Folklore to Film, Part I: Monsters of Old Folklore and the Movies/TV that Feature Them
For as long as humans have existed in the world, monsters have existed alongside them. This is undoubtedly true in the figurative and symbolic sense—and, it could be argued, even in the literal sense. All one has to do to find a monster is to open a book of fairy tales, or perhaps, a still older books of myths and legends, told by those peoples who have lived and died before us.
If you are reading this article, or are a frequent visitor to our deeply monster-friendly site, no doubt you are at least passingly familiar with the macabre and mysterious creatures spoken of in antiquity. But even the most pop-culturally savvy of us may not be aware of the ancient origins from whence our favorite creatures have come, crawling and creeping, to screens both large and small.
Though we might all love Bela Lugosi’s haunting delivery of lines exalting “the children of the night,” or the then-groundbreaking depiction of Lon Chaney Jr. transforming into a thing more wolf than man, some of us may not have heard of their folkloric ancestors—such as the strigoi from the region of Eastern Europe surrounding the Balkans, or the loup-garou of early modern France.
These night creatures may be ancient, but their legacy has lasted long beyond those humans who imagined them. The things that lurk in the shadows, that inspire us to horror and fascination, might not be real to us—as they were for those story-tellers from which we have all descended—but they have indeed proven to be immortal.
They are still with us, in many ways, in the corners of our visions and the deep darknesses of our world. Here, we shall explore their legacies, and the delightful thrills and chills they continue to provide us, through some of the more significant modern stories that have featured them.
It could be said that there is no monster more idolized, more part of the fabric of popular culture, than the vampire. In more recent pop culture history, the vampire figure has come to be associated with teen romance and the young adult genre, watered down and somewhat sterilized. But centuries of lore and mythology is hard to kill, even by novelists injecting highly problematic and often abusive relationships into a narrative geared toward impressionable, vulnerable young people. The dark roots of vampire mythology go deep in the collective fabric of society, across cultures and regions.
It is no wonder, then, that despite certain connotations now associated with vampires by the vast majority of people, the popularity of the vampire lives on. Those long histories, those many traditions—those dark roots—are the inheritance of humanity’s more modern storytellers. Thus, all our mediums and modes of stories, from literature and visual art to film and television, remained haunted by the vampire, in all its multitude of forms… And, in all likelihood, the stories we tell—and we ourselves—will remain haunted, for some time longer. Nosferatu (1922), arguably one of the best and indisputably the oldest (though unsanctioned) adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, remains a hallmark of the German Expressionist movement, and features a vampire matching the descriptions of old folklore—about plague-bearing revenants emerging from the grave to terrorize the living—far closer than the vampires we typically picture today.
In actual fact, the most famous representation of the vampire, a charismatic, evil bloodsucker sporting impeccable evening attire and a piercing stare was brought to us by Dracula (1931), where everything from Bela Lugosi’s haunting cadence to his polished appearance became ingrained on the public consciousness forever.
By the time Anne Rice penned her famous Vampire Chronicles, featuring some of the first truly sympathetic vampires—as protagonists, not antagonists—the world was ready for a different kind of vampire; and when the film Interview with the Vampire was adapted from one of her books in 1995, it featured the vampire as a tormented, Byronic hero, or a tragic anti-hero, rather than a nameless and ancient evil. In each of these modern, cinematic versions of the vampire, the inheritance of lore from around the world can be found… We just have to know where to look.
Throughout history, the idea of phantoms and hauntings have filled people with fear and sorrow in equal parts. Ghosts are echoes of all-too-human tragedies; and in eras gone by, with death rates that would stagger the modern imagination, it is only natural that these echoes be powerful indeed. Ghosts are a different kind of monster, typically defined as an entity unnaturally returning because of some unnatural event they suffered in life. In a time when food, shelter, and medicine was scarce, and injustice, cruelty, and ignorance extremely common, tragedies were a part of life for people around the world. Psychologically, ghosts embody those tragedies, physicalize the rifts in society caused by violent, early, or unjust deaths.
But for different cultures around the world, ghosts might embody these things in very different ways—civilizations like the Aztecs spoke of the rituals that must be performed for soldiers who died in battle and women who died in childbirth, lest they return to wreak havoc on the living, but they also spoke of speaking to their ancestors. Even within one culture, spirits of the dead can take many forms. It makes sense, then, that ghosts be represented in many different ways throughout the media we modern audiences consume.
The Innocents (1961), considered to be the classic haunted house story, uses its ghosts in a typically gothic fashion; they are terrifying in and of themselves, of course, but it is the horrors they represent—sexual depravity, human cruelty, destruction of innocence— that truly create the horror of the film.
In Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), a cinematic version of a very old kind of Japanese ghost legend, ghosts are the inhuman, unstoppable embodiment of rage-fuelled vengeance—a monstrous act creates the monstrous spirits of The Grudge, who cannot be reasoned with, and can only be appeased by the deaths of the living, whether guilty or innocent.
In the modern gothic romance Crimson Peak (2015), on the other hand, the ghosts are far more tragic than monstrous; trapped in the place where they violently died, trying desperately to warn the innocent heroine from beyond the grave. The ghosts are merely the aftermath of the real horror in the story; as in many legends from around the world, the ghost is not the monster, but a warning, an echo, a remnant—-the victim of the story’s true monster.
Unlike the ghost or the vampire, the jinn is a creature fairly specific to a certain culture in our world. From the Arabian peninsula’s pre-Islamic past comes the tale of the jinn—a creature not mentioned in the Qur’an or hadith, but featured in much of old Islamic lore; after all, if there is anything history and legend has taught us, it is that while people may be converted to new faiths like Christianity or Islam, it is very difficult to make them let go of the old creatures and tales they believe in. In the Qur’an, it is stated that man was made by God out of mud, clay, or black earth, and the angels out of fire. The jinn, by contrast, are said to be beings of smokeless fire—and while they may not always be truly evil, they are, without exception, inhuman and extremely dangerous.
The blending of Islamic tales and pre-Islamic Arabian legends was eventually diluted into modern Western visions of the genie… Visions which could not be farther from the original version of the djinn, roaming the desert, wielding god-like power, being just as likely to grant a man a wish as to utterly destroy him. But in recent years, the jinn has seen a return to its folkloric roots.
In the film Under The Shadow (2016), the djinn is a horrifying creature that fixes itself upon a family unlucky enough to cross its path—it also serves as a hauntingly striking metaphor for the ravaging path of war; in this case, the Iran-Iraq conflict of the 1980’s.
On the other hand, Bryan Fuller’s television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2017) features a less horrifying, more sympathetic, version of the fiery creature—one thankfully distant from the sterilized, oversimplified, diluted versions the Western world has seen in depictions of “genies” over the years. The evolution of the djinn in media has at last begun to honor its ancient roots, and the power of the story that was all too real to human beings who lived before us.
There is a reason these creatures and frightening tales have survived to modernity; despite their evolution, their changing shapes, the endless variation of forms, they remain with us. And as long as we are human, as long as we tell stories about things that frighten us or move us, as long as we are at least a little bit afraid of the dark, as long as we still love a little thrill in our blood… They always will.
Any creatures of folklore you want to see covered in this Folklore to Film series? Any modern stories you know of that represent an ancient monster in a new light? Comment below!
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)