I RETURNED from a brief vacation to find a message in my inbox from Mr. Tor Strand, a reporter for the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang.
"In our country," he began, "there is a story going wild among people these days..."
Oh, boy, here it comes, I thought. He's going to tell me that Scandinavian gangbangers are firing on innocent drivers who flash their headlights at oncoming vehicles. It's happening everywhere else, you know.
Instead, Mr. Strand surprised and delighted me by recounting the following tale, which he assumed to be an urban legend:
... A woman (a friend of a friend, of course) met a man while out on the town one night. One thing led to another, as they say, and she ended up having sex with him. Later, the woman fell ill. She went to the doctor, who examined her and announced that she was "infected with corpse-worms" (maggots). A subsequent investigation revealed that the stranger she had slept with was a pathologist in a local hospital. He had fornicated with a decomposing corpse earlier that same day.
Strand informed me that precisely the same thing is alleged to have happened in at least a half-dozen Norwegian towns — a strong indication that his assumption is correct: it's an urban legend.
Diagnosis: myiasis of the vagina
That said, it's worth noting that the phenomena described aren't completely beyond the bounds of medical possibility. Maggot infestations of living human tissues do occur. The scientific term for it is "myiasis." There have even been recorded cases of myiasis of the female sexual organs, though these are extremely rare.
One case in particular caught my attention as I scanned the medical literature. In the abstract of a study entitled "Vulvar Myiasis," published last year in Infectious Diseases in Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers summarized "the case of a 19-year-old pregnant girl diagnosed with vulvar myiasis and concomitant syphilis, vaginal trichomoniasis and genital candidiasis." Oh, and she also tested positive for HIV.
The diagnosis of a maggot infestation of the vulva combined with with four common venereal diseases suggests that the myiasis may have been sexually transmitted, too –- another nod toward the plausibility of Tor Strand's Norwegian horror story. One would think the odds against the survival of fly eggs on or in the gentleman's penis between the time of his necrophilic adventure and his encounter with the female protagonist of the story would be quite high, but apparently it's not out of the question.
'The Bad Date'
Still, when we find precisely the same story popping up in different places and marked by subtle differences in the telling, it's fair to conclude we're dealing with some type of folklore, even when it's conceivable there's a factual basis for it. Tor Strand made reference to six or seven variants. I can cite yet another: "The Bad Date," shared by Øystein Skundberg in an online discussion in 1998:
Boy breaks up with girl, who in her despair picks up a man at a bar, comes home with him, and has casual, unprotected sex. After some days, she experiences bad itch in her crotch. The girl goes to a medical doctor, which upon examining her looks very serious and concerned, says nothing, but gives her an appointment with a specialist. Girl off to specialist. He/she examines the girl, turns very grave, makes some notes, and tells her that she will have the results of the test in a week.
The bewildered girl goes home. The next week, the police turns up on her doorstep to question her. When she ask why, they explain that the police is routinely contacted by doctors in every case of corpse-worm.
The Skundberg variant employs a classic storytelling device: the three visits. In this example, proper diagnosis of the patient's condition is twice postponed, even though the condition should be perfectly obvious to the first doctor she sees. This is for dramatic effect. Doctor #1 examines her and appears "concerned," but refers her to a specialist. The specialist evinces a similar "grave" reaction, but tells the patient she'll have to wait two weeks for test results. Our poor protagonist remains in the dark about her affliction until she's visited a week later by a policeman, who nonchalantly informs her that doctors routinely report all cases of "corpse worm" to the authorities. Gasp!
Maggots and metaphors
Even if it stretches credulity, a well-honed horror story is bound to be a hit, and this one has clearly caught on in Norway. Its popularity may also stem from the fact that it can serve as a poignant and frightful metaphor for the dangers of indulging in unprotected sex in the age of HIV and AIDS. Maggots, which feed on carrion, have long been a literary symbol for death. In the present narrative, casual intercourse with a stranger leads to a carrion-like condition of the genitals — a symbolic brush with death through the act of sex. The imagery is powerful and disturbing, the moral perfectly suited to the times.
I doubt we've heard the last of this one.