Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters by Matt Kaplan
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
From the earliest times, humankind has been obsessed by monsters. As is evidenced by the fact that an entire month-long blogosphere event can be organized around horror stories, our species is fascinated by the things that scare us.
Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is that most special of nonfiction books – the kind you don’t want to put down. Kaplan has wonderful style, as well as the ability to make his already interesting subject even more interesting. He has clearly done the research necessary to present a well-rounded and informative book. I could tell that the book would be good when he started with this interesting and pertinent information on page 4:
…Rozin, along with many others in his field have a theory that there is pleasure for the mind in watching the body react negatively while knowing perfectly well that nothing bad is actually going to happen. The enjoyment, they suggest, comes from a sense of mental mastery over the body that is responding in a knee-jerk reaction.
To put this information in context, Kaplan describes two different studies, one of people who like very spicy foods and another of people who love horror movies. Both groups don’t just claim to enjoy the actual experience, which others would find to be physically or psychologically painsful, but they also claim to enjoy the accompanying physical reactions, whether it be sweating from spicy foods or a racing heart from the scary movie.
After establishing the human penchant for the things that frighten us, Kaplan works through ten different categories of monsters, from giant animals (many early monsters, King Kong), to the beasties of the water (Leviathan, Jaws) to the created (the Golem, Frankenstein, Terminator). Of course he also discusses werewolves, vampires, Medusa, ghosts, and the like, but what is particularly interesting about each of these ten categories is that by grouping them together in these categories, it is easier for Kaplan to look at the root cause(s) of the fear. For instance, the connection between rabies and the fear of those “cursed by a bite” such as vampires and werewolves.
This also allows Kaplan to describe the things that have replaced some of these earlier fears in the same categories. For instance, the myth of the minotaur seems to have evolved from geological happenings, such as earthquakes. Now that we understand the natural mechanisms that create loud noises and shaking from the earth we no longer use a proxy mythical beast, but that doesn’t keep us from making what are essentially horror movies with natural occurrences – earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, etc. – as the monster. As Kaplan says,
The monster is being created by the same core fear, but believability is forcing the form of the monster to change. -p. 147
Although Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is a particularly relevant read around Halloween, it is a smart exploration of the connection between man and monster that is a good enough read to pick up at any time. Highly recommended.
Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
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