It's spooky season: The myths and science behind the undead

Tiny Matters

Halloween is right around the corner, and what’s Halloween without the undead?! In this episode, Sam and Deboki cover the mythology surrounding vampires and the possible scientific and medical connections to that mythology. Plus: how you could use chemistry to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: It’s officially spooky season and I could not be more ready for it.

Deboki Chakravarti:
Yeah, I cannot believe Halloween is right around the corner. Sam, are you dressing up this year?

Sam: That’s a great question. Hopefully by the time this episode airs I will have come up with some sort of costume. But really the most important question is, what will my dogs be for Halloween this year? Last year one was a chicken and the other was a t-rex. I really leaned into that old school versus modern day dinosaur theme.

Deboki: Amazing. I love that. My cat would absolutely destroy me if I did that to him, but luckily TikTok has realized in its creepy way that I just want to see videos of cats in costumes, so I’ll be living vicariously through other people’s much more cooperative cats.

Animals in costumes will always be better than humans in costumes. I full stand by that.

Deboki: Agreed.

Sam: In my humble opinion, spooky season is the best, and it would not be what it is without the undead. And I think, of the undead to choose from, zombies and vampires take the cake.

Deboki: Welcome to Tiny Matters. I’m Deboki Chakravarti and I’m joined by my co-host Sam Jones who is more into Halloween than I knew. I’m also pretty excited for this episode because we’re going to be talking about mythology surrounding the undead and the possible scientific and medical connections to that mythology.

Sam: And we’re going to close out the episode talking about how you could use chemistry to survive a zombie apocalypse. Let’s do this.

When it comes to undead mythology, there’s no better person to talk with than Emily Zarka. Emily is a professor of literature at Arizona State University, and a monster expert. She’s the writer and host of the PBS YouTube series Monstrum, which we’ve linked to in today’s show notes.

When Deboki and I decided to do an episode on the undead, I knew I had to reach out to Emily. And when I did, I told her I was particularly interested in learning about vampires. And I didn’t just want to hear about the best-known vampires, like Dracula, I wanted to hear about the ones people told stories about centuries before Dracula was on the map.

Emily Zarka: One of my favorite vampiric creatures is the Greek vrykolakas. Some people like to cite this vampire as one of the original ones, but essentially anyone who died by suicide, murder, plague, or curse could become this undead being. And some of the reanimation causes after burial were kind of bizarre in a lot of ways. So things like if you didn't have a proper religious ceremony, which is something we see in other vampire myths, but also committing too many sins, which of course what ‘too many’ is, is up for debate. Or even if one's corpse was crossed over by a cat, that could all be justification for becoming this vrykolakas.

Vrykolakas are different from the vampires that immediately come to mind. These vampires are probably best known for wreaking havoc on people's homes, spoiling food and destroying property. They don’t drink blood like a typical Western vampire, but they do eat flesh and steal and eat the organs of the living. They have intact hair, teeth and nails, and importantly, they still have their living personalities and intelligence.

Emily Zarka:
And because they were intelligent and still had their personalities, there are some stories of them, you know, showing up at like dinner tables or knocking on doors and literally trying to interact with the living which, as a historian and literary scholar, is fascinating if we consider the implications there about people’s grief and moving on after death, and what does it mean if you start telling these stories that you're seeing a dead loved one?

Deboki: I find that so fascinating.

Sam: Absolutely. It’s a reminder that these myths come from somewhere really important. They’re not just random stories, they serve a purpose. We’ll revisit that later, but first let’s talk a bit more about the vrykolakas. So these vampiric undead were said to have swollen bodies, possibly because they were gorging themselves on blood. Which is, I’d assume, from all the flesh and organ stealing and eating? Their bodies might also turn black, but they didn’t decay.

Emily Zarka: In some places of Greece, the body would actually be exhumed at one, three and five years to check if the person was fresh. So essentially if the corpse appeared really blackened or looked like it hadn't decayed enough based on whatever standard, they might be considered to have not entered the world of the dead. And that's sort of when they were flagged as potentially being a vrykolakas.

And it gave us a cool profession—vrykolakas hunters were actually a thing in Greece and these professionals were considered valuable members of society and actually occupied the same strata as scribes and healers.

Sam: Vrykolakas hunter also just sounds very cool, right? Like ‘oh that’s my best friend, he’s a vrykolakas hunter.’

It totally does. So like Emily mentioned, the vrykolakas are more ancient vampiric beings. What about the more modern one? By modern I do not mean Twilight, Edward Cullen-esque vampires. I’m talking about Dracula, the story of a Count—Count Dracula—who lives in a castle in Transylvania, Romania, and ultimately moves to a small seaside town in England where he terrorizes people and sucks their blood. It’s a lot more interesting than that, but you get the gist.

Sam: And it is a spooky season, so if you’re looking for a read, Dracula just might be it. When Bram Stoker published the book in 1897, he set off the modern fascination—it might even be accurate to say ‘obsession’—with the blood-sucking, bat-like, garlic-fearing vampire.

Emily Zarka: I appreciate Stoker in so many ways. He took legends in both fiction and folklore and current historical events and mashed them into this creature that hadn't had all these characteristics before, but he's by no means the person who created the Western vampire that we know today.
I actually identify the creation of the vampire in literature, and the more broadly fiction, existing in British romantic literature, specifically with some female and Gothic authors. So my larger research looks at how those women and those authors constructed these so-called vampire characters, but the actual word for vampire or vampyr pops up even earlier in the 1700s where we start having recordings of oral history where different scholars and historians and travelers were going to different places specifically in Eastern Europe, primarily, and recording the stories of the people in those more rural areas.

For example, there was a book in the 1730s called the Jewish Spy and it mentions just kind of in passing the people of this town in Hungary who believe that certain dead bodies appear like skeletons, to suck the blood of the living and that they're called vampires.

One most famously that actually occurred before Dracula was shared in Le Fanu’s Carmilla, which many scholars count as the first obviously vapiric lesbian text in English literature. So he borrowed from that as well. But again, borrowing something doesn't mean in my mind that you're taking away from it in any capacity. Stoker actually worked on Dracula for over five years. He went to many libraries across the globe actually, and did a lot of research and he took notes.

Deboki: Emily told us that, when scholars have gone back to look at his notes, they see that he also pulled from text about witchcraft as well as werewolf trials. Yes, you’ve heard of witch trials, but maybe not werewolf trials. They were a thing, and they took place particularly in Europe over the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. And from all of these different texts and stories, he created Dracula.

Emily Zarka: He was the first one who characterized the vampire as being able to not have a reflection in a mirror, being afraid of garlic, being able to shape shift. Um, and those are just a couple of the traits he added to his vampires. And again, he didn't invent any of those himself, but he was the first one to sort of put them all together in one singular undead character. And I think that adding all those different fears and different traits made a singular vampiric figure easier for people to understand and count Dracula as a cool name too. So once you have that going on, you have, I think, a character that people can really get behind and understand and talk about. Whereas before maybe you had disparate elements of vampiric and undead creatures that weren't as ‘name brand’ for lack of a better way of putting it.

Sam: And, before we go any further, we should say that although ‘Vlad the Impaler’ is often cited as the real-life person who inspired the Count Dracula character, there’s no evidence for that.

Vlad III, was born in Transylvania, Romania, in the 15th century, and like his nickname suggests, he impaled his enemies. And if you’re squeamish about blood, now’s a good time to skip ahead or tune out for the next 15 seconds. Great. So the vampire connection with Vlad seems to be that there was at least one account of him dipping his bread in the blood of his victims as they lay dying on the stake he impaled them with. And then he’d eat the bread in front of them. First: ew. That’s quite unhygienic but it was the 1400s and we are talking about a maniacal, barbaric murderer so I guess anything goes. Second: I told you to skip ahead. Now back to my point, or really, Emily’s point: there is no evidence that Dracula was inspired by Vlad the Impaler.

Emily Zarka: Stoker never visited Romania or Transylvania and in over a hundred pages of notes that we have when he was creating Dracula, the name Vlad never even appears. So of course it's possible he knew about Vlad  the Impaler as more of a historical figure, but there's no evidence that that person inspired the character Dracula in any way.

Deboki: So like Sam mentioned earlier in the episode, these myths are not just random stories, they serve a purpose. Emily says they’re often a way of finding explanations for things that exist in the real world.

Emily Zarka: So of course if you encounter an individual who's acting bizarrely, whether that's for a medical reason or a social reason, we like to put stories onto those individuals to help sort of explain their behavior because humans can be quite scary on their own. Stoker using medicine and science of the Victorian period and beforehand to add context to his story seems very plausible.

Deboki: Let’s talk about some of those medical reasons in more detail.
There’s a disease called porphyria, caused by genetic mutations that impact your blood. People with porphyria don’t make as much heme, which is an iron-containing molecule that makes it possible for your blood cells to carry oxygen. This causes red blood cells to break down, but also, when you’re not creating heme, toxic compounds called porphyrins build up. That’s because heme is derived from these compounds, which get their name from the Greek word for purple. When you're not creating heme, these deep reddish purple porphyrins build up in your bones and in your teeth, creating a look that could be reminiscent of blood-covered fangs.

Sam: For people with porphyria, the sun can also be dangerous, which means they would want to stay as far away from it as possible. Sun causes built up porphyrins to donate their electrons to oxygen, and—with the help of an enzyme called superoxide dismutase—form oxygen-containing molecules, like hydrogen peroxide, which can destroy your cells and cause skin damage so severe that it can lead to a loss of facial features.
And there’s another disease that could cause people to shun the Sun: pellagra. Pellagra causes dementia, gastrointestinal distress and inflamed skin made worse by the sun. Pellagra is caused by not having enough vitamin B3, or niacin, in your diet. You can get niacin from a variety of foods, particularly meat, so someone with pellagra likely was poorer and relied on a corn-based diet that didn’t provide them niacin.

Deboki: And then there’s perhaps the most famous vampire trait of all...biting. There is a virus that hijacks an infected animal’s brain and causes them to bite and infect others: rabies.

Emily Zarka: Rabies is one of the proposed explanations for werewolf and vampire lore because of the hypersexuality, fear of water, the contracting of the lips, which makes your canines appear bigger. And the fact of course that wild animals like dogs and wolves could bite you, which again, contributes to the werewolf and vampire myth. But I think what's important is even if we consider those medical or scientific explanations, that's only part of the puzzle. I don't think that we can look back over thousands of years of human history at the undead and say that, oh, everyone collectively just decided that these medical conditions were gonna create these certain kinds of monsters. That's just one facet to a larger tradition. And again, I think desire of people to want to believe in the supernatural.

Deboki: Now let’s pivot to another supernatural being: the zombie. And, instead of talking about zombie myths we’re going to talk about how to avoid zombies should a zombie apocalypse come our way.

Sam: Honestly at this point anything feels possible.

Deboki: True. So, to get prepared, we reached out to Raychelle Burks, professor of analytical and forensic chemistry at American University.

Raychelle Burks: I focus on detecting things of forensic interest. So that would be potentially lots of controlled substances, chemical weapons, explosives, what are sometimes called drugs of abuse.

So if there's a unifying theme to the work in my group is that we're trying to illuminate that which is hidden, which is very much what a lot of forensic scientists work at. People are always trying to hide things. And as the detectives of chemistry, as analytical people, we are always trying to find them.

Deboki: But for this episode, we talked with Raychelle about how we could use her analytical chemistry knowledge to hide, specifically from zombies. She said the way to go is chemical camouflage, where you either suppress your scent or mimic something else so that you can blend in. She mentioned a scene from the TV show The Walking Dead, where they’re trying to figure out how a zombie knows a person is alive in the first place.
Raychelle Burks: They're literally workshopping as a little unit going, ‘well, we don't smell like them, we don't look like them, we don't move like them. And so we need to change all of that.’ And they do that with chemical camouflage. They also change behavior. You gotta really sell it. <laugh> right? You're talking full, like, the smell, the movements, the biomechanics… you're trying to fool a multisensory perception.
And we know that in real life where maybe we've mistaken a friend from behind, but then the gait is wrong. The tone of the voice isn't quite correct. Or in reverse, it sounds like the person, it looks like the person, but they don't cock their hip that way. There's something off.’

Sam: So in addition to changing your gate and physical appearance so that you don’t potentially look ‘off’ to a zombie, you’re gonna need to pass a ‘sniff test.’ Meaning you’re going to need to smell like death.

Raychelle Burks: If you're looking at one of these kinds of types of zombies where they've got a whole kind of rotting decay—that level of zombie—then you'd wanna mimic those. You wanna make a death cologne. It’s a whole cocktail of smells. It's a whole system that's breaking down to smaller and smaller gases. And they've been named: Putrescine, cadaverine, of course some of your sulfur-containing compounds, right? Like hydrogen sulfide.

Sam: These are compounds that cadaver dogs detect, that are markers of where a body could be hidden. Forensic analytical chemists like Raychelle have done a lot of work to understand what gases are released throughout the body decomposition process. There are scents that repel one species and attract another.

Raychelle Burks: So for some insects—blow flies and maybe certain types of beetles—they're like, ‘oh yeah> <laugh> rubbing their little insect hands together in a maniacal fashion to be like, ‘it's our time! strike now!’ And for other species we might smell that and be like, Ooh, that is bad news bears, it is a warning side, not an enticement.

Sam: So if zombies smell that death cologne and think you’re just a zombie, Raychelle says it could go a couple of different ways. Maybe they’ll be intrigued, thinking you’re a zombie friend, or maybe they’ll think you’re a zombie foe, trying to steal their territory. Ideally, the zombie just won’t pay attention to you. And if that works, congrats! But definitely don’t stick around.

Raychelle Burks: If you can get through that, keep it moving. This is a temporary measure. This is boom, boom. This isn't a full time scam.

Deboki: You might be wondering how one would go about making a death cologne. Fortunately, there are bacteria that can naturally cook up these compounds, and you don’t need much of them to really stink up the place—we’re talking probably microgram amounts per person. And once you have the compounds, getting them into a formula like a perfume isn’t too hard, as long as the experts who know how to do it haven’t turned into zombies already.

Raychelle Burks: We've got formulation people to do that. And they've been able to do that with some really challenging molecules if they find just the right medium to put them in. And we are very good at that chemistry-wise. So I have no doubt that we'll have like a whole array of options. You wanna stick? Do you want a lotion? Do you want a body butter? The whole thing.

Deboki: When should we start? No time like the present.

Raychelle Burks: That’s why we start now. You see, you cannot have a defensive posture and wait until the disaster has already struck. You have to be forward thinking. You have to think, okay, let's stockpile. You gotta have knowledge transfer, you have to have appropriately detailed standard operating procedures, so that when that happens, we haven't put all of our eggs into one non-zombie-proof basket and we're ready.

Deboki: Although all of the zombie stuff is a little silly, it’s actually an important exercise to kind of just let your mind go there and to consider what being prepared for a disaster—like, say, a global pandemic—really means. In 2011 the CDC actually published a graphic novel titled "Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic" as a fun, more approachable way of teaching people about the importance of emergency preparedness.
Raychelle Burks: You know these types of genres help us have really challenging, hard conversations because we're a bit separated from it, right? When you can say, here's our plan, and if we get separated, or if you get over here, you feel in danger, here's what we need to do. And we can do that and have those conversations and also share some laughs you know, and also be afraid in public. Often in real life, that's kind of denigrated that you don't get to be really terrified. You're supposed to be brave, but in the case of everyone watching the latest zombie movie, we all get to be like, ‘this is insane,’ together. And so I think there's something to that, that we can do as a community. Maybe it's a bit ‘thought experiment,’ but in a way we're preparing ourselves for what we know in the human experience is inevitable.

Sam: Okie doke. It's time. Let's show and tell.

Deboki: Let's do it.

Sam: All right. Deboki, do you want to go first? Do you want me to go first? Whatever you want.

I'll go first.

Sam: Okay.

Deboki: So famously to just you and me, and also to our listeners, I don't love talking about physics, but I do love talking about cats. And so I have an article that takes the thing that I don't love talking about—physics—and it packages it with cats and also my other favorite thing to talk about, which are old science papers and science history.

So this is an article that was in The Atlantic by Katherine J. Wu, and it's called Cats Give the Laws of Physics A Biiiiig Stretch. There's a lot of i's in that big.

In this article, she talks about this end of 19th century meeting of the French Academy of Sciences where all the scientists who are present have their world completely rocked because this physiologist presented a bunch of pictures of a cat being dropped to the ground and the whole point of this series of photos just to show how the cat was able to start twisting its body on its own without some other external force being applied to it, which went against how people really interpreted the conservation of angular momentum.

And so this has been an ongoing question. How do cats do this? And so this article is basically about how people have been studying this, and one of the things that it turns out cats use to their advantage is the fact that they are just crazy flexible. They are so flexible to the point where they can basically almost treat their body like two halves that are connected together, and that allows them to do this weird physics.

I will say that if you read this article, just know going in, if you're terrified on behalf of your cat, that there is a sequence that's about how cats will survive these crazy, crazy high falls. Even the really scary stories are kind of remarkable because overall cats have a really high survival rate for dropping from ridiculously high heights. So if you love cats, I recommend this article. Even if you don't like physics.

That’s good. I think in the science communication world, any window into science, whether it be cats or something else, is always a good thing.

Yes, definitely.

Sam: It's so funny because I actually almost chose a physics story, and then I totally bailed, and so I'm glad that you did.

Deboki: One of us has to go for it.

Yes, absolutely. My tiny show and tell today is actually about a new face mask that has been outfitted with electronics that can detect SARS-CoV-2. So I wanted to bring this up because I think that throughout the pandemic, I've read a lot of stories about new technologies that can detect the virus really early, whether that's in your saliva, your sweat, your whatever it may be.

The idea here is that you would wear a face mask that would alert you through, ideally down the road, you'd get an alert on your phone or your Apple Watch or whatever it may be telling you, "Hey, you're in a place with a pretty high concentration of this virus."

So let's talk a little bit about what this research group actually designed. What they created was a special sensor that actually reacts in the presence of certain viral proteins that are in the air and that would attach to a face mask.

To test this out, they spritz droplets of proteins that are produced by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as other viruses like bird flu and swine flu into a chamber with the mask. And they found that this sensor on the mask could actually detect tiny amounts of these proteins. So they were saying that a cough from a person close by would actually contain over 10 times the amount of protein that this sensor was able to detect.

Who knows if this will actually turn into something that will be manufactured, that is marketable, but I think it's, for me, it's kind of just a sign that research hasn't completely stopped. Even though we are "out of the pandemic," people are still getting COVID. People are still dying of COVID everywhere.

My issue with this technology though, is that humans are disgusting. Viruses are everywhere. I feel like you would put this mask on, walk outside your door and immediately get an alert anywhere you go if it's that sensitive. So I wonder if this does continue on through development,  I would be curious if they would set certain limits for detection.

Deboki: I feel like a lot of these testing things are super interesting in terms of both the design, the fact of using a mask to test constantly, I guess, and then also combining that then with, well, if you're designing it in this way, then you also have to change, maybe it's sensitivity, change other parameters. It's so fascinating.

Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society.

Deboki: This week’s script was written by Sam who is also our executive producer, and was edited by me and by Matt Radcliff who’s the Executive Producer of ACS Productions. It was fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team. Our artwork was created by Derek Bressler.

Thanks so much to Raychelle Burks and Emily Zarka for joining us.
Deboki: If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email at You can find me on Twitter at okidoki_boki

And you can find me on Twitter at samjscience. See you next time.