Written by Jonathan Wojcik
Reviewing The Lesser
Our relationship with clowns is funny, isn't it? Not ha-ha-funny, but weird-funny, which is clowns themselves in a nutshell. Clowns are so often presented as creepy, disturbing or at least insufferable that it's almost hard to imagine a cultural environment where children actually idolized them, but they did, all the way up until relatively recent generations. Even before any real-world murder clowns, even before the Joker, clowns appeared as monsters and villains as an "ironic" twist, but the idea seemingly grew so popular that villainy and monstrousness became almost their default. Today, "scary" clowns are a constant staple of Halloween and the horror genre as a whole, and most children are baffled and alarmed by even clowns at their most innocent.
BEST QUALITIES: the scariest clowns, ironically, tend to be those that were never trying to be scary at all, especially authentic, vintage clown dolls and artwork from long before a "monster" clown was ever taken seriously. My favorite creepy clowns are those that don't try to add fangs, or claws, or reptilian eyes, but just look wrong, as if they don't even have a perfectly human anatomy under their costume, or worse, it isn't even a costume at all.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: we saw this to perhaps its best effect in Killer Klowns From Outer Space, but it's really interesting to interpret clowns as a "species," extraterrestrial or supernatural, that just happens to look incredibly colorful and comical. A monstrous race to whom everything in existence is a joke - even if it kills somebody - and for whom the laws of physics work more like a Tex Avery cartoon. Like I said, it works best when it's not trying too hard to look violent and menacing, though even the odd fangly hell-clown has its moments.
You know the ghosts I'm talking about. Modeled loosely after the famous painting "The Scream," an eerily stretched, fleshy ghost mask was actually designed in 1991 by Fun World employee Brigitte Sleiertin, becoming a wide-spread staple of Halloween aisles long before it was rocketed to stardom by the Scream slasher films. Since then, this hauntingly inhuman visage has been recycled, rebranded and imitated across the spooktrum of holiday goods, often modified just enough to dodge Fun World copyright claims or simply drawing more directly from the classic painting. Sometimes, it's still presented as nothing but a Halloween costume worn by a murderer, but sometimes, it's used as the face for actual ghostly creatures.
BEST QUALITIES: obviously, this entity works best when it's "really" a ghost and not just an especially ruthless Scooby Doo villain, but in either case, that noseless, drooping visage is damn unsettling. It seems so simple, but it's so weirdly unnatural, stiff enough to be made of flesh or even bone, but with no teeth, no eyeballs, nothing inside its vacant, sagging facial orifices but pure darkness.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: the very reason I give this particular phantom an entry distinct from other "ghosts" is that I really want to think of it as its own monster, and it's pretty obvious what kind of monster that would be: clearly, we are looking at a banshee. It's even in the "screaming" association! Though banshees are often thought of as a type of ghost themselves, they originate more as a category of fairy-folk known specifically for their deathly wailing, and that yawning, tapered mouth definitely looks like it was adapted especially to amplify a continuous, ghastly howl. For all we know, even its "eyes" are a part of that vocalization system. Those could just be more mouths.
Yes, greys. The little pale space-men who probe butts and deface cornfields. Exploding into fame during a period of almost world-wide U.F.O. mania a few decades back, these beings quickly went from compelling icons of cosmic horror to cute, kitschy space-age mascots, and while they've continued to be a staple of Halloween costumes and decor, it often seems like they're kept carefully segregated from the "magical fantasy" monsters, just because, I suppose, we associate them with a more technological era and a level of scientific "plausibility," but I say nuts to that.
BEST QUALITIES: we're so used to thinking of the greys as a cheesy cliche, I feel like we've forgotten how morbidly terrifying they can be, so how about you let the movie Fire in the Sky remind you, just in case. Here are these things shaped just a little bit like us, but possessed of an intelligence far beyond our own and motivations we can only begin to guess at. They're rarely even given a particular planet of origin in most narratives, and it's difficult to imagine them simply evolving like any other animal on some other world. They truly feel more like they came from space itself, that they exist to operate in no other environment but the cold void between stars, and have traversed unfathomable distances to perform scientific experiments on us for reasons only they can understand. That's absolutely chilling.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: really, why bother keeping these guys distinct from "supernatural" fiction at all? It already makes little sense that they came all the way to our planet just for some genetic samples, or that they're shaped so human-like if they're really from an alien planet. I think I actually, seriously do prefer to think of them as ghost-like entities, something I joked about in an old comic but have never really stopped pondering. What if aliens ARE spirits? What if they're undead beings from another world, or just a very strange category of magical being from our own? Losing the restrictions of a biological mind may be what allows them to devise such absurdly advanced technology to begin with, even as far back as ancient times when History Channel says they invented sharp sticks for us, or something.
Creepy scarecrows are almost common enough that perhaps they belong up in the A-list with ghosts and skeletons, but it's never felt like they were really celebrated as much as the other monsters. They certainly aren't that hard to find this time of year, but sometimes they even cross over into non-creepy, milquetoast thanksgiving scarecrows, so be careful out there! Don't be fooled by cheap imitations of these cheap imitations! You don't have to be a bird to fall for their devious tricks!
BEST QUALITIES: scarecrows are inherently creepy already, like any other vague, incomplete semblance of the human form, and as monsters, I suppose they can be considered a "golem" of sorts. They're at their very spookiest with minimal facial features, emphasizing the surreal quality of a monster with a burlap bag for a head, rather than on its head. Buttons for eyes are always fun, but scarecrows with eyes crudely painted onto their burlap are particularly haunting, and that's strangely enoug not a feature I've seen in "horror" scarecrows at all.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: if you ever had your own copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, you already know that there's a cultural precedence for scarecrows as monsters with their own unique properties. The legend of Harold was and still is one of the most terrifying pieces of folklore I ever read in my entire life, from the scarecrow slowly growing as it sits in its owner's house to that gruesome finale. Dear lord. What we can glean from Harold's example is that a monster scarecrow is basically a regular scarecrow that has soaked up negativity from humans who abuse and disrespect it, which is also what turns a lot of household items into monsters in Japanese folklore. Good old Harold is literally a Western tsukumogami, though quite a bit more violent than your average hopping umbrella.
The only question now is, what determines that a human effigy actually counts as a scarecrow? Does it just have to be a human-shaped mass of straw with clothes on it? Maybe the straw, having once been alive, has a collective little angry plant soul, and the clothes carry some residual spiritual energy from having once been worn and loved by a human. Put them together and you've got a confused, only dimly intelligent entity that foggily believes it's a person, and probably hates you.
Nowadays, the word "goblin" most often calls to mind a purely biological race of green-skinned, unscrupulous fantasy monsters, typically arch enemies of Tolkienesque elves and dwarves in "sword and sorcery" scenarios. At one time, however, "goblin" was almost always understood to denote a darker flavor of fairy-folk, an impish magical creature prone to stirring up trouble and armed with some limited magical powers. Later, in early horror comics and Disney cartoons, goblins evolved into more tangible creatures, typically small, green-skinned, pointy-eared and clawed, but still something closer to otherworldly imps than a singularly defined "species," and often treated as a sort of immediate counterpart to ghosts. Ghosts and goblins. The two primary categories of Halloween monster. Or they used to be, anyway.
BEST QUALITIES: straight-up Halloween goblins are quite rare these days, but always a joy when they rear their warty heads, and I still think some of the best goblins of all time come to us courtesy Brian Froud and Jim Henson studios. Labyrinth's goblins struck a lovely middle ground between the "fantastical non-human race" version and the "variable magical pest" version.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: honestly, just re-associating goblins with Halloween is all they need. While I do have a soft spot for those Dungeons & Dragons style goblins and goblinoids, I definitely prefer to think of them as weird, creepy little supernatural vermin, not quite "demons" or "spirits" but not quite natural animals, either. I especially like when they're associated directly with witches, and we just established earlier that witches are sort of "corrupted" by their own magical pollutants, so why not goblins, too? Maybe goblins are what happens to all those rats, toads, lizards and crows a witch might experiment upon.
A gnarled, rotten tree with a scary face is a Halloween image almost as common as any of the A-list Halloween characters, but we so rarely recognize it as a "monster" in itself. It appears most commonly as nothing more than decoration or an inanimate part of the scenery, which is also true of Jack O' Lanterns, but those at least get a fair number of pumpkin-head monsters to their repertoire, too.
BEST QUALITIES: Spooky trees just look so cool, almost every single time. Whether their facial features are only black, rotten holes or they have teeth, eyeballs and noses, you can almost never go wrong with making a tree look like a creature. Like pumpkins, they're also practically the only other plant-based Halloween symbol, always a big plus.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: Like pumpkin people, we just need to start distinguishing haunted trees as something separate from just any old ghostly possession scenario. Dungeons and Dragons and countless other fantasy scenarios have presented all manner of more defined tree monsters, and there's even a few scattered around the world's older myths and legends.
The generic "mad scientist," with frizzy hair and crazed eyes, is actually even more common outside an immediate Halloween context, despite being so deeply intertwined with many of the other monsters. Even a haunted house or a vampire's lair is sometimes expected to have its own on-site maniacal biologist or deranged engineer, and they crop up like clockwork in any cartoon that touches on spooky motifs. When they do get Halloween merchandise outside the usual costumes and masks, it's usually low-key, like stickers or greeting cards, but sometimes tou get a hanging mad scientist prop or an animatronic deal!
BEST QUALITIES: Like witches, mad scientists are often assumed to be completely human, just weird and old. Also like witches, however, they're portrayed with exaggerated, inhuman features just often enough that this soemtimes simply can't be the case. Most commonly, a mad scientist has an enlarged head, implying a brain far larger and more powerful than that of a normal human. Do they pursue science because of this advanced mind, or is there something more at work?
FURTHER POTENTIAL: I really, really want to think of mad scientists as monsters themselves, and I don't see why I can't. There are all sorts of ways we could rationalize it; in many classic narratives, an otherwise normal researcher stumbles upon a chemical or even mathematical formula that somehow boosts their intelligence far beyond natural, human capacity, losing their grasp on conventional logic or morality and turning towards more twisted research. Isn't that just as much a transformation into a "monster" as any other? It's almost a mental lycanthropy, a mind turning into some other, inhuman thing under abnormal conditions and wreaking its own form of havoc on the countryside. A were-genius.
You heard me. As far back as medieval England and beyond, the term "bugbear" referred to a sort of indistinct, beastly creature often used to frighten children into obedience, just like our old pal the bogeyman. It was often thought of as huge, hairy, fanged and taloned, sometimes even literally just a monstrous bear, the "bug" in the name believed to come from the Middle English "bugge," which basically means a scary thing.
The thing is, while the term "bugbear" has faded into obscurity, the general idea of a hulking, shaggy, child-eating mammaloid is still alive and well. Even before Pixar got ahold of the idea, it was sort of an unspoken rule that the monsters hiding in kid's closets or under their beds were most often sort of bear-like or ape-like in shape, with a whole grab-bag of beastly features. Fangs, claws, horns, spikes, scales, sometimes even little bat-like wings, and sometimes a few not-so-mammalian features such as tentacles or additional eyes. We treat these as more or less a "generic" type of monster, yet it's at least as recognizable as a "dragon", and a specific name for it was there all along! Of course these things are bugbears!
From Jill Thompson's Scary Godmother
BEST QUALITIES: It's interesting how colorful and goofy these monsters so frequently are. They really are like a monstrous distortion of childhood, not so much the kind of monster a child would design - that usually entails something a hell of a lot weirder - but like something a well-intentioned adult would design with children in mind. A plush toy or a cartoon character, grown to obscene size and hungry for raw flesh with a side of terror-piss. Even when they're not eating kids, the fact that they seem hell-bent on making kids miserable is pretty funny, especially when they fulfill the original purpose of the bugbear, bogeyman, boo-man or boggart by scaring awful children, especially bullies, into behaving themselves.
Or, you know, just eating them.
FURTHER POTENTIAL: Step one to improving our Halloween relationship with the bugbear is to at least start calling them that again. Haven't they earned it? A set of possible attributes are fairly obvious, too. Pixar wasn't even the first source to propose that these things can teleport from one closet to another, or that they require the fear of children as some sort of resource. Turning it into electricity was a cute theory, I guess, but I'd rather think they just consume fear. They can, of course, deform their bodies as they please to hide positively anywhere, they can only be seen by their intended victims, and while they generally adhere to a vaguely bear-ish body plan, there's nothing mammalian or even recognizably Earthly about their biology at all, and their actual details might vary either with the individual monster or the individual human onlooker. Not so much that they take any form, no,but if you're a little more afraid of a giant snapping bird's beak than a mouthful of fangs, a Bugbear will have you covered, you know?
And even when they're real, biological creatures, a Bugbear always looks like it's just a plush costume or a puppet, of course!
Thinking of them this way, I think these are actually becoming one of my favorites, though just writing this particular series has kind of renewed my appreciation for every one of these monsters and vaguely-monster-like characters.
But surely, this isn't all of them, is it? I'm sure I've missed a few, haven't I? Ripoffs of Jason Vorhees aren't uncommon. Nor are creepy baby dolls in recent years. I devoted an entire past article to breaking down the basic zombie, and I almost added an entry to this article just on skeletons cocooned by spiders, which have become an increasingly frequent sight in the holiday aisles. Sure, those are just supposed to be inert, spider-infested corpses, but isn't it only a matter of time before they break into monsterdom? I'm pretty sure a webbed-up corpse is already a monster in Pathfinder or something.
Who knows what future Halloweens will bring, or how our favorite monsters will just keep evolving and changing.
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