From Zombies to Vampires: The Origin Stories of Some of Your Favorite Halloween Monsters

Whether you plan to mark Halloween with a horror movie marathon or a costume party, it is almost impossible to avoid supernatural themes this time of year.

While psychologists might say monsters are an expression of our deepest, darkest fears, the stories of the supernatural have some intriguing origins—from Haitian slaves to hallucinogenic plants and rare blood disorders.

Zombies

Versions of the undead (or revenants) have existed in societies across the world for thousands of years—see: ancient burials, revealing Roman concerns that corpses could rise from the dead and inflict illness on the living. But the version adopted by Hollywood appears to derive from the beliefs of slave communities living in rural Haiti during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and has its roots in African culture and voodoo.

For many, through death a return to lan guinée—meaning Guinea or West Africa—appeared to be the only way out of the misery and subjugation that was slavery, Amy Wilentz, an American journalist and professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in The New York Times.

The Hatians believed those who died by suicide would not return to lan guinée and would instead be forced to roam the plantations— "dead, and still a slave." In other words, a zombie.

William Seabrook, an American novelist and explorer, is often credited as the first to appropriate the zombie for a white U.S. audience in his 1929 novel The Magic Island, following what he claimed was a first-hand account of Haitian voodoo practices. Since then, the zombie has acted as a stand-in for any and every fear that might be irking the American psyche, from capitalism to the Cold War to contagion.

zombie costume
People take part in the Day of the Dead annual Zombie walk in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty

Werewolves

Precursors to today's werewolves can be seen in Greek mythology and, some historians argue, the Epic of Gilgamesh. According to Caroline Taylor Stewart, author of The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition, the belief that humans can transform into an animal (often a wolf) "is an almost worldwide supersitution" but its origin "has not been satisfactorily explained."

Some point to descriptions of Neuri men from modern-day Russia, who seemed to transform into wolves, most likely by dressing in wolf skins. Others to totemism—the idea that humans have a special kinship with a particular animal.

There are various medical explanations that some scholars believe may have contributed to the myth, including lycanthropy—a mental disorder whereby the sufferer really believes they are a wolf.

Other medical "explanations" include porphyria (a rare disease that promotes excessive hair growth and a tightening of the skin around the gums, resulting in a fang-like appearance) and rabies, which can be passed on to humans from animals like wolves and dogs.

Werewolf costume
Heidi Klum is seen in werewolf costume for her Halloween bash on October 31, 2017 in New York City. Nancy Rivera/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty

Vampires

From the Chinese jiangshi to the demon Lilitu in Ancient Babylonia, blood drinking spirits are a common trope in folklore and a real-life fear that the dead could return to harm the living is evident by the prevalence of so-called "vampire burials"—burials that may involve the decapitation of the head or the placing of heavy objects like rocks or bricks in the corpse's mouth.

The Western version of a vampire, exemplified today by Count Dracula and Nosferatu, may have stemmed from creatures of eastern European folklore, such as the Romanian strigoi.

The strigoi conformed to the popular image of the vampire, writes J Gordon Melton, a professor of American religious history at Baylor University, in The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead. "It was a revenant of the deceased. It had powers to product poltergeist-like phenomena…it was seen as capricious, mischievous, and very debilitating," wrote Melton.

But while it did drain "the vital energy" of its victim, attacks were rarely believed to be fatal or involve the literal biting and draining of blood. The more literal interpretation of the vampire may reflect a misunderstanding of the traditional Slavic vampire, he said.

The first mention of the vampire in the English language can be traced to the 1730s, Roger Luckhurst, British writer and professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, told the BBC—in newspapers "reports from the edge of Europe, of bodies being dug up and looking bloated, and having fresh blood around their mouths."

According to National Geographic, these myths may have arisen from an ignorance around how corpses decompose. Shrunken skin and "purge fluid" seeping from facial cavities, natural in the decomposition process, could appear vampirish.

As with werewolves, there are also various medical explanations that might help us understand where this belief comes from, including erythropoietic protoporphyria (EEP)—which can hinder the body's ability to produce heme, an iron-rich molecule that gives heme its red color.

It results in chronic anemia, causing sufferers to look pale and feel tired. What's more, people with EEP are extremely sensitive to light, which means prolonged exposure to sunlight can produce painful blisters. Hence, possibly, a vampire's aversion to sunlight.

Vampire costume
Sebastiano Schweitzer, dressed as vampire, attends the Halloween party by Natascha Ochsenknecht at Berlin Dungeon on October 27, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Tristar Media/Getty

Witches

Witches, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "a woman who is believed to have magical powers and who uses them to harm or help other people" is a reasonably vague description that can be found in societies across the world, from Mangkukulam in the Philippines to Kalku in Chile.

However, the modern version of the witch, the one that wears a black pointed hat, rides a broom and is epitomized by the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, has more specific origins in Medieval Europe.

According to David Kroll, a professor of Pharmacology at the University of Colorado, the broom in particular has a very indecent origin story that invovles hallucinogenic plants. Someone at some point in time, he says, discovered there was a quicker, more effective way of absorbing the plants' hallucinogenic properties than simply drinking it in a brew.

"As compared to eating the plants or drinking their extracts, axial, rectal and vaginal routes of administration also bypassed the first cycle of rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort)," Kroll wrote for Forbes.

The implication is that brooms—or sticks—may have been used to aid the absorption process. One first-hand account involving the investigation of Lady Alice Kyetler in 1324 report, according to Forbes: "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin."

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Revellers wearing a witch costume dance in front of a burning straw puppet in Offenburg, southern Germany, on March 5, 2019. THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/Getty
From Zombies to Vampires: The Origin Stories of Some of Your Favorite Halloween Monsters | Tech & Science