The Secret Origins of Halloween Monsters

Where did vampires, zombies, witches and werewolves come from?


We’re all familiar with the classic creatures that haunt our doorsteps in search of candy every Halloween, but where did they come from (besides that big costume pop-up store on the outskirts of town, that is)? Let’s find out.


Vampires have haunted humanity’s dreams for at least 5,000 years, with stories of fiendish, life-sucking monsters appearing as early as Ancient Egypt. Surprised? You’re not the only one. You could be forgiven for thinking that the first vampire in cape-wearing lore was Vlad the Impaler, the bloodthirsty Wallachian Voivode on whom Bram Stoker loosely based his character, Count Dracula. But the charming, pale-faced chap with the two elegantly pointed incisors is a mostly Western interpretation. Tales of vampires have surfaced in multiple cultures throughout human history, and many are distinctly inhuman—the Adze, for example, a vampire believed to haunt Togo in Africa, switches forms between a firefly and a sharp-taloned hunchback. The Penanggal of Malaysia, meanwhile, manifests as a floating head, with its intestines and other organs dangling underneath. You can thank the complicated relationship between Victorian England and sexuality for the West’s more overtly sensual vampires.


Like vampires, werewolves have a long and murky history, showing up in virtually every culture at one time or another. Fear of these beasts was prevalent enough that many people—possibly thousands—were tried and executed for the crime of being a werewolf during the Middle Ages, in a manner similar to the more well-known witch trials. Interestingly, several of these victims are now believed to have been serial killers. Werewolf myths date back at least as far as Ancient Rome, however. The word lycanthrope—the fancy term for a werewolf—actually comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in 1 AD. In one of the tales in this epic poem, a king offends the gods by serving them human meat at dinner and is punished by being transformed into a werewolf. The king’s name? King Lycaon.


Although more familiar to us in their current, brain-devouring form thanks to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (and the movie that influenced it, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie), the original zombies were far more tragic creatures. The myth developed in Haiti in the late 1600s, a time when African slaves were brought in by the country’s French rulers and subjected to brutality so extreme that many were driven to suicide. The belief soon arose that those who took their own lives would be forced to shamble forever through the sugar plantations as “zombies”—mindless, shuffling, beings of endless anguish. The horror, then, came not so much of a fear of being eaten as a fear of never being able to leave their Earthly prison.


In the West, witches mostly come in two flavors: Wart-nosed hags on broomsticks, or nymph-like young women dancing naked in the moonlight. Both of these depictions can largely be attributed to Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, specifically his works, “The Four Witches” and “Witch Riding Backwards On A Goat.” Witches have been a part of popular culture for far longer than that, however. As with today’s witches, many were viewed as antagonists: Homer’s Odyssey, composed around 8 BC, features the witch Circe, a beautiful woman who transforms men into animals. The Hebrew Bible shows the Ancient Middle East’s dislike of witches in multiple passages, most notably, Exodus 12:18’s, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (“witch” being a rough translation of the word kashaph, or “sorceress”). At other times, though, they were popular and admired creatures—in particular, witches occupied a celebrated position in Ancient Egypt as expert practitioners of various forms of magic. Whether or not they knew a way to stop neighborhood brats from smashing up your pumpkins has sadly been lost to history.