Written by Jonathan Wojcik
October 23: Mythology of the Dullahan
Geographically close to its fellow horrid horseman, the Nuckelavee, the Irish Dullahan is a monster portrayed both fairly frequently and absolutely never in our popular culture, as we'll see in a moment.
In traditional celtic myth, the Dullahan is an unseelie (bad) fairy who, like the familiar figure of the Grim Reaper, enters the realm of mortals to claim the souls of the dead; in this case, calling out their name just as they are destined to pass on. Either male or female, it appears in the form of a hideous, decapitated corpse whose severed head - carried in its arm or rolling alongside it - has an indescribably disgusting appearance, many times the size of a normal human cranium. Its flesh is often described like "moldy cheese," its toothy grin opens ear to ear and its huge eyes dart about constantly, searching for fresh victims.
Worse yet, the Dullahan's horse sometimes matched the ghoulishness of its rider, its own obscenely hideous, mutilated noggin floating alongside it and larger than the rest of its entire body. Other legends tell of the nightmare pulling an entire carriage, built completely from human bones, flesh, grave stones and coffins.
Whichever way the spirit rode into town, no mortal dared leave the safety of their home, as even seeing the Dullahan, especially its decrepit face, could incite its wrath, and unlike the specter of Death in more modern portrayals, the Dullahan wasn't bound by any rules but its own; though it came to collect souls already fated for death, it could mark anyone it wanted as the next in line by bathing them in a bucket of blood...or, when caught in a more merciful mood, simply lash out their eyeballs with a whip made from a human spine.
Somewhere along the line, the legend of the Dullahan trickled down through the ages into what we now simply know as the Headless Horseman, losing more or less everything other than the "headless" and "horse-riding" aspects. We can place a lot of blame on Walt Disney for popularizing this watered down wraith, but why Tim Burton, of all people, didn't jump on the "giant, floating zombie horse head" thing is beyond me. Does nobody in Hollywood know the meaning of "research?"
The Dullahan doesn't fare much better in Japan, where it's often streamlined down to just "headless," appearing in a large number of fantasy video games as decapitated knight or even an empty, haunted suit of armor, sans helmet.
Only in the Japanese Final Fantasy III can I recall a Dullahan that comes even close to its mythological roots, and only because of the creepy, headless horse. At least the way her hair is rendered gives her kind of a Medusa vibe, but really, what's wrong with having a gigantic, rotting head rolling around? Why do we forget the grotesque in favor of the streamlined and threatening? A headless corpse is "scary," kind of like how a killer robot or an angry grizzly bear is scary, but a headless corpse with a cartoonishly exaggerated, impossibly huge mutant head rolling around with it is insane. A rotten horse with a normal sized body and a fifteen foot face is disturbing. Monsters don't need to be realistic or even serious to be frightening - the more outlandish, the more impossible, the more ridiculous, the more they'll leave you questioning your very sanity, should you even escape with your brain still attached.
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