Photo by Tristan Horner
Matt Kaplan takes a scientific look at the monsters that scare us…and why we love it. [32:54]
Jo Reed: The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Driven by the need to preserve the firsthand experiences of those apocalyptic years, while they still exist in living memory, Max Brooks traveled across the planet to find and record the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children, who came face-to-face with the living or at least the undead, hell of that terrible time.
That's a clip of the audiobook World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. It was produced by Random House.
This is Art Works, a weekly podcast produced by the national Endowment for the Arts. I'm the host and producer, Josephine Reed.
Anyone who has even a marginal interest in popular knows the hold that monsters have over our collective imagination. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wizards have played central roles in many popular books, movies, and television series, and video games. So what’s going on? Why do monsters continue to enthrall us and how did that fascination begin?
Those were the questions that animated Matt Kaplan a noted science journalist and mythology enthusiast. His book, The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear, looks at scientific discoveries that help explain what inspired the creation of monsters, why they have endured, and how they have evolved throughout the ages.
When I spoke with Matt Kaplan recently, I wanted an origin story from him. What made him begin to think about the scientific origins of monsters?
Matt Kaplan: Well, I went to this high school in Los Angeles, and when I graduated, I decided I really didn't want to do anything other than studying paleontology, which was my love. And so, I started working with fossils at the university level, and when I finished university, I realized I really liked writing in the student newspaper. I really liked doing student radio, and talking about all the different fields of science. And before I realized it, I realized that actually staying in paleontology alone was going to get pretty boring, because one of the things I loved most about university was being able to study lots of stuff! Science journalism just fit me like a glove. I got to study chemistry, psychology, paleontology, and write about it! And many years into this, I got a call from my old history teacher at high school. He said, "Look, I'm teaching a module in the history course about monsters I'm using them as a vehicle to get students excited about the people of the age. I'm talking about Medusa, I'm talking about the Minotaur, I’m taking about the Nemean Lion. I'm trying to explain to students that this is who the Greeks were. Their monsters were no different from our monsters, and I realized that it's like Ridley Scott's Alien. It's a monster. It was something that was useful to people of the age. And he said, "I'm getting questions from the students asking me, "was there something based in the real world that led them to come up with this ridiculousness of a woman with snakes in her hair that can turn you to stone? Or a half-man, half-bull living underneath the ground?" He emailed me these questions as they were coming in, because he knew I was a science journalist. He said, "So? Well, c'mon, I mean, Medusa? There were fossilized bones all over the Middle East where these myths were coming from. It's not uncommon to find human bones that get dug underground. After you die, you fall into a ditch, or what have you, or bones end up in a cave, and it's totally natural for minerals to move through these bones as groundwater passes by, and for the bones to become stone." It's a natural process. It's called fossilization. And so, it doesn't take a huge leap to say, well, our ancestors very likely were coming across these things, particularly human skeletons, seeing that they were entirely made of stone. They may have said, "Something must have done this to them. There must be something that scared them so bad that they stiffened up and led them to become petrified." We don't know for sure, because none of the people who came up with these myths are still alive. They're all gone. But, you can look at what people wrote and say, "Were they just making it up, or was there stuff they were seeing?" The Minotaur is among the strongest of the early ones myths, because you've got this story of a half-man, half-bull. But, if you look at the earliest mythology by Callimachus, he writes about this creature living underground in the labyrinth beneath Crete that roars so loudly it damages buildings. C'mon, there were huge earthquakes just 30 years before that story started being told for the first time. It doesn't take a huge leap to say was this creature inspired by the huge earthquakes that were terrifying people at a time who they needed an explanation. Again, it's-educated guessing based upon the evidence that we have. But we can date the earthquakes, look at boulders that were thrown out of the water around the Mediterranean and date animals like starfish that were stuck to the boulders as the tsunamis threw them out. We can figure out this boulder was thrown out on this day. This myth was told for the first time in writing on this day. That they're within 30 years of each other is a staggering thing.
Jo Reed: It's so interesting to me. It seems deeply human that we need stories. That when confronted with facts that we have no explanation for, we create one.
Matt Kaplan: It's a very natural human behavior. And I don't think it's just about making sense of the world. I think a huge part of it is also evolutionary. I mean, as I mentioned, I'm a paleontologist by training. If you think about it, from a cultural perspective, let's go back to our ancestors who were living in early tribes and villages. Let's talk about what they were seeing. You can just imagine people living in early Europe in small communities around 800 or 1000 B.C. or even earlier, go back to 2000 B.C. Now, there’s no writing then. They just don't have it yet, not much, anyway. You have people who are roaming away from their tribal village to go get food. One of them encounters lions. Lions lived in Europe until 100 A.D. We know this. And this tribesman encounters a lion that attacks or appears threatening. He throws his spear at it. The spear is deflected by the lion's coat he misses, or the lion is too fast. He comes back to his tribe and says, "Two valleys over, there is this lion. It is very powerful. It is invulnerable to my weapons. If you go there, you will be eaten. It is a very dangerous creature." Then, this person tells the story to their children, and they avoid that area. Their children then tell the story to their children. Because, of course, you don't want your children being eaten by lions. You have a vested interest in this evolutionarily. So, their children pass the story on. And like a bad game of telephone, the lion that swatted away the spear, or dodged the spear, becomes a lion that was immune to mortal weapons. By the time the Greeks are noting it down, it's the Nemean Lion who Hercules battled with: The Lion who was immune to mortal weapons. It's one of the earliest monsters. But, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to say "How did this happen? Why did it happen? Why was the story told?" But, there's a strong suggestion that the early monsters served a purpose.
Jo Reed: One thing I found very interesting about your book is that monsters have changed through the ages, or rather the purpose of monsters. And you talk about that and I’d like you to share that now. The ancient monsters were created by the Gods.
Matt Kaplan: Yeah, you got a lot of these monsters like Medusa, Medusa was Gorgon. She was birthed by supernatural creatures that lived either on Olympus, near Olympus, or amongst the gods. S he was considered the only mortal of her sisters who could be killed. The other Gorgons were invulnerable to mortal weapons. So, Medusa is the one that Perseus goes after. But, you've also got the Nemean Lion and the Caledonian Boar which were sent by the gods to terrorize mortals. The Minotaur was sent to curse the King of Crete for being greedy and not making the right sacrifices to Poseidon. But again, very much guided by the hands of the Gods. Moving towards the medieval era, you start getting things like werewolves and vampires. These creatures are supernatural, but, they make their own by infecting humanity. Humans are corrupted by a bite from a vampire into becoming a vampire. People are corrupted by a bite from a werewolf by becoming the monster. Now, there are all sorts of reasons for why those stories come into play, and I can get into that. But, the reality is you've got a distinct shift from monsters that are just sent there by the gods to a lot of monsters that are transforming humans into monsters. And then, of course, you've got later monsters like Frankenstein, and the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," which are crafted by the hand of humanity, this is created by science to terrorize mortals. Most of them are the results of experiments gone wrong, but it's humanity that makes it so. We're so fascinated by these. You've got The Rise of the Planet of the Apes a few years back. The primates are given these drugs that make them highly intelligent. But what's interesting in these most recent films is you've got these monsters, some of them created by humans. And you are sympathetic towards them. In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as the humans are being ripped apart by the apes, you are cheering for the apes. Similarly, in something like "Avatar," in the beginning of the film, you really are fearful of the animals of the forest. The cinematography is straight out of a monster movie. You've got these glowing eyes coming after him as the wolves are emerging from the forest. And, as someone who goes on a lot of expeditions myself, I've encountered wolves in the wilderness and the experience is- is truly scary. Yet, at the end of the film, you are cheering for the yellow-eyed, fanged, blue-striped Na'vi and you're celebrating as the dragon-like creatures and the wolves fly out of the sky or run out of the forest and rip apart the humans. What is going on with this?! This is a complete reversal from where we were 2000 years ago! And you have to ask yourself, "Why? What is it that has led us to shift monsters from being the creations of the gods to being our own creation, and ultimately making us the creatures that you want to see destroyed, celebrating the monsters' success?"
Jo Reed: Why do you think?
Matt Kaplan: I suspect a lot of it has to do with fear of the world in our own hands. You look at Jurassic Park and Frankenstein. Frankenstein is not an accident, I don't think. Mary Shelley is writing about the dangers of using transplants and transfusions to create an artificial form of life. This was right at the time when people were engaging in transplants and transfusions and starting to experiment with it. As that happened, early 1800s, you’ve got question on everyone's mind: "If you can take blood out of someone who's alive, and that person dies, and then you can transfuse that blood into someone else and save their life with it, can you take a brain out of someone who's alive and then later transplant it into somebody else, and keep the body alive or create a new creation by transplanting body parts? Is that something that's possible? And what would happen? We ask the question in "Jurassic Park." Paleontologists really didn't know in the 1980s whether or not you could drill into amber, find a mosquito that had had a blood meal from a dinosaur, take the DNA out of that insect, and use it to reconstruct a dinosaur in real life. No one had that question. Michael Crichton was genius in suggesting that it might be possible. I mean, since that time, experiments have been done, and we now know the answer is "No." The DNA falls apart over 66 million years. But, the question was out there, and it raised the fear." Wow! If we could do that, should we do that and what could happen?" It raises our fears and concerns. I think the reality is we move into the modern era and develop new forms of technology; new forms of genetic reconstruction, new forms of artificial life creating artificial intelligence building computer programs that can defend us as missiles come in. They are able to act on their own in real time and make decisions for us. This is where the rise of SkyNET in Terminator comes from. The question is, "If we create artificial intelligence, could it ever get out of hand? Could it ever make the decision to launch a missile without our involvement? Could it ever make the decision to defend itself if it becomes aware that we're going to turn it off?" These questions are real. They're based upon of our own experiences. And from them, they rise the fear of, "What could we create?" And then when we behave irresponsibly, what danger do we pose to ourselves? And suddenly you start creating monsters that we are celebrating as they attack us. And from that, you start to question whether or not monsters are actually taking the form of humanity.
Jo Reed: Here’s the question I have. And I really do come at this as an alien because I don’t like being scared. I don’t understand why people go to movies to be scared, read books to be scared. How does fear function in entertainment, in culture?
Matt Kaplan: There's a lot of psychological work looking at why we love to scare ourselves. There's a fellow named Paul Piff at UC-Berkeleywho looks very closely at, it's going to sound ridiculous, but chili peppers. Why is it that humans love to eat food that sears their mouth, makes them sweat, or races their heartbeat? These things are traditionally associated with bad experiences. I mean, think about it: Why do we love to sear our mouths with extremely spicy food? Now, not everybody likes it, but a lot of the population does. The hypothesis that he’s got is that when we know something that's extremely spicy is not going to actually harm us, there is pleasure in understanding that our body is going to freak out, but our mind knowing that it's all going to be okay. Same argument goes for things like roller coasters. You go into the roller coaster. You are being dropped six/seven stories, and your body goes, "Holy Moses! What is going on? This is not good for me! This is really dangerous! We shouldn't be doing this! I'm freaking out!" Blood pressure's going crazy! Heart rate's going crazy. But the brain goes, "Eh! It's fine! This is Disneyland! No problem!" There is pleasure in the mind knowing that all is well, the body's freaking out, but it's all going to be okay. The same argument could be made for really gory things. It can also be made scaring ourselves plays the same role. Now not everybody enjoys it. But you've got variation in the population, and not everybody is going to enjoy it. But enough people enjoy it for it to be potentially linked to this idea that we actually love having control over our body, and understanding that the body's freaking out, but all is well.
Jo Reed: I want to talk about vampires. Because the vampire is certainly undergoing a renaissance at the moment. What do you think the current allure is for vampires?
Matt Kaplan: Yeah, looking at these vampires, I was asking myself, "What's the deal? Why- why do we have some people so fascinated by this new vampire type? Some people are fascinated with the old vampire type? What's the difference between them? Why has the vampire gone from being evil to now being associated with good? And where do vampires start?" And I think it's really interesting to go back to 1100 A.D. when you've got the- the appearance of the first vampires. And ask myself, "How were those different from the ones that we've got now?" And the answer is, "They're extremely different!" William of Newberg was a historian, living in Britain in 1100 A.D., and he was mostly writing about royals, nobility, upper crust of society, and the goings-on within the courts. Yet, he also inter-sprinkled between all of these stories you know, reasonable historical accounts. He's got these stories of the undead coming back from the grave! And he was taking this stuff relatively seriously. One such story he talks about involves a town where a man dies. And people bury him in ten to fifteen days after this man dies, apparently mysterious circumstances-- many of the people who went to his- his deathbed begin to fall, you know, fall to this curse that killed the man as well. They fall ill. People come to visit them during their last days, and then they bury them. Then people who came to visit those individuals begin to fall into the sway of this deadly curse, and then they are buried. It's a domino effect. The town is being decimated by it. And- and people became truly scared. They didn't understand what was going on. And so two brothers go to attack the monster at its source. The monster is described as coming out of the grave in the night. It has a pestileference [sic] breath and walks the countryside, and comes into people's homes and spreads its curse to those who are around it in the nighttime. These two brothers go, and they dig up the man who caused the problem from the beginning. And when they dig him up, they find that he's got claws, he's got long teeth, he's got blood all over his mouth. And his belly is full. And so they- they come to the realization, this creature is coming and feeding on blood in the night, and spreading its curse to the people of the town. The thing we must do is stake it into its grave, so it'll stop coming after people, and that will end the curse. So they put a stake through it. It groans. And they celebrate that this had been the- the blood-sucker that was killing people, and that they've succeeded in ending- ending the torture. But if you look at what happens to a body when it dies, you've got this thing called post-mortem bloat, which is associated with bacteria. When you're alive, you've got bacteria in your gut. When you die those bacteria, even though you're dead, keep on having a fiesta inside your body. And they produce gasses, those gasses cause your stomach to bloat up. That gas can push blood up past your- your throat into your mouth, staining your teeth and your lips, making it look like you've drunk blood recently. They make your belly look full. And when you die, you desiccate. So the cuticles around your nails retract, the gums in your mouth pull back. And it looks as if your teeth and nails have grown. They haven't at all. But it gives that appearance, and thus you've got this idea that people are- are growing their nails and claws when they become the undead. So that's where the blood-sucking comes from, it's where the fangs and the claws come from. At least we think. You can't know for sure but we know that in the 1100s there were vast epidemics as towns and cities were developing. Tuberculosis and influenza were really serious. You've got plague. There's no sanitation. Cities at the time were getting really big. These were really awful, terrible places to be living! And so disease would spread, and people had no understanding of communication of disease or- or even more important, of incubation time. Where you can see somebody who's ill, and not suffer for a number of days. And suddenly start falling under the disease itself.
Jo Reed: When does the vampire bite become part of the legend?
Matt Kaplan: What's interesting is we don't see the invention of an infective bite for 500 years. The vampire is this creature that crawls out of the grave, but you don't have anything associated with it bites you and you become the vampire. That waits until 1700s. And why it appears then is unclear, but you've got a series of really big rabies epidemics in France and Germany at that time. And you've got these documented events of people being bit by wolves and then later becoming the beast themselves. And this is where the werewolf myth comes from. At least we think. People getting bit by a wolf. And if you get bit by a rabid wolf, the bite heals and it can take months before the rabies actually kills you. And in 75 percent of the cases, if you're not vaccinated for rabies, the death is horrible, but relatively quiet. You just die, and it's a horrible way to go. But the rabies just kills you off. But in 25 percent of the cases, you develop a condition called furious rabies. And furious rabies is really nasty stuff. You get furious rabies, and you become restless, you lose your mind in your last days of the disease. You become exceptionally aggressive. You can become very sexually active. Rape cases are associated with the disease of that time. And this concept of people going mad and becoming the monster. And of course, if you try to restrain somebody who's freaking out and wandering the streets, raving like a wandering monster, and they bite you and break the skin, well, look, you've going-- you've just been bit by the monster, and you're going to become the monster in two to three months. It sounds almost like a gothic horror novel, except wait! It's real! And we know all about this stuff, because rabies has been studied pretty extensively. And- and it's really interesting. Because people who suffer from furious rabies, during their last days of life, they are-- their- their brains are so screwed up, they do not respond well to strong stimuli. So exceptionally bright light is very upsetting to them. They become very aggressive when presented to it. Same thing with strong smells. If you present someone with a strong odor of something burning, or strong garlic, they respond very aggressively and are repulsed by it. We don't know for sure, but the speculation is certainly there. And is-- and as far as things go, it's a good educated guess. So that's where that myth comes from.
Jo Reed: Well, your history of demons was fascinating. Can you walk us through that a bit?
Matt Kaplan: Yeah, sure. Demons, demons are pretty weird, because the best stories of the demons, and the best- the best mythology associated with demons is stuff that you see in the 1600-1700s. You've got these paintings called, "The Nightmares." A lot of them are by Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist. And they show these women laying on beds, demons sitting in the middle of their chest and trying to make sense of that. The only thing that art historians have been able to come up with are, well, people at the time were afraid that they would dream about having sex with women or men outside of their marriage or they were afraid of women having sexual dreams that were unclean or inappropriate and the explanation of the church at the time was well, you've got these things, they're demons, and just as demons can lead you to have feelings of gluttony or have feelings of misbehavior in society, they can also lead you to want to have sex with people who are inappropriate according to our social customs. For women they were call incubi demons and for men they were called succubi demons and they came and they brought these visions of sex to your mind that were inappropriate, and so a lot of them got painted into pictures and it was-- it's a real issue. But you ask yourself, where does this come from? When did this start? You start to see a decisive shift as you move towards the rise of Christianity. You've got these demons that are coming to visit people in the night and the first shift occurs somewhere around the Roman period. We do know that by 570 A.D. the concept of incubi, these male demons coming to poison the minds of young women, is rampant.
Jo Reed: This notion of an incubus has a connection to a very famous British myth that we’ve all grown up on.
Matt Kaplan: There's a king of Britain and his name is Vortigern and he is at war with the Saxons who have come to invade. And the Saxons have taken over London. He has been forced into Wales to fight for his country and he has been told by his seers, you've got to slay a young man, a young boy and pour his blood on the ground to build a fortress that will stand against our enemies. The young boy is brought to him and he says yeah, we're going to cut you up, put your blood on the ground so our castle will stand, and the young boy says no, you've got it all wrong. You don't want to spill my blood. What you really want to do is dig down there because there are dragons underground and they're upset and in order to make them less upset, you've got to dig up the ground and let them let their angst out. Sure enough, the king digs down and he discovers what is described by the author at the time as dragons panting flame as they struggled, and so he says wow, this boy is right and so clearly we will now let the dragons let their angst out and we will build the castle and so on and so forth. The king ultimately dies, but this boy goes on to become the advisor to the next king of England. The next king of England then there's Aurelius Ambrosius and then there is Uther Pendragon, and then you've got Arthur and this boy goes on to be this king's advisor, and of course this boy is Merlin but his first act of magic is detecting the dragons underground, and more importantly when the advisors go and find Merlin's mother to find out if this boy is of a magical heritage because they find out that he is apparently of not birth of a union between man and woman, she says yeah, I never had sex with a man. There was this comely youth who came to me in my bed chambers and whispered to me in the night and before I knew it, I was pregnant, and King Vortigern, who is trying to figure out what's going on here says to his advisor, Magnatious is this woman's story true, and the advisor says yes. There are demons known as incubi that can visit women and impregnate them in their sleep with their foul thoughts. So Merlin is viewed by Vortigern from a very early time as not just being magical, but being magical because he is a half-human/half-demon. His mother was apparently inseminated by this incubus demon and so we know when this story was written by Jeffrey of Monmouth that people were already believing in stories on incubi demons, and so you've got these stories that have been going on for a long time. Very interesting.
Jo Reed: And dragons have endured since Antiquity and it strikes me as very interesting that the king would simply take Merlin's explanation, well there are dragons beneath us. Oh, okay. Well let's figure that one out.
Matt Kaplan: It's amazing actually because you look at the story of Beowulf. There's a dragon that some grave robbers went in to go and steal a treasure from this ancient tomb and in doing so they upset a dragon that's underground and so Beowulf go to take a look now at what this creature is and sure enough as soon as they break into the tomb to find the beast, it lets loose this blast of fire to fight them off and Beowulf stabs at it mightily and the fire is described as smelling terrible and being fierce and and Beowulf is killed in the process, or is mortally wounded, and eventually the flame goes out and the beast is killed but no sign of the dragon is there. This explains a lot of ancient tombs. Merlin was probably describing, this is all happening in Wales where Merlin existed, and Wales is famous for being associated with coal gas. You dig into any caves in Wales and there's a good chance if you're holding a torch that you're going to get blown up by the gases that are stored there because it's coal gas central. In a lot of the tombs where Beowulf was associated with, you've got these ancient tombs where people were burying the humans that lived there, the horses they rode, their family members and then they would seal the tomb up. The soil was wet and you've got all these bacteria that are rotting away the flesh of the people that died and those bacteria produced things like methane and hydrogen sulfide gas, which stinks and it's all very flammable. So if you break open a tomb to rob it for the first time ever, the gas comes blasting out and if you're holding a torch, it will become a gout of foul-smelling flame, and so it makes sense that these stories of fire-breathing dragons come from people robbing tombs and thus you've got the story where you get, you know, Tolkien and smog, fire-breathing and treasure and underground. It all comes together.
Jo Reed: What are you most scared of?
Matt Kaplan: People. People freak me out. What we are capable of in science is just unbelievable now. The degree to which we are able to develop intelligent materials similar to fantastic voyage and do other things that go after diseases or alter the human body and intelligent ways are staggering. It is unbelievable what we are capable of. It is also unbelievable when I have my shower moments after writing this stuff up and I think, wow. What if this fell into the wrong hands? What if, you know, what if someone were to be able to extract DNA from a mosquito and recreate a dinosaur and, you know, resurrected them for capitalistic means or for unethical means? What if someone constructed a bacterial-like anthrax to be more capable or more virulent or able to selectively target a certain population of people? The degree to which we are able to do good with our science is unparalleled, but there is so much unethical behavior in the world it scares me to think what this phenomenal science could do if it fell into the wrong hands and that gives me pause, especially when I'm writing about monsters. I'm a huge fan and a huge cheerleader of science. I think it has unparalleled power for good, but just as this incredible power can bring good, it can also bring evil and in that from that spawns monsters, and I think that in a large part that's why we fear humans as monsters more and more in our stories.
Jo Reed: It was a fun book to read. Was it a fun book to write?
Matt Kaplan: I had a kick. It was so much fun to talk to the researchers in the worlds of science and ask them questions in relation to monsters because most scientists don't think about monsters a whole lot in their day-to-day jobs. So when you interview someone who specializes in rabies and say so, could this be associated with vampires or werewolves, not only do they giggle but then they go wow, you know, I have never thought about that before and there's something very fulfilling in being able to get a scientist to say that. So, you know, that was a lot of fun.
Jo Reed: Matt Kaplan thank you so much.
Matt Kaplan: It’s been absolutely my pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was writer Matt Kaplan. We were talking about his book: The Science of Monsters: The Origins of Creatures We Love to Fear.
You’ve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. At the top of the show, we heard an excerpt from World War Z by Max Brooks. It’s performed by a full-cast. Produced by and used courtesy of Random House Audio.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpt of "Deathless" from the album Light Years by Lee Rosevere and used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU’s Free Music Archive.
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Next week, playwright and 2013 MacArthur fellow Tarrell Alvin McCraney
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