Raaabbbies. The word spits off the tongue like a voodoo curse. Say the word and the theme from "Jaws" comes up in the background. Bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump.

Picture it: packs of snarling, drooling dogs, mad raccoons and bats. Certain death. The scourge of the Middle Ages, up there with the Black Plague. Not far from leprosy on the dreaded disease-o-meter.

Six centuries later, just when we thought it was safe to go back into the woods, rabies reminds us: Mankind may walk on the moon, but we're still at the mercy of Fido's germ-infected saliva.

It's on the radio. In the papers. Veterinarians' phones are ringing off the hook. R-A-B-I-E-S is coming. Lock up your pets. Lock up yourselves.

Is the nation's capital about to succumb to a massive case of rabies phobia?

"The word has a connotation in lay life somewhat similar in its terrifying power to leprosy," says Dr. David Charney of Alexandria's Phobia Treatment Center. "Most people conjure up the image of a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth, running around biting everyone. The thought that it might befall a human is very frightening. I think it springs from werewolves and vampire fantasies where you're infected by a wild animal and reduced to an animalistic version of yourself."

REYNOSA, Mexico, Feb. 29, 1964 (UPI)--City Councilman Cecilio Vargas was under treatment today for rabies after being bitten by his own son, who died Thursday night of the maddening disease. Marcelo Vargas Arias, 11, was bitten three weeks ago by a stray dog. His father did not hospitalize him until Tuesday. The schoolboy bit his father while in a convulsion.

Compounding this fear is the "element of helplessness," Charney says. "Once it grabs hold of your body, we don't have any cure for it."

"Rabies and the plague are the two things that scare people the most," says Dr. William Winkler, rabies expert at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. "We were talking about it yesterday. Somebody else said cholera or smallpox were just as scary. I don't agree. The disease may be as severe, but the fear level isn't as high. The reaction certainly is a violent one. Why, I don't know."

Only three people have ever survived rabies. Before the recent development of a relatively painless anti-rabies injection, the only vaccine -- 21 shots in the abdomen with the risk of dangerous side effects -- was often considered worse than the disease.

BOISE, Idaho, Oct. 26, 1978 (AP) -- More than 30 people who came into contact with a woman who died of rabies after a cornea transplant have started a series of vaccinations. The 37-year-old woman died seven weeks after she received a cornea from a 39-year-old Baker, Ore., man who doctors say now probably died of rabies.

"People tend to overreact," says Winkler. In fact, it won't be unusual if Washington doctors begin seeing cases of suspected rabies in humans that turn out to be false alarms. "That's part of a rabies phobia. It's happened before."

But the fear of rabies is a rational one, health officials agree. "When rabies is in the area to the extent it is in Northern Virginia, it is a reasonable fear," says Dr. Fred Payne, assistant director of the Fairfax County Health Department. "However, the chances of being bitten by a rabid animal are slim, even during this recent upsurge in reported cases. But that doesn't let us sleep any easier."

"Fear of being bitten by animals is a very primitive fear," says Dr. Ralph Wittenberg, associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. "Snakes, dogs, bats. As adults, we try to forget these things. It reverts to a childhood anxiety. The statistical chances of it affecting you are minimal, but it activates a fear which is universal."

It's no wonder horror-meister Stephen King chose a rabid dog as the main character of his 1981 best-selling book, "Cujo." "It's pretty gory," CDC's Winkler says. "It made a rabid animal just the picture that most people conjure up."

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, Feb. 9, 1976 (Reuter) -- Twenty-five people have died after being bitten by rabid dogs in southwestern Tanzania during the past four months, the government announced today . . . One dog bit 12 people in Mbeya town in a single day.

According to Barry McCarthy, a psychology professor at American University, rabies is nothing to get phobic about. "After the crash of the Air Florida plane last year, a hell of a lot of people developed a flight phobia. I wouldn't be surprised if some people get so fearful hearing these rabies reports that they stay away from all animals or stay indoors. But that is clearly an irrational fear."

That fear, he says, may be rooted in ignorance. "I don't think people are very well-educated about what rabies is, what the difference is between a rabid animal and a non-rabid animal."

"We've had a lot of people with dog phobias. And the way it plays itself out is fear of rabies," says Jerilyn Ross of the Washington Phobia Center. "My own feeling is that ever since we're children, we're taught not to go near stray animals. We're conditioned to be afraid. I think it makes a lot of sense, but parents who want to make a point often tend to be overly dramatic. Any suggestion that creates vivid imagery is implanted in a child's mind. Magical thinking and superstition keep the fear alive."

MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich., Sept. 1, 1981 (UPI) -- A rabid bat swooped into a darkened bedroom and bit a man, forcing him to undergo a painful series of 11 vaccinations in the first case of human rabies in Michigan in 33 years . . . "I heard a sound like car keys jingling and felt a pain in my hand and I jumped out of bed and yelled, 'Something bit me!' We turned on the light and looked around. My wife saw something furry climbing up the drapes. It looked like a mouse. We saw it open up its wings . . . And my worst nightmares were realized."

"I guess it's probably a fear of something they don't understand," says Dr. Don S. Wilson, director of the Alexandria Animal Hospital. "But it is a terminal disease, which is enough to scare most folks."

Wilson says, however, that the image of a dog foaming at the mouth is a myth. "I guess it came from the movies. A rabid animal can be vicious, but more often it doesn't look that much different. It's often mistaken for canine distemper. It's actually a type of encephalitis."

"The animal experiences paralysis of the lower jaw," explains CDC's Winkler. "The tongue is often paralyzed. The animal would drool saliva because he couldn't swallow. That's not foaming at the mouth."

Contrary to popular belief, rats don't transmit rabies, Wilson says. They're known as "dead-end hosts," because they're small and would die of the disease before transmitting it to others. Raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes, dogs, cats, horses and cows, however, do get rabies, an infectious viral disease of the central nervous system, characterized by convulsions and an inability to swallow. Hence the other name for rabies, "hydrophobia," which literally means a fear of water.

Payne, of the Fairfax Health Department, also dismisses some myths surrounding rabies. "The idea that a rabid animal is like the ferocious dog, running around and biting everyone in his sight, is not the case. More commonly, the animal is listless. They look docile. But the same animal can turn and snap at you."

Which is why humans often try to help a rabid animal. It behaves with unusual friendliness. Once the infection is transmitted, symptoms in humans are a tingling of the palms, stomach cramps, difficulty in swallowing and increased saliva.

Even with the current outbreak of the disease in raccoons, however, the chances of a human contracting it are slight, and Winkler says the best thing to do is relax. "When we discovered rabid bats in the United States in the 1950s, there was a big panic. Now we live with it. I have bats in my attic. I'm sure some of them are rabid. But they don't bother me."