How rabies, ancient fish and electrified frogs inspired horror icons

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Halloween is upon us. And if you’re planning to dress up, you may be thinking of those old spooky favorites: a mummy, a vampire, or Frankenstein’s monster. 

But have you ever wondered about the origin stories of those scary creatures? 

You can find out at the Natural History Museum of LA County, in an exhibit called “Natural History of Horror.” 

“I am not from Los Angeles but I realized living here for the last couple of years that this is such a big topic. It's so popular. So it seems like the right place to be doing it,” said the curator and designer of the show, Sarah Crawford. Why is horror so popular in LA?

“We have such sunny non-horror movie weather here. Maybe we are all looking for a little bit of escape,” she opined.

Movie still from “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Photo courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

The exhibition highlights the scientific discoveries that inspired the most famous movie monsters.

For example, The Creature From The Black Lagoon was inspired by the rediscovery of an ancient fish called the coelacanth. The fish was thought to be extinct for millions of years, until scientists discovered one live off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. 

“This was newsworthy. I mean this is all over the world people are talking about this discovery and so it inspired in part” the 1954 film, Crawford said.

Another classic horror film, 1932’s The Mummy , was directly inspired by the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922, “and this idea of the curse that came out after King Tut's tomb was opened. There were some deaths associated with the opening of the tomb and then this became sensationalized.”

Dracula (Carlos Villarías) and Eva (Lupita Tovar) in the Spanish-language “Drácula.” Photo courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

The 1931 Spanish-language film Dracula was inspired by a fear of contagion brought on by vampires. Those fears were inspired by diseases blamed on vampire bats, such as rabies, which causes victims to foam at the mouth, become averse to water and other strong smells like garlic, and a tendency to become more sexual.

“So we pull out a vampire bat from our collection and then also a wolf skull, both which are carriers of rabies occasionally, and then also Dracula can morph into those two creatures. So another interesting tie,” Crawford said.

Frankenstein takes its inspiration from actual experiments being done in electrification of animals in the late 1700s by the Italian physician Luigi Galvani, recognized as the pioneer of bioelectromagnetics. He first observed how electric shocks caused a frog's leg to twitch. 

A film still showing Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory in the 1931 film. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

“His nephew actually took his research even further and ended up touring Europe, shocking dead animals in front of audiences and there's a report that he did this also with a corpse. And Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein , mentions Galvanism and these theories of this scientist in the opening for Frankenstein .”

At a preview of the show “Natural History of Horror” we ran into Kamarra Chamberlain. She writes for a horror blog and was wearing a Blacula t-shirt, and says that monsters can actually make us feel more connected to each other.

“We should all live our lives like we're trying to get to know these monsters that we fear, and I think if we could take that out into our everyday lives, we might be a little bit better for it. So not everyone's a monster . We just have to get past the thing we're afraid of,” Chamberlain said.

“Natural History of Horror” is on view at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park through April 19, 2020.