I, for one, am not pleased with the modern focus on pop-culture and cartoon characters and raunchy jokes as Halloween costumes. Celtic Samhain, from which many modern Halloween traditions and the date are derived, marked the initiation into the “darker half” of the year – when the fae folk (NOT the Tinkerbell variety) and spirits have more power. Dressing in costume was either meant to frighten away evil spirits, or more likely, to pretend to be one of them to keep yourself safe while you traverse the increasingly-sunless outdoor world.
I somehow doubt that they’re terribly impressed by Elsa from Frozen or an army of Spider-Mans. That’s called cosplay. You can do that any time of the year. I firmly believe Halloween needs to remain a horror-based experience to celebrate, revere, and fear the time of year when us diurnal humans are no longer the dominant beings on our earth. And to those who think that Halloween needs to be kid-friendly and refrain from any remotely-upsetting imagery, let me tell you: there’s plenty of things that are scarier, more disturbing, and more visually unpleasant than some blood and guts.
After all, we wouldn’t want the real monsters to start thinking we’ve gone soft, do we?
Here are some new interpretations and ideas for bringing new life into the more classic, scary Halloween creatures.
Possibly the most iconic “mascot” of the Halloween season, the vampire is usually depicted wearing dramatic black-and-red silks of a vaguely-foreign nobility. The vampire myth likely originated from the observation of real decaying human corpses – as the skin tightens and recedes, the hair and fingernails appear to be “growing”, creating the false impression that the corpse is “alive” in some capacity. Interestingly enough, the Chinese jiangshi feeds on the life force, not blood, of living humans, which opens the possibilities up to vampires with non-blood diets. The most unique vampires I have ever seen in media comes from the video game Bloodborne in the form of these pale, flea-like humans called Blood Lickers.
- Vampires with suggestions of hemophilia or nonstop internal hemorrhaging, with blood leaking from their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth progressively until they basically liquidate into blood
- Vampires based on blood-sucking insects – fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks all have needle-like mouth-parts for stabbing into the skin and sucking it out – these vampires could have extremely long hollow fangs like a viper, or a long pointed tongue
- Vampires that focus more on their deadness – old European vampires were depicted as wearing funeral shrouds draped over their body – imagine the horror of a waxy yellowish sheet draped over a person, with only bloodstains to suggest where the mouth or eyes might be
Witches are such a classic Halloween mascot that I must include them, but I feel the need to share a bit of social justice here. “Witch” was historically an accusation used on women who gained influence or who were simply disliked as a paper-thin excuse for murder. Also, modern forms of spiritual paganism and witchcraft are actively practiced today, and the ideas of magic and witchcraft often get lumped together with native folk religions and the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples. The idea of an evil, ugly, warty old witch is based on misogyny and the persecution of women and as a way to demonize non-Christian religions. With that in mind, my suggestions below are for changing and reinterpreting the idea of a classic Halloween witch to help move away from these sexist connotations.
I think the best witches ever depicted in media are the Sanderson Sisters from Disney’s Hocus Pocus.
- Witches that have begun to transform into nature, such as trees or animals – with their hair gnarled and twisted up with tree branches and leaves or bird-like claws for hands
- Witches that are outright, unapologetically Satanic or demonic – dressed in goat horns or wearing skulls, or even fallen angels acting as witches, with tattered wings or burning halos
- Witches that are also mad scientists, with a focus on brewing potions and concoctions, carrying holsters or bandoleers with bottles, maybe even wearing goth versions of labcoats or goggles (a good excuse to bring some Victorian steampunk in!)
A lot of early (we’re talking 1500s) werewolves didn’t actually change shape – they just became possessed by the “spirit” of a wolf, or, more often, the Devil, and acted with excessive feral violence, usually eating children and other humans. If they did change shape, it was often with the assistance of a magical wolf pelt, and they would become a normal natural-looking wolf, not the furry two-legged version we see nowadays. This is likely inspired by Old Norse berserkers, who were warriors that wore bear or wolf skins to supposedly assume the strength and power of that animal in combat (here we can see more of that tendency of Christianity re-telling something “pagan” as Satanic to create enmity). Werecats have actually been in mythology just as long as werewolves, but strangely, they don’t get as much modern attention (which I find bizarre, because big cats are terrifying as predators and have way more history with eating humans). I’m going to refer to all of these things as werebeasts below so that it can be applicable to all shapeshifters of this nature.
- Werebeasts wearing a full fur cloak, skin, or skull of their animal form and minimal “human” clothing – they have fully embraced their animal side and prefer to live as it, maybe even surrounded by natural animals of that species
- Werebeasts that can transform into any animal they are holding/touching a part of – imagine an older wealthy woman with an alligator-skin purse, a mink stole, and a lucky rabbit’s foot being able to transform into a combination of all three of those
- Werebeasts whose animal form is a separate, living animal familiar with whom they have a supernatural bond; they mutually fuse into an hybrid werebeast form (imagine if it were disguised as a service animal!)
Beware the walking dead! The idea of a zombie comes from Haitian and African folklore, including Haitian Vodou which has an important focus on death and the spirits of the dead. From what I can tell, folktale zombies are similar to Jewish golem – they’re just a soulless being that can be used for manual labor. Zombies weren’t scary because they preyed upon the brains of living humans, but because you could become possessed by a spirit and be forced to act against your will. We can clearly see the connection to the very real nightmare of slavery. The zombie is arguably the same type of “monster” as skeleton and mummy – they’re all just different kinds of decomposed. The video game The Last of Us has a fantastically unique depiction of zombies as humans infected by a variation of the Cordyceps fungus.
- Zombies that are just a disembodied brain and central nervous system – most film zombies can only be killed when the head is destroyed, so clearly the brain is the actual reanimated creature here – that crawl and/or swim and try to invade human nostrils with their noodly nerve-tentacles
- Zombies that don’t eat people – they eat something completely unique and bizarre, maybe gemstones, or tree roots, or perhaps whatever the spirit/entity possessing them likes
- Zombies that are mostly or entirely skeleton, but held together by something weird – gelatinous slime, vines, parasitic insects, etc that still retains the human silhouette
Demons are a complicated subject. Western cultures probably immediately think of angry red Christian devils. Many Christians understand them to be rebel fallen angels. Japanese yōkai are a hugely varied group of spirits and entities. Ancient Egypt had little to no distinction between gods and demons. Modern spiritualists might think of incorporeal non-human ghost-like entities, shadow figures, and sleep paralysis entities. There’s a general modern consensus that they are inherently evil (or at least mean-spirited) entities that can possess people and make them do things against their will.
- Demons that are modern emo, goth or punk – if they are rebel angels cast into the underworld, depict them like rebellious anti-capitalists from shady back alleys; studded black leather jackets and wallet chains would complement horns very nicely
- Demons with mechanical and steampunk parts of their body, as if hell were the fire that powered them, with horns that are actually metal vents gushing smoke, or doors into furnaces in their bodies like the Jabberwock from American McGee’s Alice
- Demons that are cold – some depictions of hell or the underworld are freezing cold – imagine demons with thick shaggy fur or that resemble frostbitten, emaciated corpses
Okay, this was a long one, but I hope you found some inspiration to start thinking about the core aspects of these famous creatures and how to re-interpret them in creative ways. Share your favorite unusual re-imaginings of classic monsters with me!