Pablo Puig, Staff Writer
Fear tends to be straightforward. While some would agree with the infamous Lovecraft quote, “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” I hold to the exact opposite view: that greater fear is found in the familiar, if distorted through the right lens. After all, how many monsters are made of another human, stripped in some way of personhood? Supernatural or not, we fear each other far more than we do any true Other.
Even without considering the archetypes of horror, the world has no shortage of folktales and local legends; once-humans are the norm there as well. Though it may feel odd that so many of these life and/or soul ruining creatures happen to be female, this seems far less coincidental upon realization that most documented storytellers were male. What’s more, the concepts typical to such monsters offer insight to the anxieties plaguing men, no matter the time or place, when it comes to women.
One notable pattern is that of a scorned or wronged woman seeking vengeance after her death. From Venezuela, La Sayona—referring to the long white dress worn by the ghost—is said to only target men that commit adultery. In Slavic paganism, the rusalka, spirits of young women either unwillingly drowned or driven to watery suicide, lure and submerge young men in the rivers and lakes they haunt. In Japan, onryō (“vengeful spirit”) are typically portrayed as wronged women that return to wreak havoc on the living, seen notably in “The Ring” and “Grudge” horror franchises. Speaking more broadly, there are the Lady in Red ghosts, often described as jilted lovers or prostitutes killed in a fit of passion, which have been sighted around the world.
Another theme is child abuse, either in the creature’s origin or as its main danger. The Greeks, as usual, offer progenitors to these stories with Medea, admittedly a more human example, and Lamia, which began as a specific character before evolving into a term for child-eating or half-snake monsters. But abusive motherhood recurs in several traditions. The literary archetypes of wicked stepmothers and child-eating witches demonstrate its prevalence in European folklore.
La Llorona (“The Cryer”), a famous banshee-like legend of Latin America, is typically described as condemned to wander for drowning her children out of grief and anger, bringing misfortune to any who hear or encounter her. The Al, Lilith-like demons of Central Asia and the Near East that can be either male or female but are typically the latter, specialize in interfering with reproduction in many ways, such as causing miscarriage, replacing babies with imps or even stealing the organs of a woman mid-, post- or pre-childbirth. The Aswang, an umbrella term for various creatures of Filipino folklore, include a group of “viscera suckers,” who are particularly fond of consuming still-growing fetuses by way of a narrow, tubular tongue.
Yet another example is the seductress, often combined with the concept of vampirism either by blood or life itself. Many categories of fairy or spirit are enticers, similar to the succubus and the siren, leading men into danger with shapeshifting or illusions: The Deer Woman of Native American mythology, who lures the promiscuous and unfaithful to their death; the Sihuanaba of Central America, which hides its true face until the last moment; the Samodiva of Slavic folklore, also known as lele in Romania, leech the life force of men taken as lovers, driving them to obsession and death by exhaustion.
Although monsters have always served as a way for humans to process the terrible and tragic, understanding their origins provides us with a mirror reflecting parts of ourselves. The abuse of children, the entrapment of attraction, the blind vengeance of wrongs; each of these tendencies are distortions from what most consider appropriate. In these stories and more, womanhood is typically the source of such evil or at least its main influence. Part of that is no doubt due to male anxiety toward the other sex, but as I argued above, it seems also true that a more frightening horror comes from the altered familiar.
And what else could be as terrible and as familiar than a mother turning malicious?