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The spooky science behind Halloween’s most iconic monsters

ByJennifer Shelley

Oct 25, 2018

Halloween is fast approaching, and the majority of the student population start to look forward to costumes, pumpkins, and drinking opportunities. Rather than writing about the science of alcohol poisoning or hypothermia (seriously, wear a coat over your costume), we are going to be looking at the scientific basis behind everyone’s favourite monsters and costume options. Some monster origins need little explanation (skeletons, cats and rats are pretty self-explanatory) but others have more interesting and obscure scientific associations.

Vampires: A typical and simple go-too Halloween costume. Slap on a bit of white paint and dab whatever red stuff you can find around your mouth and voilá: vampire. Legends about these undead bloodsuckers can be found in a multitude of cultures, each with slight variations. Most have little association with any kind of science – fear of crosses, fear of garlic, and being sparkly have their roots rmly in religion or fantasy. Realistically, stab anyone through the heart with a wooden stake and they won’t survive for long afterwards.

There is, however, a disease that could give someone vampire-like qualities. Porphyria is a very rare disease that prevents the patient from producing haem, the iron-rich pigment that carries oxygen around the body. People with the worst cases are very pale, highly sensitive to sunlight, experience severe abdominal pain and may suffer from delirium. The disease was historically treated by drinking blood, with the aim of getting correctly formulated haem from an external source. Sound familiar?

It should be noted, though, that the scienti c evidence for this is severely limited as medical treatment throughoutmuchofhistorywasoften secretive and unconventional.

Frankenstein’s Monster: Mary Shelley was centuries ahead of her time when she wrote her legendary novel Frankenstein. At the time it was written, anatomy was becoming a more common discipline and the human body was slowly becoming de-mysti ed. Scientists such as Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini were experimenting with sending electrical currents through the bodies of dead animals to make them twitch in the hopes of better understanding the nervous system. Aldini’s most infamous experiment involved the corpse of a recently executed criminal, whose jaws clenched and eyes opened as electrical currents were applied.

Although reminiscient of the process by which Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, these experiments do not lend any reality to the rest of it. The time required to keep various bodily tissues alive and the painstaking surgery to stitch the monster together would have meant these parts mostly decomposed by the end of it all without modern preservation techniques.

However, if Frankenstein’s monster were to have been created in the 18th or 19th century, it might have been in Edinburgh (as opposed to Germany, where the original book is set). Burke and Hare were at the peak of their murdering and body snatching spree in the early 19th century, so body parts would have been available. Furthermore, anatomy lectures at the University of Edinburgh were in full swing, so the technical knowledge would have been developing by this point in time.

There was even an answer to the key issue of tissue decomposition – in the 18th century, the University of Edinburgh gave twelve gallons of whisky annually to the anatomy museum for preservation of specimens. Perhaps the Edinburgh version of Frankenstein’s monster would have been a bit drunk or, more accurately, incredibly drunk, as his organs(includinghisbrainandliver) would have been saturated in the stuff. Although, that would explain his iconic slurred speech, uncoordinated movements and violent disposition.

Werewolves: Similarly to vampires, there are a multitude of stories about werewolves across the world that offer their own versions of half-human- half-animal hybrids and there are a number of possible scientific links.

Transmission of the affliction from a bite has quite logical associations with the rabies virus. The disease can be passed from dogs to humans and has quite profound symptoms such as aggression, hallucinations and frothing at the mouth. Additionally, there is the genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis or ‘werewolf syndrome’.

This disease causes excessive hair growth which, in extreme cases, can spread all over the body. There are documented cases throughout history such as Petrus Gonzales who was brought to French court in the mid 16th century and had long soft hair all over his body. However, one of the key elements of the standard werewolf legend is not so easily explained.

Rabies and hypertrichosis are not limited to the phases of the moon. Rabies infections can happen at any time and hypertrichosis is a full-time condition. Traditionally, though, werewolves are only supposed to transform on the night of the full moon.

Bizarrely enough, numerous police officers and emergency medical workers have insisted that their jobs become more dif cult on the full moon. In fact, the police force in Brighton employed extra officers during nights with full moons in 2007. Humans’ strange supernatural and ominous association with the moon phases have yet to be based in any real scientific explanation. One suggestion is that the increase in light during the night as a result of the full moon prevents people from sleeping and induces periods of mania. This argument may have held up historically before outdoor lighting was developed, but even then it is dubious at best and pure superstition at worst. For the time being, the explanation for the lunar aspect of the werewolf tale remains unsolved.

Zombies: A go-to student costume with varying degrees of dedication, transforming oneself into a zombie typically involves a last-minute smear of some purplish powder under the eyes and a haphazardly torn up shirt. One scientist, however, has gone deep into the world of zombies. Dr Steven Schlozman has published a book called The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse which delves into the possible neurology of the zombie. He points towards the frontal lobe, cerebellum, amygdala and ventromedial hypothalamus to account for a zombie’s impulsivity, shuffling gait/clumsiness, anger, and hunger, respectively.

Arguments in his book include suggesting that a zombie’s anger stems from its constant condition of hunger. Although not explicitly stating the term ‘hangry’, many will understand his point on a personal level. To understand how some of the neurological symptoms that Dr Schlozman cites occur, there are various diseases that can cause some of these typical zombie-like conditions. Adenovirus, for example, causes a lack of satiation and thus the unquenchable appetite typical of a brain-eating-crazed zombie.

Leishmaniasis and leprosy, on the other hand, are characterised by the skin wounds that more dedicated students replicate for their costume with paint and faux scabs. Another key element of our enjoyment of zombies is the apocalypse. We all love a good apocalypse story. The most common explanation referenced for a zombie apocalypse is a new virus that turns people into the flesh-craving undead.

This is not so ridiculous an idea – flu pandemics happen more than once in a human lifetime and the recent Ebola epidemic caused a horrifc level of death and disease. Although we now have more international collaborations and guidance in place to prevent an all-out international apocalypse, this is one horror scenario that could potentially happen. A global viral pandemic is higher on the World Health Organisation’s list of risks to human life than any terrorist or nuclear activity.

Image Credit: maraisea via Pixabay

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