In the classic slasher film A Nightmare on Elm Street (and the 8 other related Nightmare movies) Freddy Kruger visits teenagers in their dreams and when he kills them in their dreams this subsequently kills them in real life. In the original 1984 classic, Freddy visits protagonist Nancy many times; but one specific time (while she was being observed at the Katja Institute for the Study of Sleep Disorders) he attacked her and she barely made it ‘out’ alive. The doctor, nurse, and her mother woke her to find visible cuts on her arm; and the incident frightened her so much that part of her hair turned gray in real life. So how can something like that happen? Is this just a piece of movie lore and myth? Funny enough, the sudden whitening of hair was actually first documented centuries ago and has been spoken of many times.
It’s not something that happens all the time, but this supposedly happened to high profile historical figures such as Sir Thomas Moore and Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Coincidentally, the alleged condition of hair suddenly turning white from fear or an immense amount of stress is now called Marie Antoinette syndrome based on the story that her hair supposedly turned stark white after she was captured after the ill-fated flight to Varennes during the French Revolution. The psychological stress or fear that supposedly causes these cases have shown up way before Marie Antoinette’s death on October 16, 1793. The first documented case is actually found in the collection of Jewish religious law and theology texts called the Talmud. Written in 83 AD, the Talmud has a Jewish historical record of a scholar that was appointed as chief of the Israeli Talmudic academy at only 17 years old. The young man’s wife thought that he looked too young for the job and strangely enough he woke up the next morning with 18 rows of white hair on his head. The medieval Jewish rabbi Maimonides says that this was from studying too hard and stressing over the job.
Much like Marie Antoinette’s hair turned white the night before her execution; Sir Thomas Moore’s hair allegedly turned white the night before his death after he refused to vow supremacy of Henry VIII over the Pope. These historical stories and the portrayal in horror films create a mythos of an over-the-top scary event. Here lies the problem. As Dr. David Orentreich, associate director of the Orentreich Medical Group in New York and the assistant clinical professor in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine says, “It’s appealing on a literary or poetic level that a person’s experience could be so severe or terrifying that they age overnight. But you can’t lose pigment in your hair. Once it leaves your scalp, it’s non-living; it’s dead.” Despite the reports over the years that people’s hair turns white overnight just has no scientific basis.
So how do we explain it? Let’s take for instance the story of Marie Antoinette’s auburn locks turning white the night before she lost her head to the guillotine. While much like a horror movie showing some poor soul’s hair turning white while being scared makes you say ‘oh my that must have been really scary because that character’s hair turned white’; a historical figure’s fate is made to seem even more shocking when we introduce these myths. Let’s propose for a moment that her hair was actually white. We can infer that much like the rebel sepoy (an Indian soldier serving under British or some other European order) of the Bengal army taken prisoner in 1861 that was described in The Family Physician; hair dye could be an easy explanation. Wouldn’t the washing out of temporary hair dye explain most of the cases of ‘sudden white hair’? Prior to 1907 and before the use of PPD (paraphenylenediamine); temporary vegetable and mineral dyes were used. It is extremely likely that when incarcerated and before the sentence of death is carried out, these individuals would not be able to keep up with their beauty routine. Or in the case of the rebel sepoy, the vegetable hair dye that could have been used to keep up his appearance was sweated out during his interrogation in the extreme Indian heat. Or was simply the removal of a wig?
Although there have been medical evidence of people’s ‘hair turning white’; but these can be explained by the overnight loss of hair due to medical problems like alopecia areata or a reaction to a certain autoimmune disease. So despite the gallantry or apparent fear of a spy who was stripped naked and surrounded by armed guards or the shock a Queen has the night before her execution; these historical myths are like the Hollywood stories that they inspired: purely fictitious.
Freddy Kruger by Sue Lukenbaugh from Sacramento, USA – Freddy Kruger, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33692290
Featured Image: Marie Antoinette’s execution attributed to unknown, Fair Use – http://www.artres.com/Doc/ART/Media/TR3F/M/8/Q/ART1662.jpg
Hair Dye advertisement by Unknown – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11473442