It feels like pop culture keeps recycling the same old monsters over and over again. The same handful of creatures seem to show up whenever there’s a new horror or supernatural-based franchise. You know the ones–the classic Universal Pictures and Hammer Horror beasties: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, Frankensteinian monsters of every description. Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, there’s a Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown into the mix.
My question is: why? Why are we so focused on endless variations of these particular monsters? Don’t get me wrong, they’re unassailable classics, I love them as much as the next guy. But there are so many other monsters that deserve a chance to shine! Today, I want to talk about a few of these underrepresented aberrations. Let’s look at some monsters that need more love.
No, I’m not talking about Tokyo ghouls–I’m talking about the traditional cemetery-dwelling, corpse-eating dog-beasts. Ghouls originate in Arabian myth, where they were gluttonous creatures that feast on the dead; pretty creepy, right? They’re also known to lure folks into abandoned places to kill and devour them, and in some versions of the legend, they can take on the appearance of the last person they ate.
Ghouls are a fantastic monster, and yet I rarely see them used in modern horror. One of the few ghoul-centric stories I can recall is Lovecraft’s classic short story “Pickman’s Model,” in which the creatures are a source of inspiration for the titular artist. A retelling of that story could make for an interesting psychological horror piece; imagine the young artist stumbling upon a macabre feast and fleeing in terror, only to realize later that the encounter has inspired him to paint again. Slowly, Pickman becomes more drawn to the semi-intelligent corpse-eaters, gradually losing his grip on his sanity even as his artwork gets better and better. Eventually, he starts killing people to bring to his new ‘friends,’ culminating in a horrific climax where he actually joins them as they devour a fresh body.
Alternately, picture a film about a lonely gravedigger who begins seeing and hearing strange things at night. Graves are being dug up and coffins broken into. Bodies are being desecrated or going missing completely. The gravedigger thinks they’re losing their mind… until one night they come face-to-face with a ghoul.
But Could it Beat Up a Mummy? This is an important metric by which horror monsters should be judged. Mummies occupy a weird place in the horror hierarchy; they’re shambling corpses wrapped up in bandages–little more than a well-dressed zombie. Sure, they’ve got potentially-powerful curses, but that’s not really scary, per se. To me, a monster isn’t scary if it can’t beat up a mummy. So, could a ghoul beat a mummy in a fight? Of course it could. A mummy is a dead body. Ghouls eat dead bodies. It’s not even close!
On the spooky spectrum, I award ghouls four bones out of five.
Ah, the humble chupacabra (or “goat-sucker”). I’ll admit, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for these livestock-chomping weirdos. The cryptid first started cropping up in Puerto Rico before spreading to various other locales (mostly in the Americas, but in some other places across the globe as well). So what are they? No one is quite sure. They’re small and quick, often (but not always) reptilian, with spines going down their back. They’ve got a nasty habit of showing up at farms and draining the cows and goats of blood.
Is the chupacabra frightening? Not particularly. But I think they could form the basis of a solid horror-comedy: a farmer’s animals keep turning up dead, with chupacabras eventually revealed to be the culprits. There’s room in there for a few good scares, but the film ultimately focuses on the farmer’s increasingly wild attempts to keep the little creatures off his property. With the right director (Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi, maybe?), this could be a goofy cult classic.
It should also be noted that The X-Files episode that is ostensibly about chupacabras, “El Mundo Gira,” is very bad and barely resembles the actual urban legend.
But Could it Beat Up a Mummy? I’ve got to be honest here–I’m not sure a chupacabra could take a mummy in a fair fight. A chupacabra’s main offensive tactic is blood-sucking, and a mummy doesn’t have blood–it’s all dust in them veins! However, if we even the odds a little bit and say it’s one mummy versus a small pack of chupacabras? Say four or so? Then I think the chupacabras come out on top. They could easily overwhelm a mummy at that point.
On the spooky spectrum, I award chupacabras two bones out of five.
Nope! No thanks! Don’t want that!
Seriously, though, look at that thing. I hate it! It’s like a lion, but it’s got a man-face? Why? How? God, look at the teeth! And the tail! It’s all scraggly but pointy, and you just know those spines are loaded with poison.
The more modern interpretation of the manticore–the one we see in games like Dungeons & Dragons–tends to make them into basically lions, but with wings and a scorpion tail. However, I find the more ‘traditional’ manticore of Persian myth infinitely more horrifying. The tricky thing is, though, that the lore around these beasts paints them as basically just normal animals that happen to look disturbing. There’s nothing particularly supernatural or interesting about them.
There’s still a way to make them work on-screen, though. Anyone who’s seen Annihilation is sure to remember… the bear. The bear is the scariest part of that movie, and what is it? A wild animal with some, er, uncannily human attributes. That could easily be expanded into a whole film. Make it a period piece set in medieval times, or heck, even the early nineteenth century if you didn’t want to go too far back. A small town is being menaced by some kind of unseen monster, devouring townsfolk. Someone survives an attack, only to die shortly thereafter from a mysterious poison. Our protagonist ventures into the woods to hunt the creature, but the forest echoes with terrifying, semi-human howls. I can already see the final confrontation in my head, with the manticore slowly moving forward into the light to reveal a hideously human face with row up on row of gnarled, shark-like teeth.
But Can it Beat Up a Mummy? The mummy has a slight advantage in that it is immune to the manticore’s deadly poison. However, it’s got no defense against the claws and jaws of this legendary beast. That mummy is going to be a manticore snack before it even knows what’s happening.
On the spooky spectrum, I award manticores a whole dang skeleton.
I love the wendigo! A delightfully eerie monster with roots in the mythology of multiple Algonquian tribes, this thing is a bit like ghouls in that it fixates on eating human flesh. However, it’s infinitely worse than a simple corpse-eater.
The wendigo is a cannibal spirit that possesses those who eat human flesh, causing their victim to crave more of it. Gradually, the possessed person transforms into a wendigo themself–gaunt, bloody, and forever starving, driven to kill and eat human beings. Modern depictions often give them an antlered head and inhumanly long limbs.
The wendigo is a little more mainstream than the previous entries on this list, having appeared in a number of stories by the likes of Algernon Blackwood, August Derleth, and Stephen King; one even popped up in an early episode of Supernatural. But we’ve yet to see a truly terrifying on-screen wendigo story, which is a real shame.
Imagine, if you will, a story about a pair of hikers lost in an unforgiving tundra. One of them passes away, and the other is rapidly burning through rations. As hunger sets in, the traveler begins to be haunted by the wendigo. The creature becomes more violent and terrifying as our protagonist’s willpower diminishes, until at last they are left with the choice: die at the hands of the wendigo, or give in and devour their fallen comrade.
But Can it Beat Up a Mummy? This is ghouls all over again: a mummy is a dead person, so a wendigo is just going to gobble them up like human jerky.
On the spooky spectrum, I award wendigos five out of five bones.
Everybody knows about the Headless Horseman, but that’s kid stuff next to the classic Irish being known as the dullahan. This headless rider carries around its own rotting head, complete with a creepy Gwynplaine grin from ear to ear. It also rides around in a carriage made of human flesh and bones, so that’s… pleasant. Best of all? It uses a human spine as a whip. Yikes!
Despite its horrifying demeanor, I have to admit that the dullahan’s method of murder is pretty lame: it just says your name and you die. That’s it. Waste of a good spine-whip, if you ask me! We could fudge that a bit in a film adaptation, though, and say that if the dullahan speaks your name you’re simply marked for death. This way, our hero can be marked early on in the film and spend the bulk of the run-time trying to figure out how to outrun or defeat the dullahan. I’ll be honest–I don’t have as concrete a pitch for this one as I did the others. I just really, really want a movie in which a headless horseman whips someone to death with a human spine.
But Can it Beat Up a Mummy? You say “mummy,” I say “source of a brand-new spine whip.”
On the spooky spectrum, I award the dullahan three spines out of five.
These are just a few of the weird and interesting monsters that deserve a spot in the limelight. As we approach Halloween (my favorite time of year), I’ll probably do a few more posts like this, so if there are any strange, scary mythological creatures you think need more love, let me know in the comments!