As we enter the Halloween period, let us cast our minds towards one of the quintessential features of this frightful time of festivities: the monsters. In particular, three of the most well-known monsters: zombies, werewolves, and vampires. Here are their origins, and some possible reasons for them to have come into existence.
“Zombies” are undead creatures, formed when a human corpse is reanimated. These monsters have been among the most popular in culture since 1968 when George A. Romero released Night of the Living Dead. The first recorded mention of zombies is in the Epic of Gilgamesh (shout out to English Literature students), when the character Ishtar declares he will “let the dead go up to eat the living”.
Scientists believe that the zombie archetype as seen today – mindless, shambling corpses – can be traced back to Haitian Voodoo culture. One of the practices of the ‘Bokors’, Voodoo priests, was to administer coup padre to a subject. Coup padre is a powder comprised of various ingredients, the primary one being tetrodotoxin – a deadly substance harvested from “porcupine fish”. When administered in the right dosage, the tetrodotoxin would reduce the subject’s body temperature, breathing rate, and heartbeat, to the point where they would seem dead. Their family would then bury the subject, and the Bokor would dig them up a day or two later, administering another powder that would keep the subject in a subdued state.
“Vampires” are mythical beings who drain the blood of their victims for sustenance. A perennial feature at Halloween parties worldwide, vampires are one of the major monsters within the media. The earliest usage of the term ‘vampyre’ in English was in 1734, although it had been floating around French and German texts for years prior to this. It was not until 1819, with the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, that this monster entered the public sphere, and it took hold of the collective imagination of society in 1897 when Bram Stoker penned Dracula (and, since then, the regrettable Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer has become a worldwide bestseller).
This creature has a far more fleshed out history of documentation than many other monsters, with references to a bloodsucking demon in the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Mesopotamian cultures. Many of these cultures described similar features when depicting vampires; bloated bodies, dark skin, and blood dripping from the nose or mouth. Since that time, scientists have described these descriptions as evidence of a distinct misunderstanding of the decomposition process within a body. As the body decomposes, gases are created and trapped within the stomach, causing the body to seem bloated, and sometimes creating enough pressure to force blood out of the nose and mouth. In 1985 the biochemist David Dolphin argued that vampirism within fiction could be linked to porphyria, a rare blood disease which causes skin to be malformed, and often includes symptoms such as mental disturbances or extreme sensitivity to sunlight. Further, the disease often causes skin tightening, which can lead to lips and gums shrinking, and making it look like a person has ‘fangs’, and a person suffering from Porphyria will also have an intolerance to foods with high sulphur content – like garlic.
are folkloric humans with the ability to shapeshift in wolves or wolf-like creatures. Details of these creatures have varied and evolved over time, with the earliest known references being found in classical antiquity. One reference is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, again. In it, Gilgamesh refuses to be Ishtar’s lover due to her treatment of former suitors; one of whom she turned into a wolf. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the character Lycaon serves human flesh to the god Jupiter as a test. In response, Jupiter transforms him into a wolf. The main development of the werewolf mythology came in the Middle Ages, as the lore spread alongside a growing belief in witches. One of the earliest examples of tales in this period is Marie de France’s Bisclavret (yet again, shout out to English Literature students), in which a nobleman is cursed with transforming into a wolf every week.
One of the most likely reasons for the werewolf myth to have come about is rabies, a disease that predominantly affects dogs, but can be spread to humans. The main symptoms include foaming at the mouth, fear of water, hallucinations, and aggressiveness. Bystanders could have noticed an individual being bitten by a dog, and viewed these symptoms as evidence that the individual was becoming a dog or wolf-like creature. This disease explains neither the links to the lunar cycle, or the hairiness characteristic of werewolves. Another rarer disease that could be linked to the myth is hypertrichosis. This syndrome causes excessive hair growth all over the body, and can lead to an individual looking like a werewolf.
As can be seen, all of these monsters have grounding in both literature and science. One thing is for sure: regardless of their origins, Halloween would not be the same without them!