoid delusions until they are driven to acts of violence against their significant other. This is how you end up on Dateline.

Causes: Othello Syndrome isn’t just an ugly character trait run amok. It’s a condition often associated with alcoholism, sexual dysfunction, neurological disorders, and mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It can also be triggered when dopamine-boosting drugs used for the treatment of things like Parkinson’s disease act like the pharmaceutical version of Iago, changing a normal relationship into a den of suspicion. 

Misery Factor: 8 out of 10. Suicidal and homicidal thoughts aren’t uncommon among people with Othello Syndrome, particularly if depression and substance abuse are thrown into the mix.

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Pickwickian Syndrome

Named after: Joe Pickwick, a fat, narcoleptic kid from Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

Symptoms: Also called Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome, Pickwickian Syndrome is what happens when a morbidly obese individual isn’t able to get enough oxygen while they sleep, which leads to blood that’s chock full o’ carbon dioxide, which, in turn, leads to daytime sleepiness, lethargy, headaches, shortness of breath, and depression.

Causes: Being extremely obese. Sleeping while extremely obese. Pretty simple.

Misery factor: 9 out of 10. Pickwickian Syndrome is less fun to experience than it is to say. Untreated, it can lead to heart failure, hypertension, sexual dysfunction, and death.

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Rip Van Winkle Syndrome

Named after: The lazy Dutch farmer in Washington Irving’s short story of the same name, who is knocked out for 20 years after swiping booze from some guys he runs across in the woods. (Pro tip: Never drink booze you find in the woods.)

Symptoms: Unlike Irving’s character, who is roofied to high heaven by weird dudes in the forest, RVWS sufferers don’t need a tainted beverage to slip into long periods of slumber that last weeks or even months at a time. Also called Kleine-Levin Syndrome, the condition almost exclusively affects teenage boys, so it’s surprising their parents even notice. 

Causes: RVWS is so rare that it’s tough to study it. Scientists think it might be a problem with the hypothalamus. It might also be genetic, specifically caused by a virus or bacterium that certain people—most notably Ashkenazi Jews (no joke)—are genetically more susceptible to.

Misery Factory: 2 out of 10. In the days of Edgar Allan Poe, sufferers would’ve just been stuffed into a casket and buried alive, and that would’ve cranked it up to a 10 on our scale. But these days, the worst part is waking up and finding that your iPhone is a few generations behind. In fact, I could use a few weeks of sleep right about now.

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Munchausen Syndrome

Named after: Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen, a real German cavalry officer and master of tall tales whose oft-embellished exploits were chronicled (and further exaggerated) in the 1785 book The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe. The real von Münchhausen was highly displeased when Raspe’s book was translated into German, bringing unwanted attention and labeling him the “Baron of Lies”—so displeased that he sued for damages but lost because the anonymously published book’s title had only one “h” in “Munchausen.” The fictionalized Baron Munchausen has since been featured in a 1901 collection of adventures entitled Mr. Munchausen and has come to life in comics, games, films, and on the stage.

Symptoms: It’s no coincidence this syndrome is named after the “Baron of Lies.” Physically healthy people with Munchausen Syndrome attempt to convince others, including doctors and family, that they’re sick or injured in an attempt to gain sympathy and attention. To maintain the illusion of illness, they may inject themselves with gasoline, bacteria, or poop (really); burn or cut themselves; request risky operations; or tamper with medical tests by contaminating urine samples or heating thermometers. Unlike hypochondriacs (pretty much all of us who have ever looked up a symptom on WebMD) who truly believe they’re sick, or malingering profiteers who feign illness for personal gain, people with Munchausen Syndrome know they’re being deceptive but can’t control their compulsive behavior.

Causes: Though it may sound like patients are just attention-hungry jerks, Munchausen Syndrome is a serious mental disorder recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and is brought on by a number of factors, including childhood trauma, poor self-esteem, abandonment issues, and some personality disorders.

Related: Munchausen by Proxy is similar, but rather than claiming to be sick themselves, the mentally ill individual makes another person (usually a child in their care) ill to get attention.

Misery Factor: 8 out of 10. Self-harm, unnecessary surgeries, financial and family problems with associated depression, a higher incidence of substance abuse and suicide—not nearly as much fun as the original Baron von Münchhausen was known to have.

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What literary character do you think should have their own medical condition named after them, and what would the symptoms be? Get creative and bizarre and disgusting in the comments.


About the author

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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