The Origins of 25 Monsters, Ghosts, and Other Spooky Things
Though dressing up as an angel is acceptable, it’s ghouls and goblins that truly capture our imaginations during the Halloween season. As lit jack-o’-lanterns beckon and monsters lurk in the shadows, we explore the origins of 25 frightful things that go bump—or boo—in the night.
The name jack-o’-lantern comes from an Irish myth, in which a man called Stingy Jack tricks the Devil and ends up condemned to walk the earth, unable to get into heaven or hell. According to the tale, the original lantern was a carved-out turnip Jack used to light his way as he wandered in the dark. When Irish immigrants brought this story to America, they discovered that pumpkins, native to their new home, made an even spookier candle-holder.
The flesh-eating creatures of movies galore are Haitian in origin—animated corpses raised by Voodoo priests, called bokors. Once reanimated, the zombies would remain under the control of the bokor and do their bidding. The creatures first entered widespread popular culture in the 1929 book The Magic Island by William Seabrook and three years later in the film White Zombie, though our modern zombies have come to be associated more with plagues and viruses than sorcery.
3. Crystal Balls
A fortune-teller’s staple, crystal balls may have been described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. In one chapter of his Natural History, he discusses magic performed with water, balls, and all sorts of other tools. Some scholars have associated these practices with the Druids, which Pliny also discusses. It's said that Druids would employ a procedure known as “scrying,” in which they stared into the reflective surfaces of mirrors, water, and, yes, crystals, to gain insight.
In ancient Egypt, mummification was a type of body preservation thought to be developed by people looking to mimic the way the desert kept bodies from decaying. As the popularity of all things Egyptian skyrocketed in Europe during the 19th century, the mummy and its supposed curse became a standard horror trope, appearing in stories by authors such as Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Louisa May Alcott.
5. Friday the 13th
So many of us fear the number 13 that there’s a word for it: triskaidekaphobia. The superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th, however, are less concrete. One theory traces it to the Last Supper, attended by 12 apostles and Jesus, and the fact that the crucifixion traditionally took place on a Friday. The combined fear of Fridays and the number 13, however, didn’t really take hold until the early 20th century, when Thomas Lawson published a book called (surprise) Friday, the Thirteenth.
Trolls come from Norse mythology, and are prevalent in folklore throughout Scandinavia. They generally live in caves or around other rocky formations, and can be either giant or quite small. Paleoanthropologists like Björn Kurtén have argued that the troll mythos comes from passed-down tales of when our Cro-Magnon ancestors met Neanderthals thousands of years ago.
7. Headless Horseman
In Irish legends, the dullahan is a frightening being indeed: Sitting upon a horse, the man rides with his head held high in his hand so that he may scan his surroundings. If that wasn’t creepy enough, don’t worry. The dullahan also carries a whip made out of a human spine. Be careful if he stops and says your name—you’ll die instantly.
Bigfoot is a large, furry, ape-like creature that predominantly lives in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest—though he has also been spotted throughout the rest of North America. While many Bigfoot sightings are said to be hoaxes, it’s believed that Bigfoot shares an origin story with other similar creatures, like the Abominable Snowman. Humans, it turns out, have a tendency to make up giant, wild, ape-like creatures that live at the edges of civilization. Similar creatures are found in the First Nations myths of British Columbia, where some say the Sasquatch was a figure meant to keep children from misbehaving.
Vampires entered modern society through the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Though vampire-like creatures are present in the mythologies of many cultures, it was literature that began to shape their traits into the iconic ones we know today. The vampires of Eastern Europe, for example, were not pale and thin, but ruddy and bloated.
Mumming, or going around the neighborhood in costume and saying specific lines in exchange for food, has been a staple of certain holidays since the Middle Ages. This custom first applied to Halloween in 16th century Scotland, when it was called “guising.” The term trick-or-treat wasn’t used until the 1930s, and is decidedly American.
11. The Kraken
According to Nordic folklore, the Kraken was a giant sea monster that could devour a ship and its entire crew in one swallow. The legend likely has its origins in sailors’ encounters with giant squid—reaching up to 60 feet in length, they might not be monsters, but they’re pretty close.
12. Flying Broomsticks
OK, this one is weird. Broomsticks became associated with flying because of witches’ “flying ointment,” a potion made up of various hallucinogens, like the fungus ergot that grew on rye. Since ingesting the ointment orally led to a host of unpleasant side effects, witches chasing a high supposedly began to administer it through, well, other areas. Apparently, it felt like flying.
13. The Loch Ness Monster
Nessie—arguably the world’s most famous sea monster—is said to inhabit Loch Ness in Scotland. Though the earliest sighting was reported in the 6th century, and told of an Irish monk's encounter with a “water beast,” it was a 1934 photograph that brought international attention to Loch Ness. Known as the “surgeon’s photograph” after the London doctor who took it, the image has since been exposed as a hoax.
Because cultures across the world have myths featuring dragons, it’s likely the beasts have their origins in a much more mundane creature. One theory holds that dinosaur fossils, like those of the stegosaurus, were thought to be the remains of dragons. Anthropologist David E. Jones has another theory. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, Jones argues that a fear of large predators is inherent to the human mind.
15. Mermaids and Mermen
Half-human and half-fish, mermaids exist in multiple mythologies as both beautiful maidens and frightening monsters. One of the earliest examples of such a hybrid are the apkallu of Babylonian mythology, sages associated with the god Ea that were depicted as half-human, half-fish.
The well-named chupacabra, which literally means “goat-sucker,” goes back to the '90s in Puerto Rico, when eight sheep were found dead and entirely drained of blood. Since then, it has been a popular, ahem, scapegoat whenever livestock are suspiciously harmed. Theories hold that mange-infected dogs and coyotes, not chupacabras, committed the actual crimes.
17. Magic Wands
Ancient Egyptian practitioners of magic used metal or ivory wands decorated with images of deities. In Homer’s The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BCE, the sorceress Circe turns men into pigs through the use of a magic wand.
18. Bloody Mary
Chanting “Bloody Mary” in front of the mirror of a dark bathroom is a sleepover tradition with debatable origins. The titular Mary could be English Queen Mary I, who accused many Protestants of heresy and sealed their fate, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Given the common name, however, it’s possible Mary doesn’t refer to anyone at all—she’s scary either way!
The werewolf, whether a human who shifts into a wolf or a human/wolf hybrid, was first mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of a woman who turned a previous lover into a wolf. Another popular origin story is the Greek myth of Lycaon, whom Zeus turned into a wolf in a fit of rage. A synonym for werewolf is, of course, lycanthrope.
Banshees—female spirits from Irish mythology—foretell death by screaming or wailing. They can appear as young maidens or old hags, and usually have unkempt hair and green or red clothing. Their name, ben side in Old Irish, literally means “female fairy” or “female elf.”
Kodama are Japanese tree spirits. According to legend, they live in trees that are over 100 years old; in some stories, they reside in specific trees, but in others, they can move throughout the forest. Introduced to the West through the 1997 Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, their legend goes further back—the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters,” the oldest surviving Japanese book, mentions something similar.
Poltergeist, which means “noisy ghost” in German, is usually a spirit that haunts a person rather than a location. They usually express their anger through the disruption of the household: slamming doors, moving chairs and other objects, and even pinching people. The first investigated cases of poltergeists happened in Scotland and England in the late 1600s, and involved enchanted drums, beggars seeking revenge, and devil worship. The famous movie, however, didn't come out until 1982.
A dybbuk is a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology that possesses its human host—the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cling.” Said to be the soul of a dead person, the dybbuk first appeared in 16th century literature before frightening us in films like 2009’s The Unborn and 2012’s The Possession.
The oldest record in the OED for the modern spelling of boo is found in the writing of two 18th-century Scots—Gilbert Crokatt and John Monroe, who said it was “used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children.” It has since spread far and wide.
25. Razors in Candy Bars
Poisoned candy, chocolate bars with needles inside, and even treats containing razor blades have been used to scare children around Halloween since the mid-1900s—the myth gained traction through news segments, advice columns like Dear Abby, and word of mouth. The good news is that fear of candy-tampering is almost entirely unfounded: Sociologist Joel Best investigated and discovered only instances of adults messing with candy to try and get money, or children doing the same for attention. One Long Island housewife, did, however dole out bits of poison to children she thought were too old to be trick-or-treating.
This story was originally published in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.