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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Column: Monster mash

As a horror movie junkie, Halloween is my favorite holiday. What’s not to love about watching scary movies with friends dressed in a huge variety of costumes? Horror movies have the rare quality that no matter if the movie is good or bad, it can be equally enjoyable. Truly good horror movies, such as The Exorcist, can scare audiences even 40 years later. Even bad horror movies like Jennifer’s Body can be fun if you’re drinking with friends and making fun of the terrible acting.

However, because I’ve seen so many horror movies (especially monster movies), I also know that I would be one of the first to die. The token skeptic/scientist is one of the first to go, along with the slut and the comic relief. The skeptic denies that monsters exist; he or she may insist that science disproved any such creatures, and if the director wants an ironic scene, the skeptic is killed seconds after making that proclamation.

Just such a scene is in last year’s terrible remake of The Wolfman, where the werewolf Lawrence Talbot is strapped to a chair as a doctor pompously explains how insane Talbot is. Talbot screams, “I will kill you all!” The audience laughs, the doctor scoffs and wolf-Talbot promptly kills them all.

The skeptic is depicted as foolish, cowardly and close-minded. What’s seldom mentioned in these movies is that history is almost always on the skeptic’s side.

Take werewolves, one of the major classic monsters of the horror movie industry. Stories of werewolves (most recognizably in Europe) go back centuries. Along with witches, accused werewolves would be brutally tortured until they confessed to horrible crimes.

In 1589, German widower Peter Stumpp was placed on the rack and threatened with torture until he confessed to killing and eating 14 children and two pregnant women and their fetuses. He said that the Devil had given him “a magical girdle” which would turn him into a devouring wolf. He was later executed, having his skin burned off by red-hot pokers and his limbs broken to prevent him from returning from the grave.

This particular confession of werewolfism is most likely due to the psychology of a torture situation, rather than mental illness. Many psychological studies have found that even in situations where the threat of torture is not involved, people will give false confessions if pressured by an authority figure, let alone when “coerced” with violence. It’s difficult to tell centuries later whether Stumpp even committed these crimes, let alone whether he actually believed in his own supernatural confession.

A great deal of the Stumpp story would be suitable for a gory monster movie: a quiet villager transforming into a huge wolf and devouring women and children. A close look at the psychology and history of the situation, however, means that at best it was a sensationalism of a serial killer and at worst a tragic miscarriage of justice.

The case of Gilles Garnier in France in 1573 is even more muddied. Over the course of about a year, several children went missing or were found dead, and the authorities of the province issued an edict that the werewolf responsible be captured. Late one night, a group of villagers came upon what appeared to be a wolf with the body of a dead child in the dim light. The fact that the child had been savaged was beyond dispute, but where some saw a wolf others saw Gilles Garnier.

Garnier himself, a reclusive hermit, testified that he went hunting in the woods and a spectre gave him a magical salve that would allow him to hunt as a wolf. He confessed that he had strangled and eaten at least four children during this period and was later burned at the stake for the crimes of witchcraft and werewolfism.

Again, confessions for highly public and shocking crimes should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Psychological studies on false confessions in particular note that they are more likely to occur to highly suggestible or mentally unstable people. It had already been highly publicized that the culprit was a werewolf, the authorities told Garnier that villagers recognized him and he was already known for his odd manner. The conditions were ripe for Garnier to believe himself to be a werewolf, and thus, give a false confession.

This Halloween, have some sympathy for the token skeptics in your horror movie marathon. If you were in his shoes, you would probably act the same way.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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