The toxic truth behind Halloween monsters

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on October 24, 2012 at 10:15 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 24 at 9:55 PM

DALLAS — They are the stuff of nightmares and haunted houses. But some of the most famous and frightening Halloween creatures may be based in toxic truth.

"The cauldron is, effectively, a small chemistry lab," explained Dr. Stacey Hail, a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Center.

Each year, Dr. Hail makes medical rounds talking about the reality of fright night monsters like zombies and werewolves.

"And witches, I will submit to you, were the first chemists — and perhaps even the first drug users," she said.

And Dr. Hail added there is a perfectly poisonous reason for flying — and green faces — both of which came from witches' brew spread on their bodies.

"The brew was of course, green because it was made from plants, and they would apply this ointment," Dr. Hal said.  "It was called a 'flying ointment' to their body, and it would render them unconscious. But all the while, they were on a fantastic journey and they felt the sensation of flying."

There is also a logical (but "adult")  toxicological explanation behind the myth of flying broomsticks.

Back when witches were regularly burned at the stake, practicing witches turned to broomsticks to get their "flying high" feeling. Because broomsticks were an ordinary household item, above suspicion, witches would apply the hallucinogenic ointment to the handle and insert it inside themselves, where tissues absorb more easily. Thus, the genesis of "flying" broomsticks.

Another ointment, Hail said, plays into the chemistry behind werewolves.

Wolf's bane is a plant. When rubbed on the skin, the flower apparently prompts strange changes in sensation.

"One of the changes in perception is to have the feeling of fur or feathers," Dr. Hail said. "So, if someone happened to apply the juice of this flower to their body, they would actually sense that they had fur or feathers."

What about zombies?

Haitian voodoo doctors reportedly turned a neurotoxin found in pufferfish into an "undead" powder. Those who came in contact would fall into a deathlike trance, be buried, and then dug up —   alive.

"Now, the victim didn't know any better, because while they were in this state, entombed in the coffin, they were not breathing effectively and suffered lack of oxygen to the brain and brain damage — but not enough to die. And then they could be taken into slavery," Hail said.

Many of the tales told by Dr. Hail are found in medieval writings and alchemy books from bygone days.

So on Halloween, Dr. Hail asks you to remember: Beneath the sheets and masks of goblins and ghouls lies a little bit of the scary medical truth.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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