Halloween is that time of year when we celebrate the things that scare us most. While ghosts or chainsaw-wielding maniacs are scary, the things that usually frighten us often have more of a story to them than we think. The best monsters often are scary because of what they represent to us. These monsters also have long cultural lineages that feed into these fears.
Last year, we covered the histories and psychological influences on three of the most popular and significant Halloween movie monsters — Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. Today, we have three more Halloween figures that deserve their own spotlight. Each has their own fascinating backstory and can tell us a little about ourselves — both our culture and the things that we fear most.
Mummies have had an interesting career in the cinema. The Mummy is one of the original Universal movie monsters (portrayed by the legendary Boris Karloff) and the first to be a wholly original creation. It was followed by a reimagined series by Hammer Films in the 1950s, a popular action-horror series in the 1990s/2000s, and a less popular film attempt in 2017.
The European and American fascination with ancient Egypt goes back centuries, but the modern craze (called Egyptomania) originates in Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and later the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. This discovery would lead to cultural concept of the mummy’s curse, since several members of the excavation crew died shortly after the discovery (though the curse has been largely disproven by this point).
When the mummy comes for us, we will have caused its wrath and completely deserve it.
The idea that an evil spirit could exact revenge for disturbing the rest of an ancient king pervades each iteration of the mummy character and is multifaceted. First, it plays on the Egyptian mysticism and mystery concept that has been a part of European culture since the Greeks and Romans. Second, you have the idea that we (modern society) are meddling with magical forces we do not understand. And third, there is the sense of invading a space where we don’t belong, by disturbing the tomb of a powerful ancient society. These worries meld together to create the fear of the mummy’s curse.
Taking this a step further, you have to remember that many early archaeologists often resorted to essentially grave robbery and cultural theft. There is now an international movement to return many of these artifacts to their original home. That’s why most mummy movies follow a similar story progression. Scientists or explorers discover a hidden tomb or temple and remove a special artifact (sometimes the mummy itself) despite warnings to leave it alone. This awakens the mummy, who sets off on a path of destruction and revenge until the artifact is returned or destroyed and the mummy is defeated. This adds a final anxiety that many find unsettling. When the mummy comes for us, we will have caused its wrath and completely deserve it.
From one undead menace to another, zombies came into a new heyday with the popularity of The Walking Dead, but even before that, you had popular films like 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead. Perhaps the most significant pop culture example of zombies, where modern zombies became popularized, is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. While every culture has a concept of the living dead in some way, from the Draugr of Scandinavia to the Jiangshi of China, Night of the Living Dead was largely influenced by Haitian and West African traditions.
Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable. — Simon Pegg
Prior to Romero’s zombies, the fear associated with the living dead was mostly due to a fear of voodoo and African mysticism. Due to the origins of the zombie being tied so closely to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it’s ironic that one of the fears that zombies represent is that of enslavement or losing your self-sovereignty. As the zombie evolved, the voodoo element was largely dropped. Post-voodoo, but pre-Romero zombies, often came in the form of scientific or atomic undead, reflecting the fears of the nuclear age, in films like Creature with the Atom Brain or even the cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space. Modern zombies often represent a number of different themes, from racism to mindless consumerism. A common theme, much like the werewolf, is the fear of losing our humanity and becoming a zombie with boundless hunger.
Of course, the biggest fear that zombies represent is the unstoppable approach of death. Simon Pegg, writer and star of Shaun of the Dead, put it “Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.” Despite the best efforts of the heroes, most zombie movies end with most of the characters dead or turned into zombies, often including the central protagonist. Looking squarely into the dead eyes of a zombie is like looking into the face of mortality itself. Terrifying, isn’t it?
The history of witches is long, global, and fascinating. To simplify things, we’re going to zero in on the American concept of witches — the old woman riding a broomstick, wearing the pointed black hat, accompanied by a cat. Ronald Hutton, a historian and the author of The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present, defines a witch as “one who causes harm to other by mystical means,” though they’re often lumped together as simply practitioners of magic. While beliefs in witchcraft certainly have roots in pre-Christian times, the negative and Satanic connotations, as well as many of the forms we associate with it today, come to us from the Christianization of Europe and the witch hunts of the late-Medieval to early-Colonial eras. In many ways, the modern witch draws from pagan and folk cultural traditions that didn’t exactly mesh with Christianity.
It’s no surprise, a fear of witches tends to be found in times of great upheaval within Christianity and society at large. It’s certainly not a coincidence that the Great Hunt, during which around 40,000 suspected witches were killed, fell during the Reformation, when the Catholic and Protestant churches would use the witch hunts to battle each other. In a more modern sense, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was very much a reaction to the experimentation and counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. The conspiracy theory, QAnon, follows in the footsteps, with believers preaching about a Satanic cult that runs the world.
This is because witches represent the outsider, resistance, and the subversive, which isn’t an entirely bad thing in modern society.
Additionally, have you ever noticed that some of the symbols of witchcraft (e.g., brooms, cats, and cauldrons) are distinctly domestic in nature? Witchcraft was closely tied to women (though in some cultures, male witches were more common). The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), the infamous witch-hunting book where much of our ideas of witches were formalized, was a deeply misogynistic book, holding that women were more susceptible to demons because of their lack of intelligence, their passions, and desire to inflict vengeance (their beliefs, not ours). In many ways, witchcraft represented dark feminine power and a perversion of the perceived natural order.
Modern perceptions of witches follow an array of moralities and aren’t inherently evil. You can probably think of evil witches, good witches, and neutral witches. This is because witches represent the outsider, resistance, and the subversive, which isn’t an entirely bad thing in modern society. For this reason, many hold them as positive figures —quite the change from causing a mass panic resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
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If this group of monsters were to have a unifying theme, you could call it revenge of the conquered. Each of these classic Halloween figures have an element of revenge and stolen control to them, whether it’s revenge for your lost heritage, the loss of your freedom, or resisting the hierarchy of society. By understanding the histories behind these figures, we can come to terms why they scare us and how, maybe, we create our own monsters.