Halloween is here again and although it seems to get more commercial each year, one constant remains – giving each other a good fright.
The startle response, whether from a particularly convincing trick-or-treater on your doorstep or a fright in a horror movie, seems to be close to a human universal.
When we look at other animals, even very simple ones, there are stereotyped movements called fixed-action patterns.
In invertebrates these are usually related to fighting or feeding but they’re triggered by a single neuron. No matter what the context or stimulus the animal still produces the same set of actions in the same order.
So it is with us. While different cultures have developed different triggers to freak each other out the end result seems to be the same – and all humans share the startle response as completely stereotyped behaviour.
It is as fundamental as a knee-jerk. We still don’t know why producing it in a controlled way seems to give pleasure in many cases, although we can speculate that the fight-or-flight response is stimulating and enjoyable when we know there is no real consequence.
Dr Daniel Glaser is director of Science Gallery at King’s College London
Reports of people having “near-death” experiences go back to antiquity, but the oldest medical description of the phenomenon may come from a French physician around 1740, a researcher has found.
The report was written by Pierre-Jean du Monchaux, a military physician from northern France, who described a case of near-death experience in his book “Anecdotes de Médecine.”
Monchaux speculated that too much blood flow to the brain could explain the mystical feelings people report after coming back to consciousness.
The description was recently found by Dr. Phillippe Charlier, a medical doctor and archeologist, who is well known in France for his forensic work on the remains of historical figures.
Charlier unexpectedly discovered the medical description in a book he had bought for 1 euro (a little more than $1) in an antique shop.
“I was just interested in the history of medicine, and medical practices in the past, especially during this period, the 18th century,” Charlier told Live Science.
“The book itself was not an important one in the history of medicine, but from a historian’s point of view, the possibility of doing retrospective diagnosis on such books, it’s something quite interesting.”
To his surprise, Charlier found a modern description of near-death experience from a time in which most people relied on religion to explain near-death experiences.
The book describes the case of a patient, a famous apothecary (pharmacist) in Paris, who temporarily fell unconscious and then reported that he saw a light so pure and bright that he thought he must have been in heaven.
Today, near-death experience is described as a profound psychological event with transcendental and mystical elements that occurs after a life-threatening crisis, Charlier said.
People who experience the phenomenon report vivid and emotional sensations including positive emotions, feeling as though they have left their bodies, a sensation of moving through a tunnel, and the experiences of communicating with light and meeting with deceased people.
“The Moon and the Crow”, Photograph by Gideon Knight of the United Kingdom, is the winner of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for 2016.
Knight lives near Valentines Park in London and he visits regularly in order to take photographs.
One winter evening the perfect tableau presented itself: a rising full moon set in the blue light of dusk formed the perfect backdrop for the spindly twigs of a sycamore tree upon which rested a solitary crow.
The various components of the scene “made it feel almost supernatural, like something out of a fairy tale,” said Gideon.
For the young photographer, this is one tale that’s come true.
Valeria Messalina was the third wife of emperor Claudius. She was notorious for being an absolute nymphomaniac.
She married Claudius in A.D. 38 and they had two children, who were rumoured to have actually been fathered by Caligula as she was a frequent attendee to his many banquets and orgies.
After Caligula was finally murdered, Messalina, although now empress, did not suppress her urges.
At night she would even dress up as a prostitute and incognito she would trade as a prostitute – such was her insatiable appetite for men.
She once challenged the famous Roman prostitute, Scylla, to a sex-athon, whereby the winner was the one who copulated with the most men.
The competition lasted for 24 hours and Messalina won with a score of 25 partners.
In 48 A.D. she plotted with one of her lovers, Sillius, to have Claudius murdered and even had a secret marriage ceremony with him. However, one of Claudius’s advisors Narcissus, exposed the plot to him.
Claudius was heartbroken and could hardly believe his own ears, but was eventually persuaded to have her and Sillius promptly executed.
Messalina was given the option of suicide but she could not bring herself to take her own life.
A selection of pages from an 18th-century demonology book made up of more than 30 exquisite watercolours showing various demon figures, as well as magic and cabbalistic signs.
The full Latin title of Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros, roughly translates to “A rare summary of the entire Magical Art by the most famous Masters of this Art”.
With a title page adorned with skeletons and the warning of Noli me tangere (Do not touch me), one quickly gets a sense of the dark oddities lurking inside its pages.
The bulk of the illustrations depict a varied bestiary of grotesque demonic creatures up to all sorts of appropriately demonic activities, such as chewing down on severed legs, spitting fire and snakes from genitalia, and parading around decapitated heads on sticks.
In addition there seem also to be pictures relating to necromancy, the act of communicating with the dead in order to gain information about, and possibly control, the future.
Written in German and Latin the book has been dated to around 1775, although it seems the unknown author tried to pass it off as an older relic, mentioning the year 1057 in the title page.
It is the evening of 23 October 1783, and in a secluded spot on the King’s highway John Austin and an accomplice are mercilessly beating and robbing a stranger.
This act of brutality marked the beginning of the end, not only for Austin, but for an ancient ritual that had been enacted since the 16th century. Having been sentenced to death, he became the last man to be taken in procession from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn.
For 300 years, doomed convicts had made the journey from where the Old Bailey now stands to the place of their demise, near the site of Marble Arch.
These processions, which occurred only eight times a year, were held to be among the capital’s most exciting events.
Raucous crowds gathered on the roads and in the windows of houses with a view; a clergyman accompanied the condemned; cheering and shouting vied with preaching and jeering, and during the three hours it took to cover the two miles, the spectacle of impending death would unite the metropolis in an outpouring of heightened emotion.
The spectators themselves are dead and buried, and the buildings that lined the way long since leveled. But beneath the stratum of 18th century bricks and bones, millions still trace the same path today, albeit for different reasons.
For between St Paul’s station and Marble Arch, the Central Line follows the last journey of John Austin and his innumerable doomed predecessors almost exactly.
For those hoping to evoke the procession, the modern topography of London is wonderfully supportive. Despite the devastating zeal of the Victorians, who laid waste to many of the capital’s ancient streets, the conduit that flowed from Newgate to Tyburn remains largely intact.
Newgate itself is gone, replaced by the Old Bailey, but the Church of St Sepulchre remains.
From here a clergyman would make his way through a tunnel connecting the two buildings, and ring the bell that signalled the beginning of the great event. A visit to the church reveals that the artefact itself survives, silently encased in glass.
It is perhaps the most evocative remaining fragment of a ritual characterised by its cacophony of sounds as much as its spectacle