actually believe in vampires, werewolves, witches (the broomstick-propelled
variety, rather than the non-flying, new-age nature priestesses) or zombies. But
nothing comes of nothing, and the truly rational might be forgiven for asking if
there are any scientific explanations lying behind the myths.
vampirism, proposed in 1985 by David Dolphin, a chemist at the University of
British Columbia, was that those thought to be suffering from it were actually
the victims of a genetic disease called porphyria.
This illness has one of whose more famous victims, King George lll, as it makes
the skin sensitive to sunlight. That is why sufferers tend to avoid the sun.
Porphyria can also cause retraction of the gums, making a person's teeth appear
longer than normal. And it frequently results in red urine, which might, in a
convoluted way, have led to the notion of drinking blood.
neurologist, is that the vampire legend was inspired by rabies. The symptoms of
rabies include insomnia, an aversion to mirrors and strong smells (though not
specifically to garlic), and an increased sex drive. And rabies, of course, is
transmitted by biting.
Rabies is probably also the explanation for lycanthropy-the apparent tendency of
some people to turn into wolves from time to time. Like vampirism, lycanthropy
is transmitted by biting. But in this case the resemblance to the real disease is
even stronger, for the biting is done by a wolf (albeit one with distinctly human
overtones), and wolves do carry rabies, which they may have sometimes passed
on to people. Since the madness that accompanies late-stage rabies could easily
appear bestial to an uneducated eye, the idea that a wolf-bite may sometimes
infect a victim with wolf-like characteristics might not have seemed all that far-
fetched a few hundred years ago.
In practice few, if any, people have been shot with silver bullets as werewolves,
or had stakes driven through their hearts van-Helsing-style as vampires. Staking
of a different kind was, however, a real risk for those accused of witchcraft in
17th-century Europe or America.
Part of the reputation of witchcraft is almost certainly due to the effects of
naturally occurring hallucinogenic drugs. One that frequently gets the blame is
muscarine, the active ingredient of fly agaricsthe red and white toadstools
beloved of the illustrators of books of fairy tales. Consumption of even quite
small amounts of fly agaric is likely to enable the diner to converse with the
gnomes who inhabit the toadstools in question or, even more pertinently, to fly.
A second fungus, with the less fetching name of Claviceps purpurea, is also
implicated in witchcraft. Claviceps is the natural source of LsD, perhaps the
most famous hallucinogen of all. It grows as a parasite on rye, and the "trip"
produced by eating infected rye is known today as ergotism. But in earlier times,
such druginduced visions might well have borne alternative, more magical,
And as Mary Kilbourne Matossian, a researcher and author on the effects of
disease on history, observed a few years ago, many of the 17th-century witch
panics (including that at Salem, Massachusetts) occurred in places where rye was
widely cultivated, and after weather that was propitious for the growth of
Zombies are also thought by some researchers to be people who have passed
through a drug-induced state. Unlike vampires, werewolves and witches, zombies
are a purely New-World phenomenon. Specifically, they come from Haiti.
Zombies are supposed to be the "living dead".
In fact, the process of zombification seems to involve the deliberate poisoning
of an individual with toxin from a puffer fish (the sort used to make the prized
but dangerous Japanese dish fugu). This puts him into a death-like trance, from
which he is revived with a potion made from the seeds of a hallucinogenic plant
known as the zombie cucumber. The result, apparently, is a biddable slave who is
convinced he has died and been resurrected. Trick or treat?
These scary Halloween legends may also be known as urban legends, which is a
contemporary story with an ironic or supernatural twist. Instead of beginning
"once upon a time," many urban legends start with an insistence that the story is
"absolutely true." Some storytellers add that they heard the story from a
friend or read the story in the newspaper. On closer inspection, certain "facts"
about the story don't seem logical. No matter, urban legends make great stories
to tell others. Try a scary story late at night at one your sleep-overs.
Something Scary in the Attic
When Susan was scared, her big blue eyes seemed to grow even bigger, and the
freckles on her ten-year-old nose stood out even more. Right now, both were
sunlit kitchen, where her mother was fixing dinner.
"Dust, probably," said her mother, as she carefully washed the chicken.
They had moved to this big, old two-story house only two months before, and
there was still much to do that was a lot more important than cleaning the attic.
"No, Mama. It's something scary!" Susan was trembling.
"Mmmm," her mother murmured, her mind on a dozen other things.
Susan tried again. It was no picnic being the middle child in a family of five boys
and girls. No one noticed what you were doing or saying. "Mama, it's black, and
there's no head, and it's just standing there!" Her words tumbled like the
baby's alphabet blocks. "Come and see it!" She tugged at her mother's arm and
tried to slip her small, shaky hand into her mother's warm, reassuring one.
"Oh, well," sighed her mother, putting the chicken in a shiny silver roasting pan.
"We'd better get this mystery solved, or the Bakers will never have supper
Susan crowded her way up the stairs, close beside her mother, saying over and
over, "It scared me!"
Mrs. Baker, with Susan safely behind her, swung open the attic door. She pulled a
chain overhead and flooded the storage attic with soft light. Over in the far
comer it stood, waiting.
Mrs. Baker laughed. "Why, Susan, it's an old dress form. It must be more than
fifty years old."
"What's a dress form?" was Susan's first question.
"Dressmakers use them for trying on dresses and blouses when you're sewing,"
her mother said. "Your grandmother used to have one. In fact, it looked a lot like
this one, covered with black knit cloth and all."
Susan began feeling better when Mama explained the odd presence. Her mind
was at ease now, and she knew she could sleep better that night.
"Could you use it, Mama?" was Susan's next question. She still wouldn't walk very
close to the black object.
"Maybe," Mrs. Baker replied thoughtfully. "It looks about my size, although my
waist isn't that small. Well, now that you know what scared you, let's go back
downstairs so I can finish making supper."
Soon the dress form was forgotten. For Susan there was school, her friends,
sports, and exciting plans for Halloween.
Every year Bridgeport had a giant Halloween parade. Boys and girls marched
down the town's main street in the spookiest, cleverest, funniest, craziest
costumes they could devise. The band played, people lined the streets, and the
procession ended at City Auditorium. It was there that the judging took place.
There were three prizes in each grade division: preschool, first and second,
third and fourth, and fifth and sixth grades. First prize in each division was
fifteen dollars; second prize, ten dollars; and third, five dollars.
Susan and her best friend, Alison, talked about the Halloween contest for days--
before school, at recess time, during lunch, and as they walked home from school.
"Oh, Alison," Susan would say, "if only my costume would win! Remember last year
when my younger brother and sister won first with their cat and fiddle
Alison would remind her, "Yes, and the year before, your brother Tom won
second with his Tin Man outfit."
Susan could almost feel the prize money in her hand and hear her parents and
friends applaud when they announced her name--"Susan Baker, first-prize winner
in the fifth-and-sixth-grade division!" It was wonderful to imagine!
But what could she wear to win such a prize?
Three days before the wonderful parade, while she was drying dishes, Susan
asked her mother, "Mama, what can I do for the Halloween parade? It'll soon be
Mrs. Baker paused in her pot scrubbing and looked out the window, lost in thought.
"Are you thinking, Mama?" Susan wanted to know. Mrs. Baker had a lively
imagination and every year seemed to come up with extremely clever, original
ideas for Halloween costumes. In fact, there was a Baker child among the
winners almost every time. After all, there were five of them to enter the
"I've got it, Susan!" she suddenly announced.
"What, Mama, what?" Susan's blue eyes widened in anticipation.
"We'll use that old dress form we found in our attic," Mrs. Baker said with
"That old dress form?" Susan sounded disappointed. She looked disappointed, too.
"It will make a great costume," her mother promised. "Just wait and see."
Long after the dishes were dried and put away, Susan lay in her bunk bed and
pondered just how the old dress form could possibly win a prize in the costume
The big night came, and everyone in the Baker household was getting ready for
the Halloween parade. After the younger children were settled in their
costumes, Mrs. Baker brought the dress form down from the attic. She had cut
two holes in the lower torso for Susan's eyes to peek out and had dressed the
model in a man's shirt and tie. Around the neck hung a carefully handwritten sign:
"The Headless Horseman."
Susan was delighted. She held her breath as her mother carefully dropped the
dress form over her head.
"Can you see out?" Mama asked.
"Kind of," replied Susan. "How about shoes, Mama?"
"Wear Tom's old dress-up shoes," was Mrs. Baker's solution. So Susan trudged
down Main Street as The Headless Horseman, remembering the frightening
story of Ichabod Crane.
It was hot in the City Auditorium. Perspiration trickled down Susan's freckled
face inside her awkward costume. Some older boys shoved her so hard that she
almost fell over; others jerked at her shirt. Then the dress form slipped to one
side, and Susan could barely see. But she could hear Alison nearby, "Are you OK,
Susan nodded, but of course, no one could see.
It seems like hours since I left home, Susan told herself. Will the judges ever
Age group by age group, winners' names were announced. There was much
confusion in City Auditorium, and the suspense was fierce.
"First prize in the fifth-and-sixth-grade division, Susan Baker, as The Headless
Horseman!" came the voice over the public-address system.
Susan could not get her hands out from under the dress form to take the
envelope. "I'll hold the prize money for her," Alison volunteered, and Susan was
too excited to thank her.
Mr. Baker lifted the dress form off his daughter's sweaty body, and soon
everyone in the family crowded around, laughing and talking at the same time.
As they drove home, Susan held the prize money in her hand and looked at the
dusty, black dress form on the car seat beside her, "And to think you once
almost scared me silly," she whispered.
This is an absolutely true story. It happened to one of my best friends when he
was about your age. He was driving home from a dance and saw a beautiful girl by
the side of the road. He stopped to give her a ride home. She said it was a long
way to her house, but he said that didn't matter. He thought that would give him
more time to get to know her.
He found out her name was Lavender and she loved the color and often. it often.
Sure enough, she was wearing it that night. He asked her if she would go to the
movies with him tomorrow night. She said okay.
As he was driving, he noticed that the countryside was getting spookier and
spookier; he had never been on this road before. Lavender begins shivering in the
cold night air and he offered her his jacket. As he let her out at the decrepit
shack she called home, he told her she could keep his jacket until tomorrow night.
The next night Lavender didn't come to the movies as she had promised. So he
drove back up to her home to find out why she stood him up and to get his jacket.
An old couple answered the door.
"I'm looking for Lavender," he said. "She promised to go to the movies with me.
Is she sick or something?"
The couple looked confused. The old man glanced at his wife, swallowed and said,
"Our daughter Lavender has been dead for over twenty years."
"That's impossible! I saw her last night! She has my jacket!"
"I can show you her grave if you like. It's behind the house," the old man offered.
When the boy saw Lavender's grave, he gasped. On the grave, neatly folded, was
Abducted at School
A friend of mine was driving back from the high school play one night. She noticed
a pick-up truck following her out of the parking lot, but she didn't think anything
about it until she noticed that when she picked up speed, the driver of the truck
increased his speed. When she passed a car, so did he. Each time he turned on his
high beams, flooding her car with light.
Now she was getting a bit uneasy, especially when he turned off with her on the
deserted road to her house. He kept following her closely, turning on his high
beams again and again. Finally he turned on his high beams and left them on.
At last she pulled into her driveway and the truck pulled in behind her. "Call the
police!" she screamed to her parents as she ran to the door.
When the police arrived, they started to arrest the man in the truck. The man
shook his head and said, "It's not me you want. It's that guy in her car."
Crouched in the back seat of the girl's car was a man with a knife. According to
the driver, the man slipped into my friend's car just before she drove off from
the school. The truck driver saw the man, but he couldn't stop him. So he
followed my friend, flashing his high beams every time the man rose up to
Leopard in the Luggage
In northern Transvaal, a leopard was killing a farmer's sheep. Finally he called on
an expert to help him capture the leopard. Soon the leopard was tranquilized and
The farmer didn't have the heart to kill it. Instead, he decided to release the
leopard at a game reserve. He had no cage so he put the tranquilized leopard in a
large suitcase and started down the road to Kruger Park.
Along the way he parked his Landrover and walked away to relieve himself in the
bushes. When he returned to the road, his vehicle was gone. At first the farmer
was angry, but then he laughed at the thought of the thieves opening the suitcase.
Costumes Are A Must
Dressing up in costumes. Telling scary stories. Trick-or-treating. Carving
pumpkins. These are the things that come to mind when most people think of
Halloween. But did you ever wonder where these spooky traditions started?
The origins of Halloween date back 2,000 years, to a group called the Celts
(kelts). They lived in what are now Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Celts would
gather on October 31 to celebrate the end of the harvest season. They had big
feasts and swapped scary stories of the supernatural.
Some experts say the Celts believed that the spirits of the dead roamed the
Earth on that night. To scare away the spirits, the Celts may have dressed up
like the dead. Who knows whether a Spider-Man or Cinderella costume would
have done the trick!
People in Ireland and Scotland used to make lanterns by carving up turnips and
putting candles inside. They may have used the lanterns to scare off the spirits
of the dead. When immigrants came to America, they continued the tradition but
used pumpkins, which were easier to find.
BEGGING FOR TREATS
Legends say that the Celts would set out food for wandering spirits on October
31. Those offerings may have been the first Halloween treats. Another tradition
started on All Hallows' Day in England. Poor people would dress in costumes and
knock on the doors of the rich, hoping to get "treats" like money and food.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Centuries ago, Roman Catholics began celebrating All Hallows' Day, also known as
All Saints Day, on November 1. The word hallowed means "holy." The night before
became known as All Hallows' Eve. That was later shortened to Halloween. Some
of the spooky Celtic traditions that had started years before continued on that
night. These traditions changed and grew into the holiday people celebrate today.
Word to Know
supernatural soo-pur-na-cha-ruhl) noun. something outside of nature or beyond
the visible world, such as a spirit.
Rogers, N. 2003. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.
Morton, L. 2012. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween.