Classic Halloween Monsters and Their Hair-Raising Origins

Published July 25, 2022
Halloween Costume Party

One of the best parts of the spooky season is getting to dress up like the coolest Halloween monsters and creatures from human folklore. From vampires to headless horseman, there are so many unique and scary creatures out there, and each has an interesting connection to many basic human fears and desires. After all, everyone has a bit of monster in them.

Vampires

One creature with deep historic roots and longstanding ties to the Halloween season is the vampire. From classic literature like Camilla and Dracula to the more recent Twilight craze, vampires have captivated audiences for centuries. While there are references to undead creatures or people that consume blood to sustain themselves in ancient history, the earliest evidence of the modern idea of the blood-sucking creatures of the undead comes from eastern Europe and as early as the Medieval period.

Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in Dracula

In fact, much of the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula comes from Romanian folklore surrounding creatures like strigoi that require blood to survive, will turn their victims like them after a bite, can shapeshift, and are weaker in the daytime. Later, folklore and literature combined with Victorian sentiments led to the legendary New England Vampire Panic in the United States. Although vampires are just a thing of myth, their immortality and suave aesthetics prove to entice people of all ages to dress up like vampires for Halloween every year.

Werewolves

If you lose time every full moon and find yourself with odd patches of hair here and there, you might have a touch of lycanthropy. Lycanthropes - aka werewolves - have existed in literature for thousands of years. There's some debate over the origins of werewolves; some believe it's in the Epic of Gilgamesh where a lover's mate was turned into a wolf, while others are more familiar with the European myths like the Greeks and Norse references to men with the curse (or power) to turn into wolves.

Oliver Reed on the set of The Curse of the Werewolf

More recent accounts refer to the French legend of La Bête du Gévaudan, a human-eating wolf creature that slaughtered people in the mid-18th century. There was a massive press campaign and an ensuing hunt for the creature that, hundreds of years later, has come to be known as a werewolf. Of course, werewolves' popularity didn't stop there, and they've been climbing the pop culture food chain ever since, hitting a peak in the 2010s with shows like Teen Wolf and films like The Twilight Series.

Frankenstein's Monster

One spooky creature that actually has a concrete origin is Frankenstein's monster. First appearing in Mary Shelley's classic 1818 gothic novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, Frankenstein's monster is a reanimated corpse that has conscious thought and doesn't rely on anything to survive. Originally conceived as a commentary on the dangers of the industrialism, mechanization, and a growing middle class, this monster became better known to the public through Universal Pictures' 1931 film, Frankenstein. Boris Karloff's iconic character design (green skin, hulking physique, bolts sticking out of his neck) is what's replicated year after year in October's beloved holiday.

Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster

Mummies

Mummies are one of those scary creatures that go bump in the night that are actually real. Humans have been mummifying one another for thousands of years, with ancient Egypt's mummification process being the most well known. Evidence of mummies from the Far East (like China's Xin Zhui who died during the Han dynasty) to North America (such as the 10,000+ year old Spirit Cave mummy) show that they aren't limited to one region or point in time.

Child dressed in home made Egyptian mummy costume

However, it begs the question of where the popular phenomenon comes from. Looking back just a hundred years, you'll find that there was an Egyptian revival in the 1920s when Europeans traveled to Egypt, looted their native artifacts, and sold them in Europe and America. Mummies, in particular, were a popular token; tonics were made with ground up mummy bits and a particular pigment entitled 'Mummy Brown' was made out of crushed mummies. Universal's, The Mummy, came out at the tail-end of this craze, and its cast of linen-bound characters is what you have to thank for the toilet-paper costumes of your childhood.

Zombies

Zombies are a curious Halloween creature because of their evolution over time, going from just undead humans into rotting animated corpses that feast on human flesh. Yet, the earliest zombies come from Haitian folklore, with scholars connecting the plight of African slaves on the island to the horrific monotony of zombie life. Similarly, there's a controversial belief among some Voodoo practitioners that special people can create zombies.

Zombies Behind A Fence

Although these fears about the dead rising from their graves feel impossible, there's an actual medical condition that leads some people to experience a delusion that they're one of the walking dead, known as Cotard's Syndrome. Meanwhile, the earliest pop culture moment where zombies took the stage was in the Night of the Living Dead, a slow-paced horror film that defined the zombie genre.

The Headless Horseman

The legend of the Headless Horseman is most famously depicted in Washington Irving's tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Interestingly, headless horseman have a deeper past in global folklore than just the early 19th century, such as the English folktale of the Green Knight who was a medieval headless horseman. Yet, Irving's vision of the Hessian soldier astride a horse using a jack-o'-lantern in place of a head is what really captured the American public's interest.

SLEEPY HOLLOW: The Headless Horseman

Quickly, this character grew its own mythology, with films like Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow fleshing out a new tale for the villain. Yet, what remains central to each of these stories is the idea that the horseman is in desperate need of a head, and he's willing to kill just about anyone to get it.

Witches

Perhaps the oldest figure on this Halloween creatures list is the witch. There's conflicting evidence as to what the exact point of origin for the witch is because so many different civilizations have their own beliefs about what a magical being is. For instance, Circe in Homer's Odyssey practices magic, and her manipulative and tricky ways hint at what society would mold the witch stereotype into.

Margaret Hamilton in the role of Miss Gulch, The Wicked Witch of the West

Professor Diane Purkiss explains in an English Heritage interview that this magical figure was crafted into the typical witch over time, and some of her criteria for these creatures are that, "She certainly doesn't have to have a hat and a broomstick. She has to be marred, lopsided. She has to be like the dead: hard, infertile - and she has to hate." Couple this folk definition with rising fears over female autonomy, social development, and religious fervor, and what you get is the famous witch that hunts and legendary texts like Malleus Maleficarum, which instructed people on how to kill witches on their own.

Ghosts/Spirits

Folklore surrounding ghosts has been around since time immemorial. Despite the world's ever-changing ideas about the afterlife, the concept that a human's spirit (a ghost) lingers on in some way is just as pervasive now as it was thousands of years ago. While there's significant debate over where the 'ghost' legend first started, one Babylonian tablet circa 1,500 BCE housed in the British Museum depicts an image that could be the earliest reference to a ghost. Interestingly, spirits have taken many different forms around the world, whether it's as revenants, banshees, or poltergeists, giving you a wide variety of ways to customize your ghostly costumes this Halloween.

Boy In Spooky Ghost Costume Standing Outdoors

Demons

For some, demons are mischievous creatures that've inspired great books and films and, for religiously-minded others, they're a very real threat to their personhood. But what makes these dastardly monsters all the more interesting is their ancient origins. Historically, there are old Greek, Roman, and even Jewish literary references to the word demon, and none of these mention fire and brimstone right away. The earliest examples of demons use the term to describe gods, deities, and other powerful entities that're both benevolent and dangerous; but, according to every college student's favorite website - JSTOR - it wasn't until a 2nd century BCE text that demons were linked to today's idea of Satan.

Illustration of scary demon with wings

However, pop culture's understanding of demonic players like Beelzebub didn't happen until John Milton's 17th century poem, Paradise Lost. This book sensationalized hell and defined the demonic order in a way that, although not really rooted in any religious canon, took the world by storm. Hundreds of years later, and you can thank John Milton for the colored contacts you're putting in this Halloween.

Classic Halloween Monster Movies to Enjoy This Spooky Season

We have Hollywood's iconic silver screen monsters to thank for modern depictions of these spooky creatures, and there's no better way to ring in the Halloween season than with watching people fend off your favorite supernatural creatures and monsters on screen. Whether you stick to the latest blockbusters or your grandparents' favorites, every spooky get together is enhanced by a monstrous screening of these movies:

  • Nosferatu (1922)
  • Dracula (1931)
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • The Mummy (1932)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Wolf Man (1941)
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • The Fly (1958)
  • The Horror of Dracula (1958)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  • An American Werewolf in London (1981)
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999)
  • Van Helsing (2004)

Horrifying Halloween Monsters

No matter which Halloween creature or monster is your favorite, there are so many ways that you can honor them this holiday season. Dress up like them in a realistic costume, deck out your dinner with inspired treats and cuisines, or decorate your house in your favorite monster's theme. Just remember...you're not the only thing that goes bump in the night.

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Classic Halloween Monsters and Their Hair-Raising Origins