Metro Science: Real-live monsters, the plight of hot people, and seeing stars
Not a wisp of evidence says werewolves, vampires and zombies roamed the Earth. But, their legends might have scientific explanations.
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Do werewolves, vampires and zombies roam the Earth? Nah. Not a wisp of evidence says these creatures are real. The legends might have scientific explanations, though. It's all conjecture, of course, but at this time of year, we’ll allow a little spooky speculation.
At least one academic has called this kind of science-ifying of folklore “monstrous” in itself. But hey, it’s Halloween.
The legend: Undead people who come out at night to suck your blood
The science: A study from earlier this year suggests people labelled as vampires in the days of yore may have had a genetic disease called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), which causes extreme skin sensitivity to light (photophobia) and anomia, making sufferers pale and — perhaps — apt to drink blood to replenish their iron. But that's a stretch, considering EPP is rare.
In 1998, a paper in the journal Historical Neurology suggested rabies as the origin of vampire myths. Symptoms can include sensitivity to light, hence the idea of vampires only coming out at night, and bloody foam around the sufferer’s mouth could make them look as if they’ve been drinking blood. The virus can also cause bodily spasms and wacky behaviour. A 1780 physician’s account reads, “The rabid patient rushes at those who approach him, biting and tearing them as if he was a wild beast.”
And vampirism’s association with bats? You can get rabies that way. You can also get it from a wolf, leading some to suggest it might be at the heart of werewolf tales, too.
The legend: Folktales about people who turn into animals have existed around the world since ancient times, as has the belief that the moon controls human behaviour. Not surprisingly, tales of men who turn into giant, ravenous wolves (sometimes, but not always, at the full moon) are prevalent in Europe, while in East Africa, the equivalent legend features a hyena-man.
The science: One hypothesis says werewolf tales actually describe ergot poisoning, which was common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Those who’ve ingested ergot, a toxic fungus that grows on rye and barley, may twist their body in pain, spasm and convulse, hallucinate, and suffer from extreme, fiery pain on the skin, and eventually gangrene and death. Ergot has also been floated, without much evidence, as an explanation for the epidemic of “demonic possession” that preceded the Salem witch trials.
A local legend about a hairy half-man, half-wolf could just as easily have been a person with genetic hypertrichosis, excessive hair-growth all over the body, including the face.
Also, there’s the very real psychiatric symptom sometimes called clinical lycanthropy, which is when people who have an underlying mental illness, such as schizophrenia, have a delusion that they can turn into a wolf.
The legend: In Hollywood, zombies mean armies of undead storm cities crying for braaaains. But the idea has deeper roots in Haitian folklore.
The science: Haitian legends describe corpses reanimated by witchcraft as mumbling shadows of their former selves. There are even real medical reports of people who have been "zombified." Obviously, no one can really rise from the dead. And these tales – which often feature the undead, rendered defenceless, forced to work in the fields – are obviously influenced by Haiti’s cultural history of slavery. But is there a medical explanation? Probably not, a 1997 article in the Lancet argued. At least, it’s not one single explanation. But, the author added, because the country has a drastically under-resourced health system, there are many people in Haiti who have untreated mental illness, brain injury or disability. And they may be misidentified as zombies, perpetuating the myth.
SCIENCE STORY: It’s hard to be hot
A new American Psychological Association study found good looks can narrow job prospects. Solely when applying for undesirable for jobs like warehouse worker, housekeeper or customer service rep, pretty people tend to get passed over (for good jobs, unsurprisingly, the opposite is true). The study included 750 job applicants, and hypothesized hiring managers assume hotties have other options and don’t really want to do grunt work.
SOUND SMART: Your science vocabulary word of the week: PHOTOPSIA
DEFINITION: Photopsia is the sensation of seeing flashing lights in front of your eyes. The lights aren’t real, but rather a symptom of something like a migraine or retinal detachment.
USE IT IN A SENTENCE: Poor Deborah walked into a glass door and saw stars! That was her first experience of photopsia.
WATCH METRO SCIENCE LIVE: Is chocolate a health food? What about dark chocolate? Genna Buck has the answers live at Facebook.com/MetroCanada on Oct. 27 at 12 p.m. EST.