Skeletons, witches and horse-faced demons: How "scary" is culture-specific

It’s that time of year when all those classic spooky figures come out to play. They lurk on your neighbours’ lawns. We put them on as party costumes. Skeletons. Witches. Zombies. Vampires. Horse-faced demons?

Well, only if you’re in the Philippines. A traditional Filipino legend involves a figure called the Tikbalang, a very large humanoid spirit with a horse’s head. They lurk in forests and prey on people who foolishly venture out after dark.

Cultures around the world have a lot of diversity in what is considered scary. Often, it’s based on common dangers in a specific place. Much of the Philippine Islands are covered by rainforest, which contains lots of things that can kill you if you aren’t careful, so “scare figures” related to the forest are common. There’s another called the Duende, which also shows up in some Latin American folklore. It’s a small, dwarf-like spirit that lurks in the forest and usually abducts children.

“All cultures have scare figures, but what is scary is rather culture-specific,” said Dr. Sabina Magliocco, the department of anthropology’s resident expert on all things spooky. Magliocco, who teaches the course “Anthropology of the Supernatural,” explained monsters and spirits often come about in response to certain cultural fears from different points in history.

The skeleton, for example, only became a spooky image around the 13th century, at the time of the Black Plague. Before that, the remains of the dead weren’t usually dwelled on too much, but with the plague suddenly they were everywhere. Death loomed as a very real, material threat.

“It had an enormous effect on European culture, and it changed the way that things like bodily remains — like the skeleton — were seen. Because they suddenly became associated with horror, with something extraordinary,” said Magliocco.

This is also the time period where we get the image of the Grim Reaper with the cloak and scythe — a tool he uses to mow lives down like wheat in a field. Since a sizeable percentage of people were farmers at the time, this was an image that really hit home.

Other parts of the Western canon of spooky iconography come from a meld of several different sources. The origin of the vampire comes from very old Eastern European myths about dead family members haunting and slowly killing their relatives (this was a time when a family would often die in quick succession from epidemic diseases). “Proof” of this could be found if the dead relative were exhumed, and signs of decay like a bloated corpse or blood around the mouth seemed to show that they were rising from their graves at night to drink the blood of their relatives.

Naturally, most scary figures have death in common, and blurring the boundary between life and death is something that terrifies in all cultures. These days, that fear seems to manifest in a lot of body horror, and the unquiet dead pack the biggest spooky punch if they’re depicted in a way that features decomposition.

“We live in a very material world, and our identity is very much caught up in or physical body,” said Magliocco. “One of the frightening things about death is that loss of identity, which we today associate with our physical bodies.”

So, if you’re looking to really deliver a good scare this Halloween, you can’t go wrong with dressing as a rotting corpse or zombie. The more mangled and unsettling you can make your face, the better.