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A surprisingly in-depth appraisal of monster science.

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‘Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters’ — children’s book review

A surprisingly in-depth appraisal of monster science.

Carlyn Beccia’s children’s book, Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters, includes chapters on pop culture superstars like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Godzilla, but the major focus is the “Science of the Monstrous,” which the author relates to fear. Starting with the introduction, Beccia explains how we think fear developed, and says it’s (basically) a good thing.

Early humans who weren’t wary of the rustle in the tall grass were more likely to be attacked by predators. Those who responded with fear showed caution and were less likely to get eaten. The non-eaten survivors were able to pass on these traits more successfully, so the natural fear of the unknown is something that most humans possess.

When a person is fearful, the amygdala– the part of the brain that forms and stores emotional memories — triggers the fight or flight reaction. When you calm down, the prefrontal cortex takes over and allows reasoning to question what caused the reaction. This questioning is a hallmark of science, and Beccia wants us to know, “Science is stronger than fear.”

monstrous vampire

Science is applied to each individual creature, too. The first chapter, about Frankenstein’s monster, gives a brief primer on how an electrical charge is created, and then tells of an 1803 attempt to reanimate a corpse with electricity. Physicist Giovanni Aldini applied electrical charges to the body of a corpse in a public demonstration, and to the amazement of the attendees, this resulted in convulsive reactions from the body. Of course these movements were purely muscle contractions, not actual life.

Beccia goes on to describe the origins of Mary Shelley’s novel, The Modern Prometheus, later re-titled Frankenstein. Shelley had undoubtedly taken inspiration from Aldini’s experiment and that era’s general fascination with electricity, and Beccia asks if Dr. Frankenstein’s machine in the 1931 movie could actually reanimate a corpse (spoiler: it couldn’t). Even a defibrillator can’t restart a non-beating heart.

“If you were to repeatedly send more electricity through a dead heart, you would only get a crispy, dead heart with a horrible burnt-flesh smell,” Beccia says.

An illustrated early history of electricity follows. We learn how Alessandra Volta, in an attempt to dispute Luigi Galvani’s work with electricity, conducted an experiment that led to the battery.  We’re also treated to the truth of the monstrous way that Thomas Edison sacrificed animals in his attempt to discredit his rival, Nikola Tesla.

The Frankenstein chapter ends with examples of actual real life “Mad Doctors,” the prime example being Vladimir Demikhov. Like Frankenstein, Demikhov conducted experiments in which he transplanted the head of one body onto another, successfully transplanting the head of a dog onto another, thus producing a two-headed dog. This procedure was actually done several times. The most successful operation resulted in the dog living for 29 days afterward.

Monstrous also discusses how “purge fluid” on decomposing corpses could have been mistaken for blood when looking for vampires, which parts of your brain would have to cease functioning for you to be a zombie, and more.

Did you know the hydrogen bomb test that wakes Godzilla was based on a real test in the Bikini Islands? The square-cube law is invoked to show how Godzilla’s size would make it impossible for him to move, and it’s proposed that Godzilla’s atomic breath is made up of ionizing radiation.

Children who read this book may not understand all the basic (and some not-so-basic) science on their first reading. Which is fine, because this is not a book to be read once. The magic of Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters is that children will go back to it over and over. When the scientific concepts they read about come to light in their studies or in real life, the familiarity can lead to that “Aha!” moment of understanding, and the glossary compiling all the bolded words throughout the book should help.

monstrous godzilla

Each page of Monstrous features wonderful artwork created by the author, which mirrors the tongue-in-cheek charm of the narrative. The last two pages feature a world map that shows “Vacation Spots to Avoid (if you don’t want to be eaten by a monster),” with 46 different monsters depicted in their respective regions of origin.

Monstrous: The Lore, Gore, and Science Behind Your Favorite Monsters is fun, informative, beautifully illustrated, and treats its subjects with a heavy dose of humor. It’s a fine addition to the library of any little monster.

The world is scary right now, even more than usual. That’s why, for the next few weeks, AIPT Science is taking skepticism back to its roots with some more lighthearted fare. Keep coming back for stories on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and everything in-between, in OUR NEW PARANORMAL.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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