From Whence Do Monsters Come?

Oct 31, 2013

Ever wonder how people came up with the idea for vampires, zombies or witches?

Credit creative commons

Well, wonder no more. Roland Kays has the answers. He is director of the Biodiversity and Earth Observation Lab at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Host Frank Stasio talks with Kays about the real-world origins of some of our favorite Halloween monsters, like zombies, witches and vampires. 

Kays traces the vampire legend to a lack of a nutrient in old-world Eastern Europe. 

"There was a disease that was affecting the people in Europe at that time called pellagra," he said.

Pellagra is caused by a lack of niacin, which comes from a well-rounded diet. Those suffering from it get cracked lips and receding gums. And they are sensitive to sunlight. All symptoms that are similar to attributes associated with vampires

"This disease we think was some of the inspiration for that," Kays said.  

When it comes to zombies, the real story is almost as creepy as the made-up one. They can be traced to the voodoo religion in early 20th-Century Haiti. 

"A lot of these small villages had this voodoo religion that was very important to them, and these secret societies that would police themselves," Kays said. 

Part of the way they did that was through witch doctors, who played the role of a judge. 

"The ultimate punishment was they would turn you into a zombie," Kays said. "(The witch doctor) would put together a potion, and they would poison you." 

That poison would make you appear dead. After a few days, the witch doctor would dig the body up, wake the "zombified" body and feed it another poison that would supposedly render the person susceptible to the orders of the witch doctor. 

As for witches, it turns out they have quite a bit in common with hippies from the psychedelic era. 

Many of the villages  and towns where witch hunts took place relied on rye for sustenance. Unbeknownst to the villagers, ergot sometimes grows on rye, and they would eat it without realizing the psychoactive properties inherent in the fungus. Ergot, by the way, and an understanding of its properties, led to the development of LSD.

"These people were eating the rye grain, ingesting the ergot, they were having all sorts of really bad itches, and their fingers were going gangrene," Kays said. "You're having all these body problems and you're also tripping out."

Women suffering from ergot poisoning may have behaved in a way that led some to think them witches. It didn't help that the villagers were probably suffering from the same poisoning, clouding their view of reality.

Audio for this segment will be up by 3 p.m.