31 fearsome monsters from around the world
Sometimes it seems like the only monsters we talk about nowadays are vampires, zombies, and werewolves. We here at OxfordDictionaries.com thought that was a shame, so we did some digging and pulled together this grand list of monsters to terrify and amuse you (and maybe even provide some of you with last-minute costume ideas!).
Not quite the furry Spielbergian creatures of your childhood horror films, accounts of these mischievous sprites, who are reputed to wreak havoc on aircraft functionality, first crop up in RAF slang of World War II.
2. Davy Jones
If you’ve ever had dreams of being a pirate, you’ve probably also had nightmares about Davy Jones. In nautical slang, Davy Jones is the spirit of the sea, or the ‘sailors’ devil’. Additionally, Davy Jones’s locker is sometimes used to refer to the ocean, particularly as the grave of those who die at sea.
Sightings of this reputed vampiric creature have been reported all over North and Central America. The name comes from the Spanish chupar ‘to suck’ + cabra ‘goat’, named in relation to its first alleged victims – goats (and other livestock) found drained of all their blood. The chupacabra is thought to be a large, bear-sized creature with spikes running down the length of its body, and thin arms with three sharp fingers.
This bizarre concoction of a monster is reputed to have the body of a lion (sometimes a tiger), the head of a man, porcupine quills, and the tail (or sting) of a scorpion. Ultimately, the word manticore comes from an Old Persian word meaning ‘man-eater’.
From the Irish bean sídhe, meaning ‘woman of the fairies’, a banshee is a supernatural being supposed to wail under the windows of a house where someone is about to die in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.
A poltergeist is a ghost or other supernatural being held responsible for unexplained noises and the physical disturbances in a space, especially relating to the movement of objects. The word poltergeist comes from the German Poltergeist, from poltern ‘create a disturbance’ + Geist ‘ghost’.
The Loch Ness monster – familiarly known as Nessie – is reputed to live in Loch Ness, a deep lake in northwestern Scotland. With accounts dating back to the time of St Columba (6th century) and many alleged modern sightings, many profess to believe in the monster, although there is no scientific proof of its existence.
From a French word referring to a person who has returned after a long absence, revenant is a person who returns from the dead, or a reanimated corpse or ghost.
9. the Jersey devil
A fabled inhabitant of the sparsely-populated Pine Barrens region in the US state of New Jersey, the Jersey Devil is a kangaroo-like creature with a horse/dog head, dragon-like wings, a tail, and horns. The National Hockey League team based in the state – the New Jersey Devils – takes its name from this regional monster.
10. Headless Horseman
Although the headless horseman had long been a motif of European folklore, the Headless Horseman as we know him today first appeared in 1820 in Washington Irving’s spooky short story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, and from there quickly entered into the popular imagination. The thought of the ‘Galloping Hessian’ is still bound to send a shiver down the spine of anyone walking along a lonely country road in autumn.
A more current cultural obsession, the zombie is rarely considered in the singular anymore. Although the concept of the zombie – a corpse without a soul brought back to life by witchcraft or other means – began in the religion of some West African peoples, it has since broadened to generally refer to a person or reanimated corpse capable of movement but not rational thought, and which feed on human flesh. For more information, check out ‘What is the origin of the word “zombie”?’
The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is thought to be a large hairy creature resembling a human or bear living in the highest part of the Himalayas. The name Yeti comes from the Tibetan yeh-teh, ‘little manlike animal’ – a translation that doesn’t inspire much fear.
13. drop bear
Tourists beware! This fabled creature from Down Under is known for having a proclivity for those without an Australian accent. With the form of a larger, fanged koala, the drop bear is known to leap down from its leafy perches onto unsuspecting foreigners.
A famous monster typically associated with ancient Egypt, the mummy usually appears as an embalmed corpse which has been brought back to life. The mummy is usually represented with long, trailing cloth strips which it had been wrapped in. The word mummy ultimately comes from the Arabic mūmiyā, meaning ‘embalmed body’.
Tolkien fans are already well acquainted with the devouring monsters that are orcs, an imaginary race of subhuman creatures, small and human-like in form but with ogreish features and malevolent characters.
First spotted off the coast of Norway, the kraken is an enormous sea monster often represented in the form of a gigantic squid. This monster has the distinction of being part of meme culture: Liam Neeson’s dramatic ‘Release the Kraken!’ line of dialogue from the 2010 reboot of The Clash of the Titans has become a popular catchphrase.
In Jewish legend, a golem is a human figure made of clay, or other materials, which is supernaturally brought to life. The word comes from the Yiddish gōlem, ‘shapeless mass’. The word also appears in extended use referring to an automaton or robot.
Everyone’s favorite furry monster, werewolf refers to a person who changes for periods of time into a wolf, typically when there is a full moon. While the -wolf part of the word is obvious, the were- is somewhat elusive – even to etymologists – though were- is usually identified with the Old English wer, meaning ‘man’.
Before this monster was ‘Godzilla’ in English, it was ‘Gojira’ in Japanese. The Japanese name comes from a blend of Japanese gorira ‘gorilla’ and kujira ‘whale’. According to the OED, the monster’s name was allegedly adopted from the nickname of a burly filmset employee.
If there’s a sleeping dog to let lie, it’s this one. In Greek and Latin mythology, Cerberus is the fierce watchdog – often represented as having three heads – who guards the entrance to hell.
Probably best known for their cameo in Homer’s Odyssey, these monsters are part woman and part bird and are supposed to lure sailors to destruction with their enchanting singing. In 1819, when French physicist and engineer Charles Cagniard de la Tour invented a machine capable of producing musical tones, he named it a siren, which gives us the sense of siren referring to a ‘device that makes a loud prolonged sound as a signal or warning’.
A female demon imagined to have sexual intercourse with men in their sleep, this monster takes its name from the medieval Latin word succubus, meaning ‘prostitute’.
The confederate of the succubus, the incubus is a male demon imagined to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women. The word incubus comes from a late Latin form of incubo, meaning ‘nightmare’. According to the OED, the existence of these monsters was recognized by ecclesiastical and civil law in the Middle Ages.
A member of a race of one-eyed giants, the most famous Cyclops is probably Polyphemus, who was blinded by Odysseus in his escape.
Much sought-after, but never found, Sasquatch (also known as Bigfoot) is the huge, hairy, man-like monster (or group of monsters) supposedly inhabiting the north-west of the US and Canada. There have been numerous sightings over the years, dating all the way back to Native American accounts. The term sasquatch comes from the indigenous Native American language Salish.
26. Nandi bear
An animal imagined to inhabit parts of East Africa, the Nandi bear has been blamed for the killings of humans and domesticated animals.
In Hindu mythology, a rakshasa is a malignant demon, especially one of a band of demons at war with Rama and Hanuman. The word rakshasa comes from the Sanskrit rākṣasa, meaning ‘demon’.
The basilisk is a mythical reptile with a lethal gaze (or breath) that is hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg. The reptile’s name ultimately comes from the Greek basiliskos, meaning ‘little king, serpent’.
A changeling is a child believed to have been secretly substituted by fairies for the parents’ real child in infancy.
One of the most enduring monsters in literary history, anyone who has read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is fond of reminding everyone else that ‘Frankenstein’ is the name of the inventor, not the monster. But language usage wins in the end, and if someone were to yell out to you that Frankenstein is hot on your tail, you probably wouldn’t assume that the mad scientist is after you.
Thanks to the cultural phenomenon of Twilight, it’s hard to imagine anyone out there still in the dark about vampires. Vampire has been traced back to the Magyar word vampir, which is ultimately of Slavonic origin. Many of the traits associated with vampires today can be traced back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which inspired countless other novels, films, and other works.
Bonus! Local monsters!
Here’s a quick selection of some more lesser-known monsters:
Sounding like a creature straight out of the works of Lewis Carroll or Dr Seuss, the snallygaster is actually a fierce monster known to roam the area around Washington, D.C. and Frederick County, Maryland. The name comes from the German schnelle Geister, meaning ‘quick spirits’.
In Algonquian folklore, the windigo is a cannibalistic giant, the monstrous result of a person who has eaten human flesh.
The penanggalan is a type of female vampire known to prey on children and women in labour. W.W. Skeat provides an alarming description in his book Malay Magic, saying that it ‘is believed to resemble a trunkless human head with the sac of the stomach attached to it, and which flies about seeking for an opportunity of sucking the blood of infants.’
Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, an ogbanje is a child believed to die repeatedly and be continually reincarnated and born to the same parents. The word ogbanje comes from the Igbo ọ̀gbán̄jé, which literally means ‘maker of several trips’.
This large puma-size monster with a ‘blood-curdling scream’ was first seen in the US state of Connecticut back in 1939. The name comes from the name of the Connecticut town of Glastonbury (where it was first spotted) + the word wacky.