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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween and The Science of Monsters

There are no vampires, werewolves, zombies.  No Frankenstein monster, no bigfoot ape man, no outer space aliens in assorted shapes and sizes. Sorry, they don't exist because science has not found them. And as science is based on empirical evidence, science says... no way.

And yet.... we have been drawn to monsters probably since the dawn of mankind.
 Greek and Roman mythology was heavily based on divine, and not so divine, fantastic creatures.
Many early scientists, in the 16th-17th century, seemed positively obsessed with documenting ancient monsters.

The word monster comes from Latin, monstrum, an aberrant occurrence. It seems logical that out of fear, we might naturally then apply an aura of evil, as both an explanation for the natural aberrance as well as it's innate characteristic.

Halloween comes upon us right at the end of the harvest season, when in the northern hemisphere we are hit with colder and longer nights. Though  theories abound regarding its historical origins, I think it may be safe to say that Halloween grew out of a ritualized celebration. It combines a fear of the night, of spirits, and death
( witching hour, ghosts, fairy and goblins, skeletons, presided over by the jack'o lantern which is a sort of guardian against roaming spirits) with a unique "safe scary" celebration for children.

So back to monsters, what is it about the human brain that seems to enjoy seeing monsters, especially on the big screen from the safety of a movie theater seat? Or enjoy battling them in the dark, with a video game controller? I am sure neuroscience has an explanation, and not everyone enjoys thrills or frights the same way as everyone is different, neurobiologically speaking. It may simply be that monsters tap directly into some of our most primal fears and reactions, so they are activating the brain's amygdala in ways that are elemental and fundamental. In other words, in a very basic way, they make us feel "alive"!!!

It is interesting to note the massive growth of monster movies and science fiction in popular culture, post WW2, when mankind was threatened not only by the historic, systemic destruction by Nazi Germany but also by the new threat of unimaginable worldwide nuclear destruction.

Which brings us to zombies, "the walking dead", and today's pop phenomenon of zombies and the zombie apocalypse. Why have zombies become so popular lately? Possibly because they serve as a sort of fictional narrative for where we are, emotionally, in the 21st century, zombies might reflect our larger fears of civilization and environmental collapse. And the charge we get, battling zombies in a threatening zombie apocalyptic world, functions as an outlet by feeding a basic desire to physically battle demons and survive, which today may be thwarted in real life as our demons have become so abstract and harder to define.

We hosted a Science of Monsters Google Hangout earlier today where we delved deeper into these subjects and more. ( see video of the discussion, below ) Our featured monster expert guests were:
  • Sebastian Alvarado,  a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Biology at Stanford, with a research focus on epigenetics, as well as co-founder of the video game science consultancy group, Thwacke! Consulting. Thwacke offers scientific insight from a diversity of disciplines to aid in narrative design, world building, and ultimately creating believable content for the video game industry. Thwacke has consulted on video games including Wasteland 2  and Outlast.
  • Dan Loxton, a Canadian Writer, Illustrator, and Editor of Junior Skeptic magazine.  Author of  children’s books Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To BeAnkylosaur Attack (Tales of Prehistoric Life) and Co-writer of Abominable Science, Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.
  • Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is also the co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School. His first novel, The Zombie Autopsies has been optioned by George Romero for adaptation to film. Dr. Schlozman’s zombie curriculum has been adapted by Texas Instruments as part of an innovative STEM educational program STEM Behind Hollywood.

                                              Many thanks to our Monster Experts!!!