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NPR Arts & Life

These Famous Monsters Might Not Be As Terrible As You Think

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's Halloween. What could be more terrifying than talking to A.J. Jacobs, our resident scholar on the nonessential? A.J.'s done some, as usual, minimum resource to discover that many monsters apparently aren't so terrible, merely misunderstood. A.J. joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us, A.J.

A.J. JACOBS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So Frankenstein - or (imitating foreign accent) Frankenstein - wasn't such a bad guy, right?

JACOBS: No. I think...

SIMON: Misunderstood, misunderstood.

JACOBS: Misunderstood - that's what I'm here to do is trying to salvage the reputation of some of these Halloween monsters. So yes, Frankenstein I think gets a really raw deal in the reputation department. We all think of Frankenstein's monster as this monosyllabic idiot from the movies. But actually, in Mary Shelley's original novel from 1818, Frankenstein's monster was more of a sensitive intellectual type. He read Plutarch and Goethe. He was more Brooklyn hipster and less unfrozen caveman.

SIMON: (Laughter) I hear - I sense a sequel coming on.

JACOBS: (Laughter) That's interesting, I like that option.

SIMON: I like that - you know, Frankenstein in Brooklyn. Dracula - there's now a Dracula 2.0 in some minds.

JACOBS: Right. Well, Bram Stoker named Count Dracula after Vlad Dracula, who was a notoriously bloodthirsty ruler from the 14th century in what is now Romania. His nickname is Vlad the Impaler because he did like to impale his enemies on wooden sticks. But that said, some Romanians are on a mission to show he had his good side. There's a recent museum exhibit in Romania that argued Vlad the Impaler was a victim of a Western European smear campaign. So yes, he was cruel, but so was every other ruler at the time. Plus, this I liked - Vlad was sort of, like, a medieval Bernie Sanders. He wanted to reclaim the country from the corrupt aristocracy. He was fighting the 1 percent.

SIMON: By impaling them one by one, you mean?

JACOBS: (Laughter).

SIMON: And black cats, we shouldn't be fearful, right?

JACOBS: No. They have a terrible rap, but they have not always been considered bad luck. In Japan, in ancient Egypt, they were considered good luck. And in England, in 1800s, sailors' wives believed that owning a black cat would protect their husbands when they were at sea, so everyone wanted a black cat. And there was a black cat shortage, and there was a literal black market in black cats.

SIMON: I'm going to go through the motions of being interested when I ask this next question.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Have you discovered the origins of the jack-o'-lantern? (Laughter).

JACOBS: I have. I was, yes, one of the scholars who figured it out by searching on Google. And it turns out that Jack of jack-o'-lantern fame was not such a terrible guy. In fact, he's quite clever and entrepreneurial. And he almost outwitted the devil, so that's the Irish folktale. Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree to get him an apple. And then Jack carved a cross on the tree trunks so the devil couldn't get down. So Jack says I'll take away the cross if you promise never to send me to hell. So they made a deal, but, of course, the devil being the devil, he found a loophole. So he didn't send Jack to hell, but Jack was consigned to walk the earth forever, holding a lantern to light his way. And by the way - this is important - the lantern was made of a turnip, not a pumpkin. So somewhere along the line, the turnip industry got really screwed.

SIMON: Have you ever opened the door and seen a trick of trick-or-treater dressed as B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music?

JACOBS: (Laughter) No. But that's a great idea for my kids today.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACOBS: I was going to go as Robert Siegel, so that'll be perfect.

SIMON: Esquire magazine's editor at large A.J. Jacobs. Happy Halloween, A.J.

JACOBS: Thank you. Happy Halloween, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.