Take a break from the all-too-real horror that is the Donald Trump’s election campaign and dive into the frightfully fantastic world of ghostly ghouls and goblins. Come walk the dark and mysterious path to the past and find the beginnings of the 10 spookiest Halloween monsters.
Almost everyone knows the ancient origins of this creepy pre-Christian Celtic festival. We have something even more interesting and creepier, the origins of the iconic Halloween monsters.
That’s right we are talking about the classic monsters such as witches, vampires, ghosts, and goblins. These monsters have haunted our dreams and imaginations for centuries!
What power do they have over us?
Where did they come from?
Are they lurking out there on All Hallows Eve?
Let’s find out!
1. Unearthly Ghosts
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According to folklore and mythology, a ghost is the imprint or soul left behind in the physical world after a person dies. A ghost is imagined as having a pale mist-like appearance, often resembling the person’s physical appearance. Belief in ghosts is prevalent in cultures that believe in an afterlife. History is full of hair-raising stories of vengeful ghosts that haunt the living. The oldest evidence we have is probably the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Ghosts haunted our imagination for tens of thousands of years and will continue to do so. In fact, we are so fascinated with creeping ourselves out, that we actually created a robot that mimics that creepy feeling of being watched!
2. Grisly Zombies
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This origin story has a tragic aspect that is often forgotten, this horror trope has close associations with Haiti. The Haitians kept slaves and treated them with extreme brutality. Slaves would consider death a blissful end to being subjugated and often commit suicide. People believed any slave who took his or her own life would be condemned to walk the slave plantations forever, trapped in the physical body. The current pop-culture representation of a brain-eating mindless rotting corpse is quite a different version.
3. Spooky Witches
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Witches are one of the oldest source of terror that keeps us up at night. In modern culture, they are often portrayed as old hags that fly on a broomstick, cast powerful spells, and sometimes worship the devil. Wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers also share similar origins to witches. Wicca and magic ties the origin stories of all these monsters.
4. Killer Robots
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As traditional tales of terror took on a more futuristic approach in science fiction, a new monster was born, the sinister evil robot that wants to kill its creators. You might be thinking of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or perhaps Skynet. Killer robots go back further than that; the most famous example is that of Talos, a metal automaton that protected the ancient Greek island of Crete. The modern version of killer robots hell-bent on destroying humans, first appeared in a play by Karel Capek called R.U.R. These robots were not strictly machines, but humanoids that end up exterminating the human race!
5. Abominable Aliens
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The idea of otherworldly beings visiting us has been a central plot point of ancient myths and modern tales. A lot of people believe aliens exist and visit this planet often. The iconic image of the short humanoid grey-green alien depicted in popular culture can be traced back to a fake alien autopsy video released after the Roswell incident. Science fiction authors such as H.G Wells and Asimov have long written about benevolent and sinister alien beings, a concept that remains mind-bogglingly fascinating to us.
6. Eerie Vampires
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Before they were tamed and turned into sparkly angst-ridden teenage versions by the Twilight series, vampires were gruesome terrifying beings that haunted the dark recesses of our minds. The most famous representation in pop culture is the character of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel, Dracula. The origin of the myths of these undead immortal creatures is most likely the cases of premature burials. Medical science wasn’t accurate in olden times and people were declared dead by mistake. The modern version of this monster is a charming and powerful being with enormous physical powers. You can also change your voice using voice changer for discord and surprise your friends.
The idea of a human-wolf hybrid goes back to ancient Germanic times. The people adhered to pagan beliefs that considered gifted warriors as wolves of the gods. These wolf-men stories morphed over time into the modern versions of a man that turns into a rabid wolf during the full moon. Werewolves didn’t dominate popular culture as quickly as mummies or vampires, but hold a significant place in the collective psyche.
8. Killer Clowns
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Clowns aren’t exactly the mythic beasts of ancient lore, but they are creepy no matter what. There is something unfathomable about a face hiding behind that mask of makeup. Originally, clowns were meant to be similar to court jesters, lovable fools that merely entertained. However, recent pop culture has turned them into something quite disturbing. The first creepy murderous clown appeared in the Italian soap opera, Pagliacci. Another scary clown makes an appearance in Stephen King’s novel, It.
These literary portrayals merged with reality in a disturbing way when police apprehended the serial killer John Wayne Gacy back in the 1980’s. He became known as the “Killer Clown” because his day job included dressing up as a clown and entertaining kids at parties. The recentclownsightings have maxed out the creepiness level of clowns. As if having John Wayne Gacy in the history books was not enough, better keep an eye out for creepy clowns while trick or treating this year.
9. The Grim Reaper
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The Grim Reaper is the so-called bringer of death, a being that haunts the physical plane looking for souls to collect and delivers them to the metaphysical realms. The modern image of the Grim Reaper you see in books and movies is a skeleton swathed in a black robe, holding a scythe. This tool is used to reap the souls that are destined to die. This imagery holds a close association with the state of Europe during the black plague. The black garb of the Grim Reaper represents the plague; the scythe is used to strike down multiple people in one blow, as the plague was wont to do.
10. Monstrous Mummies
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Mummification was used by many ancient cultures as a way of preserving the human body and readying it for the journeys of the afterlife. Mummification can also occur as a natural process given the right combination of temperature and humidity, the monster trope however, is predominantly focused on Egyptian mummies.
The iconic image of the undead mummy stalking an unsuspecting puny little human in deep underground passages comes from the scary mind of Bram Stoker. That’s right the guy responsible for Dracula is also responsible for your mummy nightmares. Stoker’s novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars, featured an undead mummy that haunts an archeologist. Looks like Mr. Stoker loved Halloween as much as we do!
They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky. But Halloween’s creepiest creature customs didn’t appear out of thin air, not even the ghosts. Many of them once instilled real fear in medieval towns, when folklore reigned supreme and getting freaked out came easy. Here we offer up some real science and history of the scary stars of Oct. 31.
A standout among freaks and monsters, the nutritious pumpkin may be Halloween’s most famous symbol. The practice of carving and lighting the gourd is a Celtic custom brought to America by Irish immigrants, who used the more-plentiful turnip back home. Glowing, frightening faces emanating from the pumpkins were meant to frighten off the evil spirits thought to roam the streets on Oct. 31, the Celtic New Year’s Eve. [In Images: Peculiar Halloween Pumpkins]
They’re blind, they hang out in caves and they inspire masked crusaders. But how did bats become associated with Halloween? The winged mammals can thank vampires for that. Like their Draculian counterparts, a small number of bat species actually subsist on animal blood – vampire bats have been known to attack humans on occasion – using sharp teeth to cut into the sleeping victim. Their nocturnal ways and connection to Ozzy Osbourne probably don’t help either. [Flying Mammals: Gallery of Spooky Bats]
They’re one way to add a little freaky je ne sais quoi to otherwise lovely architecture. But gargoyles, those frightening stone monsters protruding from cathedrals worldwide, do actually have a function. They were incorporated into gothic stonework as early as the 13th-century to keep rain water off cathedral roofs, their mouths serving as the ejector spout. More spiritually, gargoyles were supposed to protect the congregation from the ever-present evil forces lurking outside. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Made famous in fairy tales, the small and furry goblin is more mischievous than menacing. Legend tells of goblins hiding out in forests, pulling pranks and sometimes switching human babies for their own changeling spawn. Unlike some of the other creatures mentioned here and probably because of their disconnect from religion, goblins never quite crossed the threshold from the imaginary to cause real panic in medieval towns. [Related: The Science of Fairy Tales]
Forget the pointy black hat and warty nose. Those popular associations are relatively recent compared with the long and often tragic history of witches across the globe. In the past, witches were thought to possess magical powers connected with the natural world. Like all pagans, they were demonized as heretics by the Christian church, a hunt that reached its apex in medieval Europe and 17th-century America. Good luck picking them out of a crowd today: witch costumes frequently top the list at Halloween. [13 Halloween Superstitions & Traditions Explained]
Kings of the b-movie industry, zombies are individuals who’ve either had their souls sucked from their bodies or been revived from the dead through black magic. Zombie culture stems from the voodoo religion of Haiti, where it is still believed that people can fall into mindless trances just like the walking dead we’ve seen on film (minus the missing limbs and snacking on human flesh). An ethnobotanist investigating the claims in Haiti found a toxic drug that could actually induce a zombie-style catatonic state. [Zombie Facts: Real and Imagined (Infographic)]
Poke two eye holes in a bed sheet and you’ve got the easiest Halloween costume around. Becoming a real ghost is a bit more complicated. First you have to die, maybe tragically, then leave part of your soul hanging around earth to spook relatives and haunt houses. From a supposedly scientific angle, parapsychologists argue that energy – including what’s in the body – can never be completely destroyed. Society seems to agree: various studies peg belief in ghosts at about 50 percent. [Countdown: Top 10 Most Famous Ghosts]
Typically normal and well-mannered until a full moon kicks in, werewolves are cursed shapeshifters that have appeared in the legend set of nearly every culture going back to ancient Greece. Like witches, they were hunted in medieval times and blamed for community murders that couldn’t be explained otherwise. Though the violent werewolf stories of old seem to have fallen off the radar, except in Hollywood, there remains an excessive body-hair disorder lovingly nicknamed “the werewolf disease.”
They vant to suck your blood, and have for quite some time. Vampires have popped up in cultural folklore for thousands of years, though the fanged-and-coiffed version we know comes from the 18th and 19th-century myths of Eastern Europe. There, it was believed that someone who was born with deformities or died an irregular death could, after burial, rise again to terrorize the living. Vampires were considered “undead” and needed to feast on human blood to remain so.
One of those all-encompassing terms for an “evil spirit,” a demon can represent anything from a malevolent ghost or fallen angel to a puppet of Satan. Like the notion of evil itself, they have ancient origins and appear in folklore and literature across the world. The demon that possessed Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” is probably pop culture’s most famous and most talented, with levitation capability, rotating head and amazing, life-like spewing action! [Related: Ghost Stories Haunt American Culture]
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These creatures have terrified, plagued and haunted our collective consciousness for centuries and will continue to do so. Do you agree with the list? Which ones did you find most fascinatingly frightening? Tell us in the comments!
On Halloween, witches and werewolves, ghosts and ghouls, and demons and devils stalk the streets for tricks or treats. But the real tricks and treats—at least for the horror-loving word nerds among us—might just be the strange and far-flung origins of these monster names.
The word witch flies in from Old English. The earliest record, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), refers to a male practitioner of sorcery and magic—wicca, also the source of the neopagan religion of the same name. Wicca is derived from wiccian, “to practice witchcraft.” The deeper roots of this verb are obscure, though etymologists have speculated on its relationship to Germanic words meaning holy or awaken. Over the centuries, witch’s masculine applications melted away, thanks in no small part to the historical persecution of many women believed to be witches.
Werewolf is another lexical beastie that prowled Old English. While the OED can date it back to 1000, the dictionary also notes the word was never in much use, except for among some Scottish speakers, until modern folklore scholarship revived it. Werewolves, we know, are men that turn into wolves—and that’s exactly what the word means. Were comes from an Old English word for man and is distantly related to the same Latin vir (man) which gives us words like virile and virtue. It’s not only wolves that could wear were. Some have told tales of werebears, weretigers, werefoxes, and even werehyenas.
Yeah, yeah, Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster: It’s the name of his creator, Victor, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Frankenstein is German surname and place-name, roughly meaning “stone of the Franks.” The Franks, or “freemen,” were a Germanic tribe whose name also survives in frank, and French. Some believe Shelley was inspired by her travels in Germany, which took her near Frankenstein Castle.
They say vampires can live forever, but the word is relatively young as far as the English language is concerned. It doesn’t come out of the dark until the early 1700s, borrowed from the French vampire, itself taken from a Slavonic source by way of Hungary. But the etymological flight of vampire may not be over: One Eastern European linguist has argued vampire ultimately comes from a northern Turkish word, uber, meaning witch. (Any connection to the transportation company is coincidental.) And the name of that most famous vampire, Dracula, is actually related to another mythical creature: the dragon.
Back in the 1400s, mummy referred to a bituminous substance (think asphalt). This sounds far from ghastly until you consider that the specific material was used as a medicine prepared from mummified human flesh. Its French (mommie) and Latin (mumia) sources also named a substance used to embalm corpses. Latin directly borrowed (via Salerno, the leading medieval school of medicine located in Italy) its mumia from the Arabic mumiya, “bitumen.” The Arabic is said to preserve a Persian root meaning wax. It wasn’t until the 1600s that mummy, used for Egyptian mummification, actually named those de-organed, embalmed corpses. And it wasn’t until 1930s Hollywood that Boris Karloff gives us the monster, The Mummy.
It may not be too surprising that mummy comes from Arabic, what with Ancient Egypt and all. But ghoul? Yes, this word also comes from the Middle East. In Arabic mythology, a ghoul, or ghul, robbed graves and ate corpses. The root is a verb that means, appropriately, “to seize.” The word started marauding English thanks to a 1780s translation of an Arabic tale.
Where there are ghouls there are goblins, at least if the Halloween stock phrase is any measure. This name of this mischievous, ugly folk creature might come from the Greek kobalos, a kind of scoundrel. According to this etymological theory, kobalos passed into Latin and then French, where Gobelinus is documented as the name for a spirit haunting the city of Evreux in the Middle Ages. Goblin enters English by the 1350s. A hobgoblin, a related impish creature, features hob, which comes from a shortened nickname for Robert, as it is for Robin Goodfellow, an English puck many will know from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Demon is another word from Ancient Greek. In that tongue, a daimon variously signified a god, divinity, attendant spirit, or even the force of fate itself. The base of this daimon is a Greek verb meaning “to divide.” The ancients envisioned the Fates divvying out people’s lots in life. Demon went to the dark side when Greek authors used it to translate Hebrew terms for baddies in the Old Testament.
Like daimon, the Greek diabolos was a biblical Greek translation of the Hebrew word satan in the Old Testament. The Hebrew satan means an adversary, literally an “obstructor” or “plotter-against.” The Greek diabolos, a slanderer or accuser, picks up on this idea, as it literally means “one who throws something across the path of another.” The words symbol and ballistics share a root with it. Old English rendered diabolos a deofol.
Like mummies, zombies are also corpses brought back to life. But unlike mummy, zombie was brought into English not from the Middle East but from West Africa. The Kikongo language spoken around the Congo has nzambi (which, according to zombie experts Hans-W. Ackermann and Jeanine Gauthier, “designates the creator god of many Bantu peoples,” as well as meaning “spirit of a dead person”) and zumbi (fetish) may have had an influence on the word (though Ackermann and Gauthier note there are many words in West and Central African langua-ges phonetically similar to zombie). Via the slave trade, zombie made its way to Haiti, with the word popping up in English as early as 1788 to describe “the spirits of dead wicked men, that are permitted to wander, and torment the living.” Only later would it become explicitly corpses magically raised from the dead. Other scholars have speculated, though, that zombie might be a Louisiana Creole word from the Spanish sombra, a shade or ghost.
Speaking of ghosts, they’ve been long haunting English. The Old English gast meant spirit, including good ones, bad ones, and, well, holy ones. (The h creeped in thanks to Dutch and Flemish cognates.) Forms of ghost are indeed found throughout the Germanic languages, possibly all coming from an Indo-European root referring to fear or amazement. Ghost settles into its modern meaning—an apparition of a dead person—in the 14th century.
One place you can genuinely catch sight of this large, hairy hominid is out on the streets during Halloween. Another name for Bigfoot, Sasquatch likely comes from the Halkomelem language, spoken by many First Nations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The word entered English thanks to a 1929 article in Maclean’s that quoted an “old hunter” as saying “The strange people, of whom there are but few now—rarely seen and seldom met … are known by the name of Sasquatch, or, ‘the hairy mountain men.’”
Finally, the Sasquatch’s snowy counterpart is the Yeti, said to trek the Himalayas. According to Etymonline, even though the creature looms large in our imaginations, it comes from the Sherpa yeh-teh, a “small manlike animal,” though it might more literally be rendered as “rocky bear.” And thanks to a 1921 journalist reporting on a Mt. Everest expedition, we have the Abominable Snowman. The journalist translated the Tibetan metoh kangmi, another name for the Yeti, as “abominable snowman.” Later, he explained that he had gotten it wrong, and it more closely meant “filthy snowman”—though decades after that, an alternate explanation emerged that metoh and kangmi were just two words for the same animal.