A further selection of images from The 2018 Whitby Krampus Run
organised by Elaine Edmunds and Louse Mitchell of Decadent Drawing
To see more
A selection of images from The 2018 Whitby Krampus Run
organised by Elaine Edmunds and Louse Mitchell of Decadent Drawing
Ho Ho Horror …Krampusnacht approaches and Folk Horror Revival were fortunate enough to catch up with Al Ridenour, Xmas-monster hunter extraordinaire the author of
Folk Horror Revival: When did you first become aware of Krampus and what in particular about the tradition appealed to you?
Al Ridenour: In the mid-1980s, after putting in my undergrad years studying Germanic languages and literature, I ended up going to school in Berlin for a year. Berlin is not in a region with a native Krampus culture but there’s some awareness of the figure. I remember suddenly around Christmas, encountering rows of postcard reproductions of this really lovely Edwardian-era lithograph of a devil’s head with lolling tongue. I bought one without really knowing what it was, and it was up on my wall or fridge for years before I really realized what it was. I’d been aware at the time of Knecht Ruprecht, the sort of northern German cousin of the Austro-Bavarian Krampus, but hadn’t really gotten the story on this horned fellow.
Around that same time, I was reading The Golden Bough and found myself particularly fascinated by descriptions of Perchten, another (closer) cousin to the Krampus, but had assumed this was an extinct rather than living tradition. I hadn’t seen the word “Krampus” in Frazier’s writing because around 1890, the word was still gaining currency. The Krampus postcards were just beginning to circulate, and it was these that helped popularize the word, myth, and created a sort of homogenous visual representation. Before that, it was more diverse, loosely related clusters of very regional figures and traditions (like the Perchten) customs
In any case, my really getting into the tradition happened via a second encounter with these postcards around 2004, when digital reproductions began circulating online. At that time, it all clicked, and I realized this was more than a bit of antique art –- that it was a tradition still being enacted by contemporary Austrians and Germans in stunning costumes. I began pining over YouTube videos showing the live events, and eventually began planning a trip to partake in the fun myself. My casual trip research as to the most traditional locations to visit became the basis for my book.
The appeal? Well, they’re monsters! Need I saw more? And as an artist and fabricator myself, the craft of the costumes really appealed to me. There was also such a scarcity at the time of English information on the creature, that it also sparked my more scholastic, puzzle-solving side. And reading up on the topic finally put that relatively useless degree in German to good use!
FHR: On the Folk Horror Revival Facebook group, a video post depicting Krampus and some crying kids, kicked off a kerfuffle with some folk even talking about the children developing Post Traumatic Stress Order as adults. Personally as a kid I loved being scared … monsters, ghosts, UFOs, horror films and comics, dinosaurs – I loved all that, the scarier the better.
What are your thoughts about the issue? Do you think things like the Krampus are too scary or potentially damaging to kids or do you think the wrapping in cotton wool of children is an overreaction?
AR: Well, I couldn’t agree more about a childhood — err, lifelong – passion for frightful s stuff. It’s likely that this proclivity may be a bit stronger in boys, and more still in males who identify as horror fans, but the Krampus is also a creature of fantasy and fairy tale, of the imaginative faculty in general. If you look at our culture’s media output, it’s pretty clear that there’s a universal, thriving market for imaginative extra-mundane tales.
Yes, kids undeniably sometimes cry when they encounter the Krampus, but I feel like I often have to offer a corrective to the view that the whole tradition is primarily about punishing or scaring kids. People outside of Bavaria and Austria tend to miss its playful aspect, not see that it’s really more about play than punishment. While the core myth is that of a punishing figure accompanying St. Nicholas on his annual visits to children’s homes, the practice of enacting this particular story, the private Hausbesuch (“home visit”) is rather uncommon these days. The bulk of the Krampus activity in Europe is a public one, the Krampuslauf or Krampus run, which hardly pretends to be about the figure’s role as punisher. Performers in the Krampus runs typically leave kids alone and instead chase or engage in mock battles young adults of their own age.
I devoted the concluding chapter of my book to this “cotton wool” approach to children in regards to Krampus culture. In the era of trivializing “participation awards” in schools, the house-visits particularly give the child an opportunity to really achieve mastery over his own fear but also mastery of some small task – a performance. In the old days, the child would be called upon to recite for St. Nicholas bible versus or the like, but in more secular times, this is often just the performances of some memorized piece of music or poetry. The whole family, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even great-grandparents are assembled for this moment of truth where the child can shine, where he becomes a star. That such a drama would be staged in the home, with elaborate, expensive costumes, secret preparations and care to ensure success in every detail—all the trouble, work and love devoted to this child-centered production seems very touching to me. If the goal were merely to scare a kid straight, there would be much simpler, brutish ways to do it.
FHR: Are there any other aspects of folklore or indeed society and culture that also intrigue you?
AR: The word “liminal” seems to be a popular word to throw around in folklore studies, and also seems a pretty good catchall for answering this. When I was a kid that concept would have been embodied by the monsters I adored transgressing the borders of the natural and supernatural. Tten growing up in the punk rock era, the transgression of societal norms became attractive in another way. In the 1990s, I was part of a national (American) group dedicated to this. It was called the Cacophony Society and was a national network of art-provocateurs and urban explorers responsible for founding the Burning Man festival and serving as prototype for “Project Mayhem” in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. It was started in San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I ran the Los Angeles lodge of the Society throughout the 1990s. We engaged in a lot of pranks and hoaxes, things that would later go on to be called “flash mobs.”
That interest in rather aggressively engaging the public in guerilla street theater ended up spawning an event called “Santacon,” namely, a drunken mob of costumed Santa Clauses that would take to the streets once a year. I met Chuck Palahniuk, who was a member of the Portland Cacophony lodge at one of these when San Francisco, and Los Angeles members gathered with our comrades for a Santacon in that city. Sadly, I don’t remember much of the meeting as I was more than adequately soused for the occasion, though I do have vague recollections of police in tactical gear showing up to prevent out entrance to a local shopping center. Santacon, like the Burning Man festival, went on to establish itself as an annual event outside of the Cacophony Society, and those of us who’d found it thrilling and challenging in the mid-1990s outgrew it. Missing that chaotic annual revel (though not the heavy drinking),led me to start a Krampus run in Los Angeles.
The funny thing is that impulse to occupy liminal spaces has caused me to double back to a more traditionalist mindset. Initially getting behind Santacon’s impulse to mock tradition I ended returning to the traditional via Krampus. (Americans tend to think of the Krampus as a sort of “enemy” of St. Nick, Christmas, and all that is holy, but at home in Europe it’s associated with very traditionalist, religious culture, albeit more of a folk Catholicism than the top-down Vatican business.)
My embracing the traditionalism of the a figure like Krampus is not really that surprising though, given that even in the midst of my subversive Cacophony Society years, I still connected with very traditionalist thinkers like Carl Jung. Early on, I recognized my disposition as more romantic than classical. I’ve always thrived on narratives where rational progressive thought collapses, and only the mythic offers hope. That sort of unexplained, unexplainable liminal experience is something that’s always attracted me. Something like the Krampus tradition or Carnival are traditionalist ways to embrace the subversive, terrifying and absurd.
FHR: You travelled quite extensively researching your book; are there any particular place or places, or experiences from these visits that have really stuck in your mind. If so, where and why?
AR: I wish I could have done more traveling for the book, but it’s not like I had a travel budget from the publisher. I was able to make it to a handful of Krampus runs in Austria and Bavaria, but the bulk of my research was really done after the fact, following up on contacts I had made and through those visits, engaging others in the Krampus network via email and social networking. Over the years there were a couple visits by my Austrian friends, where I got in more first-person interviews, and our Los Angeles Krampus group was also able to host the first costumed Europeans to run along with us in an American Krampus Run in 2014.
As far as memories, one that really struck me, and came to mind answering your question about children’s fears, was an incident I witnessed at a Krampuslauf in Munich. I remember seeing this young, visibly trembling boy near the front of the crowd where the Krampuses were passing. His parents were gently, but insistently nudging him forward toward an encounter. Soon, I noticed, that it wasn’t just me, but others were all sort of breathlessly watching the boy deal with his fears. Eventually he made it to the front of the crowd, and a costumed performer immediately took in the situation, crouched low and extended a claw. By the time the boy stuck out his own hand to meet the monster’s, his parents were patting his back, and all the spectators were beaming — but none more than the kid himself! We could all feel his pride, and it was really touching. And he went on to enjoy the other monsters, getting braver and braver with each encounter. I felt kind of honored, like I’d secretly shared in an important milestone in this kid’s life.
FHR: In your work as an artist on projects such as The Art of Bleeding, The Cacophony Society and The Museum of Mental Decay, there is a clear appreciation of the weird and grotesque. Could you tell us a little more about your art?
AR: I’ve talked a bit already about the Cacophony Society, but the Museum of Mental Decay was one of our Halloween events repeated over a few years. It was a sort of haunt or haunted house experience subversively interpreted – no readymade horrors from films, but stuff from a more dangerously surreal or dangerously real perspective – the latter, for instance represented by an installation with barely human urban panhandlers stationed in a sort of simulated back alley setting complete with stinking dumpster, all aggressively trying to sell visitors handfuls of human hair. Another year, I constructed an immense walk-in womb installation covered in slippery amniotic goo. I was covered in goo myself and trying to engage visitors with a giant man-sized fetus I’d constructed, encouraging them to hold the slimy thing or even spank it. When they tried to escape, my assistant and I would try to lasso them with the 15-foot umbilical cord attached to the fetus.
On and off from 2004-2012, I directed The Art of Bleeding, a rather hard-to-define performance troupe of sorts offering live multi-media shows parodying first-aid and safety education. It was an uncomfortable mix of short original videos and animation I did, repurposed vintage health-and-safety films, puppets, costumed kiddy show characters, and nurses in fetishistic uniform. At the time I owned an ambulance that would also often be featured in the events, including one show about traffic safety staged in a parking lot filled with “crashed” cars (old junked cars I’d bought) with bloodied actors in each telling their accident stories.
Over the last years, I’ve been sculpting and selling Krampus masks as well as costumes. My house is always a sort of evolving series of installations too, much of it with an increasingly folk horror vibe, including now a life-size sculpture of a sort of forest witch sculpted entirely from found woodland materials.
FHR: I am assuming that horror films and possibly comics may have played a part in your childhood? Could you name a few of your favourite movies, books and artists or art-works for us please?
AR: I grew up on horror films, especially the old Universal pictures, which are more nostalgia now, but a couple I still I consider great films, like The Bride of Frankenstein, with all its visionary design, horror, pathos, and wall-to-wall music score. I especially love it for its arch humor. Films that combine the morbid or grotesque and humor will always be near and dear to me– Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, The Loved One, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Evil Dead II and Drag me to Hell, for instance.
My infatuation with Universal films encouraged a passion for Lon Chaney’s films, and silent films in general. I love how they seem to emanate another, less substantial world. Guy Maddin’s art films are both wryly funny and evoke this silent world nicely. His recent Forbidden Room is a truly phantasmagoric wonder!
I’m undeniably something of a Germanophile, and it’s possible that the German influence on those Universal pictures was part of it.
in part because of the influence of Germany’s horror films of the silent era
that trickled into those Universal pictures. Of all the silent German horror classics, Nosferatu was most formative. The original, but also Herzog’s remake, are lifelong favorites. If you’ve not seen it, Herzog’s Heart of Glass is also a hauntingly dreamlike period piece, in which the actors all performed under hypnosis. I also love Scandinavian work like (Häxen, Caligari, The Virgin Spring, The Juniper Tree, The Kingdom) and Eastern European/Russian films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Sweet Movie, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, and Viy (1967). I worked in the film industry for ten years as an animator partly inspired by Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion, and that of the Brothers Quay who emulate his style.
Peter Greenaway’s films seem to have something of the same painterly emphasis on formal compositions as the Quay’s, and he has that dry wit balancing all that sumptuous imagery. My taste in art has become a bit more curmudgeonly thanks to Greenaway, and I now feel a strong affinity for the northern Baroque he celebrates, particularly Flemish vanitas paintings, allegorical scenes, and of course Bosch and Bruegel. In my early incarnation with the Cacophony Society, I was more influenced by modern, transgressive art, particularly performance art, but not so much today.
I am not a big reader of fiction, though I have a strange and vociferous appetite for nonfiction about literary movements and authors, naturally the Gothic and Weird Fiction in particular. Flannery O’Connor is one exception, and I’ve read and re-read everything she’s written multiple times.
FHR: What is next on the agenda? Are there any other books in the pipeline?
AR: Yes, absolutely! And very much within the FH wheelhouse. I have not yet signed a contract, so probably should not mention specifics now, but within the year, I should have an announcement about a sort of survey book that I hope will interest the FH community.
As a sort of promotional adjunct to the book, and because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, I’ve also embarked on a podcast in which I discuss topics somewhat related to the upcoming book as well as my The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas. It’s called “Bone and Sickle”. The core of the show is me sharing my research on a topic — say, Walpurgis Night or cuckoos — in a very discursive talk mingled with a constant stream of sound clips and quoted passages from 19th and early 20th century texts read by my partner Rick Galiher, who plays my butler. The whole is set in a very M.R. Jamesian study full of these old volumes, and there’s a certain uncomfortable tension between my “character” and the butler throughout. Thus far, I think it’s hitting all the marks FH fans would appreciate, though it’s been a lot of serious production work with original music and effects flowing throughout the entirety of the show. I’m very excited about it and the book!
Check out the Saint, Devil, Sugar-Bread & Whip: Krampus and Nicholas edition of Bone and Sickle here – https://www.boneandsickle.com/2018/11/28/the-krampus-saint-devil-sugar-bread-and-whip/?fbclid=IwAR2NPB5OMZ69xz035pnzWmXlmxvKTiiaewB8z1CCbR2n2rqWf-FYUXZ5WWs
A native of Pasadena, California, Al Ridenour holds BA’s in German and English literature, has worked as an author, journalist, animator, and artist, and has been a fixture in the West Coast underground art community since the mid-1990s. His Krampus research has taken him to the Austrian Alps and Munich, and brought him in contact with cultural anthropologists working in Salzburg and Vienna as well as dozens of members of contemporary European Krampus groups. In 2013, Ridenour co-founded Krampus Los Angeles, an organization that’s made the city ground zero for American Krampusmania. Ridenour has translated and produced the only English-language version of 19th-century Krampus play, written articles, and lectured on the topic at the international Goethe-Institut and elsewhere, and exhibited his Krampus suits at the University of Southern California’s Doheny Museum.
If any UK Revivalists are in the Whitby area on Saturday 5th December pop along to the Krampus Run – more details here – https://spark.adobe.com/page/SabqDn8I1AN4L/?fbclid=IwAR0x4QWgEg12aShz1seqaTmRZeBIvhQcIq7ygZ3F_QB7ArsC5g-xhx0_znY
And read Another great Krampus interview with Decadent Drawing here – https://folkhorrorrevival.com/2018/11/23/the-whitby-krampus-run-an-interview-with-elaine-edmunds-and-laurence-mitchell/
Noh is an intimate form of Japanese traditional theatre that dates back to at least the 14th Century. Though generally light on props, Noh does however utilise masks to a large degree. As many Noh stories deal with supernatural themes, Kishin (demon) and Onryō (ghost) masks are prevalent.
The Hannya mask above represents a woman who turned into a demon. It is a familiar mask to those who have seen Kaneto Shindo’s classic 1964 film Onibaba.
Kitsune are trickster fox spirits that can transform into human form. Though in Japanese lore some foxes were sly goblin figures, others were the messangers of the Shinto spirit Inari.
Tengu are part bird-part human. They generally dwell in mountainous or forested regions where they may be considered protective spirits, but in some lore they are considered warlike beings.
The name Daikijin literally translates as Great Devil God but they may be utilised at village ceremonies as protector spirits.
Foawr Also known as: Stone-Throwing Giants, Fooar.
Upheavals in and on the earth that led to the creation of many immense and intriguing land formations and features were often accredited to the actions of Giants.
Many Giants in Britain and Ireland displayed a propensity for throwing stones, yet the Manx Foawr were absolutely notorious for heaving boulders around. They would throw rocks at humans, at ships, at each other and they would throw rocks just for the sake of throwing rocks. It seems however that the males of the species were more inclined towards trouble-making and stone-lobbing than the females. The masculine Foawr were despised by human farmers, not only for their rock-hurling but also for their other habit of ravishing cattle. It has been considered that the Foawr may be of the same lineage as the Celtic demonic race the Fomorii and some at least were said to be the children of the haggard storm-goddess, the Cailleach Bheur.
Text and image © Andy Paciorek
abridged and amended from the book
Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld
‘Frolic in Brine: Goblins Be Thine.’
The 1964 movie Kwaidan (Ghost Stories), directed by Masaki Kobayashi, as well as being a beautiful and atmospheric piece of cinema, is curious in the sense that it is a Japanese movie based on an English book of short stories translating Japanese folk tales. The translator of these tales was Lafcadio Hearn, a man of travel and words.
Born of Irish and Greek parentage in the Ionian Islands in 1850, Hearn grew up in Ireland under the care of his great-aunt following the tumultuous breakup of his parent’s marriage. The re-stationing of his surgeon-major father to Suez (where he died of malaria) and the internment of his mother in an insane asylum in Corfu meant that young Lafcadio never really knew his parents. His great-aunt, however, was intent that the child should have good schooling and also learning from an interesting life. So time was spent between her Irish home and another residence in Wales. His great-aunt was a devout Catholic and keen that Lafcadio’s education led him on a theological path, yet tales of mythology inspired the boy more than the Bible. He was enrolled at a Catholic state school in France and then at the Catholic College at Ushaw in County Durham, England. It was there that Hearn suffered an eye injury in a sporting accident. Partially blinded and mildly disfigured, Hearn became very self-conscious of his eye and preferred to be photographed in profile so that it could not be seen.
Via London, Hearn moved to the USA and became a journalist in Cincinatti, concentrating mainly on murder reports but also whenever possible outlining the plight of the poor. In 1874 Hearn married Alethea Foley, a young woman of African-American descent. This was not only contrary to much of the racial attitudes commonly held at the time but also shamefully illegal at the time. So the marriage was cited as the reason for his dismissal from the newspaper, but it has been suggested that they were irked by Hearn’s tone on matters regarding social and religious issues (he had grown estranged from his Catholic education). He did find work with another press, but his marriage lasted only three years.
Hearn then moved to New Orleans, where he lived and worked as a journalist for several years. It is at this time that his mind turned again to nuances of culture and folklore and as such created several books on Creole culture and cuisine. Following that, he lived in the West Indies, writing a book there about the life of a slave.
In 1890 he moved to Japan, a place that more than any other sealed his place in literary history. Working there as a teacher, Japan carved a place deep in his heart. He converted to Buddhism, became known locally as Koizumi Yakumo and married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a Samurai family, who in turn bore him four children. Furthermore, he wrote numerous books on Japanese culture and folklore, including Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), Japanese Fairy Tales (1898), In Ghostly Japan (1899), Shadowings (1900) and, most famously, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). Lafcadio Hearn died aged 54 of heart failure and was buried in Tokyo in 1904; his legacy lives on, however, with his writings, because through his work old tales of ghostly Japan were brought to the West. Through the media of film, Japanese Horror would continue to weave a strange web.
Notably, the 1964 movie Kwaidan bears the strongest association to Hearn. The movie is divided into four parts: ‘The Woman of the Snow’ and ‘Hoichi the Earless’ are both featured in the book Kwaidan: Stories and Strange Things (a beautiful and peculiar collection that diverts from folklore into studies of insects for its final part), but the other cinematic episodes of Kwaidan, ‘The Black Hair’ and ‘In a Cup of Tea’ are taken from Hearn’s Shadowings and Kottō: Being Japanese Curios, With Sundry Cobwebs (1902), respectively.
‘The Woman of the Snow’ tells the folk tale of a father and son who take refuge from a wild winter storm only to be visited in the night by Yuki-onna, a beautiful but deadly female personification of winter. In ‘Hoichi the Earless’, a blind musician is called before a strange court to play ballads of ancient sea battles. It is feared, however, that his audience may be more than they seem, and in order to protect himself from any maleficence they may cast towards him, he is tattooed head to foot with a protective Buddhist sutra. ‘The Black Hair’ relates the tale of a swordsman who abandons his wife in favour of another but returns home years later to find his first wife forgiving and welcoming of him, or so he thinks. The final tale in the film, ‘In a Cup of Tea’, is the strange story of a writer who keeps seeing faces in, as the title reveals, a cup of tea.
Kwaidan was not the only movie to share the ghost tales (kaidan) of the Heian, Edo and Meiji periods of Japanese history. Historical horrors of Japan have a visual heritage in the Hell Scrolls of the Heian period (8th to 12th century) and in the more phantasmagorical examples of Ukiyo-e (‘pictures of the floating world’), the vibrant woodblock prints and paintings of the 17th to 19th centuries. Ghost stories would feature in illustrated books called kusazoshi (‘grass tales’). Masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kunisada and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi all created works of a spectral narrative, but perhaps the grand master of floating world horror was the visionary artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose oeuvre was as prolific as it was fantastic.
In film, such horrors of the Japanese landscape and imagination were also presented in movies such as Kenzi Mizoguchi’s 1954 classic Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), based on Ueda Akinari’s 1776 book collection of folk tales of the same name, and Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). Onibaba (Demon Hag) is a strange and sinister folk horror tale of two women (one old and the other young) who live in a remote hut during the 14th century civil war and eke out an existence by stealing the possessions of dead and dying soldiers. If it is their own actions that cause the soldier to be in such a state, then so be it. However, the lives of the women are thrown into turmoil when a samurai wearing a hannya (demon mask) appears in a local swamp.
Shindo’s later film Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove)—often shortened to Kuroneko—is a tale of revenge as two women who are raped and killed by samurai return to claim vengeance. Mizoguchi’s and Shindo’s movies are beautifully shot as well as being creepily atmospheric historical dramas.
Perhaps lesser known but certainly worthy of a wider audience is Masahiro Sinoda’s 1975 Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita (Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees). This bizarre movie is based on a short story by Ango Sakaguchi. It is not an ancient folk tale but certainly has the feeling of such, as it is a rural murder ballad of a mountain man who rids himself of numerous wives but becomes besotted and slave to the demands of his eighth wife, who may be even more bloodthirsty than he.
Also popular in this Japanese subgenre of historical folk horror are various cinematic adaptations of Yotsuya Kaidan, a kabuki play written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. Although there are variations on the tale as seen through the eyes of different directors, the basic storyline relates to a young woman, Oiwa, whose husband, Iemon, is coveted by another woman, Oume. Oume sends Oiwa a face cream that is actually a poison, causing her to become disfigured. Horrified by his wife’s appearance, the shallow Iemon arranges for his wife to be raped, so that he can claim a divorce on the grounds of her ‘unfaithfulness’. The would-be rapist, however, takes pity on her and does not rape her. However, he alerts Oiwa to her facial deformity, of which she has been unaware. In her hysteria Oiwa accidentally kills herself with a sword. The death, therefore, gives Iemon opportunity to marry Oume. But just because Oiwa is dead is no reason to assume that she will let the marriage continue peacefully. Movies based on this tale include Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 Tôkaidô Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost of Yotsuya) and Tai Kato’s 1961 Kaidan Oiwa no Borei (Ghost Story of Oiwa’s Spirit).
Although eclipsed often by Japan’s kaiju eiga (‘monster films’, a popular science fiction / horror sub-genre that has continued from the 1930s to recent years, many of which feature daikaiju—giant abominations such as Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidora), demons and ghosts have never wandered too far from Japanese expressions of the imagination. In Japanese mythology and folklore yōkai are entities whose general name comes from the words for ‘weird’ and ‘otherworldly’. There are, however, many strange and wonderful forms of yōkai that range from ghosts of the dead to devils and include such peculiar abominations as the flesh-eating kappas who are turtle-like humanoids that live in lakes and have a hollow basin on the crowns of their heads; tanuki, which are racoon-dogs with colossal testicles; karakasa, which are sentient old parasols; and tengu, which are bird-headed goblin men. Oni are demons that often try to seize the souls of dying people or corrupt them during their lives. They can vary quite considerably in appearance and have been depicted in various forms in manga and anime, the popular Japanese comic books and animations, as well as in Saiyūki, a great television series of the late 1970s based on the 16th-century Chinese novel, A Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. Saiyūki is much better known in the West by the name of its main character, Monkey.
Of all the yōkai, perhaps it is the yurei who have had the longest-lasting influence on Japanese horror both at home and abroad. yurei are the ghosts of people who have died a sudden violent death or in a state of considerable negative emotion such as hatred, sorrow or a lust for revenge or who have been denied proper funerary rites, thus binding them to this world, or at least until the cause of their haunting is properly negated. There are numerous types of yurei, such as zakishi-warashi, which are the mischievous ghosts of children; funayurei, which are the souls of those who died out at sea; and jikininki, which are ghosts that feed on the corpses of the recently deceased. Of all the yurei, it is the onryō, the vengeful ghosts, which are most familiar to fans of horror films—and not only Japanese horror films, as some of the films have been remade by Hollywood.
Onryō walk the Earth to seek retribution for wrongs that were committed to them in life, and in cinema at least their hunger for revenge may be so strong that it is inflicted upon anyone unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than just the person or persons directly responsible for causing them suffering. However, the dynamic of the storytelling is changed from the spirit being a sorrowful victim lashing out in emotional pain from beyond the grave to an indiscriminate monster if being revived for the sake of sequels. There is a tradition of describing onryō as predominantly female, dressed in a white kimono or robe (the colour of the dead), long black hanging hair (in old Japanese tradition, women would wear their pinned up, but it would be loosened following death) and generally floating above the ground or at least having their feet unseen.
Oiwa was an onryō, a particularly recognisable one due to her disfigured eye, as was the wife of the swordsman in ‘The Black Hair’ and the two women of Kuroneko. Though Yukki-onna fits the physical description of an onryō, the story of her earthly demise is not known though some consider that she is the spirit of one who died in the snow. Other theories place her more as an embodiment of wild winter or possibly a snow goddess.
The cinematic representation of Yuki-onna certainly draws some comparison to the onryō that were to follow. Of these in recent times none have had a greater impact than Sadako Yamamura. Sadako first appeared in Ringu, the first book of Koji Suzuki’s Ringu trilogy and in the subsequent 1995 television adaptation and the more famous 1998 cinematic film directed by Hideo Nakata.
Unlike the onryō films of previous generations, Ringu is set in contemporary times and has the subplot of a curse that is spread like a virus with the watching of a mysterious videotape. Following viewing the tape, the victim has seven days to live unless they copy the tape and show it to someone else, thus transferring the curse. It is discovered that the curse originated with the death of a well-known psychic, Shizuko, who committed suicide after a claim that she had faked her powers. It becomes evident that her daughter Sadako has no need for fraudulence and is feared and loathed by her father. However, in seeking a cure for the curse, it is discovered that Sadako vanished whilst still little more than a child.
An excellent creepy character of horror fiction, Sadako (like Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster before her) has alas been watered down by numerous sequels, American remakes (Sadako now renamed Samara Morgan—Samara actually being a nice name for its similarity to samsara, a word used in Buddhism and other Eastern religions in reference to the cycles of death and rebirth and sometimes used to indicate earthly suffering, although I don’t know whether the similarity is intentional or not) and a large host of other onryō movies to follow in its wake such as Ju-on: the Grudge and Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait. Some of these other onryō films are not bad, but few come close to the cold eeriness of Ringu, which resurrected the Japanese horror film industry for a new generation.
Other films utilising the vengeful ghost theme created not only in Japan but also in other Asian countries such as South Korea and Thailand as well as American remakes of Asian horrors vary in quality. That is not to say onryō films are the only recent examples of a Japanese resurgence in horror, for there are diverse examples of tales of terror that shine brightly from the Land of the Rising Sun. These include the cyberpunk body-horror Tetsuo (Tetsuo: The Iron Man, 1989); Odishon (Audition, 1999), a powerful, unsettling tale of a man seeking a new wife; the pre-Hunger Games story of schoolchildren pitched against each other and forced to become merciless killers, Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale, 2000); the surreal horror Uzamaki (Spiral, 2000); and Imprint (2006), an episode of the television anthology series Masters of Horror in whch a search for a missing young woman turns into a grotesque nightmare. However, it is probably through the modern revisiting of the past folk tale theme of vengeful ghosts explored in Ringu, that horror again was given was given a new lease of life in ghostly Japan.
Essay by Andy Paciorek.
From the book
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies (second edition)
Available now from – http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/andypaciorek
Specters, Ghosts and Sorcerors in Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art
The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography
By Stuart Galbraith IV. Scarecrow Press, 2008
Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experiences in Japanese Death Legends
By Michiko Iwasaka & Barre Toelken. Utah State University Press, 1994
Wandering Ghost: The Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn
By Jonathan Cott. Kodansha International, 1992
Lafcadio Hearn and the Vision of Japan
by Carl Dawson. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Horror!: 301 Films to See Before a Zombie Sucks Out Your Eyeballs!
By Marriott James & Kim Newman. Carlton Books, 2010
Horse-Whisperers were far more common in the times when horses were more widely utilised for transportation, agriculture and industry. Some horses more than others are loath to be ridden and strongly resist being tamed. It is in these circumstances that Horse-Whisperers would come into their own. They were so named because they were believed able to calm and train wild horses by whispering into their ears (the Horseman’s Word). There have been suggestions that concoctions of certain aromatic herbs may have also been utilised in the soothing of equine temper and nervousness. Whatever their true methods, it could not be disputed that the Horse-Whisperers generally had an excellent and impressive record of breaking beasts. Onlookers and clients would often conclude that supernatural powers were afoot, a supposition that Horse Whisperers did little to dispel and may even have encouraged. Not just anyone could become a Horse-Whisperer however, for they guarded their prowess with the utmost secrecy. Elaborate Masonic-style initiation was the only way into the ranks in Scotland, and women were never made privy to the Horseman’s Word. Rumours spread that the introductory rites and the deliverance of knowledge involved the presence of the Devil himself. The form of Horse-Whisperers known as Toad-Men heightened this sinister notion further. Their name was derived from their habit of carrying the skeleton of a Toad around in a pouch, apparently as a magical device.
Image and text. © Andy Paciorek. Adapted from the book Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld
One of the most popular characters of Russian folk characters is a heroine named Vasilisa (or Vasilissa) who appears in several Russian fairy tales collected by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev. Known variously as Vasilisa the Wise, Vasilisa the Brave and Vasilisa the Beautiful, her virtues are held in esteem.
In a trope familiar to fairytales the world over, Vasilisa’s mother died whilst Vasilisa was still a child and her father remarries another woman who proves to be an unkindly stepmother to her. Furthermore her stepsisters were none too kindly either. When her father had reason to travel away for a while, the family moved into a cabin deep within a huge forest.
Vasilisa was given a heavy workload of chores by her new family, but she had in her possession a magic doll that was her mother’s final gift to her and which assisted her with her work. Also the stepmother would send Vasilisa out into the forest to collect sticks or mushrooms, but really in the hope that the girl would become fatally lost.
Whilst living in that remote cabin within the woods, the girls were instructed always to have a single candle kept alight from which other fires could be lit. It so happened one day that one of the elder stepsisters let the candle go out, so the young Vasilisa was ordered to gather fire from their nearest neighbour, who was none other than the witch Baba Yaga. So Vasilisa made the considerable trek beneath the darkness of trees to the macabre chicken-legged hut of Baba Yaga. On the way she is passed in turn by three horsemen. Each of which is clad in a single colour which also corresponds to their mount; first a white rider, then a red then finally a black rider whom nightfall followed soon after. Reaching the abode of the old witch, Vasilisa is petrified by the skulls on the fenceposts, whose eye-sockets burn with an eerie glow. Upon finding the girl, Baba Yaga instructs her that in order to retrieve fire Vasilisa must undertake certain tasks.
However should she fail in these chores or attempt to leave without performing them, then she was informed that she would be cooked and eaten.
The duties allocated to her were to clean Baba Yaga’s hut, to separate bad kernels of grain from the good and to separate poppy seeds from soil. Baba Yaga left the girl to her business but Vasilisa was distraught and already exhausted from her long walk through the woods. However the magic doll again assisted her in her tasks and the girl slept.
In the morning, Vasilisa looked out and saw the white rider pass by, later on the red rider passed and finally the black rider, followed both by darkness and the return of Baba Yaga. Seeing the chores beset Vasilisa completed, the witch proceeded to invoke several pairs of invisible hands to wring juice from the separated grains. She asked Vasilisa if she had any questions. The girl enquired about the horsemen and was informed that the white rider was the break of dawn, the red rider was the midday sun and the black one was the fall of night. Vasilisa was then about to enquire about the disembodied hands that worked for the old woman, but sensing this the magic doll in her apron pocket shook as if to warn her to hold her tongue. Vasilisa understood this and asked not of the mysterious hands.
Instead Baba Yaga asked How Vasilisa had managed to complete the difficult chores she had beset her. Vasilisa replied not too revealingly but not untruthfully that she had managed through her mother’s blessing.
The old witch wanted to hear of no blessing in her abode so cast Vasilisa out into the dark, but did not renege her promise and gave the girl a skull upon a stick. The fire in the dead eyes would both illuminate her path home and relight the fires within the cabin.
Upon returning there however, her stepmother and stepsisters became transfixed by the smoldering eyes of the skull and were reduced to nought but ashes. Vasilisa buried the skull.
Different tales follow the further life of Vasilisa, in one she is seen to weave threads of flax into gold or the finest silk. So impressed is the Tsar himself upon seeing the cloth, that he bids Vasilisa to meet him. Upon seeing her he is smitten with her beauty and takes her for his wife. In another variation Vasilisa is named as the girl whose kiss transformed a frog into a prince, who was then to become her husband. Whatever the tale of Vasilisa’s later life, there seems to be a common agreement that she and her father spent it in greater wealth and happiness than before.
From the book Black Earth: A Field Guide to the Slavic Otherworld. Written and Illustrated by Andy Paciorek
In Ireland, the Failte na Marbh (Festival of the Dead) was held annually on the 31st October. (also known as Samhain. All Souls and most commonly Halloween). At this time, the dead would pay a short visit to their living relatives and, after a year in the grave, they were obviously thirsty and famished. It was then the duty of the living kin to provide them with food and drink. If sufficient victuals were not offered, the dead would then feed from the veins of the living. These creatures were known as Marbh Bheo – the Night-walking Dead. On the Scottish Isle of Skye pure vengeance was often thought to be the prime mover for the Biasd Bheulach. These Vampire-like creatures would not only spare their revenge for the specific individuals who had done them wrong in life, or had sent them to the grave, but would exact grim penance upon any living soul that fell within their grasp. In England the dead thought most likely to rise again were suicides & executed criminals, and Northumbria in particular was said to have suffered several Vampire plagues. Prevalent also in both Irish and Scottish lore were Vampires that had no discernible human heritage, and instead seemed to be of a malevolent Fay stock. Such a shadowy creature was the Irish Dearg-Due or Dearg-Diulai – the Red Bloodsucker. Frequently the Dearg-Diulai appeared as beautiful, pale females cloaked in a sanguine-red capes. Attracting warm-blooded males with their feminine charm, seduction soon turned to slaughter.
The Baobhan Sith, or Spirit Women, are a strange breed of Scottish Vampiric entities. They most frequently manifest as small groups of beguiling women, dressed in flowing green cloaks that almost conceal the fact that their legs are of a form more befitting Deer. They may also at times take the forms of Hooded Crows. Highland tales relate how they may entrance men with their dancing before sinking their fangs into them. The Baobhan Sith display a fear of cold iron.
The Glaistig are green-clad Fay women of fair beauty despite their lower bodies which are actually those of Goats. They are solitary creatures of converse character, for whilst they at times may greatly assist children, old people and cattle-farmers, should they chance upon lone male travellers or shepherds then their temperament changes entirely. They will first engage their victim in a seductive dance, before murdering and feasting upon them. In addition to fresh man’s blood the Glaistigs also have a taste for fresh cow’s milk.
Abridged text and amended images from Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld – © Andy Paciorek
Night Hags: Also known as: Night-Mares, Mara, Mera, Mares, Crushers, Drudes, Mare-Demons, Hagges, Haints, Entities, Mallt y Nos, Night-Fiends, Cauchemar, Night-Elves.
Sometimes people who suffered from wasting diseases such as Tuberculosis Consumption were said to look ‘Haggard’ or ‘Hag-Ridden’. This refers to the belief that, as they slept, a Night-Hag had entered their bedchambers and either sat upon their chests crushing them (but not to the point of fatality) and perhaps sucked away at their breath, or their vitality, or alternatively had actually ridden their victims entirely into the air and sometimes over distance. Either way, their human victims were left exhausted and often diseased. The alternative name of Mara and its similar derivatives is said to have meant Crusher in Old-English, and it is from this word that the term Night-Mare originated – initially meaning not a bad dream but an actual external terror. The term Hag-Riding has also been applied when horses who had been left resting have been found to be exhausted and covered in sweat in the morning. Again it was considered that the Night-Hags had been riding the horses around in circles to the point of collapse during the hours of darkness. In some locations it was thought that these fiends on horseback delivered bad dreams to households, thus giving an additional meaning to Night-Mare. An alternatively used term to Hag-Riding is to be Owl-Blasted, which refers to the belief that Night-hags would sometimes take the form of these nocturnal birds.
Demon Lovers: An Incubus is a male spirit that seeks to indulge a mortal woman in carnal activity, whilst a Succubus is a female spirit that likewise preys on the passions of mortal men. However it has been suggested that both spirits are one and the same, and that the Incubi / Succubi adopts only a specific gender in relationship to its particular victim. The nature of these nocturnal paramours preyed heavily upon the minds of the Medieval Church, possibly because many of the alleged victims were members of their own ministry who had prescribed to a life of chastity. (Merlin, the great sage of Arthurian legend was thought to be the offspring of an Incubus and a Nun). The Church scholars deliberated on whether the phenomenon was mere hallucination borne out of celibate frustration, or sinful fantasies made flesh, but this held their own people to blame almost as much as the other considered option that such claims were in fact a cover-up for actual corporeal liaisons with human partners. Frequently, though, those who claimed an encounter with an Incubus / Succubus seemed not to have been pleasured by such a visit but to have been genuinely shocked and frightened. Therefore further attention was concentrated on seeking out an external, supernatural culprit. They questioned whether these night-visitors were perhaps a salacious breed of Faerie, or maybe vengeful Ghosts, but as all were considered agents of the Devil anyway then it was simple enough to label them Demon-Lovers.
Images and Text © Andy Paciorek
Adapted from the book Strange Lands: A Field Guide to the Celtic Otherworld