Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters

Image of Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters
Release Date: 
October 23, 2012
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“Mr. Kaplan tries again and again to find reasonable scientific explanations for monsters . . . only to conclude . . . monsters are outside the realm of scientific inquiry.”

They lurk in the shadows, under the bed, or in the closet. They stomp across our movie screens, the pages of our books and our unleashed imaginations. As the popular science writer Matt Kaplan points out in Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite, “something deep inside monsters fascinates us.”

It certainly fascinates Mr. Kaplan, who has devoted a good deal of his science journalism to the subject and who now mixes much of that previous research with new material for this book’s dubious and entirely speculative mission to find the scientific basis for the mythic beasts of ancient legend and more recent popular fiction and film.

Ironically, Mr. Kaplan undercuts his own effort by proving the rather obvious fact that monsters have no scientific basis but are the products of the less rigidly defined human imagination.

As he navigates through these unknown waters afloat a sea of phrases like “could have been,” “may very well have been,” “possibly might have been,” and so on, he is forced at times to admit defeat.

For example, in his search for the source of the Jewish Golem, he concedes the plainly evident: “It is hard to see how anyone could think that a pile of wet clay can become animated by being shaped into human form and exposed to prayer.” It seems more likely, Mr. Kaplan further concedes, that the imagination of Jews in 16th century Europe produced the tale as a reaction to frequent anti-Semitic violence, a kind of revenge fantasy against their persecutors.

The closest he can come to the promise of his book’s subtitle is a foray into pop psychology when he gets around to Mary Shelley’s tale of reanimated life run amok and the rise of vampires in literature. He sees her story of Frankenstein’s monster (who, unlike Karloff’s cinematic monster, speaks and thinks intelligently) as striking a chord with popular fears of her time about medical advances that included early and crude attempts at reconstructive surgery, and vampire stories arising from the first efforts at blood transfusions.

And in a chapter titled “The Created” Mr. Kaplan incorporates discussions of HAL, the murderous computer from 2001:A Space Odyssey and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator as manifestations of our instinctive mistrust of artificial intelligence.

But try as he might, Mr. Kaplan can find nothing at all scientifically significant or verifiable about monsters as he hopscotches through centuries of human myth making.

Typical is his theory that the mythic Chimera, the lion-snake-goat mashup of Greek legend, may have been the imaginative explanation invented by early Greek settlers along the petroleum-rich shores of the Black Sea for the fossilized remains of animals that had been compressed together in the tar pits in which they became trapped. He arrives at this conclusion in a circuitous argument that begins with a discussion of the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, the fact that there are and never have been such tar pits anywhere in Greece, and the leap to Greek settlements along the Black Sea.

Attempting to follow this winding narrative, one is unsure if Mr. Kaplan is trying to be droll—or if he’s entirely serious—when he writes “Yet the La Brea Tar Pits would have been entirely unknown to the Greeks, who knew nothing of the New World.” That, at least, is an historical, if not a scientific, fact that hardly needs stating.

Mr. Kaplan writes in the concise, clearly organized style of the experienced journalist that he is, and keeps the casual reader engaged in the way a particularly lively museum guide would on a tour of the oddities stashed in the basement.

But the more serious reader may experience a growing sense of annoyance as Mr. Kaplan tries again and again to find reasonable scientific explanations for monsters from the Calydonian Boar to King Kong, only to conclude that monsters are outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

Monsters come from deep within us, the places we fear to go with our eyes wide open.