In this article:
- Halloween monsters are the bread and butter of Spooktober season, but they’re more than just ghouls for scaring children with.
- These monsters have origins that reflect the history, culture, and tradition of the peoples they originated from.
- Some of these monsters put us face to face with our own existential fears of the unknown, the unknowable, and our death.
With October drawing to a close, Halloween is just around the corner, and with it comes the promise of spooky lawn decor and creepy costumes. Or sexy costumes. Seriously, look up “Halloween costumes” and a good chunk of the results are sexy superhero costumes, Suicide Squad‘s version of Harley Quinn, and avocados for some inexplicable reason.
Are we afraid of good nutrition now? I’m not sure. Maybe the fear factor of avocados sets in for a certain part of the population when they realize most of the avocados sold in the U.S come from South America. Go figure.
But assuming you’re a normal person, the spooky part about Halloween costumes is the monsters we often dress up as. Halloween monsters come in all shapes and sizes — from sexy succubi to shriveled goblins — and while we often brush them off as nothing more than fiction or the product of our ancestors’ limited knowledge of the world, there’s still some truth to most of these Halloween monsters.
You see, Halloween monsters aren’t just creatures meant to scare naughty children with. Their origins tell us about what our ancestors feared in their time and our continued fascination with these ghouls says something about our own fears and values, too.
If there’s one Halloween monster on this list that hits a little too close to home for modern audiences, it’s the zombie. In modern media, zombies are almost always connected to a viral infection that quickly spreads throughout the planet, causing the collapse of government infrastructure and, later, society itself.
The demise of civilization as we know it — what can be more terrifying than that?
The story of the animated corpse, at least the version that made it to mainstream media, is based on Haitian folklore. In Haitian voudou traditions, sorcerers called bokor bring the recently deceased back to life as robotic flesh husks with no autonomy. The original Haitian zombie isn’t made through a bite or an infection by a mutated virus but through a process known as zombification.
Zombification follows the same format that most folkloric curses do. Many bokors take blood and hair from the target and exert magical influence over it to control the zombie. Another method is to use a “coup de poudre,” a mixture of herbs with animal and human body parts. The powder is then administered by either injecting it into the bloodstream or tricking the target into eating it. As if the threat of getting roofied isn’t enough, we have to worry about being turned into zombies, too.
People back then didn’t have the internet so how did the zombie make its way to the United States? The answer is something more horrifying than zombies: the slave trade.
For enslaved people with no freedom in choosing how they lived, death was often the only free choice to make. But the fear of becoming a zombie could stay the hand that held the blade. Zombies were often created in order to make mindless slaves that could be sold to plantation owners. Herein lies the greater fear: that one would remain a slave even after death.
Today, many of us don’t live with the fear of slavery looming over our heads. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist today — it certainly does. But for your average urban worker, slavery exists in the form of a lack of upward mobility and realistic options to exercise any meaningful human agency. Maybe you even feel like a zombie sometimes, someone who just goes through the motions of each day without feeling like you’re really doing anything in your B.S. job.
Demons are supposed to be scary but this Halloween monster is more often the subject of lust than something to be afraid of. Pop culture today depicts demons, especially succubi, as creatures to indulge our sexual desires with. You see this in Meru the Succubus and the hit tv series Lucifer where Tom Ellis has made audiences go as far as to question their own sexuality.
But should that really be surprising when sin has always been seductive?
While we typically associate these Halloween monsters with Judeo-Christian traditions, the demon has been around since the Mesopotamian civilization and persisted as a way to explain illness in a time before modern medicine.
Many diseases and impairments associated with demons are mental illnesses, especially ones that feature psychotic symptoms and scenarios where a person might act with little grounding in reality. That’s about everything from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder.
One of the earliest appearances that demons make in the Christian theological tradition is in Genesis 6 which talks about the existence of Nephilim. Now, there’s no consensus as to what the Nephilim are exactly, but most agree they’re a form of demon.
These Nephilims are described as the product of unions between the “sons of God” and daughters of humans. It’s one of the first instances we get of people sleeping with inhuman beings, a sign of the development of later beliefs about human and demon sex.
Don’t believe me? Ask Stella Immanuel, the Houston doctor who showed up at the “White Coat Summit” to claim, together with other doctors who really want their patients dead, that hydroxychloroquine is a cure for the coronavirus. The good doctor Stella also believes that gynecological illnesses are caused by people getting sexually assaulted by demons while they sleep. Demon sperm in this day and age, sigh, I wish it was a bad dream.
But it’s not a strange leap of logic to make in a historical sense. Okay, it’s still a massive leap in logic but it does have historical precedents. Christian tradition is filled with stories of demons having sex with human women and in the medieval era, the association of illness with demon sex was entrenched in what passed for medical science in that age. It was even used as an explanation for bedtime ejaculation.
In short, this Halloween monster has always been an easy way to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own desires and “evil” impulses. But while cynics will be quick to say that’s normal since we’re naturally predisposed to evil, the demon really might represent an external force or system that corrupts us. The burgeoning field of moral psychology keeps discovering ways in which our sense of morality is innate to us.
Ghosts are a staple Halloween monster that features in most horror movies and urban legends. They’re also one of our most ancient beliefs. Ghosts are inherently tied to beliefs about the existence of an afterlife, especially because believing in an afterlife means accepting the existence of a soul that persists even after the body is reduced to little more than worm grub.
Depending on what place and time you lived in our long history, your beliefs about ghosts could be similar to or wildly different from modern popular views on this Halloween monster. In Mesopotamia, ghosts filled a similar role to that of demons in that they were explanations for then unexplainable illnesses. Souls resided in the darkness of Irkalla, the land of no return, where they have no choice but to eat dirt and drink from mud puddles. Not even goddesses could escape this fate and all souls that entered Irkalla couldn’t leave.
Unless they have unfinished business.
Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld, would allow souls to leave Irkalla if they’ve been wronged before their death and needed to exact their revenge. It’s standard Paranormal Activity stuff from there. Often the undead soul hasn’t received a proper burial, has had its will ignored after its death, or it died a violent death at another person’s hands.
This is where our fear of being haunted by this Halloween monster stems from. When the ghost returns, it causes illness. Its relationship with otherworldly retribution made ghosts a sign of divine punishment.
But ghosts aren’t always just. Sometimes, these Halloween monsters just want to give us a little scare or enough to make us die of a heart attack.
Ghosts were believed to have been created at the death of a person during which a gidim separates from them. This gidim had the dead person’s memories and identity and would be the one to enact punishment from beyond the grave or just play a prank or two. It was believed that the gidim would drop by earth and spook the bejeesus out of the living for no reason.
Trick or treat, I guess.
Few Halloween monsters have captured the imagination the way the vampire has.
As much as we are inclined to dismiss the existence of the vampire today, there’s no disputing that the vampire is the most well-documented monster there is. How else do you think I came up with a whole dissertation on the origins of the vampire myth?
In a nutshell, vampires are symbolic of many concepts: disease, fear of the dead rising again, prejudices against female sexuality and homosexuality, and even abusive relationships.
The story of the vampire as we know him today starts out in 12th century England where Christian beliefs about a soul that lives on after death and separates from the body intermingled with the draugr, a living corpse that was more similar to a zombie. The Norwegian Vikings who brought them over also came up with one of the first canonical ways to kill a vampire — burning its corpse.
So why burn the undead if a little holy water will do? Because the vampire goes on to form associations with disease, particularly rabies.
According to Dr. Gomez-Alfonso’s Rabies: a possible explanation for the vampire legend, the popularity of the vampire in the 1700s coincides heavily with the surge of a rabies epidemic in Hungary. Besides, the symptoms of rabies and signs of alleged vampirism lined up.
Rabies made its victims sensitive to sunlight, the smell of garlic, and even their own reflection — all staples of vampire lore today.
The vampire would later take on the shape of a disease that followed European settlers to the New World: tuberculosis.
Accounts of the symptoms experienced by people who contracted tuberculosis eerily resemble the same signs shown by people who’ve been bitten by vampires. They would lose weight, cough up blood, and turn pale. This slow process of wasting away gave the impression that they were getting the life sucked out of them.
But there’s also another factor that makes the vampire scarier than most of the other Halloween monsters on this list: it’s the only Halloween monster that’s always portrayed as a charismatic seducer.
When depicted as a man, the vampire is often a malignant sociopath who keeps up the illusion of humanity, all the while hiding the extent of its number of young, often female, victims. But in stories where the vampire is female, and not a femme fatale targetting men, she’s more often associated with homoerotic love which, fittingly, has been forced to hide in the shadows for most of the vampire’s existence.
There’s a lot to be said about the vampire myth, so if you want to read more about it, check out From Dracula to Edward Cullen: The Evolution of the Vampire Myth.
Wanna know whether we’re still coming up with new Halloween monsters to replace the ones we’ve already gotten used to? These Creepypasta characters might be just what you’re looking for.