Spectres · Phantoms · Spirits
- Distinctive signs: Can appear translucent, bumpy sounds, objects moving “by themselves”
- Likely to say: “Boo”
- Good points Can pass through walls, can’t be killed (as dead already)
- Bad points: Can’t be seen, can’t pick things up, dead
- Heroes: Casper, Slimer (Ghostbusters), Sam Wheat (Ghost), Annie Sawyer (Being Human),
- Villains: The Woman in Black, Poltergeist, Beetlejuice, Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Steet), Thirteen Ghosts, Sadako Yamamura (Ring)
Ghosts are considered to be the soul or spirit of the deceased and can, just like the living, be good and/or bad. In Christianity, the Spirit with a capital ‘S' refers to the Holy Spirit and, therefore, God.
The idea of spirits surrounding us is very popular in civilisations that observe veneration of the dead rituals, linked to the belief that the deceased continue to have an afterlife and that they can interact with and influence the lives of the living.
Into the Afterlife
For instance, one of the most well-known pieces of literature from Ancient Egypt is The Book of the Dead: a funerary text inscribed in the tomb of the departed and presents all the spells needed to assist the deceased in their journey to the afterlife.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the most important annual celebrations dedicated to honouring and remembering passed friends and family members. The rituals have their origin in pre-Columbian culture and they take place over three days, from 31 October until 2 November: on the 31st, children’s spirits are celebrated; on the 1st of November, adult spirits; and finally the 2nd of November is All Soul’s Day when families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives.
In both examples, the living observe specific rituals to ensure their ancestors complete their journey in the afterlife and that the balance between the two worlds is maintained. Spirits are not to be feared as long as they can complete their journey beyond death. It is another matter entirely when they stay behind.
Pliny the Younger reported ghosts stories, as did many of his contemporaries. For example, Pliny wrote about a haunted house in Athens. To begin with, people could hear the sound of weapons and chains. Subsequently, the inhabitants started reporting the apparition of a filthy, emaciated man wearing chains on his hands and feet. The house was eventually bought by a philosopher, Athenodorus, who had been made aware of the situation but did not consider it to be a deal breaker. On his first evening in the house, Athenodorus saw the ghost and calmly followed him to an outside space that the ghost was indicating. The next day, Athenodorus started digging in the area indicated by the ghost and found the enchained bones of a man. After organising a proper burial for the deceased the ghost was never to be seen again.
This story illustrates a common belief that spirits who stay behind have an agenda. The ultimate goal may be to reach the afterlife, as in Egyptian and Mexican beliefs, but some may have unfinished business. In Christianity this idea is encompassed by purgatory. In order to eventually reach heaven, the souls have to stay behind and expiate their sins in purgatory.
During the Renaissance, a strong interest for the occult (“knowledge of the hidden”) and necromancy (communicating with the deceased) developed, influencing the arts and giving birth to one of the most famous ghosts of English literature: the ghost of Hamlet’s father in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Whereon do you look?
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.
(to GHOST) Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Horace Walpole was greatly influenced by Shakespeare’s play for his own novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. The story features fate, enigmatic deaths and animated portraits. This novel is often considered as the first of the Gothic horror genre, which made great use of monsters (see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), ghosts (see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and other supernatural entities (see Bram Stokers’ Dracula). Gothic literature reinforced the notion of ghosts as spooky, revengeful spirits trapped on earth because of an injustice done to them during their lifetime, which seems to persist today.
Ghosts, unlike werewolves or vampires, still seem to be less often dismissed by people as mere myths or legends. Many have heard a strange noise when they’re alone in the house or have (usually indirectly) witnessed inanimate objects behaving strangely. Perhaps it’s the comforting idea that loved ones are still with you or the very fact that, with ghosts, “not seeing” can still mean believing. Maybe our imaginations are just as active as they ever were.
The 20th century saw its fair share of ghost stories adapted or written for the big screen, which is still going strong today: from the “bump in the night” spooky B movie tales to more gory depictions in the ‘80s, the wave of Japanese ghost horror stories and their Western remakes and, most recently, the found footage or home video style horrors.
Taking advantage of the broad parameters that make up the genre, films have been able to present ghosts in many different ways, from physical manifestations chasing promiscuous teens to invisible malevolent forces wreaking havoc on family homes, from benevolent individuals with unfinished business to entire armies of spirits.
Vampyres · Nosferatu · Lamias
- Distinctive signs: Pale skin, sensitive to the sun, fond of drinking blood, sleeps in a coffin, not a fan of garlic
- Likely to say: “I vant to suck your blooood.”
- Good points Is immortal
- Bad points: Is immortal
- Heroes: Angel (Buffy), John Mitchell (Being Human)
- Villains: Dracula, Lestat Lincourt (Interview with a Vampire), Nosferatu, The Master (Buffy), Kurt Barlow (Salem’s Lot)
When one thinks of vampires, Dracula is likely the first name that comes to mind. With it comes the image of an elegant, charismatic man with an otherworldly presence and pale complexion. Today, Dracula may be the yardstick against whom all other vampires are measured, but it used to be a very different story.
Until the 18th century, vampires or their folkloric equivalents were described as swollen and of ruddy or dark appearance. An origin of the vampire myth put forward in a scientific paper in the 1980s is porphyria, a condition affecting the skin, leading to photosensitivity, blisters and necrosis. This was rejected en masse, however. A slightly more convincing case has been made for rabies, although there are still too many inconsistencies to make it the likely inspiration for vampires.
Blood drinking creatures appeared throughout antiquity but the word “vampire” (from the Hungarian vampir) appeared for the first time in the 18th century. Previous to that, drinking blood was the matter of demons and other mythological creatures. Such as Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Hebrew mythology, who drinks baby’s blood. We’ve written about Lilith previously.
Vampires in the classic sense appear heavily in folklore from Eastern Europe in the late 1600 and 1700s. It is these legends that form the basis of the vampire myth that later became popular in the UK and Germany, although they were significantly embellished.
The 18th century saw a widespread vampire scare throughout Europe, eventually leading to mass hysteria referred as the ‘18th Century Vampire Controversy’. This allegedly started with increasing reports of vampire attacks in Prussia in 1721. A wave of paranoia swept Europe at the time with members of the population, including the authorities, digging up and staking individuals suspected of vampirism.
This paranoia even affected the cultural elite of Europe with authors such as Voltaire writing in his 1764 Philosophical Dictionary:
“These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.”
This idea that vampires can shroud themselves among the rest of the population may be the origin of the sophisticated and elegant image of vampires we have today. Although Bram Stocker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897, has become the reference for vampires, John William Polidori’s novel The Vampyre was published in 1819 and had already been an immense success. Both portray vampires as suave, charismatic and manipulating characters, although with an air of foulness about them.
Vampires were greatly popularised in such gothic literature, known as gothic horror: combining fiction, horror and romanticism. Since Polidori’s book, vampirism has been a clear metaphor for sex and sexuality. They both involve lust and desire; penetration; and the exchange of bodily fluids. Even the subsequent physiological effects are comparable: a short-lived adrenalin high and flush of colour giving way to feeling drained. It’s no surprise that from Buffy to Twilight and from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries, recent representations of vampires have focused on this in different ways: looking at first love, forbidden love, virginity, promiscuity and so on.
From the 1700s to the present day, vampires have spent centuries inspiring numerous novels, movies and TV shows. Although some of the specific characteristics might change between one iteration and another, the essence tends to be the same. Whether rank or rakish, shimmering or smoking in the sun, vampires will exert their powers on you and immutably attract you to your end…or a new beginning.
Lycanthrope · Wehrwolf · Vlkodlak
- Distinctive signs: Goes a little crazy around the full moon, tattered clothes, shedding
- Likely to say: “I used to be a werewolf but I’m alright NOW-OOOOOOOH!”
- Good points Is in touch with its animal self
- Bad points: Might kill people once a month
- Heroes: Oz (Buffy), Professor Lupin (Harry Potter), George Sands (Being Human), Karen White (The Howling)
- Villains: Draugluin (Tolkien), David Kessler (An American Werewolf in London), Wilfred Glendon (Werewolf of London), Dog Soldiers, Wolfman, Eddie Quist (The Howling)
A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope (from the Greek lykos: wolf and anthropos: man), is someone who can shape shift into a wolf, either at will or due to some kind of magic.
The first mention of people with the ability to transform into wolves appeared as early as the works of Herodotus, Pausanias and Ovid in Late Antiquity. In his “Metamorphoses”, Ovid tells us the story of the Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus for trying to play a trick on the Olympian god.
There are many alleged ways to become a werewolf, besides the famous (but recently invented) method of getting bitten by one. You can be the victim of a curse as in the case of Lycaon; you can drink rainwater from the footprint of a wolf; or you can sleep naked outside during a full moon.
Until the Early Modern period, werewolves were mostly considered to be the victims of curses and were met with a certain amount of empathy, such as in the 12th century French novel Bisclavret by Marie de France. Bisclavret was a nobleman who mysteriously disappeared for three days each month. Not even his wife knew what he was up to during this time. When she begged him to tell her, he finally confessed to being a werewolf. He foolishly (in retrospect) mentioned when he transforms, he needs to hide his human clothes in a safe place to be able to return to human form. Bisclavret’s wife, shocked by this, arranged to steal her husband’s clothes with her lover to trap him in his lupine form.
In the western world, witchcraft and the supernatural were associated with satanic rituals. Witch and werewolf hunts were fairly common and the lines between them were sometimes blurred: witches were accused of being werewolves and vice versa.
Trials and executions increased in 16th century Europe where mentions of werewolves intensified alongside sordid stories of murders. Some of the accused were arrested because villagers needed someone to blame for dead livestock, but others were accused for committing much more horrendous crimes.
Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were both executed as werewolves in 1521, ditto Gilles Garnier (known as the “Werewolf of Dole”) in 1573. Records indicate that all were serial killers. During his testimony, Garnier revealed that when out hunting in the forest he was visited but a ghost. Struggling to feed himself and his wife, the apparition offered him an ointment that turned him into a wolf, resulting in far more successful hunts. Sadly, Garnier was hunting and eating children. It seems that the term ‘werewolf’ almost describes the beast inside the man surging out when committing such despicable atrocities.
A belief in werewolves had almost disappeared from French-speaking areas of Europe by around 1650. It was the Germanic, central area of Europe in which these myths persisted with any vigour. Werewolves were still being feared by people in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps into the 18th century.
The most gruesome werewolf story from Germany is the one about Peter Stumpp. He was known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg”, accused of being a serial killer and cannibal. His trial and execution were barbaric and after experiencing extreme torture, he confessed to killing and eating at least thirteen children, two pregnant women and many livestock. At his trial Stumpp stated that the Devil gave him a belt of wolf fur as a child that transformed him into:
“The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire; a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth; a huge body and mighty paws.”
Before wolves were wiped out from large areas of Europe, their attacks on people were part of life, albeit a rare one. It makes sense that wolves, being the most feared predators in that part of the world, were catapulted into the folklore of demonic shape shifters. In parts of the world without wolves, their “wolf equivalents” have entered mythology in the same way: Africa has werehyenas and India has weretigers. Other werecats feature in South America.
Werewolves were popularised again by Gothic literature (on which the British Library has an exciting new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination). It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the silver bullet motif first surfaced and is already inextricably linked to werewolf mythology. Lycanthropy being passed on via the bite from the monster is another relatively recent werewolf trope.
Whether they were true or not, the stories surrounding werewolves are among the bloodiest and goriest legends of the last 500 years.
Sorceress · Enchantress · Conjurer
- Distinctive signs: Pointy hat, unflattering nose, warts, flies on a broomstick, have unusual pets
- Likely to say: “I like children and I could eat a whole one!” or “Cackle, cackle!”
- Good points Can fly, can change their enemies into pretty much anything they like, black is slimming
- Bad points: Shrill laugh, their potions are an acquired taste, think of children as snacks
- Heroes: Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Willow Rosenberg (Buffy), Sabrina
- Villains: Bellatrix Lestrange (Harry Potter), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), The White Witch (Chronicles of Narnia), Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz), Hocus Pocus
Many cultures throughout history have an association with an individual who possesses a special knowledge or remarkable powers. Although not exclusively, when applied to women, this notion often manifests as witchcraft. It seems to be primarily a female trait and their exact profiles vary depending on the era and the part of the globe they’re from.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe was a goddess of magic and an expert on drugs and potions. She lived on the Island of Aeaea, which she shared with strangely docile wolves and lions: male victims of her spells. When Ulysses’ men, led by Eurylochus, set foot on the island, Circe offered them delicious food and beverages (secretly laced with one of her potions). Once full of these delicacies, she changed them all into beasts.
Although many of the women accused of witchcraft were on the fringes of society, outcasts and “strange”, throughout history famous women have also been accused to varying degrees. Perhaps because men thought it was the only way to explain their power. Maybe it was just a ploy to put these troublemaking women in their place. In some cases it was simply politics. Either way, I’m sure they had enough to fight against without sorcery accusations too.
One such example lived and ruled in Ancient Egypt. Cleopatra was often accused of being a sorceress by her enemies, in part for venerating animals as gods (unthinkable to Romans) and in part for her ability to charm powerful men like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Her marriage to Marc Anthony was in accordance to Egyptian rituals: his moving away from Roman traditions was deeply unpopular and Cleopatra was blamed. Thus, she was identified by some as a sorceress with the power to charm even the strongest men of the Roman Republic.
Among other crimes, another famous and powerful woman was accused of witchcraft: Joan of Arc. There were several charges laid against “the Maid of Orléans”, from heresy and wearing men’s clothes to sorcery. Joan appeared to meet the criteria for being a witch at the time: her “strange” behaviour, wearing men’s clothes, hearing voices and remarkably good luck. Of the many dozens of accusations she was tried for, she was found guilty of only twelve. Witchcraft wasn’t one of them.
The main crime she was found guilty of was cross-dressing. In addition to this, Joan of Arc also behaved in “masculine” ways: carrying out traditionally male duties; being in command of armies; and liaising with authority figures including the King (all men, of course). Joan of Arc, therefore, whilst attempting to transcend the gender roles of the time, was labelled a witch.
In Japanese cultural tradition, the most common type of witch is the one that uses foxes. Foxes (kitsune) are considered to be magical creatures able to shape shift into humans, become invisible and cast illusions. “Fox witches” can allegedly bribe foxes into lending them their powers in exchange for food. As soon as the fox enters the service of humans it becomes a force of evil.
Another Japanese legend tells of a monstrous, cannibalistic crone: a mountain witch called Yamauba. In one tale, she appears kindly when helping to deliver a baby but in fact desires to eat the baby she helped bring into the world.
In Africa, a Witch Doctor (a term still in use today) is usually a figure of authority and a healer. Rather than casting spells on people, Witch Doctors produce remedies to protect against other people’s bad spirits. Witch Doctors can also be referred to as shamans or medicine men. They are important members of the community with in-depth knowledge of plants and who can allegedly communicate with the spirit world.
One of the oldest mentions of witches is in the Old Testament:
“Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to The Lord”. Deuteronomy 18:10-13
In the years between the late 15th and 18th centuries, the number of women accused of witchcraft increased massively. People having “supernatural” abilities was thought to be the result of a pact with the devil and therefore and sign of heresy.
To counter this, Protestant Christianity organised campaigns of witch-hunts, the most famous being the Salem witch trials. In colonial Massachusetts, between 1692 and 1693, several trials of people accused of witchcraft (mostly women) were conducted and resulted in the execution of 20 people.
In England, Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, was a witch-hunter in the 1640s. It is said his despicable work led to the deaths of over 300 women.
From this very quick world tour of witchcraft, it seems witches were traditionally identified as old and bitter, allegedly using their skills merely to get back at men. The feminist in me cannot fail to notice that their male counterparts – wizards – do not suffer from the same negative stereotype. Indeed, you can’t get much cooler than Merlin or Gandalf!
Although often presented as villains or monsters in league with the devil, it seems the women accused of witchcraft (falsely or otherwise) were often those with power, possessing strong personalities and great knowledge. With Harry Potter, Charmed and other recent portrayals of witches in pop culture, we can appreciate strong women with powerful skills without necessarily explaining them away with devilry or malevolent forces.
Living Dead · Undead · Zombis
- Distinctive signs: Decomposing body, voracious appetite
- Likely to say: “Guh…ohgnh…arg…”
- Good points No need for small talk
- Bad points: Smells like hell
- Heroes: R (Warm Bodies), Kieren Walker (In the Flesh)
- Villains: Various (28 Days Later), Various (World War Z), Various (Night of the Living Dead), Various (Evil Dead), Various (Zombieland), Various (Shaun of the Dead)
Zombies are corpses that have been revived or re-animated, traditionally by witchcraft. They are very common in Haitian folklore and in the Vodou religion. Haitian tales tell of two different types of zombies: the physical one (the body) and an astral one (the soul). Each is missing it’s other half. It is said that sorcerers, called bokors, can trap the astral zombie and bottle it to sell it to clients for good luck or healing purposes.
Vodou beliefs originated in French slavery colonies, particularly in Haiti. Slavery was first introduced to Haiti by Christopher Columbus when he arrived on the Island and set up a fort there in 1492. His first contact with the native population was friendly and they exchanged gifts, but he quickly wrote to Queen Isabella of Spain saying the natives were “tractable, and easily led; they could be made to grow crops and cities.”
During the French colonial period the entire economy of the island was based on slavery and its practice there was known to be extremely cruel. Men and women from Congo, Yoruba and other African ethnic groups were enslaved and brought to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) in the 16th and 17th century, bringing with them their own cultural traditions. These beliefs evolved to become the Vodou religion we know today.
Tradition says that Baron Samedi, the Loa (Spirit of Haitian Vodou) of the dead, will gather the spirits from their graves and bring them back to Africa to a heavenly afterlife. The souls of any who offended him during their lives would be left behind as zombies and, therefore, to be slaves forever in the afterlife.
The Haitian zombie tradition was first introduced to the western world during the United States occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. This is largely thanks to American author William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, published in 1929. In addition to this book, Seabrook also gained fame for his interest in the occult, tasting human flesh and not disguising his enthusiasm for it (he likened it to veal). Seabrook’s hobbies may explain why pop culture zombies are flesh-eating creatures: the two legends have influenced each other.
In the 20th century, reports of people who being turned into zombies by bokors in Haiti were frequent. The most famous example is of Clairvius Narcisse who came home some 18 years after he had been buried by his family. Narcisse fell ill in 1962 and was declared dead by doctors. He was later dug up by bokors and Vodou practitioners and given a concoction to maintain him in a semi-conscious state and made to work on fields along with other zombie-slaves. When the land owner eventually died nobody was there to give the slaves their daily potion to maintain their zombie-like state so Narcisse eventually regained consciousness and walked home.
Incredible stories like this were investigated by Wide Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who presented a pharmacological case for zombies in the 1983 Journal of Ethnopharmacology. His findings were that people can in fact be changed into zombies using two different powders injected into the bloodstream. The first one is a powerful drug, Tetrodoxin (TTX), which induces paralysis of the muscles and respiratory organs, mimicking death. The second powder is to be administered once the body has been declared dead. It is a dissociative drug, such as datura, that will then bring the individual into a semi-conscious sate. Although the scientific accuracy of Davis’ work has been heavily criticised, he helped popularise the zombie myth in the Western world with two bestseller books: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Darkness: the Ethnnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988).
A mythological mirror for slavery at first, the modern image of zombies as flesh-eating monsters appeared in Hollywood movies in for the first time 1968 with George A Romero film, Night of the Living Dead (before that, in films like White Zombie from 1932, the Haitian setting and Voudou are present). Since then, zombies films have spread like…an infection… and they are even the subject of a highly successful and record-breaking television series, The Walking Dead. In the last decade, zombie films seem to offer an ever more gory experience.
Such a glut of films have led to certain film makers taking a different angle, resulting in some inventive approaches. Such as in the rom-com-zom Shaun of the Dead; Cockneys Vs. Zombies, featuring slow-moving pensioners in a retirement home trying to outrun slightly slower zombies; and Pontypool, an excellent zombie film without any zombies. From slavery to consumerism, zombies show us the evil our society suffers from and remind us of some of the things we fear most: losing our life, losing our freedom and losing ourselves.