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The Science of Horror

How science is now straying to territory of the horror villain.

By , Written on in Natural World

The Science of Horror

1,932 words, estimated reading time 9 minutes.

Scientists are now starting to stray into the territory of the horror villain. We pack some wooden stakes and silver bullets and go on the hunt for the science of horror.

We all enjoy a good scare. Whether bungee jumping, driving fast or just gossiping about the misfortunes of our colleagues, a thirst for fright is in our nature. Some people are exceptional gluttons for fear.

Psychologists call these thrill-seekers T-types. They are those members of society most likely to indulge in nutty sports, like extreme skiing and skydiving, and are most likely to jump on the scariest, most unsafe-looking rides at the fair. There are mixed benefits to being a T-type. These people have a penchant for risk taking which; at least when exercised in moderation, can be a huge advantage in creative exploits. But there's also a downside. T-types are more likely to become involved in crime, drugs, drunk driving and are statistically twice as likely to be involved in road accidents.

Many people turn to horror fiction to get their fix of fright, preferring the terror produced by stimulating the imagination with the right choice of words or sequence of images on celluloid. Some say horror fiction is perverse and even twisted. Conversely, others say an appreciation of it is in our best interests.

"We fear death and dismemberment, we fear pain, insanity and loss, we even fear sexuality, and it's only by addressing these fears that we avoid living in a constant state of trepidation," says horror author Clive Barker.

"Horror can speak of such things in a way that a more realistic or naturalistic genre can't." Whether you're a horror fan or not, there's probably a bit of the devil in you somewhere. But the human psyche's not the only place where the myths of horror fiction stray within the boundaries of fact. Join us then as we go on a grand monster hunt, tracing the giants of the horror genre into the realms of science. It's getting dark now. There's a full Moon in the sky. The path is a winding one and shrouded in mist, but it looks inviting. Are you ready? Stay close - here we go...

Surgery Unbound

Transplant surgeons tread in the footsteps of Baron Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley began work on Frankenstein, aka The Modern Prometheus, during a ghost story telling contest on the shore of Lake Geneva in June 1816. The concept of building creatures from recycled body parts has since been seized upon by other authors, such as H P Lovecraft. The classic 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff as the monster, has been copied many times.

Frankenstein's Monster (Boris Karloff)
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Frankenstein's Monster (Boris Karloff)

Science is bringing Shelley's tale ever nearer to reality. In September 1998, French surgeons succeeded in grafting a dead man's hand and lower arm to the arm of 48-year-old New Zealand businessman Clint Hallam. It was the world's first successful arm transplant. Previous efforts failed because the patient's immune system rejected the new limb. The recent 13-hour operation was made possible by new advances in immune-suppressants. Surgeons are now predicting Face-Off-style face transplants and even head transplants. In the 1970s, Dr Robert White transplanted the head of a monkey onto the body of another. He now believes he could perform the same operation on a human."

While cryogenic techniques allow organs to be perfectly preserved prior to surgery, repairing the freezing damage remains the major stumbling block to Frankenstein-type scenarios.

Day of the Brain-Dead

Zombies have their roots in voodoo mind drugs.

Human corpses that have been resurrected, albeit without any form of 'soul', zombies are one of the few classic horror denizens born direct to the screen without a preceding career in literature. They reached their peak with the 'Living Dead' film trilogy by George A. Romero.

2012 Zombie Walk, Toronto, ON, Canada
Image Credit: F11PROJECT
2012 Zombie Walk, Toronto, ON, Canada

The zombie is believed to have its origins in the drug rituals of Haiti's voodoo culture. A voodoo black 'magician' first poisons his victim with a powerful toxin derived from puffer fish, containing the powerful poison tetrodotoxin. Instead of dying the victim is paralysed, falling into a deep coma and appearing dead.

After a couple of days, the magician administers a hallucinogenic drug called zombie's cucumber to revive the victim. If 'revive' is the appropriate word, that is. By this time, the original toxin will have caused severe brain damage, removing personality, memory, speech and dulling the senses. The zombies created in this way are easy to control and are destined for 'lives' as menial slaves to their creator. Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis has investigated this theory. The unnerving account of Davis' research was set to celluloid by Wes Craven in his 1988 thriller The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Romainian Gothic

Vampirism stems from genetic diseases and Eastern Europe's historical psychos

Bram Stokers gothic masterpiece Dracula thrust vampires into the public imagination, where they have remained ever since. Dracula was a blend of Romanian history with Stoker's own private nightmares and anxieties. But is there any scientific truth behind the condition of vampirism?

Christopher Lee as Dracula (1958)
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Christopher Lee as Dracula (1958)

In 1985, chemist David Dolphin, of the University of British Columbia, suggested that historical vampires were actually victims of the disease porphyria. A genetic illness, it makes the skin extremely sensitive to sunlight and shrinks the gums, making the teeth appear elongated. It also turns sufferers' urine red, which could be misinterpreted as symptomatic of drinking blood.

Many vampire tales stem from the activities of the fifteenth century tyrannical Romanian count Vlad 'the impaler Tepes. But he's not the only source. In the sixteenth century, Slovakian Countess Elizabeth Bathory tortured and killed 650 people over the course of her life and bathed in their blood, which she believed was a cure for ageing - a far cry from the pharmaceutical industry's current efforts to 'cure' ageing today. Elizabeth Bathory is probably the inspiration behind the many 'bride of Dracula' movies.

Today, there are self-proclaimed vampires who claim to drink blood to feed and for sexual pleasure. Psychiatrists refer to this as hematomania. The Marquis de Sade and some serial killers have been cited as modem-day vampires and may have suffered from this condition.

Cry wolf

Rabies alert

Shapeshifter legends exist in many cultures around the world. Fictionally, tales of humans turning into savage beasts crop up as early as the thirteenth century, in Marie de France's Lay of the Bisclavet. Many legends describe werewolfism as a disease, called lycanthropy.

Werewolf
Image Credit: Unknown source, please advise
Werewolf

Scientists agree werewolf legends arose from cases of the nervous system disease rabies. A rabies sufferer foams at the mouth, so resembling an angry animal, and will often vomit blood. In some cases, rabies victims enter into a violent frenzy, attacking and biting other people. Because rabies is transmitted by a virus, which can be contracted from a bite, this offers one explanation of the belief that those surviving a werewolf attack become werewolves themselves.

Malicious Intent

Norman Bates missed his mum, other psychoses hate theirs. Psychosis is defined as a serious psychological disturbance, incorporating 5 symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and schizophrenia. Sufferers can be violent killers and so it's not surprising then that some of horror's lead villains have been psychopaths.

Norman Bates
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Norman Bates

Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, turned' into the famous movie by Alfred Hitchcock just a year later, was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. When Gein was arrested in the winter of 1957 police found hoards of preserved human body parts littering his house. Gein was declared insane and committed to the Mendota Mental Health institute, where he died on 26 July 1984, of respiratory failure. The subgenre that Psycho initiated has produced further classics, including Halloween and Silence of the Lambs.

But what makes psychotics and serial killers tick? Psychiatrists believe that the killers do the things they do to make up for emotional and social deficiencies in their lives, such as being abused during childhood. When the violence fails to ease the pain, they think they must have got something wrong and so kill again. And again, and again...

See Igor, It lives!

Technophobia has bred mad scientist fears

The ability of mad scientists to strike terror into our hearts has been exploited throughout much of horror. But why? Some say scientists are the modem embodiment of our traditional fear of shamans and witch doctors - mysterious, solitary figures, possessing powers that for most of us are unfathomable, says Glenn Scott Allen of Towson University, Baltimore. And just as witches were the scapegoats for the problems of medieval society, so scientists, and engineers, have come to bear the brunt of public blame for many of the world's problems, for instance global warming.

Mad Scientist
Image Credit: Unknown source, please advise
Mad Scientist

Additionally, nuclear accidents and toxic waste leaks fomi prominent real-world examples of the 'science running amuck' theme explored by many horror movies.

Scientists' appearance is everything to the public. Take the dispute between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller over whether to develop the hydrogen bomb after World War II. Oppenheimer opposed Teller's avocation of the project. But because Oppenheimer's appearance fitted the mad-scientist stereotype, while Teller came over as a kindly, avuncular figure, the H-bomb project got approval. Despite his genial demeanour, Teller was later the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr Strangelove.

Perhaps the most inventive mad scientists in fiction can be found in the films of David Cronenberg, whose creations include aphrodisiacs that carry VD and a television signal that gives perverts brain tumours.

Tales from the crypt

Keep your bandages on! King Tut's curse was just a nasty virus

In late December 1922, Lord Carnarvon and archaeologist Howard Carter broke through into the tomb of Tutankhamen. On 5 April 1923 Lord Carnarvon died. Rumours immediately began to circulate about The curse of Tutankhamen, planted in the tomb by the Egyptian priests in 1323BC, where it lay waiting for the person who would be first to defile the boy-pharaoh's grave.

Tutankhamun's Death Mask
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Tutankhamun's Death Mask

Tutmania seized the world. Many authors, including Agatha Christie, rushed 'their Egypt-related works to the stage, and by 1932 the first mummy film, Karl Freund's The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff, had hit the silver screen. While many others have followed, Arthur Conan Doyle beat the hype with his 1890 mummy novel The Ring of Thoth, on which many of the modem mummy tales are based.

Most archaeologists don't buy the King Tut curse story, suspecting that Lord Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite. Recently, a French scientist even suggested that Carnarvon died from a virulent strain of virus which had been lurking in the tomb for 3,000 years.

Esmerelda, the bells

While Quasimodo had a bad back, the Elephant Man was just big boned.

The deformed and the disfigured can be both the most endearing and the most hateful of horror characters. The most famous is Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, about a deformed bell-ringer who falls in love with a gypsy girl.

Joseph Merrick photographed, c. 1889
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Joseph Merrick photographed, c. 1889

Hunchback, an extreme curvature of the upper spine, is a well-known deformity. It's caused by one of two conditions: kyphosis, excessive rearward spinal curvature, or scoliosis, a sideways curvature. David Lynch's 1980 film The Elephant Man chronicles the true and painful story of the horribly disfigured John Merrick. However, it wasn't the flesh-swelling 'Elephant Man disease' that Merrick suffered from, but a much rarer condition, called Proteus Syndrome, which causes overgrowth of bone and other tissue.

Birth defects came to the fore with the drug thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women in the late 1950s to alleviate the symptoms of morning sickness. But the drug was found to produce malformations in babies, like missing arms and legs. Recently, the spermicide chemical nonoxinol-9 was linked with birth deformities.

Last updated on: Saturday 17th June 2017

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