Folklore, myths, and superstitions have passed scary stories down over generations. The monsters we fear most reflect the changes in the world and our understanding of the human psyche. Iconic monsters have been popularized through Halloween costumes, scary movies, and animated children’s shows. Every monster has a unique story and a talented author who wrote it.
These smooth-talking blood-suckers date back to 1819 when John Polidori wrote a fascinating short story, Vampyre. The spooky tale is about an Englishman, Lord Ruthven, who tries to hide his vampiric identity while ruthlessly leaving behind a trail of victims. The story is told from the first-person perspective of a naïve observer who slowly discovers the dark truth. With strong themes of seduction and morality, Ruthven is portrayed as a clever, cold-blooded killer who takes pride in tricking anyone who crosses his path.
“There was a peculiarity in his manner that I could not understand; and his unusual beauty, although it attracted, nearly terrified me.”John Polidori, Vampyre
The vampire’s suave nature was recreated in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. This story of a vampire named Count Dracula is cleverly told through a series of diary entries, letters, and newspaper clippings. Count Dracula is a mysterious killer who travels to England in pursuit of a young woman. Following the 1888 spree of Jack The Ripper, who left mutilated bodies all over England, it is hypothesized that Stoker based his character on the main suspect. Both were tall men with mustaches, slender facial structures, with pale skin. Many of the iconic vampire characteristics, like aversion to sunlight, the need for blood to survive, and the ability to turn into a bat, originate from this text. Even Dracula’s iconic catchphrase was written by Bram Stoker.
“I want to suck your blood!”Bram Stoker, Dracula
Arms outstretched and groaning while he wobbles on his massive legs. Frankenstein’s black hair and yellow eyes are a staple of Halloween costumes, scary movies, and playful spin-offs. Written in 1818, Mary Shelley’s legendary novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus reflects the dangers of being afraid of people who are different. Set in late 18th century Europe, Shelley uses first-person perspectives, as told by the narrator Robert Walton in his letters to his daughter, from both the creator and the monster to tell the story of an experimental new procedure.
Victor Frankenstein begins the story with a clear goal: “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health.” He forms an eight-foot-tall man out of old body parts and rare chemicals he found around his laboratory. “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open.”
Frankenstein’s Monster has the strength of an elephant and the mind of an infant (at least at first creation). Everyone is afraid of him. He is abandoned by Victor, exiled from society, and driven to commit violent acts. While Frankenstein’s Monster is often understood as being a villain, in the original text, he only acts aggressively after being mistreated.
“I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe.”Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Frankenstein’s Monster is well-spoken, caring, and lonely. There are themes of isolation and ambition from both characters. Victor works hard to accomplish something that nobody else has done before, and his monster experiences profound loneliness. This novel emphatically highlights the dangers of social alienation through the monster’s depressing and introspective commentary. “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.”
Wrapped in toilet paper or preserved in solid gold, mummification was originally an ancient Egyptian burial ritual used only for the most elite members of society. In 1827, Jane C. Loudon wrote a creative novel about fitting into a foreign land, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Thanks to advanced scientific technology, a preserved Egyptian named Cheops wakes up in utopian England. The year is 2126, and Cheops initially becomes acquainted with the young heir to the royal throne, Edwin, the boy who discovered him. However, It doesn’t take long for Cheops to start feeling isolated from the world around him. Missing his connections to family and the life of ancient Egypt, Cheops faces discrimination in a world he can’t understand. During the 1820s, there was a surge of technological advancement.
In 1827, people were learning to live in a changing world, and Loudon’s novel offers perspective on visions for a utopian future and the clash of cultural identities in an increasingly connected world.
“The age was one in which science is supposed to have triumphed over everything, and to have discovered means of performing many of the miracles recorded in the Bible, with the additional advantage of being able to do them slowly, and by little and little, instead of all at once.”Jane c. Loudon, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century
The living dead have been prominent villains in video games, television, and movies. The origins of a modern zombie can be found in the 1929 William Seabrook novel The Magic Island. The story is a recounting of the author’s experiences observing the practice of Voodoo in early 20th-century Haiti. Aiming to understand the mysteries behind this complex religion, Seabrook describes a ceremony that practices the creation and control of zombies. The process involves various substances and rituals to induce a death-like state in a person. Once under the spell of a Voodoo practitioner, the zombie can be used as a laborer or servant.
The novel was written at a time when Western fascination with the foreign and exotic was on the rise. The book’s portrayal of Voodoo reflects a colonial bias that is important to remember when looking at the work through a respectful lens.
“My friends laughed at me when I came home from Haiti. They said I was a fool for believing the things I had seen. They asked me if I really thought I had seen zombies.”William Seabook, The Magic Island
Ghosts have been a topic of debate for centuries, and nothing is more frightening than a ghost sighting. The 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic piece of psychological horror that explores the corruption of innocence. The tale follows a young governess who is hired to look after two young orphans. When she gets to the remote countryside, the governess becomes increasingly disturbed by eerie occurrences and a constant sense of evil that seems to surround the children. As the governess continues to work, she becomes convinced that the estate is haunted.
The story is ambiguous in nature and leaves the audience open to interpretation as the narrator loses her sanity over time. During the late 19th century, there was a fascination with human psychology. The Victorian era saw a rise in Gothic literature, and this haunting novella evokes fear and uncertainty through the power of psychological nuance.
“No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
While today’s witches may be using a magic wand or brewing a poisonous cauldron, historically, women who challenged societal norms were persecuted and called witches. The thought-provoking 2020 historical fiction by Kiran Millwood, The Mercies, is set in 1617 and begins with a devastating storm that kills most of the village’s men. As the women struggle to survive, a Scottish commissioner begins enforcing King Christian’s oppressive laws that declare all women must live under the authority of a man. The aggressive hunters are eager to catch any woman accused of being a witch. As the hunt intensifies, the women are forced to make a difficult choice: conform to the oppressive new laws or hold onto their personal freedom, putting their lives at risk.
The novel is based on a true story and witch hunt that led to the execution of countless innocent women. It is a gripping and thought-provoking novel that offers a vivid portrayal of the enduring need to fight for women’s equality. The themes of gender, power, and resistance make it a timely and important work of historical fiction.
“And the world had been hers, and it had been worth it, worth any price, worth her soul.”Kiran Millwood, The Mercies
One of the most iconic scary stories in all of American literature is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The haunting 1820 short story by Washington Irving takes place in New York during the early 19th century. Written from the first-person perspective of an intelligent teacher named Ichabod Crane, the story follows his life after starting a new job teaching the children of Sleepy Hollow. One night while he rides through the woods, Ichabod encounters a mysterious and terrifying creature. “A figure on horseback without a head.” Ichabod desperately tries to escape from the terrifying pursuit of the headless horseman. There are themes of superstition as the story explores the contrasting world of its educated protagonist and the superstitious town of Sleepy Hollow.
The people of the town believe in supernatural evils and have created a local legend. The short story was written during the Romantic period of American literature and reflects a fascination with mysterious and supernatural forces. It is a classic example of American Gothic literature, and the work masterfully blends elements of humor and horror while exploring the power of folklore, superstition, and the unknown.
“And so Ichabod Crane rode on, seeking the truth, but the legend of Sleepy Hollow remained shrouded in mystery, as haunting as the night itself.”Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
In the spirit of Halloween, timeless literary monsters call for us to explore the stories that bring them to life. As you explore the creatures’ tales, notice how the culture and fascinations evolve over time. These monsters are not only spooky, but they also highlight the struggles of being human. Become haunted and enchanted by these powerful literary works. Happy Halloween, and happy reading!
For more on monsters and classic literature, please read 3 Monster Romances to Ease You into the Fall Spooky Season Mood.