Science Thursday: Monsters

Happy Science Thursday! It’s the last post of October, and I’m not-so-secretly glad about it. Not that I didn’t like looking up fun, Halloween-related things, but I kept having ideas for posts that didn’t fit into the theme so I had to set them aside. I’m looking forward finishing them and sharing them with you over the next couple of months.

This week we’re looking at a mix of religion, mythology, biology, and psychology as I go through the origins and explanations of 13 Halloween monsters (all about those unlucky numbers). I learned a ton doing the research for this, and I hope you will too. Have a safe and happy Halloween!

1. werewolves

Awe, he’s such a cute little monster!

Almost everyone recognizes werewolves. They’re hairy, they have a thing about the full moon, sometimes they’re nice, and sometimes they take their shirts off. If you lived in the B.C. years, you would see a man walking around with a wolf skin thrown over his shoulders like a cape, getting ready to join the other warriors of his tribe. No full moon needed (unless that’s when his initiation was carried out). No aversion to silver (he wouldn’t have even had access to it for another few thousand years). Not that a warrior running around in a wolf-skin isn’t scary, but it’s not supernatural, and he’s not going to bite you. Sorry.

In the Middle Ages, they had a different kind of werewolf. These were the kind that inspired the legends and hysteria that’s making Young Adult authors rich today. At this time in history, the following marked you for a werewolf:

  • violent or cannibalistic behavior
  • association with black magic or paganism (bonus)
  • being extra hairy (optional)

Fear of paganism aside, most of the characteristics people attributed to werewolves were just symptoms of diseases that they had no other way of explaining at the time (science was a bit subpar). Someone with rabies or hypertrichosis will look or act as we think of werewolves today, which usually meant a silver bullet back then.

A person afflicted with rabies will eventually become anxious, angry, paranoid, violent, delirious, or hydrophobic, before they die a terrible death. One with hypertrichosis won’t be any more violent than a normal person, but they will be a little hairier than the average Joe. And by a little I mean Big Foot head-to-toe hairy. Maybe a little alarming at first, but not evil. The lesson here is that rabies is *extremely* frightening, and you should ALWAYS vaccinate your pets (animal/human transfer is how it spreads), and you also shouldn’t judge a person based on his/her appearance.

2. vampires

What? I was checking her for gingivitis!

You’re going to see a running theme of lack of understanding in the Middle Ages. Vampires can be explained by two things: premature burial and mistaken observations of decomposition. When coffins were opened and claw marks were found on the lid, the first assumption was that the deceased had come back to life, not that they hadn’t been fully dead in the first place (why they dug up the coffin, I don’t know).

As far as decomposition goes, I’m going to warn you now that it’s kind of gross (meanwhile, I’m sitting here eating a sandwich). In the Middle Ages, people weren’t aware that various factors affected decomp, so when bodies were exhumed and weren’t as gross as they should have been, people got suspicious. With complete ignorance of diseases like TB and the plague, it looked like whole families are dying from nothing. More suspicion.

Over time, gases in the dead body are released, making the body look plump and well-fed, and blood oozes out of the mouth a little, making it look like somebody just had a living snack. Super suspicious! Stake that SOB NOW NOW!!! OH MY FREAKING GOODNESS HE JUST MOANED WE HAVE A SITUATION HERE!!! Actually, that moan was just the gases being pushed over the vocal chords when you drove a stake through the body. But go ahead and panic. Knowledge is power, kids.

3. witches

Let it goooooo!

This is an easy one. Witches were created by three things: hallucinogens, science, and ignorance. The Pilgrims weren’t exactly in the know of poisonous plants and mushrooms in the new world, so you know they were seeing some crazy pink elephants or something. Must be a witch! Without a strong understanding of scientific phenomena, it was very easy to blame things on other people, and if someone made a guess about anything that turned out to be true, mass hysteria marked them as evil and they be burned as a witch!

Puritans and many other mainstream religions had a hard time understanding or accepting other religions. For reasons I can’t explain, paganism in particular came under fire, along with the indigenous religions of other countries. It was essentially convert or ye be a witch. Classic case of “if it’s not what I know, it’s wrong.” If we’re talking about the Salem Witch Trials, that was a bunch of little girls high on ‘shrooms having fun causing trouble (also, there were heavy political undertones or whatever).

Say it with me: “Hallucinogens, science, and ignorance.”

4. zombies

It turns out pictures of actual zombies are kind of disgusting…


This was probably my least favorite Halloween monster to learn about. Not because the idea of the undead is freaky to me, but what I learned wasn’t a cute anecdote of Ye Olde Ignorance. Zombies are 100% real, and they’re 100% saddening. The concept of Zombies comes from the Haitian Vodou religion, which came about from the religions enslaved Africans brought with them. Vodou priests known as Bokors work with light and dark magic and claim to have the power to create zombies. In a way, they do…

In one method of zombie creation, a Bokor will take an individual and “kill” them, using mixes of super nasty poisons. Next the “deceased” is loaded up with more poisons and hallucinogens. When they wake up they’re all whacked out. In most cases, a person knows the Bokor is going to turn them into a zombie, so when they wake up they are convinced that they’ve died, which completely contradicts the whole looking around and being in the world thing (and the Bokor may or may not have thrown in some hypnosis). As a consequence the person loses his or her mind.

In another method, a Bokor will actually present a family with a dearly departed loved one. Necromancy? No. The Bokor goes out and finds a homeless or mentally ill person who looks like the deceased and says “Boom! Here you go!”

5. ghouls

I guess he skipped arm day.

A ghoul is more or less a cross between a zombie and a vampire. It’s also the name given to people who like to eat dead people or drag them out of the grave. Because that’s a large, thriving counterculture…

The origin of the ghoul comes from Arabic culture. Djinns, or genies as Disney calls them, are very wise, clever deities. When they go bad, however, they become ghouls, dragging people to the underworld. Lots of dragging going on with ghouls. I bet it’s because of those skinny arms.

6. ghosts

He just wanted a snack!

Ghosts. Pretty self-explanatory. They’re a cultural universal, which is an interesting thing. Which also implies that the afterlife is a cultural universal, which could lead to a discussion. In most cultures, ghosts come about from improper funeral rites, and are rarely nice. Usually they’re out for vengeance or have other kind of unresolved issue. If you’ve seen Ghost Whisperer, you get the gist.

The gauziness traditionally associated with ghosts comes from the mist that forms when you exhale during the cold seasons. People thought the mist was your soul poking out a bit, so ghosts are given that misty quality. This also explains why ghosts are associated with the cold. And the really scary, devil-like ghost that many people claim to see at night is actually a symptom of sleep paralysis.

With sleep paralysis, you lay completely paralyzed while half-asleep, meanwhile you experience extreme panic, and often times see a little demon ghost-type devil either watching you from the corner of your room or sitting on your chest scaring the shit out of you. The creepiest part is that everyone sees the same ghouly-man. A friend of mine was describing his sleep paralysis to me once and it freaked me out because he was describing the exact thing that came after me once when I was little (though I was super-glad that it wasn’t actually the devil coming to get me).

There are many scientific explanations for ghost activity, but what’s caused by scientific phenomenon and what’s actually caused by ghosts is really up to you and what you choose to believe.

Bonus fact: Islam doesn’t believe in ghosts the way that other cultures do. What most people consider ghosts, Muslims classify as Djinns.

7. trolls/goblins

“Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon.” – John Bauer

Most of what people traditionally think of as a troll is actually a goblin. Trolls come from Norse and Scandinavian mythology, as god-like giants that prefer to keep to themselves and like nature. It’s in Scandinavian mythology that trolls get mean and turn to stone in the light.

Goblins are the short, stumpy, ugly little faeries that people usually picture when they think of trolls. They come in varying levels of mischievousness, and they’re incredibly greedy. They love gold, which likely causes a cross-over with leprechauns, and if you make them mad enough, they can get quite mean.

8. ravens

“But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.” E.A. Poe

Raven’s, which are basically very large crows, are one of the most intelligent species of birds. They can be trained, they can learn to talk, and they’re often associated with the divine. In Greek mythology, ravens were good luck, and used as messengers of the gods. In Christianity, ravens protected St. Vincent’s body after he was executed so his body could be recovered and buried. In the book of Luke, Jesus tells people to look to the raven as a good example of how to be a Christian because ravens trusted in God to give them food, as opposed to hunting it themselves.

So why do ravens get such a bad rep? Well, their black plumage isn’t comforting, and as carrion birds, their eating habits make people nervous. In the days when people’s heads were put atop the tower of London, ravens would feast indiscriminately, and this made some people uneasy. In some European countries, raven were thought to be ghosts of the murdered or souls of the damned.

9. black cats

How could a face that cute be so unlucky?

How could a face that cute be so unlucky?

Countries and cultures that consider black cats lucky: Scotland, the Celts, Japan, Most of Asia, actually, Germany (only if the cat passed left to right), Egypt, and sailors

Countries and cultures that consider black cats unlucky: the rest of Europe. Why? I dunno. Supposedly they’re the preferred familiar of witches, but there’s not really any explanation as to why.

Poor black kitties are adopted less often because of their association with bad luck, and many shelters actually restrict adoption of them near Halloween because people will adopt the cat for…not nice things. Which is terrible. Next time you’re at the shelter for a pet, show the cuties with black fur some love too (dogs also face this discrimination), because there is NO correlation between fur color and luck, or the amount of love they’ll show you.

Bonus fact: August 17 is black cat appreciation day.

10. kelpie

Niiiice, horsey…

Kelpies are water creatures that typically live in Scottish rivers and lochs, though really any body of water will do. They appear as a white horse or beautiful man/woman, and lure people to the water where they proceed to drown and eat the victim, leaving the entrails (because entrails are gross). To defeat a kelpie, one needs to get a bridle over its mouth, or take off its bridle (depending on the myth).

There are a couple of possibilities for the origin of the kelpie. It could be used as an explanation for sacrifices to water gods, done to prevent flooding and drought. The kelpie was also a great scare tactic, used to keep small children away from the water, and hormonal teenagers away from pretty strangers.

11. banshee

Finding a picture of an overly-sexualized big-chested caricature of a banshee? Easy. Finding one that actually depicts the mythology? Not so much.

Banshees come from Ireland, and are a supernatural take on an actual person. At Irish funerals, a designated woman sang a lament for the deceased, much like Eowyn for Theodred.

For great or influential families, a faerie woman (banshee) came to be the “wailer,” and since they had the gift of foresight, they would start singing before the person actually died, scaring people. If the person who died was important, multiple banshees would come a-wailin’. Over time, however, banshees became a bad omen, their screams actually causing death (this was thought to just be the scream of a barn owl). And instead of faeries, they’re thought to be ghosts of murdered women or those who have died in childbirth.

12. bloody mary

Stop. Calling. Me.

Bloody Mary is a mirror-dwelling hag loosely based on Mary I of England. The myth is if a girl walked backwards up stairs with a candle in a dark house while looking into a mirror, she might fall and break her neck. If she avoids that, she would either see her future husband’s face in the mirror, or that of Bloody Mary, meaning she’ll die before marriage.

Not only is this silly, but it’s not even a little bit true. The dim light of this ritual combined with extended gazing into a mirror can cause delusions or self-hypnosis. The only face you see in the mirror is out of you imagination. Sorry, ladies.

13. headless horseman

Hi ho Silver, awaaaaaaaaaay.

The headless horseman, is, believe it or not, a faerie! He’s an Irish faerie that causes death by stopping and calling out a name (that person croaks). In Germany, he specifically targets those who have committed capital crimes or he uses fire-tongued hell-hounds to go hunting.

The headless horseman appears in literature in varying forms. He appears in the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as said Green Knight who tricks Sir Gawain to dishonor. Of course, the headless horseman appears in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though he’s much less scary in the book than in the movie. Sleepy Hollow is the only work that gives an origin for the horseman, as a Hessian soldier whose head was blown off during the Revolutionary War.


Plug of the Month: The Corpse Bride

Because what’s Halloween without a spooky movie?

I’ve had a heck of a hard time finding something for my Pluggadamunt. Finding something Halloween-themed that I loved and could write about with a reasonable word count was more difficult than I anticipated. But I persevered, and now you get to read all about a great movie, Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride.

If you know Tim Burton and you love Tim Burton, then I don’t really have to convince you that this is a great movie. If you’re not familiar with his movies or you’re not the biggest fan, cool your heels, and let’s see if we can’t convert you, at least for this movie. We’ll start with the trailer:

Interested yet? I would guess not, because the trailer is very vague. The premise of the movie is that Victor, the quiet and awkward son of nouveau riche fish merchants, is arranged to marry Victoria (who comes up with these names?), the daughter of aristocratic parents who are secretly completely out of money. Inserted cliched anxiety about arranged marriages. At the wedding rehearsal, Victor has an awkwardly panicked moment and runs off to the woods, where he practices his vows on a tree branch. Surprise! The tree branch is actually a dead woman wearing a wedding dress (Emily), who is super excited about her new husband.

While at first the movie appears to be a spooky take on a classic storyline (Man’s current relationship jeopardized/changed by introduction of new woman), the spooky bits and the details end up completely taking over, in the best ways.

Victoria falls in love with Victor because he’s a quite, reserved, kind of awkward fellow, not because he magically becomes brave and super hunky at some point in the movie. In fact, a confident, attractive, broad-shouldered individual does come along during the movie, and Victoria is having none of it. She’s all about those small-framed softies. And Victor loves Victoria because she is who she is. It’s a really great example of two people loving each other for who they are, not learning to love each other despite character flaws or changing themselves to be loved.

Emily, however doesn’t love Victor (at least she never says or implies so, though she is very kind to him), she really just wants to be married. Killed on the night of her secret elopement, marriage has become the driving force of her afterlife. Victor’s role is less to be a love interest for Emily and more to help her overcome her issues, which is a beautiful change from the typical, new-woman-enters-and-steals-man-from-current-relationship plot line (I’m looking at you, JLo).

Another things to look at is how Burton handles the world of the living and the world of the dead. Go watch the trailer again. Did you see it? No? That’s okay, I had to watch the movie a couple of times before I noticed. The world of the living is done almost exclusively in drab hues, excepting Victor’s butterfly. Everything, including the people, are all in shades of grey and brown. The dead world, however, is full of color and loud people and laughter and parties (there are some seriously funny dead people in this movie). There’s a secret profundity in this movie that questions what it really means to be alive.

If nothing else, Victor’s and Victoria’s parents are kind of hilarious foils for them. You see Victoria’s parents in the trailer, and the dislike they have for each other is palpable. It makes you wonder (at least it makes me wonder) how they talk to each other in private, if at all. Victor’s parents are a whole different story. His mother is a very loud woman who clearly enjoys her new wealth, traipsing about with a freaky fox stole on her ample bosom. Victor’s father is a classic flirtatious old man rocking a handlebar mustache.

If you’re not big on scary movies, this is a great choice for the season. I will even argue it’s a good family movie, because the darker parts aren’t really all that dark and handles death in a way that I think wouldn’t distress children in the slightest. If I’ve convinced you to give this movie, please come back and let me know what you thought, even if you hated it! I’d love to know what your opinion is. 🙂