Leave it to Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum to come up with a wild and spooky treat for fans of the macabre–and just in time for Halloween, too!

The new exhibit, naturally entitled the Natural History of Horror: The Science of Scary, opened on October 10th, and has fulfilled its promise to bring museum-goers a spine-tingling good time.

The fun began for me even before I entered the foreboding sanctuary of fright when I passed a pair of dueling dinosaurs in the main entrance. It wasn’t horror, exactly. Still, it did conjure up the rip-roaring thrills of Jurassic WorldGodzilla, and Dinosaurus!, Jack H. Harris’ sci-fi classic from 1960.

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I was then quickly drawn to a dark room, taunting passers-by to enter at their own peril. The sign at the entrance forewarned, “We all fear sinister figures hiding in the shadows, or creatures lurking unseen beneath the water—monsters are more terrifying when they could be real.”

And that is precisely what the Natural History of Horror exhibit sets out to show its patrons—that many of the classic movie monsters like Frankenstein, DraculaThe Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon were inspired by actual scientific discoveries and experiments. Each of these four iconic characters are revealed to have fascinating real-world backstories. Now that’s the way to keep me interested in science!

Patrons enjoy the many spooky exhibits at NHM’s The Natural History of Horror: Science of Scary Exhibit that opened on October 10th. Photo credit: Worldwide Entertainment Corp.

In the 1931 film Frankenstein, for instance, the plot revolves around a scientist who brings a corpse back to life with disastrous results. The inspiration for this story is partly based on the work of the 19th-century scientist, Luigi Galvani, who experimented in “animal electricity.” 

“We all fear sinister figures hiding in the shadows, or creatures lurking unseen beneath the water — monsters are more terrifying when they could be real.”

The experiments enthralled the public, especially Mary Shelley, who later wrote the now-famous novel, Frankenstein, and spurred Universal’s movie adaptation. The exhibit features an interactive lab where visitors can try to reanimate a frog’s leg or harness electricity from a thunderstorm.

Frankenstein’s superstar, Boris Karloff, came off of the megahit only to go under wraps as the Mummy one year later. The story tells a tale of a group of treasure hunters who travel to the Sahara Desert and stumble upon an ancient tomb. When opened, it unleashes a reincarnation of a vicious Egyptian priest who had been fated to an eternity as one of the living dead and who is now bent on untold revenge.

This popular horror icon was inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s 3,000-year-old tomb, which was opened in 1922. When all sorts of treasures were found buried with King Tut—gold, statues, and animal carcasses—and the hieroglyphics on the tomb were incorrectly translated in news reports as curses—the script for The Mummy practically wrote itself.

For centuries, Europeans had blamed vampires for many health epidemics throughout history, including the spread of the plague, rabies, and other contagious diseases before the novel about the ever-dreaded vampire, Dracula, was written by Bram Stoker and published in 1897. Perhaps the association between vampires and bats lent credibility to this thinking since bats do carry rabies as well as other diseases. 

“Dracula” exhibit | Photo credit: Worldwide Entertainment Corp.

The “Creature” from Universal’s 1954 film classic Creature from the Black Lagoon had several sources of inspiration. One included a fearsome myth about the existence of a half-human, half-fish monster that was believed to have lurked in the legendary Amazon River. 

According to the exhibition’s well-presented data, however, a more likely real-life inspiration for the Creature was “the discovery of the coelacanth,” a being that seemed to be a missing link between sea life and life on land. The fascinating fact about this being is that it was thought to be extinct for more than 65 million years until it was found alive in 1938 off the coast of South Africa.

Coelacanths are lobe-finned fish that can grow to more than 6’6″ and weigh around 200 lbs. They can live for 60 years or more! | Photo credit: Worldwide Entertainment Corp.
“Creature” mask exhibit

According to Jessica Portner of NHM, the display is a life-sized “reproduction of the cutting-edge suit designed by Milicent Patrick, which had gills that moved when it breathed. Patrick looked to real living reptiles, amphibians, and fish, as well as illustrations of water-loving, long-extinct finned organisms when creating the fictitious Creature.”

The Natural History of Horror is on exhibit until April 12, 2020, and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. You will delight in how science is, indeed, linked to much of what scares us in films, literature, and folklore. Be sure to join the fun with all the hands-on activities, rare movie props, classic film footage, and lots of spooky surprises!