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The Origins of the 14 Spookiest Halloween Monsters

We love to dress as our favorite scary monsters for Halloween. But where did they come from, anyway?

Grim ReaperD-Keine/Getty Images

Halloween’s creepy creatures

The perfect Halloween night should involve a full moon, a cloudy sky, a cool breeze, and stories about creatures we hope we never have to encounter. But who came up with these Halloween monsters, ghouls, and witches? Just as you might think you know the answer to “What is Halloween?” the real story behind this hair-raising holiday and its accompanying blood-curling beasts isn’t so simple. Halloween monsters reflect human explanations for the unknown and provide an outlet for our deepest, most primal fears. If you love to hear ghost stories and scary Halloween stories, we dare you to learn the true-life tales that inspired these beasties. Read on to discover the hidden origins of Halloween monsters as we “dig up” the secrets of supernatural beings, from ancient myths to modern incarnations.

vampire Bat© Justin Lo/Getty Images

Vampires

Long before Edward Cullen and the Twilight vampires, Slavic folklore came up with the idea of the dead drinking the blood of the living in order to explain contagious diseases. If someone in a village died and then someone else became sick, it was blamed on the deceased coming back to harm them. Grisly rituals were then performed on the body to stop them from preying on the living, desecrations that were later also done in western Europe and even in America to quell supposed vampirism. But Irish author Bram Stoker and his popular 1897 novel Dracula, inspired by this folklore and allegedly the brutal medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler, brought vampires into the mainstream. Today, countless movies and TV adaptations, including the Netflix series Dracula, keep these blood-sucking Halloween monsters in our modern midst. For even more spookiness, check out these ouija board stories that actually happened.

Zombie apocalypse survivor against hordes of undeadgremlin/Getty Images

Zombies

Although modern zombies are not very smart, which makes them easy to kill, their sheer numbers can overpower and then consume the living. The origin of this Halloween monster, while less gory, is just as horrific: Slaves in Haiti, drawing on African religion, developed the idea as a metaphor for the brutal conditions they lived under. This story was incorporated into the voodoo religion of the Caribbean, South America, and the southern United States—and even had some basis in fact. Voodoo practitioners called bokors were said to employ a deadly neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin that can actually inflict a temporary death-like paralysis from which the subject will later awaken. Modern interpretations of the zombie, starting with the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, one of the scariest Halloween movies you can watch on Hulu, and continuing with today’s The Walking Dead comic books and TV show, use the zombie legend to explore new fears of contagion, nuclear war, a post-apocalyptic future, and even suburban boredom. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also gotten in on the fun with its “zombie preparedness” website. Zombies can be one of the scariest Halloween costumes, but the look is actually an easy Halloween makeup idea anyone can master.

Egypt's MummiesPatrick Landmann/Getty Images

Mummies

The ancient Egyptians preserved bodies and buried them with all the goods they would need for the afterlife in hidden tombs in the desert. The idea of a mummy’s curse, in which misfortune would befall anyone who opened a tomb, gained popularity as the Egyptology craze began in the 19th century after the Rosetta Stone’s discovery unlocked the ancient Egyptian language. One 1912 article from The Washington Post even blamed the sinking of the Titanic on a mummy’s curse. But it was the discovery of the undisturbed tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 that really gave the “curse of the pharaoh” life—especially after expedition financier Lord Carnarvon died from blood poisoning a year after the tomb was opened. Hollywood capitalized on this mummy hysteria a decade later with 1932’s The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, arguably one of the best Halloween movies, and the tale lives on as an example of the perils of human hubris.

A spooky ghost of a woman in a dress, back to camera, framed by the archway of an old building. With a grunge, vintage, blurred edit.David Wall/Getty Images

Ghosts

From transparent, misty phantoms floating through the air to unseen poltergeists throwing things around the room, our notion of ghosts is as varied as it is old. It comes from the idea that people have souls separate from their bodies, and thus live on after death, occasionally sticking around to haunt the living. Ghost sightings have been recorded since ancient Roman times, and according to modern surveys, almost half of Americans believe in ghosts—with one in five people actually thinking they’ve seen one. Despite many photographs of alleged ghosts, spooky Ouija board stories, and the popularity of modern ghost-hunting shows and tours, no one has yet to definitively prove their existence.

Silhouette wolf on full moon backgroundMongkol Rujitham/Shutterstock

Werewolves

The poor, tortured werewolf—he doesn’t want to change into a beast because he knows the havoc he will wreak, yet he’s powerless to stop it. These shapeshifters are as old as mythology itself and figure in stories from many different cultures, from the ancient Greek tale of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus, to Nordic folklore. In more recent history, Native Americans wore animal skins while hunting and possibly to scare other tribes, which may have lead to werewolf legends. Plus, these Halloween monsters may have a scientific basis; rabies, for example, could cause people to go on wolf-like rampages. For a lighter look at things, consider these wolf puns that are howlingly funny.

Witchs hands from above with candles deep in forest. Zolotarevs/Shutterstock

Witches

Witches enjoy a positive place in our culture today. Thanks to Harry PotterBewitchedCharmedPractical Magicand other witch movies, they’re often seen as sweet and smart. But go a little further back, and you’ll discover behind this popular Halloween costume is a dark history. Mentioned in the Bible, witches were thought to do the devil’s bidding to harm others. During the Middle Ages, the hysteria about witches grew, and up to 80,000 suspects were killed. Then the trouble started in America, with the famous Salem witch trials accusing 200 people of witchcraft and leading to the deaths of 20 in 1692 and 1693. Today, those who practice Wicca, a modern form of witchcraft, are seen as harmless and even peaceful worshipers of nature.

the Grim Reaper walking in a foggy cemetary.D-Keine/Getty Images

The Grim Reaper

This eerie figure is Death personified: A skeletal form shrouded in a black robe and carrying a farming tool known as a scythe to “reap,” or harvest, human souls from the earth. But how did he come to be? Although many cultures have a creature, god, or other physical being representing death who bring people to the afterlife, this particular image first appeared during the bubonic plague, also called the “Black Death,” in Europe during the 14th century, in which millions of people died. Art from the time period begins depicting Death literally—as a skeleton—with the common tool of a scythe for collecting souls. The ominous, mysterious black robe reflects religious and funereal garb. Throughout the centuries to modern times, Reaper-like characters have made appearances in everything from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Harry Potter. The Grim Reaper also pops up as one of the most utterly creepy Halloween yard decorations.

the Headless horsemanFOX/Getty Images

The Headless Horseman

The Headless Horseman appears to be an actual piece of folklore when in reality it was the creation of an author’s mind. In 1820’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving came up with the tale of schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, who had a run-in with the creepy figure and was never heard from again. Lending authenticity, Irving wrote the story as if it had been discovered among the papers of a (fictional) historian. Irving was probably influenced by German folklore of headless riders (they also appear in Irish and Scandinavian mythology); plus, one historical account tells of a Hessian mercenary being decapitated by a cannonball in the American Revolution. Although the village of Sleepy Hollow was originally fictional, Irving did stay in and base his tale on a real section of Tarrytown, New York—which was actually renamed Sleepy Hollow, adding legitimacy to the story. Not surprisingly, the spooky town of Sleepy Hollow is one of the places in America that are said to be cursed.

 Frankenstein's MonsterBettmann/Getty Images

Frankenstein’s monster

Like the Headless Horseman, Frankenstein’s monster, often just called Frankenstein, was the brainchild of a writer, Mary Shelley, who is said to have been inspired to write her now-classic novel by a ghost-storytelling challenge while on vacation in 1816. As was the original intent of the book, mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and his jumble-of-human-body-parts creature now stand for the fine line between what science can do—and what it shouldn’t. Frankenstein’s castle in Germany, which may have inspired Shelley’s story, is one of the most haunting (or haunted?) abandoned castles around the world.

Spooky swamp filled with swamp monstersrangizzz/Shutterstock

Swamp monster

Let’s face it: Swamps are creepy places. You just don’t know what’s down there, and anyone who’s ever swam in a murky pond knows the eerie feeling of something brushing against your leg. Modern versions of swamp monsters include DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing, but the original seems to stem from Cajun folklore. In the Louisiana bayou, the rougarou is a werewolf-like creature that was used to scare children into behaving. More recent tales of the Honey Island Swamp Monster also claim there’s a half-man/half-beast lurking in the swamps northeast of New Orleans—with a footprint and supposed video to prove it. Stories of aquatic-dwelling Halloween monsters may also take their cue from the 1954 horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, said to be inspired by a South American legend.

Scary Clown MaskLOUISE BEAUMONT/Getty Images

Clowns

Wait a minute, aren’t clowns meant to inspire happiness? Unfortunately, there’s a dark side to the history of clowns that has even earned them their own fear: coulrophobia. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that clowns started getting a bad reputation—Edgar Allen Poe’s 1849 short story “Hop-Frog” featured a court jester out for revenge, and the 1892 opera Pagliacci features a murderous clown. But the modern notion of the evil clown came to real life in the 1970s with the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who performed as a clown; Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic It capitalized on American’s newfound fear. Batman villain the Joker and American Horror Story: Freak Show keep evil clowns fresh in our minds, along with a recent movie version of It that inspired a rash of scary clown sightings. Such fictional characters have contributed to why people are so afraid of clowns.

Close-Up Of Human Hand Touching WallWilliam Attard Mccarthy/Getty Images

Demons

We think of demons as creatures of the devil that can possess people, like in the 1973 film The Exorcist. Modern-day religions still allow for demons’ existence, and priests may actually perform exorcisms to drive an evil spirit away. But, the notion of a dynamic between good and bad creatures—such as angels and demons—goes back to ancient times, and demons are present in many different religions. Because these Halloween monsters can tempt people to do bad or selfish things, demons also function as a metaphor for the dual nature of human existence: our basic drive for our own needs and our higher-level concern for our fellow man. If you think you have an Amityville Horror house of demons on your hands, there may be some signs your house is haunted, according to paranormal experts.

Robot Futuristic Police armored mech weaponDigtialStorm/Getty Images

Killer robots

The fear of the unknown isn’t the only fear that creates monsters. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific and technological advancements led to an entirely new genre, science fiction, that played on fears of what modern technology could do. Scariest of all? Artificial intelligence that could end up controlling us instead of the other way around. First called “robots” in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek, these sentient, autonomous man-made monsters have been terrifying people in sci-fi classics from 1927’s Metropolis and the work of Isaac Asimov to 2001: A Space OdysseyThe Terminator, all the way to the recent HBO series Westworld. And lest we think such fears are unfounded, we might want to listen to these cautionary tales: Today, autonomous military weapons could become an actual threat to humans.

Unidentified flying object, illustrationKTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Aliens

Wondering what other beings reside among the stars is as old as human history itself. And when the cosmos began to be better understood during the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, theories and stories about what else is out there began to take off. Could there really be life on other planets—and if so, is it friendly? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the extraterrestrial came to represent our fear of the “other,” as well as fear of our own insignificance in the face of more sophisticated life forms. The first popular alien invasion story, HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, was first published in 1898, but Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation the night before Halloween was so realistic that some listeners thought Earth really was being invaded. Later, supposed UFO sightings, tales of a 1947 alien crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico, and rumors of secret government studies on aliens at a location called Area 51 in Nevada have further fueled the idea that “the truth is out there” about alien visitations. Countless sci-fi movies—from 1950s classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day the Earth Stood Still to the Aliens franchise, Men in Black, and the more recent Arrival and A Quiet Place—depict the havoc alien monsters might wreak on humans. And our fears could be justified: The U.S. government just declassified military reports of 143 unexplained sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Next, check out these scary Halloween movies that will give you the fright of your life.

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting, and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Parents Magazine online, among others. Here work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.

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