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article imageSpooky! The science behind Halloween

By Tim Sandle     Oct 31, 2015 in Science
London Colney - It's Halloween time and for many people that is time to have fun. Just like other holidays there are some scientific aspects to the scary day. Digital Journal takes a look at the science behind Halloween.
Previous years on Digital Journal we've brought you several rounds of 'the science behind Christmas' in time for the major holiday (as a part 1 and part 2.) This year we poke the scientific broomstick in a different direction and consider the science behind Halloween, or at least some of the spooky things associated with All Hallows’ Evening.
Sun setting on Halloween  2015
Sun setting on Halloween, 2015
Let's begin with getting scared. Many people will watch a scary movie on October 31 and a reaction to a haunted house or creepy slasher naturally raises the goosebumps. Despite seeking fear intentionally, in most cases it is a natural reaction and one very important to a human's survival instincts: the heart races, pupils dilate, we breathe heavy, sometimes the stomach tightens, even dizziness. Talking to CBS about this issue, psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Gordon notes: "Fear is there to protect us. People fear things that would have been dangerous as we evolved. A lot of things we see at Halloween play on natural fears we have to things like spiders."
Happy Halloween cartoon bat and skeleton.
Happy Halloween cartoon bat and skeleton.
Next, fangs. This time, not vampires but deer. Did you know deer could have fangs? Have a look at this video:
The deer in question is the kashmir musk deer. It was recently spotted in 2014 exhibiting pointed teeth, the first recorded incident since 1948. The musk deer is classified as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.
Moving on to some of the classic monsters. With werewolves there is a genetic condition that leads to some people having excessive body hair. It is possible that, in years gone by, people with this condition were mistaken for half-wolf, half-human creatures. Even today the condition - hypertrichosis - is sometimes called "werewolf syndrome."
A cartoon vampire  ready for Halloween.
A cartoon vampire, ready for Halloween.
How about zombies? The story behind the walking dead seems to date back to people falling under trances (either natural or artificially induced through mind-altering substances.) For instance, an ethnobotanist investigating the claims in Haiti found a toxic drug that could actually induce a zombie-style catatonic state.
Man transformed into a zombie.
Man transformed into a zombie.
Beyond people there is the 'zombie wasp.' Here the wasp Dinocampus coccinellae takes control of a ladybug that carries an egg the wasp lays in its abdomen.
Look into the face of a wasp
Look into the face of a wasp
Vampires, beyond the bat, do not exist. Unless there really is a vampire squirrel? Take a look at this video shot with a night vision camera:
Going back to fear, if you were afraid of spiders would you be prepared to have a chunk of your brain removed? Recently a 44 year-old businessman, who suffered from arachnophobia, started suffering with seizures. The only way to deal with this was for him to undergo surgery to remove part of his amygdala, which is buried deep within the brain. The operation was successful and when he recovered his fear of spiders had gone.
If you want to try some scientific special effects, like smoky fingers, there are several websites outlining experiments (not for children!) If you want to create a puff of smoke from your fingers, this can be done with the help of some glycerol. Here a small quantity of glycerol (or the liquid added to fog machines) can be rubbed on the middle finger and thumb. The heat generated from this activity produces a small puff of magical smoke.
Finally, one way to really scare someone is with a scream. You want this to be high-pitched, right? Perhaps not according to David Poeppel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Germany. What makes a scary scream is a particular modulation. This was found by subjecting a wide range of subjects, The Washington Post reports, to a range of different screams (some taken from horror films.) The most frightening are those at a modulation rate between 4 and 5 hertz. The singer Tom Waits was cited as often coming closest to the vocal range. Possibly this the best thing to end a Halloween article on, Tom Waits' Cemetery Polka.
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