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!READ EBOOK ⚆ Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters ♆ Modern Audiences Do Not Find Dragons Frightening Fascinating As Mythical Creatures, Yes, But Terrifying, No Yet, Present Them With A Story About A Virus That Can Kill A Healthy Adult In Hours And They Will Have Nightmares For Weeks The Difference Between The Two Is Believability Monsters Are At Their Most Frightening When They Carry Characteristics That Tie Them To The Real World In Some WayPreposterous As They Might Seem Today, Dragons Were No Different In Ancient Times Humans Long Ago Stumbled Upon Skeletons That Had Sharp Teeth And Talon Like Claws These Fossils Were Real And Some Were Frighteningly Large Those Who Looked At Them Could Only Guess At How Dangerous The Animals That They Belonged To Must Have Been From Such Interactions, Dragons Were Born Yet, In Spite Of Ample Physical Evidence That Dragons Existed, None Were Ever Seen In The Flesh Dragon Bones Were Ultimately Proven To Be The Bones Of Huge Predatory Dinosaurs Like Tyrannosaurus Rex, But Before The Mystery Was Solved, They Were The Makings Of Frightening Beasts That Managed To Evade Human Sight By Lurking Deep Within The Shadows Of The Wild The Science Of Monsters Will Explore Monsters That Have Haunted Humanity Throughout The Ages, From Medusa To Sea Serpents, Giants, And Vampires In Each Chapter Kaplan Uses Scientific Principles, Current Research, And His Thorough Knowledge Of The Natural World To Explain Why Specific Monsters Came To Be And What It Was About Them That Was So Terrifying To The People Who Brought Them To Life
Some of the themes and characters in world mythology are near immortal They take a life on their own and evolve into myriad shapes and forms over the centuries A monster is one such character which has grown and metamorphosed across varied civilizations At a time when the earliest of humans regaled each other at their communal get togethers with tall tales, the monsters took the forms of hideous, frightening and incredibly dangerous entities and the dread they unleashed was only as limited as the imagination of the person telling the stories Generations were terrified and thrilled by them and myths were modelled around them Also as humanity evolved so did their heroes who could vanquish these deadly creatures The ability to defeat a monster gave the hero a certain aura of invincibility that after a while, heroes came to life with the sole purpose of being a monster hunter Imagine where would Heracles have been if he hadn t defeated the Nemean Lion Would Beowulf have attained the same popularity if there was no Grendel What of Harry Potter and Voldemort Would the boy wizard still have been as powerful without his nemesis Civilizations rose and fell and with them the forms of the monsters that they dreaded also evolved Matt Kaplan s book is an examination of various monsters across civilizations, the social scenarios in which they found their footing and what might have contributed to their wide spread acceptance in society then The short essays in the book are a mix of science, assumption and many a times relies on pure guess work Some of the points that Kaplan makes are rather interesting, like Earthquakes and volcanic activity might have led to the Minotaur legends The advanced stages of rabies might have given rise to the Werewolf myths How a corpse with a belly full of gas and post mortem bleeding might have given rise to the Vampire myths How the myth of a dragon might have arisen out of dinosaur fossils etc On the flip side there was way too much of guess work and assumption that Kaplan resorts to in these articles There is a lot of could have been might have been and assume that after a while I selectively tuned out a lot of information While the author relies much on science to make his point, the analysis he offers isn t very scientific in nature From a learning standpoint it helped me to understand about a few monsters that I had no clue about earlier But on me a full rounded overview of the psychological or scientific effects of monsters on human beings, this did not strike the mark. In this entertaining look at beliefs in monsters of various sorts, as with hisrecent book on magical powers, Science of the Magical From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers, Matt Kaplan explores the ways in which science and culture create the background for belief in things fantastic Kaplan s argument, that monsters serve an important purpose by representing deeply held fears and allowing people to practice facing those fears in a safe way, is hardly original, but he writes with cheerful, sometimes flippant enthusiasm, and, while bringing in plenty of real science and history, he rarely takes his imaginary subjects or his imaginative theories too seriously Kaplan s premise, that monsters are created due to specific and identifiable human fears combined with observable phenomena works better with some monsters than others The link between Old Hag Syndrome and sleep paralysis is quite convincing, while the idea that the Golem of Prague was a vigilante seems, generously, a stretch Most of Kaplan s proposed explanations for beliefs in monsters, ranging from Hercules s Nemean lion all the way to sparkly modern vampires and UFO s, fall somewhere in between these extremes of sure, that seems plausible and ha Most often his proposals seem not unreasonable, but also, often, not fully convincing either I m inclined to givecredit to the wild imaginations of storytellers, who will create exuberantly hideous monsters even without needing the prompt of evolutionarily helpful fears, than Kaplan seems inclined to Still, Kaplan s speculations are inventive and fun, and he wanders off down some interesting rabbit trails I particularly enjoyed the story he tells about the scientific evidence for zombies, involving poison worms, Bufo toads, and puffer fish Also, his footnotes are extensive and amusing.I would recommend this to readers who enjoy exploring the whys behind belief in monsters and would give it 3 stars Okay, I m kidding But if I ask for stars maybe GR will someday give us stars, anyway , rounded up to 4. This book is amazing The author presents plausible scientific information explaining why ancient civilizations believed in different monsters as well as why the same monsters lost their ability to scare over time His wittiness breaks up the sometimes dry period of scientific data and several times throughout the nook made me laugh out loud This is a definite must read for anyone who wants to know where myths and legends came from.even if you still want to believe at the end. An entertaining, accessible, informative read that attempts to explain the scientific and psychological foundations of our most enduring monsters I enjoyed its light tone and quick pace, found some of the history and science to be quite fascinating, and loved all of the pop culture references and snarky asides Kaplan is certainly an entertaining author Not the heaviest or most impressive of texts, but a diverting read. Matt Kaplan does a really nice job balancing the scientific fact and evidence he presents with a sociological and psychological view of how these monsters have been depicted in art, film, and literature fiction He gives a broad overview which helps the reader make connections between seemingly different monsters, although I do wish there wasdetail for each section I could have kept on reading his clean prose, fascinating research, and humorous footnotes. Teratology is an area of interest to me, but this fell into the trap of so much non fiction in that it remained largely a litany of speculation I just prefer a littleof an academic tone, but maybe I m not the target demographic It is at its best when it is referencing the works of Adrienne Mayor, which reveals my anthropological biases just for saying so MK 3.5 stars The first half of this book was a bit boring, but the second half was really interesting, perhaps because the monsters in the second half wererelevant to today I found the footnotes obnoxious, but the writing was otherwise fine. Monsters, it turns out, evolve over time Vampires didn t always sparkle, zombies didn t always crave the taste of human brains, and until very recently dementors didn t even exist Why is it that the monsters that left people shivering in terror during the bronze age are so different than the monsters of the industrial revolution, which in turn are so different from the monsters today As society changes, the things that people fear change, and thus popular monsters change as well In his first solo book, science journalist Matthew Kaplan takes us on an engaging romp through the history of monsters, exploring not just what those monsters are, but what they tell us about ourselves.Kaplan is one of the top science journalists in the world, and it shows His writing is clear, lucid, and even dare I say it funny He makes complex scientific concepts accessible to non specialists, and his talent helps make this book an engaging and thought provoking read The book operates on two levels On the surface level, this book looks at a number of popular and obscure monsters, and tries to explain why people might have believed in them Perhaps the fossil record might have led people to speculate as to the sorts of creatures that could have created the bones they found Perhaps earthquakes could be the result of a rampaging minotaur, or fiery natural gas explosions the work of a dragon While this is largely speculative, the speculations are based in historical and scientific data The plausibility of the these discussions varies, and the range is well captured by the book s title The discussion of vampires is extremely compelling I won t describe it further here because I can t do it justice Meanwhile the section on the Medusa strains credibility at one point Kaplan goes so far as to suggest that people may have believed in petrification because it would feel similar to going into shock Fortunately, although no other section rises to the brilliance of the vampire discussion,of the treatments are compelling or at least thought provoking than not Of course, the question of why people might have believed in monsters presupposes the fact that people DID believe in them Here the book is on shakier ground When my mom watched the Harry Potter movies she had to close her eyes at the dementor scenes because she found them so scary but she doesn t actually believe in dementors Artists don t need to believe in a monster in order to depict it, and in fact get credit for creativity if they can create monsters that are new or original And many of the grounds for belief that Kaplan sketches out would not have been accessible to the masses who believed Much of the fossil record or scientific data that Kaplan argues could have led monsters to seem plausible wouldn t have been known by anybody but the most elite scholars during antiquity So why this focus on why people might have believed in monsters This leads us to the second layer of the book, that monsters arelikely to be talked about and persist in culture to the extent that they are legitimately scary And we arelikely to fear something that we believe is a threat to us As such, for monsters to endure in lore, they must at least plausibly exist, and if they were to exist, plausibly represent a danger to us The latter of these premises is straightforward monsters that live in the forest are much scarier to a primitive forest society than an industrial society people who live in a city are less threatened by a giant lion, but terrified of the vampire who can blend into urban life while stalking its prey Thus as people move to cities, vampires will thrive while giant beasts become less terrifying And of course we do need to have some schema for how a monster could exist in order to be able to understand why to fear it For example, it would be hard to be afraid of robots before electricity had been invented to power them But ultimately, while I recognize that plausible things are probably scarier, I also recognize that people are able to suspend disbelief Movies with downright absurd premises can still have terrifying monsters because we can imagine ourselves in the artificial worlds that the movie takes place I can fear the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings despite the fact that there is no conceivable way they could exist, because I can empathize with Frodo s fear As such, I didn t think the present book s focus on why people might believe in various monsters was all that informative regarding why those monsters are talked about Put in other words, it is irrelevant whether or not the mechanism for producing dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is scientifically valid or not the average movie goer wouldn t know one way or the other and the fear comes not from the fact that dinosaurs may be actually creatable, but rather projecting oneself into a world where they are hunting you A final thought about the book In the conclusion, Kaplan discusses how in the movie Avatar, the monsters Na vi are the protagonists and the humans become the monsters He speculates as to why this modern conception of humans as monsters has evolved I m not sure that this is really all that modern If you look at myths from antiquity, there are some pretty monstrous humans Medea, for example, murders her own children in an attempt to get back at her lover, Jason who s no paragon of virtue himself Mordred from Arthurian legend is pretty monstrous too One doesn t have to look far to find stories where humans are portrayed as monsters In other words, modern conception of monster and its relation with man is quite nuanced, and that was likely true historically as well but much of what we know about monster stories from history comes from oral histories and incomplete records Thus, while it is undoubtedly true that monsters take new forms to fit the cultures in which they are discussed, it is also true that we know much less about monsters of the past This makes it hard to know how much of the differences are about cultural changes and how much are due to lost records.Despite my quibbles, my overall impression of the book is quite positive While the arguments in this book sometimes seem a bit of a reach, especially at the macro level, the individual micro level discussion of the monsters tend to be really fun to read and very thought provoking Kaplan has clearly done his research, and I feel like I learned a lot from this book, about science, monsters, and culture If you like science journalism or want to knowabout monsters, this book is definitely worth your time. Medusa s Gaze and Vampire s Bite by Matt Kaplan 2012 was one of those impulse buys one makes when seeing an interesting title in a bookstore Subtitled The Science of Monsters, I flipped through it at the bookstore and thought that it would be an interesting read And in many ways, it was However, I found there were areas, sources, and promised material that were either missing entirely or only very briefly covered Because of my own hopes and subsequent disappointment, I can only recommend the book with reservations In an attempt tofully explain my reservations and what the book does cover, I will write a fuller outline of the book than I normally do.Kaplan s thesis is to attempt to explain the science, sociology, and psychology behind some of our legendary monsters In this, he not only looks at the creatures of myth and legend, but also surveys some of the modern creations of literature and film He organizes the book in two ways First, his discussions are mostly chronological from the dim past to the present Secondly, he organizes the monsters by type The reader will see what I mean by this below.He opens the book in Chapter 1 calling it Giant Animals Nemean Lion, Calydonian Boar, the Rukh, King Kong One can see this is a mixed bag The first three are from ancient legends and cultures, the last, a modern day well, 1933 film creation The first two he argues may simply be large genetic mutants For the Nemean Lion, he discusses the cave lion of ancient Eurasia as being the source of the legend Regarding the Lion s invulnerability, he offers us a condition known as scleroderma, a thickening of the skin As for the Caledonian Boar, since no boar is known to have existed of such large size, he argues for a genetic mutation or a pituitary gland disorder The Rukh which I think is better known as the Roc in Western literature was a giant bird mentioned in the tales of Sinbad Following his discussion of the actual size needed to lift the objects claimed, Kaplan argues that the legend grew from people s experiences with fossils He concludes the chapter with King Kong, the giant gorilla from Skull Island His discussion is interesting in that he argues that the film presents the story as a morality tale in which the giant creature was not the villain, but rather man is However, I felt it was out of place being positioned next the previous three He then argues that our society is no longer afraid of giant creatures If he was consistent, where is the discussion of Them 1954 , Tarantula 1955 , and The Black Scorpion 1957 among others.Chapter 2 concerns creatures made of several other animals The chapter spends the majority of its time discussing the Chimera, a creature made of a lion, goat, and serpent He returns to a further discussion of genetics and fossils In particular, he looks at fossil beds and tar pits in which the fossils and bones of several species are mixed together Along the way, he has brief passages on the Hydra and Cereberus, the three headed dog that guards the gates of Hell This leads him to write about H G Wells novel, The Island of Dr Moreau 1896 which was also made into a film twice 1977, 1996 However, I m not sure this is the place for this discussion in that he has a later chapter 8 on monsters created by man But if this is where he wants to discuss this, where is the film The Human Centipede 2010 Chapter 3 is subtitled, It Came from the Earth In this chapter, Kaplan tackles two main creatures, the Minotaur and Medusa For the Minotaur, he concentrates on the legend of the labyrinth and his roaring that shakes the earth to delve into the geology of Crete, tectonic plate movements, subduction zones, earthquakes and volcanoes Although interesting, the Minotaur is lost in these discussions, and quite frankly, this is a lot of writing to explain its roar As for Medusa, Kaplan looks at the phenomena of being scared stiff as a psychological response to shock to explain the legend of people turning to stone Then he spends time writing about venomous snakes and arguing that we have an innate fear of snakes that is passed on I have an issue with that in that it smacks of Lamarckian evolution in postulating that learned behavior can be genetically transmitted.As I was reading the previous chapters, I kept wondering about the great sea monsters and in Chapter 4, Kaplan addresses them In particular, he discusses Charybdis, Leviathan, the Giant Squid and Jaws Two of these are fictional and the other two, although existing, may be exaggerated Charybdis was one of two legendary monsters usually paired with Scylla Charybdis, according to legend was once a lovely naiad and daughter of Poseidon and Hera not mentioned in the book In Greek legend, she becomes a vicious whirlpool that drags down ships in her father s feud with Zeus Kaplan attempts to explain the possibility of a giant whirlpool that operates several times daily I m dubious As for Leviathan, he looks at it possibly derived from an unusual whale sighting, serpents again, and possibly eels He has almost no mention of the Kraken.Turning to creatures that exist, first up is the giant squid Although known, it is rarely seen and little is known of its habits, etc Perhaps the best book about the giant squid is Richard Ellis The Search for the Giant Squid 1998 This leaves Jaws by Peter Benchley 1974 with a film version by Steven Spielberg in 1975 which arguably started the summer blockbuster phenomena Here, we are introduced to a large Great White Shark Kaplan uses this as a jumping off point to write, albeit briefly, about shark attacks Given his use of the Great White, I was surprised when he didn t include among his denizens piranhas or large alligators and crocodiles.Chapter 5 is about dragons Kaplan returns to the serpents and the introduction of fire breathing and flying He concludes the chapter by saying dragons are not feared today and looks at examples from the Harry Potter films, How to Train Your Dragon 2010 and briefly mentions the film Reign of Fire 2002.Moving on, Kaplan next addresses the spirit world His subtitle implies that he will discuss demons, ghosts and spirits However, he mostly addresses demons, in particular, incubi male demons seducing women at night and succubi female demons seducing men at night In his discussion, he spends a lot of time concerned with dreams and their interpretation along with sleep disorders This leads him to address the Sirens of the adventures of Odysseus Ulysses However, there is almost nothing on ghosts This makes the chapter very deficient.Chapter 7, at long last, covers our current popular monsters vampires, zombies, and werewolves Although he does a fair job in discussing the background and possible explanations for vampires including how they ve evolved to our present conception, he leaves out one possible myth of their origins which regards Lilith, who was Adam s first wife in Jewish mythology She is sometimes presented as the first vampire He doesn t talk much about where the idea of blood sucking comes from He does deal with premature burials and bodily decomposition to explain some aspects of a vampire s appearance in their coffin Turning to zombies, Kaplan spends considerable time writing about voodoo rituals and the origins of the zombie myths In particular, he discusses research done in the late 60s through the 80s in a search for a zombie serum which could turn people into zombie like beings He spends several pages describing work by Lamarck Douyon, the director of the Psychiatric Institute in Port au Prince, Haiti and later work by Edmund Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobiologist Surprisingly, however, he doesn t actually reference Davis classic and best selling book on the topic, The Serpent and the Rainbow A Harvard Scientist s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic 1985 The chapter has very little on werewolves There s not much on the history and no mention of the medical condition known as hypertrichosis But he does write about sexual selection and human behavior.Chapter 8 is about creatures man has created The ones Kaplan discusses are the Golem, a creature made of clay animated to save Jews from brutality in a pogrom the Frankenstein monster HAL 9000, the rogue computer from Arthur C Clarke s novel 2001 A Space Odyssey 1968 based on his short story, The Sentinel 1948 and the film of the same name by Stanley Kubrick 1968 Kubrick and Clarke worked together on the screenplay and through delays, etc the novel actually was released after the movie and finally the Terminator from the movie The Terminator 1984 The theme of this chapter is that of science unchecked What happens when humans continually explore and experiment with matters beyond their control Chapter 9 returns us to monsters of our past, the dinosaurs Michael Crichton s Jurassic Park 1990 and the accompanying film by Steven Spielberg 1993 is the major work written about in this chapter, although Kaplan does mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle s The Lost World 1912 Again, the theme is of science unchecked However, this chapter is interesting in that Kaplan looks closely at the science Crichton used to plausibly create his dinosaurs Unfortunately, although the process Crichton uses is not plausible for dinosaurs, it may be possible to one day clone some Ice Age mammals The best way to possibly bring dinosaurs back is through back breeding their ancestors birds Of interest here is a small book, How to Build a Dinosaur by paleontologist Jack Horner and James Gorman 2009.The final chapter looks at aliens Kaplan first examines aliens who do not come in peace or are very dangerous His examples are the Martians from H G Wells 1898 tale, The War of the Worlds and it film versions 1953, 2005 Ridley Scott s 1979 film, Alien the Martians from Tm Burton s Mars Attacks 1996 and Independence Day 1996 In all these, the aliens are creatures to be feared Kaplan uses these movies to discuss the evolution of species in isolated geographic locations and the transmission of disease Kaplan then looks at movies where the aliens are essentially peaceful starting with the classic 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still and moving on to such modern classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977 and E.T., the Extra Terrestrial 1982 He finally concludes his book by looking at the reversal of monsters in James Cameron s Avatar 2009 In this movie, Cameron manages to lead the viewers to believe humans beings are the monsters and not the Na vi.Alright, so I have written extensively on Kaplan s book I think there are some good points in it and it s worthwhile for those However, I was, in the end, disappointed It felt like a missed opportunity to me There was so muchthat could have been done I do realize that the book I wanted would have been significantly larger, but I also think it would have been much better for it I believe Kaplan missed quite a few opportunities and some I thought he was going to cover, her wrote about only minimally or not at all So I can only recommend this with the caveats I ve mentioned.