Halloween is upon us, arguably the most fun of all the pagan festivals/Christian celebrations/consumer culture calendar dates.
On top of dressing up like a sexy bee, All Hallow’s Eve is filled with an array of terrifying ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Lurking within the legends that uphold these beasts and monsters, there’s actually a surprising amount of rational explanation, real stories, and scientific explanations.
Here are some of the most mundane explanations for the monsters and legends you're having nightmares about this week.
Legends of vampires have stuck around for thousands of years, long before the tales of Count Dracula, so it’s unsurprising that the phenomenon has some basis in reality. Far from a tall tale, it seems many features of vampirism were likely informed by people’s worry of disease and death, albeit explained through an elaborate folktale, not science.
Numerous researchers have shown how the symptoms of everything from tuberculosis to schizophrenia could explain some of the features associated with vampire folklore. Another likely suspect is the blood disorder called erythropoietic protoporphyria, which panicked sufferers used to attempt to remedy by drinking animal (or perhaps human) blood.
One of the more detailed theories suggests people with rabies might have been anxiously mistaken for vampires, as Juan Gomez-Alonso argues in a paper in the journal Neurology. Much like a crazed, night-stalking vampire, humans suffering from rabies often experience intense restlessness, a feeling of terror, persistent insomnia, and increasing agitation. Just before death, violent facial spasms can result in the teeth being clenched and bared. Then, in the last moments of life, a frothy blood liquid can spew from the mouth.
As Dr Gomez-Alonso's also points out, some of the most dramatic tales of vampires came from the Balkans in Europe during the 1700s, a time and place where scientists know there was a major epidemic of rabies among animals.
There are those who claim a hulking, hairy man-monster roams the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, with similar stories of “wild men” in medieval Europe and the Yeti in East Asia.
However, as one scientific study eloquently showed, they are almost certainly just bear sightings. In the Journal of Biogeography, researchers gathered data of bigfoot sightings and applied ecological niche modeling (ENM), a process of using computer algorithms to predict the distribution and movements of species in an area. They then compared this to similar ENM data about black bears (Ursus americanus). It was almost identical.
The Mothman continues to stalk the streets of Chicago, apparently. During 2017, at least 55 people reported sighting a giant, black humanoid figure flying through the skies over the urban Chicago area, according to VICE.
"It shot out of the creek like a rocket. One thing all of us noticed was the bright red eyes. It was six foot tall, with wings behind its back. It just shot up. As it started flying away, we heard the screaming sounds. It was pretty dramatic,” one man told The Chicago Reader, speaking about his experiences with the Mothman.
Of course, there’s little or no reliable photographic evidence online, but most people eventually came to a consensus that this was just a big owl. Consider the great horned owl, a native owl of the Americas with a wingspan of 1.5 meters (5 feet) and the power to take down a deer. It’s perfectly plausible that the large squawking animal in the sky could be mistaken for some fantastical beast.
Then again, that’s exactly what the Mothman himself might say...
As far as actual scientific evidence goes, there’s nothing to prove that aliens have ever made contact with Earth, let alone abducted Earthlings in rural Arkansas and probed them with cold metal objects. Nevertheless, countless people over the last century have made detailed claims of a close encounter with extraterrestrials. So, what gives?
Many scientists have pointed out that the experience of alien abductions closely mirrors the characteristics of sleep paralysis: a dazed mindset, the inability to move, a feeling of deep anxiety and dread, the sense of somebody else being present, etc. Other studies have suggested that "abductees" often report having disturbing experiences in their sleep and, even more interestingly, appear to show some kind of affinity for fantasy.
Scotland is undoubtedly the spiritual home of the lake monster (along with deep-fried pizza and luminously orange soda). However, just like most of these myths, you can find similar reports of lake monsters across the world, including the US.
Unfortunately for fans of the unexplainable, there’s no evidence to suggest the existence of Nessy. Most rational explanations suggest that reports of the monster are simply misidentifications, such as a deer covered in moss or simply a swimming otter. Slightly more tantalizing explanations, but still vaguely plausible, include Greenland sharks or eels.
It’s also worth remembering that pretty much every single body of water in Scotland has a story about a kelpie, a shape-shifting spirit that haunts lakes either in the form of a beautiful woman, a horse, or another creature. All early stories of the Loch Ness monster referred to the beast in relation to this old legend of the kelpie. For a peculiar reason, the legend has taken root and grown especially around this particular loch.
In spite of this, the legend ceases to die. 2017 was a ”record year” for sightings of the Loch Ness monster. Earlier this year, researchers used a technique called environmental DNA sampling in the loch’s water to discover all of the creatures living there. Who knows, perhaps they will find the traces of a giant plesiosaur.