The Origins of Our Favorite Halloween Monsters

Art photography by Jill Wellington

Fall has arrived, bringing cooler temperatures, leaves changing their color, pumpkins on porches, pumpkin spice flavors at the coffee shops, and earth tones on the home decorations sold in every store. There are also other things that are prominently displayed in every store: Halloween costumes, spooky cheap plastic decorations, and candy. Lots of candy. Halloween is one of the biggest and most prominent celebrations of the year, among the likes of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or the Fourth of July.

Six years ago, I wrote about the origins of the holiday and its most popular traditions. In that post, I talked about where our tradition of trick-or-treating came from. This year, I thought I would talk about the costumes themselves, or rather, the most popular monsters we like to disguise ourselves as on Halloween. Where did they come from? Let’s take a look at the history of:

Ghosts

Art by Ariadne A Mazed

Sometimes, when looking into the history or origins of something, you discover that the thing is basically universal across all of humanity. Such is the case with ghosts, a concept that has appeared in many forms across numerous civilizations all around the world.

We humans seem to have this innate understanding that we are more than a mere physical collection of meat and bones, but have a soul that contains our essence, and that soul will somehow live on after our bodies have stopped living. This appears to be the reason we developed the practice of holding funerals for loved ones who have departed, as a way to appease their souls and give them peace. If we don’t do this, countless myths across the world warn, their souls will haunt us and bring us suffering and misery!

In ancient Mesopotamia, it was believed that the souls of all who died would end up in Irkalla, the land of the dead, but a few souls would not be allowed entry until they had punished some living wrongdoers for their sins by bringing them illness. To the ancient Egyptians, the soul was actually made of multiple components, and if the proper burial rites had not been practiced to put the deceased at peace, the Akh would appear among the living to seek vengeance. This is very similar to the Navajo concept of the Chindi, a spirit that would form from all the negative aspects of a person who died. To avoid being cursed by a Chindi, the Navajo traditionally have strict taboos against coming into contact with the dead or the place where someone died.

On a more upbeat note, the Chinese practice of performing rituals that venerate one’s ancestors to show respect and ask their spirits to positively impact the lives of their living descendants goes back thousands of years, and both Confucianism and Taoism encourage these practices. Similarly, ancestor worship is an important part of the traditional Shinto religion of Japan as well.

On the opposite side of the continent, ancient Celtic peoples believed that the souls of the dead would join the living on the nights of October 31st and November 1st, and celebrated these nights with the festival of Samhain where they would honor their lost loved ones by preparing their favorite meals. Indeed, the very holiday of Halloween traces its roots to these Celtic festivals, as the medieval Christian church adapted the idea to celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1st, also called “All Souls’ Day” and “All Hallows’ Day”. The name “Halloween” derives from “All Hallows’ Eve”, and the traditional purpose of wearing costumes and putting up spooky decorations is to scare away demons and evil spirits to make sure All Saints’ Day is purified and sacred. In Mexico and parts of the United States, the original meaning of this holiday is preserved in the holiday of Dia de los Muertos, where people honor the memories of their lost loved ones with a big celebration of their lives on the one night of the year they are believed to come back for a visit.

Witches

Yet another seemingly universal concept is that of witchcraft: the use of magic powers to bring harm to others. Before our modern understanding of medicine, diseases were often assumed to be the work of witches preying on the innocent. Even today, there are some people in sub-Saharan Africa known as “witch-doctors” who use traditional African medicine and magic to heal those who believe themselves cursed by evil spirits. Some ancient Greek legends mention witches. In the Odyssey, a witch named Circe puts a curse on people to transform them into animals. Speaking of curses, we have evidence that ancient Greeks would practice a form of mild witchcraft by writing curses against their enemies down on tablets.

There are also plenty of legends about witches that have been passed down by the first Americans. The Zuni creation story tells how a witch brought death into the world, and according to traditional Zuni belief, witches must constantly kill others to survive. This Penobscot legend recounts how Snowy Owl tricked a witch so he could marry her daughter. The Navajo call witches “skin-walkers” due to the belief that they use animal skins to shapeshift into the animal whose skin they wear in order to avoid detection. The Wabanaki told stories about the evil Jug-Woman, who would transform into a black cat and kidnap children.

The Bible absolutely condemns witchcraft in no uncertain terms. Numerous Biblical passages make it very clear that occult practices using magic, sorcery, or divination are antithetical to belief in God. However, the Biblical understanding of witchcraft that would have been held by people in medieval and renaissance Europe or the early colonial period in the United States was that a “witch” was any person, male or female, who made a pact with Satan.

So where, exactly, did our modern pop-culture image of witches as green-skinned women dressed in black and riding a broomstick come from? That derives from the famous 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In 1900, L.Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, and it told a fantastic tale of a young girl from Kansas lost in a land of magic and mystery. In the novel, the Wicked Witch of the West is one of the main antagonists. However, the original novel’s illustrations show the witch as just being an old lady wearing a wizard’s colorful robes decorated with stars.

The movie, however, went with an altogether different look. Instead of a colorful outfit, they dressed her all in black to showcase how evil she was, and they gave her green skin to make her look more monstrous. As for her flying through the air while riding a broomstick, the idea that witches might do this dates back at least to the 15th century. All these elements came together in the spectacular performance of Margaret Hamilton, whose on-screen charisma and charm as a bad-to-the-bone villainess remains one of the most iconic film roles of all time. It is no surprise, then, that her portrayal cemented that image in people’s minds of what a “witch” is. Even today, nearly a century later, most Halloween “witch” costumes are modelled on that one character.

Vampires

Photo by George Hodan

Unlike ghosts and witches, our modern conception of vampires derives specifically from Eastern European folklore. In Albania, a creature called a shtriga was said to use its fangs to drink the blood of children, rendering them weak and feeble. To kill a shtriga, various Albanian legends say, requires the use of religious symbols like crosses and holy water. Already, I’m sure, you can see the parallels with the vampires we are familiar with.

However, there were other mythical creatures that also influenced the form modern vampires took. The Romanian strigoi would also feed off of innocent people’s blood, but would only attack at night, as they slept during the day. Strigoi are believed to be incredibly strong and gifted with magic abilities like shapeshifting. The strigoi are said to hate garlic, and can be killed with a wooden stake speared through the heart.

These legendary monsters were highly influential to Irish author Bram Stoker, who introduced vampires to the English-speaking world with his classic novel Dracula. The infamous Transylvanian count represents a fusion of various Eastern European monsters with similar characteristics, plus one critical innovation that Stoker invented for his novel – that being bitten by a vampire can turn you into one.

As with witches, we can thank Hollywood for cementing a particular image of vampires in our imaginations thanks to a movie adaptation. In 1931, Universal released a film version of Dracula, starring the iconic Bela Lugosi in the title role. As Count Dracula was supposed to be Transylvanian nobility in the novel, the filmmakers decided to dress the character in a fancy tuxedo and cape like a stereotypical aristocrat of the late Victorian age. Lugosi’s performance had such an impact, that his version of Dracula became the default image of what a “vampire” looks like in American popular culture.

The Undead

In Vodou (also spelled “Voodoo”), a religious tradition of West African origin prominent in parts of the Caribbean, Brazil, and Louisiana, there is a belief that dark magic users known as bokors can use special poisons to make people appear dead, then “resurrect” their victims as mindless, drugged-out shells of their former selves under the complete mental control of the bokor. Thus, the bokor can use their victims to do their bidding. A person in this state is called a “zombi“.

However, there is very little resemblance between these victims of drug-induced mind control and the zombies of popular culture today. If anything, our popular conception of zombies has much more in common with a different undead monster, who often appears on Halloween with his own, distinct costume:

In 1818, a 21-year-old English woman named Mary Shelley published the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, a tale of gothic horror surrounding a mad scientist named Victor Frankenstein who creates life by assembling body parts from a nearby cemetery into a monstrous man and then bringing it to life. The novel presents Frankenstein’s creation as a perfectly normal, intelligent, and creative man who just happens to have a monstrous appearance and a penchant for responding to problems with violence. Once again, it was Hollywood, and specifically Universal Pictures, who established our popular image of this monster in a famous film adaptation, with Boris Karloff portraying the creature as a slow, shambling, barely animated being that can only grunt and moan.

The impact of this film would not only shape how we have imagined Frankenstein’s monster ever since, but also how we have imagined the “undead” would behave more generally. This can be seen with the movie that gave us the modern, pop-culture “zombie”: Night of the Living Dead.

In 1968, a young filmmaker who just graduated from college named George Romero directed his first movie with his friends. He initially thought about making a movie about aliens, but then decided to make a horror film about reanimated corpses that attack and eat living humans. The extremely violent and gory film depicted shambling undead corpses that grunt instead of talk, just like Karloff’s monster from decades earlier. The movie was incredibly popular upon release, but what really cemented its staying power was the fact that Romero accidentally forgot to copyright the movie. As a result, Romero’s zombies were in the public domain, meaning any filmmaker, author, comic book artist, or video game developer could use them in their own works. This proliferation of Romero-style zombies has had a huge impact on popular culture, with the idea of a “zombie apocalypse” becoming a popular cultural trope.

I have to admit, when I started researching this topic, I had no idea how much of an influence Hollywood had on shaping our mental image of various Halloween monsters. It makes sense, though; films are a visual medium, and a truly scary movie is quite memorable. Especially to a child that isn’t supposed to be watching the movie but sneaks a peek anyway.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at the origins behind five of our favorite frightening creatures to spook each other with. Here’s hoping your Halloween this year is a scary good time!