It’s that time of the season to boot up your favorite zombie game or start a Netflix horror marathon. But before you get too scared by those things that go bump in the night, science is once again coming along to kill your fun. You see, our universe is governed by natural laws which have a tendency to say “Aw hell naw” to what Hollywood puts on screen.
Here are five horror tropes that science disproves.
If you’re too young to have been terrified by the 1976 supernatural horror film Carrie, then perhaps you may remember the 2013 teen drama film Carrie. At the heart of the story is a girl with telekinetic powers – the ability to manipulate objects with her mind. We’ve often heard that humans only use 10 percent of their brain, so if we could access more of it, surely we’d all have awesome powers, right?
First off, the whole “10 percent” quote is a complete myth. Neurologist Barry Gordon says “we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time.” Even during sleep, all parts of the brain show some level of activity. I will trust the results of brain imaging technologies over an anecdotal and oft-misattributed quote about a nebulous “10 percent.”
Secondly, every rigorous scientific study of an individual claiming to have telekinetic powers has produced negative results. The United States National Academy of Sciences even assembled a panel of scientists – the very definition of “top men” – to pore over 130 years of research on telekinesis, only to find “no scientiﬁc justiﬁcation for the existence of phenomena such as extrasensory perception, mental telepathy or ‘mind over matter’ exercises.”
But hey, what do smart people know, anyway? They’re just JEALOUS.
Let’s turn to our laws of physics. How do objects move? Through the application of a force. When it comes to unseen forces that can act at a distance, our understanding of the universe is based on four known forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Those last two operate on subatomic scales and don’t factor into this discussion, while gravity is a force we all understand on a basic level: massive bodies attract less massive bodies.
Since telekinesis is obviously not using the force of gravity, that leaves us with electromagnetism, and our brains are simply not designed to be able to produce or manipulate EM fields in any significant manner. Worse still, by the inverse square law, the strength of a field becomes exponentially weaker the further you get from its source, which is why the typical applications of EM fields to manipulate objects operate on relatively short distances.
But what about a hypothetical fifth force? Scientists are open to the idea, but that doesn’t give us carte blanche to come up with any poppycock we want. This force – let’s call it magic – would have to be as observable in the universe as the other four forces, which are always at work. We can measure subatomic particles to see these forces at play. And what we’re left with is the notion that any new force would either be too short-range or too weak to produce any observable effect – or we’d already be seeing it.
Put simply: if magic or telekinesis exist, then we’d have to rewrite all the big laws of physics. And frankly, the idea of having to relearn physics from scratch is more terrifying than any horror movie.
Call them ghosts, call them demons, call them creepy girls that crawl out of TV sets – they are that catchall category of paranormal horror creatures. Not only do these not hold up to scientific rigor, they are barely internally consistent with their own made-up rules.
The most glaring issue is: how does an entity that can pass through walls manipulate physical objects? We’ve already debunked telekinesis and magic, so we know ghosts aren’t using those means. Even if you argue that ghosts are able to generate powerful electromagnetic fields, that would still put a limit on their capabilities – for instance, how would they move a wooden door?
A ghost must thus be moving objects with physical forces. When you throw a ball – or a knife – your are imparting momentum into the object. You generate the force of movement with your body, and it is your body pushing against the object that transfers the momentum. If a ghost passes through an object, then it can exert no force on it, and thus cannot manipulate it.
From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Leatherface to Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees, slasher films will sometimes rely on giving their villains superhuman abilities to make them even scarier – because apparently the sadistic side of man isn’t frightening enough. Since we’ve ruled out the possibility of magic and ghostly possession, that means we can’t explain any superhuman feats through supernatural means. Thankfully though, there are examples of actual superhumans in the real world.
Finnish skier Eero Antero Mäntyranta had a gene mutation that caused a tremendous increase in his red blood cell count, which allowed his blood to carry up to 50 percent more oxygen and thus lend him superhuman endurance.
Dr. Yuree Vajramuni possesses superhuman strength. Through years of physical conditioning, he built up bone mass in his legs, making them strong enough to snap multiple baseball bats in half without shattering. Through mental conditioning, he made himself able to suppress the self-preservation instinct that limits human beings from using their full strength. But even then, he isn’t strong enough to casually toss human beings across a room – he was able to activate 96 percent of his leg’s musculature on command, which sounds high, but a non-superhuman control test activated 89 percent. Stronger than normally possible, yes, but not unbelievably strong.
Some people are born with a congenital insensitivity to pain, which may be regarded as a superpower by some. Certainly, a killer who isn’t deterred by a swift kick to the groin is a cause for concern.
So let’s say that our killer coincidentally has the perfect cocktail of traits to make him superhuman: he’s tall, he has a large frame, his bones are extra thick, he doesn’t feel pain, he’s very strong, he can run with a chainsaw for a long time without getting tired… That’s all well and good, but there’s no genetic mutation, congenital condition, or martial arts training that can make him immune to bullets. Or fire. Or asphyxiation. Or 17 stab wounds in the back. You can ignore pain all you want, but damaged muscle tissue will slow you down, and organ failure will stop you dead in your tracks.
We’ve established that magic doesn’t exist, and there’s no known force that has the power to revive the dead, so the classic imagining of the walking dead can be ruled out right away (and don’t start talking about Haitian zombies, because we all know those aren’t the ones depicted in pop culture). What we’re left with is the modern re-imagining of the zombie virus.
Rabies is very similar to the zombie virus: it is commonly spread through a bite or scratch, and symptoms include confusion, violent behavior, and insomnia. But here’s the thing – there’s no rabies apocalypse. Likewise, there would be no zombie apocalypse.
The current Ebola epidemic of 2014 is a great example of a disease that does a bad job of being deadly – hear me out. The situation is tragic, but the reason it has infected and killed so many people is due to political instability and lack of first world education and infrastructure in the most affected regions. Ebola is a disease that spreads through contact with bodily fluids – a terrible transmission method relative to something airborne. The zombie virus is even worse, because it necessitates a bite (or blood mixing).
Worse still, zombies show clear symptoms. There is no carrier stage during which a person displays no symptoms and can infect others. Proper quarantine procedures and the (unfortunate) termination of infected would see this situation resolved in short order in a first-world nation.
Anyone who has played Pandemic or Plague Inc. knows that the best way to create an apocalyptic superbug is to fly under the radar while maintaining high infectivity. The disease’s incubation period should be long enough to ensure that by the time humanity realizes there’s a new virus going around, it’s already too late.
Further, what happens to zombies when winter rolls around? They lack any sense of self-preservation, so they would freeze in the cold and die, if they haven’t already starved to death. Winter doesn’t send a human body into hibernation – hypothermia eventually leads to organ failure. And guess which important organ zombies of all mythos need to survive?
While we’re at it, we might as well debunk all monsters. We’ve established that creatures living in our universe must obey natural laws, so that rules out anything that relies on magic to explain its abilities or physiology. There are some pretty frightening creatures in our world, but they aren’t the product of a mad scientist or the nightmarish imaginings of an eldritch abomination: they’re the result of millions of years of evolution and natural selection.
When considering the feasibility of a monster, you must ask a number of question. What does this species feed on? How does it reproduce? What is its natural habitat? What are the specific adaptations that have enabled it to survive until now? Why have we not discovered this species before?
Roughly 20,000 new species are discovered annually, but most of these are either insects, which are so tiny and numerous that they’re more difficult to find and classify, or marine life, found in a difficult environment to study. We are not regularly discovering new species of land creatures large enough to pose a threat to man – there simply isn’t as much place for such species to hide, undetected, as the depth of the oceans.
If humanity hasn’t noticed the species, that means that humanity hasn’t been interacting significantly with the species over the course of evolution. The creature, then, would not be adapted to hunt humans and would not pose a significant threat to us. To wit, I mean that in the same way that I mean a great white shark does not pose a significant threat to us: as long as you don’t deliberately put yourself in a dangerous situation, like horror movie teens are wont to do, you’re pretty safe.
So there’s your pedantic overanalysis of fiction for the week. Does it stop you from enjoying horror games and movies? No. Does it stop you from being afraid of ghosts in real life? I hope so.
You know what you should be afraid of? Pirates. Science can’t debunk pirates.