13 spooky science stories to celebrate Friday the 13th

Facts can be way scarier than fiction.
A person stands behind a white gauzy curtain in a spooky fashion
We'll take any excuse to give you the creeps. Unsplash

It’s Friday. It’s also Friday the 13th. And it’s also November, which is still basically Halloween. You know what that means: It’s time for some spoOooOooOooky science stories. Here are 13 of the most shudder-inducing tales we could find in the Popular Science vaults.

Why do we see ghosts?

Are ghouls real? That depends. Current science can’t prove that there are spirits walking through walls or screaming below floorboards. But humans have been spotting specters for as long as our species has existed. In PopSci’s recent “Mysteries” issue, we explored seven mental and physical factors that can account for almost any creepy occurrence—including some famous ones ripe for debunking—and help to make sense of our perpetual urge to sleep with the night light on.

This sound illusion puts the scary in scary movies

The Shepard Tone is a sonic illusion that can make you feel physically and mentally off-kilter—so much so, in fact, that movie scores often implement it to make audiences feel ill at ease. Find out more about how researchers are studying its strange power.

If that’s not spooky enough for you, then how about a room so quiet you can hear your own blood flow?

A mysterious submarine death

Let’s harken back to some old-school scares. In 2017, researchers claimed to finally solve the mystery of the H.L. Hunley, a hand-cranked submarine used by the Confederate army during the Civil War. Their findings were cool and all, but what really blew us away was the mystery itself: All eight members of the crew died seated at their battle stations. The sub was, for the most part, intact, and there was no sign that they had made any effort to evacuate or pump out water. None of them suffered broken bones. By all appearances, they’d died without a struggle. If the image of eight soldiers sitting stoically in wait of death doesn’t wig you out, well, sorry. It’s wiggy.

Terrifying childcare inventions

A nurse with a baby
No one wants to go home with the wrong newborn. Popular Science

Tech can be terrifying, too. Especially old tech. Popular Science is nearly a century-and-a-half old (even though we don’t look a day over 25) so we can actually pull from our own history for some creep-tastic innovations. Here we have some truly troubling childcare inventions from the early 20th century. Apparently, we once put out a call for readers to invent hermetically-sealed, soundproof tubes in which to stow annoying babies on trains. We would like to formally apologize to babies.

For a related tale of infant terror, check out this early episode of our hit podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week to learn all about baby cages:

The grossest clam of all time

As you watch the giant shipworm Kuphus polythalamia ooze out of its shell like Tim Burton’s idea of cake frosting, a few words might spring into your mind. “Science fiction plague,” perhaps, or “dear god, why have you forsaken us,” or “put that thing back where it came from, or so help me.” Please enjoy this video of the shipworm in question saying a bright and beautiful good morning to the world:

Two-butted nightmares from the deep

blind cusk eel
It’s not what it looks like. CSIRO ANFC

Speaking of nightmare monsters from the deep: A few years back, scientists brought up a whole bunch of off-putting creatures from the deep. An expedition in Australia’s Eastern Abyss showed that when you gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes back, the abyss is often a fish with two butts. Or one that looks a lot like a penis. Like, a lot. These animals look so much like penises! And that’s terrifying. It’s basically a rule that any organism that’s evolved to live at the bottom of the ocean is going to look really, really weird to us. Whether they’re delightful or horrifying is just a matter of perspective.

For an even creepier deep dive, check out our recent feature on the legendary megalodon—a mysterious megashark that some like to say still lurks in the depths.

You really can be scared to death

We probably should have mentioned that earlier. Anyway, here’s how fear can actually turn fatal.

The haunting voice of a talking monkey

X-ray Video of Macaque Vocal Anatomy

Have you ever wondered what monkeys would sound like if they could talk? No? Well, now you’ll be thinking about it for the rest of your life. One absolutely cursed study used a computer model of the macaque’s vocal tract to simulate the would-be mutterings of a monkey with the power of speech. It’s horrifying. Check it out for yourself.

Here are some of the strangest ways to die

Ever wondered what some of the least-common causes of death are? Bird fancier’s lung and scarlet fever top the list in the United States, as does “failure of genital response,” which should haunt your brain for the rest of the day. Or maybe you’d rather know how many avocados it would take to kill you? The most excruciating insect stings, as described by a man who’s experienced them all? Pick your poison.

Fetuses can turn to stone—and stay inside their mothers for decades

This throwback Halloween episode of PopSci’s The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week features a whole bunch of goosebump-inducing facts. There’s a newt that’s basically Wolverine, a condition that makes you think your head is exploding, and the case of a man who may have been killed by his autopsy. But the episode’s most unsettling story focuses on lithopedions: calcified fetuses left entombed in the womb as stone babies, sometimes for years.

What’s spookier—the idea of an eternal stone fetus, or the thought that your own twin might be growing somewhere inside your body? Or maybe you’d rather hear about a boy born with someone else’s blood?

Mountain lions are terrified of talk radio

We’re not the only species that gets scared. A recent study on some literal scaredy cats found that mountain lions are so afraid of humans that the sound of talk radio sends them running. Then again, maybe they’re just annoyed? Hard to say.

The math behind the internet’s worst fear

lotus seed pod
Sorry! AZAdam

Assuming this isn’t your first time surfing the good old world wide web, you’ve probably heard of trypophobia. Technically speaking, that’s a fear of holes. But we’re talking specifically about the surprisingly common phenomenon in which clusters of holes or hole-adjacent things (think lotus seed heads and honeycombs) make the viewer deeply, deeply uncomfortable. It might be that this strange aversion is triggered by the mathematical similarity between these patterns and the ones you’d see in images of mold and skin rashes, which we’ve obviously (and rightfully) evolved a distaste for. Find out more—if you dare.

(Also, here’s how to deal with a crippling fear of Hugh Jackman, an explanation for why you hate clowns, and a haunted house based on the world’s most common phobias. Plus, an expert’s thoughts on why you like reading spooky stories even though they spook you. And an explanation for the physical sensations you experience when you feel afraid.)

What happens to your body if you die in space?

In space, no one can hear you scream. Unless you’re in the international space station, which has air that your sound waves can vibrate through. Or, if you’re in a spacesuit that also has air in which your vocalizations can travel, and a communication system to broadcast your shouts to fellow astronauts and ground control.

Anyway, it turns out that NASA is really reluctant to talk about what would happen if an astronaut died in space. Where would their bodies go? What would their crew members do? Now that longer missions to Mars and beyond are on the horizon, it’s a question people have to get pretty serious about. Check out our feature on the subject.