DEATH TRAP

Who doesn’t want people to be safe in their homes? Writers!  Injury and death are bread and butter for writer. But even if you aren’t a writer, you should read what follows to help protect yourself and your family from these dangers. I’ll start with the more innocuous or less common hazards. Consider the following.

Accidents

  • Extension cords:
    • Extension cords cause about 3300 residential fires each year, injuring or killing more than 300 people. If used continuously, insulation deteriorates fast. Even if not in use, extension cords left lying around can present a hanging or choking hazard for children.
  • Mothballs:
    • They are actually little balls of pesticide. They can cause a breakdown in red blood cells in children with certain genetic diseases (such as Glucose-6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency). In addition, exposure can lead to nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and eye and nasal irritation in humans; kidney and liver damage in pets.  
    • Mothballs can be huffed for a brief high caused by the dichlorobenzene or naphthalene, either of which can lead to addiction, brain damage, and death.
    • NB, not as common in homes as they used to be.
  • Humidifiers: 
    • Water left to sit in the humidifier for long periods of time become rife with mold spores, fungus, and bacteria.
    • Ultrasonic humidifiers can be particularly dangerous, because they aerosolize and disperse as a mist everything that might be in water, including chemicals, minerals, bacteria, and mold.
  • Pressed wood: 
    • Products made from hardwood plywood, particleboard, or fiberboard are often made with formaldehyde. Prolonged exposure can cause watery eyes, burns ins eyes and/or throat, asthma attacks, and cancer in animals and perhaps in humans.
This little party crasher might be hanging around in your living room.
  • Carpeting:
    • New carpet can emit potentially dangerous chemicals  called volatile organic components. Any carpet can trap dust mites, pet dander, mold, dirt, etc., all of which are hard on respiratory systems.
  • Lead:
    • Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems.
    • Lead paint was commonly used in homes built before 1978. Toys and furniture made in countries with less stringent health safety protocols may still be covered in lead paint.
    • In very old houses (1920s and earlier), original plumbing may be made of lead, causing all the water coming into the house to be contaminated.
    • Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.
  • Polycarbonate plastics:
    • This is most dangerous when used to make food storage containers. The problem is the degradation of the chemical bisphenol (BPA) when it comes in contact with water. Health agencies have gone back and forth on the dangers of BPA, but studies have linked it to disruptions in the endocrine system and ultimately to cancer.
  • Flame retardants, which seem like they are good things, actually have a downside: most contain toxins that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q., and other problems.
  • Space heaters:
    • More than 25,000 home fires every year, especially those that don’t have an emergency tip-over feature and don’t have eating element guards. They are especially dangerous for children and pets.
  • Houseplants:
    • Many common varieties of houseplants, kept for air purification, beautification, or even medicinal purposes, are toxic to humans and animals in the wrong context. While most adults can be trusted not to eat the leaves, chew on the roots, or drink the water from random pots around the house, the same may not be true of children and pets.
    • Philodendron, peace lilies, oleanders, pothos, and caladium are among the most common houseplants, and all are poisonous to humans and pets.
  • Christmas trees:
    • The combination of dry winter air, hot light bulbs, and paper or wooden ornaments make for a perfect storm of conflagration. Add in tinsel, paper-wrapped boxes, and the tendency of many families to leave the tree lights on overnight, and it’s surprising that there aren’t even more house fires and deaths every year.
    • Fires caused by Christmas trees are among the most deadly house fires: approximately one out of every 34 home fires caused by a Christmas tree results in a death.
    • Decorative or scented holiday candles can be quite deadly as well. The top three days for fires caused by unsafe candles are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Asbestos removal is a very complicated process.
  • Other possibilities: 
    • Asbestos, carbon dioxide, radon, cuts, slip and fall accidents, carbon monoxide, unbalanced heavy furniture, stairs, throw rugs, icy walkways, mixing up the sugar and the rat poison…
I’m not sure if this counts as a home injury or a vehicle accident.

Leading Causes of Unintentional Home Injury

Children and the elderly are at greatest risk.

  1. Falls: more than 40% of nonfatal home injuries; more than one third of unintentional home injury deaths.
  2. Poisoning: most unintentional home poisoning deaths are of adults and are caused by heroin, appetite suppressants, pain killers, and narcotics. Other frequent poisons are amphetamines, caffeine, antidepressants, alcohol, motor vehicle exhaust gas, etc.
    • Children under 5 have the highest rates of non-fatal poisoning, often from exposure to substances not typically thoughts of as poisonous.
    • “Hidden” poisons can be found in household and cleaning products; personal care and beauty products; medicines, vitamins, plants, and lead paint.
  3. Fires/burns: the third leading cause of unintentional home injury and death. Death rate is highest among senior citizens and —again—children under five. A huge percentage of burns are from hot water. Depending on water heater settings, tap water can be hot enough to cause second-degree burns.
  4. Choking and suffocation: the leading cause of death for infants under the age of one. An average of one child a month dies due to strangulation from a window chord.
  5. Drowning/submersion: 80% are children under age 4, mostly in bathtubs and swimming pools. Because they are top-heavy, a toddler can drown in a bucket, in as little as two inches of water.
Two inches of water or six feet of bubbles!

Intentional Harm

People are more likely to be killed by people they know than by a stranger, and it will probably be in the victim’s home. 

As of 2017, 12.3% of homicide victims were killed by family members, 28.0% were killed by someone they knew other than family, and only 9.7% were killed by strangers. In 50% of cases, the relationship between the victim and the offender were unknown. Chances are, at least some of those were family or acquaintance homicides.

Approximately 39% of victims were murdered during arguments or as a result of romantic triangles. Another 24.7% of murders were committed in conjunction with another crime such as rape, robbery, burglary, etc.

More than 72% of the known weapon homicides involved firearms, primarily handguns.

  • Violence against women—Domestic violence is the #1 cause of injury to women, more than all the rapes, muggings, and car accidents in a given year.
    • One out of every four women in the U.S. will be injured by a husband/lover during her lifetime.
    • 64% of women killed each year are murdered by family or lovers.
  • Violence against children—Calls to Child Protective Services received 3-4 million reports of alleged abuse in 2011: 79% neglect, 18% physical abuse, 9% sexual abuse.
    • Babies under the age of one were assaulted most often. Of child victims in 2011, 82% were younger than four.
    • Children in violent homes have sleeping, eating, and attention problems.
    • Abused children are more withdrawn, anxious, and depressed than non-abused children.
Pictured above: not a neglected or abused child. Still, railings are a good thing.

Bottom Line For Writers: whether accidental or intentional, injury and death are fertile ground for tension, emotion, and upping the stakes. 

This definitely looks intentional.

MY POISON GARDEN

Xylaria Polymorpha (Dead Man’s Fingers) aren’t actually poisonous, but they look like perfect fertilizer for deadly flora!

This summer, I noticed a volunteer growing among my hellebores. I identified it as Carolina Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), a member of the nightshade family. It looks like a nettle because of the small spines on the stems and leaves. Fortunately, I was able to dig it out before it matured, but what I read said it blooms from April to October and that the crushed leaves smell like potatoes. It produces deceptively pretty, little, white flowers.

Horsenettle grows in pastures, along roadsides, in disturbed areas, and other types of “waste” ground. It can tolerate both wet and dry conditions—i.e., practically anywhere. Symptoms of horsenettle poisoning include nausea, vomiting, excess salivation, drowsiness, diarrhea, and weakness. Although horsenettle poisoning is seldom fatal, ingesting the fruit can cause abdominal pain, circulatory and respiratory depression, and occasionally death. Fatalities are most common among children.

Horsenettle produces fruits that look like very small tomatoes, starting out green and turning yellow. In order of toxicity: unripe berries, ripe berries, leaves, stems. Toxicity is stronger in autumn.
So, I wondered: what other plants, growing innocently in gardens, might meet the needs of poisoners.  I just happen to have on my shelf the perfect reference for this subject—Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. It is part of the Howdunit series, books providing technical information for writers of crime and mystery books. According to Stevens and Bannon, plants are the source most accessible to the average poisoner.

The authors organized plants into groups:

  • Plants that are quickly fatal, like foxglove
  • Plants that can be mistaken for edible, like castor bean
  • Plants eaten by animals whose meat is then poisonous for humans, like laurel
  • Plants that are edible in small quantities, like ackee berry
  • Plants that have certain edible parts, like rhubarb
  • Plants that are edible during certain times of the year, like mandrake
  • Plants used for medicinal purposes, such as ergot
  • Plants that flower, like rhododendron or azalea
Rhododendron from New River Gorge

Stevens and Bannon rated all of the poisons for toxicity—not just the plant-based ones—according to the amount required to kill a person. Weight and metabolism vary, and the authors provide a means of extrapolating the fatal dosage for a person of any size or circumstance. Here’s a quick and dirty list for writers, based on a vaguely average 150 pound human being:

  • 6—Supertoxic
    • A taste, less than 7 drops
  • 5—Extremely toxic
    • Between 7 drops and 1 teaspoon
  • 4—Very toxic
    • Between 1 teaspoon and 1 ounce
  • 3—Moderately toxic
    • Between 1 ounce and l pint or pound
  • 2—Slightly toxic
    • Between 1 pint and l quart
  • 1—Almost nontoxic
    • More than 1 quart or 2.2 pounds

Given that my poison garden is in Virginia, I looked for poisonous plants of Virginia, and found that Virginia Tech has compiled such a list. (FYI: if your poison garden is elsewhere, search online for an equivalent collection for your area. For example, I know there are such lists for West Virginia and Ohio, as well as guides for all states and all regions.) So here, in alphabetical order, are the plants in my poison garden. I’ve omitted plant descriptions and locations in favor of what part(s) of the pant are toxic and the symptoms. Greater detail is readily available if one of these little beauties appeals to you.

American False-hellebore (Veratrum viride), aka Indian Poke, has a toxicity of 5. All parts of the plant are poisonous and potentially fatal when ingested by humans or livestock. Don’t touch or handle any of it with bare hands, because the toxic compounds can be absorbed through the skin. Symptoms of False Hellebore poisoning include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, seizures, decreased blood pressure, slowed heart rate, heart arrhythmia, coma and, potentially, death. On the other hand,Veratrum viride can have medicinal uses as pain reliever, heart sedative, and to lower blood pressure.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is not a native plant, but it has been found in isolated parts of Virginia as well as Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington, DC. Although not typically poisonous, it’s very dangerous to humans and shouldn’t be touched at all. The sap is strongly toxic for humans, resulting in serious skin reactions after exposure to sunlight. Eventually, this skin rash changes to blisters that look like burn wounds. A red-purple scar may develop that can last years. Exposure of the eyes to plant juice may lead to blindness.

Jimson-weed (Datura stramonium), aka Jamestown weed, has a toxicity rating of 6. Although also not native to Virginia, it grows everywhere: in pastures, fields, waste areas, and in sand and gravel bars near streams. All parts are poisonous. Sometimes seeds are ingested directly, or plant parts brewed brewed into tea. Exposure often results in hospitalization. In small doses, it is hallucinogenic. Besides hallucinations, symptoms include headache, delirium, agitation, large pupils, constipation, urinary retention, elevated pulse, hypertension, and fever. Stevens and Bannon said, “Accidental poisoning is most often caused by the seeds […] Both adults and children have been fatally poisoned by tea brewed from the leaves or seeds of this plant.”

Mayapple (Podophyllium peltatum) aka Wild Mandrake, is most likely found in forests—but it’s in my poison garden, and I’ll include it! Leaves, roots, stems, seeds, and unripe fruit are toxic. Symptoms when ingested include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, followed by organ failure, coma, and potentially death days later. Ripe fruit is edible, but mistakenly eaten not-quite-ripe fruit leads to all of the above.

Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a member of the carrot family… but grows 6 to 10 feet tall! It has a toxicity rating of 6. It’s an invasive non-native. All parts are extremely poisonous, the blooms emit a foul odor, and the leaves acts like nicotine. Juice from Poison Hemlock can cause severe skin irritation. Internal poisoning often occurs after a victim confuses the root with wild parsnips, the leaves with parsley, or the seeds with anise. Hemlock tastes similar to lettuce. Whistles made from the hollow stems have been reported to lead to death in children. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, coughing, wheezing, watery eyes, salivation, sweating, difficulty seeing, weakness, dizziness, trembling, seizures, paralysis, changes in pulse rate, coma, and potentially death.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), aka Pokesalad, is found pretty much everywhere: fields, fencerows, roadsides, crop fields, and forest edges. It has a toxicity rating of 4. All parts of the plant are seriously poisonous. The juice can be absorbed through the skin, causing itchy skin and/or painful rash. Symptoms of ingestion include nausea, severe vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, burning sensation in the mouth, visual impairment, weakened respiration and pulse. Dehydration caused by these symptoms can be severe enough to lead to convulsions and death. People have tried to cook the leaves with spring greens, but the result was still poisonous even with multiple changes of water.

Virginia-creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a native plant that grows virtually everywhere. All parts of the plant are toxic to humans and other mammals. Ingestion causes intense mouth pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Swelling of the mouth and throat may cause swollen airways and asphyxiation.

Water-hemlock (Cicuta maculata), aka Spotted cowbane, is among the most toxic native plants in Virginia and has a toxicity rating of 6—and it’s one of the most gruesome poisons. It’s common near water, swamps, and wet seepage areas. All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans, especially the roots. Symptoms include severe stomach pain, pupil dilation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficult breathing, violent convulsions, and swelling of the mouth. Grand Mal seizures can begin soon after ingestion and prove non-responsive to regular seizure medications. People can asphyxiate on their own vomit or shred their tongues with their teeth because they cannot open their jaws. Death typically follows within fifteen minutes to eight hours after ingestion.

Rhubarb has delicious stalks but poisonous leaves.

Other plants in my poison garden

  • Rhododendron — toxicity 6
  • Lily of the Valley — toxicity 6
  • Oleander — toxicity 6
  • Yew — toxicity 6
  • Daphne — toxicity 5
  • Mountain Laurel — toxicity 5
  • Rhubarb aka Pie plant — toxicity 4
  • Foxglove — toxicity 6

CAUTION! DANGER, DANGER, DANGER! Many of these plants are beautiful and/or sweet-smelling. Pay close attention when someone—especially a child—visits your poison garden.

Bottom line for writers: death is as close as your own backyard—or roadside—or pasture—or woods. . .

THE FLIP SIDE OF TWINS

Identical twin sisters gave birth to daughters on the same day in Fresno, California.

Last week, Kathleen Corcoran shared a horrifying review of the portrayal of twins in horror films. The focus was on identical twins and the societal assumption of duality: good/bad, light/dark, the pervasive trope of one twin being evil—though sometimes both claim to be the evil twin!

Gred and Forge can both solemnly swear they’re up to no good!

There is a long history of assuming evil by one or both twins, attributing natural disasters and disease to twins, sometimes leading them to be left alone to die or even  buried alive along with their mother. Myths of twin mental telepathy, mate-swapping, and all sorts of weirdness have been around for centuries. But twins are fertile material for writers even without going to the dark side!


In the beginning:

Twins are of two types.

  • Identical twins (also called monozygotic) are the result of one egg, fertilized by one sperm, that for some reason separates into two cell masses shortly after fertilization. Their genetic codes are identical and permanent. 
  • Fraternal twins (also called dizygotic) are the result of two eggs being fertilized by two sperm during the same fertile period of the mother’s cycle. With the same father, fraternal twins share approximately 50% of their genetic heritage. They are no more alike genetically than any other full siblings of the same parents.

In this instance, the girls are full siblings of the same two parents. Plot point!  Given the differences in appearance, what if the father suspected that the mother had been with another man? 

The technical term is heteropaternal superfecundation.

How could fraternal twins have different fathers? It starts with the mother releasing more than one egg and then having sex with more than one man within the few days of her fertile cycle. According to Brian Boutwell in Psychology Today, 11/19/2017, “…more than 2% of fraternal twin pregnancies involve the genetic contributions of separate men, but Segal [Dr. Nancy L. Segal] contends that it’s likely higher, since when the two dads are of the same race and ethnicity, mothers may assume that both twins have the same sire.”

This British couple each fertilized one egg and implanted both embryos into the same surrogate.

Writers: Imagine the situation in which a woman would have sex with more than one man within days of each other. Rape? Promiscuity? Two intense relationships she’s conflicted about?

There are more fraternal twins among us than identical ones

The likelihood of identical twins is the same around the world, about 3-4 in 1,000 (3.3% in the U.S.). The incidence of fraternal twins varies by geography, from 6 to over 20 per 1,000 deliveries. Among the Yoruba in Nigeria, 1 in 11 people is a twin.

The World Twins Festival in Igboora-Ora, Nigeria celebrates the esteemed place twins hold in Yoruba society.

Do twins run in families?

Fraternal twins have long been recognized as likely to recur in families. Although women typically release only one egg per cycle, some women release multiple eggs on a regular basis, increasing the likelihood of fraternal twins. This tendency for hyperovulation can be an inherited trait straight from mothers to daughters and also to the daughters of sons. Writers: consider a character who is a matriarch in a twinning family.

Fraternal twinning rates vary across populations. A 2011 study reported that the highest rates of twinning in Central African populations, especially Benin. Asia and Latin America had the lowest rates of twinning. In the US, Asian American and Latino/Hispanic Americans (21.8/1000) have the lowest rates; African American women are more like (36.8 per 1,000) to have twins than Caucasian women. Getting pregnant while breastfeeding (while less likely overall) increases the likelihood of twins (11.4% vs. 1.1% in non-breastfeeding women).

Candido Godoi in Brazil has one of the highest densities of twins in the world, 10% of the total population.

Historically, identical twins have been assumed to result from random events in utero.  However, twin researcher Dr. Nancy Segal traveled to Brazil to spend time with a family that includes 22 sets of identical twins born across five generations. A study in Jordan focused on 13 sets of identical twins. Similarly, seven different families sharing similar alleles produced at least two pairs of identical twins. Clearly, this area of study is full of opportunities for further research.

Other factors affecting twinning: besides heredity, being an older woman (over 30), having previous children, being taller, and having a high body mass index (over 30) all increase the likelihood of fraternal twinning. Research among the Yoruba indicates that a diet high in beans and yams may contribute to twinning! Writers: to make your twinning thread realistic, first determine why they are twins.

Vanishing twin syndrome and related phenomena:

An estimated one in eight natural pregnancies begins as twins, but in the early weeks of the pregnancy one zygote (fertilized egg) is reabsorbed or spontaneously aborted, perhaps because of birth defects making it nonviable.

But sometimes the twin doesn’t really vanishin these cases, the fetus is partially reabsorbed and remnants of the nonviable fetus are found in the mother, placenta, or surviving twin. This is most likely to occur during the second or third trimester. The death of one twin at 15-20 weeks may result in papyraceous, a tiny paper-like flattened fetal remnant. Writers: imagine the possibilities. A teratoma tumor containing bone, hair, teeth, or tissue fragments may be found in the survivor. Some survivors feel longing, guilt, grief, or problems with relationships or sexuality.

Lifelong twinless-twins are people whose twin died at or near birth. Often the surviving twin strives to assert their uniqueness and/or feel as if they’re living for two people. Famous examples include Elvis Presley, painter Diego Rivera, pianist Liberace, and writers Thornton Wilder and Philip K. Dick.

The basic framework for twin studies: the goal is to understand variances in behavioral, physical, and mental health in the population at large. Studying twins allows researchers to separate (at least to a certain degree) the three contributing factors.

  • Ggenetic effects/ heritability
  • Shared environment, both in utero and after birth
  • Unshared/ unique/ non-shared environment, happen to only one twin (e.g., accidents, travel, work, classes)

Overall, research indicates that the relative importance of genetic vs. environment depends on the specific trait being studied. (Duh!)

When one twin is a robot, all three contributing factors are involved.

Birth order for twins

  • The general assumption is that twins are born minutes apart, but lots of twins have different birthdays. The longest time between deliveries is 87 days! Peggy Lynn, of Danville, Pennsylvania, delivered twins Eric and Hanna 84 days apart, one in November 1995, one in February 1996.
  • Birth order doesn’t seem to affect psychological outcomes.
  • Second-born twins are at higher risk for health problems including respiratory distress, neonatal trauma, and infections.
  • Along with the history of primogeniture in Great Britain, with older being the heir, there has been a tendency to assume some sort of primacy, privilege, or superiority to being firstborn. However, among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the firstborn twin (always named Taiye) is assumed to be the younger of the twins: they believe the senior twin (always named Kehinde) sent the younger one out first to scout the world and declare it safe.
Taiye and Kehinde marrying Taiwo and Kehinda
(photo by BellaNaija)

Other twin facts

  • In utero, as early as 18 weeks, twins seem to reach for each other intentionally and stroke each other. Early signs of bonding?
  • About 40% of twins develop their own language.
  • Twins yawn contagiously. Most non-twins don’t exhibit this behavior till 4 or 5 years old.
  • They affect each other’s sleep patterns for years.
  • Identical twins still have different fingerprints.
  • One twin can’t get away with a crime by blaming the other twin because modern technology can distinguish them (facial recognition, fingerprints, hair follicles, etc.).
  • Twins are more likely than singletons to be left-handed.
  • Identical twins can vary greatly in specific skills.
  • About one third of twins are opposite-sex fraternal.

Weird similarities of twins reared apart:

Twins switched out at birth are rare, but many twins (at least 1,894 cases since 1922) have been reared apart as a result of adoption.
According to Dr. Nancy Segal, “they [twins reared apart] cannot be communicating because they are often unaware that the other twin exists—instead, they are reflecting their matched abilities, tastes, and temperaments.” Thus they may read the same books, follow similar household routines, or enjoy the same hobbies.


Jorge Enrique Bernal Castro, William Canas Velasco, Carlos Bernal Castro and Wilber Canas Velasco were switched at birth in Columbia and raised as two sets of fraternal twins instead of pairs of identical twins.


Another set of separated twins studied by Segal were “The Jim Twins.” Reunited at age 39 without previously knowing the other existed, they’d been adopted and lived forty miles apart in Ohio. Both got terrible migraine, bit their nails, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove light blue Chevys, scored poorly in math and spelling, had worked at McDonald’s and as part-time deputy sheriffs. One named his first son James Alan; the other named his first son James Allan. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty.

Identical twins habits, interests, intelligence, and religion seem immune to separate upbringings.

The Jim Twins

And then there’s the environment: 

Even with identical DNA, twins can exhibit remarkable differences in the way their genetics interact with the environment. For example, a set of four identical sisters were all diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 24, primarily as a result of an abusive upbringing. One sister had mild symptoms and might never have been diagnosed if not for her three sisters. The symptoms of the other three ranged from paranoia and hallucinations to catatonia and incoherence.

To protect the family’s anonymity, the sisters were referred to as the Genain Quadruplets in research publications.

Nowadays, it is widely acknowledged that all human disorders involve both a genetic and an epigenetic (environmental) component.
Although both identical and fraternal twins share parents, parenting styles, houses, food, schools, popular culture, etc., there is some speculation that parents, teachers, peers, and others treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal ones.

Kodinhi Village in Kerala, India has more than 400 sets of twins.

The upside of being a twin:

  • The extreme closeness of twins, of “having a best buddy for life” may be protective over their lifespan. Life is longest among identical twins, but fraternal twins also live longer than the general population.
  • Twins—particularly identical twins—validate each other, their beliefs and attitudes.
  • The opportunity to prank family and friends or take each other’s spelling tests provides endless amusement.
The violence often begins at birth.

The downside of being a twin:

  • For both identical and fraternal twins, a big downside is the comparison game: which twin is bigger, brighter, nicer, more attractive, more talented, etc.
  • For identical twins, a huge challenge is to establish one’s individuality. Not everyone wants to his/her identity to be defined by twinness.
Ere Ibeji are memorial statues honoring Yoruba twins who have died.

Celebrating twins

Yoruba twins have an annual festival in Ishara, a picturesque city on steep hills with dirt roads and what are reported to be “gingerbread-colored” houses (whatever that means). During the festival, twins in Ishara wear matching clothes, dance in the streets and exchange gifts. Their mothers cook the food, mostly beans.

The largest gathering of twins is the annual Twins Days Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. Attendees can enjoy funnel cakes and other fair food. Thousands of twins participate, as well as other multiples. Researchers gather from far and wide to test volunteers and enlarge the body of knowledge associated with twins.

Bottom line for writers: twins are fertile ground for characters and plot. You can find an incredible amount of info online. Check it out!


THE JOYFUL SIDE OF THE SEASON: TRADING HALLOWEEN FOR THE DAY OF THE DEAD

For more than a month, people have been bombarded with ads, displays, and commercials about things to buy for Halloween: costumes, candy, house decorations, yard displays, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, more money is spent on Halloween than any other holiday except Christmas—which I find pretty horrifying in and of itself. 

This insanity is what inspired Tim Burton to write Nightmare Before Christmas.

But that’s just the tip of the horror: evil witches, vampire bats, the walking dead, haunted houses, werewolves, and not-nearly-as-friendly-as-Casper ghosts. The scary side of the season is why the previous four blogs on this website have been about evil twins, being buried alive, satanism, and vampires.

Hard on the heels of Halloween comes Dia de Muertos, The Day of the Dead (though it seems to me it ought to be Days, plural). It begins at midnight on October 31 and continues through November 1 and 2.

  • Writers please note:although November 1 and 2 coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, respectively, the Day of the Dead is not now tied to any particular religion. It is more of a cultural holiday than a religious one. 

Scholars have traced the modern holiday back hundreds of years, particularly to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. People can, and have, personalized it, integrating elements into their own cultural and/or religious practices. It is nearly opposite of all that Halloween stands for.

A representation of Mictlantecuhtli, also known as the Divine Mother or Santa Muerte Narco

In Aztec mythology, Mictlan was the underworld and after-death destination for the majority of people. The ruler of Mictlan was
Mictlantecuhtli, who held the bones used to create all of humanity.
Mictlancíhuatl was his wife, who watches over the souls of the dead.

A popular costume is La Catrina, a character that was created by Mexican lithographer and illustrator Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913). La Catrina is a female skeleton who is dressed in the style of upper-class women of the period.

Dio de Muertos is celebrated throughout Mexico, especially the central and southern regions. It is also celebrated by people of Mexican heritage worldwide. Although the details of the celebration vary by location, the central elements are the same: celebrating the lives of those who have died with feasting, parties, costumes, and activities the dead enjoyed in life.

October 31 is usually devoted to preparing to welcome the souls of loved ones. A home altar is created, decorated with candles and lots of food and drink: fruits, peanuts, turkey mole, tortillas, and Day of the Dead breads (pan de muerto) ; sodas, cocoa, and water. These offerings are called ofrenda, though that can also refer to the altar itself. The breads often have icing that resembles and bones across the top. Buckets of flowers, especially wild marigolds (cempasúchitl), are used as well.


Copal incense was burned in Mesoamerica in ancient times.
The word copal is derived from the Nahuatl word copalli, which means “incense.”

Traditional altars include very specific elements, each with a distinct purpose.

  • A candle for each relative remembers, so that the light will guide them.
  • Flowers to represent the fleetingness of life.
  • Salt and water to purify and refresh the souls tired from the journey.
  • Copal incense to raise prayers to God.
  • A photo or drawing of each relative, often with a favorite piece of clothing or toy.
An ofrenda for a young child

The holiday begins when the souls of dead children and miscarried babies are allowed to return to their families for twenty-four hours, on Día de los Inocentes. Toys, candies, and miniature skulls are added to the home altars for these angelitos.  On November 2, the spirits of adults arrive. The miniature skulls are replaced by full-sized ones. For adults, the altar includes cigarettes, shots of mezcal, and/or the favorite drink of the dead person(s).

A small
calavera de azucar (sugar skull) for a small child’s ofrenda

Sugar art was learned from Italian missionaries in the 17th century, who made sugar lambs and angels to adorn altars in Catholic Churches at Easter. Clay molded sugar skulls, angels, and sheep date back to the 18th century. As described on mexicansugarskull.com, “Sugar skulls represented a departed soul, had the name written on the forehead and was placed on the home Ofrenda [altar] or gravestone to honor the return of a particular spirit.”  According to the same source, “Sugar skull art reflects the folk art style of big happy smiles, colorful icing and sparkly tin and glittery adornments.”

Now they are represented by jewelry and masks.

Typically, the holiday activities includes a trip to the cemetery/graveyard where loved ones are buried. Besides clean-up and maintenance of the gravesite, these visits include a party, often with local music, games, card playing, feasting, and decorating the graves.

Families at a cemetery in Oaxaca

Although a Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead is celebrated worldwide. In the United States, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona feature pretty traditional celebrations.

These Catrinas dressed like Adelitas, women who fought in the Mexican Revolution.

California, too, has strong historical ties to Mexico and Dia de Muertos is celebrated widely across the state—though the celebrations sometimes add a political element, such as an altar to honor the victims of the Iraq War.

The parade in Mexico City this year honored migrants who have died.

Virtually every big city has a festival and events. For example, the historic Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood hosts an annual festival celebrating the cycle of life and death. People bring food, flowers, pictures, and mementos to add to a huge decorated altar. It includes traditional music and dance.

Jamaica Plain, Boston

Bottom line for writers: consider a scene involving Day of the Dead celebrations. Perhaps it is a tradition for one or more characters, or perhaps the protagonist just happens to be in a city where the celebration is taking place. Think broadly!