Historians Answer Our Questions About Historical Spooky Stuff

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Vote up the spooky answers that truly satisfy our scary questions.

Witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and zombies may not be real, but they have real histories. Though they don't exist in the flesh, these and other supernatural creatures and objects have long featured in folklore, myths, and legends throughout the world. They often reflect human thoughts and feelings, like anxiety, fear, and grief in an uncertain world.

What were changelings, and how did people try to ward them off? Where did the idea of werewolves come from? And just how long have people shared ghost stories? Just like they did for our questions about the Bible, actual historians gave answers to these and other questions about spooky stuff, ranging from vampire burials to haunted houses, and the Victorians' unsettling obsession with mummies. (Some links to historical sources have been added.)

Which is the spookiest historical explanation? That's for you to decide.

  • What Kind Of Creatures Did Anglo-Saxons Fear?
    Photo: Albert Edward Sterner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    51 VOTES

    What Kind Of Creatures Did Anglo-Saxons Fear?

    Redditor u/AspirantDM asked:

    I am an Anglo-Saxon in 9th-century England. Are there any "monsters" or strange creatures that I would fear? If so, was there anything I would do to avoid them or protect myself from them?

    Redditor u/itsallfolklore answered:

    [...] We must keep in mind that people take their beliefs - the foundation of their folklore - very seriously. The monsters and terrifying entities of Anglo-Saxon tradition were not nursery rhymes and boogeymen invented to terrorize children.

    Most of the literature points toward fear of revenants (walking corpses), elves (in their various forms and names), and devil-associated demons. Although the Anglo-Saxon world included traditions involving giants and dragons (and other fabulous beats) these were generally thought to belong to times and/or places removed from the present world, so although our Anglo-Saxon peasant likely believed in them, he feared them less because they were not likely to affect him personally.

    Archaeology is revealing a rich tradition of corpse mutilation, presumably to prevent corpses held in suspect from being able to walk or talk. Precautions include shoving large rocks into the mouths of the dead or decapitation with the heads placed at the feet of the corpse - always good ideas if one has any doubt about the ill-intent of a corpse!

    [...] Anglo-Saxon medical texts include many ways to avert curses and the ill-intent of elves: Although the modern world conceives of them as cute and relegates them to the role of the "elf on the shelf," they were real and terrifying in Northern Europe in pre-modern times. Anglo-Saxon texts capture and/or allude to this terror: These supernatural beings were fickle, easily offended, and quick to respond with deadly or life-changing effect. They also coveted human captives, frequently abducting infants and handsome young people. They were not to be trifled with, and they were taken very seriously.

    51 votes
  • 2
    44 VOTES

    What Inspired Creature Legends?

    Redditor u/franticantelope asked:

    Were any werewolf or other creature myths based on real events?

    Redditor u/BranMuffinStark answered:

    According to Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber, the typical vampire before the 19th-century literary craze was a peasant who had died an untimely death and/or had been difficult in life. The thesis of the book is that the folkloric tales of vampires were essentially accurate descriptions of the effects of an untimely death. The key thing is, you have to ignore the explanations for the events in the story and focus on the events themselves.

    Here's the sequence of events: A person dies suddenly, perhaps violently. They bury the person, but a little while later, people think they start seeing him (or her) as you do sometimes after a person has died. Bad things start happening[,] and instead of blaming a witch, they start blaming the dead person (who may have been considered a witch or werewolf in life if they were troublesome). This could be mischief-level stuff, or it could be more serious: crop failure, livestock sickening or dying, or other villagers dying - this last was particularly likely if the "vampire" was killed by an infectious disease.

    After they decide the dead person is responsible for the troubles, the natural thing is to go to the burial site to investigate. Perhaps they see the soil is disturbed around the gravesite, which would be an obvious sign that the person had left the grave. (The real reason could be that wild animals or dogs had smelled the corpse and tried to dig it up, or that the coffin had collapsed, or even the dirt had simply settled). Whether or not the dirt was disturbed, they might then decide to dig up the corpse to see if there were any signs of it being a vampire.

    If they didn't find a corpse (because an animal had dragged it away, perhaps), the vampire was out walking the earth (folkloric vampires can go out during the day). If they found the corpse, they might be surprised by the state of preservation - people who died young of quick causes will often take a lot longer to decompose than you'd expect. They also may notice the person looks bloated as if they've been sucking blood, and they may even have blood on their lips. This is typical of bodies that have gasses from decomposition bacteria in their body cavities. If they touch the bodies, they may notice that they are not stiff with rigor mortis (rigor mortis doesn't last forever), and if they cut them, they may see liquid instead of clotted blood (again this is normal, clotting won't last forever). They may see the body has moved from its original position. This could be because the aforementioned gaseous buildup caused the body to shift, or gravity and jostling.

    If they decide to stake the corpse - only one of many ways to deal with a folkloric vampire - they might hear a groan and see the vampire struggling. The groan would be from air being forced from the lungs, and the struggle would be the physics of a body being whacked with a hammer and stake. [...]

    44 votes
  • 3
    28 VOTES

    Were Grimoires Real Texts Throughout History, Or Did Hollywood Just Make Them Up?

    Redditor u/n3kr0n asked:

    Do tomes/grimoires with sacral or demonic content really exist, like they are depicted in movies?

    Redditor u/AncientHistory answered:

    Short answer is "yes." The literary trope of the grimoire is based on the historical reality of grimoires and related literary works - to a degree. The best beginning guide to this genre of literature is Owen Davies' Grimoires: A History of Magic Books.

    That said, the reality of the historical grimoire tends to be a lot more prosaic than the more fantastical versions in movies - anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding books in human skin) was an occasional practice in history, but generally not for works on the occult. The term "grimoire" specifically refers to works with a magical system or formulae, like the various recensions of the Key of Solomon or The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses; what you see a lot more of are other miscellaneous religious works - Bible commentaries, gnostic and Manichaean texts, apocryphal or noncanonical gospels, works of philosophy or metaphysics, etc. - which aren't explicitly magical (although still occasionally heretical, depending on the authority in question). Contents varied widely but could include cosmology; stories and parables; lists of angels, demons, and spirits; properties of natural materials; seals, circles, and tables for magical operations; instructions for creating tools and various operations, etc.

    Some of the grimoires you see in film are fictionalized versions of real books - for example in the film Warlock, the "Grand Grimoire" is loosely based on Le Veritable Dragon Rouge, a popular 16th-century grimoire. Others are purely fictional, like the Necronomicon created by H. P. Lovecraft, a version of which stars in the Evil Dead film series and Ash vs. Evil Dead television series. For more on the latter, I recommend Harms and Gonce's The Necronomicon Files.

    Many historical grimoires are out of copyright, and the text of various editions can be found for free on www.sacred-texts.com - although this generally follows early 19th- and 20th-century print publications of these works, not the handwritten originals from the 16th century or earlier.

    28 votes
  • 4
    25 VOTES

    Has Eastern Europe Always Been Associated With Vampire And Werewolf Legends?

    Redditor u/The_Manchurian asked:

    In popular culture, Central-Eastern Europe is particularly associated with stories of vampires and werewolves. Was this the case pre-Dracula?

    Redditor u/abutthole answered:

    Werewolves were pretty universal across European mythology. If anything[,] they were associated most often with Scandinavia and Northern Europe with the myths of skin-changers called "hamrammr." The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould, published in 1865[,] describes the evolution of the werewolf myth and provides two origin points - Greece and Scandinavia. The Greek myths famously include Lycaon who was cursed into becoming a wolf (perhaps the earliest example of man-wolf transformation myth), and Scandinavia had the myths of the hamrammr, who wore animal skins and took on the forms of beasts, famously represented in the Volsunga Saga when Sigmund and Sinfjolti wear wolf pelts and are transformed.

    Baring-Gould posits that the Scandinavian myths were based on berserkers who would wear animal pelts, often of wolves and bears, and were famous for entering a state where they didn't respond to pain and fought ferociously like an animal. Baring-Gould writes that it's reasonable for people to tell stories of men wearing wolf pelts who enter these rages and cause violence, and for those stories to morph into tales of men becoming animals.

    In the highly Christian societies of Europe, werewolves became treated essentially as another type of witch. Men who made pacts with the devil to take on the form of wolves for power and freedom. Baring-Gould relates several stories of men convicted of being werewolves and their stories of the devil and witchcraft, which differ from the Scandinavian and Greek mythological lycanthropy. It was this type of werewolf that became universal across European society, ranging from France to England to Eastern Europe.

    Vampires, on the other hand, were indeed associated with Eastern Europe since before Dracula. This all comes down to a creature called the strigoi. Strigoi were the first creature in folklore to really resemble the modern vampire and formed the basis for the powers and behaviors of Stoker's Count Dracula. [...]

    The modern take on the strigoi was first published in 1689 by Johann Weikhard von Valvasor in The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola. He described the case of a man named Jure Grando who died in Croatia in 1656. The people of his village told tales of him coming back at night, killing people, and sexually assaulting women - other hallmarks of the modern vampire myth as heavily influenced by Dracula. The people were able to repel Grando with a cross and attempted to pierce his heart with a wooden stake in Valvasor's retelling.

    Other such tales of "real" strigoi and vampires almost exclusively came from Eastern Europe during this era to the point that they were associated heavily with Romania, Transylvania, and the Baltic states and made the region a natural fit for Bram Stoker to create the home of his fearsome fictional vampire Count Dracula.

    25 votes
  • Did People Actually Believe In Changelings?
    Photo: Henry Fuseli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    67 VOTES

    Did People Actually Believe In Changelings?

    Redditor u/Frigorifico asked:

    In Medieval Europe, there existed a superstition that fairies would sometimes kidnap people, usually babies, and leave changelings in their place. What would happen if a person really thought their baby was a changeling?

    Redditor u/itsallfolklore answered:

    This would be much easier to answer if it were not for the pesky term, "Medieval." It is easy to find evidence of traditions involving abduction in early modern sources, but reaching back too far becomes problematic. That said, the classic migratory legend of "The Changeling," classified by the Norwegian, Reidar Th. Christiansen as ML 5085, is widespread throughout Northern Europe and even appears in the writings of Martin Luther. It even has an analog (although involving witches) in the Roman source, The Satyricon.

    Given all of this, it is easy to surmise that it was likely widespread in Northern Europe during the medieval period, but to keep us on a solid path, let's consider the traditions as they manifested during that early modern period (and project backward when and if we are courageous enough!).

    The fairies - the largely social supernatural beings of Northern Europe - [...] were attracted to people, whom they frequently sought to abduct. Although everyone was vulnerable, the focus of attention was largely on male infants and young women of reproductive age. Stories about their abductions - attempted or accomplished - are ubiquitous. Women were particularly vulnerable after birth, clearly reflecting the possibility that these women could suddenly decline in health and die - or appear to die. For this reason, a newborn and a newly delivered woman were often confined to a sealed house until they could be admitted to church - a baptism for the infant and a "churching" (a readmission to the congregation) for the woman. [...]

    A tragic case of an Irish woman who was believed to have been abducted occurred with Bridget Cleary, who in 1895 began to inexplicably decline in health. Her husband - under the advice of another man in the village - concluded that his wife had been abducted and that the fairies had left a "stock," an inanimate (probably wooden) object that seemed to be alive, but which would soon revert to its lifeless nature, although still resembling the dead wife. People who were believed to have been replaced in this fashion would have their stock buried, unbeknownst to relatives that it was only a magically imbued log. Michael Cleary consequently placed his fading wife in a fire with the hope that his real wife would be returned. She wasn't. He was tried and convicted of murder - a conflict between modern British law and traditional Irish beliefs and practices with the former gaining the upper hand.

    This tells us a great deal about how the fairy suspects of abduction cases could be treated - and likely there were generations of undocumented misconduct throughout Northern Europe because of this tradition. [...]

    Many folklorists have written on the possible "real" roots behind the changeling legend. Clearly, the narrative is traditional - a story with its own life history not dependent on anything real, but real examples of infants that did not seem to thrive likely put wind in the sail of the legend, and the legend informed many parents about what they should do in these circumstances.

    This likely resulted in many instances of infanticide - and the pain involved (for parents and infant) is difficult to imagine. Fortunately (or not) we are left to imagine the possibilities more than to know: accounts of real instances were quickly subsumed into the tradition of the migratory legend, so it is typically not possible to "see" a clear case, as we can with the example of Bridget Cleary.

    So, to attempt to answer your question: Did the legend of the changeling and other efforts to abduct people by fairies result in real abuse if not murder? The likely answer is yes, although for the most part, we are left with speculation. [...]

    67 votes
  • 6
    39 VOTES

    Does Zombie Lore Have Its Roots In Slavery?

    Redditor u/spontaneouslypiqued asked:

    Is Voodoo folklore of the zombie believed to be a cultural expression of anxiety of historical slavery?

    Redditor u/AncientHistory answered:

    [...] Cultural expressions of anxiety are difficult to diagnose in strict terms of historical evidence. Certainly, several writers on the subject have interpreted the specific image of the zombie as an individual enslaved to another after death as being a horror particular to a people that knew slavery in life. The idea that death was no escape from such servitude would seem fitting.

    However, the actual evidence on the ground is a little more complicated. The term zombi as we know it did not originally refer to an animated corpse, but was a term for a spirit, god, and/or fetish, and can be compared to similar West Indian terms like jumbee. Even today, the term can have multiple meanings in Haitian Vodou. [...]

    In Haitian Vodou, there is a concept of a dual soul: the Gros Bon Ange and the Ti Bon Ange; the exact details as to which is the target of sorcery or leaves the body during sleep, possession, and death varies depending on which writer you're reading. By the same token, "zombis" themselves are confusing, often referring to either a soulless body (one in which either of the dual souls has fled), or a bodiless spirit... and if you dig deep enough, you get "zombies" that don't really fit either category. The distinction is sometimes explicit (a corps cadavre is a soulless body), but it can be difficult to really nail things down in folktales.

    There are indigenous African traditions which contain corps cadavre-like figures, such as the Tanzanian zinza, where a dead body missing one of its souls is made to do manual work for a witch or sorcerer, but pinpointing the exact origins of such traditions - or equating them directly with Haitian Vodou - is a tricky proposition at best. Generations of separate development and syncretism have created a bit of a muddle.

    Which gets us back to your initial question: Is this an expression of cultural anxiety? In Haiti in particular, the role of slavery and the bloody revolution (and subsequent political turmoil, wars, invasion and occupation by US forces, etc.) have made knowledge of the horrors of slavery an essential part of the Haitian culture. To some researchers, like Maximilien Laroche, this certainly suggests that the physical zombie acting as a slave is a symbol of the continued horrors of sorcery. But the nature of what exactly a zombie is remains too vague and sometimes contradictory to say that is the only explanation.

    In later media, the slavery aspect is very strong, especially given the racial dynamics of slavery in North America. The first zombie film for example was White Zombie (1932), loosely based on William Seabrook's The Magic Island (1929), and focuses on the dynamics of white people being enslaved just like native [sic] (black) Haitians by magic.

    39 votes