Modern Mythology: Werewolves and Zombies and Vampires, Oh My!
Today is Halloween, the celebration of all things scary and spooky. In the modern day, at least in America, it is simply a fun holiday, where everyone gets to dress up in costumes, eat candy, carve pumpkins, scare themselves, and pretend to believe in superstitions. It began, however, as the Celtic holiday of Samhain, the day when the dead could most easily mingle with the living. This got co-opted into the Christian religion, as the eve of All Saint’s Day, a holy celebration to counteract the pagan one of All Hallow’s Eve (more information from the Library of Congress). While the modern event has little in common with its historical roots, it’s still a chance to connect with all things spooky, particular the dead and undead. And many of us believe in monsters and spirits for one night: some continue to believe throughout the year. While most Halloween creatures are fiction, though, there is a spark of truth to the old legends.
With the success of Twilight and similar books, vampires have become by far the most popular mythological monster. However, the modern Edward Cullen is a far cry from Dracula, and even he was not the original vampire. The idea of an evil creature, who traveled around consuming human lives/blood, may have originated back in the time of Abraham, with the myth of a creature known as Lilith. Lilith was the wife of the Biblical Adam before the creation of Eve, but refused to obey her husband, and so was cursed. In her search for revenge, she killed children and pregnant women.
The modern idea of a vampire, of the Count Dracula sort, evolved in the Middle Ages during the Black Death. It especially became prevalent in Slavic culture. It was thought that, when a person caught the Plague and died, they could return to life and infect other people, attempting to sap their lives to regain its own. In Slavic culture specifically, they thought a corpse that an animal, particularly a cat or a dog, jumped over would become one of these undead.
Various methods were proposed to repel vampires. According to mythology, they were either nearly or entirely immortal, so killing them was a poor option. However, the sign of a cross was reputed to repel some vampires, as they were cursed for being unholy. Garlic and silver were also supposed to work. Also, driving a wooden stake through the body of a vampire, mutilating the corpse, or keeping it in sunlight were thought to incapacitate it.
The idea of a vampire in the modern sense first appeared in 1819 with John Polidori’s novel The Vampyre, and became widespread in 1897 with Bram Stroker’s novel Dracula. Dracula has since become the source for what a vampire, in the most horrific sense, should be.
By day, a normal person. By light of the full moon, a terrifying, rabid wolf intent on attacking humans. Werewolves are also a highly romanticized, and terrifying, mythical creature. The idea of the werewolf was first really popularized by the 1941 film “The Wolf Man,” but existed well before then.
As with vampires, it’s difficult to pin down the origins of the werewolf idea. One of the earliest recorded instances was in “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” A goddess in this epic, Ishtar, is accused of having turned a shepherd into a wolf. In Roman mythology, the god Jupiter turned the cannibal king Lycaon into a wolf as well. There is some similar sort of myth in pretty much any culture. If there are wolves that inhabit an area, the people will have some myth about people turning into them. If there are no wolves, then people turn into other carnivores: crocodiles, hyenas, tigers, foxes, bears…. any sort of large, carnivorous, dangerous, frightening creature, really.
An interesting aspect of the werewolf myth is the idea of lycanthropy. This is a disease, of sorts, supposedly transmitted when a person is bitten by a werewolf. This transforms them into a werewolf themselves. Originally, however, lycantropy was considered a mental illness, where a person was deluded into thinking they were a werewolf, rather than any actual physical transformation occurring. However, lycanthropic werewolves are not the only type. In Norse culture, people could turn into animals by putting on clothing. In other folk tales, werewolves maintained their human shape by wearing human clothing.
There are actually a few medical conditions that can mimic some characteristics of lycanthropy. Hypertriclosis, where thick hair grows all over the body, is the most striking of these. This, along with other conditions, may have helped initally spark the werewolf myths.
Ghosts and Spirits
Around Halloween, the number of haunted houses spikes. However, year-round, many places offer ghost tours or claim haunted locations. Some psychics and mediums also claim to be able to communicate with spirits of the dead. The idea of a ghost is both attractive, from the standpoint that we never truly lose loved ones, and terrifying, in that the dead can watch, and mess with, the living.
Like vampires and werewolves, the idea of a ghost or spirits has been around since the earliest cultures. In one scene, related to the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which Gilgamesh’s close friend Enkidu goes to the Netherworld to recover a lost hoop and stick game. Enkidu is then trapped by the spirits there, and cannot fully return to life. However, one of the gods allowed Enkidu to return and talk to Gilgamesh for a short amount of time.
The idea of a ghost varies hugely across ancient and modern cultures. It’s nearly impossible to categorize all the different ghost and ghoul theories. Within ghost mythology, some spirits may be benevolent, and simply stuck, unable to go to the afterlife. Others may be poltergeists, messing with the living without causing harm. Some may be looking for revenge. Some are cursed. The list continues.
Ghost encounters often pop up in the news and in popular TV shows like Ghost Hunters. However, most of these encounters are not actually the real thing. Fuzzy apparitions in a photograph are very unlikely to be a ghost, and hallucination and optical illusion can account for most sightings. As for psychics and mediums, there is no scientific evidence that proves they actually can commune with the dead. Usually, haunted houses are simply a creepy old building that makes a person nervous. Then, when a perfectly innocent sound like
Witches and Witchcraft
Witchcraft and magic are among the most complex of the mythologies. The idea of magic existed in the earliest cultures, as the gods used their powers to manipulate the human world. Witches, shamans, and sorcerers also had some fragment of divine power, and could also manipulate things like the weather and injuries. These powers could be used to heal and create good luck. However, it could also be used to harm. Thus, witches originally got their bad reputation in ancient times, because normal people feared their power and made them outcasts.
The rise of Christianity truly outlawed the so-called witches. People with magical powers were believed to worships Satan as opposed to God, and recieved their power from him. Therefore, they were necessarily evil. This, along with epidemics like the Black Death, lead to a witch hunt craze. One of the most famous of these was in Salem, Massachusetts in1692. Between the 1450’s and the 1750’s, innumerable numbers of women and men were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft.
Interestingly, there are a small number of people today who still practice forms of “witchcraft.” The most well known of these is Wicca. Wicca actually only appeared in the 1950’s, making it a very young pagan religion. It worships the Earth and natural forces as deities. Wiccan rituals supposedly allow these witches to channel this natural life-force and perform some type of magic. It blends the scientific theory that all matter vibrates with its own energy with a spiritual parallel.
The popular culture witchcraft is a lot different from that practiced by modern “witches.” It typically involves having some sort of “gift” or innate talent to manipulate the world using a mystical force. It also associates witches with the idea of flying on broomsticks, using wands, spellbooks, and potions, and generally being different from a normal human, despite having none of the physical differences that vampire and werewolf mythology suggest.
Mummies and Zombies
Technically, these two don’t belong together. They have very different origins. However, the popular view of both of these today are very similar. So, I’ve lumped them together, in light of how long this post is getting.
Mummies stem from ancient Egyptian culture, primarily. In this culture, when a person died, their body was treated with a very elaborate embalming process. It began after death, with the removal of the internal organs. The body was then placed in a vat of salt, to dry it out and prevent decomposition. Finally, the body was treated with other chemicals, given various talismans to help it in the afterlife, and wrapped in linen strips and resin. This process was so successful, soft tissue is still remarkably well preserved on Egyptian mummies today. In fact, this life-like preservation probably prompted the modern idea of the mummies come to life, along with other elements of Egyptian mythology (such as cursed tombs and the idea of a spirit living on in the afterlife while still sometimes visiting its body in the human world). Movies such as The Mummy and its sequels highlight the idea of an undead mummy walking around.
Zombies are another form of undead. Unlike mummies, they aren’t wrapped in bandages and well preserved. Instead, they are re-animated corpses. They appear most prominently in Haiti culture. There, bokor or sorcerers are accused of creating mindless slaves out of corpses. Dr. Wade Davis did a scientific study on the Haitian zombies, with interesting results. There is a special power used by these bokor which includes tetrodotoxin, a toxin which causes paralysis and death. If in a small enough amount, though, a person could merely be paralyzed and unable to react to stimuli, making him appear dead. It would be possible, however, for them to make a full recovery, and this is what Davis believed caused the Haitian “zombies.” The idea of a reanimated corpse has taken hold of popular horror culture, regardless of the actual cause of the zombism. Numerous movies and books utilize this idea, suggesting that things like radiation and viruses could create these undead. They were first really popularized by “Night of the Living Dead,” and are still depicted as slow, stupid, hungry creatures wanting only to kill and eat human flesh, who are imperious to pain or injury, short of complete decapitation. There is also the idea of a “zombie virus,” which could be spread from zombie to person through any contact. Most scientists believe the likelihood of such a virus causing a widespread zombie epidemic is extremely low, however. See this video for a better explanation.
So, there’s a lot of history, and even some science, behind the superstitions and monsters of Halloween. But, while you’re out trick-or-treating, be sure to pick up a healthy dose of skepticism along with your candy. There is no science proving that any of these creatures or superstitions work in the real world. They are sensational. They terrify us in horror films and popular culture. But they don’t exist in reality.
On that note, though, feel free to let the skepticism slide a bit for the thrill of Halloween. Go out, have fun, get scared, and have a great Halloween.