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Medusa's Gaze And Vampire's Bite

Oct 26, 2012
Originally published on October 26, 2012 1:03 pm




Next up, the science of monsters. Like most myths, there are some real-world phenomena behind the stories. Take vampires, for example. Let me read you a passage from Bram Stoker's "Dracula," where Professor Van Helsing describes the monster.

Let us consider the limitations of the vampire in general, and of this one in particular. His power ceases, as does that of all evil things, at the coming of the day. It is said, too, that he can only pass running water at the slack or the flood of the tide. Then there are things which so afflict him that he has no power, as the garlic that we know of, and the crucifix.

Where did these legends come from, the vampire's aversion to garlic, sunlight and running water? Are they just folk tales or is there something factual, something there behind them? Believe it or not, there have been scientific papers written on the subject, as my next guest writes in his new book, "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters."

And it's not just vampires. He's tracked down scientific explanations for zombies, fire-breathing dragons, sea monsters, and some of the theories are surprisingly convincing. Matt Kaplan is a science journalist and author of "Medusa's Gaze and the Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MATT KAPLAN: Thanks a lot, Ira. How you doing?

FLATOW: How are you doing?

KAPLAN: I'm doing all right. I'm speaking a lot about monsters lately.

FLATOW: Well, what got you on the trail of looking all this stuff up about monsters?

KAPLAN: Well, it's really funny. There was a history teacher in Los Angeles who was teaching a class on monsters. That was the basic premise. And a lot of the kids started asking questions about where these monsters were coming from. And the point of the class was to use monsters as a vehicle to get kids excited about history.

And as the questions came flooding in, a lot of them were oriented towards, you know, is the Medusa legend coming from people seeing fossilized humans? Is the concept of petrification associated with that? And so the questions started being emailed to me because I knew this history teacher, and he knew I was a science journalist, and the following year I was asked out to come and team-teach the course for a couple of weeks.

And before I knew it, Simon & Schuster, Scribner, knew about the course that was being taught because there was an alumnus from the school at Simon & Schuster. And she said: Have you thought about writing a book for this? And I said, well, no, but it seems like a pretty good idea.

FLATOW: Well, let's get right into it, and let's talk about what seems to be on television the most and has been certainly the subject of books and movies, and that's vampires. How did the vampire legend start?

KAPLAN: Well, you know, it's funny because you try to pin down where the vampire begins, and if your image of a vampire was Edward Cullen in "Twilight," you'd have a difficult time of it because he sparkles in sunlight, he's nice, and he's a vegetarian vampire.

So, you know, so then we say, OK, all right, fine, he's not a real vampire. Let's move back a little bit further, and you go to Dracula. And Dracula's got this suite of characteristics. So we identify him as a vampire, but is he the original vampire?

You go back to 1100 A.D., and if you look at things by the historian William of Newburgh, he was documenting people who were truly scared out of their socks that there was an undead creature walking around their town at night. And the thing that they describe is very different from the Dracula vampire.

They're afraid of it beating them black and blue. It has a terrible breath. And there's no concept of biting or sucking of blood, but it is associated with the grave. In a lot of ways it's a lot like a zombie, and that's, you know, that's where I start looking at what might have been a vampire, sort of a proto-vampire, because you can go even further back to "The Odyssey," and there are ghosts that drink blood in "The Odyssey."

Is that a vampire? I kind of argue not. But if you look at William of Newburgh, that's kind of the beginning point of the vampire legend. And there's a lot of fear associated with disease that seems to be connected to that early creature. There were tuberculosis epidemics. People would die. They would get buried, and their loved ones would go and see them before they were buried, and then of course 10 days later they would catch the disease.

No one had an idea of incubation time. Nobody had an understanding of contamination in that way. And then their loved ones would follow them to the grave, their loved ones would follow them to the grave. You had this domino effect. And people were really, truly terrified.

So to try to explain what they didn't understand, they said the person who died first is a vampire coming back to claim their loved ones, and they are draining them of their life and bringing them to the grave later. And so it seems to be very associated with this early stage of vampirism, but the vampire doesn't have the ability to bite and infect at that stage.

FLATOW: What about the vision we have with the teeth and the nails and things like that that vampires traditionally have?

KAPLAN: It's funny you should mention that because William of Newburgh writes that two young brothers were very frightened about the fact that their father had died from this vampire. And so they try to track the monster to his grave. And they dig him up, and they find blood in his mouth. And they say, wow, you know, this thing is drinking blood. It's obviously sucking - it's drinking the blood of the people in our town.

And they also - you know, they talk about the possibility that its stomach is enlarged, that it's been drinking. And then, you know, the vampire myth evolves and you start to get claws and fangs. If you start digging up bodies, and I don't recommend you do it because it's gross, but if you start digging up bodies and you look at what happens after death, you get a couple of really, really disgusting features.

One is called post-mortem bloat, where the stomach expands because of gases from bacteria that are inside the body that make the belly look full. It is possible for those gases to go right up through the body and bring blood up through the mouth and to stain the teeth. So that's where the bloodsucking idea comes from.

And if you also look at a corpse's fangs and claws, the skin begins to retract over your cuticle beds on your hands after you die, and even though your fingernails haven't grown at all after dying, you will end up having seemingly longer nails. The same thing goes with your gum beds in your mouth.

The gums begin to recede, and it can look like you've got longer teeth than you did before. So you know, William of Newburgh is very specific about the blood in the mouth. He talks about the pestiferous breath of this creature that's walking the town. So that connects a lot to the disease.

He also talks about dogs chasing the corpse as it walks around the town, and that's intriguing because, you know, dogs don't feature - dogs and wolves don't feature in the vampire myth until much later, but it makes you wonder.

FLATOW: What about the garlic and stuff like that? When does that come in?

KAPLAN: Well, there's an interesting article in the Journal of Neurology - I mean, the Journal of Neurology of all places, you know...


KAPLAN: You start doing research on the science of vampires, you figure you're going to have to piece a lot of things together from other sources. When I found a piece by a Spanish neurologist in the Journal of Neurology - we're talking about a peer-reviewed journal here, and it's about, you know, the concept of vampires potentially having a real scientific link to garlic.

I was amazed to read - this fellow was talking about the fact that if you get bit by a rabid wolf, you, if you don't have a vaccine like we do today, you have a reasonable chance of developing what's called furious rabies. So what happens with furious rabies? Well, it's exactly what it sounds like. You go quite mad, you become quite aggressive, and you exhibit the same sorts of symptoms that a rabid dog would engage in.

You feel like you want to bite. You become aggressive towards people who try to restrain you. And so anyway, one thing that rabies leads to is a number of attacks on the brain because it's a neurological disorder, and it can make you very susceptible to a number of stimuli that are particularly powerful.

You don't like very strong stimuli. So loud noises can really upset you and be distracting. Bright lights, if you are in the last stages of furious rabies, can be very off-putting. Garlic is hypothesized in the paper because it's got such a pungent odor that it would cause a reaction.

So what did these reactions look like? If you take somebody who is rabid and you present something like this to them, they often, because rabies makes it so you can't swallow, that's why you foam at the mouth; it makes it very hard and painful to swallow. There's a lot of hissing. There's a lot of baring of teeth. In some of the earlier literature, it talks about people looking like beasts.

It's a terrible way to go. It's a terrible disease. And so it's - this paper in 2000 suggested, you know, gosh, maybe the vampire myth is associated with rabies. But the vampire myth doesn't connect to rabies very well at 1100 A.D., but that kind of makes sense because you get big rabies epidemics in Europe much, much later, and there's some documentation of wolves biting like 150 people in Paris, rabid wolves.

And if that many people got infected, you would have some human-to-human transmission where one person bites another, and then, you know...


KAPLAN: ...many, many days later, they become the beast.

FLATOW: Well, that would also explain where the werewolf connection comes in...


FLATOW: ...if the wolves are biting people and they're dying from that.

KAPLAN: Absolutely.


KAPLAN: The werewolf legend goes way back, but I have a hunch that when you've got these huge rabies epidemics and tuberculosis epidemics happening in Europe at the same time, the myths got mixed. And that's also where you get the running water thing with vampires because one of the key fact - key symptoms of furious rabies is hydrophobia. They can't drink. They can't drink at all, and they're desperately thirsty.

FLATOW: Right.

KAPLAN: And even being presented with water, any water will make them run for the hills. They're very, very afraid of it, and it's almost a kneejerk reaction. You hand somebody a cup of water who's in their last days of rabies, and they will throw it away. They'll run away from you. It's an aggressive thing. And so there is a lot of biology to that, and it makes you wonder if that's where the Dracula stories came from.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let's go to the phones. Eric in Saint Louis, hi.

ERIC: Hey. Yeah. I just wondered if the author had seen an article that appeared in Scientific American a couple of decades ago that had a theory about vampires that was drawn from documents in Romania some time back where apparently a woman dreamed that a certain guy who had died came to her room in the middle of the night and - but she had thought it really happened. So the villagers - to double-check - went to the grave of this guy who had died two or three days before, dug him up to make sure he was dead.

They drove a stake into his midriff, and he let out a wail. So to this, it confirmed that he had really must have been prowling around, but the person who wrote the article said that that was because of gases that had built up because of decomposition.

KAPLAN: Yeah. It's, you know, that's wonderful stuff, and the corpse moaning is really nice because it's true. You know, you get the gases. And if you meddle with the body and, you know, staking something counts as meddling at the highest level, by the way. If you stake somebody into a grave...


KAPLAN: ...and if they do have any gases in there, there's a good chance those gases are going to go past the voice box, and they're going to cause groaning. But, you know, you mentioned the ghost coming in the night to visit her, and it's just so lovely that you bring that up because you - what you're touching upon is an entirely different monster. Of course, it - monsters get bled together all the time. No pun intended. But, you know, there are a lot of sleep disorders that people suffer from, and some of them are staggeringly common, that cause people to see things when they're sleeping. You know, because we all know people who have gone sleepwalking, right?

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

KAPLAN: It's a relatively common thing. But there's another - and sleepwalking happens because the brain is sending a signal to the muscles, and it's normally saying, hey, yo guys, we're going to be doing a little bit of dreaming here, don't act it out, don't do anything because it would be bad, but we're going to be doing some processing up here. And sometimes, that signal doesn't go well, and the muscles still act out what the brain is doing in dreamland.

You can get the reverse effect, which is called sleep atonia, where you get the brain sending a signal to the muscles, and the signal sometimes works too well. We don't entirely understand it, but if you are asleep and the muscles - and you start to wake up and the muscles are still obeying the command don't do anything, you wake up, you can't move your body, and you are still kind of aware of the dream state, you're kind of aware of the real-world state, but you're processing things at the same time, and you get these very strange situations where people see things that are not real.

But they absolutely believe them, and oftentimes, they're paralyzed from it. And they believe the ghost is paralyzing them. And so this concept of the woman being visited by her loved one, you know, especially of someone who had just died, if they're on your mind, you've had sleeping problems lately, these things can blend together, and you get such weird phenomena of the vampire coming to visit you in the night as a ghost.

FLATOW: Talking with Matt Kaplan, author of "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Did anything surprise you? I mean, when you were doing the history about monsters, did you find and say, gee, I never, you know, I can connect the dots now like I didn't before, and, gee, I didn't think this was true at all?

KAPLAN: I, you know, I supposed the thing that I was most surprised about was the fact, you know, towards the end of the book, I hadn't done much on zombies...

FLATOW: Oh, zombies.

KAPLAN: know, I suppose I was put off by the fact that they so overrun society, you know, and I just...

FLATOW: They're overrunning a prison right now on television.


KAPLAN: Yeah. So as I started dipping into literature, I was incredulous. I really didn't think that we were going to see very much. And I came, you know, there's a lot of literature on zombies. There's a Harvard ethnobiologist named Edmund Wade Davis who's done a lot on them. And the thing I suppose I was most surprised by was, you know, they're real. They are real. They're, you know, zombies, you know, OK, fine, they are not the undead, but people would die. They would be buried, and they'd be then dragged out of the grave by a zombie master and turned into a zombie and made to work on a sugar plantation.

I couldn't believe that this was true, but, you know, the academic papers, again, peer-reviewed science are out there. And, you know, it started with a guy in the 1960s who died. He came to an American hospital called the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. He was declared dead by a Haitian doctor and an American-trained doctor. And, you know, he was vomiting blood. He was - he had respiratory problems. He couldn't move. It was bad. And so they buried him, and that's what you do to people who are pulse-less, not breathing and poisoned. And 20 years later, he showed up at a marketplace near Port-au-Prince in Haiti, found his sister and said, hi, I'm back, and told her his boyhood name, said I've been made into a zombie. I've been gone for 20 years. Scotland Yard got involved, checked the thumbprints on his death certificate to make sure it wasn't fraud. And so anyway, long story short, he really had been killed by a zombie master with some sort of a poison, and then, you know, the zombie master, he said, had died and he came back to the land of the living.

And so the head psychologist at this unit in Port-au-Prince said, OK, right. The media is going crazy. We really ought to do something about this. And he hired Edmund Wade Davis at Harvard to come out and look into it. And Wade Davis found this crazy cocktail of chemicals from the natural world that witch - not witch doctors, zombie masters were using to poison people so that they looked very dead so that they could be buried. And then the zombie master would show up two days later, unbury them, tie them to a crucifix, beat their soul out of them, and then they would put a hallucinogenic cucumber into a sweet potato mash, force-feed it to them and baptize them while tied to the crucifix with their zombie name. After dying, being buried alive, dragged out, beaten, tied to a crucifix and given hallucinogenics, you can imagine they would do pretty much whatever they were told. And thus - yeah, it's crazy.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to continue with this crazy story. It's one of the many crazy stories and interesting stories in "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters" by Matt Kaplan. 1-800-989-8255. We'll continue to talk about zombies after this break. Stay with us.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Matt Kaplan, author of "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters." And we've been talking about zombies, and there are so many things in this book besides zombies. I want to see if we can get to a few more of them. And one of the most fascinating stories, Matt, that you talk about is the scientific theory behind fire-breathing dragons.

KAPLAN: Gosh, that's one of my favorites.


KAPLAN: What are you most fascinated by, Ira?


FLATOW: Go for it. How did the - there's a story about Merlin in here that you talked about.

KAPLAN: Oh, gosh. You stole my thunder.

FLATOW: Go for the Merlin part. Well, go ahead. I'm sorry. Go for it.

KAPLAN: The - I think the thing that I like most about the fire-breathing dragons is that I didn't see it coming. You know, when you look at dragons - I'm a paleontologist by training, so my mind immediately went to things like Tyrannosaurus rex because, you know, it's big. It's toothy. And, you know, of course that's what people were looking at. But, you know, so, you know, the Greeks or the Assyrians were stumbling upon T-rex skulls and going, oh, you know, OK, so it's a dragon. And that's - those things must still be alive. They must be out there somewhere. But it doesn't sit with the literature because all of their early pictures are basically things that look like snakes, so it doesn't go together. And also, more importantly, there are no Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in that region. You just don't find dinosaurs.

Later on, dragons suddenly develop the ability to breathe fire. They didn't before, but suddenly, during the medieval period and later, you get dragons that breathe fire in the myths. So I started reading a lot of literature, kind of a mix of folk, academic work and some science, and I came across a couple of these people in California who had presented at a conference how dragons develop fire breathing. And they had read the Beowulf legend and proposed - in Beowulf, at the end of the legend, they're stabbing at the dragon. It's breathing fire at them. And when they actually get into the cave where the dragon was, no sign of the beast could be found. And their proposal is there was no dragon. Something else was blasting fire at them.

So what could that be? Their proposal is it's tombs, and people in, you know, Iron Age civilizations would dump bodies inside tombs. They'd seal them up, and those tombs would be rich with goods. They'd be underground, and they would have lots and lots of meat in them. You know, dead people, dead animals because back in those days, you didn't - when someone wealthy died, you didn't just throw them in; you threw their horses, their dogs, their kittens - you name it, it went in. And so that meat all rots, and it develops all sorts of gases. And if you're in a certain type of environment where the soil is quite dense, the gases can't come out until you have a grave robber who goes in and breaks open the tomb in the middle of the night with a torch. And suddenly, boom, you have a blast of gas coming out of the tomb. It is a jet and, you know, in China, this happened quite a lot. They're called fire pit graves. And people would be burned to, you know, burned to death.

And so I started looking at the King Arthur myths because there are dragons there, too, and I thought, well, wait a minute. There are no tombs there that have wealthy people buried underground. What's going on? And there's this story of this early king of Britain in 500 BC named Vortigern, and he is being attacked by the Saxons, so he flees to Wales as you do. And he goes and tries to put up a fortress in Wales because the Saxons are coming. And he turns to his wise men and says, my walls aren't standing up. Tell me, how can I make these walls stand? And the wise men say, oh, what you need is a child not born of man but born of woman, and you got to chop off his head and pour his blood on the ground, then the walls will stand. You know, these are old-time wise men. They're not, you know, not wise men today. And so Vortigern said, OK, fine. Go get me this boy.

So they go searching around in Wales. They get to a town where these two boys are fighting, and one says, well, you know, you go take a flying leap because you don't even know who your father is. And the wise men look at each other and they go, aha, bingo, we got him. They snatched the boy, ran back to Vortigern and say, we got him, we got him. And so Vortigern says, OK, kid. We're going to chop you up, pour your blood on the ground, and then my walls will stand. And the boy says, no, you've got it all wrong. There are dragons underground. They're angry. They need to let out their stress and frustration, and then your walls will stand.

I don't know why Vortigern listened, but he did. He went digging - he had his men go digging down, and in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Kings of Britain," which is, like, 1000 AD - you know, old stuff - he says the men found dragons panting fire. And, you know, once the dragons are done panting fire, the walls can stand. Vortigern, shortly thereafter, dies in battle.

The little boy becomes the advisor to Ambrosius. Then he becomes the advisor to Uther Pendragon when Ambrosius is poisoned by the Saxons. And Uther Pendragon dies and, ultimately, Arthur becomes the boy's new associate. And Arthur, of course, has this boy by his side, who's no longer a boy. He's an old man, and he's Merlin. And his first act of magic is predicting the fire-breathing dragons underground.

But, you know, Merlin was from Carmarthen, the town of Carmarthen in Wales, which is like - that's coal gas central. If you want to get coal, you go there. And if you find an empty pocket, it's likely to have coal gas in it. So he would have known that if you went digging underground with a lantern or a torch, you were going to find dragons. He probably didn't understand the gas aspect of it, but he knew that Vortigern was going to find dragons. And so he used his knowledge of geology to save his hide and, you know - so Merlin wasn't a sorcerer. He was a geologist, which I think is particularly cool.

FLATOW: It's a great story. You tell it very well in "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite." Do we have anything comparable today, you know, monsters and scary things? The only thing I can think about would be a movie, like, "Alien" or something like that, you know, where the monster jumps out. Yeah.

KAPLAN: There is a lot of that. You know, it's funny, because a lot of stuff that is inexplicable still finds its way into our stories. So, for example, we don't entirely understand how artificial intelligence is going to work. There are some great guys at USC in California at their ICT laboratories who are playing with how computers can learn about our world. So one fellow is teaching computers to read blogs and make a connection.

So if the computer notices that a lot of rainy days have passed, it can then look at blogs and realize there are car accidents associated with rainy days. And the computer, goes, oh, OK. Rainy days equals car accidents, and it makes associations. And artificial intelligence is something that we're very aware of, but we don't understand what computers are going to do. We don't know how they're going to behave.

And so, as a result, they show up an awful lot in our movies as our opponents. You've got them in "The Matrix." You've got them in "Terminator." I mean, "Terminator" is a thriller, but - especially the first one, that's definitely a monster movie, and, you know, a lot of people don't realize that. But it's us playing out our fear of what technology is going to do if we don't take care of it, because, remember, the premise of "Terminator" is there is Skynet. It's a computer system that becomes self-aware, and then rains nuclear holocaust on humans because it's afraid they're going to turn it off.

FLATOW: Right. After researching all these monsters, are - what do you most scared of? Is that something like...

KAPLAN: You know...

FLATOW: ..."Terminator"?


KAPLAN: No. I'm most scared of what vampires have evolved into. I'm a big chicken with these movies. I can't stand them. So, you know, vampires - I was talking about, you know, tuberculosis and rabies. But, you know, today, we've got Edward Cullen, and we've got Johnny Depp in - as Barnabas Collins. You know, you can't be afraid of these characters. They're not monster movies anymore.

You've got "Interview with the Vampire," where the vampires are more pitiful than anything else. It's a drama. It's not a horror movie. It's not a monster movie. It's about things that once were monsters, but they're not anymore. But really, the vampire is still very much with us. It's with us in the form of movies like "Contagion" and "Andromeda Strain" and "Outbreak." These are absolutely monster movies.

The thing is, in the past hundred years, because science has moved forward, we now know where the real vampire lies. The monster that we were afraid of, we were putting this mask of the vampire on top of things that we didn't understand. But now, we know what it is, and it's still scary. It's mutating at a very fast rate, H1N1, SARS. You know, disease fear is very high, and it kind of goes hand-and-hand with this other fear of: What happens if the disease gets so out of control that society breaks down?

We're so dependent upon Internet and telephones working and the police force and, you know, and food being available at the local supermarket. Most people don't understand how to slaughter a cow or grow their own corn. And the concept of those things not being available is frightening to us because we're so dependent. So there's two fears there, but those sorts of monsters, the ones that are really - they are so real, and that - I think that's what makes them so frightening.

FLATOW: Wow. Is there any monster you didn't get to that you'd like to get a little more time in?

KAPLAN: Gosh, you know, I - I'm really fond of the genetic-manipulation monsters. I'm a big fan of "Jurassic Park." Of course, being a paleontologist, you would be.


KAPLAN: But I love the idea of movies that make monsters out of things, of meddling with genetics that we can't control, because, you know, then there's a quote in "Jurassic Park" where Ian Malcolm says to John Hammond: Yeah, John, you were so eager to see if you could, you never thought of whether or not you should. And that kind of plays itself out in so many monster movies. And it's over and over again.

And we are not - you know, we already are transplanting organs from mice and rats, and mice and rats are pretty distantly related. So, you know, the idea that we're going to be able to put human skin on another animal or have another animal with a human brain inside of it, OK, it's still science fiction, but it's not as far off as we might hope. And what would happen if you put a human brain in a monkey's body? I mean, that animal would obviously need human rights, but what would it think? How would it behave towards us?

FLATOW: That's right.

KAPLAN: Would it be angry? Would it go nuts and do what we saw in the "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and kill people?

FLATOW: Right. A great movie.

KAPLAN: So, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Well, that's a lot of stuff to think about and a great book, Matt. And thank you for taking time to be with us today. Matt Kaplan, author of "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters." If you want to read about how they all have some science behind them, it's a great read. Thanks, Matt.

KAPLAN: My pleasure, Ira. You take care.

FLATOW: Have a happy Halloween.

KAPLAN: Happy Halloween to you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.