As the air gets crisper and the leaves begin to change, the calendar marches steadily toward October 31st and the holiday synonymous with it: Halloween. It’s a time for celebrating horror and thrills and everything that goes bump in the night. It’s a time for celebrating monsters.
When most people consider the word “monster,” they undoubtedly picture something grotesque and hideous… something frightening from which they would like to flee. However, for this post, I’d like you to consider a different definition of the word. The first definition of “monster” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is “an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure.” It’s important to understand that appearing abnormal does not necessarily make one hideous or grotesque. And, looking ahead to Halloween, the celebration of all things unusual and wonderful, I’d like to take a closer look at some real-life medical conditions that give people some of the “abnormal forms or structures” of fictitious “monsters.” Let’s start with one that we’ve already discussed.
In a recent article on shapeshifting, we looked at how one might go about making themselves look like the closest human equivalent of a werewolf. That explanation involved a condition known as hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth, which is nicknamed “Werewolf syndrome.” Those affected by this condition are people who are no different than you or me except for a few lines of genetic code that makes them look a bit furrier.
Hypertrichosis is a rare genetic condition that affects 1 out of every billion people. And, as we’ve previously discussed, thanks to those with this affliction, scientists have isolated the gene for this disorder with the hope of future applications in hair regrowth through gene therapy.
Another condition that makes people look closer to a Wolf Man is the vestigial tail. Vestigial tails are an atavistic trait, which means that our DNA has the proper information to tell our body how to make it, but those set of instructions hardly ever gets used. However, because of some genetic fluke, there are some rare instances  in which those instructions do get used, and human babies are born with tails. These are called vestigial tails, and they can be removed by a simple surgery.
So, however unlikely it may be, if a person were born with both a vestigial tail and hypertrichosis, they would look as close as possible to a werewolf while still being 100% human.
Marfan syndrome is a medical condition affecting 1 of every 5,000 people, and in addition to various heart and vision problems, the condition makes individuals rather tall and slender. People with this condition are not monsters… well, except for one. No, really. Javier Botet is a film actor who has been featured in multiple horror movies, playing the part of a monster in the film. Botet also happens to suffer from Marfan syndrome. His unique, slender physiology, combined with the proper lighting, make-up, and choreography make for a memorable and haunting performance. Check out this test footage for his performance as the titular character in Andrés Muschietti’s Mama.
However, Botet has not relied on his biology as a crutch in the film industry. He has been busy with an assortment of other projects as an actor, director, writer, and producer; and I encourage you to explore them on his IMDB page.
So far, we’ve explored ways in which humans, through some genetic fluke, can wind up with some physical abnormality, which makes them resemble some creature of legend. Now, let’s look at one that is psychological: the craving to drink blood.
This publication from a psychology journal  has cited multiple sources on what the exact definition of “clinical vampirism” is. I’ll save you some reading and tell you it’s a rare psychological condition that involves the fascination of consuming or drawing someone’s blood, potentially combined with one or more of the following: sexual aggression, violence, cannibalism, and necrophilia. One particular example that the authors cited seemed like the plot of an actual horror story (WARNING: graphic content):
“In 1978, during a two-day rampage in the Mayenne region of France, a 39-year-old man attempted to rape a preadolescent girl, also biting her deeply in the neck, murdered an elderly man whose blood he drank and whose leg he partially devoured, killed a cow by bleeding it to death, murdered a married couple of farmers, and almost succeeded in doing the same with their farm hand. Arrested on the third day, he also admitted to strangling his wife almost a year before and disguising her death as a drowning.”
This story was one of the many – and frighteningly true – anecdotes in just that one paper. The paper does mention that clinical vampirism (or behaving as if you were a vampire) is quite rare, but decidedly real.
I can imagine that some of you are unimpressed. People can believe that they’re almost anything, right? Well, let’s switch gears and focus on a physical malady that resembles the worst part of being a vampire: being burned by the sunlight.
In this New York Times article, Dr. David Dolphin outlined a hypothesis of his to “explain” vampires using science, and his explanation was porphyria. Porphyria is a disease that – long story short – makes its suffers’ skin quite sensitive to sunlight. So sensitive, in fact, that porphyria victims can become disfigured by exposure to even mild, mid-morning daylight. The cure for this disease? Large injections of blood.
Some of Dolphins claims are a bit of a stretch; for instance, there is no evidence that drinking any quantity of blood will ever deliver blood to the skin, where it’s needed. He also has received criticism from expert folklorists, who noted that the earliest vampire legends reported vampires sightings in the daylight. It should be noted that even the titular character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was only limited in power during the day, not killed. Even still, critics must understand that any attempt for science to explain fantasy will be imperfect; although I suspect that most of the backlash against Dolphin came from him accusing early sufferers of porphyria of biting other humans: something that A) is degrading to actual porphyria sufferers and B) is not supported by any historical claims during the time the vampire legends started. Fun theories are fun until you accuse someone of being an actual vampire.
Because there is usually a negative stigma associated with the word “monster,” most usually don’t think of mermaids as such, because they are often considered alluring and beautiful. Two things on that: A) according to some pirate myths, a mermaid’s beauty was just a trap to lead sailors to their doom, and B) our definition of monsters merely identifies a “monster” as someone with an abnormal physiology, and a mermaid definitely fits the bill.
But, this is the part of the article where I admit that I’m cheating just a little. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first take a look at this video featuring Hannah Fraser, the closest thing to a real-life mermaid. And no, the video is not doctored.
If you’ve watched the video, then no doubt you’ve seen the breathtaking images of Hannah swimming fin-by-fin with whales and manta rays, moving with all the grace of Ariel herself. The fact that she attempts these dives without scuba gear is a testament to her skill, but even so you’ve probably already figured out that the fin she was wearing was nothing more than a prosthetic. But, in my opinion, that makes this case more interesting.
According to this interview with 20/20, Hannah wanted nothing more than to swim with the whales on their own terms. She had been swimming since she was a small child, and when she grew up, she wanted to know what it felt like with fins. So, she contracted a movie prop-designer to engineer her a working mermaid tail. The results, as you can see above, are nothing less than spectacular.
Does this violate our rule of “monsters” having abnormal physiology? Yes. The tail doesn’t really belong to Hannah’s body. But consider this: Hannah is the closest thing to the Little Mermaid that you’ll ever see. She swims with sea creatures at her leisure, and then she removes her tail to walk on dry land with two legs. And if being the equivalent of a real-life fairy-tale isn’t enough to get a mention in an article called “Science Explains Fantasy,” I don’t know what is.
So, we’ve seen Werewolf Syndrome, clinical vampirism, gigantism, dwarvism, one of Andrés Muschietti’s personal creations, and the closest thing to a real mermaid that you’ll ever see. Are they the monsters of legend? Of course not! They’re people, like you and me, but they just look a little differently than the established norm. But frankly, the established norm is boring; if we didn’t have differences, we wouldn’t have anything to celebrate. So, as we look forward to Halloween, let’s enjoy the out-of-the-ordinary and the abnormal. Because, even though it’s possible to share some physical characteristics as “monsters,” the only truly monstrous people are those who spread hate instead of embracing the differences in others.
So, can we have real-life werewolves, vampires, and mermaids? Well, that’s still impossible, but I’ve shown you some ways that might make it slightly more plausible. Thank you for reading my weekly words.
Jonathan MacGregor is a an adjunct instructor of chemistry in the SUNY system as well as a writer, currently seeking representation for his urban fantasy thriller, Blood of the Innocents. If you have any suggestions for future installments of Science Explains Fantasy, you may tweet to him (@JDMacGregor) using the hashtag #ScienceExplainsFantasy. Excerpts from his novel are available at his 20lines account.
 Mukhopadhyay, B., et. al. “Spectrum of human tails: A report of six cases.” J Indian Assoc Pediatr Surg. 2012. 17(1): 23–25.
 Jaffe, P. and DiCatado, F. “Clinical Vampirism: Blending Myth and Reality.” Bull. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law. 1994. 22(4). 533-544.
Featured Image – Image courtesy of Jessica, ©2011, https://www.flickr.com/photos/goaliej54/6265100499
Hypertrichosis – Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/453878468666366972/
Mama Test Footage – courtesy of http://io9.com/5979340/motion-test-for-mamas-ghostly-creature-is-freaky-all-by-itself
Mermaid Footage – courtesy of Hannah Fraser at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aa2LrAM5tek