The monsters we make and the monsters who make us

Author: Heather McCallum

Heather McCallum is a teratologist and comic book artist living in Brooklyn. She runs the blog In The Footsteps of Monsters, and is working to bring her research to the wonderful world of podcasts. In her spare time, she enjoys experimenting with art, writing, and cooking.

Year One Review

When I started this project, I set a few boundaries in place to help limit my discussions. I wouldn’t be talking about zombies, aliens, or man-made abominations so early on. I wouldn’t talk about anything past 1900 to keep these folktales regionally limited, or at least easier to trace than the quickly mutating monster movie media. I wouldn’t explore American, Oceanic, or Asian monsters, to try to keep to a discrete strain with a written record. I would produce academically-worded papers intended to be taken as pure research.

As I continued research, however, I became curious of exactly what I knew versus what I thought I knew, and I enjoyed pleasant diversions down the rabbit hole in researching the Salem Witch Trials, or an impressive attempt at tackling all the monster movies I never got to see in my sheltered youth.

And at the conclusion of the first year of this project, the most neatly polished essays I have to offer are pieces on the Salem Witch Trials, vampire and monster movies, global taboos, and Blood Libel’s connection with vampires through the modern era. I feel like I’ve careened wildly off-track from where I intended to go, and I’m learning to be okay with that. Research is the lifeblood of academia, and I have enjoyed few pleasures as great as being able to dig in and study something that I really love, or something that I don’t know much about yet. (Don’t hold me to reading up on obscure mathematical theorems. I have my limits!) My Salem paper clocked in at 17 single-space pages in part because of my physical experiences which enriched my writing, but also because the combination of on-the-ground experience and the glut of research produced a genuine excitement for the topic. While I scheduled pieces exploring safer topics like ‘vampire anathema’, I found that forcing myself to write on something that I’d researched extensively but had little passion about produced lackluster writing efforts. The thesis experience allowed me to do something fun, and in the process, I could relate that fun to others. I want this kind of drive to fuel the rest of the topics I write about so I can relate my passion to you, and I’m eager to see where the next year will take me.

Salem Reflections

The Journey

At some point in my research, I knew I would have to visit Salem, the most famous, and more importantly, the most accessible site of witch trials in the United States. Salem’s history is a curious dichotomy of shame requiring long-term reparations, and current source of cultural and ‘new age’ interest. In visiting this location, I wanted to observe the strange balance they made between historical claims of witchcraft on innocents, and their thriving community as a Mecca for witches and wiccans alike, as well as how much of that balance depended on restitution of peace and community, and how much was sourced from more economic interests.

Salem is the site of a long series of accusations and witch trials that progressed from February 1692 through May 1693 and resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocents by hangings, pressing, or life imprisonment in wretched conditions, extending beyond the end of the trials themselves. This scarred the community for generations, and changed viewpoints on witchcraft and the legal process globally. It is the marker by which the town is recognized, an unfortunate legacy that they have carried like Jacob Marley’s weights, but simultaneously part of a cultivated mystique that roused my interest predictably. I wanted to walk the streets and peel back the layers of history, understanding distance and location as pertinent to the very essence of the conflict. The honors college gave me the opportunity to do so.

Heading out to Salem was an adventure, my first Amtrak train trip that required that I was out of the house at 3 to catch the subway to Penn Station, and embark on the real journey at bleary hours of the morning. The streets were empty at that hour, with low winds and  orange streetlights that cast familiar grounds in shades of Halloween, and the rattle of my luggage on the ground reflected off the houses and buildings, loud and leaving me self-conscious for the disruption. It was an unusually warm spring when I left, though I was also prepared for rain. Before the sun, though, was the thin chill coming in from the ocean, cutting through my sweater. All this, and it felt almost unreal as I set out. Soon enough, it became even more fantastic. Two men had a fist-fight on my subway train. Blood was spilled. I clutched my luggage a little tighter to me, aware that there were only three or four dead-eyed travelers, and that I was closest in the path of the hurricane. The witching hour has been commonly misrepresented as midnight, the time when magic and witchcraft was most active and undisturbed, but historically, it has always been between three and four in the morning, and in retrospect, I could see how the cold, the fatigue, the darkness, the imperative of the work, all before the dawn, could render the common in supernatural light.

Train trip is vastly different from airfare, and short of having someone drive me down on a drawling, meandering trip down the coast, this would give me the best look at the lay of the land and the surroundings. One can get so disconnected from the travel when flying high above, when the ground below becomes big asymmetrical patches of farmland and city, rivers and lakes. The train was a silver ribbon streaming along the off-white coastline, sunlight glinting through low clouds against the distant-and-present sea. The sun was also constantly in my sleep-deprived eyes. There was no comfortable position. River-weeds, cattails, salt-water vegetation lined close to the tracks and brushed the train. There were little inlets of water. Off-coloured farm machinery, distressed borderland, and abandoned buildings set the tone for the adventure. As we headed further and further south, leisure boating and golf-courses bled out for hand-hewn rock walls and ancient constructs. The woods were ever-present, old, filled with stories, and they were beautiful. I grew up in woodlands, but on the west coast. The trees here were different, and the river was different, the colour and density of the woods were different, and I was still venturing out into that liminal time of winter and spring, where the horizon was dominated by white, greys, browns, oranges, no blues and greens. I characterized the land where I grew up as friendly, as living, but this coast felt older, tired, steeped in a history and awareness versus the comparative youngness of the west. And this went beyond development, beyond what Man touched. I had the sense that I was venturing into a place that had a consciousness of its own.

My trip took me out there in mid-March, a cold time off tourist-season. Salem revolves around tourist culture in many aspects, most prominently food and historical tours, and I arrived about a week or two too early for many of their venues to be open. That was fine by my standards, as I wanted to make a deeper study of the area than the flashy touristy places. There was one significant downside to such an early travel: because the town structured itself around tourism and seafood seasons, several museums, walking tours, and shuttles were closed to public. Their owners were out somewhere warmer, perhaps, or operating a secondary business that would allow them to remain solvent. The open-air play of the witch trials wouldn’t begin again for another month; the trolley service was shuttered in the off-season; the Witch’s Dungeon Museum and other locations were closed or operating on very limited schedules. These schedules weren’t made available online in many cases, or still displayed their October peak hours, so I revised my visit accordingly. I actually appreciated being able to walk the narrow sidewalks in relative silence, observing and committing to memory what the town looked in the absence of mobs of tourists and Halloween decorations festooning every surface. I could take a moment to ask a few questions of the guides and shop owners: ‘What’s it like to live here? What does Salem offer you?’

I expected, and received at first some distrust for being a nosy outsider, and they probably saw dozens a day on peak hours with the same questions about ‘real magic’, with big, concrete ideas about what Salem ‘ought to be’ sourced from all the stereotypes and simplifications found in Hollywood. But there were also those who warmed up to an interest in talking to me, a nonjudgmental observer who really wanted to learn from them. They welcomed me to their town, recommended people for me to talk to, places for me to eat, venues beyond the tourist attractions to really dig into the community. I arrived at the tail end of restaurant week, for example, and if I wasn’t so allergic to seafood, I had five or six locations right on the waterfront to tempt my palate. The staff at the information center marked up my map with everything Salem had to offer in the off-season, directing me to the best facts-based overviews and the routes to fit all this into a weekend. The hostesses and waitresses at the hotel where I supped took pity on the young thing dining alone and checked up often. Historians launched into animated discussions of small elements on display at the ‘Witch House’, eager to help inform another academic. These people were the heart of Salem, and while it’s many months after that short visit that I finally began to put these impressions down, they left me with the strongest lingering fondness for the town, a culture of people who appreciated their past without living in its shadow, and made a living community.

Local History

The core ‘attraction’ to Salem comes from its most infamous historical event, the Salem Witch Trials. In the clinical sense, the witch trials presented a fascinating example of mob madness, in the same sense as the dancing plagues that hit Europe. In the realistic sense, these trials were responsible for the deaths, imprisonment, social ostracization, or exile for dozens, and disruption of society for the rest. In the pop culture sense, however, Salem has attained an indelible association with witchcraft. That association hasn’t been helped by repeated use of the site in various witchy television series and movies: Bewitched, a television show about a mischievous housewife and full-time witch, and Hocus Pocus, a Disney movie about dangerous witches summoned by improperly handling a magical artifact, both filmed on-location, instilling new generations with new reasons to associate the town with magic and superstition. Their city seal features a cartoonish witch in profile, aloft by broomstick; its mascot the same. Paranorman, a stop-motion animated feature by Laika, again made use of beautiful setting and local witchcraft for a heartwarming tale about connecting with people and appreciating differences. Salem and witchcraft are inexorably tied, and the usage of witchery easily given a home in friendly Salem. Oftentimes, the topic in media returns to the witch trials, an easy conflation of location and event, somber in one breath and exultantly witchy the next.

I wondered what the appeal was for all these masses of tourists flooding into Salem. Were they drawn in by the curiosity of killing nearly two dozen colonists for a ‘make believe’ crime, born of pretense, hysteria, frustrations, and jealousies bubbling up to the surface of a deeply religious town? Was it the soap opera-esque breakdown of the events? The Hollywood mythology now entrenched in the town of real witches amidst the fallen, and centuries-long curses against their persecutors? The distillation of the events down to a concise allegorical episode for any kind of mob persecution against any group of people, like The Crucible’s timely association with the McCarthy investigations as a new form of ‘witch hunt’? The word ‘witch’ alone, divorced of bloody history for a more banal and distinctly New Englander presentation of colonial life and seemingly structured witchcraft? These were the rubes buying little bags of plastic glitter and shirts that said ‘Salem: An Awesome Place to Hang’, festooned with nooses aplenty. What did Salem offer for them? What did Salem mean?

My own interest was academic, but even if I didn’t have the opportunity to incorporate this into my research as a key example of extended, directed, malicious mob mentality in action, I would’ve found a reason to visit and do exactly as I did. I was, and am, a Titanic ‘buff’ — I can’t claim the title of historian or researcher, but I collected every book and every documentary I could get my hands on, and I visited the exhibition no less than four times — but beyond the immense loss of humanity in a tragic and unanticipated accident, the sinking carries a mythology embroidered with enticing facts: the largest ship in the world, sinking on its maiden voyage, indiscriminate in the loss of a broad cross-section of class. I can admit to myself that I wouldn’t be so fascinated with it if it hadn’t sunk, and was merely just a Guinness Book of World’s Records trivia piece, but I can buttress that with the certainty that I focused on mechanics over gross mortality. The death is, of course, the largest component of the tragedy, and what distinguishes it from the wanton destruction of reality show explosives testings or monster car rallies. When I entered reproductions of the grand hall, or saw the twisted, rusted, salt-eaten remnants of grandeur reduced to nothingness by the amoral force of the ocean, I felt connection, and a deep, keening sadness that could take my whole being in a sense of empathy for the loss, for what could have been, for the modern equivalent of a Tower of Babel, testament to mankind’s shipbuilding prowess and taste for refinement reduced in a few short hours to the world’s largest coffin. I wasn’t hit with that full-body sense of a loss I could not even call my own when I finally exited the train station and confronted the realities of Salem, but I think I need more time to process exactly what Salem meant for me.

The Salem I met with that warm, windy day was fractured into different eras, all meshing together uneasily. A new cupcake shop and a sprinkle of Dunkin Donuts, a rare Starbucks, all on cobbled streets with architecture ranging from Colonial to Victorian. A thick red line painted on the sidewalks, chipped and faded, indicated the route to find the museums and help centers. I passed a modern-looking strip mall en route to the visitor’s center, filled with small town hair stylists, martial arts teachers, baking instructors, and a small cinema. Less than 100 feet away, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the ‘new’ stone structure built in 1833 to replace the original 1733 wood building. Grave markers from the early days filled the yard ringing either side of the entryway. The chapel itself was built overtop a portion of the original graveyard, and incorporated some gravestones into its walls. Such was the way with the rest of the town: ancient history hedged up on all sides by the constructs of future generations. Somewhat hilariously, whenever I encountered more modern architecture, it was 1950s or 1970s designs, either chunky, ugly cinderblock buildings with no aesthetic appeal, or charmingly dated remnants of very individual and opinionated architecture. This isn’t the Salem Hollywood wants to present. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Everything I’d been presented with before suggested that it was a land frozen in time, and I think I gained a greater affection for the town knowing that it was a living, breathing, changing place, owning its past, but moving evermore forward. The dated architecture always 30-60 years out of date underscored it into a kind of sluggish, stilted growth, like time flowed just a little slower out here, like old habits were hard to change, and things were built for purpose, not for continuous search of the new. Compared to Boston, a locale that had segregated its historical architecture to patches, a locale that had built up tall, sleek skyscrapers, modern, oh so modern, Salem almost felt like home.

In spots, there was definitely a collegiate hipster feel, something I felt they really carried off well. Juice bars, expensive gnosh with even more expensive avocado, handmade pizza, secondhand vintage clothes stores, no lack of bicyclists circling through the city. I walked through more urban neighborhoods, tight multi-level apartment complexes trying to pass as townhouses, and that felt the most modern of all, with chain-link hoops set up over garages, telephone poles covered with rusted staples and signs, barber shops and photo galleries, a world of difference from the eclectic mix of architecture behind me. Through all that, you could see the Maritime Historic Sites with massive anchors propped up on dry land; Ye Olde Pepper Company, the oldest candy store in America; and Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, a historic face that opened into a slick and classy interior.

There were signs all over the place that attested to a modern understanding of the outside, and further, to their tourist appeal. Different placards with different fonts and different years and different aesthetic sensibilities dotted every location of note, offering a few paragraphs of information on the construction and its history, or how far away some exciting location was from where the tourist might presently be standing. Stern governmental signs were posted at all the graveyards in bright red all-caps sans serif font: ‘PLACE OF RESPECT. NO ADMITTANCE AFTER DUSK. STAY ON PATHS. PLEASE KEEP OFF STONES AND GRAVES WALLS AND TREES. NO STONE RUBBING ALLOWED. REPORT SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY. – City of Salem Cemetery Commission.’ The old graves I encountered in my hometown didn’t have nearly such stern edicts in place, but the increased attention given to these graveyards warranted the exhausted, exasperated tones to absolutely not do these things. Later on, I’d see tourists flaunting these rules, children climbing on the stonework or middle-aged women with fanny packs posing for photographs in the place of the dead.

It should be noted that this Salem was technically considered ‘the city’, and the location where the accused lived and worked purportedly was the nearby Danvers (northwest of Salem), which was not readily accessible by train. The Visitor’s Center and other historical centers depicted Danvers as a town so horrified by their association to the witch trials that they changed their name to ‘Danvers’ after one of their founding settlers, but their home site and wikipedia pages rather tellingly omit this from mention. Danvers still has Rebecca Nurse’s home, one of the victims of the witch trials; as well as the family home of one of her accusers, Sarah Holten. For its part, Salem did more to draw attention to the Pioneer Village, a reconstruction of the kind of settlement the citizens of Salem would have lived in at the time of the trials (though intended as a 1630s-era construction; it is implicit that in the course of 60 years, a good 1-2 generations, they would have built up slightly sturdier and more permanent structures). This is not to be confused with the actual dig sites, which they could only show through a documentary at the Visitor’s Center. The locations of those villagers’ homes were reduced to pits, impressions, the remaining brickwork of chimneys and cellars. Most of it had been consumed by the forest.

I referred to a map and research pamphlet written by the Salem historian Marilynne K. Roach for an understanding of exactly how built up Salem (city) was compared to my present understanding. (I’m not reproducing it here, but it’s well-drawn.) The image that emerges is one of greater distance and isolation than the compact town I wandered. Certainly, I made my way up and down to all of the sights with ease. I traversed the city three or for times in circuit, once just getting lost on the way to the visitor’s center from the train station. But each of these locations on my map were cushioned with incidentals: bars, coffee shops, bookstores, insurance providers. At the time of the witch trials, these locations were separated out, given ‘breathable distance’. Houses lined a few broad streets,  The colourful map shown below makes it out to be a friendly distance, with all the hopefulness of a young town, but truthfully, these sites weren’t plotted out with any particular planning, and that map was drawn up as representative of a slightly later time. The sepia map shows a bit of the topography that I wasn’t able to explore, large hills and cliffs ringing the town, the forest on three sides, the harbor stretching out to the south, and a sense of both insularity and isolation in turn. I noticed also that wetland and river area had been filled in sometime over the 300 year stretch between Roach’s maps. The site of the North River now housed very flat and even ground to support the commuter rail. The South River became part of a more complex network of streets, all newly built. The commons were built around at the time because they were swampy wetlands; when I visited, it was a pleasant park just coming into bloom.

Frights and Sights

Salem is a site crammed with museums, waxworks, and galleries. I know I’d definitely be interested in returning to see their art galleries and science museums, like SciWorks, with endowments from seafaring days, to large, friendly parks, to a massive planetarium, to projects for encouraging children to pursue their love of science. The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) caught my eye with large, attractive advertisements for Chinese pottery (what history did Salem have with the Chinese? No one taught me about Salem beyond the trials), but had more overt interest with an outdoors installation called ‘Stickworks’ by Patrick Dougherty, strange nests made of local materials. In the context of the area, my brain could only refer to them as ‘witch houses’, and as spooky as they were in daylight, their inherent thrill of wrongness only increased in the dark.

These attractions were only incidental to my journey, and the ‘Stickworks’ a strange overlap between something innocently artistic and the suppositions that the area had already imposed in my mind. I was there for the witchly history, from kitsch to the earnest true believers to the apologetic historians. I got the sense very early on that one of the largest frustrations with locals responding to tourists and to ‘attraction’-owners was the sense of exploitation of the dead, taking a tragedy and turning it into something over-the-top, unrealistic, and even offensive at times. Tourists responded well to the witch-kitsch, but many of these sites and souvenirs seemed divorced from the understanding of mob hysteria and the deaths of ~22+ of their own friends and neighbors. Morbid doesn’t sell to tourists, unless coupled with a sense of very black humor, like the Addams Family, or painted in lurid, sensationalist tones, and it was unfortunately undeniable that a few sites chose to take that path. Additionally, I found it difficult at times to connect the solemn, historical, fact-driven understanding of the witch trials as a sobering lesson and black mark on the town’s history with the attraction-owners who wanted to push a ‘witches are good and also real’ narrative. That uncomfortable dynamic extended further: sometimes it was in the same location or across the street that the exhibit could transition from respectful and realistic to witch-friendly. One museum detailed out Salem’s history through its piratic days; included some promotion for Nathaniel Hawthorne, considered to be their most famous resident; and capped it off with a coupon for a museum of witchcraft nearby. This museum in turn displayed a companion diorama walkthrough detailing what a witch was and wasn’t, indicating a variety of different witches and local legends, and finishing the walkthrough with a lucky rub to a plastic dragon, and a venture through a gift shop stocked with incense, runestones, pewter pentagrams, magic wands, plastic gemstones, and bags of glitter, all to inspire children with a sense of their own inherent magic. Some of these items were truly schlocky, intended for the gullible tourists. Others, indicated by the price and labeling, seemed the real deal. I found it difficult to reconcile this with Salem’s narrative.

Furthermore, Salem’s history with popular culture included films, television, and comics that outright stated several of the accused to truly be witches deserving of their mortal punishments. Hocus Pocus, one of the most famous fictional Salem narratives to grace television, suggested that the three antagonistic witches had only been prevented from their bid to enthral the town by lawful and rightful execution in the witch trials. Paranorman flitted back and forth between the innocent use of magical powers and moralizing about bullying and acceptance, and the very real nature of the witch’s curse and powers used against the community that hurt her. Jack Chick, a supremely radical fundamentalist Christian cartoonist, proclaimed that the accusers themselves were secretly the real witches, fulfilled by a pact with Satan to take the town by the throat and destroy the true and innocent Christians. (A noted point of hypocrisy came in his decrying of the trials by Old Testament standards as Salem’s lack of Christian love, from a man who wrote polemic propaganda pieces against Jews, Catholics, Muslims, socialists, drug users, homosexuals, and harlots.) Regardless of the narrative’s slant, these pop culture pieces voiced credence to the widespread beliefs that real witches existed, were tried, and were executed in Salem. Why would they let people think that?

Just to try to get a sense for this disparity, I tried to contact as many magic shop owners as were available over the weekend, seeking an even-handed counterpoint. I wanted to understand why these people who professed themselves to be magical, connected to magical forces present in the earth, or witches, wizards, warlocks, wiccans would be drawn to Salem, a place with a history of being very unkind to innocents merely believed to be witches. For every retailer that gave me five minutes of time to voice their views, another two or three shied away from the discussion. Those who did speak to me were pleasant and earnest, either looking to make a strong impression or build reputation. Those who refused seemed to think I was a hard-line skeptic seeking some tidbit to use to tear into them. I recognized that I was a third-party intruding on certain delicate tensions already present in the town. What I did find was not quite so shocking as inevitable: Salem revitalized their tourism in the 1970s to bolster their economy, and the public made it apparent that they were hungry for simple, kitschy, Hollywood-style witchcraft depicted all throughout the town; Salem capitulated accordingly. Each and every witch who made their way to Salem was drawn in by an assortment of factors: the ‘energy’ of the area, the beautifully preserved architecture, sympathy for the innocents lost to anti-witch sentiments, a desire to represent their view of witchcraft and magic, an effort to seek out fellow-minded individuals in community, or even just the sweet, sweet tourism cash. As they developed a sensible and economic counterpoint to the movie magic witches, they drew in ‘pilgrims’ from across the country, eager to meet with a variety of different paths and viewpoints, and to come in contact with the community that formed between them. For the most part, this sounded mutually beneficial and supportive, both communities helping drive the tourism industry that’s the backbone of Salem’s economy. A Broadly article written only a few weeks before I arrived actually suggested that the town eagerly embraced witchcraft for their own, though the quote left the actual claim ambiguous: reclaim witchcraft from the negative past, return to potential pagan roots, open their hearts to magic. I had to keep in mind, however, that descendants of the unjustly accused still lived in Salem or surrounding areas, or visited to place flowers at the memorial. I could see the economic justification, and I could appreciate the ability to practice a non-harmful religion or lifestyle, but I wasn’t certain if I was entirely comfortable with the overlap between the real witches earnestly promoting their brand, and an attempt to keep the memory and respect of the dead at the forefront of the consciousness.

One stop I felt addressed the issue well was Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, which gave tourists exactly what they wanted and were expecting, and kept a respectful distance from the tragedies that put the town on the map. It made no excuses for what it was and who it was aimed for, and I felt if directed appropriately, it could probably draw out the kinds of tourists who approached the town on the basis of the Hollywood perceptions they held, rather than an understanding of the history, an enjoyable experience without tainting the memories of the dead. This venue was chock full of horror movie ephemera, specializing in the masks and mock-ups of monster make-up, dioramas of horror movie settings, signed photographs, and important historical pieces. For a geek like me, who grew up with these things as my fond childhood memories, this was an amazing treat, and a great find, and I have more enthusiasm for it in retrospect. At the time, I felt so downtrodden and disappointed with the wild pendulum of representation that I approached this attraction suspiciously, holding my breath in case I was to be disappointed again with a lurid depiction of town witchcraft as a direct tie to these monster masterworks. I held myself off from being able to truly enjoy this as a tourist moment because this didn’t specifically tie to my research (Salem and the witch trials), and because I was so afraid of a heartless cash-in. I came out of it feeling that I’d engaged in something delightful but tangential, spent time in something that didn’t directly tie back in to the research trip, and if only it was located somewhere else that didn’t seem so callously touristy… I bristled at how it dared situate itself in ‘witch city central’, and at the presentation of the place, with skulls and coffins festooning its exterior. Now with time to peer over these recollections, I’m less judgmental of the location, and more appreciative of the depth of effort, interest, and engagement that this venue provided. It’s the kind of place I could see myself running, tightly dedicated to one specific segment of the monster-loving community and presenting a well-curated and comprehensive collection.

A few historical locations maintained a sense of reverence for the dead, like Judge Corwin’s house, painted a severe dark grey with few windows, its back facing onto the street. That walkthrough was replete with historic furnishings, all listed from Elizabeth Corwin’s meticulous record-keeping, and gave a sense of what the lifestyle was like for those who could afford this measure of living. Large hearths, a more centralized fireplace, the importance of the cauldron, the necessity of the broom; all were common features of the household that took darker aspects in the eyes of the credulous. The house arrayed itself with exotic dried spices and all the tools needed to prepare meals. Upstairs, replicas of the carding machine, the spindle, and the loom, large machines which I found difficult to believe would clutter up such valuable space. (The house docents informed me this was so.) These acquisitions were not native to the house, but set pieces indicative of how the house might have been populated, in its time. Most intriguingly, they displayed items unearthed from the walls, the floorboards, and the hearthstone, superstitious affectations to promote blessings, good health, and fair fortunes for the occupants of the house. Settlers commonly hid poppets and old shoes in these locations, and from the doll on display, I found that a ‘poppet’ could be as simple as a scrap of cloth gathered over some stuffing, knotted around one end like the shape of a head, and split at the bottom, like legs. No facial expressions required on these little dolls to satisfy their classification, and indeed, they offered a genderless representation simplified to the most essential shape of personhood. It would be startlingly easy to lose a needle or pin in this incredibly lazy pincushion, then promptly forget about it. Beyond the historic worth of this home’s presentation, the Corwin house underscored two essential points: first, that these homes were inherently female domains, with signs of women’s labour present everywhere, and with the signs of witchcraft deeply tied to these tools, and second, that superstitions and even generalized forms of magic, like burying a doll to bring protection to the house, were common to the settlers from all paths of life, including Judge Corwin’s family.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial and the graveyards constituted two very important visits on my list. Salem had three large graveyards in its vicinity, two within the town, a third slightly outside the parameters of the free maps supplied. My focus dominantly lay with the Burying Point, now called the Charter St. Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the city, and located immediately next to the memorial. I returned multiple times throughout my visit, both as a way to orient myself, and out of respect. Most (but not quite all) of the dead did not have the opportunity to be given gravestones or proper burial. They were treated as less than criminal, and there are few accounts and fewer clues as to where they were interred. In the year before I visited, I read articles suggesting that the hill where the innocents were hanged had been identified with near-certainty. At the time I visited, it hadn’t been examined for signs of interment on-premises, though the ground would have been fairly rocky and difficult to bury the dead in. The graveyards held their persecutors, their judges, their executioners, and their families, separated from them by the circumstances of their ignoble demise. The memorial acted as a way to finally give them some kind of recognition. During my visit, each stone outcropping held a small flower, all different varieties. A few elderly locals sat in quiet contemplation just outside the perimeter of the memorial, offering their respect. The first sign I saw of misbehaviour on such somber ground came from the rambunctious children who followed a walking tour I took. I wasn’t sure if they were simply too young to understand, or just uncaring, but their parents didn’t bother to correct the behaviour. The largest signs of disrespect came from outside the community, with time and distance blunting the human horror to something abstract and commercialized.

The Ghost Tour

I rounded out my trip with an old-fashioned ghost tour, through Haunted Footsteps Walking Tour, done by the Salem Historical Tours company. Ghost tours are a wonderful way to learn about the local history of a town. The best ones are essentially local historians, who know about the architecture and culture of the place. They’re often teachers or anthropologists who have the opportunity to share the most ghoulish or garish parts of their town with guests. My ghost tour, led by Nick, offered a cross-section of Salem culture and outsider’s interactions with it. There were the tales of non-natives who showed up to become sheriffs and instill their sense of authority, only to meet with horrible fates, potentially at the hands of a centuries-old curse voiced by no less than Giles Corey. There were the tales of forbidden inter-class romances and morbid demises in the Prohibition-era tunnels. There were the stories of entrepreneurial souls looking to make some money off the old-town charm by turning historical sites into bed-and-breakfasts, only to be confronted with spirits arising in protest against this. The common underlying theme seemed to be a sense of injustice, and the more I thought about this, the more it seemed true. Salem’s best stories were stories of wrongs unrighted, a ghost of regret hanging over decisions and moments evermore, from the moment the witch trials went into effect to the day I dropped by. Ghosts and ancient curses followed suit as a way to voice that injustice, or to prevent or warn against future injustice, fighting the court of the ordinary with supernatural forces.

I wished I had the juxtaposition by daylight, although the night tour afforded us free reign of the streets. The pairing of the ordinary and the banal with the fantastic was another common theme. The front door to the boy’s home in Hocus Pocus was the entryway to one of the most haunted houses in Salem, according to local lore. The sheriff’s house, soon to be a chic b&b, but for the malingering presence of something unseen, right down the street from a 7-11, a laundromat, and a doughnut shop. The site of Giles Corey’s pressing, once an empty field on Howard Street, now held another small, scattered cemetery and neat townhouses; the street itself now a back-alley street for the houses around it, a peaceful little church just bordering beyond that. A night time journey also had a more obvious means of artificially enhancing the spookiness of the tour. The mind can trick the eye in the dark, and the silence can amplify a host of other noises from nocturnal animals to the winds whipping through the trees.

I tried to tape my ghost tours whenever possible, ‘possible’ including the permission of the tour guide. My other audio recordings along this trip included a raucous sing-along at one of the oldest bars in America, a quiet narration of my safe trip home from that sing-along, and the incidental music played to an empty dining room as I ate alone in the Hawthorne Hotel. For the purpose of preserving the experience of the ghost tours for future guests, I will not attach complete recordings of the tours, but listening to them again to recount details, I’m struck with the incredible breadth of detail in the recording, from the crunch of gravel and leaves beneath my feet to the sound of jean and polyester, the sound of my winter coat, the distant sound of cars between our tour and our destinations, fading off to cool silence as the town vacated through nightfall. Listening to it to transcribe my impressions, I’m immediately catapulted back into the visceral memory, and I’m there again on the dark cobbled streets of Witch City.

The ghost tour revealed another aspect of the Salem witch trials not strongly represented by the other museums and exhibits: the issue of money and nepotism in the witch trials. Most strikingly, the direct connection between Judge Corwin and Sheriff George Corwin, the judge’s nephew, who was only 26 when he was made sheriff, and who abused his position by freely beating lawbreakers, miscreants, and those he didn’t like with the use of a thick cane, by torturing the accused in the trials, and by leaving conditions in the jail such that at least five unofficial victims were credited as dying by ‘exposure’ in their cells. This was the same sheriff who pressed Giles Corey to death and reportedly forced the dying man’s protruding tongue back into his mouth with the use of the same cane. The combination of a young, violent police chief and his incredibly stern uncle effectively fast-tracked dozens of accused for trial and imprisonment and presented a biased, singlehanded force. There were no advocates, no opportunities for the accused to speak in their defence, only to confess and ‘repent’, give up others, or maintain their innocence and be considered guilty by omission.

The wealthiest colonists were also disproportionately accused. A married couple, Mary and Philip English, were individually accused of witchcraft within a week of each other. They were the wealthiest of the Salemites, to the point of owning several other houses, businesses, and warehouses, and renting out to their neighbors. Even then, and even with the aid of high ranking politicians in the area, they narrowly escaped the fate of their fellow accused by fleeing to New York, leaving behind everything. When they did return, their possessions had been picked and pillaged, with land seized or damaged, and only fractional restitution awarded to them. Others were not so lucky. Widowed women managing their own households, and those who had inherited the wealth of their progenitors were accused, and their assets seized: convicted or confessed witches were not allowed to pass their property along to their family. The oft-mentioned Mr. Corey stood to lose the legacy he’d left for his children with the accusations leveled against his wife and himself, and his stubborn denial to speak for or against himself gave him the only loophole he had to provide for his family, which led into his torturous and unusual demise. This didn’t stop Sheriff Corwin from extorting his surviving family members in the years after the trials. We know this because they wrote to the crown in a lawsuit complaining about this behaviour, among others. The privileged position the Corwin family held ensured that none of the lawsuits carried out by the remaining accused or by surviving family actually came through to fruition. Though Sheriff Corwin claimed to have passed the money along to the Crown, careful accounting has proved this a lie. The judges and prosecutors profited off the witch trials to the best of their abilities, insult to injury in the long, slow-healing scar on the town’s history.

The ghost tour also reaffirmed that Salem is, and remains, an insular, family town. On the surface, that seems at odds with all the descriptions of witches coming in from all over the globe to make this little community their new home. But the local history is also a living history for its residents. Homes remain within the same families for up to seven generations, like the Ropes Mansion, and kept in use. Some of the churches served the same congregation from generation to generation, mingling names in marriage, burying children with their parents. Other sites, like the first church in Salem, were taken by the passage of time, rebuilt twice or thrice to more lasting forms. The town’s old roots are celebrated, cherished, remembered, and memorialized because its citizens have close connection to those events, and the descendants of accusers, victims, and prosecution alike have remained, building up goodwill again, making restitution, and making peace. (A prominent descendant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, contributed back significantly to the cultural framework of the community, but could not do so without some alteration of his last name, so great was the shame of association with Judge Hathorne and his role in the witch trials. It was as great a shame to descendants of accusers as it was grief and burden to those of the accused.) Of course, with three centuries of time, the population of descendants is large and well-spread. Among its noted members are actor Tom Felton of the Harry Potter franchise; Sarah Jessica Parker of Hocus Pocus fame; Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; and even George W. Bush. It seems like everyone with a long enough family tree in America had some tie to this small population. What differentiates these more illustrious descendants from the Salem locals has more to do with the mark they made on the town and their willingness to maintain those roots, whether out of justice, responsibility to their community, or a sense for continuing the long ties and traditions. Their stories are bereft of ‘spookiness’ without the direct and continued association with the town.

But that’s not to say that was all the ghost tour had to offer! In a more recent tale, the tour guide introduced us to an urban legend of a sea captain’s mistress embroiled in a love triangle, then accidentally entombed, still alive, in the long, maze-like tunnels running out from the sea. This complex tunnel system allowed for the smuggling of various products (it seemed largely alcoholic in purpose) from ship to shore without having to pay tariffs or submit to inspections. In the tale, one branch of the tunnel system ran up to the church, where we were presently standing, and the minister aided in the disposal of her unconscious-but-believed-dead body, going so far as to hide her body in the walls of an incomplete tunnel with hideous shades of the Cask of Amontillado; in this case, when the two prongs of the love triangle and the minister discover that she is still alive, but cannot find the location where they bricked her up, they deliberately walk off and leave her to her death, with a pact to never tell of her fate. Clearly, someone talked, for the tale to reach my ears that evening, and the guide was quick to add that the priest had provided written confession of his part in the morbid tale, before committing himself to the justice of a Higher Power as quickly as possible. Tales like this reaffirm a veil of secrecy over this town, riddled with secrets like tunnels lurking just under the surface.

We stopped at last at the Old Burying Ground, cleared out in the dark. Our guide had a ghost story for us here too, detailing why stone walls and iron bars separated graveyard from the active life outside. It was a kitschy tale, and I wasn’t certain how much of it sourced from genuine superstitions, and how much was embroidered for our benefit. It didn’t matter to me. We stood in the bounds of the Witch Trials Memorial, gazing over that wall that kept the dead in their place, and I was reminded of the barriers that prevented the accused from being laid to rest with their families even after their suffering. Of the nineteen hanged and one pressed, a mere three have tales of their families risking their lives and livelihoods to give them proper burial. We don’t know where the others are. Those same superstitions that kept the dead in their cemeteries also indicated specific burial rituals with strong repercussions for failing to follow through, but simultaneously denied these burial rites to criminals, pagans, and witches. Ironically, the martyred dead were said to return with a vengeance if not laid to rest properly, and if Salem’s shame would not recriminate their fallen with new accusations of monstrosity from beyond the grave, then economic vampire that preyed on the lifeblood of their history eagerly scared up a few dead settlers as vengeful ghosts to fright and delight. Beyond those walls, their accusers and their neighbors enjoyed their rightful eternal rest, before us, the accused denied the same. Even three hundred years on, it was a community ‘divided’ by an old stone wall and acts that could never be taken back. My tour group peppered the night with bright flashes from their phones and cameras, hoping to catch spectral orbs over the gravestones. I took another moment of silence, observing. Here, our tour ended. Just as well. I had seen enough.

ADDENDUM: They’ve recently confirmed the site of the hangings as a location ‘behind the Walgreens and up a hill’. It is covered in undergrowth and unsuitable to tour at the moment, but I would love to return when they clear it up and install a memorial.

The Departure

My departure from Salem back to Boston and my cozy, modernized hotel (once an old ironworks, now a place for fashionable millennials to quickly access pubs, museums, and hockey games) was thrilling and terrifying in turn, and I can only laugh about it with the padding of time to dull the chill of fear. Salem abides by very small town conventions for closing time, especially for a Christian community, and I found that even chain stores that stayed open to 9 pm in larger cities would close at 4 or 5 pm in Salem. The ghost tour was a night adventure, and it seemed to be the last storefront open by nightfall. We were released back into the dark: no trolley, no car-fare, no Uber, no buses available at this hour.

The temperature had also dropped steeply, and while I had a Merino wool cardigan, a scarf, and a big winter jacket on, I hadn’t prepared for the freak blizzard that was coming in and hitting the Boston/Salem area hard. It had gone from a mid-60s day with coat and scarf crammed into backpack and cardigan worn about the hips to a -10 to -15 night, windchill effectively pushing it even lower, and the most abrupt change had only occurred in a 2 hour stretch, from about the time the walking tour had started to when we were released. Several of the members had dropped off early, unable to take the temperature changes or wanting to get back on the road before the snows started. I was alone and directionless in a sleeping city, trying to find my way home.

An important point of note is the way the train tracks are structured around Salem. Salem is not the final destination for that route, but the tracks narrow to a single line for a long stretch on either side. I had been accustomed to New York railways, where this only occurred at the very end of a route, and where there were always two tracks at every station. This was the norm for every part of my journey thus far except this location. When I arrived in Salem, I hadn’t seen the other track, and finding it was a curiosity that gave way to the more pertinent examination of the town. Now, when there was no one around to help, I wandered all over the train station, trying desperately to find the other track. There was one cab driver heading out onto a lonely stretch of road that became country highway. I begged him for directions to the track heading into Boston, standing 100 feet from the stairs down to the very thing I sought. He directed me back down, so back down I went, and headed over to the vacant parking garage, lit eerily with big orange-yellow industrial lights. I echoed again, but my mind didn’t parallel this to the beginning of my journey. I found only the stretch of road leading cars to the parking garage, no tracks. Google Maps and Find My Friend were no help either. I was trying to get help from family members to find the way out of here, with battery low on phone and no internet to run the checks myself. Find My Friend indicated the parking garage, Google Maps didn’t. It was a new construction that stymied the family members, and further convoluted the navigation efforts.

There’s a series of 911 calls I’d heard several years ago, regarding two teenagers who froze to death after taking a single dose of methamphetamine and getting extremely lost. Their minds instituted a certain logic that rallied against everything around them, and they sent emergency responders to locations almost 100 miles off from their location. Retrospective gives me that very strong comparison, or the other creepy, heartbreaking tales I read about missing persons. If anything bad had happened that night, those few witnesses would have said that this strange young woman was wandering around begging for directions to a place she was right in front of, leaving it over and over again and searching very intently for something they didn’t understand. At the time, I was only alarmed that I was in a strange area where anyone sufficiently strong enough could overpower me, where there were few cameras around to catch the act. I was terrified of the bad outsider, not realising that my own actions were putting me in a fair bit of danger, and not realising that my particular pattern of thinking had already begun to be affected by wandering in the brutal cold.

Writing this now from a position of warmth in what feels like a summer that will never end, I can more sweetly assure readers that I did get back to the hotel safely, and from there back to New York. But the journey was fraught with all those little issues that pile up one after another. After a certain hour, on the weekends, the train schedule back into Boston stutters to an hourly appearance, and then stops completely through the coldest part of the night, with the last train out at about 11:30. I can’t quite recall if it was so drastic that I’d miss the last train out, more likely I found myself on the second to last train, a 10:40-ish that was slightly delayed (from an estimate of 10:30). I encountered an incredibly gracious Amtrak worker who assisted me through the search for the tracks and the purchase of a ticket through my phone, all machines mysteriously non-functional. And I remained within the parking vestibule, a concrete enclosure with no heating, just lights, slabs of damp concrete for benches, and cameras, staying out of the hard winds, until the train finally limped into the station and took me with it.

When I could contact the family who tried to help me get out of Salem, I expressed my fears, uncertainties, gratitude, fatigue, and chill. I sent photos of how red my hands had become, jammed in the pockets of the winter jacket, and the inability to Facetime just covered the embarrassing tear-streaks over reddened cheeks as I tried to make my voice normal for them. I spoke more of the cold and the quick turn of the weather than the real life horror scenario I’d just run through. Only when relief was certain did I allow myself to unravel the tight knot of terror and feel my way through to relief. I compartmentalized it, taking the new lesson of the unusual train service and schedule into notes, putting the fears of that long stretch of cold, dark, empty night away, and continuing on to do the research I dedicated the trip to. I don’t think I mentioned any of this to my friends, or if I did, I minimized it as much as possible. I pushed myself to explore outside my comfort zone by making the travel to the places I was studying, my first in a series of solo escapades with no ingrained understanding of the maps, routes, or locations, and while this was a fairly unfortunate event, I didn’t want it to characterize the entire trip, or unduly concern my loved ones. I felt that bringing it up as mistake, naivety, or stupidity would only close off opportunities for myself, so that chapter of the journey was concluded and never referred to again ‘til now. I completed my research the next day to the best of Salem’s availability quickly and confidently, no return to the events of the night before, and left with plenty of daylight to make my train back home.

In leaving the Boston-Salem area, I fled an unexpected nor’easter that swept in about as quickly as the train could depart. Later, Amtrak informed me that this unseasonal dump of snow around the first day of spring would impact the trains following mine, with ensuing delays and cancellations, and my family simplified this to the more dramatic ‘leaving on the last train out of the area’. I could comment how the warm welcome became a cold shoulder, with weather as transitory and tempestuous as human moods, or how it seemed to follow from my exhaustion and depletion as I traveled and explored, an explosive and almost violent end to the adventure, but mostly I considered how strange and almost mystic the abrupt turn could seem, even for those seasoned to the land. Both Boston and Salem were situated on large bodies of water with easy access to the ocean, which would only intensify any incoming storms, but this particular one didn’t give meteorologists much in the way of advance warning. The weather scooped from pleasant and balmy spring, as it had been for most of the winter, down to a true chill, and for those isolated from large community and resources, or ignorant of the science of the stormfronts, it could pass almost like the will of man. I had a taste of the power and whims of fickle Nature out there, and gained a greater understanding of how a small community could begin to point fingers if their sense of normalcy was easily shattered.

My experience of uncertainty and fear was brief and largely psychologically built, but life in the colonies was filled with uncertainties and fears of that nature in day-to-day life. These could include insecurities about health of the self or young children, where mortality from sicknesses was much higher than today; insecurities about crops or catches leading to food insecurity or commercial insecurity; insecurities about the weather impacting home and property; insecurities about wild animals and other dangers of the wilderness surrounding them; and even insecurities in soulcraft, where Satan was real, his effects visible, devils prominent, and salvation uncertain and subject to rescindment. In the short period of time I dealt with that fear, my mind leapt to the illogical fears of a threat from without seeking to prey on an unaccompanied and lost young college student, merely because I’d heard stories told by other people about such kidnappings or murders. In a world without cell phones, fast trains, GPS tracking, streetlights, or workers mandated to work shifts throughout the night, in a world where wolves and freak storms and Satan were the largest threats to account for, I could easily see my fears shifting to that particular expression of them, and my awareness of details accommodating those beliefs, so that each sound of owls in flight or of small animals making their way through the undergrowth would confirm those primal fears.

In the uncertain world, religion and witchcraft are two paralleling ways for humans to impose some sense of order on Nature’s chaos. If God were responsible for both the negative and the positive, then the imposition of a willpower on these effects suggested punishment or reward. From this, punishment must occur in response to some human act, suggesting human responsibility for freak nature. And likewise, the continuation of good would be perceived as human influence for the community through prayer or sacrifice to their God. But when bad things happen to good people, there are two responses: first, externally communicated, that the receptor must have deserved it in some way, for hypocrisy or concealed evil deeds, excepting the case of Job; or that the misfortune must have come from a source of evil. Although God is depicted as stronger than Satan in Christian theology, Satan is still given a similar power to inflict evil on humanity, sometimes being able to administer the punishment to evildoers (alternately depicted as being incited to evil by Satan, or originating the evil in their own hearts), and sometimes given freedom to harm the good. To parallel the perceived human involvement in these greater powers, and the dichotomy between good-power and evil-power, humans equally believed they could receive power or compel the evil power toward a subject through similar petitioning. Witchcraft was, and is, seen as a way for humans to tap into that power over their surroundings and give themselves some degree of security in their uncertain environ. In the Christian-centric community, witchcraft was considered a pagan antithetical to good Christian living, and directly associated with the infliction of evil. As uncomfortable as the thought of witches living amidst them must be, surely it offered the tiny Christian community some relief to be able to name and vanquish the source of their fears. That the accusations grew to roughly 200 strong, a good third of their community jailed or held under house arrest, is a testament to the extent of those fears and how radically the accusations spun out of control.

I believe that Salem offered self-identifying witches the chance to humanize their people in response to the stigma of the Salem Witch Trials, a chance to offer healing and forgiveness for the other kind of slight, the assumption that people deserved to die for their religious practices in any form, whether perceived to be allied with the Devil, or against their own village, or otherwise. There’s even a beauty in witches and Christians living side-by-side, and the descendants of accusers returning with a display of genuine Christian love for their new neighbors. That’s part of what I took from the town. The opportunity to make amends, to build up instead of breaking down. It’s disappointing that this message was obscured by that Hollywood glamour so ever-present, a potent combination of tourist money, and the opportunity to put themselves out for another landmark. For Salem, this was sweet temptation, and it was all too easy for cinematic glories to lure the town into its thrall. They signed their name in the black book for money, fame, influence, and the soul of the town hides behind an over-decorated, almost-Disneyfied, fictionally palatable veneer, and I think the balance might have more to do with Mammon than anything else. At least in this regard, they’ve found a kind of ‘peace’, and maybe that’s enough.

Further Reading

Blood Libel: The Anti-Semitic Roots of Vampirism

(This post contains imagery from anti-Semitic propaganda for the purposes of illustration and discussion, but the most vulgar and violent depictions are modern, c. 1990s onward, and are unfortunately not suitable for all viewers, so I’ve tried to avoid their addition. Please be advised that the imagery and subject matter are sensitive, and that the racist viewpoints present in the Blood Libel rumor will not be suffered or championed here.)

Historically, our monster myths are commonly shaped by the fears and prejudices that groups of people hold against ‘others’. Many of these prejudices are influenced by a series of differences that separate the primary group and opposing group from homogeneity. A group with a different skin colour, a different language, or a different religion would be considered to be one step away; if multiple differences were exemplified by a group, then the degrees of separation would increase accordingly. Intolerance additionally increases with regards to proximity. The closer two groups are in physical proximity to each other, the higher the tensions become. This became most apparent as post-Roman Empire Europe developed more close-knit relations throughout its fledgling kingdoms, from trade-routes to treaties; tensions heightened between these formerly hegemonic kingdoms and people-groups. Native Europeans became increasingly aware and uncomfortable of these other groups, and this led to redefinition of their monsters. Chief among these was the formulation of the Blood Libel myth, which, combined with Central and Eastern European folklore, became the basis of our modern understanding of vampires.

Before the vampire myth crossed over to the western shores of Europe in the early Middle Ages, another ‘plague’ swept across these tightly-controlled, hegemonious lands, polluting blood ties and racial harmony, purportedly stealing young women and children, and enacting dark cabalic rites to ancient gods that left its victims drained of blood and horrifically mutilated. I am speaking, of course, of the Jews, or at least, the perception of the Jewish diaspora in the European Middle Ages. The Jews had been taken from their native lands and brought into servitude to a variety of empires and masters, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, and left without any overarching identity outside of their religion. As Europe unified under the banner of early Christianity, the Jews, once seen as the chosen people of that Christian God, were perceived to be increasingly pagan. At best, seen as the people responsible for crucifying the Christ, backwards and intolerant to the point of antagonistic to their own savior, who had walked among them unknown.(1) At worst, they were dark-skinned Outsiders, part and parcel of a three-way struggle for the Holy Lands, quietly and decisively ensnaring these Christian lands in a bid for destruction from within.(2)

Native Europeans formulated a series of rumors and mischaracterizations directed toward the Jews, all with the intent to cause social division and distrust. Christians throughout Europe claimed that they poisoned wells with urine, fecal matter, or noxious chemicals. They said the Jews desecrated the holy wafers that represented the body of their God. The ‘Blood Libel’ gained special dominance amidst these cruel rumors, marked by its extremities. This rumor alleged that the Jewish community stole young non-Jewish children from their surrounding communities, ritually mutilated them, and drained them of their blood before disposing of their corpse like someone would dispose an empty can of pop. It combined a protective instinct toward children with a series of repulsions and taboos related to violence, bodily fluids, and disrespect for the dead, a potent mix to ensure the immediate attention of the communities it reached, and widespread coverage of the libel throughout the land.

If this was insufficient to ensure the Jews were branded with a foul reputation, this rumor had more alterations to raise fears and loathing wherever it traveled. The Blood Libel rumors easily mutated through its spread, adding new details and amplifying others, which gave it an unnaturally extended lifespan. At the height of the Crusades and perceived Christian duty toward the Holy Lands, detractors proclaimed the Jews to be motivated by a secret obscene pact of native’s blood in return for their Holy Lands. In this narrative, all Jews in all locations were always the enemy, lionized and radicalized against their new homes and ready at the moment’s notice to slaughter their neighbors for their god. When the Plagues were sweeping through Europe, Jewish ritual cleanliness and prescribed interactions in caring for the sick, handling bodily fluids, and maintaining hygiene kept them from dying in the same numbers as their Christian neighbors. In this instance, they were closely associated with the rats, the perceived plague-bringers, and accused on two fronts of unnatural self-protection against the plague and perpetuation of this travesty against their neighbors. After a period of time, the Blood Libel altered their expressed motivations to the sacrifice of Christian blood for Jewish health, either by spilling it before their icons, bathing in it, or consuming it. Later still, the rumor gained almost delightedly-lavished details on the Jews consuming this blood: mixing it with their wine, making unleavened matza balls with it, even consuming the pure blood of a Christian innocent to stave off their own diseases. They were purported to be cursed by Christ on the cross to have internal hemorrhages or ulcerations that required constant consumption of blood. Some versions indicated the Jews to have symptoms like porphyria or leprosy that again required blood to heal them. One version even went so far as to say that all Jewish men menstruated anally or penilely, and that this blood-loss could only be counteracted with the consumption of blood. The Blood Libel became firmly entrenched with this Outsider society secretly preying upon good, decent native peoples and consuming the blood of their most innocent and helpless.

There are a few cases noted in public record of the Blood Libel rumor charged against the Jewish community. Like the witch trials, which would proceed from these events, as well as the Inquisition, which would rise in the middle of the Blood Libel accusations, these charges were directed to very specific ends. The excessively bloody tale allowed accusers to turn public opinion against the Jews, drive them from their homes, take their possessions, kill them in large groups, and exile them from their new countries. Each case built on the charges of the last, including new details to scandalize the non-Jewish European populace and better excuse their actions. Its credibility rested less on substantial evidence, and more on mob mentality and the public’s desire to believe that these neighbors they framed as ‘other’ were capable of such atrocities.

The first of such accusations against the Jewish community came in 1144. The body of young William of Norwich was discovered in the forest covered in stab wounds, and the locals placed blame on the Jews immediately, disproportionately retaliatory toward dozens of Jews versus a single fixed perpetrator, and singularly racially based. Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich around 1449 and became fixated with the case. He unsuccessfully tried to have William canonized as a saint, specifically focusing on his death as ritual murder and martyrdom, and penned a book that laid the claims out in lurid detail. In the Life of Saint William of Norwich, a converted Jew named Theobald of Cambridge purportedly revealed the existence of a secret international council of Jews that would select a child from a different country each year for ritualistic murder. The murder would take place around Passover, or Easter, to ensure that the Jews would be able to take back their Holy Land, and always done by the local Jews. In this specific case, the book claimed William had been crucified, although this claim didn’t match the wounds discovered on his body. Glowingly racist, Thomas repeatedly called the Jews “our enemies” in the first volume, and produced two more between 1155 and 1172, specifically alleging that the Jews were to make the ritualistic murder mirror that of Jesus’s death as closely as possible. Although few commoners were literate, upper-class individuals like priests, merchants, and noblemen would have had access to this book and dispersed these accusations as given fact.

In light of this publication, further accusations followed in Glouchester (3), Bury St. Edmunds (4), and Bristol (5), each increasing mob rage and prejudices, and finally culminating in bloody massacres in London and York from 1189 through the mid 1190s, uprooting entire family trees in the process.(6) These prejudices had brewed and developed along quietly, but these instances gave communities the justification to act on their discomforts and prejudices. In each instance of accusation, locals attempted to saint the young ‘martyrs’, and local cults developed around their veneration. Many cases of ‘ritual martyrs’ included the removal of their bodies to church-grounds, which increased attendance to these holy sites, and amplified these distorted stories. By canonizing these children as saints, the Church continued the depiction of these falsified deeds as truly abominable, to the point that anyone who endured them must have the attributes of a saint. It painted the Jews as monsters, inhuman or traitors to the human race, and opened the justification for future discrimination, each case the building block for the next.

Then came a decidedly different kind of crime against the Jews, one step above killing a few representative kinsmen, or massacring a few families here and there in vigilante ‘justice’. On July 31, 1255, nine-year old Hugh of Lincoln went missing from his home. His body was recovered the 29th of August from a well, and accusations against the Jews soon followed from a man named John of Lexington.(7) Friends of Hugh claimed to have witnessed the local Jew Copin enact certain tortures to him including crucifixion, and the boy had been found in Copin’s well. That was all the evidence they needed, and they used torture to extract additional confessions from him that implicated his community as a whole. This case was markedly different because of an economic element that came into play: only six months earlier, King Henry had sold the rights to tax the Jews to his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The Jews, by practicing separate religious and cultural rites, were taxed additional amounts per-person to live in the country, and were encouraged not to convert so that this lucrative additional income could be generated year-to-year. King Henry created a loophole for himself to be able to take back a portion of that income by decreeing that Jews convicted of crimes would turn over their money, possessions, and properties to the Crown. Instead of mob-like pogroms and lynchings, Jews would now be put on trial so their wealth in totality could be funneled back to the Crown, and this essentially declared open season on Jews and assured future persecution for monetary gain. No longer would they just be killed or ostracized; the Crown would bleed dry their wealth and assets in the process. In total, some ninety Jews were arrested in connection to the death of Hugh, and they were held in the Tower of London, all on the charge of ritual murder. Eighteen were hanged when they went to trial by instead asking for their right to a Christian jury; their property was appropriated by the Crown. The rest were pardoned and freed, reputations irreparably damaged, thanks to Richard of Cornwall’s desire for renewable income. Hugh of Lincoln was canonized as Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln to distinguish him from the adult Saint Hugh of Lincoln; in no small part due to the surprising amount of wealth and ease of access generated by such a ‘martyrdom’. Geoffrey Chaucer included the story in his Canterbury Tales, and the Blood Libel became a staple of English literature ever since. Despite Richard of Cornwall’s fund-drive, tensions increased bitterly and resolutely until the Jews were forcibly expelled from England in 1290.

This wasn’t the end of Blood Libel, and once released into the world, it was employed to great effect throughout Europe. Similar accusations, trials, mob massacres, and economic persecution cropped up in over a dozen odd countries to drive the Jews out over the next few centuries. The depictions of the Jews as nomadic and desperate had direct ties to their near-permanent exile and continuous loss of any form of haven through the effects of the Blood Libel. It took a long time for the Jewish community to be able to venture back into the countries they once lived, and they still faced economic disadvantages and social persecution from the communities which had driven them out before. But the Blood Libel and its bloodthirsty effects would not die so easily with the passage of time, and it merely spread its message through different formats, like William Shakespeare’s 1600 play the Merchant of Venice, with the villainous Jew Shylock thwarted from collecting on his debts by specific Blood Libel laws preventing him from spilling even a single drop of Christian blood, unless he wanted to give up his wealth and property in the process (again economically motivated and economically thwarted). Western literature and film borrowed visual elements from the Blood Libel here and there, with the depiction of grotesque hypnotic predator and outsider Svengali, for example, and the vampire narrative drew strongly from the xenophobic impulses toward Jews, as well as the fixation on blood and plague-bringing as two essential traits of the vampire.

Dracula, the single most popular vampire in the history of vampire narrative, displayed a wide array of those folkloric traits, particularly his great show of wealth, but his foreignness was emphasized as one of the greatest indicators of wrongness, especially in regards to his desire to assimilate with native Londoners. Given a long, prominent nose; long facial hair; at times sallow skin; dark, somber clothing; and shying away from the cross, as the Jews were said to, Dracula’s attributes alluded to certain Jewish stereotypes without actually crossing into uncomfortable readings. Unfortunately, its first cinematic translation borrowed straight from Blood Libel and anti-semitic textbooks to present its lead vampire. Nosferatu, a plagiarized translation of Dracula to the silver screen, may have been the first surviving depiction of a traditional male vampire in cinema, and was quite the doozy on audiences. Prior to its appearance, cinematic vampires were traditionalized femme fatales, ‘vamps’, divorced from the grotesqueries of their literary male counterparts and dominantly sexualized. Nosferatu’s Count Orlok returned to the earliest connections between the Blood Libel and vampires, purposefully taking anti-semitic imagery and reinfusing it into the vampire narrative. This vampire transfixed viewers with his strikingly bald pate, bulging eyes, rat-like teeth, spider-like hands, and dark clothes, all fixtures of racially-charged anti-Jewish propaganda. He traveled with rats, bugs, and spiders, again emphasizing the connection to plague vectors, and his methods of predation struck viewers as twisted, frightening, and wrong to all senses, devoid of any hint of sexuality. The anti-semitic connection unfortunately drew in that ‘wrongness’ as another inherent aspect — now, in addition to the assertion that the Jews were vampires, they added that the vampires were Jews — that these monsters were identified by these cultural aspects which made them more monstrous than before by the inclusion. Nosferatu also debuted for a different cultural audience; whereas Dracula was aimed toward English audiences, Nosferatu was rewritten to be placed in, populated by and directed to the German community. It premiered in 1922, between World War I and World War II, and it took every anti-semitic depiction and bias as inspiration to horrify its audiences in a direct continuation of the Blood Libel through the very specific insinuation of outright vampirism.(8) In World War II propaganda, this lie was used to great effect to dehumanize the Jews again and make them repulsive. Combined with prior Blood Libel practices, the anti-semitism rampant in Germany provided fertile ground for them to deprive millions of Jews of their homes, communities, livelihoods, possessions, and lives. The aftermath of the Holocaust struck Blood Libel and the easy villains-as-Jews stereotype from the media, for the first time in centuries.

Vampiric ‘Jewishness’ mercifully faded from the forefront of public consciousness as other fears took precedence. Dracula’s own eponymous Count was decades ahead of its time in bridging the xenophobic fears of racial blood pollution and societal divide with unvoiced fears of homosexuality, and classist struggles against the aristocracy. Given the close proximity of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, and the prevailing theory that an aristocrat or upper-class individual committed the murders, it allowed for a fortuitous segue into less controversial camps. From an economic mindset, some association remained. Even after the Jews began to be perceived as ‘white’, they were still racially othered, still considered a subset like Caucasian and Aryan, still excluded with their own strict rules of bloodlines and family ties. Due to longstanding laws that dictated that Jews could not own land or certain businesses, well-established Jewish families had solid links to banking, loans, and financing services, certainly making them richer than Christian or Muslim peers, and inspiring resentment in their neighbors.(9) That financial divide may have played a motivation in the pogrom targeting of Jewish communities, but it carried over strongly in anti-capitalist works. Karl Marx depicted capitalists as blood-suckers, using vampiric elements to portray capitalism as a predatory mechanism that sucked in “living labour as its soul, vampire-like.” He essentially said that the very way they lived (by the constraints of the lands they lived in) producing interest and profits were extracted from the labours and livelihoods of others, that they contributed nothing to the system but parasitically fed off it for their own benefit. (It should be noted that while Karl Marx had a Jewish background himself, he wrote works described as radically anti-semitic, like On the Jewish Question.) Others played on the stereotype of Jews as self-interested money-grubbing villains by conflating money and debt with violence, like Shakespeare’s Shylock, if not literally blood-sucking abominations, then at least perceived as grossly exploitative of those around them. Economists and critics noted that the Jewish-oriented capitalism and vampirism were closely related, particularly with regards to unrestrained consumption and accumulation of wealth and resources. Ironically, despite this extremely negative reputation that again funneled back to a definitively vampiric portrayal of exploitation and appetite, it was their detractors and aggressors who did more to steal the wealth and properties of the Jewish community wholesale, exploiters with tremendous appetites of their own for that hard-won Jewish success.

Recently, we have seen a return of vampiric elements to modern Blood Libel, through political cartoons, graffiti, slang, and propaganda. These pieces are undeniably anti-semitic in nature, and borrow from the cultural cache of the vampire, with its own tropes and stereotypes, as a new form of shorthand for the Blood Libel. No longer, for example, do we see the Jews illustrated as mutilating native children with lances, like the Christ; instead, these racist depictions show them with long fangs in their mouth exsanguinating their victims as vampires do. In many ways, the stereotypes of vampirism seem the most concise way to stigmatize the Jews, just as the way the Jews were portrayed developed the stereotypes of vampirism in the first place. The Blood Libel was weaponized against the Jewish population to remove them from the countries they made their home, kill them en mass, incite violence and hatred for them, and justify the large scale theft of their property. Unfortunately, in every regard, history has proven this to be a pretty effective way for getting rid of Jews. Whereas Satanic pacts and black magic is now seen as a ridiculous flight of fancy, and practitioners of witchcraft deserving of religious freedoms like everyone else, the capture and mutilation of children for dark rites or merely for subversive acts of loathing against their host countries still somehow is portrayed as a believable and continuous action with urban legend ‘cases’ and claims continuing to this day. As long as some faction is able to use the Blood Libel to stir public opinion against the Jews, it will be put to use, and as long as Hollywood has a fascination with the vampire, some echoes of those stereotypes will remain present in the depiction of the vampire ever-onward.

Footnotes and References
Further Reading

The Werewolf/Vampire Dichotomy

Pop culture has a fascination with monsters and monster movies, from the advent of cinema up until modern day. Movie makers and writers produce a wide spectrum of monsters dependant on the interests of the audience and the creativity of the talent involved, and the most effective and popular monster movies tap into present discussions and fears in the public consciousness. As noted before, these monster narratives allow filmmakers and writers to discuss social taboos and other large, unwieldy allegories, often by personifying the forbidden in the shape of the monster. And while tens of thousands of monster films have been made over the last hundred years, we tend to simplify it down to two very basic kernels of monster storytelling.

Despite a large pantheon of impressive monsters spanning a wide range of subjects, werewolves and vampires remain the most popular monster types, and they exist in a kind of framed dichotomy in the same way that we’ve polarized the colours red and blue, or pitted pirates and ninjas against each other in a short-lived fad. While the werewolf and the vampire used to coexist peaceably — ‘The children of the night! What music they make!’ — pop culture gradually shifted the two into a comfortable opposition of ideals, from tabletop roleplaying games to film franchises centered around their eternal warfare. The idea of culture-clash between the two became most overt with the popularity of the Twilight franchise, when teens and young adults enamoured with the series were asked to choose between ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, essentially declaring their public allegiance to the perceived superior boyfriend for the series’s female protagonist. The idea had been percolating in the decades prior, particularly with the emergence of supernatural erotica, as subtext became text. Now, the question of werewolves and vampires in opposition added itself to accepted lore. In a way, this helped cement their position as the co-regents of the monster world. Popular rivals fare better when placed in diametric opposition, because doing so artificially limits the choice to one or the other. At the same time, it emphasized the polarized differences between them that contributed to the easy opposition: intellect and emotion, impulse and control, neat and messy, wild and tame, earnest and restrained. Because we can recognize aspects from both sides of this polarity in ourselves and our culture, both have retained social cache. The way the narrative structures have been set up, the aesthetics of these creatures, and the allegories they represent all allow for temporal facelifts to keep pace with each generation, fresh and relevant for all situations. The polarized dichotomy between these monsters also allow us to introduce or mix up a wide array of allegories and dissect what we are afraid of through shifting expressions of these basic monster types. Romanticization is a way of removing the fear from these monsters, though, and as pop culture’s love affair with werewolves and vampires has taken the sexual undercurrents as its new output, we once again must reinvent what it means to be a werewolf or a vampire to provide these monsters to new generations to come.

It’s important to note that my generalizations largely refer to the male monster figures in their fixture in society; while similar tropes are present in the female versions or spin-offs (eg Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter), these presentations give more weight to gender tensions, sexualization, and female empowerment or exploitation than universalized fears. Anything explicitly referring to female tropes or changes outside this paradigm will be remarked upon.

Narrative Structure

Werewolf and vampire tales have specific narrative structures that remain fairly consistent throughout their allegorical interpretations. The werewolf transformation story is always presented as a ‘terror by night’ with high collateral damage. If the werewolf is the protagonist figure, oftentimes they begin blissfully unaware of their dark side unleashed on the populace, awakening in a foreign environment, frequently nude, without any memory of their transformation or glut of carnage. Ignorance is the last shred of bliss. Like Oedipus, when they discover the truth, they resign themselves to a life of exile, frantically search for a cure, or seek out death as the only certain relief from their affliction. Vampire stories have traditionally remained distant from the vampire’s narrative. They might offer the vampire an opportunity to tell their story, but couched in that distance, the audience has no certainty for whether this is a neatly packaged lie to induce sympathy, or true revelations bestowed in a moment of fellow-feeling, a break from their aloof nature. The vampire is a quiet predator who works on one or two victims at a time, slipping into and out of bedrooms, occasionally taunting the victim’s cohort, but otherwise remaining a thief in the night. It’s a slow, draining, plaguelike terror, ill-defined and difficult to defeat, but always vanquished by a pure heart.

Werewolves represent a very primal focus in humanity. These beastly creatures give in to their impulses and desires in a multiplicity of forms beyond the physical. They are indelibly associated with nature and with the loss of control in favour of naturalism. The transformation trope generally turns man into an animalistic form, trading intellect for raw, testosteronal strength. That’s a popular image, one borrowed by ancient militaries as a scare tactic, and to bolster the morale of its footsoldiers where adequate defenses, feed, and pay would not suffice. Psychologically, it’s easy to accept the werewolf mythology and its associated transformation tropes into our lexicon; inundated with words like ‘lizard brain’, ‘alpha male’, and ‘primal self’, and with the increasing acceptance of evolutionary theory, culture has left a lot of openings for man’s ‘animalistic nature’ to assert itself. It’s interesting to see where the werewolf movies retain public interest. During times of great struggle, where the individual man feels weak and helpless, suppressing frustrations against a cold and structured society, the werewolf myth finds a home on the screen. Werewolves represented an outlet to vent those aggressions in a more ‘naturalistic’ sense against the unfeeling and inhuman violence of long-distance warfare, the atomic bomb, the cubical-divided workplace where interaction was limited. The werewolf offers a form of fullest expression of self with no memory or responsibility for their actions.

Counterpoint to these almost positive expressions of personal power, the werewolf also represents the loss of control, becoming too naturalistic and losing identity to the passions. There is a certain essence of humanity in the later representations (devoid of the transformation fears) that is absent in the werewolf-as-monster stories, and lost with each rising moon. Giving in to that monstrous impulse eliminates all forms of self-control, removes that person entirely from society into a very isolating existence. Oftentimes, those who transform wind up hurting the ones they love most in the course of their unnatural existence. The werewolf/transformation narrative is a suitable allegory for addictions and self-serving pleasures: while pursuing their desires, they become slaves to their urges, and those urges destroy them. A werewolf has visceral physical power granted to him, the ability to destroy, but this power is more of a bind and impediment than the offering of more complete self-determination; it is an illusory feeling, and emphasizes that power cannot be mistaken for control.

Vampires, in comparison, represent a sense of super-perfection of self. The modern pop culture vampire maintains a certain dignity in his dealings, from drawing humans into his thrall to feeding upon them. He is stylish, suave, and sexual, retaining a sense of old-world manners and wealth with the recent addition of societal acceptance for women’s rights or homosexuality, in short, viewed as the perfect gentleman suitor for all modern women. The 1931 depiction of Dracula was a fangless predation, moving in for a kiss that never landed, but soon the eroticization would take center stage. Hollywood stripped him of his blatant monstrosity and cloaked him in allure. Where the novel’s justification for his titles was a long and bloody history as a warrior-prince, the movie gave him the kind of nobility more recognizable to Englishmen. The vampire is a crystallization of the nostalgia for the past, with little adaptation for the crassness of the present, a fairy tale prince with a dark flaw that set him apart as a ‘bad boy’. Vampires have the curious nature of looking backward and looking forward at the same time, and as the stories slowly moved away from focus on the ‘living corpses’ aspect, the monsters became beautified. They could offer all the benefits of living in the past and the certainty of living the future out unchanging, unaging, undecaying. It was the promise of the golden apples in Greek mythology, a return to Eden: knowledge, and immortality with eternal youth.

The dark prince appearance also conceals an unpleasant side frequently played up in vampire films. Although vampires have little in the way of physical monstrosity, they remain at heart predators, and it’s terrifying to consider that one of your friends, neighbors, or family members may be concealing treacherous desires. Depending on the film or book, the thirst for blood may be depicted as an unfortunate necessity, like human hunger for food, to be sated reluctantly; or it may be presented as an unavoidable addiction, where a single sniff, a single drop, a single taste is enough to incite a sharklike feeding frenzy. For all that the vampire wants to be gentle, sating those urges requires hurting and victimizing a human, usually one they’ve set aside as a love interest or sexual partner. And in the multiplicity of films that offer no vampiric viewpoint at all beyond stock villain, the ability to blend in and get close implies a more unsavory form of human-to-human predation.


An important part of the representation of werewolves and vampires is their physical presentation, and beyond the monstrous figures stereotyped to bear-sized wolves and man-sized bats, their human forms featured strongly in how they were received by audiences, as well as what they represented.

Contemporary parody and humor media made the immediate connection between the werewolves and the hippies, counter-culture warriors hungering for a more expressive time, where man was given the right and freedom to howl. Examine the aesthetic of the werewolf through the ages, in his human form, and you’ll find the same physical tropes represented: longer, shaggier hair, sideburns or facial hair; a broad, strong build, a gradual shift from propriety to more provocative attire (unusually revealing for the era), a withdrawal from society and its conventions. The visual openness underscored the emotional openness that the werewolf explored. The Wolfman Jack from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Shaggy’s short-lived tenure as a werewolf in Scooby Doo! And the Reluctant Werewolf each show the most obvious conflation between the hippy culture and werewolves, using bipedal wolf-man forms with differentiated faces and hair-versus-body hair, as well as full human attire to illustrate this fusion. It’s true that the early cinematic depictions of werewolves also went the wolf-man route, but this was stated to be a product of the limitations of movie makeup, prosthetics, and puppetry for the time period; these depictions of werewolves in ragged clothing focused on grotesquely liminal fusion of a man who wore his passions and his hungers openly, loosely garbed in the visage of humanity but visibly set apart.

In comparison to the werewolf, the pop culture vampire has always been immaculately groomed, with no facial hair (even in fashion eras where some facial hair is considered attractive), slicked back hair kept short, displays of wealth in jewelry, and fashionable dark attire, if somewhat dated. The 1931 version of Dracula portrayed the Count in more contemporary attire, fit for a night at the opera, rather than the 1880s fashion, or that of the centuries of his existence prior. It was such a strikingly appealing look that future portrayals lagged over further updates to the design, even if presenting a non-Dracula vampire. Grandpa from the Munsters and Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows both adhered to this convention. The look simultaneously suggested glamour and wealth or ‘class’, and a tightly controlled image: power, money, sex. Lestat and Louis from Interview with the Vampire both dressed to the contemporary high-class dress code of the retrospective period the film took place, adorned with flashy vests, embroidered coats, and long, flowing, romantic hair, but as the film concludes in 1990s, they’re both still sporting frilled cuffs and poofy shirts, stuck in the conventions of the past. Some vampires were able to adapt, certainly, and now we can integrate portrayals with crisp business suits or bad-boy leather jackets and jeans, just as the vampire stories have shifted from obvious outsiders to invisible threats; largely, there’s just enough of a differentiation in style to draw interest and approval from prospective prey. It’s a mechanism to attract victims, but the pop culture convention of physical attractiveness also is one of the few ‘benefits’ associated with the vampiric curse. For that, it’s interesting that the inability for vampires to be photographed or viewed in the mirror became such a large part of cultural mythology. The only way for humans to perceive their own fleetingly mortal youth and beauty is through photographs and mirrors; here, as the vampires gain the ability to impress that upon others, they lose the ability to appreciate it for themselves. And as humans remember the past through photographs, so too would vampires become unmoored from the public record, eternally living in the moment. It’s the paradox of living in the past, and simultaneously having no past to speak of. These details lend themselves well to more abstract and allegorical representations of high concepts like time, decay, and mortality through more introspective cycles of horror media.

Allegorical Representation

Horror media cycles through a series of monster types in response to environmental shifts in interest. The easiest example is the rise in alien movies around the time that the Cold War started heating up and the Space Race gained traction. Alien movies have three subsets: alien invasion, interplanetary warfare, and alien abduction; two of those, featuring strong cultural or planetary clashes and the struggle for existence in the face of a cold and inhuman enemy, clearly paralleled propagandist pieces on the USSR. Rather than name the present enemy, or parallel present turmoil in past wars, moviemakers chose to use the monster movies as allegory and outlet for these tensions. Alien horror movies have entered typical shorthand for ‘evil empires’ or administrations out to ‘destroy our way of life’, and this simplification of the themes helps explain when and why these alien films reappear. Elemental monsters and natural crises, likewise, return amidst discussions of human impact on our environment, nature responding to our pollutions and manipulations with a strong retributive force. It would make sense that, likewise, werewolves and vampires have allegorical substructures tapping into generalized societal fears. These monster types have existed longer than the environmental monsters or the alien threats, though, and as witnessed in the aforementioned Twilight films, their basal allegories have changed over the years. The Godzilla film franchise is over sixty years old, but while these ‘kaiju’-type monsters now emblemize the effects of human pollution, the first film suggested the destructive power of the United States’ atomic weaponry against the Japanese islands, itself an allegory against a monstrous political superpower. In comparison with werewolves and vampires, this is a relatively young genre. We can expect that in addition to the overarching themes present in the two monster types, both might be subject to some allegory-shifts over the course of their long lifespans.

The werewolf narrative is actually an examination of transformation in its broadest sense, and the repressed internal self coming to the surface, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even the Incredible Hulk representing modern expressions of this trope. The Jekyll/Hyde story follows the traditionalist approach toward werewolves, suggesting a purposeful transformation into a monster for the sake of the individual’s pleasures, and it’s an outlier against the more popular representation of lycanthropy as an unwanted ‘curse’. These narratives couple physical transformation with moral or internal transformation, literalizing degeneracy as something inherent and visible to outsiders. While these stories and early werewolf depictions indicated a degree of acceptance and involvement in their lycanthropy, 1970s monster movie narratives removed even the vaguest sense of awareness of their actions from the werewolf to place them as an unfortunate protagonist. They would remain completely unaware of what was happening to them, and would be as victimized by their self-expression as the werewolf’s victims were. The horror turned from blatant self-indulgence of violent, tabooed acts to the horror of the loss of agency. It’s no coincidence that contemporaneous Jekyll/Hyde narratives followed suit, divorcing the moral ‘super-ego’ Jekyll from the amoral ‘id’ his hidden self represented. If this self-expression came without awareness for the consequences, then the fault supposedly could not lie with the man. Regardless, the impulses remained, originating in the subconscious of the so-called moral individual; the only difference would be how ‘moral’ it would be to accept, condone, and facilitate the unlawful acts their other side committed. The normalcy of the werewolves by day or the meek versions of monstrous doctors like Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Banner also call into question the universality of these monstrous impulses inside us all. Our moral selves move through society with a respect for taboos, but the desire to breach taboos is also inherent, and the temptations boundless. These monsters illustrate what happens when that willpower and self-control is weakened, or when the curious side is given the strength to overpower the will.

Among its allegories, the vampire myth is an effective discussion of plague vectors and culture clashes. It played off well during times of widespread sickness, particularly with invisible transmission, and it resurfaced again in new, clublike settings to prey upon the promiscuous and the ‘deviant’, alternating between then-common sexually transmitted diseases, and the newfound horror of AIDS. Chameleon-like, the vampire has always been depicted as a kind of outsider, delineated by his wealth, his aristocratic background, his foreign birth, or his sexual charisma. Narratives like Nosferatu or Salem’s Lot used a shock of physical monstrosity, but tied these expressions to the vampire’s outsider status as a tired and limitingly racist expression of the evil immigrant. There is no adaptation to their environment in these narratives, because these evil immigrants are only here to despoil the native women and spread their sickness through the land. Although we like to view ourselves as slightly more civilized now, strains of xenophobia have generational dominance, and these allegories may still find use for present audiences.

When paired with a more attractive visage, the vampire instead took more easily to the threat of rape, underscored by decades of opposite-gender predation affirming the sexual nature of the contact, then subverted in titillating implications of bisexuality or homosexuality, as with Interview with the Vampire or The Hunger. The taking of the blood as rape remains the strongest allegorical impulse in these films, particularly due to the increased sexualization of vampires, but with the recent inclusion of loving consent or grey-consent, most vampire depictions in the last ten years have turned instead to tropic depictions of fractured fairy-tale love affairs, leading to a cooling of interest in vampire horror stories. Buffy, Vampire Diaries, True Blood all straddle Hollywood’s uncomfortable new border between the dark prince charming and the dangerous predator, and it remains to see where vampire fiction will go now that preteen sparkle remains in every crack and crevice of pop culture’s memory.

The Present and Future

The basic allegories present in these examples of horror media have remained true for most of the life of vampire and werewolf narratives, but over the last ten to twenty years, new allegories formed, mostly as a response to the increasing romanticization of these monsters. Some of these narratives even called into question whether these monsters could even be called monsters anymore.

For example, as werewolves took the place of romantic protagonists or rough, wild men to win over, becoming more socially acceptable and removed from their monstrosity, they returned to one of the basic ‘real world werewolf’ tropes, namely being able to recall the time spent as a wolf, and to direct the actions of their feral self; essentially, offering back control. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Jacob’s depiction in Twilight both offer a ‘super-hero’-type transformation sequence for the monster, removed from uncontrollable external factors like the position of the moon. The BBC mini-series Jekyll handed the reins of control back to the good doctor through a kind of shared-persona born out of love and dedication rather than selfishness and wickedness. It might have been an unsatisfying end to the normally tragic narrative, but it represented a distinct tonal shift in the way our society views these monster-transformations. Even the Hulk, long seen as the bastion of uncomfortable, uncontrolled outbursts of raw primal rage, now has meditative mechanisms to channel his strength into something positive. When the uncontrollable becomes controlled, in other words, it is no longer monstrous.

Perhaps in response to the loss of terror toward this basal element of the werewolf/transformation narrative, new transformation allegories developed. Instead of the animalistic monster developing from naturalistic (masculine) hormonal impulses taken to an extreme, transformation horror explored the perversion of science (a sharp difference from the naturalistic werewolf, at first, but a perversion typified by its sublimation to the power of nature), gender liminality, and the effects of puberty. The scientific angle is present in the Jekyll/Hyde narrative and in the Hulk, but fulfilled to a large degree in science-fiction horror like The Fly or even District 9, where the protagonists endure protracted, unstoppable physical transformations, losing control of their bodies and their identities. Transformation stories involving male-female gender liminality were a rare and fleeting fad, playing upon societal shock or discomfort with transgender individuals or the equation of male and female; Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde typifies this kind of story, implicitly suggesting an inherent wrongness in the introduction of female hormones into the male body, or ambiguous interchange between the male and female bodies. These stories indicated that body dysmorphia was itself monstrous, and the desire to physically alter oneself to the alternate presenting gender a sin against nature, but they focused dominantly on the feminization of women as the inappropriate interchange. Women, again, come on trial in puberty as the driving force of werewolf transformation horror. The body changes present in puberty are universal, as are the psycho-sexual developments for children entering into adulthood, but the subversion of these changes literalized in a werewolf story plays more strongly in women’s bodies. Ginger Snaps demonstrates this formula from first menses presented as abominable and onward, and with the isolating cohort of sisterhood as a form of pack mentality beyond mere sexualization. In fact, it amplifies the ‘horror’ of feminine puberty by conflating werewolf infection with bloody discharge from below, again emphasizing how unnatural and monstrous the processes are perceived. While equally dubious a ‘fear’ as that of the transgender allegory, the puberty angle holds the most promise for future werewolf and transformation stories, especially as traditional werewolves are effectively defanged through romanticization.

Why are we no longer afraid of vampires? The answer comes not entirely from our examination of vampires, but from our examination of humanity. As pop culture became more secularized, the importance of the human soul receded from discussions in favour of ‘consciousness’. Philosophically, too, the discussion of the consciousness precluded an innate moral compass; humans, we said, were not born moral, but conformed to societal expectations and rulesets to navigate through life. Vampires have always been very deliberately conscious and calculating monsters, capable of conversing with humans easily and blending in with their prey. Unlike the werewolves, they’re very ‘human’, and humanized with every opportunity to give themselves self-expression. Dracula, the vampire who popularized all vampires for western audiences, reacted vengefully to the deaths of his loved ones, expressed the capacity to love, provided sustenance for his family, and engaged in discussions of poetry, literature, history, and theology. He demonstrated a humanity in life after death, emotional and intellectual. Is there any wonder that in the absence of a tangible threat against spiritual oblivion, the vampire became attractive? Immortality and eternal youth, the perception of old-money acquisition, the opportunity to be well-traveled and well-read, in exchange for a little bloodletting from people you could make forget — who wouldn’t be tempted? It’s the number one reason for teen interest, actually. As an uncertain future and the disappointment and perils of adulthood loom ahead, here fiction offers a way to freeze time in the mythologized ‘best years of your life’, and in the arms of a perfectly charming ‘dark prince’ to boot. Dracula, again, was a titled, landed, old-family noble who fed from a neat cross-section of England’s class structure; it is often supposed that his blonde bride is flanked by two serving class women whom he brought into immortal life alongside their mistress. A nobleman consorting with those below his station is the stuff of hot-blooded romance fiction, and pairing that with the offering of immortality the absolute dealbreaker for teen interest.

One loss for the vampire narrative in this newfound appeal is the traditional vamp. Female vampires or ‘vamps’ have always been the object of male desire in pop culture. From their introduction onward, they consistently played up irresistible beauty and cool attentions. As the original ‘femme fatale’, to love them is to invite death; they consume the strength and love of a grown man and abandon him when he is spent. In their earliest depictions, these lady vampires were merely another attractive face for Death herself inviting a bewitching, obsessive, all-consuming passion that would lead to male downfall, eg, ‘flirting with Death’. These depictions provided a rare opportunity for female empowerment, but with the simultaneous maligning of female beauty and sexual desire as entrapment; not by their words (most remained voiceless), but their bodies as sufficient weapons to allure their prey. Their contrasting male counterparts did not include such levels of seduction early on, instead vying for a combination of brute masculine strength and hypnotic powers to render their prey defenceless and available, or attacking while their victims slept. Hardly the same kind of effort involved! Interestingly, as male vampires have gained sexual charisma in pop culture, female vampires have receded from the discussion as seductresses. It indicates in part the shifting audience for vampire narratives from male-oriented horror to female-oriented romance, and the empowerment of women beyond their bodies and into the traditionally male spheres. These sexualized representations are no longer necessary now that women themselves have moved beyond simplified madonna/whore complexes in monster narrative. What is offered in return? Something more of even footing, pulling the lady monsters into the mother/maiden/crone paradigm as inscrutable matriarchs, sexy girlfriends, doting wives, loyal mothers, and obedient daughters, everything, in short, that women presently face as roles. There’s much potential to be found in plumbing the depths of the female vampire, particularly in the struggle against these restrictive stereotypes, and we may see the werewolf/vampire dichotomy rehashed for more exclusively feminine allegories as these discussions come to the foreground again.

Similarities and Conclusions

Both of these stories appeal to audiences as a response to feelings of repression, whether in the socio-political context and the psycho-sexual context. Each narrative arc suggests a superficial degree of freedom and empowerment in these monstrous forms, whether from powerlessness in society, or from the cruelties of aging, but reveals to ultimately be a form of restriction in themselves. For all the vampire’s charm, he still resigns himself to feasting on the blood of innocents and strangers around him, bound by his hunger. Should he find love, his options are to leave the human despoiled but watch them wither over a mortal lifespan, or to seduce them into the same unfortunate lifestyle he loathes, and it remains to be seen whether that love lasts when the flush of blood has left their body. The vampire can intermingle with society, but fundamentally remains an outsider, incapable of forming families outside of unnatural curse-based ties. Likewise, the werewolf maintains an arm’s length distance, the illusion of control in the daylight shattered again and again by the waxing and waning of the inconstant moon. His hunger moves beyond satiation to addiction, controlling his every movement as a monster. While he is more human than the vampire, he can never be accepted by society because of the inherent threat that he represents, forcing him into loneliness and isolation; again, the only pack he can make is one born of spreading his infection to others. Both display a kind of inevitability: they will hunger, they will feed, they will descend further into the darkness. The sad fates of these monsters exemplifies the harm in indulging in sins, vices, and taboos unchecked, but each also illustrates the threats from outside: the abusive husband, the rapist hiding behind the face of your employer. They’re universally accessible for a multiplicity of shared allegories, and for all the superficial divides, they have much in common to anchor them as fundamentals in monster stories. Pop culture may have distilled them down to two hot men fighting over a woman, but there’s so much beyond that that reaches out to concerns still present in our culture, and to concerns we’re only now beginning to touch upon, and they will remain a mainstay in media for as long as they’re useful. Maybe forever. They’ve tapped the vein of public consciousness, and there’s so much to draw from that it’s doubtful the well will ever run dry.

Werewolf References
Vampire References


Taboos are an important part of monster stories, and many monster stories originated to inform their audiences of the consequences of taboo breach. They are deeply intertwined with our fears and impulses as a form of central drive for human actions. It makes sense that we should look into the meaning and origins of taboos to better understand how they’re employed in monster stories, and for what purpose. Understanding taboos help explain the appeal of the monsters, and how they’ve maintained a kind of universality despite sourcing from different parts of the world.

What is Taboo?

The word ‘taboo’ is a loan-word taken from a Polynesian dialect by Captain James Cook on a visit to Tonga in 1771. Taboos, also spelled ‘tabu’ in Tongan and ‘tapu’ in Maori dialects, are specific prohibitions commonly accepted by a society; actions, thoughts, or words considered to be uncommittable as either the sacred or the profane. In modern culture, the word ‘taboo’ has been colloquially watered down to ‘forbidden’ or ‘verboten’, removing the rationalization behind the taboo but retaining the threat of punishment. Originally, they were believed to have been passed down by the gods or spirits, and violating the taboos would result in serious harm: sicknesses would affect the individual, family, or community; rivers would dry up; crops would die; women would miscarry; or even random, unavoidable death. The inclusion of taboos in early legal code or moral code was an important addition to ensure that they were recognized and respected.

Our recognized taboos can be broadly split into several groups, with a dominant focus on the sexual and dietary. We have additional societal/social taboos which are more largely the basis of moral or legal codes; these are less unpalatable to us, or are highly specific to certain religions, and thus they rarely inform monster myth. They are more frequently breached and tend to be highly legislated, which also means that they are brought into discussion more frequently, and considered to be acceptable to speak about. Since societal taboos are subject to the views of society at large, and are considered acceptable to discuss, they are likewise subject to additional stipulations or alterations, up to and including the gradual dissolution of these taboos.

A selection of some of these taboos are listed below, split along loose categories I developed. It is important to note that these taboos are not universal; nor, for that matter, do these reflect the full range of taboos that have ever existed or ever will exist. While our present understanding of human nature and taboos has watered some of these down or rendered them obsolete by societal standards, the rationalization behind them and their subsequent use in monster myth requires some consideration for their former taboo status.



  • do not have intercourse with a multiplicity of individuals, particularly after pledging oneself (promiscuity)
  • do not have intercourse with someone who is pledged to someone else (adultery/cuckholding)
  • do not have intercourse with someone of the same gender (homosexuality)
  • do not have intercourse with someone of a different skin colour or perceived race (biracial relationships)
  • do not attempt to change your sexual identity or gender identity (alt sexualities/transgender identity)
  • do not have intercourse with yourself (masturbation)


  • do not have intercourse with a relative (increased taboo for increased degree of relation) – (incest)
  • do not have intercourse with a child or individual with significant age difference (pedo/hebe/ephebophilia)
  • do not have intercourse with the dead (necrophilia)
  • do not have intercourse with animals (zoophilia/bestiality)
  • do not have intercourse with someone who does not want to have intercourse with you (rape)
  • do not have intercourse with a menstruating individual
  • do not have intercourse with a pregnant individual



  • do not eat certain foods banned by religion
  • do not eat certain foods on certain days
  • do not eat certain herbs if …
  • do not consume foods banned by caste or social structure


  • do not drink blood
  • do not consume human flesh
  • do not consume excrement
  • do not consume things harmful to the body


  • do not kill
  • do not knowingly attempt to harm another human (without having a specific, societally-approved reason)
  • do not harm animals
  • do not take what does not belong to you
  • do not lie (whether under oath, perjury; financially, educationally, job-related…)
  • do not use profanity/non-socially acceptable words
  • do not defecate oneself in public
  • do not disrespect one’s god
  • do not partake in rituals, customs, attire, jobs, behaviours not ascribed to one’s class

Common Themes

More broadly, these listed taboos can be condensed down to larger thematic examinations:

  • Forbidden knowledge
  • Desecration of the dead
  • Disrespect for personal autonomy and self-determination
  • Harming the defenceless
  • Harming one’s bodily integrity or connection to the divine
  • Entrapment under false pretenses; fallacy

Forbidden knowledge is the first and largest taboo, although its role has more recently acted to inform other taboos. As a fundamental taboo, we see it in myths as broad as the Exile from Eden, Pandora’s Box, Prometheus’s Gift of Fire, Quetzalcoatl’s Curse, Odin’s Agonies, Orpheus’s Flight from Hades, and so on. In each of these tales, the access of forbidden knowledge comes at great personal cost or punishment. By violating the essential taboo differentiating the classes of access, each of these individuals seeks to uplift themselves above their station and take part in something they aren’t allowed to. Curiosity is punished, pride for status precedes downfall, disobedience is met more severely than anything else. Even the gods themselves are bound by these rules. Quetzalcoatl played a role much like Prometheus in the formation of the first humans, according to his source myths, but when he looked upon the nudity of one of his shrine maidens and learned lust, his desires and subsequent actions cursed him into a horrible snakelike form, or immediate immolation. Prometheus brought fire to the humans and was suspended on a rock to have his liver consumed and regenerated every day. Odin brought runic writing into existence by hanging himself on a tree, spearing himself in the side, and starving himself over nine days and nights, then, finding that insufficient a pursuit of knowledge, gouged an eye out for a taste from the well of cosmic knowledge. Punishing the gods emphasized the unbreakable nature of these taboos across all classes, while simultaneously indicating that the desire to act on them was present in all classes.

Respect for the dead is a fundamental both for sociological and biological reasons. Rituals of washing the dead and making sure they were properly interred or burned developed both as a way to ensure that the dead individual enjoyed the rest they were due, and as a way to prevent the spread of sickness from the processes of natural decay, if not most overtly a vector for plague. Burial and funeral rites featured so strongly as an important part of social customs that they would become a prominent element in monster stories. The threat of eternal suffering for those who were not appropriately buried, and the dead returning to haunt their families were both sufficient enough to ensure that burial rites were respected as a fundamental human right.

Personal autonomy is perceived as the first fundamental right, and the most shocking to have taken away, which makes it more astonishing that it is so frequently violated for so many people. Today, we view personal autonomy as a wide-cast net, including our labour and education, our ability to travel, our names, our right to choose a spouse or engage in mating behaviours, the food we eat, the entertainment we consume, the right to modify our bodies, and so on. Slavery and rape are abhorrent to us because it violates the basic principles of self-determination, overriding someone’s will with another’s. Most monster stories incorporate some degree of loss of personal autonomy and self-determination, whether by installing a monstrous impulse that the conscious mind can no longer resist, like the urge to feed; changing the physical composition of the character to something monstrous and inhuman; or subsuming their will to the will of another, like the first zombie stories, or the brief craze of malevolent hypnotists.

Harming the defenceless is a particularly low blow for monster narrative, because it indicates the complete lack of humanity in the monstrous individual. Our society may be hard and difficult to thrive in, but our narratives emphasized a respect for those who could not take care of themselves. Our protagonists are children, orphans, and underdogs; the wealthy and entitled have no heroic path to lift them to greater glories. Monsters rarely approach fit, healthy white males as their prey. They feed upon children, women, and the infirm, those who cannot fight back. This taboo instills a sense of honour, which is not present in monsters, despite how they would depict themselves.

Themes of bodily integrity connect back to personal autonomy, of course, but also strongly to man’s connection to the divine. Every culture has some narrative indicating how humans were shaped or chosen by the gods, conceal some god-spirit in their bosom, or how they have the capacity to become gods themselves through specific works. That connection to divinity is specified by the bodily integrity, and can be compromised. The trading of one’s immortal soul in a demonic pact is a more recent incorporation of this theme. More commonly, scatalogical themes or predation behaviours imply the loss of bodily integrity through the spread of monster-based sicknesses, or making the sacred profane. The lowest caste in the Indian class structure is composed of those who must handle bodily wastes or take care of the dead. These things were seen as impurities that eternally defiled an individual and their status.

Lies, fallacies, entrapment, and promise-breaking are fundamental monster-behaviours and widely regarded as a basic rule that must be maintained. The Greeks prized craftiness, up to and including lies, but they had specific conditions that couched even this approval. Over the last few centuries, society has been more inclusive of lies as a societal and even heroic act, as long as the ‘right reasons’ for it are made clear. But the spoken word as bond must remain a fundamental part of the monster mythos because it is the foundation of society itself. Without the ability to trust one another, trade and commerce breaks down, as does long-standing host conventions (like not killing your guests when they present weakness around you), and the ability to maintain community. Monsters are a divisive element, often existing within the community, and spoiling it from the inside out.


Taboos have frequently developed out of solid and sensible understanding of nature. Certain hallucinogens were made taboo for common people. Tribal communities understood their effects, but believed them to be gifts of visions from the gods; the godliness put these substances out of the hands of most civilians. If the substance was made freely available, the god-visions coming through so many different outlets would render them contradictory or dubious at best, or invalid at worst. Taboos reaffirmed class structures, gender ‘norms’ and behaviours, and job functions with hefty punishments for transgressors. But how did these taboos originate, and what what purpose did they have in the formation of these structures?

A common underlying theory on the development of sexual taboos is the natural instinct toward the preservation of the species. If an individual or group considers their ‘species’ to be further limited by geographical, cultural, or physiological differences (e.g., belief in racial divides, human subspecies, and racial superiority/inferiority, all of which have been countered by science), they may develop taboos against the dilution of their stock with someone outside their narrowed parameters, a taboo that is dominantly the perpetuation of a specific belief set and protection from the ‘outsiders’ who might influence that belief-set. In more recent years, various social-taboos have been struck down or weakened by changing group beliefs, including the taboos of homosexuality, biracial coupling, and the transgender identity. These taboos are all related to the general preservation instinct: homosexual pairings do not produce children, biracial coupling breaks down perceived racial purity, and trans individuals have the perception or stigma of altered or ‘mutilated’ genitalia, rendering them unsuitable mates in a chromosomal male/female pairing. The breakdown in their strength and range of influence may be in part due to more widely available information on the misconceptions behind these taboos: homosexual or bisexual individuals may still have or adopt children and can be good parents; biracial coupling does not produce ‘inferior’ children, introduce defects, or predicate itself on a power imbalance in the relationship; trans individuals have increasing access to safe surgical procedures, many choose to not have surgery performed on their genitalia, hormone replacement therapy does not affect their biological material, and their gender and presentation has no bearing on the effectiveness of their parenting skills, and so on.

For socially conscious individuals, particularly this most recent generation, the idea of equating these issues with taboos like consuming excrement or committing incest with a close family member borders on obscenity. It may be difficult to remember that these three taboos in particular only gained traction as legitimate forms of self-expression in the last fifty years, and still encounter problems with acceptance to this day. Taboos are also formed based on gut reactions and instincts instead of solid scientific fact. If a culture, for example, holds the male genitalia in special regard, then the removal or alteration of those genitals produces feelings of shock, revulsion, and terror. In places where these taboos are viewed as nearly universal, enacting them could easily be used as disproportionate retribution or a terrifying symbol to combat enemy morale. The observance of circumcision as a respect for God’s will met with traction from other tribes and societies as a form of mutilating genitalia, even if sourced from a religious observance. In the thousands of years since circumcision was instituted, the scientific community has developed studies to indicate that early foreskin removal helped facilitate hygiene, and equally, that removal could harm the ability to enjoy sensation from usage. There are still individuals to this day who view circumcision as an act of mutilation imposed upon an individual who cannot consent to it, without a regard for the scientific or religious viewpoints; likewise, there are groups who view the act of piercing the ears as mutilation, or groups that view piercing the ears as a sign of holiness. As long as these individuals are capable of communicating their beliefs as a group or to a group, that taboo remains valid for that community. Gut repulsion communicates the strongest taboos and trumps logic, cultural sensitivity, or religion.

The taboos listed here cannot be completely summarized by ‘an instinct toward the preservation of the species’. In the sexual taboos camp alone, the issues of promiscuity and adultery both implicitly suggest an impulse toward taking as many mates as possible, passing one’s genetic material along to the next generation, and even selecting a superior mate over the one presently employed. For those that suggest that taboos are largely formed out of animalistic behaviours, with preservation of the species as one of the primary instincts, many animals are not monogamous, and they have shorter lifespans and larger litters as balancing factors. And science, again, has come up in support of violating the taboo: polyamorous relationships in nature provide more for the offspring, and promiscuity allows for a more diverse selection of genes and competition. Humans are not monogamous by nature, neither by selection of a single mate, nor remaining widowed after that mate’s demise, unlike the truly monogamous species we have studied; if so, there would be no repercussions for acts that wouldn’t exist, like cheating on one’s mate or enjoying a variety of mates. Chastity and monogamy are entirely social structures imposed on humans. It may be more accurate to suggest that the taboos are in place for a preservation of group identity, which would include the taboos of biracial relationships, homosexuality, and transgender identity. As our society has worked to unify its people groups by new standards (or more pessimistically, targeted broader ranges of people groups to aggress), these group identities may have been modified or broken down. Alternatively, increased visibility and support for new groups formed from the taboo groups, with token ‘leaders’ spreading identification and good will, may have likewise weakened the taboos. Individuals who won public favour and then revealed themselves to be members of one of these out-groups especially contributed support; they were accepted for their talents and personhood before the classification of taboo could take effect.

Another view on the development of taboos, Freudian psychoanalysis, suggests that taboos are a form of repression taking effect. Individuals who were unwilling or unable to confront issues in their unconscious would express these issues in symbolic ways in the conscious world. Unlike many other researchers, Freud espoused much kinder opinions toward topics as universal as incest. In fact, he viewed incestuous feelings between mother-and-son and daughter-and-father as natural developmental stages present in all families, to varying degrees of literalization. Freud did not go so far as to suggest that incest was normalized, or should be, although many individuals condense his views down to the most shocking and egregious claims. Instead, he viewed patterns of misconduct as representation of incest and sexual taboos, and the acceptance of taboo-prohibitions as a societally-recognized shared structure. The same foundational impulses were present in all humans. At the time, he applied this line of reasoning as explanation for tales of abuse brought to him by the young women he studied. But as he abandoned that line of inquiry, he moved into a less literal interpretation: these foundational impulses that we considered profane affected individuals when their lives were out of balance, and they were expressed in a variety of ways as an unconscious outlet for those repressed impulses. To air them in greater narrative framework, then, would appeal to a broader audience for whom these expressions connected to the same unvoiced impulses. Innuendo and metaphor bore out these taboos to relate, communicate, interact, expel, relieve, interpret, and even satisfy these impulses in narrative form.

Taboo in Narrative

So what makes taboo so alluring for individuals to approach? Because of the strong repercussions for partaking in the taboos, ingrained from an early age, most are loathe to cross the cultural standards to enjoy a taste of the forbidden. Yet the very nature of being forbidden compels people toward it. The common expression ‘stolen cookies taste sweeter’ (or any variation of food) indicates that there is something in the risk-reward scenario itself that offers a ‘payoff’ for participating.

There are certain ‘shames’ associated with participating in taboos. Many repercussions or punishments were public, as means of discouraging others from participating in those taboos themselves, but shame had also been ingrained in the relation of the taboo. Taboo can often be split into two categories as well: the ones we’re repulsed by, and the ones we want to try but don’t want to get caught trying. Few actually want to cheat on their spouses, and fewer do, but it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say that many have entertained even momentary thoughts, or lusted after unattainable figures like celebrities while married. Religions with strong moral codes and senses of shame, like Christianity, equated conceptualization of the deed with committing the deed, so even consideration of an errant impulse specific to immediate stimuli (the attractive woman jogging in front of you on the sidewalk) or to specific objects (the famous pop star in the swimsuit in the latest magazine) carry internalized condemnation. These are developed through unvoiced or unconscious messages relayed by family, peers, and media, forming a reciprocal tie between shame and taboo.

For all that shame does to prevent us from acting on these impulses, we’re also drawn in toward that shame through curiosity. The more that shame blocks us from relieving these stresses, the more we view them through the lenses of taboo. Shame and self-loathing itself creates a psychological need for relief, which could take the form of returning to the same impulses, either in act or through fixation, neither of which is healthy. In comes the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, a word which has ties to the purging of unhealthy bodily fluids. The shame-curiosity feedback loop inherent in humans creates an emotional and mental ‘blockage’ of unhealthy thoughts and feelings that can hamper one’s fullest enjoyment of life. This mess is purged from the body through strong emotional situations in the media, through music, theatre, movies, or television, where the audience can strongly identify with the characters and follow them through their fates. Every tragic hero meets their tragic end through actions of their own design, all normal, healthy human impulses exaggerated or warped to something abnormal. In the most literal sense, catharsis is believed to provide fitting narrative judgments for all the unvoiced taboos rattling around inside a person; the character takes on the role of scapegoat, almost, so that their fate stands for the fates of the audience, and so they take the sin, shame, and emotional blockage with them when they have completed their role. In modern day, we have a variety of ways to depict these taboos and induce catharsis, and chief among them seems to be monster stories.

Monsters and Taboos

Monster stories have been used for millennia as a way of approaching and exploring taboos in a safe manner. Storytellers would use monster figures as a way of conveying the punishment for violating taboos: Minos’s violation of piety by failing to sacrifice a bull to his god resulted in the infliction of a taboo lust on his wife, Pasiphae. Pasiphae’s fixation for the bull resulted in the creation of a hybrid man-bull monster child, the Minotaur. And because Minos and Pasiphae failed to parent the child, but instead locked him away, they were driven to offer seasonal sacrifices of human life to satisfy him with blood and flesh. Between the three individuals, storytellers could inform of the collective taboos of impiety and disrespect for the gods, zoophilia, failure to parent, and pseudo-cannibalism. The existence of the beast itself was a form of retributive punishment for breaching the taboos of impiety and bestiality, but it is fascinatingly implicit that the curse of taboo lust was initial punishment for the impiety, and the resulting mutant offspring punishment for both the impiety and acting on the lust. As a monster, the Minotaur was not represented with human shame or impulses. He engaged in the taboo-breach of consuming human flesh as an expression of his monstrosity, and the ‘punishment’ of death came from heroic human hands as a stabilization of taboo-breach and correction.

The existence of monsters or their actions in response to violation of taboo is often portrayed as a result or consequence of the taboo-breach, but in modern times, our myths are slightly more subtle than being directly sent for correction. 1970s monster movies onward would often have a formula for victimization: immorality was punished early on with very gory, graphic displays against premarital sex and promiscuity, drug or underage alcohol use, lack of respect for authority figures, and other lapses. The survivors of these heavy-handed retributions would usually be well-dressed, well-mannered viewer proxies, and the message was this: acting in the correct way and abiding by the unvoiced moral codes would preserve you from the sweep of reactionary violence. These monsters, slashers, serial killers, murderous ghosts, the undead, would pay for the indulgence of blood-lust with their own destruction; like the Furies and those under their thrall, their singular purpose would be an endless path of violence unto their own demise. Cabin in the Woods acted as a deconstruction of the genre and its apparent morality complex. To very literally satisfy the edicts of eldritch gods, a representative population of human teenagers would be offered up to a randomized selection of primed monsters to balance the totality of humanity’s taboo-breach with a glut of violence unto the scapegoats. While traumatized, the virginal girl and singular intended survivor of the affair would then go and relate the punishment as a reiteration of the taboo-breach’s dangers. These stories necessarily must include a survivor who operates correctly within the parameters of moral law in a restoration of order and a prescription for correct behaviour; by making these characters the heroic proxies, the audiences themselves would self-identify and take those lessons for themselves. The aforementioned Cabin in the Woods goes one further with a slightly more realistic understanding of teenage thought-processes and the fallibility of humanity; by ultimately failing to comply with these unwritten rules and by being a complexly motivated human being, the audience-insert dooms humanity to extinction by the apparently very sensitive eldritch horrors. Her acts are a taboo-breach of their own against the confines of her narrative, and are accordingly offered the maximal punishment of the taboo. In doing so, it subverts and complies with the format of this particular taboo-breach fiction.

Even tragedy was intended as a form of taboo narrative and audience catharsis. Oedipus Rex, one of the most famous taboo narratives around, featured the confirmation of a curse cast long before the titular character was even born, a curse that detailed regal patricide, mother-son incest, and his ascension to the throne through these unnatural means. Although Oedipus was fated to act out these taboos, he still earned his punishment for his role in participating. There’s a dominant message in the play, one that’s overlooked for the more lurid aspect of parental incest, but his downfall occurs not because he copulated with his own mother and produced children, but because he followed the thread of truth doggedly to its conclusion despite everyone pleading with him to abandon it. The knowledge of his unnatural union was kept from him as a form of forbidden knowledge to protect their king, their queen, and Oedipus’s children. Oedipus acted in ignorance, but his actions still had consequences: he killed his own father and slept with his mother, and when he accepted these as truths, his subjects had to respect the laws of the land against such crimes. The play has a reputation for the sensationalistic revelation and the exquisite downfall that greets every character involved, but this is a difficult example to demonstrate the nature of taboo because free will was not a factor in the violation of taboos themselves. Even his search for truth at the cost of everything else, lauded as his greatest strength and hobble, comes in response to a misfortune befalling his city, one the seers decreed was a godly response to great taboo violation — his own. This is a play where every portion of his ascension and descent comes pre-scripted and at a great cost to everyone around him, thanks to the actions of his father which spurred this curse along. And for readers or viewers who followed his misfortunes past this play, his family is further diminished in the struggles and bloodshed of Antigone, wherein observance of the royal-law over respect for family and taboo-law results in more death and division. The best lesson you can take from this is to avoid offending the gods and dooming the next two generations of your family.

Dr. Jekyll is a more modern taboo narrative, superficially focused on the alteration of physicality and the removal of the moral compass, or ‘super ego’, in the pursuit of impulse and physical pleasure. The story of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde rotates around that essential struggle between satisfying one’s curiosity for taboos and maintaining one’s good character. Forbidden knowledge splits his psyche into the obedient productive member of society and the rebellious taboo-breacher. As Hyde, he tries a little of everything, from drugs and alcohol to sexuality to violence and murder, all while maintaining public appearances as Jekyll. Similarly, Dorian Gray frees himself to commit all the violations of taboo he could care to try, when separated from those consequences. His sins are writ large on his portrait’s body, from the early aging from hard living, to the cruelties set in eyes and wrinkles, shining out of his soul. Both Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray bring about their own downfall through an act of self-harm against their amoral, taboo-violating selves, Christian souls incapable of living with the multiplicity of sins bearing down on them. The punishment, in these cases, comes from guilt, fear of being caught, or self-disgust, but these stories also indicate that in the absence of external punishment, common individuals may be compelled to act on these taboos, or more accurately, that a moral nature is not as strong a constraint on moral living as the legal system is.

Beyond punishment, these taboos were displayed in uncomfortable lights as emblemized in monster action and characterization. Dracula enthralled audiences for decades with a veritable smorgasbord of taboos, intentional, subtle, subversive, subconscious, and unconscious in origin. To list only a few: both hunters and Dracula express the transmission of blood as a form of unholy marriage between the individuals, and those having multiple transfusions or from multiple individuals a form of polyamory; Dracula, an undead creature of darkness, takes blood from his victims in sleep-states or under hypnosis, exerting his willpower to render them helpless against his assault; Dracula forces a character to drink his blood as a portion of turning her monstrous; Dracula lays claim to a male character as his own to enjoy and consume, as well as to protect, as he wishes; Dracula frequently interchanges his physical form with those of animals, and takes on an animal nature; Dracula surrounds himself with vermin, usually those typically associated with plague-bearing roles like bats, rats, and insects, and offers these to a mental patient to consume; all vampires in the novel are sacrosanct and have a visceral anathema to signs of Christianity. Where only a single taboo violation or consecutive series of taboo-breaches was sufficient for narrative device before, the titular antagonist is an (un-)living taboo in the flesh, spreading the profane in the continuation of his very existence.

The multiplicity of taboos present in Dracula certainly must be one of the reasons for its longevity. As different taboos have taken center stage in public discussion, or receded from social acceptance, Dracula has likewise adapted to his audience, revealing different portions of his ‘monstrosity’ through different emphasized taboos to suit the standards and concerns of the time. As he stands in for plague vectors, directors and writers focus heavily on the corpse-like body, the plague-bearing animal familiars, and other traits associated with infection. When he plays a role as the ‘invading foreigner’, his accent, strange dress, odd customs, and socio-political plans come to the forefront, fulfilling a plethora of negative stereotypes. When he acts as a sexual predator, his allure and seductive methods of acquiring prey take center stage. The adaptability of monster myths ensures that a larger audience connects with those stories and find them compelling, allowing them to be passed along to future generations, or to appeal to the terrors and taboos of the immediate present. So too, all stories must adapt or recede to convey their subconscious messages for now and beyond.

In upcoming posts, I examine the ritual cleansing required in the event of taboo breaches and how that applies to monster narrative’s structures and rituals of disposing of the enemy, look into the origins of monster weaknesses and where alterations or regional variations came into play, and examine taboo’s effects on the fairy tale morality that governs these original folktales, culminating with a look into the innocent protagonist’s role against the forces of darkness.



My name is Heather McCallum, and I’m a teratologist and researcher. For the past four years, I have studied the way we connect to monsters, and how our monsters connect to us. Monster stories were an important part of my childhood, but as I connected with different groups of people, I realised that these monster narratives influenced a vast body of individuals in different and discrete ways. I became excited to see just how important these monsters were.

Monsters are an important part of our storytelling. They help us conceptualize and relate unspoken evils, discuss the formation, violation, or destruction of taboos, and address certain parts of ourselves that we’d rather not look too far into. We see the discussion of what we consider to be a monster, and what our monsters do for us as early as the child-aimed ‘The Monster at the End of This Book‘, up through ratty copies of ‘Goosebumps‘ passed hand-to-hand in middle schools and public libraries, and into splatterhouse films, the delight of teenagers and young adults who want to prove they’re not afraid of the dark. We make fun of our monsters, like in Ghostbusters, or we take them seriously enough to put our own faces on them, like in Silence of the Lambs. Our monsters can have paranormal powers, or be extensions of our own science, or be the paladin of forceful, merciless nature, or be twisted psychological studies.

Depending on the storyteller, our monsters can act as hilarious examinations of society, the stuff of nightmares, or romantic ideals. Fear can be named and minimized, or heightened as the ‘essence of things unseen’. But at the end of the day, we create monsters, and we use monsters, and we tell stories about monsters, and my purpose is to figure out their purpose in our lives. What makes monsters so appealing? Why do they sell? Why do women want to date them and men want to be them? How do we use our monsters, and how do we incorporate them into our lives? I’ll be exploring these questions and more.

Join me as I journey In the Footsteps of Monsters.