Bill Sullivan Ph.D.

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Halloween Monsters Provide Teachable Moments

The science behind "monsters" dispels fear and encourages understanding.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

It’s that time of year when monsters have their day. But come nightfall, spooky fun can transform into terror for some children. In the dark, a brain primed with ghosts and goblins is liable to let its imagination run wild with fear. If your kids struggle to dissolve their fear, teach them that knowledge makes a good solvent.

The word monster is derived from the Latin monere, which means “to warn.” Today, we use the term to describe an organism that deviates from the norm in terms of its looks or behavior. Since our brain thrives on its ability to identify patterns and predict outcomes, it sounds an alarm when it senses something out of the ordinary. The brain has been sculpted by evolution to play it safe; when we encounter an oddity, our instinct is to assume the worst and engage our fight-or-flight response.

Such a response certainly has advantages. Sometimes an aberration turns out to be a real threat, such as a scowling raccoon foaming at the mouth. But fears can be unwarranted, giving rise to unhealthy paranoia and, in some cases, mistreatment of others. Sadly, many people throughout history have been labeled as monsters because they had an unusual characteristic that was not understood. In this post, we’ll take a look at a few fascinating examples that illustrate this point.

Vampires

Vampires are undead corpses that rise from their grave to drink the blood of the living for sustenance. Microbiologists have noted that rabies shares several features with vampirism that may have influenced certain elements of the legend. For example, both vampirism and the rabies virus are transmitted through biting. In addition, vampires can transform into bats, an animal that commonly transmits the rabies virus.

Others have suggested that a rare blood disorder called porphyria may have fueled vampire folklore. Some people with porphyria are anemic and pale, and have receding gums that highlight their canine teeth. Light will cause their skin to rapidly blister and peel, reminiscent of vampires that burn when exposed to sunlight. All of this happens because people with porphyria have a genetic defect that prevents the body from converting a light-activated biochemical called porphyrin into heme, a key component needed for blood cells to function. In fact, one of the treatments for this disease was to drink blood, another feature consistent with vampirism. It should be noted, however, that this theory is not without controversy.

Another parallel between disease and vampirism occurred during the New England Vampire Panic in the late 19th century. One of the most famous cases centered on a young woman in Rhode Island named Mercy Lena Brown. She was believed to be a vampire because she was pale and often coughing up blood. Moreover, her strange symptoms spread to those who spent time with her. But what Mercy Brown and the other victims of the New England Vampire Panic were suffering from was really a contagious infection: tuberculosis. While people in New England surrendered to fear and superstition, a bold and sensible microbiologist named Robert Koch was isolating the bacterium that caused tuberculosis, which can now be treated with antibiotics.

Werewolves

The idea of a man being transformed into a wolf may have roots in Greek mythology when an angered Zeus turned a king named Lycaon into a wolf. Since rabies can make someone behave like a ferocious beast, this infection has also been implicated in inspiring elements of werewolf lore. Others have pointed to a rare neurological condition called clinical lycanthropy, in which people are deluded into believing that they can morph into a wolf or some other animal.

Another tempting explanation is a rare but unforgettable condition called congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa (CHL). CHL is a genetic variation that produces hair in places where it normally does not grow, even the cheeks and forehead. One of the most famous cases was Fedor Jeftichew, also known as "Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Man.” While such cases can result in a striking werewolf appearance, there is nothing to fear about someone who has extra hair.

Demonic possession

Losing control of your body and mind is a terrifying prospect, but we know today that such conditions relate to the brain rather than a hostile takeover by a malevolent spirit. People who begin to act strangely or lose control of their motor skills are likely to have a neurological condition such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, dementia, or a tumor.

Scientists are still discovering new ways the brain can be damaged to produce symptoms that mimic demonic possession. As described in her memoir, Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan began acting bizarrely for no obvious reason; she was growing confused, missing work, and having trouble walking. She then started hallucinating, having seizures, and lashing out at people. Fortunately, her family went to see a neurologist instead of an exorcist. The neurologist found that she had a newly discovered autoimmune disease attacking her brain called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The good news is that it can be treated with immune-suppressive drugs. Another victory for science and understanding.

A learning opportunity

As history has taught us, monsters are mysteries that need solving. We can allow our fears to bring out the worst in us, like those in the grips of the New England Vampire Panic, or we can roll up our sleeves like Robert Koch and use ingenuity to tackle the puzzle.

One shudders to think how many people throughout history have been ostracized, imprisoned, or burned at the stake for being misunderstood as monsters. The teachable moment here is that so-called monsters need understanding. The real thing to fear is the unwillingness to investigate the unknown.