Oct 27

Origins of five horror monsters

Happy Halloween!

Let’s start with a personal halloween story. On October 31st 2016 I was invited up to London for a Halloween party. Although the party was a bit dead (puns!) we all had a good time and at midnight I left to catch the train home. Some of you might also remember that there was an epidemic of clown attacks in 2016. Idiots, dressed as clowns would attack passers by and upload their reactions online. Some of these videos were pranks but others were more… sinister. I was walking home from the train station, on Halloween, alone, thinking about these clown attacks when something colourful flew out in front of me and hit me in the face.

Thankfully it was only a Tesco’s carrier bag caught in the wind. As I continued home, shaken, I began to question how well I would fair in a horror film. The answer…  not very well. They always kill the smart one first.

Killer clown

Fun fact: Stephen King’s killer clown was partly inspired by Pogo the clown, real name John Wayne Gacy, who killed thirty three people.

In the following months the clown attacks disappeared as mysteriously as they started. This got me thinking. Although killer clowns have seemingly had their time in the public consciousness, what about other horror monsters? Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they become feared?

I hope you enjoy the origins of five horror monsters

  1. Zombies

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It is has become difficult in recent years to identify what constitutes a zombie. I always considered Frankenstein to be a zombie until I was assured that he was, in fact, a flesh gollum. Generally speaking, zombies are mindless decaying corpses that roam the Earth, turning living beings into the un-dead. The reasons of how zombies came to be vary in each retelling but popular explanations include evil deities, nuclear waste, and plagues. It is also worth noting that zombification is not restricted to humans. Pet Sematary is perhaps the most famous example of a non human zombie (thanks, Stephen King!) but I’ve also heard of zombies lions, zombie tigers and even zombie pigeons!

The idea of the dead walking the Earth is ancient. All religions and societies have stories about an afterlife. Evidence suggests that the idea of the deceased rising from their graves was feared as far back as Ancient Greece. Archaeologists have discovered graves in which the deceased have been trapped beneath rocks seemingly to prevent them from escaping. The only zombie I could find in Greek mythology is Sisyphus who was brought back to the dead by Persephone, the Goddess of the underworld but calling him a zombie is questionable. By this logic you could argue that Jesus was a zombie as he was also resurrected.

Many historians believe that the modern notion a zombie first originated in Haiti from African slaves. These slaves would have worshiped Voodoo (also called Vodun) and brought their religion to the Americas with them. In the Voodoo religion,  a body can be revived by a bokor, who can then set the body simple instructions. This mirrored the condition of the slaves who were forced to work for their masters on plantations. There is a element of truth to the Bokors. In Africa, practitioners of Voodoo could create a zombie powders which was made up from herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and most importantly tetrodotoxin. Enough tetrodotoxin can kill a human but a sub lethal dose can lead to difficulty in thinking, breathing and walking, similar to a zombie. Reports also exist of this powder paralysing humans who were mistakenly buried alive.

The Victorians feared the idea of being buried alive so much that they designed coffins with bells so if the deceased awoke they could signal for assistance. Fears of premature burial, combined with 1932 release of the film White Zombie, the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead and the popular 1996 video game House of the Living Dead cemented zombies in western culture. They are a versatile villain, acceptable for kids (Scooby Doo and Zombie Island) adults (The Walking Dead) and even… music videos.

 

2) Werewolves

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I consider there to be an unholy trinity of horror monsters. Zombies, vampires (more on them later) and werewolves. Werewolves are the oldest of these creatures and the out of the trio I find them them most fascinating. The details of these creature vary in each retelling but the fact that these creatures transform from humans into wolves is standard. Although we can’t pin point the first werewolf report we can make an educated guess on how these reports started. Ancient farmers began to find their cattle slaughtered and believed that a wolf was responsible. The story of these wolf attacks were exaggerated until a supernatural wolf was blamed. Fear of these supernatural wolves kept their stories alive.

There are several ancient werewolves that have set the benchmark for modern incarnations. Once again we can visit the Ancient Greeks. In the myth of Lycaon of Arcadia, Lycaon decides to test if the Gods of Mount Olympus were really omniscient by serving them the flesh of his eldest son. Unfortunately for Lycaon (and predictably for everyone else) the Gods see through his plan and transform him and all fifty of his remaining sons into wolves as punishment. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book in western society, Gilgamesh jilts a potential lover because she turned her last lover into a wolf.

There are also several real life examples we can examine. Peter Stubbe was a fifteenth century farmer who was accused of being a werewolf. His story became infamous when Stubbe admitted to his crimes under torture. He was later burnt alive, after which the killings in the area ceased. It is most likely that Stubbe would have said anything to end his torture. Peter, the wild boy, is also linked to werewolves. Peter was a feral child who was brought up by wolves before being adopted by humans. He couldn’t speak, didn’t wear clothes and was considered by many to be a mixture of both wolf and man. You read more about Peter at the bottom of this article. There are also some (tenuous) links between werewolves and the “big cat” myths such as the Bodmin Beast.

There is a medical reasons behind the idea werewolves. Hypertrichosis is a medical condition which inflicts the victim with excess hair. Many of these victims resemble a wolf and because the condition was not known until the our century these poor men would have been blamed for any attacks.

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Unlike vampires and werewolves, who each have mascots in Dracula and Frankenstein (depending on how you define the term “zombie”) there isn’t one werewolf character that stands among the rest. There are certainly popular werewolf characters such as Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter franchise, the American werewolf in London from the film of the same name and Jacob Black from Twilight but none of them are in the same tier as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster.

I really like the idea of writing a werewolf novel and I think I can see a gap in the market…

3) Vampires. 

Dracula

Like the evolution of the zombie, Vampires have changed drastically since their first appearance. Vampires of old would have impeccable manners, hunt by moonlight and bite their victims (normally young girls) necks to drink their blood, either killing them or transforming them into a vampire in the process. Modern vampires have become more domesticated and lustful.

Of course, the most popular vampire of all time is Dracula. Although he was brought to life by the talented Christopher Lee in the iconic film Dracula I recommend that you read Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name. The novel lists many more powers of the Victorian monster including the power to change the weather, transform into a bat among other animals and the ability to stick to walls, not unlike Spider-Man. It also introduces the character of Van Helsing who has become famous in his own right.

Despite popular belief, Dracula is not the first recorded vampire although he is the most famous. The character of Dracula was based off Vlad the Impaler who took pleasure in running a stake through his victim’s anus to mouth. Stoker used the name Dracula from Vlad’s full name, Vlad Dracula for his character but there is no evidence linking Vlad to vampirism during his life time. Other notable examples include Mercy Brown of Rhode Island, Elizabeth Báthory and  Peter Kürten the Vampire of Dusseldorf. 

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Although we see vampires as a fictional characters, for some people vampires are real and a common aspect of life. There are people around the globe who identify as vampires and who drink each other blood in feeding rituals. While these individuals are often linked to Satanism (Yes, it is worshipping Satan but not in the way you think) they are by most accounts nice people and they tend to conduct their vampire acts in private. In other parts of the world, vampires are a very real threat. In 2013 a man was stabbed through the heart with a wooden stake in Russia upon being thought a vampire and in 2014 two men were killed in India after being caught in a vampire hunt.

4) Cursed Mummies

Mummy

The cursed Mummy is one of the most recent additions to the horror pantheon. First appearing in 1922, a cursed Mummy is an Egyptian corpse, sometimes wrapped in bandages and sometimes still in its sarcophagus that seeks to kill those who dare disturb it.

Perhaps the most famous cursed mummy is King Tutankhamen. Shortly after the discovery of his tomb by Howard Carter, many members of Carter’s expedition died in mysterious circumstances.  The first victim of the curse was James Henry Breasted’s pet canary. It was discovered dead in the fangs of a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Next was Lord Carnarvon, who had funded Carter’s expedition. He cut open a mosquito bite whilst shaving and died of blood poisoning. As he died all of the lights in Cairo died. At the same moment in England, Carnarvon’s dog howled. In total eleven people linked to the expedition died.

Although this makes for a brilliant story, the truth is a lot less interesting. Although eleven people died following the opening of the tomb, they all died of natural causes some decades later. While the death of the canary is weird, the howling dog can be explained. Dog sometimes just… howl. The electricity in Cairo was dodgy which explained the lights going out. The idea of a curse was made up by the newspapers to increase sales.

King tut

Although the story sound ridiculous to us now and clearly just a set of coincidences it did have strong believers at the time. Benito Mussolini (Who would later lead Italy in World War Two against the allies) returned a Mummy he had been given as a gift years earlier due to the fear of it being cursed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories and famed believer in the supernatural also believed in the curse.

The second cursed Mummy (I think there are only two famous examples) is the cursed Mummy of the British Museum. According to the rumours the mummy comes to life at night and stalks the museum. The identity of the Mummy varies in each retelling. Some say that it was a priestess of Ra, others say it was a beaten slave and one newspaper even  suggested it was King Tutankhamen himself. Staff members have reported feeling cold in the Egyptian wing and as though they are being watched. The Mummy is said to travel down to the disused tube station under the museum where it’s moaning and shouts can be heard at Holborn, the next stop on the line.

There is a grain of truth to this story but only a grain. There is a unlucky mummy in the British Museum but it is just a sarcophagus lid. The backstory of the lid is known but it hasn’t caused three deaths and it certainly wasn’t on the Titanic as one newspaper suggested. There is a disused tube station that might connect to the museum but it is used for storage by London Underground and TFL.

If you want more information on this second Mummy, you might enjoy my previous article on the British Museum.

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5) Ghosts

Ghost are perhaps the most personal of all the monsters this list. When we hear (or see) a ghost we know that it was once a person who had a life, family and friends. It humanises the spirit. It makes it relatable… and terrifying. Ghosts are a reminder of our own mortality.

There are countless ghost stories from around the globe and while not all of the ghosts are malicious and scary (some are friendly and helpful) we will be looking at a famous few. The oldest ghost story I could find comes from Pliny the Younger, a Roman statesman. He wrote that he was being haunted by an old man in chains at his home in Athens. Around this time Lucian and Plautus, A Roman and Greek respectively, also wrote about seeing sectors and ghosts although sadly the details of their encounters have been lost. The first poltergeist sighting was in Germany in the year 856. This poltergeist haunted a family home by moving objects, making loud noisy and starting fires!

Most of England’s castles are haunted and although the Tower of London is a hive of paranormal activity, Hampton Court has one particularly gruesome tale. Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry the Eighth, was arrived by Henry’s soldiers after her affair was discovered. While being lead to a prison she briefly escaped her captures and ran down a corridor in Hampton Court to plead with the King who was attending mass in a near-by chapel. The soldiers tackled her to the ground as she screamed for her husband. Several staff members and tourists have reported seeing this scene re-enacted by ghostly  the apparition clearly as the historic event is re-enacted by ghosts.

Lets end on a more humorous note. Winston Churchill saw the ghost of the first American President Abraham Lincoln, during a stay in the White House. Churchill was know for his vast size, his witty remarks and his love of drink and cigars. One evening Churchill stepped out of a hot bath, cigar in mouth and crossed into his bedroom where he was shocked to discover that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln standing by the mantle piece. Churchill, dripping wet and naked, was stunned into silence but only for a moment. He tapped the ashes off the end of his cigar and said:

“Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Apparently the ghost of Lincoln smiled and disappeared. It’s such a ridiculous story that, even if ghosts were real and not a figment of human imagination, it couldn’t possibly be true.

I’m spending my Halloween at Shakespeare’s Globe watching Deep Night Dark Night so I won’t be online to take part in the celebrations. I hope you enjoy your Halloween!

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