We’re going to talk about Halloween again, and the things that go bump in the night. In pt1 we talked about, very briefly, the things that are often considered ‘low level’ scares. Weapons and claws and teeth and other obvious things that actually involve the more conscious brain in order to scare us require more thought on the part of the person being scared, because a knife on its own is simply not scary. Add some gooey blood paint and a snarling mask, and you’re good for some jump-scares.
At the end of that post, though, it was brought up that our instincts are more directly affected by the more primal fears of natural dangers. Poisons and disease, and someone who was like us but is now dead; these are the things that make us wrinkle our nose and cringe back, sometimes without consciously realizing it or knowing why. Things like skeletons, ghouls, rotting hands and faces are ubiquitous this time of year. But did you know that we have had these primal fears for so long, their variants are spreading even as we forget their source?
Vampires were scary before our modern version of the term consolidated about 30 different folk-lore monsters into a single high-class predator of the night (that is why everyone seems so confused on what kills them! Take the weakness from different monsters from Spain to Mongolia, mash them together, and you wonder how any vampire makes it through the evening.) An opened coffin revealed long, bloody nails, lips pulled back from elongated teeth, and scraggly hair that was falling out in patches. What a terrifying monster! Except…no, this is just what happens when someone is buried alive, wakes up too late to notify anyone except to scream and claw at the lid of their coffin, and then after death the skin naturally pulls away from fingernails and teeth and of course your hair loosens and falls out. There are some theories that the eastern vampire myth actually arose out of an attempt to downplay the fear of being buried alive. “Frank wasn’t horrifically entombed before his time, and then left to gasp out his last breaths in a tiny airless prison… he was, uh… a vampire!” Oh, well that’s a relief.
Other ghouls were discovered in marshy lands, out away from civilization. Or, in Asian legends, they appeared in the rice patties of abandoned villages. With strange, long-haired and bulging eyes, lanky and skeletal limbs with bulbous bellies and gross pale green skin, it is no wonder that these terrible monsters inspired countless tales of witches and ghasts that are just waiting for you to be caught unawares. Thankfully, or sadly, these visions of evil have a more mundane and lonely source. When a lost traveler, or victim of an illness that may affect an entire village, succumbs and falls into water, a strange blend of preservation and decay occurs. The skin is preserved, such as it is, even as the internal functions of the body begin to turn against it and warp the recognized shape. The stomach bulges and bloats even while muscles and fat desiccate beneath the flesh. The fluid of the eyes sours and the lids pull back, and the soft tissues of the sinus and brain soak up surrounding water and push the eyeballs forward. Just like with the ‘vampire’, the skin often pulls away from teeth and nails. Even the fabric of the clothes, often not designed for longevity in wet conditions, begins to tatter and melt and fall away. Tales are told of what some traveler has found, out passed where civilized folk should go, and witches and goblins and other terrors of the night are suddenly given a physical description with appropriately horrifying details.
While the surprise-factor of finding something inhuman lying in wait can be bad enough, our own old instincts recognize that this phantasm USED to be human. It had the same capabilities we have, it was on the same path we are on, and likely had the same limited defenses we currently hold…and something else killed it. Something that may still be in the area. Sickness, disease, or worse. We backpedal without thinking, maybe even giving a scream. We are social animals, and the survival of our group is vital, so even if something gets US we need to vocalize so the rest of the ‘pack’ knows there is danger and where it is coming from. It certainly isn’t exactly a valid defense mechanism for our own good!
Start looking at old statuary, old drawings, and even ancient manuscripts or modern monsters. You’ll start to see where, long ago, the basis for this creature may have been simply an old corpse that a traveler stumbled over when he was far beyond the pale (or, ‘beyond the peal’ – as in, he was out of hearing range from the ringing of the bell in the center of a town, which indicated a safe perimeter).
Part 1 covered the things we know and recognize as dangerous. This, part 2, covers the things we vaguely know, and fear might indicate danger is around. But what about the things we don’t know, and fear simply because of that vacuum of experience and understanding, where even our primal instincts are no guide? That will be part 3.