The fascination of humanity with everything supernatural is as old as time itself and sometimes, historical facts and figures fueled our natural fear and appetite to learn about and try to explain paranormal phenomena, myths and legends, dark historical happenings and references that make a solid part of every population’s local culture in any part of the world. These myths and legends have been wisely exploited by the entertainment industry, no matter if we talk about books, movies, TV series or even video games.
One of the most iconic TV shows in the nineties, The X Files, aimed to thrill and scare us with their “monster of the week” episodes focusing on supernatural manifestations, rediscovery of ancient myths and practices and introducing us to the concept of the truth being out there, which meant not only that the aliens might be among us, but that beyond the veil we call “reality”, some things still occur without being documented or explained through the cold and objective magnifying glass of science.
But The X Files was not the only show to deal with the supernatural or the paranormal, as we had the Twilight Zone, Millennium, Strange World, Lost, Supernatural and, of curse, the famous TV series dealing with vampires. Books were written, movies have been produced, all exploiting general recognizable elements of the supernatural: vampires are (and were) highly in fashion in present and past cinematography, demon possession and exorcism turned into all time greatest movies in the world, sorcery and witchcraft, black magic, mythical creatures and fantastic tales are among the most preferred themes in fantasy and horror literature and so on.
Some myths and legends are known to everybody and their depiction depends sometimes on the geography, local culture and traditions and people’s imagination, to count just a few. If we take a look over the “development” of the vampire in modern ages, from Ann Rice to Twilight, (without counting the fascination that revolves around Dracula even now) the world has seen some major changes and some supernatural manifestations changing together with time. But some legends, some manifestations and some mythical histories are still buried in the thick layers of time, lore and little known chronicles and we will take a look over them today, without forgetting to mention people, apparitions, creatures, books, institutions or documented supernatural phenomena.
1. The Talking Heads Black Mass
The world knows some mysterious castles with a supernatural legend attached to them, mainly because they were suspected as invocation places for the dark spirits, devil worshiping, black masses and liturgies or evil influences that surrounded their owners. One of these famous “dark” castles is Chateau de Tiffauges, situated in France and deeply connected to the demented Gilles de Rais, accused of kidnapping, sodomizing and killing over 200 children as devil sacrifices. While the story of de Rais was well documented and referenced in many works of literature and art, there is still a debate going on whether or not he was wrongfully convicted.
But Tiffauge Castle and infamous de Rais character are not the only documented cases of demonic invocation and occult practices. We are still in France, but visiting the Devil’s Tower at Vincennes Castle. If universal history lessons serve you right, you already know that this location is deeply connected to the name of Catherine de Medicis, a legendary queen who had a very soft spot for the supernatural and the occult. Catherine also had a favorite astrologist, oracle and magician, by the name of Cosimo Ruggieri, a practitioner of talking heads black mass.
He is said to have practiced necromancy and black liturgy, by decapitating children and making their heads talk in order to reveal the future. Apparently, all his predictions became true, at least in Catherine’s case and his dark practices were documented by witnesses of those times. Talking heads as part of the supernatural and occult practices is not an isolated case related only to the Italian Ruggieri, but also to Gerbert, the Pope of the year 1000. Detailed aspects of Ruggieri’s relationship with Catherine de Medicis and his practices can be found if you take a look over old chronicles and archives.
2. Giving birth to strange animals
The American Film Institute ranked Rosemary’s Baby the 9th in their 100 Years…100 Thrills list, as the movie had an enormous impact on the critics, the public and the box office, proving once again that supernatural tales will live forever in people’s minds. The act of giving birth to devil – babies was also exploited by the previously – mentioned X Files TV Show, the episode Terms of Endearment focusing on a woman suspected of being impregnated by the devil himself.
As fictional as this may sound, history witnessed other legends, happenings and documented cases of strange births, women accounting of having rabbit parts coming out of them, or wolf-headed children. We are talking, of course, about the myth of the sooterkin, described on Wikipedia as “a fabled small creature about the size of a mouse that certain women were believed to have been capable of giving birth to.”
But let’s take a walk back to over three hundred years ago. In 1726, Mary Toft claimed she gave birth to rabbit parts, a phenomena confirmed by witnesses and a doctor sent to investigate the case, by the name of John Howard. Controversy sparked and further investigations were conducted by English royal doctors who were undecided about the truth. In the end, it was all proven to be a hoax, but history was marked by the fraud, leading to a widely held belief (strongly supported by English physician John Maubray) that women could give birth to sooterkins, advocating for maternal impression and against over – familiarity with the pets.
History also documented other strange birth cases, of werewolves for instance, but we will come to that a little bit later.
3. Nocturnal visitors: the succubus and the incubus
They bare many names, depending on the locals naming them, but in essence, the nocturnal visitors are accompanied by almost the same supernatural legends, even though modern culture (especially cinematography) polished a little their stories and their traits.
The Succubus can be traced back to Medieval Ages, but it can be older than that, too. Folklore usually describes it as a female-demon, an old, ugly and terrifying woman who appears at night during men dreams, sits on their chests, provoking suffocation and nightmares, their only purpose being to engage those men in sexual intercourse. Modern literature and cinema turned the succubi from horror – looking creatures in female seductresses, a good example being the original sisters of the Denali coven depicted by Stephanie Meyer in Breaking Dawn, but documented apparitions of the original old ugly demon date back to Malleus Maleficarum, the famous 1486 treaty of Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer who tells the story of a man in Coblenz who stated that he was visited and forced to perform sexual intercourse with a succubus.
The Incubus is the male counterpart of the succubus and he is by far more interesting. Even if now he is associated with the vampire, as he is inhumanely beautiful, charming and seductive, we must not forget that old folklore vampires were ugly as hell, being… well… dead. But the Incubus is forever young, romantic, charming and sometimes bisexual (according to some chronicles), an erotic demon associated with today’s lore regarding energetic vampires. The Incubus does not feed on the blood of his victims, like any normal vampire would, but on their life force, consuming it until they die.
They have a preference for young women whom they visit and make love to during the night and history seems to be quite convinced that they do exist. For instance, Saint Augustin in De Civitate Dei notes that the Incubus must exist, because there were too many “reliable stories” coming from too many witnesses to ignore that existence. Malleus Maleficarum also describes the advice the Holy Inquisition was giving people in order to protect them from the Incubus. Apparently, all the succubus and incubus encounters can be explained by the science of sleep, but is not less true that even in modern times people claim to have been visited by seductive demons…
4. Demonic possession and exorcism
This supernatural occurrence is maybe the most well-documented and exploited part of the occult, as modern exorcism still exists in some places, while the modern world of science still refuses to recognize it as something else than a psychiatric disorder. Although the newly released DSM V describes The Pathological Possession Trance (PPT) as a component of the Dissociative Trance Disorder (DTD), there are still fierce debates between those who believe in demonic possession and those who attribute the condition to severe mental disorders.
There is no need to emphasize the enormous amount of movies and books revolving around the idea of demonic possession and exorcism, but for entertainment purposes, here is an IMDB list of very interesting exorcism – related movies, if you’re interested in the subject.
As historical documentation goes, the possession cases have been studied in almost any historical age. The case of Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges and the priest Jean Surin who liberated her from her demons, while accepting to be himself possessed by them was well documented in 1633 at Loudun, during the public exorcisms. Also, Annelise Michel’s case was thoroughly documented as a case of demonic possession and altogether as a famous psychiatric case, while this article on Listverse presents 10 modern cases of demonic possession and exorcism, including the story of Annelise. The movies The Last Exorcism (I and II) are said to be scary enough for those with a thing for demonic possession cinematography.
The myth of the werewolf is not new and given the current trends in fiction and fantasy, werewolves seem to be pretty nice people (and animals), and we are talking about the Twilight series. The condition that determines a man to regress to a wolf stage was even medically recognized in the XVI century, scientifically known as melancholia canina or daemonium lupum. Historical references, witness claims, written papers and public accusations and executions are known to have occurred in Europe even in contemporary times.
The story of the Beast of Gevaudan, France, was not only famous between 1764 and 1767, but it also found its way into more modern fictional works too. Horror stories involving atrocious attacks and killings performed by men looking like wolves or by beasts walking on the rear legs have been reported in Austria in 1530, in Ireland in 1847, in Russia in 1893 and in more modern times: in 1972 a werewolf was sighted in Ohio, U.S.A, while the 1980 marks the beginning of the Bray Road Beast reports, a creature terrifying Wisconsin since 1949 and which re-commenced to appear and frighten everybody in the late 80’s.
Modern science talks about Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa, a congenital disease, about rabies and Porphyria and even if people are still fascinated by werewolves, there might be some medical explanations to the old medieval legends. Among other atrocities, Elisabeth Bathory, one of the most deadly women in the world, was also supposed to being able to turn into a wolf when she desired, but this was the least interesting detail about Elizabeth’s passion for murder and magic.
6. Mystic books and their dark powers
There are few movies, books or other cultural representations involving demon summonings, witchcraft, casting spells or worshiping the black spirits without having a certain written mysterious tome. They can be Satanic bibles, witchcraft books, spell books, dark teachings coming from Lucifer himself or black magic practitioners, the main point is that there’s a global fascination revolving around the secret, dark, evil books. Some evil books, although romanticized by fiction, are no less real. You probably remember The Book of Shadows in Blair Witch Project 2 or The Book of the Dead, referenced even in Darksiders II, a successful video game developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ.
But dark books, as history knows them, are said to be real and truly powerful. Let’s see some examples:
Clavis Salomonis originates sometime around the XIV century and contains explicit descriptions of dead and demons invocations, including the spells, curses and sacrifices necessary to achieve these goals.
The Voynich Manuscript, left without deciphering to this day, seems to be a medical manuscript but theories implied much darker purposes, especially since it contains disturbing illustrations that can be related with either medicine, magic or both.
Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, an annex to Johann Weyer De praestigiis daemonum (1577) contains a list of demons and spirits which can be invoked and the description of all rituals that can be performed in order to summon the aforementioned demons.
The infamous Simon Necronomicon, a book which raised (and is still subjected to) strong debates whether or not it is a hoax, was involved in courtroom evidence for murder trials, while critics still consider the original Necronomicon as a fictional grimoire featured in H.P. Lovecraft’s works.
7. Supernatural mythological creatures
The books and movie industry is full of them, from the mermaid to the Kraken, and apparently some of them were real, or so does science (and the media) say. The Little Mermaid was one of our childhood’s most dear animated movies, but who said merfolk doesn’t exist? In 1830 reputed scientist Alexander Carmichael described a small mermaid creature, while in 1977 and 1990, Scotland was the witness of yet to be categorized sea creatures that resembled mermaids and you surely heard of the 2009 Haifa, Israel incident, where people claimed to have seen a mermaid playing in the sea, while local authorities offered $1 million to anyone who could prove the creature’s existence. World mermaid sightings are thoroughly described on this site, which also advises us to take a camera next time we’re swimming.
Another mythological creature that ignited human imagination along the years is the Manticore , a Persian legendary creature documented in the IV century B.C. by Greek historian Ktesias. Further documentations regarding this strange animal capable even to mimic human voice belong to ancient scientists such as Aelianus and Pliny the Elder, who believed the creature was very much real. Alexander the Great also wept the death of around 30.000 men that accompanied him in his Asian expeditions, victims of the manticores. A modern reference to the manticore can be found by playing Diablo III, although it is not portrayed as the real animal, but a as a deadly weapon.
The Cockatrice (usually associated with the Basilisk and the other way around) is a legendary creature resembling a small dragon with a rooster’s head, with deadly abilities of petrifying its victims or killing them by touch. Those who are fans of the famous trading card game Magic the Gathering and have an affinity for playing black, already know that the card called Deathgaze Cockatrice describes a flying creature with death touch.
8. Ectoplasm or the spirits’ traces in our world
Invoking the spirit of the dead through a medium is a strong part of the entertainment industry (remember the famous Ghost movie starring regretted Patrick Swayze)? Medium Oda Mae Brown (played by Whoopi Goldberg) didn’t show any traces of ectoplasm, although old tales speak of this substance being relieved by a medium in a trance state through his or her body orifices. In 1894, scientist and Nobel laureate Charles Richet declared the phenomenon as being real, with the substance having very identifiable components: sodium, potassium, water, chlorine, albumin, epithelial cells and fresh blood.
There are, of course, real doubts that these phenomena ever occurred, while the existence of such paranormal substance is highly uncertain, but two ectoplasm – expulsion cases became famous in the XIX and XX centuries, with the stories of Eva Carierre, a woman medium which managed to convince very few people of her ectoplasm manifestations, but turned Conan Doyle into a firm believer, and Margery Crandon, who was considered to be a fraud by famous illusionist Harry Houdini. Now the ectoplasm is a ghost – movie secondary character and if you like the idea, you can always re-watch The Ghostbusters or Haunting in Connecticut (2009).
9. Ghosts and Haunted Houses
Speaking of the Ghostbusters, haunted houses, castles, apartments, woods and vacation cabins is Hollywood’s favorite dish when it comes to horror movies. Not all of them were good, but as haunted houses go, there are even now a lot of suppositions and mysteries still left to be revealed and which surround certain locations. There is almost no country or no local population to not have its personal ghost story or legend and Great Britain alone counts around 40 addresses of haunted locations which are said to be the home of ghosts even today. You can easily read about at least ten of them here.
The concept of haunted house or castle does not belong exclusively to medieval ages, but it has a historical recurrence in any part of the world you’d travel. From England to the U.S. and from Africa to China, ghosts seem to be a part of our everyday lives, as once they moved into a place, they rarely consider leaving it. TV shows such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer treat these phenomena in an entertaining way and we’ve had our share of haunted places depicted by fantasy or horror movies and books. Even video games for that matter.
10. The walking dead
Zombies make again a great part of our supernatural culture, depicted in the last years in countless of ways and from different perspectives. Warm Bodies tried to suggest that they can become human again, while World War Z depicted the zombie apocalypse with little economy of special effects, while we can’t forget to mention famous TV show Walking Dead. But let’s go back in time and see the story of those who come back from the dead, as they were described by ancient chronicles.
We have the Nelapsi, the Slovak sub-category of the upir vampire, dead people coming back to life and being indestructible. We have documented stories about the mastication phenomena, attributed to ancient vampires who chewed on their own intestines and walked out of their graves attacking people. History abounds of such stories taking place in many parts of the world. In 1090, the Burton English Bishop tells the story of two peasants who have been seen walking with their coffins on their backs right after their funeral. The Vampire Book – The Encyclopedia of the Undead by J. Gordon Melton tells also the story of Count of Cadreras, sent by the Austrian Emperor to officially investigate a case of walking dead which very much unsettled the population of the small border city of Haidam in Hungary. History tended to repeat itself and strengthen the belief in “the ones who return from their graves”, as similar cases were reported in England, the U.S., Eastern Europe and so on. If vampires and walking dead exist, it’s a matter of science, but as literature and cinema seems to have a high preference for them, we will enjoy a good vampire or zombie story for many years to come.
What other supernatural legends do you know about? Did history documented them? How are they portrayed now in contemporary fiction and what is truly scary about these legends?