New Jersey folk lore holds that Mother Leeds was none too happy when she found out she was pregnant for the 13th time. She cursed the child, and when it was born on a dark and stormy night in 1735, it morphed from a beautiful bouncing baby into a bizarre animal with a goat’s head, a bat’s wings, and a forked tail. The Jersey Devil was born. Dozens of people — including Napoleon Bonaparte’s older brother, who briefly served as the King of Spain before his exile to an estate in Bordentown, New Jersey — have claimed to have spotted this monster haunting the woodlands of South Jersey. The state’s hockey team is named after the cryptid.
You can tell a lot about a culture from its monsters. Sexually repressed cultures, such as Puritan America or Victorian England, tend to invent monsters that are sexually aggressive — like witches or vampires. People living in wild and dangerous places, like the open sea or the Canadian wilds invent monsters like the Kraken or the Wendigo to explain the inevitable disappearances that occur where they live. My hometown, Loveland, Ohio, is reportedly the home to a cryptid called the Loveland Frog. The Loveland Frog is a 4-foot tall amphibian who haunts the woods and creeks – the same woods and creeks that I used to wander in as a child. I believe the legend. My neighborhood is exactly the type of place that would be haunted by a Muppet with a gland problem.
One of the most delightful ways to get to know a culture is through its folklore. Here are some monsters worth seeking out in your travels.
1. The Wendigo
The Wendigo is a fabled Algonquin monster that is said to haunt the woods of North America and Canada. The Wendigo is a monster associated with starvation and cannibalism, but what was most terrifying was that the Wendigo’s hunger could never be sated. The Donner party were pioneers who became stranded in the western mountains during a storm and had to resort to eating their own dead. The Wendigo is a mythical monster further east, but there were reports of actual men who would be discovered after living a winter alone, with “wendigo psychosis,” an insatiable desire to eat human flesh. If you’re a horror fan, read Algernon Blackwood’s fictional short story The Wendigo for more.
2. The Chupacabra
In Spanish, Chupacabra means “goat sucker.” The chupacabra was first reported in Puerto Rico in 1995, when goats were found dead and drained of their blood. One woman claimed to have seen a large creature with a spiked spine sucking the blood of animals, and the reported sightings spread across Latin America.
In fact, the Chupacabra myth appears to have come from a movie. The monster, researcher Benjamin Radford suggests, was actually the monster from the 1995 horror film Species. The first woman to see the Chupacabra had just seen the movie, and described her goat-sucker exactly like the alien. The actual culprits of the goat killings were probably dogs and coyotes. But don’t you want to live in a world with a goat-sucking monster?
3. The Lake Tianchi Monster
The most famous lake monster is Nessie, the monster of Loch Ness in Scotland, but there are countless other lake-based cryptids around the world. Atlas Obscura made a great infographic of just the American lake monsters, and it includes plesiosaur, giant octopi, and — I’m not making this up — a giant eel pig.
Less known is the Lake Tianchi Monster, which lives in Heaven Lake, a crater lake that sits on the border of North Korea and China. The volcanic lake is where North Korean propaganda claims that Kim Jong-Il was born — so there’s already something mythical about it. The creature itself has been said to look like a buffalo or a seal, or as having a human head.
4. The Snallygaster
The Snallygaster is a monster that is believed to live in the hills around Washington, DC. The delightful name comes from the German words for “quick ghost”: Schneller geist. The Snallygaster has been called a dragon or a half-bird/half-reptile — and it has a natural enemy: a monstrous wolf called the Dewayo.
5. The Yara-Ma-Yha-Who
Australian aboriginal legend tells of a creature called the Yara-Ma-Yha-Who, a tiny red man who waits up in the trees for someone unsuspecting to walk underneath. He then drops down on them and sucks their blood. As with many blood-sucking monsters, if you’re attacked by the Yara-Ma-Yha-Who, you will become one yourself.
The Yara-Ma-Yha-Who may be related to the more modern “drop bear.” The drop bear urban legend is that some koala bears are carnivorous, and wait for tourists to walk underneath them before falling on them and sucking up their precious bodily fluids.
6. The Golem
A golem is a creature from Jewish folklore created of mud or clay that has been brought to life through holy incantations, to do its master’s bidding. The most famous Golem is the Golem of Prague. It was created by a 16th century rabbi, who created it to protect the city’s Jewish population from the frequent anti-Semitic pogroms. The Golem of Prague is rumored to still be hidden somewhere in the attic of the city’s Old New Synagogue. You can’t go up there, the but the Synagogue is worth a visit.
7. The Penanggalan
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Pretty much every culture has its vampire myths, but one of the more visually disturbing is the Penanggalan from the Malay peninsula. The Penanggalan is a disembodied female head with glowing entrails hanging from its neck. More terrifying, it’s an actual human during the daytime: its head only detaches at night, when it goes out into the night to feed, usually on pregnant women and children.
8. The Myling
Christianity poses a problem: what happens to the souls of children who were not yet baptized when they died? In Scandinavia, they became the myling. The myling were often victims of infanticide, and would haunt people, begging to be buried in hallowed ground. But if you pick up a myling to help bury it, it’ll become heavier and heavier as you get closer to the graveyard, dragging you into the grave with it.
9. The Nykur
The Nykur is a common myth in Northern Europe — the story and name changes depending on where you are. It is known as the nixe in Germany, the nøkk in Sweden, the Kelpie in Scotland, and the Nykur in Iceland. But the idea remains basically the same: it is a shapeshifter that often takes the form of a horse near a river. If you get on its back, it dives into the water, where you drown.
10. The Mongolian Death Worm
The Mongolian Death Worm, or olgoi-khorkoi, is a five foot worm with a thick body, and deadly, corrosive venom. It is said to exist in the most remote parts of the Gobi Desert, but there has never been any firm evidence of its existence. Like the Sandworms in Dune, it can be spotted burrowing by the waves it leaves in the sand.
11. The Grootslang
“Grootslang” means “big snake.” The Grootslang is said to have been a mistake by the gods — they made a dangerous creature that was strong, smart, and clever. When they realized their mistake, they split the animal into two — the elephant and the snake. But a Grootslang is said to still live in a cave in Richtersveld, South Africa, with the head of an elephant and the body of a snake.
12. The Nian Shou
If you’ve been to China, you’ve seen representations of a Nian Shou. It is a mythical creature with the body of a bull and the head of a lion, and it would only come out to feed at the Chinese New Year. It would go into town to feed on children or the weak, but it could be fended off by loud noises and fire. So villagers would set off fireworks and have loud parties to scare the Nian away. What better excuse for a party than scaring off a monster?
13. La Luz Mala
If you ever go on a walk through the countryside in Argentina, you may see a light in the distance, and feel compelled to follow it. Don’t. That light is “La Luz Mala,” the bad light, and it’s a soul in pain, hovering over the place of its body’s death.
La Luz Mala is similar to the English legend of the Will o’ The Wisp, a lantern-like light that seems to recede as you follow it, leading you away from safety and into danger. The modern scientific explanation of the light is swamp gas that catches fire in the night, but the phenomena is so eerie and strange that it inspires legends wherever it appears.
14. The Manticore
A manticore is a Persian monster similar to the Sphinx — it has the body of a lion, and the head of a man. It is said to eat its victims whole, leaving behind no trace, so it may have been used to explain mysterious disappearances.
15. La Pisadeira
If you eat too big a meal in Brazil, you may fall asleep that night and wake, paralyzed, with an emaciated red-eyed, woman leering down at you. She is La Pisadeira, the night hag. Legends like La Pisadeira are pretty common across cultures, because they are likely the result of sleep paralysis, a sleeping disorder in which you are half awake, but dreaming and aren’t able to move. Many sufferers of sleep paralysis claim that they see a terrifying, malevolent creature sitting on their chest. There is, at this very moment, a pretty spectacular sleep paralysis-related ghost story appearing on Twitter, in which a New York cartoonist is being haunted by a demonic, deformed child.
If folklore and mythology are your jams, check out this podcast Lore.