Spoiler Warning: If you are planning to binge watch Jessica Jones this weekend, you might want to skip this article until Monday.
Jessica Jones the former hero turned private investigator is about to take on Supergirl as the best, new superheroine to appear on the small screen fall of 2015. Already Netflix’s newest contribution to the Marvel Universe has been met with great reviews, telling a very dark and mature story. The maturity comes from the relationship between the heroine and the villain. While the titular Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) has super strength and the ability to fly, her nemesis Kilgrave (David Tennant) has the power of mind control. In the world of comics, Jessica was a lower-level heroine named Jewel, who gave up the hero life after she was held hostage and tortured by Kilgrave’s mind control for several months. She was only freed after she was forced to fight another superheroine. While I am not sure which details will be carried over into the TV series, this relationship between the characters appears the same. We have already looked at the science behind super strength when discussing Supergirl, but is there any scientific basis for Kilgrave’s abilities?
In the comics Dr. Zebediah Kilgrave, also known as The Purple Man, is a supervillain known for several things. One is actually being purple, hence the name, and why David Tennant wears a lot of purple in the promotional material. Strangely enough, a person can actually have blue skin and purple lips through a blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia, most famously documented in the Fugate family of Kentucky. The color results because oxygen is not as easily released to the body from the blood stream due to higher than normal levels of methemoglobin (a rare form of protein in the blood). Additionally, people can develop blue colored skin through a condition known as argyria, caused by chronic exposure to colloidal silver.
However, as the Netflix series shows, the purple skin is not what makes Kilgrave terrifying; it is the mind control. Kilgrave can secrete chemical pheromones that let him control people by speaking, as long as the pheromone is absorbed and remains within their system. In the real world pheromones are well noted phenomena, especially in animals. First coined in 1959, a pheromone is a chemical that is secreted and detected by organisms of the same species, which causes behavioral change. Pheromones have varying effects ranging from sexual attraction, or defense behavior. But can pheromones force animals to serve other animals?
Evidence in honey bees suggest the queen honey bee may control the female worker bees that surround and take care of her. The honeybee pheromone may prevent the worker bees from associating certain events with negative outcomes, including being around the queen bee. As the other pheromones produced by the queen bee are unpleasant, the queen bee prevents the worker bees from learning they should not enjoy being around her, so they will take care of her. For honeybees this ensures that the hive survives as the queen bee is the bee giving birth to the workers. As the worker bees grow older they become resistant to this effect. However, it would be horrifying if a human were to do this.
Do humans use pheromones? While it is true that humans do secrete chemicals, including in their sweat, scientists have not yet identified a human pheromone (despite what you may be able to buy on the internet). Humans do respond to the chemical smell of other people, but scientists have not yet identified the individual molecules that trigger the response. Human pheromones may exist; we just haven’t found them yet. Even if we do, it’s important to remember that pheromones influence behavior, but they don’t rob us of free will.
All signs suggest Kilgrave is going to be a new, terrifying villain of the Marvel Universe. Feel free to get excited watching Jessica Jones take him down. And don’t worry as far as we know mind control pheromones aren’t real.
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