As it’s the day for ghastly creatures, Caomhán Keane looks at what inspired the stories of werewolves, vampires and classic horror films
As the shrieks of black cat bangers fire the starting pistol on your Halloween festivities (and you lock up your pets to insure they’re not terrified by it all) did you ever stop to wonder just where the ghouls, goblins and revenants that come a trick or treating actually represent?
They’re largely a manifestation of the ignorance and angst our forefathers, affixed like trigger warnings to behaviours that put citizens in harms way, or used to scapegoat ‘the other’ in times gone by.
“Fear isn’t always a negative emotion,” says Dr Sarah Cleary, founder of Horror Expo Ireland, which took place on Sunday in the Freemasons Grand Lodge in Dublin.
“It can be seen as a positive thing. It can stop you getting knocked down, it can stop you getting your fingers burnt. It holds up a mirror to all the things we should be fearful of in society.”
Below is a rogues’ gallery of the most famous bogeyman and what they tell us about the time they were conceived.
The myth of the vampire is as old as the pyramids. But it really captured the public imagination when, after copping the blame for a run of bad luck, the recently deceased were dug up by villagers and found to have not decomposed in the manner expected.
Worse, intestinal decomposition pushed blood out of their mouths, making it look like they had been sucking blood.
To solve this problem, those suspected of being vampires, were buried with garlic shoved in their decapitated gobs, with stakes hammered through their hearts to pin them to their coffin.
Bram Stoker drew on all this when he penned the novel Dracula in 1897. David J Skal is the author of the new Stoker biography Something in the Blood, and says the Irish author drew on the contemporary debates of his time.
“Stoker channeled all the big cultural controversies and arguments of the Victorian era in Dracula,” says Skal.
“The battle between science and religion was particularly unsettling. Darwin had proved the idea that humans could evolve from lower animals, which, in turn, gave rise to the nutty idea that it could work in reverse, and the idea of degeneration took a hold.
The Christian afterlife was properly questioned for the first time. Stoker maintains the afterlife in Dracula, but he makes it Darwinian. It wasn’t heavenly, it was gruesom and animalistic.”
Previous generations of Irish people had a firm belief in the existence of fairies, and fearful tales of abduction were common, particularly in rural areas.
It was believed that the fairies would come to abduct a healthy human child and replace it with a changeling so that they could either enrich their own bloodline or sacrifice the human child to the devil.
Michael Fortune is a filmmaker and folklorist at folklore.ie: “If a child was sick, or had special needs, people in the past sometimes made sense of it by claiming that the child had been swapped by the fairies.”
Similarly, the Irish tried to make sense of death by claiming that the banshee could be heard wailing on the night before a family member dies.
And while many people mocked Danny Healey Rae for his claim that a dip in the road in Kerry was caused by vengeful fairies, Fortune thinks there’s something all together more tragic at play.
“Many raths which people think are cursed were used for the burial of babies, who the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow to be buried in consecrated ground.”
Medical conditions, which created unusually long hair on the face and body and caused seizures due to exposure to light could have given rise to some of the physical symptoms of lycanthropy.
But it was also a favourite scapegoat for he mass killing of children which society just couldn’t comprehend at the time.
The most infamous case was Peter Stubbe who, after immense torture, admitted to the murder and ingestion of 14 children, two pregnant women and two foetuses.
He was put on a wheel, where flesh was torn from his body by red-hot pincers, his limbs were broken with the blunt side of an axe head and he was beheaded and his body burned on a pyre.
Early attempts to film the werewolf myth were undermined by strict censorship, yet The Wolfman, released in 1941, was a huge success.
Written by a German refugee, the wolf was a huge part of Nazi iconography and in the first Wolfman movie, those marked for death saw a pentagram in their palm, foreshadowing the information that would later come out regarding the Holocaust.
The zombie myth emerged in the 17th century, where the barbaric treatment of slaves in Haiti led to a rash of suicides.
Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to Africa, their version of heaven, but those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return and would spend eternity trapped inside the body they had forsaken, human in form, but lacking a soul.
As the myth took hold, the idea was used by voodoo priests, boko, who threatened to bring people back from the dead, making people fear that they wouldn’t even find rest when they died.
While families or communities who were irritated with one of their own who strayed from the social order used the threat of the boko to get them back in line.
“The zombie is the ultimate fall guy,” says Sarah Cleary, when asked about the role of the creature in popular culture “an empty vessel that can be filled up with any anxiety you want to fill him up with. In modern day zombie stories it’s the people left behind who show their worst colours rather than the rotting human mass.”
The emergence of science killed of belief in the bogeyman, but horror, as a genre, is still a safety valve through which we process information and unpleasant realities about the world without having to look at them directly.
The biggest pre-9/11 disturbances in America were the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. “You had movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left which held up a mirror to society,” says Cleary,” and pointed out the scary fact that we are the bad bastards here and we need to remind ourselves of this fact.”
“The threat of Aids was captured by David Cronenberg and John Carpenter in ‘body horrors’ like The Fly and The Thing, where alien bodies invaded, mutated and ultimately destroyed the human form.”
While the sudden surge of serial killers and high school shooters were disturbingly painted in ironic shades in movies like Scream and Seven.
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