Things that go bump in the night.
October 14, 2007 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Cinema Fiction vs. Physics Reality (PDF -- HTML version without addendum here) Two physicists examine certain features of popular myths regarding ghosts, vampires, and zombies as they appear in film and folklore. See also Real Zombies (audio) on the science of zombiefication. Also of interest are Psychological significance of Immortal beings (audio) and Blood Fighting: Dawn of the Robots and Zombies (video), which delve into the prominence of vampires, zombies and other things that go bump in the night in popular culture. Not to your liking? Well, check out some classic (and some not-so-classic) horror tales inside. posted by cog_nate (31 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
[This is goOoooOoooOod]

*Ducks hail of tin cans and boots*
Obligatory link to Mr. Show's expose on monsters. And their parties.

posted by Alvy Ampersand at 2:36 PM on October 14, 2007

Ghosts on skates? That sure sounds scary.
posted by darkripper at 2:36 PM on October 14, 2007

It's a genuine relief to know that the existence of zombies and vampires is a mathematical impossibility.

What's always troubled me about the plausibility of zombie stories is the fact that their muscles have atrophied/rotted and tendons dried to the point of crackling. It would be impossible for them to have any motor skills at all, let alone be powerful enough to rip a large motorcycle gang member in half at the midsection.
posted by psmealey at 2:53 PM on October 14, 2007

The whole argument is based on the idea that vampires never just kill anyone, they turn all their victims.

Required reading on vampires, Halloween, and horror; all by the amazing David J. Skal.
posted by Roman Graves at 3:18 PM on October 14, 2007

But -- but -- Peter Watts says that vampires could exist! (Link goes to HTML page with embedded Flash video: click to start. PDF and downloadable videos also available. Previously pimped here, although I must point out that Blindsight is not a vampire novel. My bad. A vampire in space is just one of the main characters, that's all.)
posted by maudlin at 3:26 PM on October 14, 2007

[this is no fun at all]
posted by blacklite at 3:36 PM on October 14, 2007

What's always troubled me about the plausibility of zombie stories is the fact that their muscles have atrophied/rotted and tendons dried to the point of crackling. It would be impossible for them to have any motor skills at all, let alone be powerful enough to rip a large motorcycle gang member in half at the midsection.

There was a great askme answer about this before

Zombie muscles work differently
posted by ZippityBuddha at 3:38 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

A problem with their argument against vampires is that a vampire could kill it's dinner to prevent the creation of an additional vampire.

Feeding once a month = 12 people killed in a year. In 1600 CE a vampire could easily go from village to village and "disappear" some shepherd or young apprentice once every month.

Nowadays, a vampire could get it's supper without laying lips on person. Hmm, maybe that was why bloodletting was such the rage in 1600.

Also, can't vampires hibernate for years at a time?
posted by porpoise at 3:48 PM on October 14, 2007

It's a genuine relief to know that the existence of zombies and vampires is a mathematical impossibility.

Way to stomp on my dreams.
posted by Evangeline at 4:15 PM on October 14, 2007

the first essay is kinda weak, if a little interesting in parts. but it's also riddled with typos.

but bitching aside, this is fun post.
posted by es_de_bah at 4:50 PM on October 14, 2007

I can't wait to hear what the biologists have to say about warp drives & wormholes.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:52 PM on October 14, 2007

re:vampires. also, orignal dracula rules say you have to drink a vampire's blood to become a vampire, otherwise you're just sick or dead with no new vampire, so the exponential growth thing is bs.

it works better as a way of looking at zombies. and in the best zombie movies, zombification spread horrifically fast, which is tons of fun.
posted by es_de_bah at 4:52 PM on October 14, 2007

Well done, sir.
posted by puke & cry at 5:02 PM on October 14, 2007

Before I clicked on the link, I figured darkripper's post was about ice skates, rather than a shade on a skateboard.
And here I was, imagining The Rink: Zomboni From Hell.
posted by rob511 at 5:15 PM on October 14, 2007

posted by vrakatar at 5:16 PM on October 14, 2007

And thanks for the link to Tormented, one of the best mst3k episodes ever.
posted by vrakatar at 5:17 PM on October 14, 2007

I have to admit; Tormented freaked me out, even with the MST3K commentary. The ending was way telegraphed but the whole thing was so unrelentingly bleak, and the child witness subplot so cruelly calculated that it was difficult for me to watch.
posted by cog_nate at 6:32 PM on October 14, 2007

Vampires are sick, say psychiatrists.
posted by tellurian at 6:38 PM on October 14, 2007

"I'm gonna kill me a girlfriend,
and marry the girl i need.
I'm gonna kill me a girlfriend,
she'll turn into seaweed..."

yeah, Tormented is rough, but the host segement where joel and the bots make action figures of pop singers plummet to their deaths from a toy lighthouse is just beyond awesome.

changing gears, i have seen ghosts. they are real.
posted by vrakatar at 6:49 PM on October 14, 2007

Nice post.

And for your enjoyment, Monster in a wheelchair by Brian Huskey.
posted by zap rowsdower at 7:51 PM on October 14, 2007

posted by cog_nate at 8:06 PM on October 14, 2007

God, this is a fantastic post.

One comment in the Nosferatu movie forum stands out - "Why can't I hear any voices?" I don't think s/he's quite grasped the concept of silent movies...
posted by ninazer0 at 8:15 PM on October 14, 2007

Back in the day, when I was kinda sorta into Vampire the Masquerade, I had my own pseudo-scientific theory about vampires in that universe.

I was thinking vampires were nothing more than humans infected with a symbiotic parasite. The parasite's effects were mostly beneficial but with a few drawbacks. One key effect was to greatly extend the pre-programmed moment of cell death. This would act as an anti-aging and would give the impression that a vampire was immortal. Eventually a vampire would die of old age but that would be hundreds of years in the future, barring violence and accidents, and the average joe would just assume Count Dracul was going to be around forever. One side effect of this change is a greater ability to heal from wounds, even to the point of limited regeneration. Only a complete distruction of a key organ, such as the heart or brain, would be fatal. Hence the idea of a stake through the heart as an anti-vampire device. Fire would also be very bad as would a head shot.

Other effects would include increased brain capacity and muscle capacity, though the overall effects would vary for each individual. The stomach would completely atrophy, thus necissitating the need for blood. Since the symbiote is blood borne, ingestion of blood would be essential to feed it, and so it would alter the impulses of the infected individual so that he would obsessively seek blood. The symbiote would increase metabolism so that less nutrition would be needed than before and would give the impression that the vampire has nearly unlimited energy.

A vampire can extend the effects of limited caloric intake by going into hibernation as necessary. An infected individual can hibernate for a time, up to 10 years, without much of an ill-effect.

One of the key drawbacks would be greatly increased sun sensitivity. The vampire would not burst into flames in the sun, but would suffer the risk of going blind quickly or receiving rather terrible sunburns very quickly. Therefore, the sun is to be avoided, except for very short durations.

Since the infection is blood borne, this explains why new vampires are created by drinking blood from an infected individual.

The symbiotic organism has mutated a bit during its time with humans and the variations have lead to the clans found in the Masquerade universe. Some variations cause schizophrenia but greatly increased IQ, hence Malkavians. Some people get only minimal effect from the virus, due either to the virus being weak or due to an extraordinarily strong immune system. These people are known as thin bloods.

The clans seem to be careful in their selection of new members, and therefore they pick new people who match the existing mental conditions. So the overall effect of the organism variations isn't entirely known.

Since vampires are ultimately just enhanced humans, they're as likely to be prey to superstition as any normal human. Therefore they've accumulated years of mystical claptrap about their condition but all of that is utter nonsense. You would think that with extended lifetimes, there would be less of a chance of myths arising since any myth could be easily contradicted by living memory, but this is not the case. In many cases, as in the outside world, the myths are used cynically to manipulate people into certain behaviors.

So thats my theory in a nutshell. I'm sure anyone who paid more than minimal attention in biology 101 could shoot enormous holes in it, but I'm very fond of my theory and will stick with it anyways.
posted by pandaharma at 8:20 PM on October 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

Nice one! See also: zombie game roundup.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:08 PM on October 14, 2007

My labmates and I would discuss the physics (and inherent biology) of zombies for hours. I can't think of a better way to spend my time.
posted by spiderskull at 11:30 PM on October 14, 2007

The argument about vampire predation is nonsense, and not even amusing nonsense.

See Vampire Ecology in the Jossverse (written by a PhD candidate in ecology) for what many consider to be the definitive work on the subject of vampires and their prey.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:01 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

No need to have the cover of night for Emotional Vampires.
posted by nickyskye at 8:57 AM on October 15, 2007

“We conclude that if the first vampire appeared on January 1, 1600, humanity would have been wiped out by June of 1602, two and a half years later.”

Re-admires “I Am Legend”

Y’know, if there were vampires, humans would be toting blowtorches and stakes (and axes and swords) pretty much everywhere from the point of discovery on.
Hell, we get put out of kilter over Communists. We were willing to annihilate them with nuclear weapons. That’s just an ethos.
Versus an entire community looking to drink our blood and spread diseases to our children?
Heh. We’d do a lot of damage to ourselves, but they’d be eradicated pretty quickly. And superior strength, quickness, supernatural powers, all that, typically secondary to intellect and creativity. Which always suffer when someone posesses natural advantages. It’s the nearly-powerless vampires (who make use of technology, need to think about methods rather than rely on their powers - even stealth) who might be dangerous. They’d likely live in symbiosis much as the native americans did with the buffalo. Maybe work at a blood bank, pay their bills, keep a really, really, low profile, try to spread as much goofy disinformation about vampirism as possi....hmmm.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:17 AM on October 15, 2007

*gasps, cancels phlebotomy appointment*
posted by cog_nate at 11:58 AM on October 15, 2007

> The point is that for the ghost to walk, it must be applying forces
> to the floor. Now the floor is part of the physical universe. Thus
> the ghost has an affect on the physical universe. If this is so, then
> we can detect the ghost through physical observation. That is, the
> depiction of ghosts walking, contradicts the precept that ghosts are
> material-less. Forces acting on the feet of a person while walking.
> So which is it? Are ghosts material or material-less?

Um. Last time I went upstairs and thought to look behind me, I noticed that my shadow had no trouble walking up the stairs also. And yet, though shadows are perfectly explainible in material/physical terms, thay are not made of any sort of material and they don't apply any force to the floor.

The trouble with the kind of debunking analysis offered by Efthimiou and co. is that it's based not just on materialist assumptions about how the ghostie-thingies do what they do but also on the further, and unjustifiable, assumptions A. that we know how they're doing their remarkable stuff, and B. they're doing it in the most obvious physics-101 way. Why would we assume that?

I once sat in on a seminar in which that day's guest (initials SJG, for any biologists in the crowd) pulled Hollywood Giant Movie Ants into his discussion of biomechanics and what we can infer about the behavior and capabilities of fossil animals based on the remains palaeontologists have recovered. (Readers of Natural History magazine may remember the same Giant Movie Ants, and the same biomechanics lecture, turning up in this person's monthly column and later in one of his books of recycled columns.) His point was that giant ants can't exist because they would collapse of their own weight, and he went into considerable detail and some mathematics, relating the supporting strength of a member to its cross-sectional area, to support his presentation. I must have rolled my eyes or nodded off or something because eventually he called on me and asked if I doubted his argument. I said I did not doubt it in regard to dinosaurs, because I was entirely convinced that their skeletons were made of bone, but that it made no sense to me to apply the argument to Hollywood Giant Movie Ants because we have no idea what Hollywood Giant Movie Ants made of. We have no reason--none--to assume their exoskeletons are made of chitin like little ants; but if we don't assume that, then we have no material strength constants to plug into our equations. In fact we can show concisely that our Hollywood Giant Movie Ants cannot be built from chitin because if they were, why, they'd collapse of their own weight! But they manifestly don't collapse. Ergo, not chitin, analysis doesn't apply.

And so with the ghosties and the vampires. Why would we assume that such creatures are entirely ordinary and prosaic except for this one remarkable feature about them that drives the plot? It strikes me as much more sensible to think that their having one absolutely astonishing property is more than enough to bring all their other properties into question also, so that until we reinventory and reexamine all those other properties we can't base any analyses on them--because we have no idea what they are.
posted by jfuller at 6:21 PM on October 15, 2007

it made no sense to me to apply the argument to Hollywood Giant Movie Ants because we have no idea what Hollywood Giant Movie Ants made of

It's reasonable to assume, if anything about giant movie ants is reasonable to assume, that they are just like regular ants, only bigger because they've mutated. Because that's what they say in the movie: run for your lives, it's giant fucking ants! Not run for your lives, it's (normal-sized, for all we know, and, truth be told, we wouldn't know if they were even a tad smallish for the species) animals (we figure, but maybe they're robots? who could say?) that only superficially resemble regular ants only (quite fucking) giant compared to regular ants, and indeed, big enough to eat my car.

If the movie doesn't mention that the chitin has been switched out or modified, you must assume it's regular chitin like you'd find in picnic-grade ants. The movie just needed a short scene with some Dr Plateofbeans of the Suspension of Disbelief Institute explaining that the exoskeleton seems to be made of some stronger stuff that allows the ants to grow so fucking giant without collapsing under their own weight, and this also would have explained why our tanks and jet fighters had such trouble with them. And then an ant could have bitten his head off, but not before we had learned that, aha, giant ants are indeed possible given extra-strong exoskeletons!
posted by pracowity at 2:10 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

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