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The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence review – an unscientific but entertaining fact-filled dive into the monsters of horror

“How would a zombie really decompose in Night of the Living Dead? Are there instances of shape shifting in nature like in The Wolfman? What is the science behind the night terrors that inspired the creation of Freddy Krueger? Is there scientific data supporting ghost detection like the tools used in Poltergeist? What is the psychological drive that compels cannibals like Hannibal Lecter?”

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These are just some of the questions that Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence set out to answer in their new book, The Science of Monsters. Through a series of interviews, extensive research and, I imagine, multiple film re-watches, the authors look to the background of monsters in horror films to find how strong their basis in reality is, as well as the historical contexts in which they thrived.

There are ten sections, each dedicated to a specific type of monster: slashers, serial killers, vampires, reanimated corpses, the possessed, deadly animals, ghosts, from the depths, witches and creatures. Within these sections are three chapters, each exploring a famous horror film in that monster genre. It’s a nice and simple device that allows for some cross-over in information while retaining enough individual information for each film. The breadth of topics and films covered is also impressive and the research effort evident as, for the main part, every chapter includes references and comments from scientists and professionals.

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A word of advice as before you jump into The Science of Monsters: despite its title, it is not a comprehensive book when it comes to scientific exploration. The science mainly comes from asking a question, such as ‘How does modern medicine and therapy differ from what would have been offered to Norman Bates in 1960?’, then asking someone working in the field for their opinion. This is a great way of ensuring the book is as accessible for as many people as possible, but may be disappointing for those who are expecting multiple theories and a truly in-depth scientific exploration of the subject matter. It also means in certain chapters there is a tendency to offer “proof” of something when only one side of research has been explored. For example, at one point the authors look at female killers and use one strand of research to argue that it’s the biology of men and women that dictate their differences in motives for killing. Socio-economic and patriarchal conditions are on the whole ignored in favour of the evolutionary theory that the authors seem set on. Overall, while this detracts from the scientific credibility of their “proof”, The Science of Monsters is meant to be fun and accessible and not a comprehensive textbook, which I had to keep reminding myself of while reading.

Particularly strong elements actually stem from the historical context or where scientific fact (rather than theory) came into play. For example, one chapter contains interesting and detailed background information about the roots of the legend of vampires while another looks at the decomposition of the human body and whether zombies accurately reflect this in media. The Science of Monsters also teaches us about the legend of the Blair Witch and subliminal messaging in relation to The Ring. The book really is full of fascinating bits of information that newcomers or die-hard fans of horror will enjoy.

As previously mentioned, weaker parts occurred when the authors strayed from history or fact and into the realm of theory. Also, a particularly weak part included the section on witches, which doesn’t really bring the films into the discussion as much as the other sections, but rather gives (albeit very interesting) details on witch trials. The attempt to draw science in this section revolves around whether a witch could fly on a broomstick, following the law of physics, only to conclude that magic could help with the thrust. Similarly, there is a part where they try to find out if it’s possible for a human to shoot lasers out of their eyes, as some witches have been said too. These are some of the examples where the blurring between fact and fiction was to the books detriment.

It’s also worth noting the writing style, which I’m sure will divide opinions. It is, on the whole, fun, enthusiastic and accessible and this will appeal to many readers. Yet, for me, I found it a bit too contrived and there was a habit of asking questions before immediately answering them e.g. “Are there many instances of children murdering each other? There are numerous cases of murder being committed by children over the course of history” and “Could a fall down a flight of stairs kill a person? Absolutely.” This, along with an excessive use of exclamation marks, made the book sometimes read as a podcast transcript, which isn’t surprising considering the two authors write and record the fantastic Horror Rewind podcast together. Along with a tendency to jump from fact to fact, presumably in an attempt to fit as much of their extensive research in as possible, the book felt slightly “bitty” at times and wasn’t always consistent in tone.

Overall, The Science of Monsters is entertaining and packed with stimulating facts. The author’s extensive research effort is very impressive and, while it didn’t satisfy all my scientific curiosity in regards to the monsters of horror, did provide many interesting talking points for the horror community to share.

The Science of Monsters: The Truth about Zombies, Witches, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Legendary Creatures is published by Skyhorse Publishing. Buy the book. Read more of our non-fiction horror book reviews

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