Like Evelyn reading aloud from the Book of the Dead in The Mummy, or Ash and his friends playing Raymond Knowby’s tape recorder in The Evil Dead, I have set forces in motion that threaten to overtake me.
It started in 2021, when I wrote “A Ghoul-lection of Halloween Information Sources,” an annotated list of websites devoted to Halloween history and culture. A year later, I penned the sequel: “Halloween Information Sources: They’re Baaaaack!” This second list answered the question: What if you’re not merely studying Halloween night? What if you’re—gulp—trying to survive it?
In this third installment, I take the tongue out of my cheek to ask the mother of all Halloween questions: Could monsters be real? What’s the science behind them?
Read on, if you dare.
Science Versus Myth
HowStuffWorks is the premier information site for students writing term papers, librarians answering patron questions, and anyone seeking to understand the supernatural. Are vampires real? What is an out-of-body experience? Are crop circles proof that aliens exist? These and more conundrums are considered.
“6 Possible Scientific Reasons for Ghosts”
According to this article by extragalactic astrophysicist Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt, around 45% of Americans believe in ghosts, with nearly 20% saying they have interacted with one. Stierwalt’s reasons combine what you would expect—the power of suggestion; we enjoy being scared—with others you might not have thought of.
For instance, so-called haunted houses are often moldy. Well, exposure to mold is known to cause delirium, dementia, and irrational fears. Also, when you open doors or windows to cool an older home, you may create cold spots, which, if you watch Supernatural, means you better start putting rock salt in shotguns.
“The Biology of Vampires”
“Based on the biology of real viruses,” write the authors of this article, “we hypothesize that the NHV [Nosferatean Human Virus] is approximately 90 nanometers in diameter. Its genetic material is made up of double-stranded DNA composed of 666 genes. The capsid—the protein coat that surrounds the viral genome—has a complex shape, resembling an inverted cross.”
This is probably all bat poop, but it’s entertaining. What isn’t bat poop are the article’s discussions of the evolutionary basis for the fear of vampires and the history of real-life “vampires” Vlad the Impaler (one of the inspirations for Dracula); Elizabeth Báthory, The Blood Countess; and Richard Chase, The Vampire of Sacramento.
“The Epic History of Werewolves”
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humanity’s oldest works, Gilgamesh refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar because she did something kind of rude: She turned a guy into a wolf. This is a possible origin of werewolf myths, which, no matter the source, have been around for centuries.
Can a person really be a werewolf? Some people think they are. The delusion is called clinical lycanthropy, which some experts believe is caused by delusional misidentification syndromes—basically, the belief that you have been altered or replaced. Other conditions linked to werewolfism are hypertrichosis, in which someone grows thick hair all over their face, and porphyria, or light sensitivity. With some patients, sunlight causes lesions or blisters that can sprout hair during healing.
The Science of Zombies
From the University of South Carolina School of Medicine comes this LibGuide that sciences up the study of the undead. In their classic sense, zombies are like the Inferi from Harry Potter: reanimated corpses under the control of a sorcerer. But believe it or not, things like this happen in nature. For example, the emerald cockroach wasp “zombifies” cockroaches by stinging their brains and then laying an egg on top of the cockroach’s body, which becomes a food source for the wasp larva. Yum!
“Fungi Don’t Turn Humans Into Zombies. But The Last of Us Gets Some Science Right”
In the HBO series The Last of Us, which is based on a series of video games by the sublimely named developer Naughty Dog, a smuggler named Joel escorts a teenager, Ellie, across a United States that is ravaged by zombies. These zombies have not been reanimated by magic. Instead, they are victims of a fungus that controls rather than kills its host.
I know what you’re thinking: Rubbish. This could never happen. According to this article, it actually could, thanks to climate change, although the author thinks this unlikely due to the adaptability of humans.
Life on Other Worlds
This excellent research guide from the Library of Congress collects resources on moon life, Mars life, and messages sent into space. My favorite is the digitized exhibits, such as a series of handwritten notes by Carl Sagan on the role of alien abductions in American culture.
“How Sea Monsters Work”
A subset of HowStuffWorks’ Science Versus Myth section, this article puts a scientific spin on Kraken, kelpies, and other underwater beasts. The remains of Chinese guizhou dragons, for instance, were actually the bones of foot-long marine reptiles called Keichousaurus hui. By some estimates, around 95% of the world’s oceans are largely unexplored. The technology now exists to do some of this exploring, so the next few years may see the debunking—or confirmation!—of many sea monster legends.
“The Biology of King Kong”
Q: Where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep?
A: Anywhere he wants.
Q2: Where does a 25-foot-tall, 20-to-60-ton gorilla sleep?
A2: Doesn’t matter. Because he couldn’t exist.
King Kong, according to this article, is a “physical impossibility” whose bones couldn’t support his weight. Nor could he find enough food. An average adult male gorilla eats about one-eighth of its body weight—50 pounds of food—per day. For Kong, that would be 7,500 pounds per day. The movies get one thing right, though: He could totally fall for Ann Darrow. Just don’t expect the relationship to be, uh, consummated.
“Godzilla Biology 101”
Like King Kong, Godzilla has a size problem, according to this video by Nerdist’s science editor, Kyle Hill. Moreover, his blood pressure would be so great that, the minute he turned his head or bent over, he would pass out. (Giraffes also have tremendous blood pressure to get the blood up their long necks, but they have evolved a pressure distribution system in their brains to keep from losing consciousness). And his reflexes would suck, courtesy of the length the electrical impulses would need to travel from his brain.
Terrifying as Godzilla can be, he is not, at nearly 400 feet tall, the largest movie monster ever. That honor, according to “Movie Monsters Size Comparison,” goes to the exogorth, or space slugs, from Star Wars, which can reach 2,952 feet in length. That’s over half a mile!