The world is full of tales about mythical monsters, creatures, and legendary beasts. Some are inspired and brought to life by living animals or fossils, while others play a role in human society as symbolic representations of our deepest fears. Monsters thrill, terrify, and stimulate our imaginations. They live under our beds and go bump in the night. The fear of the monstrous is a collective nightmare. From Medusa’s gaze to the vampire’s bite, from Nessie and Big Foot to Moth Man and Chupacabra, monster narratives help us address our real anxieties and have brought communities and cultures together since the Dark Ages, at least.
A monster is something that is shown, pointed at, exhibited at fairs and freak shows, or sighted in the woods or along country roads on dark nights. At the same time, monsters show us who we really are, and what we’re really capable of – war, famine, plague, etc. A monster is a mirror to man’s heart of darkness. According to David Schmid, an English professor at the University of Buffalo, “the most distinctive monsters in any culture are the ones that we don’t immediately recognize.”
The soucouyant is a shape-shifting character that belongs to a class of Caribbean spirits called jumbies. By day, the soucouyant is a reclusive old woman, but at night the creature strips off its skin, stores it in a mortar, and turns into a fireball that flies across the sky looking for victims. The soucouyant is said to suck the blood from its victims, and then trade the blood with demons for evil powers. Similar to the European vampire myth, if a soucouyant sucks too much blood, its victim will either die or become a soucouyant. In order to kill a soucouyant, salt needs to be placed in the mortar containing its skin; the creature will perish at dawn if it is unable to put its skin back on.
The Kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit that inhabits the rivers, lochs, and waterways of Scotland. While the kelpie is usually described as appearing like a horse, it’s also able to adopt a human form –as seen in the work by English classicist painter Herbert James Draper. According to folklorist Walter Gregor, the kelpie is known to lure human victims to ride on its back, and then take them underwater and devour them. However, the narrative of a malevolent water horse has also served to keep children away from perilous areas of water, and warn women to be wary about handsome strangers. In the poem “Address to the Deil,” Robert Burns associates the kelpie with the Christian notion of Satan.
The basilisk is usually described as a crested snake although sometimes also as a cock with a snake’s tail. It can kill birds with the fire it breathes, men with its glance, and other living creatures with a mere hiss. Legend has it the creature was born from a serpent or toad’s egg hatched by a rooster (a rare occurrence). Its Greek name, basiliscus, means “little king” and therefore the basilisk is called the “king of the serpents.” The monster was blamed for plague outbreaks and murders during the Middle Ages. Pliny the Elder wrote about the basilisk in Natural History, claiming that it was such a foul creature that birds flying over it would die because of its trail of deadly venom.
Asmodeus is the demon of lust known primarily from the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit, in which he’s the primary antagonist. He obsesses over a woman named Sarah and kills 7 of her husbands before they can consummate their marriage. Asmodeus is mentioned in other Talmudic legends, too, including the story of the construction of the Temple of Solomon. Some folklorists suggest that Asmodeus is the son of Lilith and Adam. Legend has it that he’s responsible for perverting people’s sexual desires. According to Jewish mythology, anyone who succumbs to the kinks he has given them will be sentenced to an eternity in the second level of hell.
From the Ghost Whale and Monster Cat to the Shirime and Sazae-oni, Japan has more bizarre cryptozoological creatures that you can shake an X-File at. But perhaps none are as bizarre as the Jorogumo or “whore spider,” a type of Yokai (creature, goblin) in Japanese folklore. The legend of the Jorogumo originated in Japan’s Edo period; supposedly, when a spider turns 400 years old it attains magical powers. In most tales, the spider morphs into a beautiful woman, entices a man to her home by playing the Biwa, a Japanese lute, and then binds her victim in spider silk threads and devours him. Talk about a black widow… yeesh!
5. Black Annis
A bogeyman, witch-like figure in English folklore, Black Annis is a blue-faced crone with iron claws who haunts the countryside of Leicestershire. Legend has it she lives in a cave in the Dane Hills, and at night she wanders the glens looking for children to eat. If she catches a child, she tans the skin by hanging it on a tree, then wears it around her waist. Needless to say, parents warned their children that if they didn’t behave, Black Annis would get them. The legend has several possible origins, including Celtic or Germanic mythology. The blue-faced crone appears in books on folklore, mythology, and witchcraft, as well as historical tomes on Leicestershire.
In 2009, two aerial photographs supposedly taken by a member of a disaster team monitoring flood conditions in Borneo appear to show a 100-foot snake swimming along a waterway. Whether the photographs are genuine or the razzle-dazzle of computer editing remains to be seen; some say the serpentine shape resembles a log or a large speedboat. Nevertheless, local villagers along the Baleh River insist the creature is the Nabau, an ancient, dragon-like monster from Indonesian folklore. According to legend, the Nabau was more than 100-feet long, had a head with seven nostrils, and could shape-shift into several different animals.
3. The Dullahan
While most people are familiar with Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the story of the headless horseman, the Irish Dullahan, or “dark man,” is the precursor to the ghost of the headless Hessian trooper who pursued Ichabod Crane through the small Dutch settlement of Tarry Town. According to Celtic mythology, the Dullahan is the foreteller of death. He rides a large black horse with flaming eyes, and carries his head under one arm. Some stories say the Dullahan calls out the name of the person who’s going to die, while others say he marks the person by throwing a bucket of blood. Like many monsters and mythical creatures the Dullahan has a weakness: gold.
2. Red Cap Goblins
A red cap goblin is a murderous, gnome-like creature that lives on the border between Scotland and England. According to folklore, red caps live in ruined castles and murder stray travellers, sometimes by pushing boulders off cliffs on to them. Red cap goblins then dye their hats with their victims’ blood. Red caps kill frequently because if the blood staining their hat dries out, they die. The malevolent creatures are typically depicted as old men with red eyes, large teeth, and talons; some red caps are pictured with a pikestaff in hand. They are faster and stronger than humans. Legend has it the only way to escape a red cap is to shout a quotation from the Bible.
The brahmaparusha is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill vampire. The malevolent spirit originated in Hindu mythology and has a hunger for human brains. Unlike the suave, dapper vampires that plague Romania, the brahmaparusha is a grotesque creature; it wears intestines of its victims around its neck and on its head. It carries around a human skull. When the vampire kills a new victim, its pours the blood into his or her skull and drinks it down. However, the brahmaparusha doesn’t stop there; it goes all Hannibal Lecter and starts feasting on its victim’s brain. No word on whether or not it also enjoys lava beans and a fine Chianti.