Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Reviewing The Classic
We've talked a lot on bogleech about the staggering diversity of sanguivorous revenants around the world, from the tiny, insect-like Pelesit to the tusked, elephantine Thaye, but this time, we're going to finally just focus on popular culture's modern, mainstream image of the blood-sucking undead, your tried-and-true dead guy with fangs and an affinity for fancy capes. Traditionally, most Halloween vampires are descended to some degree from Bela Lugosi's performance as Count Dracula, and between their upper-class personas and possession of castles, they're quite often treated as "leaders" among the classic monsters. I need not mention how romanticized and even sexualized these monsters have become, but I'm not really as adverse to that as you might have suspected. I completely accept that a whole lot of people want to bone vampires, and there's even a certain charm to the cliche of the lonely, melodramatic vampire lord holed up in their black tower and waxing philosophical about mortality.
BEST QUALITIES: though the Lugosi vampire is the most common, we're still lucky enough to see some modern emulations of the Count Orlok style vampire, the famously terrifying star of the nearly lost horror masterpiece, Nosferatu. Between these extremes of seductive, high-society vampire and rat-faced, spider-clawed demon vampire, we enjoy a whole spectrum of fanged haematophages, including that mid-way point where a dapper vampire count has pointed ears and lovely blue or green skin.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: the association between vampires and bats is a relatively modern one, but easily the coolest aspect of the mainstream pop-vampire. Sometimes, we even get vampires in a grisly, hybridized state between human and chiropteran, which I'd really like to see played with a bit more. I said I wouldn't get into the whole massive subject of mythological vampires, but I feel like I must mention here that around the world, vampires more often drink blood through an elongated tongue than through their fangs, which is interestingly also closer to the behavior of an actual vampire bat. Come on, let's see even battier vampires in our Halloween imagery. Vampires with long, spindly fingers and leaf noses. Vampires that echolochate and sleep upside down. Vampires whose true weaknesses is white nose syndrome!
Wait, no. Now I'm sad. Please help bats.
Centuries ago, witches were a reviled social scapegoat and a symbol of unholy debauchery throughout Europe, said to engage in wild orgies with the devil himself and inflict the countryside with blight and famine just for shits and giggles. It was really just an excuse to persecute a whole lot of women (and a few men) for nonconformity or because nobody had anything better to do at the time, with little historical evidence that anyone really tried to practice anything resembling our popular view of "witchcraft."
Isn't it amazing what a couple hundred years can do, though? Today, witches are more often protagonists than villains, often portrayed as cool, fun-loving, powerful sorcerers and sometimes even aligned strictly with the forces of good. To kids, witches tend to be green-skinned, sometimes warty, sometimes pointy-nosed ladies with conical hats, animal familiars, bubbling cauldrons and magical brooms, while in "adult" horror they're more often sexy, baby-sacrificing cultists, but still carry a certain air of being totally cooler than you.
BEST QUALITIES: It used to be that the typical Halloween witch was simply a very old, human woman, but over time, she evolved into something clearly stranger than that, with a pond-scum complexion, elongated facial features and gnarled, knobbly joints. These qualities are by no means new, but hearken more to the oldest portrayals of figures like Baba Yaga and Jenny Greenteeth, mythical "hags" so ancient and so powerful that they're no longer human at all, if they ever truly were to begin with. I'll admit, I used to completely overlook witches as if they were the dullest of the Halloween mascots, but my appreciation for them has really skyrocketed in recent years.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: admittedly, even the grodiest and weirdest looking Halloween witches are often still passed off as "just really old," sometimes even if they occupy a series where no other human being ever looks that peculiar. It's obvious, though, that breathing in the fumes of all those bubbling, magical brews must just carry a lot of creepy side effects. The green skin comes first. Then you've got the extremities growing a bit faster than the rest of you. Warts come next, and by the time a witch is living far beyond a normal human life expectancy, her body has begun to age in ways the natural human life span doesn't normally permit. Think of witches as "mutated" by their own magic - which they obviously are - and they suddenly seem a whole lot more compelling than just a bunch of very scary grandmas.
The harder you try to define them, Halloween mummies seem all the more ambiguous. In the real world, the term can apply to any corpse that has lost all of its moisture and ceased to decompose, while in the public consciousness, the word most calls to mind Egyptian mummies, cemented as a special type of monster by good old Universal Studios, though Boris Karloff's mummy spent only a few minutes of the original film shambling around in bandages. Filtered through a few generations worth of Halloween, it seems like those iconic bandages are the only thing defining a "mummy" at all, and any additional powers or weaknesses are widely open to interpretation. Sometimes, a Halloween mummy seems like little more than a zombie with peculiar fashion sense, while others might come packaged with some sort of curse-throwing deal, and sometimes, against all all rhyme and reason, they're capable of recreating the biblical plagues of Egypt. Whose side are these mummies on?
BEST QUALITIES: The fascinating thing about Halloween mummies is that they're so defined by their bandages, it doesn't even seem to matter what those bandages are even attached to, if anything at all. A number of cartoons, games, greeting cards and decorations have depicted mummies as the bandages alone, wrapped around a human-shaped negative space which seems to dissipate once the wrappings are unraveled. When a mummy does have a tangible body, it can seemingly be just about anything dead. In my collection alone, as you can see, I've got hand-mummies, bone-mummies, weird little mutant alien mummies and an excess of perfectly spherical or egg-shaped mummies. Of all the primary Halloween spooks, these gauzy goons actually show the broadest range of form, which I guess makes sense if we really can't decide what the hell they're supposed to be.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: If we wanted to be traditionalists about it, we would want to lean more towards mummies as desert-born, desiccated undead with magical powers at least loosely tied into an Ancient Egypt motif, but it's a whole lot more fun if we just take the quirks of the Halloween mummy to their logical conclusion, which would mean that the bandages, not the corpse, are the seat of the monster's consciousness. Cursed, possibly sentient cloth dressings that just so happen to animate any dead material they're wrapped around, whatever its shape and origins. Ever notice how many mummies have eyeballs, too, or more often one eyeball, even though those would be the first things to go when a corpse dries out? I can only assume that the entity occupying the bandages can regenerate its rotting host body to a degree, but focuses on more useful organs first, and just maintains at least one pristine, functional eye to get around with.
Lycanthropes are a Halloween fundamental I've kind of overlooked for most of my life. I guess I just couldn't get into a shaggy dog as a monster like I could a flying bedsheet or a dead guy wrapped in toilet paper, but that was never fair of me. Wolves may be romanticized and diluted in our modern culture even worse than vampires, but back in the day, they were seen as the most sinister and monstrous of all woodland creatures. I know, I know, it's not fair to vilify a mere animal like that, and we've worked very hard to turn their image around for purposes of conservation...but can't be admire an animal and accept that it's a terrifying, throat-ripping hunter?
I guess I might be going off track, here. We're not talking plain old wolves. We're talking werewolves, and werewolves continue to epitomize the horror and mystique these animals once carried. Originally little more than humans who transform completely into canines, it wasn't until more modern times that they evolved into more of a human-wolf hybridization, for which we can partially blame Universal Studios once more. It was either train a real wolf, build a convincing wolf puppet, or put a man in hairy make-up, and through the magic of budgetary constraints, a new star was born.
BEST QUALITIES: the coolest thing about the modern werewolf is how little it ever actually looks like the "humanoid wolf" it's commonly billed as. Far from just a dog walking around on its hind legs, most werewolves display their own unique, original anatomical traits truly falling somewhere between man and beast, frequently with hairless faces, clawed hands, bulging muscles and disturbingly hunched bodies.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: as a rule, human-animal hybrids have limitless potential to be stranger and creepier than the sum of their parts. We already see this to some degree in our lycanthropes, and in some depictions, they even molt out of their human skin like some sort of insect or reptile, which is awesome. It would be nice, though, to see werewolves experiment a little more with their transitions between hominid and carnivora. How about werewolves with vestigial human appendages dangling off their bodies? Werewolves with completely human skin all over? Werewolves still wearing their human forms like pelts? Maybe some werewolves even grow like parasites inside the cursed human, bursting their way out and rapidly growing to full size. Could werewolves just be canine parasitoids?
Mary Shelley is often said to have invented the science fiction genre as we know it, and her monster is by far one of the most famous in the world, to such an extent that sometimes it's simply treated as a go-to definition of the word "monster" itself. Of course, in Shelley's version, the alchemically created being mostly resembled a human, albeit with shining eyes, translucent skin, and a subtle uncanniness that immediately set off alarm bells in the typical human onlooker. Her vision of the creature was also dangerously intellectual, even philosophical, and hated mankind only because it knew mankind would hate it in turn out of fear and prejudice.
Yet again, we have Universal Studios to thank for today's interpretation; a plodding, growling giant with bolts in its neck, stitches in its forehead, green skin and a blocky, cylindrical skull, brought to life by electricity rather than chemistry. It's this version that Halloween imagery adheres to even stricter than it does the template of almost any other monster, with precious little variation between countless thousands of knock-offs, unless of course it's a lady Frankenstoid, in which case she just has an electrified beehive and a bandaged body, which, actually, I always found quite a bit cooler than her boyfriend's aesthetic.
BEST QUALITIES: while it would be cool to see more radical versions of the being - closer to or even farther from Shelley's descriptions - it's understandable that the bolted-together, blockheaded giant is so popular, simply because it's so immediately recognizable, and the concept of a lightning-powered, patchwork corpse-golem remains as strong as ever. In rare cases, Frankenstoids do enjoy a little more emphasis on their "constructed" aspect, my personal favorite example actually being the cereal mascot, Frankenberry. Without even hearing his name, you can tell immediately what sort of monster he's supposed to represent - even without the green skin or the perfectly flattened scalp - and he's decked out in mechanical elements beyond just the usual neck bolts.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: if we're stuck on the Universal-style Frankenstoid for the forseeable future, let's take that "flesh construct" gimmick all the way. Some old cartoons already depicted their Franken-wannabes as more mechanical beings, some even adding built-in rockets, pop-out weapons and other technological functions. Let's go back to that. Think of Frankenstein's monster as basically a "robot" built from corpses, and the design possibilities grow clear through the roof...or just think "Inspector Gadget made of pickled meat." I think that's a pretty frightening prospect.
"Demon" is a term almost as broad as "monster" itself, but in the context of traditional Halloween mascots, we're obviously talking about your classic red-skinned, pointy-tailed hellspawn. I've mentioned this before, but these are traditionally among my least favorite Halloween monsters, and an embarrassingly large part of that is simply that they remind me more of the xenophobic ravings of televangelists than fun times with monsters. That's hardly fair to demons themselves, I realize. They are, after all, no more than silly, fictional characters humans invented more to blame for their own screw-ups than anything else, and a lot of people can relate to that. I guess the second-biggest reason I tend to snub them is only that most of them are just so dull. There's seldom much more to a Halloween devil than a goat-man with a pitchfork, you know?
BEST QUALITIES: Obviously, there's no limit whatsoever to the form a demon can actually take, though the most interesting quickly lose any recognizable connection to the concept, and you have yourself little more than a monster by another name. There are certainly some cool ways you can depict the good old red guys, of course, the more "gargoyle-like" and less human you get, and I always enjoy when there's a grossness thrown in; demons who leave filth and disease in their wake, spew green bile and attract flies with their rotten stench can be found both in older literature and a few good possession movies. It's just too bad so many in the mainstream media are little more than horned, attractive humans with an affinity for fire.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: How the faces of evil itself became so cornball and predictable in the public eye is anyone's guess, since if you dial things back a few centuries, you'll find no shortage of infernal beings in hodgepodge forms as ridiculous as they are unsettling, courtesy such legendary painters as Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Glassy-eyed bird heads, naked human bodies, goofy hats and ramshackle suits of armor are a few of the more common running motifs among these diabolical figures, and there's still something so deliciously skin-crawling about that fairy-tale aesthetic in the context of "fallen angels." That an embodiment of pure evil would patch together a form from such whimsical elements truly feels like a twisted mockery of divine creation...or like something trying its literal damnedest to appear more benign and harmless.
These fantastic fiends have been public domain for several hundred years, so why do just keep sitting on them? What will it take to push them back into the public eye as our go-to hellspawn?
The wandering spirits of the dead are by far the simplest of all Halloween creatures, to such a degree that just two black dots on a white plain can sometimes be enough to communicate the concept. Traditionally, there's no real limitation on what a ghost can look like - just ask The Real Ghostbusters - but "true" Halloween ghosts typically come in three major forms: the whispy blob, the bedsheet with eyeholes, and the vaporous humanoid. Many ghosts blend these three flavors together in varying ratios, but the surest way to denote something as a "ghost" is to just make it transparent, luminous and defiant of gravity.
BEST QUALITIES:the "whispy vapor" and "bedsheet" style ghosts are always favorites of mine over the full-torso apparitions, and all you really need are those two eyeholes in a cloth for a charming enough spook, but I'm always glad when there's a little more to them as well. Some ghosts also get an adorable little round mouth. Sometimes their facial features look like ragged tears in their surface. Some ghosts have glowing, yellow eyes or even eyeballs floating in their sockets, and a rare few have blood stains, skeletal hands, or most prized of all, visibly dripping ectoplasm. I'm also a big fan of ghosts in colors other than white, especially shades of blue or the rarer green.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: when it comes to cloth ghosts, I'm surprised we don't see more of them with patterned fabric, stitches, patches, tears, zippers and other logical features beyond just the white sheet. We also have Ghostbusters to thank for the idea that ghosts can be made partially of a mucus-like slime, but Halloween ghosts seldom take the obvious excuse to look goopy and dribbly. When it comes to a given ghost's level of anatomical detail, I like to think that's actually how they "age," and tied to how much of their former life they can remember. Some ghosts are still clinging so hard to the corporeal world that they have arms, torsos, even life-like facial features...but most lose their grasp on who and what they ever were, and fade away to little more than an indistinct blob.
Originally, vegetables of all sorts were carved into goofy faces for fall harvest festivals, and the modern Jack O' Lantern can especially trace its origins back to carved radishes called punkies. Over the time, other squashes and gourds fell out of favor for Halloween, and today, only a pumpkin with a face is recognized universally as the holiday's purest and most fundamental of all symbols. Pumpkins occupy a wide range of roles in the season's iconography, sometimes little more than decoration, but sometimes worn as masks or replacement heads by other monsters, and sometimes assumed to be sentient beings in their own right.
BEST QUALITIES: while just about anything looks great with a pumpkin for a head, the most interesting specimens are those whose bodies are also composed of pumpkins, still common today but still more common the farther back you delve into the holiday's history. Early, primordial Jack O' sapiens often boasted non-pumpkin vegetables for bodies and appendages, incorporating melons, onions, radishes and ears of loathsome, ghoulish corn as necessary. Re-popularized in the past year by Over the Garden Wall, I've grown to love these old-fashioned produce-goblins more and more as I've gotten older.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: we have basically no particular lore for why pumpkin-monsters exist, and maybe, like skeletons, we don't really need any, but it might still be fun to see them explored more as a defined category of supernatural being. Halloween is always assumed to represent a point at which the spirit world crosses over into our own, coinciding with the advent of fall and traditionally the final harvest before the treacherous winter months. A pumpkin creature could merely represent a convenient body pieced together by just any ghost or demon, yes, but what if there's a specific kind of spirit that only possesses vegetables? What if vegetables, alternatively, have little souls of their own that can grow displeased with their treatment by humans? It's sadly not often acknowledged that a pumpkin person is technically a plant creature, except perhaps when they're given vines and leaves for appendages, and I'd love to see more done with that as well.
As plants, I also like to think that pumpkin creatures survive by sucking all the moisture out of things, which also helps to bring about autumn anyway.
Take a look around the internet lately, and it almost feels like skeletons are the new cats. Few things are as universally fascinating to us as our own bones, and few things communicate raw spookitude more effectively than those bones getting up and moving around like they've still got skin and muscle on them. You could even say Skeletons are a bare bones Halloween essential. In many narratives, it seems like they're just what a soul defaults to occupying when it returns from the beyond, and the line between "skeleton" and "ghost" is sometimes blurred, while in fantasy settings they're treated as another distinct category of "undead" completely unrelated to zombies, despite the presence of soft tissues being the only apparent physical difference.
BEST QUALITIES: in this case, the lack of definition is actually part of the fun. We don't need to know what's animating a skeleton or how it works, and they don't need any special powers or weaknesses to be interesting. That said, I'm always fond of skeletons with a little more on them than just bone. Skeletons with still-living eyeballs, hair inexplicably rooted directly to their skulls, or a few organs pulsing in their rib cages are always a welcome change of pace. Some skeletons even ooze with blood, which is always pretty creepy, whether it's because their bones are inexplicably bleeding or they just "borrowed" it from someone fleshier.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: skeletons themselves are perfect, so all I can really say here is that I'd like to see them applied a bit more broadly. I love them in a goofy context, I really do, but where are all the genuine attempts at skeletons for sheer horror? Are we really so conditioned to only find them humerus? Are they doomed to tickle our funny bones forever? I think they still present limitless potential to be sincerely spine-chilling, if modern horror writers would just bone up a little on older supernatural literature for a little inspiration. Boners.
Tired of this yet? Too bad, because we're only half done! Soon, we'll be addressing the secondary, frequently overlooked but arguably weirder mascots of the season!
MORE HALLOWEEN FEATURES: