Guest writer Doris Schmidt takes us on a tour Dr. House would be proud of. Forget TV characters you’d like to laminate on a Top 5 list, here are seven of the best diseases from TV’s finest! [All photos were added in post-production by the editors, who have a love of expletives and crudely drawn hearts. Much love ❤ ]
Popular TV shows seem to take everything over the top – even the illnesses suffered onscreen. Medical programmes are bound to feature exotic ailments, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Comedies, dramas and even historical sagas boast a healthy roster of unhealthy people with strange-but-absolutely-true conditions. Here are some of the most unusual diseases found on top-rated TV shows, proving that fiction is even stranger when it’s based on truth. (Editors’ note: Defs the strangest sub we’ve had yet. We’re in total love, here.)
- Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: Better Call Saul
When we first meet the title character’s brother, Chuck McGill, he’s a mystery. Wrapped in a metallic “space blanket,” he lives in a house without electricity and has a deadly fear of being hurt by electromagnetic fields from batteries, cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. It turns out that he’s not making it up, and it’s not even fiction. He’s one of an estimated 3 to 7 percent of people suffering from a controversial illness called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. The World Health Organization says that dizziness, fatigue and heart palpitations are among the symptoms reported by people sensitive to magnetic fields. Chuck’s physician thinks it’s all in his head, and many real-world doctors agree. But a change of scenery might do Chuck good, as Sweden and Canada recognize Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity as a disability, and Colorado declared May to be Electromagnetic Sensitivity Awareness Month.
- Broca’s Aphasia: Game of Thrones
A gentle giant with a huge streak of loyalty, Hodor is portrayed as a simple-minded servant who can say only one word – “hodor” – which has become his name. But is he really simple-minded, or is he simply unable to put his own thoughts into words? He can, after all, obey complicated commands. Hodor may actually suffer from Broca’s Aphasia, a condition that occurs when the area of the brain responsible for speech production is damaged. It’s named for 19th-century physician Paul Broca, who had a patient much like Hodor – although the patient could understand conversation, he was only able to say “tan,” which people then used as his name. A stroke is the most common cause of Broca’s Aphasia, and language therapy is a common treatment. While it’s hard to imagine a plot twist that would bring Hodor to a speech therapist, the actor who plays Hodor is rooting for his character’s recovery. “I would like him to sort of progress. Speak a bit. A few lines wouldn’t go amiss,” actor Kristian Nairn said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, though. I’m not going to bet money on it.” (Eds: We couldn’t really give a shit what happens in GOT here at Clarissa, and didn’t even finish season 1, but we could definitely be tempted to give it another peep should they ever decide to dedicate an entire story line to that dude seeking speech therapy. My Fair Lady style, y’all .)
- Osteogenesis Imperfecta: Vikings
This History Channel rendition of a Norse saga is, like the saga itself, based in part on historical figures. One of the most compelling of these figures is Ivar the Boneless; history tells us he was a fearsome Viking warrior with a really strange nickname, while Vikings tells us he was born with deformed, twisted legs. Both could be right, as Ivar was typically carried on a shield by his fellow soldiers; perhaps he was unable to walk. Some historians believe this was because Ivar suffered from Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also called “brittle bone disease,” in which bones break extremely easily. A crusader for this viewpoint is Nabil Shaban, a disability-rights advocate who made the case in his documentary The Strangest Viking.
- Hyperthymesia: Unforgettable
“Hyperthymesia is a real medical condition. People with this ability can remember … everything.” This was the teaser CBS used to introduce Unforgettable, the crime drama with a main character whose mind retains photo-quality memories of everything she has ever seen. It’s a handy trait for a TV detective, but it hasn’t worked out as well for the dozen people diagnosed with this syndrome. One woman with Hyperthymesia has described the constant barrage of detailed memories as being “like an endless, chaotic film … And there’s no stop button.” The most famous, and vocal, of the 12 diagnosed with Hyperthymesia is actress Marilu Henner, best known for her role on the 1970s-‘80s TV show Taxi.
- Black Plague: Reign
This historical-fiction series, loosely based on the early years of Mary Queen of Scots, has certainly been accused of playing fast-and-loose with history. Its treatment of the Black Plague, true to form, is mainly to provide a backdrop for romance and treachery. What’s surprising about this medieval scourge, which killed tens of millions, is that it is not a thing of the past; worldwide, up to 3,000 new cases are reported each year. Fortunately, modern antibiotics have made the Black Plague less deadly. Unfortunately, even modern treatment is not always enough to save a victim’s fingers and toes. (Eds: BLEAK. Should you keep an emergency stash of chocolate /cake/rum miniatures/codeine your doctor prescribed you last year which you kept resourcefully for one such moment, then now might be the time to break that bad boy out and play some Harry Belafonte or something.)
- Morgellons Syndrome: Criminal Minds
One of the most controversial episodes in this long-running series was called “The Itch,” and focused on a killer who believed he had cockroaches crawling beneath his skin. Gross, yes – but why controversial? Well, it rubbed many viewers the wrong way when this killer joined a support group for people with Morgellons Syndrome, a mysterious illness often derided as “the Internet’s disease” because many doctors chalk it up to mass hysteria spread through online discussion boards. Sufferers insist that the disease is real, and say they feel tiny threads or fibers wriggling just beneath their skin. The most famous real-life Morgellons sufferer is singer Joni Mitchell, who has described it as “this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space … Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm.” (Eds: Did anyone else immediately think of Kirtsen Dunst in Melancholia with this one? Just us? KThanksByeee)
- Microcephaly: American Horror Story
Fan favorite Pepper – a character with a tiny head, elfin features and a playful spirit – appears in two seasons of American Horror Story (“Asylum” and “Freak Show”). Pepper’s condition, Microcephaly, is marked by an unusually small head that’s typically the result of incomplete brain growth. While children with this disorder now benefit from early intervention and support, this was not always the case. The inspiration for Pepper’s character was a circus performer named Schlitzie, who was best known for his appearance in the 1932 movie Freaks. (Eds: Freaks just got a limited UK re-release. Seek it out, lovers!)
Doris Schmidt enjoys tracking quirky trends in popular culture, and teaches professional writing at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.