Reporters Turn Ghostbusters for Halloween

Surprising, but true: A smattering of reporters managed to ditch the lame cliches of writing about Halloween to actually do some timely reporting.

For at least three Octobers now, reporters have littered newspaper pages with stories about the worrisome rise in “sexy” Halloween costumes. Naughty nurses, coquettish schoolgirls, playful pussycats — erotic attire is easily the most overdone angle in the media’s coverage of trick-or-treaters. A few papers, though, are using the holiday peg to write articles about science and the environment, which are far more entertaining than the tired tales of trampy tots flirting for candy.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times’ health section carried an excellent feature on the most phobia-inducing creatures on Earth: bats and spiders. Medically speaking, the two animals produce more than just fear, reports Regina Nuzzo. Far from being the violent bloodsuckers their name implies, vampire bats feed mostly on livestock, and their “razor-sharp incisors carve out a tidy crater of flesh, no bigger than a Halloween M&M, usually without waking its prey.” What is even better news for chiroptophobes, and humans in general, is that an enzyme in the bats’ saliva, which prevents blood clotting, might be used to treat stroke victims. Scientists are using the enzyme to engineer a new drug for the emergency treatment of blocked blood vessels to the brain; they hope it will be an improvement on alteplase, the only such drug currently available to patients.

Nuzzo also reports that, “researchers are eyeing spider webs for a tricky new biomaterial that could be used in various medical applications.” Although many hurdles remain, it is possible that the spider silk could be used to make surgical threads that are thinner, stronger, and less likely to provoke an immune response than the materials currently available. If all goes as planned, the “super tough” arachno-fabric might also be used in automobile airbags.

The Baltimore Sun also attempted to disabuse readers of their frightful misconceptions about bats. On Sunday, in a piece headlined “Beleaguered Bat Deserves a Second Look,” Stephen G. Henderson wrote, “In these ooky-spooky days of late October … bat researchers are asking us to see green and to associate these small, furry animals with ecology.” Though not as timely or as punchy as Nuzzo’s article in the Times, Anderson does a good job explaining bats’ contributions to the ecosystem, from controlling insect populations to pollinating flowers and dispersing plant seeds. The Houston Chronicle ran a similar article explaining the habits and physiology of other creatures of the night: “Owls, ravens and bats may look evil,” warned the headline, “but they’re not.”

Elsewhere there has even been a journalistic attempt to use science to dispel public fears of actual monsters — vampires, zombies and ghosts. Last week, the Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein and the Ottawa Citizen’s Chris Lackner both wrote short articles about Costas Efthimiou, a physicist at the University of Central Florida that is using “math and science” to debunk superstitions about supernatural creatures. According to Efthimiou’s calculations, writes Lackner, “If vampires truly existed, the last human being would have been sucked dry centuries ago.” Efthimiou also argues that the laws of physics prohibit the existence of ghosts. “All this may seem obvious,” writes Borenstein, “but to Efthimiou and other scientists, the public often isn’t as skeptical as you might think.” As proof, he cites a 2005 Gallup poll, which showed that more than 1 in 3 Americans believe in supernatural haunting.

But as some scientists try to wean people off such beliefs, others are attempting to justify them. National Public Radio’s Ira Flatow hosted Mary Roach on last week’s installment of Science Friday. She is the author of the recently published book, “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” which explores the history of scientists’ search for the supernatural. Though a skeptic, Roach tell Flatow, “I just love that can-do spirit. You know, we can take science, we can take the scientific method, and we can apply it to something as ethereal as a soul.” But otherworldly experiments are not as accepted as they used to be. Roach describes a current collaboration between the psychology and cardiology departments at the University of Virginia in the search for evidence of out-of-body experiences. The school’s new president asked the lead researcher not mention his work on the paranormal: “You don’t go into the field these days without risking a certain stain on your reputation,” Roach said.

Fortunately, that is not the case for reporters. Inquires into the supernatural may seem like ridiculous and fantastical endeavors for scientists, but such stories offer a journalistic reprieve from the more predictable Halloween nonsense.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.