Why is Halloween Monstrous?

Samhain Offerings by Avia Venefica


This time of year is associated with ghosties and ghoulies and long leggedy beasties. But why? Apart from “it’s cold and dark and time for fires therefore stories”.

The derivation of Halloween from Samhain is a classic example of cultural evolution.

The exact details of the original festival are unclear, because the Celts wrote down very little – most of our sources are later and/or Roman, and thus it is akin to studying the Blitz using only present day memories or German sources. Still, we know many of the details, and as the festival never fully died out much more can be recovered from the later forms.

The world of the ancestors flows away from and towards our own, and comes close four times a year – at the beginning of each of the seasons. At Beltane – Mayday – the helpful spirits of the land cross over, and their blessings are welcomed with flowers and dance as summer begins. But at the beginning of Winter, darker spirits roam, and meeting one brings only curses. So the prudent householder would bribe the spirits with whatever he had excess of to ward off their ill will. The barley harvest falls in early September, so six weeks later, the first beer of the new year would just be ready, apples have also just been harvested and milk is less seasonal, so these became the traditional gifts. If one had a good harvest, one would share with neighbours, so that the spirits would see one as a good friend and be unable to harm the good man.

Young people would dress up as “spirits” and wander the village, claiming the bribes on behalf of the spirits. After all, are we not kin of the ancestors – and if they don’t turn up in person, don’t let it go to waste! The fact that the feast falls at the end of a period of very hard work – preparing for winter – probably contributes to this part of the celebration

Enter Christianity. The early church sought to adapt facets of the older faiths – it’s why Christmas falls so conveniently at Yule/Winter Solstice. The old spirits can’t possibly be good, therefore they must be devils. And anyone who feeds them must be witches. Of the old-crone-cursing variety, not our modern follower-of-a-nature-faith variety.

So, the Church co-opted the idea of reverence for the gone-before, and invented All Saints and All Souls – an opportunity for any local do-gooder to be remembered and prayed for, reducing time in Purgatory. They ditched the pagan aspect, and made the returning spirits evil. The sharing-with-neighbours part fit too, and became the Harvest Festival.

When the Americas were settled, Irish migrants took the old stories with them. As the USA developed its own culture as a blend of its constituent parts, the Irish merged with the French and Germanic witch and fairy traditions (for example, Oberon is first seen as an antagonist of Charlemagne) and All Hallows Eve became the time to mock the evil spirits by dressing as them. As sugar became a more prevalent product, giving the ‘ghosts’ a piece of sugar cane became easier than beer or milk. Sugar cane became chocolate, became any kind of Treat, to ward off the Tricks of the “fairy folk “.

Now Halloween means hordes of small children begging for candy, and teenagers demanding money in return for not putting fireworks through your door.. I’m not sure I like the evolution, so I celebrate this time of year by sharing the fruits of my labour. Here you go, neighbour! Have a whole lot of thinking.

So what?

If your fantasy culture has been around for a while – centuries or millennia – it has likely evolved in a similar fashion. There will be those who keep fast to some version of ‘the old ways’ and some who have applied them in new ways. If a nation has been conquered, colonised or even conquered others, the newcomers bring new customs and new gods, and few conquerors allowed the natives to worship unhindered. Even mundane things like introducing a new crop can reflect in the spiritual life of a people. According to a Papal Bull, capybara are officially fish (despite being rodents) so Catholics can eat them on Fridays.

Think about how the new gods and the old interact. Do you follow the Ice and Fire model of “some worship one set, some the other, mostly they coexist, and that’s fine”

The Roman model of “Zeus? You mean Jupiter. Sulis? Oh, you mean Athena.”

The Christian model of “Our god is the only god and all others are evil”

Or even the Mongol model “there are many gods, and yours are ok, as long as you don’t try to convert us”

When languages merge, you get dialects and creoles. When cultures collide, you get history. And what is history but another branch of storytelling?

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T is for Thunderbird – Monstrous Mondays


No i’m not talking about the tv series – though that’s a fun thing too.


In a lot of ways the thunderbird is not exactly a monster, it seen as many thing to a lot of people, to some a god, to others a nature spirit – and to most it’s the bird from the new Harry Potter film – but what is its story?

A thunderbird is a giant bird, that shoots lighting and eat whales (especially orcas) it’s also a sky spirit of some Native Americans tribes from long before Europeans ever set foot in their land. Story of the great thunderbird could be hard from the tribes Northwest Coast through to the people of the plains, and each tribe has a different one to tell.

The Algonquian mythology tells a story of a thunderbird that controls the upper world and a great horned serpent that rules the underworld. The thunderbird throws around thunder and lightning at the underwater creatures.

Menominee a northern wisconsin tribe tells of the thunderbirds that dwell in a floating mountain, they control weather like thunder, lightning, the hail and rain all the brutality of a storm. In their stories the thunderbird is also the messenger bird of the sun and they like to do great deeds like fighting the minions of the horned snakes known as the Misikinubik.

In Ojibwe story they serve to hunt down evil people and the dark spirits of water, and live on the four winds.

The Winnebago actually have a truly monstrous story of the thunderbird – one steals away a orphan boy and feast on the contents of his stomach and planned to do the same to the boy afterwards, but he was saved by his loyal pet pigeon hawk. These darker thunderbirds still fight with the water spirits, but they don’t distinguish between good and evil ones – in fact in Winnebago myth the thunderbirds started the feud.

Because of this mixture of stories and origins it is seen a variety of ways, and while it need not be a monster it can easily become one.



From beak to claws

  • They have the head of a bird but some pictures depict them with ears where others have them having horns.
  • They have bird like eyes but they shoot lightning from them.
  • They can have a beak or teeth.
  • The body is that of a bird but covered in many different bright colours.
  • Wings that when they clapped together they make thunder.
  • Claws big enough to pluck a killer whale from the sea and carry it away to feast on.
  • They live in the mountains and other high up hard to reach places.
  • Their feathers are often brightly coloured – especially when they’re actively creating storms.


A dark thunderbird could be at the top of a mountain and your player have to fight it to save children it has abducted.

A cool character might be a warlock, or even a cleric with the thunderbird as their patron – strong electrical powers but an utter hatred for the sea.

Or maybe the evil water god has stolen all of the thunderbirds so he can take over the earth and you the heros must free them to bring back order.


If like to know more about this here some link you might find useful.

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U is for Ubume – Monstrous Mondays

An image of an ubume created by Toriyama Sekien in the 18th century

The first of the Japanese ones, it seem to be that if you’re looking for something starting with a odd letter u or x or o look outside Europe and you’re more likely to find something – transliteration of foreign alphabets can result in unusual spellings.



A monster that been part of japanese myth since about the twelfth century, in tales of a ghost twisted cronefaced woman that died in childbirth. The haggard woman appears on stormy nights carrying her baby, crying for help asking passersby to hold the baby, once they take it she disappears and the baby becomes heavier and heavier then turning into a boulder crushing the person. A ghost born out of the story of a woman who had an untimely tragic death, there are many of them cross the world.

The lady in white and La Llorona are a few more close-to-home ghosts of this type. The lady in white is a type of ghost found in  rural areas across the world but most commonly in the UK and the New England part of America, it is said that she has had a tragic death just after and due to the death of her child (or sometimes betrayal by her husband) but roads, cars and horses can sometimes be involved too. She is seen on her own in the middle of nowhere, and causes anyone that communicates with her to die shortly afterwards – sometimes seen as a hitchhiker and whoever picks her up crashes and dies.

La Llorona is a Mexican story of a woman who lost her children in the river and cries while is looking for them. One version tells of her doing this after she has drowned them herself in a fit of rage, after finding her husband in the midst of an affair. It is said that she will try to steal children away to drown with herself now and again, or sometimes simply that she causes misfortune to those who see or hear her due to her extremely cursed natured.

I find La Llorona a lot more scary than the white lady but comparison between these two and Ubume is interesting – they all show how a ghost is born from pain and how misery loves company.

In media, whichever of these beings they use is usually just treated as a ghost story – but sometimes in TV shows like Grimm and Supernatural she is shown as some kind of monster that people need to be saved from because she is trying to kill them, which is tragic in that if someone had saved her from her pain then she would not be a ghost in the first place.


Ubume Physiology

  • A crone faced woman, with long wet black hair and crying eyes.
  • A woman body wrapped in red silk, carrying a babe in her arms.
    • Sometimes she is instead heavily pregnant.
    • Or her body is covered in blood and she is carrying her underdeveloped fetus, since she miscarried and died in the process.
  • She usually wears no shoes but sometimes she has no feet at all since she is a ghost and a lot of them don’t.
  • She some shown to have bird like features, like a beak on her face and feathers on her and/or bird like feet, if so it said she has come to steal a baby away. These two very different image of her are because of some linguistic coincidences (baby-snatching bird and birthing mother being somewhat similar) and the conflation of the original japanese myth with a chinese bird-woman who could shed her feathers to appear human.

She is found on stormy nights near where she had the baby which is often depicted as near a river or woodland. And she and other ghost like her are always found on there own just wanting a bit of help, just reminding you how much helping a stranger can hinder you sadly.


  • The hero could be there and find the baby if it alive give a home, it dead lead it and the mother to rest. It shouldn’t be too hard as the ghost only appears near where she gave birth.
  • The boulder/baby she gives could be a spell component for many a transmutation spell, a death curse or a necromantic ritual. Where an ubume baby is needed you would have to stop it becoming the boulder, while if you want the boulder you have to stop it killing you.
  • Now this one really cheesy – a time traveler how chooses to go back to try help all these ghosts when they’re still alive so they don’t die tragically so they don’t become these ghost.


If want to read more about any of these monster feel free to look at the  links below.








Edo Kabuki in Transition: From the Worlds of the Samurai to the Vengeful female ghost


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V is for Vampires – Mythic Mondays

Isabella Livingston photographed by Lana Lee


They’re everywhere today, usually as some teenage girl’s love interest, if we knew their history would we find them so attractive?


Though the concept of blood-drinking corpses is an old one, the exact forms have varied over time – and the modern vampire concept owes its shape to a surge in encounters in Eastern Europe during the “Age of Enlightenment”.

Whispers of vampires became louder in the late 17th century in the Balkans and most of Eastern Europe, with mass stakings of corpses to pin them into their coffins. From there the stories spread to the rest of Europe in tales of the ugly, pale creature that comes in the night to drink your blood – a vampiric human that lives forever, as long as they stay out of the sun, and looks like a corpse but never rots.

Over the years many stories have been told, they’re one of the best known monsters in pop culture and they feature prominently in YA and urban fantasy. But it is the stories of Carmilla and Dracula that gave birth to the vampire we know today, the killer that we fall in love with because they are always beautiful, that hypnotise us and change into animals at will. Taking humans as their partners turning them and loving them forever or killing them slowly in a state of ecstasy.
Those stories may well have drawn not just from the Eastern European vampire but from the Daemonologie written by King George, in which corpses could be inhabited by incubi and succubi, with properties similar to those of vampires but with more beauty and lust.


But what caused these stories of vampire to start, what are they really? Well many aspects of the physiology of vampire can be explained by diseases.

Porphyria is one of them, it is an inherited disease which comes in a few different forms – one of them is that the skin becomes sensitive to sunlight, if sufferers go out in the sun they blister and burn far worse than normal. This not only explains the idea that vampires don’t go out in the day it also provides their pale skin and the idea that they burn up in the sun.

Tuberculosis (TB) may be another disease from which the theories of vampires spawn. It is an airborne bacterial infection, that mostly affects the lungs of it victims – it often makes them turn very pale, with swellings in their neck, tiredness and fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss and can cause them to cough up blood because of the damage to their lungs. All these symptoms have been mentioned as a sign that someone has been fed on by vampire in a lot of the old stories.

Catalepsy is a nervous condition that makes the body go rigid, it could be connected to the idea the vampire could stand so still. It also slows down someone’s heart and breathing rate meaning they may appear dead, and after some time they would be able to move again and the heart rate and breathing rate return to normal, so they may get back up after someone thought they were dead.

People understood less about how the body broke down after it died back then, how the body decomposed and the form that decomposition took, like how the hair, nails and teeth sometimes appear to grow for a few days after the death, as the skin covering their roots peels back, and how the decomposition of the body takes some time to set in, especially in cold places like the Balkans. After death gases in the body build up, these gases can make the body make noise and muscles move which means they sit up, move arms, legs or roll over when they are dead, and these gases also inflate the abdomen which makes the body look like it has gorged on something, and if you were to stab that inflated abdomen then it would rupture and fluids would drain out.


In a more mystical vein the reason they can’t be seen in mirrors is because it was once believed that mirrors allowed you to see people’s souls and vampires have no soul therefore they cannot be seen. The same applied for cameras when they were invented which is why they cannot be seen in a photograph or video in some stories.



Head to toes

  • Human undead
  • They sometimes have glowing eyes and/or pointy ears
  • Fangs – sometimes just the top 2 canines, sometime all 4 of them and other have nothing but fangs – no teeth that aren’t sharp.
  • They feed on blood, or sometimes on life essence such as the chinese ones, the Jiangshi, that feed on chi – and hop everywhere which is just funny, although potentially horrifying for ones that are half-rotten.
  • Humanoid chest and arms.
  • Humanoid hands sometimes with sharp claws.
  • Human legs and feet.
  • They’re sometime veiny all over, but usually pale.
  • Sometimes they’re stunningly beautiful, other times gaunt and unattractive – it’s rare for vampires to be of average appearance.
  • They have no soul.
  • Superhuman strength and speed
  • Some can turn into animals
  • Unaging, they can only be killed by a few things
    • Decapitation
    • Fire
    • The Sun
    • Silver
    • A stake through the heart – but in some stories this only serves to nail them into their coffin, so if it is ever removed the vampire may wake again.
      • Sometimes this is the preferred method as the vampire is possessed by a dark spirit – and destroying the body completely would allow it to possess another, while trapping the body traps the spirit.
  • Some vampires can make ghouls which are partly turned people, they eat bugs and the leftovers the vampire make like body parts and bones, sometimes these ghouls can be controlled by the vampire that created them.
  • Some vampires can make thralls which are hypnotised humans, whose wills are slaved to the vampire. They usually drink from these thralls, and some may use them as a source of power within mortal governments and the like.


Ideas for your story and games

You could write a story or game from the thralls’ or ghouls’ point of view, how they see the vampires.

What if the reason vampires never look the mirror is not because they can’t be seen but because they can truly see the nightmares in it instead – forcing them to regard their own monstrousness.

Since they can turn into an animal can they become stuck in that form, how do they feed in that form, is that where the first vampire bats came from?

If they lose their soul when they’re turned, what happen to their soul? Does it die or disappear, or does it become a ghost linked to the vampire forever seeing all the hell that they bring about?

Could you give a vampires a soul – and would they get their own back or a new one? This could be done as a curse of remorse, or maybe a vampire would quest for their return to humanity, or perhaps their lover could give them it – if so, did they go on a great quest to find a new soul or is it a heart shaking story where they give the vampire part of their own soul, so they are forever connected, in some ways the two are one. Perhaps a marriage ceremony might have this effect – possibly even surprising a vampire who was getting married to help hide their nature.


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W is for Wendigo – Monstrous Mondays


Photo of a caged Wendigo from the Wendigo Woods – taken by Greyloch


The first time I came across the Wendigo was in “Charmed” which had an interesting take on the concept – combining it rather strongly with werewolves. I have since learnt more about them.


Wendigo are a human eating monster of the Native Americans of the Algonguian tribes, dating from long before europeans ever set foot in their land.

The story tells of how people can be transformed by eating human flesh into a monster that lives only to eat more humans and yet is never full. Some say it is the unthinkable deed of cannibalism that transforms them, while other stories say it is a demon or evil spirit that does so, able to possess those who have engaged in the act. Many of the stories also tell about how they hurts and kills people out on their own in the northern forest but some talk about how it can be hunted and killed – the only way is with fire.

Because of its connection with evil spirits its image is sometimes changed in media to something more demonic, with horns and a ghastly grin.



They tend to look humanoid in both shape and facial features but are sometime depicted with the head of a deer or just the antlers of a deer.

Red or yellow eyes – in more demonic interpretations they may glow.

They have sharp yellow teeth.

Very long arms – as long as their whole body.

Human like hands with long bony fingers and claw-like nails.

They generally have gaunt bodies which can be covered in grey, decaying skin or thick matted hair – with a long bony chest, akin to that seen in an emaciated corpse.

Big long legs with have been depicted as human or the hind legs of a deer.

Feet are normally human with long sharp claws, but they may be hooved – particularly in media where they’re associated with christian demons.

The have superhuman strength, move faster than any human can and are effectively immortal.


  • Could the demon or evil spirit be removed from the body somehow like when the body is hurt?
    • And if so could it be moved into someone else and harnessed to grant a host immortality or superhuman strength?
  • Does the human meat need to be fresh?


Story ideas

  • A good person who becomes a Wendigo but only eats the long dead and use the superhuman strength, speed and endurance to fight crime.
  • Some have taken over the town and you need to clear it out before it can be lived in again.
  • The Wendigo spirit could be the god of the forest or the underworld and it must be fed to keep it happy.


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