The 13th Floor

The Science Behind The Scare: Debunking America’s Favorite Monsters

Ancient myth and folklore have told tales of monsters as old as time, scaring the bejeezus out of people for centuries. Hollywood has capitalized on those fears, making monsters such as the vampire, zombie, and werewolf staples of American pop culture.

People love to be scared, but people also have this burning desire to make sense out of things they don’t fully understand. There’s an underlying feeling that the monsters we see on the silver screen could quite possibly exist in the real world, and that can be found unashamedly in the media. Take for example, the famous face-eating zombie incident in Miami, Florida back in 2012. International horror spread when word got out that 31 year-old Rudy Eugene ate 75% of a homeless man’s face off, right down to his goatee. Then there was the cannibal who ate his roommate’s heart and part of his brain. Other reports of vampire-like biting attacks happened a few months back in New Zealand and reports of a werewolf have been popping up in Hull, England. It seems our biggest fears are becoming a reality. Or are they? Likely not.

Science has some interesting stories to tell. Let’s see what it has to say about America’s favorite monsters. SPOILER ALERT: If you want to keep your precious monsters alive and untainted, read no further.


The myth of the vampire “likely evolved out of a misunderstanding of disease transmission and post-mortem decomposition.” A body was said to be a vampire if it had a “bloated chest, long fingernails, and blood draining from the mouth.” We now know, however, that this is just the natural process of decomposition. Skin retracts and falls off, making the nails and teeth look longer; gases in the body cause it to bloat; and the “blood” that seems to be coming out of a corpse’s mouth isn’t blood at all. It’s actually the body purging a foul, blood-tinged fluid from the increase in abdominal pressure.

One of the most famous vampire scares can be dated back to the late 1800s in New England. Tuberculosis was becoming a pandemic at the time, and people believed that their dead relatives were coming back from the grave to spread the disease, feeding on the blood of their loved ones and causing them to wither away. In order to kill the vampire and rid the family of the disease, the body would be exhumed from the grave in the dead of night. If filled with blood, its heart and other organs would be burned, the desecraters inhaling the smoke to protect themselves from the dead.

Of course, vampires spreading disease and feeding on the blood of their loved ones isn’t true. Tuberculosis is a disease that attacks the lungs and is transmitted via contaminated body fluids, and spreads rapidly between family members living in close quarters. So it would make sense that people would get sick after one of their family members died from consumption, steadily passing through each family member and killing them off.


The source of the zombie myth can be traced back to Haiti. Ancient folklore tells of bokor, or voodoo sorcerers who have the ability to bring the dead back to life by administering a magic powder, summoning them to work as slaves on farms or sugarcane plantations. In 1982 a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse claimed to have been a zombie brought back from the dead by a bokor. Twenty years earlier he was pronounced dead two days after checking himself into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, complaining of fever, body aches, and even coughing up blood. His account of the ordeal is terrifying:

He said that shortly before he was pronounced dead, he felt as if his skin was on fire, with insects crawling beneath it. He heard his sister Angelina weeping as he was pronounced dead, felt the sheet being pulled up over his face. Horrifyingly, although he was unable to move or speak, he remained lucid and aware the entire time, even as his coffin was nailed shut and buried. He even had a scar which he claimed was sustained as one of the coffin nails was driven through his face. He felt the sensation of floating above the grave. There he remained, for how long he did not know, until the coffin was opened by the bokor and his henchmen. He was beaten into submission, bound, gagged, and spirited away to a sugar plantation that was to be his home for the next two years.

He would wander the lands of Haiti for eighteen years after, until his sister Angelina was approached by him in the village marketplace. Speculation arose, and Wade David, a well-known scientist in the 1980s, set about to uncover the truth of this Haitian zombie myth.

Collecting several samples from multiple bokor for testing, David claimed to have found a poisonous powder that could put a person into a zombie-like state. This powder contained a powerful neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which can be found in pufferfish. David would write a book about his findings called THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, later made into a movie of the same title.

Toxins causing strange zombie-like behavior? Now where have I heard that before…


The werewolf is perhaps one of the oldest myths told in folklore, dating back even farther than vampires and zombies. Again, likely due to a misconception of a disease, the werewolf myth can be attributed to a variety of medical conditions.

Hypertrichosis: a medical condition where excessive hair growth exists all over the body, including the face. It’s easy to see why some people would believe that those with this condition were werewolves.
Lycanthropy: a psychological condition where one believes they can turn into a werewolf, which is clearly associated with mental illness and delusion.

The simple fact is that everyone wants to know the truth. We all have a need to make sense out of things we don’t understand. And the media know this. They prey upon the fears of the public and give them some sort of satisfaction by supplying possible legitimacy to the myth of monsters existing among us. And that’s all fine and dandy, because like you, I am a lover of all things horror, and secretly hope there is a zombie apocalypse so I can be a badass killer like Michonne from THE WALKING DEAD. But in all actuality, the real monsters are us. And that to me is the scariest truth of all.