16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins

Trista - October 4, 2018

Pop culture is full of mythical creatures that we know aren’t real — trolls, vampires, and fairies. Or are they?! Many people today profess to be witches in a growing movement known as Wicca, and in the Middle Ages, people were killed for being werewolves!

There are also plenty of seemingly innocuous beings, like clowns, leprechauns, and fairies, which actually have a darker history that may shock purveyors of children’s culture. In fact, many of the creatures that people are fascinated with now have stories behind them that might rival even today’s horror movies. At the very least, they will make you reconsider what might be appropriate for children.


16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Clown make-up is designed to represent dead people. Shutterstock / Alexander Rahts / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

1. Clowns Were Originally Gravediggers

If you have been terrified of clowns for the better part of your life, there is probably a historical basis for your phobia. Though known today as circus performers and entertainers (as well as creepy beings who stalk the woods and prey on children), they first emerged as “fools” who played roles in Greek and Roman comedy plays. From there, the function may have evolved into that of a court jester, lending itself over time into the modern circus time.

Shakespeare, in his play Hamlet, gives us insight into the darker origin of modern clowns, one that might explain why they tend to paint their faces white with exaggerated red features. In Act V, Scene I, the clowns are gravediggers who exchange crude jokes about dying. The clown’s association with death in this regard led to them being portrayed with exaggerated make-up that makes them look like, well, dead people.

Did that just ruin your childhood? Ronald McDonald, Bozo the Clown, and even Krusty from The Simpsons all are designed to look like dead people. Perhaps the denizens of children’s culture should be a bit more careful about where they draw their inspiration.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
An ancient Greek legend depicted King Lycaon as transforming into a werewolf. historicmysteries.com

2. People Were Killed For Being Werewolves

Werewolves, the terrifying creatures that are a hybrid between man and wolf, or the people who, voluntarily or involuntarily turn into wolves, have long fascinated and terrified those who believe in their existence. The concept of the werewolf dates back at least to ancient Greece, where a myth holds that Zeus turned Pleasgus and his sons into wolves for serving him a boy that had been sacrificed. However, the legend began to take on its pure form in Medieval Europe.

The Icelandic Volsunga Saga tells the story of a father and son who discovered a magical belt that transforms its wearer into a wolf for ten days. The father and son don the strap and, when turned, go on a killing spree as wolves. The carnage ends when the father lethally wounds his son.

In Germany during the 1400s, a man named Peter Stubbe was “caught” transforming from his human form into the figure of a wolf. The village of Bedburg had been experiencing a spate of gruesome killings, which were blamed on Stubbe. He was imprisoned, tried, and tortured into confession to the murder of both people and animals. He went on to be executed and is today remembered as history’s most notorious werewolf.

In the 16th and 17th century, at least three Frenchmen were killed for allegedly claiming to have a special potion, given to them by the devil, which turned them into wolves. They used their wolf-like characteristics to kill children, even their own.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
The official Tinker Bell pose. Photo: http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Tinker_Bell
The idea of a Tinker Bell-like faery is rather modern. Disney Wikia

3. Fairies Came From Faeries, Which Were Considered Evil Spirits

Far from the modern-day images of Tinkerbell and her friends, faeries were believed to be supernatural beings that could bring both benefit and harm to humans. Though lore about creatures that resemble faeries are present in many ancient cultures, the belief was particularly strong in pre-Christian Celtic Europe and spread as a superstitious element in Christendom throughout the Middle Ages.

In ancient Irish lore, the faeries were known as Tuatha de Danaan, or the divine children of the goddess Danu. Part god, part spirit, and part mortal, they conquered Ireland and went on to intermarry with humans. As faery lore spread into Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, having fairy blood was believed by many to be a favorable trait.

However, around the 13th century, beliefs about faeries changed so that they were regarded as evil spirits, if not omens. They were believed to exchange human infants for their own, who were known as “changelings,” and people had to leave food and drink outside their homes to appease them. To this day, faeries are believed to haunt many ancient Celtic sites.

The modern fairy (spelled differently) probably originates with the likes of James Barrie and others taking artistic license on this ancient mythological creature.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Leprechauns were devious, mischievous creatures. O’Reilly the Leprechaun. Simpsons Wikia

4. Leprechauns Tried To Kill A King

While the cereal, Lucky Charms, would have you believe that leprechauns are cute little men dressed all in green, they are mischievous faeries of Celtic – mainly Irish – origin. Most of their time is spent mending shoes and engaging in somewhat deleterious practical jokes. In one of the earliest tales of leprechauns, King Fergus Mac Leti of Ulster was dragged into the water by three leprechauns after he fell asleep on the beach. He woke up and caught them before he drowned and was granted three wishes in return for their release. The famous children’s story, Rumpelstiltskin, which is about a little man who tricked a young woman into giving him her firstborn child, may have actually been about a leprechaun.

Similar to faeries, leprechauns were also believed to be Tuatha de Danaan, or descendants of the gods. In fact, the earliest ones were believed to be characterizations of Celtic pagan divinities.

Before the 1900s, leprechauns were believed to wear red, not green, and beliefs about their appearance varied depending on the particular region of the Emerald Isle. The modern depiction of the leprechaun, as a charming little man dressed in green, is a pretty current invention. However, they were initially believed to have a pot of gold kept hidden at the end of a rainbow.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
The Wicked Witch from the film The Wizard of Oz. Vix

5. The Modern Witch Wasn’t Created Until The Renaissance

Tales of witches are at least as old as the Hebrew Bible, with King Saul consulting the Witch of Endor and conjuring up the dead spirit of the prophet, Samuel. The idea also appears throughout Greek mythology, with evil, hideous women possessing magical powers. Today, the idea of witches and witchcraft has made an enormous resurgence, due in no small part to the phenomenal success of Harry Potter, combined with the growing Wicca movement.

However, the modern witch, the one that Harry Potter fans might recognize, did not originate until the Renaissance, with artists imagining what evil beings who had sold their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers might resemble. Some conceived of them as being hags with a hooked nose, pointy hat, warts, and a broomstick. Others painted them as beautiful seductresses who could enchant men with their looks. Ironically, the witch trials that gripped Europe and eventually the American colonies began soon after, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Clergy and terrified townspeople were essentially hunting beings that artists had only recently imagined.

Today, the idea of being a witch has gone mainstream and claims much more ancient roots, usually associated with the Druids and ancient Celts. However, the modern religion of Wicca also has relatively recent origins; though it claims to be an ancient religion, it only began in the twentieth century.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Merlin L’Euchanteur Merlin 1608. NYPL Digital Gallery

6. Wizards Weren’t Necessarily Sorcerers

JK Rowling’s presentation of wizards as magical beings who, more often than not, are indistinguishable from muggles might have some people wondering what the basis was for the creature. What is particularly surprising is that she cast wizards as the male counterparts to witches, when historically, the two have little in common. While witches were people (either male or female) who sold their souls to the devil in exchange for magical powers, wizards were a part of popular folklore in Europe as men who were particularly wise. Their legends also existed hundreds of years before those of witches.

Merlin, the quintessential wizard, was a sorcerer believed in Medieval England to aid King Arthur in his quests. His likes can be found in JRR Tolkien’s wizard, Gandalf, who was really created to represent the Norse god Oden. A wizard was more than a sorcerer, though, as the word itself comes from the word “wys,” meaning “wise.” These powerful beings weren’t just conjurers; they were more akin to prophets who were exceedingly wise and could even see into the future. Perhaps the only wizard in Harry Potter who resembles the original wizard, Merlin, is Albus Dumbledore, with his old beard and ability to see further into situations than other people can.

Today, when people refer to someone as a wizard, they tend to mean that the person is exceptionally skilled (or wise) in that particular area. For example, a math wiz (or wizard) is someone who is uniquely qualified in mathematics.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Samantha’s father in Bewitched was a warlock. harpiesbizarre.com

7. Warlocks Were Leaders Of Witches

As opposed to a wizard, whose magic was considered to be good or at least benign, a warlock was believed to be a practitioner of dark, evil magic. The word “warlock” probably derives from either an Old English word that means “covenant breaker,” referring possibly to God’s covenant with Christians or from an Old Norse word that means “caller of spirits.” Among the Medieval Scots, the word came to denote the male counterpart to a witch.

Scotland was particularly notorious for witch-hunts that included warlocks. Warlocks were even viewed as the men who led the weaker sex astray into making pacts with the devil. They were often tortured before being burned at the stake in public executions.

Harry Potter might have been better cast as a warlock, minus the part about making a pact with the devil. Even though they were originally believed to be evil, witches were as well, but that fact didn’t stop JK Rowling from using them as practitioners of good magic. In the 1950s television show Bewitched, which was made into a movie in 2004, members of Samantha’s family were warlocks. Though they engaged in plenty of shenanigans, most notably her father against her husband, they weren’t particularly evil.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Alleged footage of Bigfoot in 1967. Roger Patterson, Courtesy of Red / outsideonline.com

8. Bigfoot Is Believed To Be Real

Bigfoot, the giant ape-like creature that roams about North America, particularly the forests of the Pacific Northwest, is believed by many today actually to exist. Many eyewitnesses claim to have seen Bigfoot, usually while on a camping, hiking, or another outdoor excursion, and some even profess to have caught life footage of the creature.

Stories of Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, go all the way back to Native American stories long before white settlers made their way onto the continent. While many of the previous creatures mentioned here have origins in local lore, artistic expression, or merely the fears of the people, Bigfoot seems to have some credibility. The stories told about Bigfoot, while different, don’t seem to contradict each other.

According to some Native American stories, Bigfoot has magical abilities and other distinctive characteristics. Some say that he is a harbinger of impending harm or an omen that the people must change their ways. According to many eyewitnesses, the creature emits a distinctly foul odor.

Perhaps one day, Bigfoot will be remembered only as a superstition that haunted the people of North America, much as those around faeries and witches plagued Medieval Europe. On the other hand, maybe forensic evidence will surface which documents, for posterity and us, that the Bigfoot stories are correct and the creature is real.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Artist’s rendition of the first Chupacabra sighting. Wikimedia Commons

9. The Chupacabra May Exist

Hand-in-hand with Bigfoot is the creature known as the Chupacabra, a Latin American monster believed to suck the blood from goats and other livestock. The beast is said to be the size of a small bear, has a protruding spine, and fangs. Many farmers, especially in Latin America (including Puerto Rico), have reported that the creature attacked and killed their animals. Reports also claim that the creature attacked farm animals in the United States and Canada.

The creature known as Chupacabra may originate with folklore told by people in Latin America that migrated upwards to the United States and then into Canada. Like Bigfoot, it may one day be considered a superstition, similar to leprechauns and warlocks. A study conducted by the University of Michigan concluded that animals in the United States that were called “Chupacabra” were, in fact, mange-like coyotes who had been so weakened by a parasite that they attacked goats and other small farm animals. Additionally, claims that animals whose blood had been sucked by the Chupacabra could not be confirmed, as necropsies did not show that they had been bled dry.

Still, the story about the Chupacabra continues, and many people insist in its existence, not unlike people in Medieval Europe emphasized that creatures like faeries exist.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
HBO series Game of Thrones dragon with Jon Snow. Vanity Fair

10. Dragons May Have Been Dinosaurs

The very idea of dragons has terrified people of vast and disparate cultures, all the way from China to North America, and possibly also Australia and South America. There are several explanations for their origins, the first of which is that they were imagined from recovered dinosaur fossils. Considering how large some of these gargantuan beasts were – sometimes 30 feet long or more – one can easily imagine how the discovery of a fossil might inspire fear.

Another explanation is that the Nile crocodile, which can grow to be 18 feet long and raise its trunk off the ground, may have migrated across the Mediterranean and gone as far as Europe. Perhaps some Europeans spotted the terrifying creatures, which have been known to eat people, and created the myth of the dragon.

In Australia, the goanna or another large lizard, like the Komodo dragon, may be responsible for the dragon myth. These giant lizards have a venomous bite that can severely infect a wound.

Another possible explanation is that whale bones, not known to earlier humans to actually be inhabitants of the sea, were believed to belong to fire-breathing predators. Seeing as whales spend most of their time underwater, their existence was not well-understood until more recently.

Finally, some believe that the myth of the dragon originated within the human brain, which is evolved to fear predators. The legend is so universal because local folklore merged with this primal fear.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Gizmo from the film Gremlins. fun.com

11. Gremlins Confused World War I Pilots

Gremlins, pesky little creatures that create mischief among humans, are a recent phenomenon. They don’t exist in ancient mythologies (as far as we are aware) and first made their appearance among fighter pilots in the British military during World War I. The creatures were described as generally being between six inches and one foot in height, having horns or large rabbit-like ears, and wearing black leather boots. Though generally friendly, they were said to bite through aircraft cables, drink fuel, cut through the wings, and punch bombardiers and gunners who were affixing their targets.

These creatures that were routinely reported by fighter pilots and their crews came to be known as Gremlins, after the Brothers Grimm of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. However, reports about them did not reach the public until 1922, several years after the war ended, because of a superstition that acknowledging the gremlins would bring about bad luck.

Following World War I, gremlins were reported by Charles Lindbergh during his 1927 historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, though he didn’t make the experience public until The Spirit of St. Louis was published in 1953. World War II pilots also reported them. Some believe that gremlins are tech-savvy versions of other spirits who create mischief for humans.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Gargoyle carvings are common on Medieval churches. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images / Mental Floss

12. Gargoyles Were Meant To Ward Off Evil Spirits

Medieval, gothic architecture seems to be dominated with carvings of grotesque stone figures whose wide-open mouths conveniently serve as water spouts. Depictions of gargoyles in Western architecture can be found as early as ancient Egypt and Greece, and similar counterparts were discovered in Native American architecture. The carvings particularly dominate the outside of churches, though are not seen on the inside.

The reason why may simply be that the gargoyle was an image of the devil meant, ironically, to preserve the sanctity of the church and discourage people from falling into sin. Because much of Europe was illiterate during the Middle Ages, graphic depictions, such as gargoyle carvings, were often relied upon to teach people about the truths of the Bible. However, gargoyles are not anywhere in the Bible.

The first Christian use of the gargoyle, along with the term, came from St. Romanus, soon to be the Bishop of Rouen, during the seventh century. Allegedly, he encountered a bat-like monster that breathed fire. He defeated the creature with a crucifix. He scorched the beast, but its head and neck refused to burn. He mounted the head on the church to ward off evil spirits as a warning to any other evil creatures that might venture near the church.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins

Many people attributed poltergeist activity to the mentally ill. List Verse

13. Poltergeists Activity Dates To Ancient Rome

A poltergeist is believed to be a spirit that terrorizes a person or location. Supposed incidents of poltergeist activity include things such as rapping noises or the opening and shutting of doors, cabinets, and windows; movement of small and large objects, including pieces of furniture, has also been described. Many people who believe themselves to be the victims or agents of poltergeist activity call for an exorcism.

Modern research has found that many who are supposed agents of poltergeist activity are teenagers or young adults who are experiencing intense mental or psychological disturbances, including severe anxiety, phobias, mania, hysteria, and schizophrenia. However, the origin of poltergeist activity is much older than modern psychology, and some victims and agents of poltergeist activity are shown to be psychologically stable. Reports of poltergeists date back as far as ancient Rome.

The term poltergeist comes from German and refers to a spirit that makes noises. However, the phenomenon is not limited to one particular country or culture, as it has been reported in places as disparate as China, Brazil, and Australia. Today, many people say poltergeist activity, such as the ghost of George Mackenzie that allegedly haunts the Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland and causes harm to visitors.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Banshees didn’t wail; they sang. Vignette Wikia

14. Banshees Were Omens Of Death

There are two origins of the creature today known as the Banshee, one of which is distinctly Irish and another of which is common to both Ireland and Scotland, particularly the Scottish Highlands. In the Irish version, the Bean Si, or Banshee is a beautiful woman, usually dressed all in white or all in red and wearing a veil, whose eyes are perpetually red from crying for the deceased. She warns families of imminent death by singing a beautiful yet mournful song. Despite the expression “wailing like a banshee,” banshees did not wail.

In the other version, the banshee is known as Bean-Nighe or Little-Washer-By-The-Stream. She is a hideous woman, with a sizeable front tooth, one nostril, webbed toes, and giant breasts, and is dressed all in green. Usually dressed in green, she sits by a stream and washes clothes, believed to be the blood-stained grave clothes of someone who is about to die a violent death.

Stories about the banshee made their way across the Atlantic when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their folk tales with them. Some Revolutionary War ghost stories have banshees as their objects, and JK Rowling took the creature as inspiration for some of her creations in the Harry Potter series.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Mermaids were actually serial killers. The Little Mermaid Wallpaper Desktop / Yandex.com

15. Mermaids Seduced Sailors To Their Deaths

In The Odyssey, Homer told of a mythical, bird-like creature known as a siren. Her song was so enchantingly beautiful that anyone who listened to it would be lured away to certain death. Odysseus, the hero, had his ears stopped up with beeswax so that he couldn’t hear their song. The half-fish, half-human mermaid has its origins in this deadly creature.

In fact, the creature was seen as an omen of impending death. Sometimes, they would lure people into deep waters, where they would drown. A statue of a mermaid on the town of Zennor, in England’s Cornwall region, is a commemoration of a being that was believed to entice youth to come and live with her underwater. These stunningly beautiful creatures could live very long lives, usually hundreds of years, but were entirely mortal and did not have souls. The counterpart to the mermaid was the merman.

Some suggest that the idea of the mermaid originates with seaborne mammals, such as the manatee, which suckles their young much as humans do. They may have been believed to be part human to carry out such functions.

Next time that you see a little girl costumed as a mermaid imagine that she is dressed as a serial killer who would carry people off to a watery grave. Clearly, Disney took some creative license when creating the “merpeople” of The Little Mermaid.

16 Not-So-Scary Creatures That Started Out With Horrifying Origins
Trolls weren’t cute and cuddly like the popular toys. Esty

16. Trolls Stole People’s Souls

JRR Tolkien drew heavily upon Norse mythology when writing his Lord of the Rings series, and this is particularly evident in his depiction of trolls. In the Old Norse tradition, trolls were believed to be soulless creatures that were not Christianized, lived outside of human society, and, in some versions, turned to stone when exposed to daylight. The trolls that turned to stone became the stony crags that cover Scandinavia.

In one Norse myth, a man named Esbern fell in love with a young woman. However, her father would not let him marry her unless he built a church. A troll agreed to help him make a church, but only on the condition that if Esbern did not discover his name before the church was completed, the troll would lay claim to his eyes and his soul. Try as he might, Esbern could not learn the troll’s name, until his bride-to-be spied on the troll’s wife, who was singing a song to her baby. Her husband’s name was in the song, and his beloved relayed the title back to him. Though Esbern was able to keep his eyes and soul, in other myths, people who encountered trolls were not quite as fortunate.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Where do witches come from?” by Alastair Sooke. BBC Culture. October 10, 2014.

“How Did Werewolf Legends Start?” Historical Facts. History Daily. April 26, 2019

“Hamlet Summary.” Sparknotes.

“Leprechaun.” Wikipedia.

“Wizard.” Online Etymology Dictionary.

“Warlock.” Wikipedia.

“A town with history of a burning witch issue,” by Ian Scott. Falkirk Herald. April 30, 2016.

“The Legend of Bigfoot.” Washington National Guard online collections.

“Chupacabra.” Wikipedia.

“Where Did Dragons Come From?” by Joseph Stromberg. Smithsonian.com. January 23, 2012.

“Gargoyles.” Medieval Life and Times.

“Gargoyle.” Wikipedia.

“10 Terrifying Tales of Violent Poltergeists,” by Alan Boyle. Listverse. March 10, 2014.

“Faeries,” in The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Rosemary Guiley, 2007.

15 Lucky Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Leprechauns. Mental Floss.

“Gremlin,” Occult World.

“Poltergeist,” by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Mermaid,” by the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. July 20, 1998.

“Troll.” Wikipedia.

“Trolls.” Myth Encyclopedia.