________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 20 . . . . May 29, 2009

cover Are You Afraid Yet? The Science Behind Scary Stuff.

Stephen James O’Meara. Illustrated by Jeremy Kaposy.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2009.
80 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $17.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55453-295-7 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-1-55453-294-0 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Monsters-Miscellanea-Juvenile literature. Science-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4


Why do our spines tingle when we read a horror tale or watch a scary movie? Why does our skin crawl when we see someone about to walk into a giant spider web? Meet the mirror neurons. These special brain cells fire up whenever we see, hear, or read something that has made us afraid in the past. The neurons use that information to figure out what’s likely to come next. It’s all about anticipating danger, so we can avoid it.

Stephen James O’Meara is best known for his work in astronomy. He was the first to sight Halley’s comet on its return in 1985 and is a prolific writer of books and articles that appeal to those who are fascinated by the events his writing allows them to see. Outside of articles published in Odyssey Magazine for 10 to 16-year-olds, Are You Afraid Yet? is O’Meara’s first solo contribution to the literature for adolescents and pre-teens. It is exactly as the subtitle suggests, an attempt to explain the science behind the experiences that make spines tingle, skin crawl, hearts thump, pupils dilate, hairs stand upright, and voices scream.

    O’Meara draws upon legends, characters in books and films, news items, curses, superstitions, and personal accounts as contexts that can be explained using the knowledge provided by science. He begins by identifying “the brain’s terror alarm.” This is the almond-sized amygdala that detects danger and “sends chemical signals to other parts of the brain that prepare the body for a [fight or flee] response.” As in the excerpt above, O’Meara’s argument is that seeking an explanation and keeping an open mind help people of all ages to respond appropriately to genuine and improbable dangers alike.

    Readers will learn of the physiological responses that are the basis of Ichabod Crane’s reaction to the headless horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and why individuals with contorted and deformed bodies, like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, are perceived as ugly and monstrous. O’Maera explains why King Kong wouldn’t have been able to sustain his life on Skull Island, even if his 15 m skeleton could have supported his “ferocious weight” without crumbling. He also suggests that Bram Stoker’s human vampire, Dracula, was based upon symptoms of those suffering from rare blood diseases known as porphyria, and that early deaths of scientists and co-workers attributed to curses on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs were not supported by longevity statistics. Nonetheless, a German microbiologist who studied the micro flora on 40 Egyptian mummies has suggested that inhaling the deadly spores of moulds sealed in the tombs could have led to organ failure and death of tomb raiders.

    O’Maera describes his observation of a UFO while at Harvard College Observatory, which was subsequently identified as an owl, not a flying saucer as a less reasoned colleague initially believed. He also writes about alien abductions and Martian invaders and highlights the fact that no skeptics have ever been “kidnapped” by extraterrestrials. He goes on to suggest that microscopic Martian organisms may actually have fallen to a primitive Earth in chunks of rock that “helped to kick-start life.” Just as interesting are O’Maera’s discussions of the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde, haunted houses, werewolves, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, Bigfoot, and H.G. Well’s The Invisible Man. One such example is of individuals who have experienced clinical death and are revived. They often speak about out-of-body experiences, moving through a tunnel toward a bright light, and an overwhelming sense of peace. Science, O’Meara suggests, can explain such “near death experiences” by drawing upon what is know about endorphins and levels of oxygen available to the eyes and brain.

    Jeremy Kaposy, a Torontonian, is the illustrator of Are You Afraid Yet? He is a comic creator and author-illustrator of a black and white graphic novel, so it is not surprising that he used black and white comic book style images and panels to illustrate O’Meara’s writing, and this style works. Kaposy’s interest in superheros helps to explain his portrayal of O’Meara, who is introduced on page four as a sinister-looking character with piercing eyes, a hooked nose, and prominent teeth surrounded by a mustache and beard that appears to have been cut using a pair of pinking shears with an exaggerated zig-zag pattern. There is no doubt that this image will appeal to a number of adolescent and pre-teen readers. It is, however, one more depiction of the stereotypical “mad scientist” O’Meara writes about.

    Marie Bartholomew, the book’s designer, has chosen to set apart each topic O’Meara presents by using more font styles in headings than I have ever encountered in a nonfiction book. The one component that is consistent throughout the 80 pages is the presentation of science knowledge in blood-like pools labelled “Freaky Facts".

    Are You Afraid Yet? comes with a warning. The last line of type on the back cover reads, “WARNING: Do not read at bedtime! (Seriously!)” I don’t believe this is printed on the cover to make the book more attractive to pre-teen readers. It is there because the topics addressed could be quite frightening, particularly if they make readers aware of information they didn’t know before opening the book. In this category I would certainly place O’Meara’’s writing about “hot agents - killer viruses” like Ebola (p. 32), the description of decomposing flesh (pp. 42-43), and the disquieting historical and contemporary explanations of consciousness following beheading (pp. 13-16). That being said, I highly recommend this book to teachers of Grades 4 to 7 science and to pre-teen readers with an interest in understanding fight and flee responses to “scary stuff” and a desire to “get a grip on fear.”

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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