MSUM professors explain the biology behind monster myths
The Forum interviewed biosciences professors Ellen Brisch and Andrew Mazz Marry about monster myths.
MOORHEAD – Minnesota State University Moorhead biology professors Ellen Brisch and Andrew Mazz Marry have “vamped up” their classes for more than 10 years with a Halloween lecture that offers biological theories behind some of the most-common monster myths like vampires, werewolves and zombies.
Always looking for ways to make biology engaging for students, Brisch said she first presented the lecture to her introductory human biology class.
“One of the things I tried to do, understanding that people are taking this because they have to, was make them have fun and enjoy the material,” she said.
Since giving the first lecture in 2002, Brisch has updated it with contributions from students and Marry, who joined the department in 2005.
Biology provides some logical reasons for some of the odd human conditions that could have caused the mythology of these creatures.
“I’m not saying there are werewolves. I’m not saying there are vampires. But there are biological conditions that might make people be suspect,” Brisch said.
For Marry, the scariest thing about monster lore is the history behind it.
Before advances in science, anything inexplicable could be considered “evil.”
“It’s fear and, at the time, not having that understanding,” Marry said. “If someone’s hairy and looks like a wolf, immediately we get scared of him.”
Using history, folklore and science, Brisch and Marry explain how many of the characteristics associated with these spooky creatures are caused by real human genetic mutations and diseases.
Part of the vampire myth can be explained by porphyria – a rare genetic disorder that can cause extreme sun sensitivity.
Porphyria sufferers start to photosynthesize in the sunlight because of one of the eight mutations that causes the disease, which explains why vampires can’t go out in the sun.
The disease can cause neurological problems and other visible symptoms such as jagged teeth and bleeding gums.
People suffering from the disease might have sought relief by drinking blood to alleviate their symptoms, Marry said.
The porphyria theory can also explain the origins of the use of garlic to ward off vampires.
People with the disease might have been drawn to garlic because of its blood-thinning properties.
“The ‘vampire’ wasn’t warded off by the garlic. It was just more interested in the garlic so you could run away,” Marry said.
In her original lecture, Brisch pointed to a real developmental gene first discovered in flies called disheveled that makes body hairs go every which way, thus creating a wolf-like appearance.
After that lecture, a student emailed her to point out another theory: a genetic mutation that causes a condition called congenital hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth.
Those with the condition also have hair placement more similar to mammals than humans.
In Voodoo folklore, a zombie is an undead person forced to work for their zombie master – someone who has used supernatural powers and medicine to capture their soul.
Marry suggests the zombie master uses powerful drugs to put victims into a deep coma. This “zombie powder” contains tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin named for the pufferfish that carry it.
“An anesthesiologist does this. You give someone the right amount of drug for their body mass and you can keep them completely unconscious,” Marry said. “It’s completely plausible that someone who knew enough about that could keep someone in a zombie-like state and get them to do anything.”
Another theory Marry offers is that zombie-like behavior can be explained by catatonic schizophrenia. Those suffering from the mental illness may be in a state of stupor and assume rigid, bizarre postures.
Marry, offering an explanation for the Salem witch trials in 17th-century Massachusetts, pointed to ergot, a plant disease caused by a fungus similar in chemical makeup to LSD.
The group of young women who were eventually executed for witchcraft might have had hallucinations and displayed unusual behavior because they had been eating food derived from contaminated rye.
Those accused of witchcraft lived in isolation together and ate the contaminated food while the good food supply was reserved for the rest of the community.
“They were … being force-fed moldy bread and mead. So of course they were hallucinating and acting weird,” Marry said. “And they were all tried as witches.”