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Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters

3.46  ·  Rating Details  ·  727 Ratings  ·  163 Reviews
We all know “there’s no such thing as monsters,” but our imaginations tell us otherwise. From the mythical beasts of ancient Greece to the hormonal vampires of the Twilight saga, monsters have captivated us for millennia. Matt Kaplan, a noted science journalist and monster-myth enthusiast, employs an entertaining mix of cutting-edge research and a love of lore to explore t ...more
ebook, 248 pages
Published October 8th 2013 by Scribner (first published October 23rd 2012)
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I really wanted to like this book. I was psyched to hear Matt Kaplan on NPR and put my name in at the library so I was the first person to get it.

I should have quit early on. It got incredibly repetitive, had such snarky and completely unnecessary (but also incredibly predictable and unoriginal) footnotes that they tipped the book into Just Plain Bad territory. Considering how often Kaplan repeated himself, I wondered why he didn't combine a lot of his sections. Perhaps the book would have stood
In this entertaining look at beliefs in monsters of various sorts, as with his more recent book on magical powers, Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers, Matt Kaplan explores the ways in which science (and culture) create the background for belief in things fantastic. Kaplan's argument, that monsters serve an important purpose by representing deeply held fears and allowing people to “practice” facing those fears in a safe way, is hardly original, but he write ...more
Susan Cummins
Jun 05, 2016 Susan Cummins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars. The first half of this book was a bit boring, but the second half was really interesting, perhaps because the monsters in the second half were more relevant to today. I found the footnotes obnoxious, but the writing was otherwise fine.
Doc Opp
Dec 05, 2012 Doc Opp rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Monsters, it turns out, evolve over time. Vampires didn’t always sparkle, zombies didn’t always crave the taste of human brains, and until very recently dementors didn’t even exist. Why is it that the monsters that left people shivering in terror during the bronze age are so different than the monsters of the industrial revolution, which in turn are so different from the monsters today? As society changes, the things that people fear change, and thus popular monsters change as well. In his first ...more
Kathryn Knight Harper
This book is amazing. The author presents plausible scientific information explaining why ancient civilizations believed in different monsters as well as why the same monsters lost their ability to scare over time. His wittiness breaks up the sometimes dry period of scientific data and several times throughout the nook made me laugh out loud. This is a definite must-read for anyone who wants to know where myths and legends came from....even if you still want to believe at the end.
Oct 30, 2012 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Matt Kaplan does a really nice job balancing the scientific fact and evidence he presents with a sociological and psychological view of how these monsters have been depicted in art, film, and literature/fiction. He gives a broad overview which helps the reader make connections between seemingly different monsters, although I do wish there was more detail for each section. I could have kept on reading his clean prose, fascinating research, and humorous footnotes.
Nov 19, 2012 Angie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An entertaining, accessible, informative read that attempts to explain the scientific and psychological foundations of our most enduring monsters. I enjoyed its light tone and quick pace, found some of the history and science to be quite fascinating, and loved all of the pop culture references and snarky asides. Kaplan is certainly an entertaining author. Not the heaviest or most impressive of texts, but a diverting read.
Aug 16, 2015 Absinthe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
This book can best be described as a collection of introductions to the scientific explanations of fantastical creatures and phenomena. The writing is witty and easy to read, however as someone who was looking for something more in depth, I was left a bit disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of interesting things cited, as well as specific examples that were new to me, but overall much of what was covered I already knew. So if you're looking to further your knowledge on the topic, this probably i ...more
Doug Clark
Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite by Matt Kaplan (2012) was one of those impulse buys one makes when seeing an interesting title in a bookstore. Subtitled The Science of Monsters, I flipped through it at the bookstore and thought that it would be an interesting read. And in many ways, it was. However, I found there were areas, sources, and promised material that were either missing entirely or only very briefly covered. Because of my own hopes and subsequent disappointment, I can only recommend t ...more
Jan 17, 2013 Carolyn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This was a fun, fast read and I certainly learned some new things about the history of monsters - particularly about zombie-makers in Haiti. I had no idea zombie legends could have a pretty solid basis in history and science (Zora Neale Hurston did though, apparently). A lot of the science and theory behind it is probably guesswork anyone with a little understand of evolution and human psychology could propose, but it was still interesting. I don't think James Cameron's Avatar was as much as a r ...more
Teratology is an area of interest to me, but this fell into the trap of so much non-fiction in that it remained largely a litany of speculation. I just prefer a little more of an academic tone, but maybe I'm not the target demographic. It is at its best when it is referencing the works of Adrienne Mayor, which reveals my anthropological biases just for saying so. --MK
Oct 28, 2012 Alex marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Alex by: Casey Josephine
Casey recommends this: "It's called Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters, and it traces the scientific origins of monster myths (including Frankenstein!). Anyway, I haven't read it yet, but it's at the top of my TBR, since it sounds pretty awesome (also, I chatted with the author for a bit, and he was really cool). "

Some other dude says it combines literature, history and science and that's okay with him, and you know what THAT'S OKAY WITH ME TOO.
The theme and thesis of this volume is to illustrate the science background or mysteries that gave rise to various myths and legends from pre history to modern times. Kaplan starts very strongly, but I found the second half of this book to be slightly weaker and less interesting than the first. This could be because I have read Paul Barber’s book on Vampires and death, a book that Kaplan draws on, but I honestly thought the alien chapter was really unnecessary.

What are fascinating are the condi
An interesting book, though the subtitle might have been more accurate if it was "the psychology of monsters," or at least "the science and pscyhology..."

Kaplan takes a look at monsters that have captured the human imagination from ancient times up through today's cinematic terrors. He groups them into categories -- monsters created by the gods to terrorize humans (or at least teach them a lesson), mysterious beasts that lurk in the shadows, transformed humans like vampires and werewolves, human
Margaret Sankey
One of my favorite themes--what might have actually been behind myths and folklore? Kaplan hits the usuals, vampires and rabies, sleep atonia and sex demons, toad neurotoxins and berkerkers and zombies. A lot of his work borrows heavily from Adrienne Mayor's The First Fossil Hunters to explain classical monsters, but he comes up with some novels ideas--Pegasus may have been the fossil of a dead horse being eating in a tar pit by a vulture, the Minotaur's roars may have been tectonic plates, that ...more
Bill Holmes
Matt Kaplan's "Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters" is an engaging, lightweight survey of the origins of various mythical monsters like the Minotaur, Rok, Medusa, dragons, demons, vampires, ghosts, spirits and others. This is not a book about crytpozoology, and scarcely a word is said of Nessie, Bigfoor, Yeti or other modern legends. Instead, Kaplan's book is a fun romp with lots of speculation about how beasts as diverse as fire-breathing dragons and Frankenstein's Monster ...more
Jan 01, 2014 Emmy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have always had an interest in monsters, mythology, and nightmarish bogeys. The only thing I like more than reading scary stories about these sort of things is reading about where they come from, and how the myths have evolved over the centuries. That's why I picked up this book.

I was generally pleased with it, but it didn't really wow me. I was a bit annoyed with some of Kaplan's theories, especially (view spoiler)
Apr 05, 2013 peaseblossom rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is a laughably simplistic book that purports to explore 'scientific explanations' for our fascination with, and fear of, monsters. It fails because the 'explanations' are extremely reductionist and abjectly stupid. Snakes + underground natural gas deposits = dragons. Rabies + tuberculosis = vampires, werewolves, *and* zombies. Tar pits are responsible for all monsters that have the head of one thing and the body of something else, and sleep paralysis causes demons, spirits, ghosts and haunt ...more
Nov 21, 2012 Vanessa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Oh man, this was a GREAT book to savor little by little. If you've ever been curious about the roots and history of monsters and modern-day scientific explanations for where some of these age-old superstitions come from, you must pick this up!

I felt like Matt Kaplan was writing one long college essay uncovering the truth behind all manner of unnatural beings, which actually made it even MORE enjoyable. He's a scientist, but he cuts through the minutia and academic tone to bring you something
Deniz Cem Önduygu
Although many of the explanations Kaplan gives for the features of monsters are far-fetched and the second half of the book seems somewhat incomplete/hurried, this is very enjoyable and light reading for people interested in monsters of all kinds. Speculations about specific features of monsters aside, the major insight on the historical reversal of monster roles between creatures and humans – hinted throughout the book and explicitly formulated in the Conclusion chapter – is definitely worth th ...more
Mar 19, 2016 Elameno rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Not quite what I was expecting when I picked it up at the library. If you like movies more than books but have an interest in monsters and science, you might enjoy this book.

I found the footnotes obnoxious and distracting and started skipping them before I finished the first chapter.

Early chapters draw almost exclusively from Greek and Roman mythologies, which is almost a shame considering how many weird and crazy monsters there are to be found in other cultures.

While the author tackles the sci
Peter Vicaire
May 01, 2013 Peter Vicaire rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a pretty enjoyable book. It was like a cross between "Mythbusters" and "Destination Truth" TV shows in book form. Matt Kaplan goes about trying to explain the origins of monsters from classic times to more modern day incarnations - and does so through some interesting (if not sometimes stretched) theories based on science and deduced by basic logic and seemingly on-target assumptions. Some of his footnotes, although unneeded, are pretty funny. All in all, a fun read.
Apr 11, 2013 Angelina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this book! I am going to buy it. I love the way the author connects natural phenonmena with what people believe about it. This goes way beyond "Zeus is angry; that's why there's lightning." It is fascinating stuff. Favorite part? How scientists experimented on the mating habits of booby birds by kidnapping females who had already mated and coloring their naturally blue feet gray, which relates to deadbeat dads, which relates to vampires. Who knew?
Larry Cunningham
This was an entertaining and intermittently educational discourse on monsters in myth and fiction. I found it covered the topic rather superficially (not unexpected in a book that tries to cover such a broad topic in just over 200 pages), but overall it was well worth reading. His discussion of the movie Avatar was a highlight; I thought he captured the spirit and logic of the story better than most others have.
A very interesting book on the inspiration of monsters throughout time: from the chimera and similar Greek monsters to Ridley Scott's Aliens. In addition to the titular monsters, Kaplan covers rocs, dragons, werewolves, Frankenstein, ghosts, King Kong, zombies, dinosaurs, sharks, lions, and many more. He explores literature from ancient mythology to Harry Potter. His writing is engaging and at times laugh out loud funny.
This book offers interesting insight into why creature myths and folklore developed in ancient societies. It spans a wide range of "creatures" such as the chimera to golems to vampires. I recommend it to anyone who likes archaeology, history, mythology, and anthropology. The author is very well informed and droll. It is obvious he spent a long time researching the book.
It was a competent introduction to the subject. However, this read more like a magazine article than a scholarly analysis of the topic.

There should be little surprise in this given that the author is a science journalist. In the end, though, I felt more substance was needed and never brought to bear.

Good introduction to the topic but not penetrating.
Mark Flowers
Oct 22, 2012 Mark Flowers rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I kind of completely loved this. Not to everyone's tastes, and there's quite a bit of speculation and always-suspect evolutionary psychology, but I just didn't care. I love monsters, history, and science, and this book blended them all.

And here's the SLJ review:
Jul 19, 2013 Jessica rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Speculative theories on what has inspired the monsters in our literature, folklore and art. At first, I was put off by the speculative nature of the "science;" then, I just decided it wasn't a science read. It was interesting to me - particularly the theories about nightmares, ghosts, vampires and werewolves. And, his footnotes are funny and fun.
Mar 24, 2013 Leslie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library-books
I originally thought I would give this book 3 stars, but it got better as it went on. I think the author stretches a bit in his attempts to find a real world source for every aspect of every "monster," but he does a good job in looking at the fears that inspire them and also tracing them to their modern incarnations.
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