The popular Netflix series Wednesday chronicles the adventures of the Addams family’s teen daughter. Wednesday Addams is a character played by Jenna Ortega and finds herself in a complex murder mystery after her parents sent her to Nevermore Academy. The show is infused with elements of the supernatural but also contains scenes that may leave viewers wondering, “Could that really happen in real life?”
I’m a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where we study the effects of drugs and poisons on the body. Some scenes from Wednesday raise interesting questions about biological and chemical hazards. They inspired me to explore what science can tell us about these issues.
Piranhas in the pool
One of the most memorable scenes involves Wednesday exacting revenge on her brother’s bullies by dumping hungry piranhas in their swimming pool. The majority of swimmers manage to escape, with the exception of one unfortunate guy who is a bit chewed. What is the likelihood that piranhas would attack someone in a pool?
Piranhas are freshwater fish indigenous to South American rivers and lakes. Their reputation as a ferocious carnivore that can reduce their prey to bones in seconds was popularized by Teddy Roosevelt following his trip to the Amazon. However, the fish he witnessed eating a cow were purposefully starved before the display.
In reality, not all piranhas are carnivores, and the rare attack on humans is typically limited to a single bite. Gregory A. Lewbart is a North Carolina State University professor of aquatic and wildlife medicine. He once went swimming with the piranhas in Ecuadorian Amazon. This was as common as it gets for many other people every day. Lewbart said that fatal attacks have never occurred or are extremely rare. “It sounds like the only humans consumed by piranhas are people who already died from drowning.”
Even if Wednesday were able to procure a carnivorous species deprived of food, there’s still the problem of being dumped into a chlorinated pool. Lewbart explained that the chlorine would cause rapid damage to the fish’s gills and reduce the ability of their blood to carry oxygen, leading to death. The piranhas will be shocked and not likely to swim the entire length of a swimming pool in an attempt to launch an attack. Lewbart said that a piranha, or any other fish put into a pool wouldn’t be interested in feeding.
A snack of potpourri
During a family therapy session, Wednesday’s brother Pugsley, played by Isaac Ordonez, mistakes a bowl of potpourri for candy and begins to devour it. Potpourri is a mixture of dried flower petals, herbs and spices used to fragrance a room. How would it react if someone consumed the potpourri?
Potpourri is generally considered to be nontoxic. Potpourri is generally considered to be non-toxic. However, potpourri can have essential oils added to it to increase its scent. The highly concentrated extracts of plants can cause skin reactions such as a rash, irritation or swelling in the throat, eyes and mouth.
While ingesting a small amount of potpourri is probably not too dangerous for humans, veterinarians have issued warnings for dogs and cats, as excessive amounts could lead to gastrointestinal problems or adverse liver effects. Potpourri may cause a pet to become sensitive to essential oils.
Pugsley’s favorite bait
In one scene, the Addams kids go fishing with Pugsley’s “favorite bait”: grenades. The explosion that follows the tossing of a bomb into the water creates an abundance of fish ready for consumption. Rachel Lance is a Duke University blast trauma and explosives professor. I wanted to learn more about blast fishing.
“The grenade method may technically work,” Lance told me. “Grenades almost certainly could cause swim bladder trauma as a result of the explosive shock wave, which would bring the unfortunate fish to the surface belly up.”
Lance added that fish are quite blast-resistant, so a powerful explosive such as an M-80 firecracker, dynamite or homemade bomb would be needed. Even with big explosions, this technique is far less risky than it seems. “Jacques Cousteau dove underwater after a bout of blast fishing, and he found it to be sadly ineffective, with 90% of the fish that had been killed sinking to the bottom where they could not be easily collected, and a meager 10% rising to the top,” recalled Lance.
Given the danger of explosives, not to mention their inefficiency and collateral damage to the ecosystem, blast fishing is illegal in many parts of the world.
Nightshade poisoning was deduced as the cause of death for one of the characters based on foaming saliva, dilated pupils, mental confusion and bluish skin. What is nightshade and can it be used as a poison?
Nightshades include many different varieties of plants, some of which are diet staples for many, like tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Other varieties are to be avoided, such as the aptly named deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). Deadly nightshade is a shrub with dark green leaves adorned with purple, bell-shaped flowers and dark purple berries. But don’t let the beauty of this belladonna fool you; ingest any part of this plant, especially the sweet-tasting berries, and it could be your last meal.
People have been exploiting the poisonous properties of deadly nightshade since Roman times, but the plant has medicinal and cosmetic uses as well. Atropine is a chemical which enlarges pupils and relaxes muscles. This became a fad among women during the Renaissance and can be used by ophthalmologists to dilate the pupil for an eye exam. Atropine is also included in the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines list to reduce saliva production in surgeries and treat some poisonings and eye conditions.
Symptoms of deadly nightshade poisoning include rapid heartbeat, blurred vision, vomiting, hallucinations, seizures and coma. These symptoms take at least 15 minutes to appear; they are not as immediate as depicted in “Wednesday.” And while some victims may have blue-tinged skin because of low oxygen levels in the blood, it is not a hallmark of deadly nightshade poisoning. Other conditions, including silver poisoning, can also cause blue skin.
Wednesday is the latest Hollywood hit that exaggerates what’s possible to advance a good story. It’s possible to learn a lot from a TV show even if it doesn’t get everything right.