In HBO's mind-bending new supernatural drama The Outsider, small-town sheriff Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) arrests little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) for the slaying of a local boy. Fingerprints and witness testimony seem to indict Maitland, yet he has an airtight alibi and irrefutable evidence of his innocence. The incident sparks a spiral of devastation that rips several families in the small town apart. And, as the madness plays out, a hooded figure with a misshapen face watches from the distance.
Based on the 2018 novel by Stephen King, The Outsider tells the story of madness sparked by what may be a supernatural force. As Anderson investigates the subsequent chaos, a private detective named Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) joins the case, and discovers that something is taking children across the country and implicating suspects who couldn't possibly do the things they're accused of. Gibney starts to investigate the possibility that something supernatural is at work, and to this end, she's introduced to the legends of El Coco - a Latin American bogeyman figure - and Black Annis - a European witch monster, both of which prey on and devour children while spreading fear.
These creatures aren't just baddies invented by King's fearsome imagination. Both El Coco and Black Annis have been staples of nightmarish folklore for hundreds of years, and are even more frightening than The Outsider suggests.
Black Annis May Have Originated With A Religious Recluse From The 13th Century Named Agnes Scott
Through various stories and retellings, the true history of Black Annis becomes ever more clouded, but the legend likely stems from a religious recluse named Agnes Scott who may have lived in the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, England, and passed in 1455.
Some suggest Scott was a nun who helped run a leper colony, while others believe she spent her days praying in her small abode in the hills, forgoing social connections in favor of devoted contemplation.
Historian Ronald Hutton cites a brass plaque at a graveyard in Swithland, an area near Leicestershire, that tells the story of one Agnes Scott, who was well-respected by those in the village. "The gentle and pious Agnes seems... to have been turned first into a local saint, then into a local demon, next into a Celtic goddess, and finally into a witch goddess," Hutton wrote. "And all the while her bones have rested in apparent peace at Swithland."
Hutton argues that Scott's memory as a pious woman in the hills was distorted into a story to scare children during the Protestant Reformation, when disdain for anchoresses - which were essentially religious hermits - and anyone associated with the Catholic faith reached a fever pitch in England.
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Black Annis Is Said To Look Truly Terrifying With Blue Skin And Fangs
While legends about Black Annis vary from area to area and across the ages, there are a few nightmarish depictions of the frightening child-eater that have become ingrained in the minds of those who retell her stories. Black Annis is often described as a towering, ogre-like figure with one giant red eye in the middle of her face, long, wild black hair, knife-like talons - which she uses to shred children - sharp, yellow fangs, and a skirt made out of human flesh.
Also - and this part is important to the legend - Black Annis is almost always described as having blue skin. Celtic scholar and famed Scottish author J.F. Campbell described Black Annis in 1861:
Her face was blue-black, of the lustre of coal and her bone-twisted tooth was like twisted bone. In her head was one deep pool-like eye swifter than a star in a winter sky. Upon her head gnashed brushwood like the old wood of the aspen root... and a hundred warriors she sportively slew.
The suggestion that Black Annis has blue skin seems to link her legend to several other evil crones and magical hags from English and Irish mythology. Anna Franklin, a Wiccan folklorist in Leicestershire, argued that her blue features stem from her evolving from the legends of "winter goddesses, their faces blue with cold, who brought in the time of cold [winter], dissolution and death."
So the legend of Black Annis may have evolved from ancient stories about magical witches and deities who were the harbingers of freezing weather and, as a result, famine and general misery.
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Black Annis Is Also Said To Feast On Unsuspecting Children
While the stories of Black Annis's origins are varied, one aspect of her legend remains consistent: She loves to devour children - especially those who wander alone through the woods.
Black Anna was said to be in the habit of crouching among the branches of the old pollard oak (the last remnant of the forest), which grew in the cleft of the rock over the mouth of her cave... ever ready to spring like a wild beast on any stray children passing below.
In the same year, a story in the Leicester Chronicle claimed that children were "scratched to [expiration] with her claws," while other legends claim that she didn't just eat children, but also flayed and dried their skins on the branches of an old oak, and then stitched the dried flesh together into a skirt.
Additionally, Black Annis was accused of eating livestock and drinking the blood of sheep, similar to the characteristics ascribed to the modern-day chupacabra.
The First Mention Of Black Annis Can Be Found In A Manuscript From 1622
It appears that the earliest written reference to the folkloric entity known as Black Annis dates back to 1622, in William Burton's manuscript The Description of Leicestershire. Notably, Burton refers to her as Black Agnes, and implies that she wasn't considered to be the nightmarish supernatural creature that her legend would eventually make her out to be. Instead, Burton describes her as a religious hermit, or "anchoress," who had simply developed a negative reputation.
It wasn't until the advent of a poem penned by John Heyrick in the 1790s that Black Annis's demonic qualities were first cemented in people's minds. The poem included the first written descriptions of her now-famous physical characteristics, including blue skin, sharp claws, and a penchant for wearing the skins of her victims:
‘Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil’d
To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and features livid blue
Glar’d in her visage; whilst her obscene waist,
Warm skins of human victims close embrac’d