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The Hidden Origins of Halloween’s Spookiest Creatures

We love to dress as our favorite scary monsters for Halloween. But where did they came from, anyway? Find out the secret stories of these supernatural beings, from ancient myths to modern incarnations. Get ready to be spooked!

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Halloween design background with , naked trees, and bats and moonkim7/Shutterstock

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 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. Countless Dracula movie adaptations and new blood-sucking characters keep the creatures in our modern midst. Check out these vampire legends that are actually based on truth.

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photo of creepy voodoo doll on wooden floorFer Gregory/Shutterstock

Zombies

Although modern zombies are not very smart and easy to kill, their sheer numbers can overpower and then consume the living. The origin of zombies, while a bit 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 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.

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EgyptStefano Rulli/Shutterstock

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 nineteenth 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, and the tale lives on as an example of the perils of human hubris.

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GhostFOTOKITA/Shutterstock

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 and the popularity of modern ghost-hunting shows and tours, no one has yet to definitively prove their existence. Don’t miss these creepy real events that actually happened on Halloween.

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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 they 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.

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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. Wearing the skin of an animal in order to sneak up while hunting may have also become a way to scare other tribes, creating werewolf legends among Native Americans. Plus, the werewolf may have a scientific basis; rabies, for example, could cause people to go on wolf-like rampages.

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woman with candle deep in forest. Witch craft conceptZolotarevs/Shutterstock

Witches

Witches enjoy a positive place in our culture today. Thanks to Harry Potter, Bewitched, Charmed, Practical Magic, and other tales of good witches, 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 a harmless and even peaceful worshipers of nature. These are the 10 things to stop believing about the Salem witch trials.

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wooden bridge to historic eighteen century watermill, farm and officeDirk M. de Boer/Shutterstock

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 stayed in and based his tale on a real section of Tarrytown, New York—which was actually renamed Sleepy Hollow, adding legitimacy to the story. Here are the spookiest towns to celebrate Halloween in America.

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Old Science workbench made out of wood with chemical componentsSvedOliver/Shutterstock

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.

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Panoramic view of a misty swamp in the forest with copy spacerangizzz/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 mucky 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 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. Find out how Halloween is celebrated around the world.

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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 19th 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. Read more about why people are so afraid of clowns.

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Black cats and other Halloween animals

Spiders, owls, rats, crows, and bats…what makes these real-life animals so connected to Halloween? Many of these creepy creatures are nocturnal, so their associations with nighttime put them on the spooky list. Abandoned houses are full of spiders’ webs and rats; plus, some spiders are poisonous, and rats can carry disease. Vampire bats actually do bite other animals. Carrion-eating crows and ravens have long been believed to be omens of death. But what about black cats? These dark, mysterious creatures were thought to be mystical pets, or “animal familiars,” of witches, who may even shapeshift into them.

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Human SkeletonGG.Image/Shutterstock

Skeletons

Given Halloween’s connection with death, it’s not really a surprise that images of skeletons around the holiday serve as earthly reminders of our own mortality. But the tradition of memento mori (literally “remember death”), represented by a skull or skeleton, has its roots way back in the Middle Ages. Even scarier, during this time the allegorical story of the danse macabre, or dance of death, came about. In the tale, later made into a classical musical composition by Camille Saint-Saens in 1874, skeletons rise from their graves to dance around. Think about that the next time you hang a Halloween skeleton in your yard. Here are 12 more things you probably never knew about Halloween.

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Bloody hockey mask hung on the wall of the mortar. Looks awesome on Halloween.Wood Water Wall/Shutterstock

Modern-day monsters

We just can’t seem to stop coming up with creatures to scare ourselves, teach us life lessons, and explore all the unknowns of this world and beyond. The horror movie genre that first got inspiration from classic tales like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man in the 1930s later gave us modern monsters like Friday the 13th‘s Jason, Halloween‘s Michael Myers, and A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger. Who will we come up with next? Next, find out the chilling history behind 15 common Halloween traditions.