Aaah! Real Monsters: The Science Behind the Legends

In my last post, I took a quick tour through a few hundred years worth of vampire, werewolf and zombie folklore to see how the icons of horror fiction in legend differ from their modern interpretations (at least in one aspect: how an average Joe becomes one of the things that go bump in the night).*

As a follow-up, we're going to look at some of the real-world events and phenomena that may have inspired the creation of these monsters.


Rabies: Spanish neurologist Juan Gómez-Alonso watched a vampire movie one night after reading a study of viruses that infect the brain and was shocked by the similarities between vampirism and rabies. After studying vampire folklore and medical accounts of rabies infections, he published his findings in Neurology in 1998, proposing that vampire legends were inspired by rabies.

Gómez-Alonso's reading revealed that vampire stories became more common in Europe in the 18th century as different areas experienced rabies outbreaks, particularly in Hungary, where a rabies epidemic in dogs, wolves, other animals and humans tore through the country between 1721 and 1728.

Going down a list of characteristics associated with vampires, Gomez-Alonso noted that almost all of them could be explained as symptoms of rabies.

When the rabies virus begins to attack the central nervous system, it can cause insomnia, as well as agitation and dementia, which might cause the victim to become violent and attack people. Additionally, bright light, water, strong smells (garlic, anyone?) and mirrors can all trigger muscle spasm attacks during which victims cannot swallow and sometimes vomit blood. Sounds like a vampire to me.

Gómez-Alonso also hypothesized that the observation of animals and humans exhibiting these same symptoms gave rise to the idea that vampires could shape-shift.

And, or course, both rabies and vampirism can be spread by bites.

Porphyria: In 1985, Canadian biochemist David Dolphin proposed a link between porphyria, a rare blood disorder characterized by irregular production of heme (an iron-rich pigment found in blood), and vampire stories.

Dolphin found that two different types of this porphyria can cause symptoms that echo vampiric characteristics. Acute intermittent porphyria can cause neurological attacks like seizures, trances and hallucinations, which might last for days or weeks. People with porphyria cutanea tardea experience an extreme sensitivity to sunlight and suffer blisters and burns on sun-exposed skin. Porphyria is also hereditary, which could lead to concentrations of people suffering from it in certain areas.

Catalepsy: A cataleptic episode really doesn't draw many comparisons to vampirism, but it can put the thought of the walking undead into your mind. Catalepsy, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and other conditions and disorders affecting the central nervous system, causes rigidity of the muscles and slowing of the heart and respiration. Without advanced medical knowledge or diagnostic tools, a doctor could have pronounced someone in the middle of a days-long cataleptic episode to be dead. Not long after, the dearly departed might return from the grave after coming to in their casket and struggling to the surface.


Hypertrichosis: Congenital generalized hypertrichosis, sometimes called werewolf syndrome, is a hereditary condition that results in excessive hair growth on the upper body and face, including the nose, forehead and eyelids. The condition appears too rare, though "“ all 19 currently documented cases are in one Mexican family "“ to be the explanation for historic werewolf myths.

Rabies: In The Werewolf Delusion, Ian Woodward points to rabies as a likely cause for the inspiration of werewolf myths. As with the comparison to vampirism above, late-stage rabies and the dementia and aggression that come with it could cause people to believe a person suffering from the virus was becoming "bestial." If the person had contracted rabies from a wolf bite, people around them may have assumed that the wolf had passed some of its animal qualities along to them.

Aggressive animals: Wherever humans and animals live in close contact, there's a chance of conflict. Werewolves may have simply been a way to explain clusters of wolf attacks in small geographic areas, or even isolated incidents. People in places where there are no wolves may have done the same thing, given the existence of folklore featuring werebears in some parts of Europe, werehyenas in Africa, and were cats in various places (werelions and wereleopards in Africa, weretigers in India and werejaguars in South America).


Mental Illness: In a 1997 study, Roland Littlewood, a British anthropology and Chavannes Douyon, a Haitian physician, concluded that many of the zombies in Haiti may just be people suffering from psychiatric disorders or brain damage. The study, discusses the cases of three people who were thought to have been turned into zombies. They diagnosed the first person with catatonic schizophrenia, found the second to be suffering from brain damage and epilepsy caused by oxygen starvation of the brain and discovered the third had a severe learning disability caused by fetal-alcohol syndrome. They suggest that zombies may have become part of Haitian culture as a way to explain the condition of the mentally ill.

Zombies are (sort of) real: From 1982 to 1984, anthropologist Wade Davis traveled through Haiti to find the origin of zombie folklore. I should point out that the legitimacy of Davis's research, as well as his ethics and the literary merit of his books, have been questioned. Likewise, the research Davis's critics used to debunk also has its detractors. The whole controversy makes for interesting reading, but for now I'm simply summarizing Davis's work without comment.

During his research, Davis discovered that bokors use powders made from the dried and ground up pieces of various plants and animals in their rituals that can cause "zombification." Davis collected several samples of the bokors' zombie powder and discovered that they had some ingredients in common: charred and ground bones and other human remains, plants with urticating (barbed) hairs and puffer fish.

Davis hypothesized that, if applied topically, would cause irritation and the victim's scratching would break the skin. The tetrodotoxin found in the puffer fish, which the fish use as a natural defense, would then pass into the bloodstream, paralyzing the victim, slowing their vital signs and making them appear dead. The victim would be buried, and the bokor would dig the body up and force their "zombie" into labor. Davis also said that the bokors he met told him that when the victim is retrieved, they're fed a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura "“ also called concombre zombie, the zombie cucumber "“ which contains the hallucinogens that cause delirium, confusion and amnesia.

Costas J. Efthimiou, a physicist at the University of Central Florida tackled various monster myths in his paper Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality. In it, he describes the case of Wilfred Doricent, a teenager who became ill, died and was buried, only to reappear in his village over a year later. Efthimiou concluded that zombification is a real phenomenon, but void of the magic and sorcery found in folk tales:

The secrets of zombiefication are closely guarded by voodoo sorcerers. However, Fr`ere Dodo, a once highly feared voodoo sorcerer who is now an Evangelical preacher and firm denouncer of the voodoo faith, has revealed the process. It turns out that zombiefication is accomplished by slipping the victim a potion whose main ingredient is powder derived from the liver of a species of puffer fish native to Haitian waters. Well, we now have an explanation for how Wilfred could have been made to seem dead, even under the examination of a doctor. However, we have already said that the TTX paralysis was unlikely to have affected his brain. How does one account for Wilfred's comatose mental state? The answer is oxygen deprivation. Wilfred was buried in a coffin in which relatively little air could have been trapped. Wilfred's story probably goes something like this: Slowly, the air in Wilfred's coffin began to run out so that by the time he snapped out his TTX-induced paralysis, he had already suffered some degree of brain damage. At this point his survival instincts kicked in and he managed to dig himself out of his grave — graves tend to be dug shallow in Haiti. He probably wondered around for some time before ending up back the village. Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Roger Mallory, of the Haitian Medical Society, conducted a scan of zombiefied Wilfred's brain. Although the results were not as definite as had been hoped for, he and his colleagues found brain damage consistent with oxygen starvation. It would seem that zombiefication is nothing more then a skillful act of poisoning.

*For some, the tour may have been a little too quick. And exploring all the ways monsters in legend differ from modern fiction could easily fill a book. If anyone is looking for more monster folklore, or more info on the evolution of monsters from folklore to modern fiction, email me at flossymatt[at], and I can suggest some further reading.

If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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