From critics calling it the horror film of the year to this generation’s The Exorcist, there is a veritable critical storm surrounding Hereditary at the moment, but does it really live up to the hype? I first saw the trailer before watching A Quiet Place and knew this was a film that simply couldn’t be missed. Its tragically late release date in the UK meant that I had to wait a little longer to get around to it, but I’m finally ready to share my thoughts on whether or not this really is the must-see horror title of the year.
Hereditary follows the story of a miniaturist artist named Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie has recently suffered the loss of her mother, Ellen, who led an intensely secretive life and who fostered an unusually close relationship with her granddaughter Charlie. In the fallout of Ellen’s death, Annie struggles to simultaneously reconnect with her daughter Charlie and to adequately process her own complex relationship with her mother. I won’t say much more than that on the plot, because the trailer kept the premise deliberately vague and to give anything more away would be to spoil the fun.
Where the film succeeds almost immediately is in its staggeringly strong cast. Toni Collette is utterly spellbinding in her portrayal of a mother on the brink of emotional and mental collapse, while Gabriel Byrne’s understated performance as the compassionate yet frustrated father is no less powerful. As one of the main focuses of the narrative, Milly Shapiro could have all too easily allowed her character as the troubled daughter Charlie to collapse into the “demon child” stereotype popularised by films like The Omen or The Ring, but instead offers up a character that is remarkably complex and three dimensional. The real surprise performance comes from Alex Wolff as Peter, whose portrayal in the film trailer would have you believe he was relegated solely to the task of a supporting character. Rather than simply being a buffer for the other members of his family, Alex Wolff’s performance offers a realism that is at times extremely disquieting and truly immerses you in his character’s experience of the unfolding events.
In terms of the story, the first half of the film is perhaps some of the greatest cinema that I’ve seen in the past decade. The narrative subverts audience’s expectations in the most shocking and brilliant of ways, which honestly took my breath away and raised my expectations to arguably impossible heights. I would align myself with Mark Kermode’s excellent dissection of the film and say that, unfortunately, it is this outstanding start and those high expectations that somewhat ruin the second half. While the first half of the film is subtle in its storytelling and gritty in its portrayal of the Graham family, the second half is rife with unnecessary exposition and favours the relatively uninteresting supernatural elements of the story over the intense psychological exploration on which the first half was founded.
This is not to say that the film is not worth watching; I still believe it one of the greatest horror films to come out this year and would absolutely recommend it. The main problem is that it starts so strongly, but fails to live up to the promises that it makes. The disappointment I felt towards the end of the film was tragically enhanced by how much I had enjoyed the first half and the fact that it starts to lose momentum in its closing acts also diminishes how scary it is. While the first half is undeniably unsettling and the gradual build-up of tension quickly got under my skin, the second half does little to maintain the pace and leads to an ending that is somewhat messy.
There were parts of the closing sequence that were wonderfully eerie and brought back the sense of terror I had felt at the start of the film, but these were undercut by certain scenes that were almost comical and jarred me so badly that I really struggled to properly engage with the ending. With those critiques aside, I would urge anyone and everyone to watch this film for themselves before passing judgement. After all, this is a film that is certain to polarise opinion, and it is only truly great films that evoke such strong feelings.
Acting: 9/10, a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette is bolstered by incredible performances from Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro.
Storyline: 8/10, the in-depth psychological portrait of a family unravelling in the wake of grief is brilliantly executed, but is tragically ill-served by its more cliché supernatural elements.
Fear Factor: 7/10, though the film is less overtly scary and more psychologically unsettling, it is guaranteed to get under your skin.
Overall: 8/10, in spite of its aforementioned shortcomings, this is a superb psychological thriller that is sure to delight, shock, and terrify.
Brace yourself, because this might be one of the most stomach churning segments of Malicious Myths we’ve ever done (quite literally). The Pennanggalan, also known as Hantu Penanggal, is a variation of the vampire myth that originates from Malaysia and is connected to a wider constellation of Southeast Asian horrors, from the Manananggal of Filipino folklore and the Leyak of Bali to the Krasue of Thailand and the Cambodian Ap.
So, if you’re planning on backpacking in Southeast Asia, make sure to double-check that your travel insurance covers “supernatural encounters”. “Penanggal” or “Penanggalan” in Malay literally means “to detach” or “to remove” and can be perhaps explained by the Penanggalan’s nasty habit of launching its head off of its body.
Unlike other vampiric creatures, Penanggalan are exclusively female and are able to masquerade as normal human beings during the daytime, transforming into their hideous counterparts only at night. They tend to prey upon pregnant women and new-born babies, which is why they often opt for professions as midwives. After all, sucking the blood out of helpless victims might sate your hunger, but it won’t pay the bills. By day, the Penanggalan largely goes about its business and cannot be distinguished from a normal woman.
At night, however, it twists its head off of its body and flies out into the night in search of blood. Like some awful harbinger of birth, the Penanggalan perches on the roofs of houses where women are in labour and lies in wait. As the woman gives birth, the Penanggalan will wriggle its invisible tongue into the house and begin draining the blood of the new mother. In some instances, it may even eat the placenta, drain the blood of the new-born, and feast on the flesh of its victims as well.
While the Penanggalan rarely drains its victims entirely, those who have been fed on by the Penanggalan will contract a wasting disease that is almost inescapably fatal. As if squeezing another human being out of your body wasn’t bad enough, now you have to contend with a blood-sucking pile of organs hanging outside your window. To add insult to injury, even if you escape the Penanggalan’s invisible tongue, you will still develop incurable open sores if you happen to be unlucky enough to be brushed by its hanging entrails.
According to most folk legends, the Penanggalan flies through the air in search of food, although alternative accounts state that they can pass through walls and can even ooze up through the cracks in the floorboards of a house in order to get to their victims. In some instances, they are depicted as being able to use their intestines like tentacles and entangle their victims in a mushy web.
The organised Penanggalan will always keep a vat of vinegar in their house, as otherwise it would be impossible for her to return to her body. After a night of floating-head shenanigans, the Penanggalan will return home to immerse her entrails in this vat of vinegar so that they shrink and can fit easily into the empty husk of body she left behind. That being said, we don’t recommend preparing a vinegar bath for those days when you’re planning on struggling into your skinny jeans.
If you happen to be going into labour in Malaysia, the best way to protect against a Penanggalan attack is to scatter thorny leaves on the roof or loop them around windows. It is believed that this sharp shrubbery will trap or injure the Penanggalan’s dangling viscera as it flies by. In some cases, families will even plant pineapple trees under their houses months before the birth of a child, as traditional Malay houses are built on stilts and the prickly fruit will supposedly deter the Penanggalan from squishing its way through the floorboards. As an extra precaution, the pregnant woman will keep a pair of scissors or betel nut cutters under her pillow, as the Penanggalan is deathly afraid of these items. In short, the Penanggalan likes its betel nuts uncut and its draping entrails firmly intact.
Once an unsuspecting Penanggalan is ensnared on foliage or entangled in a forest of pineapple trees, it can be easily dispatched using machetes. An alternative way to kill the Penanggalan is to first find out where she lives. While they may appear like normal women during the daytime, there are a few key traits that will give the Penanggalan away. They will usually avoid making eye contact, will lick their lips hungrily when performing their midwife duties, and will perpetually stink of vinegar.
The key is to follow your foul-smelling friend back to their house, wait until nightfall, and then casually break into their home. If your suspect is in fact a Penanggalan, then she should have left her headless body behind as she flew out into the night to feed. All you need to do is fill the empty body with pieces of broken glass and, when the unknowing Penanggalan attempts to reattach herself to her body, her internal organs will be severed. Denying a Penanggalan re-entry into her host body before sunrise or sanctifying the body by cremation will also result in her death.
If you need to prove your friend is a Penanggalan to win a bet, however, then you should simply flip the body upside down. According to the rich tapestry of Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan is intelligent enough to lead a complicated double life, but not quite smart enough to recognise the front of her own body, so flipping her body will mean she inevitably attaches herself backwards. When she emerges from her house the next day, her head will be facing backwards and she’ll probably die of embarrassment due to how frankly ridiculous she looks.
During the day, the Penanggalan appears like a normal human woman. At night, however, this gruesome ghoul detaches its head and flies around of its own accord. As it flies, its internal organs dangle below it and are said to twinkle like fireflies as it glides through the moonlit night. Its long, tangled hair fans around it as it flies and its glowing red eyes pierce the darkness.
While the Penanggalan predominantly uses its invisible tongue to drain its prey, it is often depicted as having fangs. The number of fangs varies from region to region, with some describing it as having two, like the Western vampire, and others stating that the average Penanggalan is adorned with a mouthful of fangs.
According to traditional Malaysian folklore, a Penanggalan is created when an old or young woman uses black magic in order to obtain everlasting beauty. The woman will typically make a pact with a demon and, as part of this pact, it is stipulated that the woman must not eat meat for 40 days. Apparently these women weren’t great at reading the fine print on their contracts, because breaking this pact results in them becoming a bloodthirsty Penanggalan.
This may seem like an insane lack of self-control on the part of the woman, but imagine going without bacon for over a month and we’re sure you’d crack too. In some instances, the woman either died during childbirth and transformed into a Penanggalan or was subjected to a powerful curse that was outside of her control, although this is far less common.
There is alternative Malaysian folktale that states the original Penanggalan was once a beautiful priestess. One day, this priestess was taking a ritual bath in a tub that originally held vinegar. As she bathed herself and entered into a state of deep meditation, a man entered the room without warning and startled her. Out of shock, she jerked her head up so quickly to look at him that the sheer force severed her head from her body and eviscerated her in the process, which is often known in Malaysia as the “overreaction of the century”.
Enraged by the peeping tom, the priestess flew after him and left her empty body behind her in the tub. In this version of the legend, it’s not entirely clear why the Penanggalan went on to target pregnant women and new-borns, although to be honest we’re willing to question the sanity of a woman who thought tearing her own head off was an appropriate response to anything.
Another more plausible version of this legend states that the original Penanggalan was an ugly young woman who had become consumed by bitterness at her single status and was feverishly jealous of all married women. Her unchecked rage eventually resulted in a murderous rampage, during which she murdered many innocent pregnant women. As punishment for her heinous crime, the people of her village hung her head from a tall tree and tied her legs to a bull.
When the bull charged, her body was torn away and her severed head was left dangling from the tree with all of the internal organs still intact. While the people of the village celebrated their triumph over evil, they were less than pleased when they discovered that the severed head had gone missing later that night and that they had unwittingly unleashed a hellish demon on their small settlement.
The Penanggalan may not be as well-known as its other vampiric counterparts, but there are a few choice references to our floating foe:
There are numerous horror films that feature the Penanggalan, including Penanggal: The Curse of the Malayan Vampire (2013), Mystics in Bali (1981), The Witch with Flying Head (1982, also known as Witches with Flying Heads or Fei Tou Mo Nu), The Resurrection of Angel Eyes (1988), and Mystery of the Merry Widow (1991).
In the comic Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others, the titular Hellboy travels to Malaysia in 1958 and comes upon a village that is without a Bomoh shaman. In the Bomoh shaman’s absence, the village has fallen victim to a Penanggalan.
In the 2016 comic Cry Havoc, the character of Sri reveals that she is a Penanggalan.
The graphic novel Okko: The Cycle of Water features two Penanggalan as its main villains.
The short manga comic “Head Prolapse Elegy” by Shintaro Kago is centred around a Penanggalan.
The Penanggalan is set to appear as an enemy in the upcoming action RPG Indivisible.
Penanggalan feature as enemies in the living card game Legend of the Five Rings.
In the SCP series, it is heavily implied that SCP-1060 is a Penanggalan.
The main reason why I’m often sceptical of new creature feature films is because, in spite of their attempts to be original, there’s not much room for creativity when it comes to the genre. It feels as though every film is doomed to follow a pre-destined path: the threat of a creature is introduced, typically when it kills off an expendable character; a group of people are charged with the task of killing the creature or risk being devoured by it; the creature picks off characters one-by-one while offering the audience tantalising glimpses of what it might look like; and the film ends with a final confrontation where the audience gets the coveted “full look” at the creature in all of its glory before the main characters find its “weakness” and promptly dispatch it.
That being said, not all creature feature films are this formulaic. Masterpieces of the genre, such as The Thing,It Follows, or The Babadook, subvert these tropes by refusing to placate the audience with a cathartic element. There is no “full look” at the monster, because the monster is not what terrifies us. Instead these films focus on the psychological impact that the creature’s presence has on the main characters in order to generate tension. The creature is largely irrelevant as a physical entity, and serves more as a conduit through which the audience gets to explore the psyche of the characters. The terror we feel when watching these types of films is not created by fear of the beast itself, but by the gut-wrenching realisation that we as a race are completely ill-equipped to deal with anything outside of the realms of our understanding. What scares us more than anything else is that which is unknown and that which cannot, in spite of our efforts, be understood.
In many ways, A Quiet Place straddles this line between formulaic and ingenious.
Please Note: This review will contain some mild spoilers, but no major plot points will be revealed.
The creatures are certainly physical and visible, but the emphasis of the film is squarely placed on the interactions between the main characters and how they’ve adapted their lifestyle to the presence of these strange beasts. Without giving too much of the plot away, the story follows the Abbott family, who the audience are introduced to as they scavenge through an abandoned town for supplies. The family communicate solely in American Sign Language, take special care with their movements, and use sand to mask the sound of their footsteps when walking outside. We swiftly find out, in a scene that I won’t spoil but which is masterfully done, that this is because the world is now overrun with horrifying creatures, which are completely blind but hunt based on their hypersensitive sense of hearing.
There are a few moments of somewhat clunky exposition, such as a scene in the basement where the camera pans in on a whiteboard containing words like “Confirmed: Blind” and “What is the weakness?”, but overall the storytelling in the film is exceptionally well done. We discover the family are fluent in American Sign Language because their daughter, Reagan (Millicent Simmonds), is congenitally deaf; we learn that the creatures can’t hear quieter sounds if there are louder sounds to mask them when the father, Lee (John Krasinski), takes his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) to a waterfall; we know that a climax is imminent because the mother, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is pregnant and births are, generally speaking, not silent affairs. It is obvious that a great deal of care was taken when it came to making the film’s core elements believable and ensuring that the audience didn’t feel as though they were being spoon-fed the plot. The film’s storyline has a natural progression that flows rather seamlessly and allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world of the characters.
John Krasinski, popularly known as fan favourite Jim Halpert from the US version of The Office, shirks his comedic tendencies and embraces a far more serious role as the father, Lee Abbott. Alongside his real-life wife Emily Blunt, the two offer up a realistic portrayal of a father and mother struggling to keep their family alive in their darkest hour. Millicent Simmonds was a perfect casting choice for the character of Reagan, as she is actually deaf and therefore was capable of lending a far more honest dimension to the portrayal of her character, rather than simply succumbing to stereotypes of how we expect deaf people to behave. She is strong, she is capable, and she does not let her disability hold her back. By the end of the film, she emerges as arguably the main hero of the piece.
The only actor whose performance falls a little flat is Noah Jupe, who was perhaps given the least to work with when it came to character development. After all, while the rest of the family appear to have obvious roles and are each tackling individual demons, the character of Marcus Abbott seems almost solely relegated to that of “the other child” and doesn’t go far beyond that. It’s hard to make your character feel three-dimensional when your stand-out moments largely consist of being sick, crying, and running away. His relationship with his sister Reagan, however, feels genuine and there are some truly tender moments when both the characters interact.
While the storyline is certainly inventive and the standard of acting is praiseworthy, the all-important question remains: Is it scary? As I was watching the film, I became consciously aware of the fact that, during particularly tense moments, I had started to cover my mouth. Some of you may think this was out of consideration for my fellow cinema-goers, since the film is very quiet, but the fact that I spend most of my life watching horror films should give you an idea as to my general disregard for the feelings and needs of others. In those moments of heightened tension, A Quiet Place had engrossed me so fully that I had completely forgotten that none of it was real. I was purposefully silencing myself, as if I really believed that I might be at risk of attack if I made a sound. In my opinion, if a film can get under your skin like that, it is truly a fright fest worthy of watching.
Acting: 7/10, outstanding performances by John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, and Millicent Simmonds help garner the audience’s sympathy for the family and immediately engage you in their struggle.
Storyline: 8/10, considering how tired the creature feature sub-genre has become, the plot is fresh, innovative, and beautifully executed.
Fear Factor: 7/10, the atmosphere of the entire piece is suitably oppressive and it builds up tension gradually, leaving you on the edge of your seat.
Overall: 7/10, this film deserves to rank as an exemplary work of its sub-genre and is a must-watch for all lovers of horror.
We’re heading Down Under for our latest instalment of Malicious Myths and delving into the murky history behind a mythical creature from Indigenous Australian folklore known as the Bunyip. Don’t let its adorable name fool you. After all, Australia has a long and noble history of giving ridiculously cute names to incredibly dangerous things, such as the dugite, a type of venomous snake whose bite can be lethal; the bluey, a slang term for the floating sacks of death that are the Portuguese Man o’ War; and the gympie gympie plant, whose sting is so painful that it drives people to suicide. In a country where even the plants are capable of waging psychological warfare and everything appears ergonomically designed to reduce the human population, you have to do something pretty special to stand out. So, if the Bunyip is capable of striking fear into the heart of a hardened Australian, you know it’s serious.
The Bunyip is an amphibious lake monster that is said to inhabit swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, waterholes, and even household wells. It lays in wait at night for unsuspecting prey to pass by its territory and will happily devour any animal or person, although it has a particular fondness for the flesh of women and children. In other words, you may be the first one on the list to get a lifeboat, but you’re also top of the menu for the Bunyip. When the Bunyip approaches a hapless victim, it lets off a series of haunting howls to warn them of their imminent doom before swooping in for the kill. This is perhaps why the Bunyip is often less than successful in its ambush attempts, since announcing your presence to your prey is generally considered bad practice among apex predators. According to certain legends, the Bunyip is said to be very aggressive, very hairy, and has supernatural powers. Kind of like your mother-in-law, only not quite as terrifying.
When Europeans arrived in Australia, they took accusations of the Bunyip very seriously and early European settlers regarded them as just another strange animal to add to the roster. When you’re confronted with tiny creatures that poop out cubes (just Google “wombat poop”) or spiders the size of a household clock, you start to radically adjust your perception of “normal”. Some historians believe that, during the 19th century, these European settlers actually infused the indigenous Bunyip lore with that of the Irish Púca, a shape-shifting spirit found in Celtic folklore. In true colonial fashion, these settlers took it upon themselves to culturally appropriate even the unsavoury elements of Indigenous Australian mythology.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Bunyip sightings became widespread throughout Australia and, in July 1845, the first written use of the word “bunyip” was made in a newspaper known as The Geelong Advertiser, which proudly announced that a collection of fossils found near Geelong belonged to a deceased Bunyip. From then on, the people of Australia were gripped by Bunyip fever. In January 1846, a peculiar skull found by the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales was declared to be that of a Bunyip and was put on display in the Australian Museum for two entire days before mysteriously disappearing. The fact that this skull had already been identified as that of a deformed foal or calf by several experts apparently mattered to no one.
People flocked to the museum in droves to see the skull and finally speak out about their own personal experiences of the Bunyip, resulting in the formation of support groups like Bunyip’s Anonymous. Okay, so that last part might be a lie, but for a long time people truly believed that the Bunyip was real. In March of the same year, three men set out on a boat to capture a Bunyip that had been sighted sunning itself opposite the Custom House in Melbourne, only to discover with profound disappointment that it was actually just a large Platypus. Fast forward to the 1950s and the term “Bunyip” had largely lost its sting, being instead used as an Australian slang term to mean “imposter” or “humbug”. While the obsession with the Bunyip may have died down over the years, one thing has remained unchanged: if you go to Australia, something is gonna try to kill you at some point.
In spite of its tendency to warn its victims of its impending approach, the Bunyip leaves relatively few survivors, so descriptions of this mysterious creature vary widely and are largely quite piecemeal in nature. Writings by George French Angus indicate that, according to the Moorundi people of the Murray River, the Bunyip looked just like an enormous starfish, although this is by far the most unusual description. Most accounts list a number of common features of the Bunyip, including a canine face, a crocodile-like head, large glowing eyes, jet-black fur, an equine tail, and flippers or thick legs.
In some instances, it also boasted tusks like a walrus and a bill similar to that of a duck, with scales or feathers covering its body instead of fur. In many ways, the Bunyip can be perceived as uniting the characteristics of the emu and the crocodile, two of the most formidable animals that are native to the Australian outback. But emus are harmless, we hear you cry! They eviscerate people. Seriously. Look it up. We weren’t kidding. Everything in Australia will try to kill you, even the koalas.
When in the water, the Bunyip is said to swim like a frog, but chooses to stand on its hind legs and walk erect when on land, towering in at about 12 to 13 feet in height. In fact, some accounts state that the Bunyip was so colossal in size that it could easily pull trees out by their roots and carry one in each arm. While its paws are furnished with long claws, its preferred method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. Because nothing quite compares to the soft caress of a Bunyip as you slowly suffocate.
The word “bunyip” is thought to have originated from the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Indigenous Australians living in southeastern Australia, although the legend of the Bunyip appears to be widespread among Indigenous Australian communities throughout the country. It roughly translates to mean “devil” or “evil spirit”, because apparently the name “hugging beast” was already taken.
In 1933, the geographer and author Charles Fenner posited that Bunyips were actually just sightings of Australian fur seals, which were known to make their way up rivers and could often be found very far inland. After all, these seals have smooth fur, prominent eyes, and they are known to bellow loudly when trapped inland. Plus everyone knows seals subsist off a diet of fish and human children. The howl of the Bunyip has also been attributed to a bird known as the shy Australasian bittern or “Bunyip bird”, which emits a low-pitched booming sound during mating season. It might be shy, but it wants you to know when it’s horny.
Another theory suggests that the legend of the Bunyip evolved from the cultural memory of extinct Australian marsupials like the Diprotodon, Zygomaturus, Nototherium, or Palorchestes. Since Zygomaturus was quite difficult for people to pronounce, they opted for the far more accessible “Bunyip” instead. In-keeping with this theory, it is possible that the Indigenous Australians could have come across fossils of prehistoric creatures such as the Procoptodon, a gigantic kangaroo, and that may be how the legend of the Bunyip was born. Honestly, we’re not sure what’s more terrifying: a crocodile-emu hybrid with magical powers; or a 7-foot-tall kangaroo. Remind us never to go to Australia.
While the Bunyip might seem like a relatively obscure mythical creature, it has remained a staple part of popular culture in Australia for many years and can be found in media throughout the world. Here are just a few references to this cuddly child-eating critter:
The National Library of Australia continues to sponsor a traveling exhibition on the Bunyip and several Bunyip-related folk-tales can be found on the Australian government’s website. There was even an official set of four postage stamps that was issued with different artist renderings of the Bunyip.
The “Bunyip Aristocracy” was a derogatory term coined in 1853, which was used to lambast the attempts of certain individuals to establish an aristocracy in the Australian colonies.
A variety of names throughout Australia contain the word “Bunyip”, such as the Bunyip River, the town of Bunyip in Victoria, and a now disbanded Christian community in Clifton Hill that was delightfully named the House of the Gentle Bunyip.
Several children’s books contain references to the Bunyip, including The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and The Ballad of the Blue Lake Bunyip. Hopefully they left out the part about it loving the taste of child flesh.
A number of novels also include Bunyips, such as Naomi Novik’s Tongue of Serpents and C. Robert Cargill’s Queen of the Dark Things.
During the 1950s, a horrifying puppet known as Bertie the Bunyip appeared as a
popular character on the children’s TV show Philadelphia.
In the video game Chrono Cross, the Bunyip is a boss monster that guards the Black Crystal in Another World’s Fort Dragonia.
The video game Final Fantasy X features enemy creatures known as Bunyips, which appear on the Djose Highroad.
The Bunyip is a character in the video game RuneScape and, as an homage to its origins, it speaks with a thick Australian accent.
Bunyips are portrayed as mystical and peaceful elders who inhabit a world known as “The Dreaming” in the video game series Ty the Tasmanian Tiger.
Pokémon; those cute, cuddly super-pets that we all grew up with. I can’t even begin to count the number of nights I spent gazing into the flickering light of my Gameboy Colour, desperately trying to paralyse a wild Abra or frantically chucking Ultra Ball after Ultra Ball at a Graveler. It was a video game and television series that took up a large chunk of my childhood, and I hazard a guess that many readers will be able to relate.
So, in honour of Pokémon’s 20th anniversary this year, I thought it only fitting to dedicate an entire post to the Top 10 Creepiest Pokémon in the canon. And trust me, there are a lot of them. After four solid hours of sorting through the online Pokédex, I can proudly say that the list is finished and I’ve successfully staved off adult responsibility for yet another day. Thank you Pokémon, you saviour of 90s kids who simply can’t face the crippling thought of mortgages, career options, and a life outside of their parents’ house.
The Original Child Catcher: #425 Drifloon, The Balloon Pokémon
At first glance, Drifloon looks harmless enough. It’s basically just a purple balloon with a mop of whipped cream on its head and some tape on its face. Its vacant stare and cute, little heart-shaped hands don’t exactly inspire one with a sense of impending dread. But they totally should.
First of all, Drifloon is a Ghost-type Pokémon, which immediately raises it in status from “incredibly dangerous children’s pet” to “soul-sucking emissary of the damned”. Ghost-type Pokémon are invariably evil and filled with a deep-seated hatred for mankind, mainly because they’re the souls of dead Pokémon who kicked the bucket solely because a bunch of kids decided it would be a fun idea to engage them in a fight to the death.
Yet in the Pokédex it specifies that Drifloon is not just made from the spirits of dead Pokémon, but also from the souls of people who have passed away. In other words, that balloon that just floated past you could contain the soul of your recently deceased grandma. And that’s not the end of it. Supposedly it “tugs on the hands of children to steal them away” and “children holding them sometimes vanish”. So yeah, not only is this balloon possessed by the angry souls of those who failed to pass on, but its sole purpose on this earth is to kidnap children. Nice Pokémon, nice.
Welcome to the Twilight Zone: #487 Giratina, The Renegade Pokémon
Giratina is a legendary Ghost/Dragon-type Pokémon that wields almost inimitable power. With its ragged black wings, piercing red eyes, and copious array of decorative spikes, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that it resembled the harbinger of death himself. It’s known as the “Renegade Pokémon” because supposedly it was so violent that it was banished to a place known as The Distortion World, where common sense and knowledge have been warped beyond all recognition.
If that wasn’t weird enough, it silently gazes at our world through a portal and can only manifest itself in an ancient cemetery. There’s something oddly tragic and disturbing about the image of some huge, heaving creature, with power beyond the realm of comprehension, staring at us through the void and waiting soundlessly for the chance to be released.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Insects: #292 Shedinja, The Shed Pokémon
Shedinja was one of those bizarre Pokémon that you sort of acquired, rather than actually caught. The only way to get one was to evolve a Nincada into a Ninjask while having a spare space in your party, and suddenly a Shedinja would just…appear.
It looks kind of like a sad, little ladybug with an adorable halo floating over its head, but don’t let its appearance fool you. It’s another Ghost-type Pokémon and, as such, its primary purpose is to straight up ruin your day.
Shedinja is essentially the hollowed out shell of an insect that has, for whatever reason, come to life. According to the Pokédex, it apparently “flies without moving its wings” and “does not breathe”, which I can imagine is pretty unnerving for those of us who are used to seeing things fly with wings and breathe. You know, like everything else on earth.
And it seems Shedinja is pretty sensitive about the fact that it’s…well…kind of dead. If anyone peers into the crack of its back, it is said to “steal one’s spirit”. So, in this case, curiosity isn’t going to just kill the cat; it’s going to have its soul sucked out through its eyes. Lovely.
The Candle that Burns the Brightest: #607 Litwick, The Candle Pokémon; #608 Lampent, The Lamp Pokémon; and #609 Chandelure, The Luring Pokémon
This trio of terror may simply look like a bunch of household furnishings to you, but they’re more than just a stylish way for wealthy people to keep their homes lit. They form an evolutionary trio and all have two things in common: they are Fire/Ghost-type Pokémon and they all subsist off of the life force of mankind. I’m not even kidding.
Litwick supposedly shines its light and pretends to be a guide to those who are lost, but this is a clever ruse. It leads its victim into a dark corner before absorbing their life energy and using it as fuel. Evidently the roasted souls of the damned are a more economic option than oil. Lampent takes this whole deathly charade a step further and hangs out around hospitals, waiting for the moment of death and then siphoning off the person’s spirit like a hillbilly sucking on a gas hose.
Yet, unsurprisingly, it is the big bad Chandelure that takes the cake for “most horrifying ceiling ornament”. It hypnotises anyone it comes across and sucks out their souls, leaving the discarded husk of a body behind like a crumpled soda can.
When they burn up a person’s essence for fuel, it is believed that their spirit will “lose their way and wander this world forever”. So, while the rest of us are basking in the comforting and totally not ominous flickering of those skull-shaped flames, some poor sap is wandering through purgatory wondering why it seemed like a good idea to have sentient chandeliers.
I Wanna Be a Real Boy: #064 Kadabra, The Psi Pokémon
Now Kadabra is a Psychic-type Pokémon, meaning it wields telepathic powers that allow it to bend spoons, solve difficult puzzles, and induce unexpected, splitting headaches in passers-by. Why a creature that possesses the ability to move a car with its mind would want to serve a bunch of preteens as their pet-slave is beyond me, but Kadabra’s undeniably spooky qualities are not.
Supposedly, when a Kadabra is close by, clocks will start running backwards and shadows will begin appearing on television screens. Looking at either of these phenomena will cause the viewer to experience extreme bad luck. Yet perhaps the weirdest feature of this spoon-wielding sage is its origin story.
According to the Pokédex in FireRed, it says: “It happened one morning – a boy with extrasensory powers awoke in bed transformed into Kadabra”. Basically Kadabra is like some freaky reverse-Pinocchio. So if you find that your kid has taken a sudden liking to your cutlery drawer, I’d say keep an eye out.
Let’s Lickety-Split: #93 Haunter, The Gas Pokémon; and #94 Gengar, The Shadow Pokémon
Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar are essentially legends in the Pokémon canon. They were the first and only Ghost-type Pokémon to be made available to us Gen 1 hipsters, so they hold a special place in many of our hearts. Yet, while Gastly is merely a ball of all-consuming noxious gas, his evolutionary forms are far more sinister.
Haunter is said to be from another dimension and has the capacity to pass through objects, but has a penchant for hiding in walls and jumping out at unsuspecting victims. It lurks in the darkest corners of rooms, waiting for children to pounce on and lick with its mighty tongue.
In fact, it’s considered such a threat that its Pokédex entry even comes with this warning: “Haunter is a dangerous Pokémon. If one beckons you while floating in darkness, you must never approach it. This Pokémon will try to lick you with its tongue and steal your life away”. Hey kids, have fun playing this children’s game, but just don’t approach this one Pokémon or it’ll straight up murder you.
Yet, not content with simply being another brick in the wall, Gengar opts for a different tact. It pretends to be your shadow and hides behind you, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. And, even if it doesn’t decide to kill you or if you manage to ward it off, it’s still capable of casting a curse on you. Because life just wouldn’t be worth living without the constant, impending threat of being hexed by a chubby demon.
The Roofie Twins: #096 Drowzee; and #097 Hypno, The Hypnosis Pokémon
Looking like a cuddly baby tapir and a piece of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, Drowzee and Hypno seem like an odd couple to have made it onto this list. Heck, they don’t even feast off the souls of the living. The only thing these cheeky chappies really like to eat are…our dreams.
Yep, these Pokémon use their hypnotic powers to lull people to sleep before gorging on their innermost fantasies. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, apparently Drowzee prefers to eat children’s dreams because they are “tastier” and, if you sleep next to a Drowzee for long enough, it will eventually show you some of the dreams that it has sampled. Kind of like wine-tasting, only with LSD.
According to the Pokédex, “if your nose becomes itchy while you are sleeping, it’s a sure sign that one of these Pokémon is standing above your pillow and trying to eat your dream through your nostrils”. I don’t know about you, but I’m really not okay with that.
And, while Drowzee’s just a fan of children’s dreams, there was supposedly an “incident” in which a Hypno actually hypnotised and kidnapped a child. Breaking-and-entering, stealing, and child abduction; all healthy ingredients for a successful children’s game.
Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls: #355 Duskull, The Requiem Pokémon; #356 Dusclops, The Beckon Pokémon; and #477 Dusknoir, The Gripper Pokémon
This is the second evolutionary trio to make it onto our list, and what a trinity of torment these guys are. With very little euphemism or sense of delicacy, it’s basically implied that these three Ghost-type Pokémon are essentially the Grim Reapers of the Poké-World. Duskull spends most of its time wandering around in darkness, using its one, beady red eye to strike fear into anyone who dares look at it. When it fixates on a target, it “will doggedly pursue the intended victim until the break of dawn” and it is rumoured that children who don’t listen to their parents will be spirited away by this skull-faced scamp. Oh, and let’s not forget that it “loves the crying of children”.
Dusclops, on the other hand, has a little less substance. Quite literally, since it’s effectively just a black hole with some bandages floating around it. As such, Dusclops is able to absorb anything into its body, but “nothing will ever come back out”. Its favourite pastime is to steal the soul of anyone who dares peer into its hollow body. Kind of a recurring pattern with these Ghost-types, don’t you think?
As the most powerful and most thinly-veiled euphemism of the three, Dusknoir has an “antenna on its head [that] captures radio waves from the world of spirits”, which it apparently uses to determine whose living soul it should harvest and drag back to the underworld. See what I meant about the whole “Grim Reaper” thing?
All My Friends are Dead: #562 Yamask, The Spirit Pokémon; and #563 Cofagrigus, The Coffin Pokémon
It would be almost pointless for me to try and explain why Yamask is so unbearably upsetting, since the Pokédex appears to have done the job perfectly already. This is the genuine, no word of a lie description of this “fun” friend and companion from a children’s game: “Each of them carries a mask that used to be its face when it was human. Sometimes they look at it and cry”.
These are the souls of dead people, who are doomed to wander the earth carrying a mask of their human face and serve any hapless child who happens to trap them inside of a Pokéball. Imagine spending the rest of eternity as a slave to some snot-nosed child, and you’ll understand why I find this particular Pokémon so horrifying.
And, when it comes to its evolutionary form, things only go from dark to darker. To be honest, I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate to have a coffin-themed anything in a children’s game, but I guess that’s why I’m not the one with the billion dollar game franchise.
Cofagrigus is an animated coffin that loves nothing more than to “swallow those who get too close and turn them into mummies”. That’s right kids. If you’re lucky enough to capture the wandering soul of someone doomed to weep at their lost humanity, be sure to train it up and you’ll be treated to a man-eating casket!
It’s More Than Just Child’s Play: #353 Shuppet, The Puppet Pokémon; and #354 Banette, The Marionette Pokémon
When it comes to the stuff of Poké-Nightmares, this dastardly duo has pulled the strings and scraped their way to the top of our list. They’re an unholy combination of perhaps the two most terrifying types in the Pokémon Universe, Ghost and Dark, so it comes as no surprise that they’d have a befittingly unsettling backstory. Shuppet is basically just an animated puppet who feeds off dark emotions, such as jealousy or vindictiveness. Like a murder of crows, gatherings of Shuppets can supposedly be seen under the eaves of houses where people harbour these ill-feelings. So if you thought that was just mould under your gutters, think again.
Banette, on the other hand, is a whole other kettle of rotten fish. According to its origin story, it was supposedly a child’s doll that was abandoned and thrown in the trash. Its desire for vengeance was so strong that it eventually came to life and it is fuelled by an unquenchable hatred. It can be found roaming dark alleys and garbage dumps, searching for the child that threw it away so that it can finally exact its revenge. It generates powerful dark energy by sticking pins into its own body and it can never open its mouth, otherwise its soul would escape. In short, maybe next time you should consider putting your children’s old toys into the garage, and hope they don’t achieve sentience.
When compiling this list, there were so many worthy Pokémon who just didn’t make the cut, so here are a few of our honourable mentions: Cubone, the Pokémon who wears the skull of its dead mother and perpetually cries over her loss; Cacturne, known as the Scarecrow Pokémon because it stays perfectly still during the day and only moves at night, chasing its victims down until they can no longer move; Phantump, a rotten tree stump that was possessed by the spirit of a child who got lost in the forest and died; Gourgeist, a gigantic pumpkin-like Pokémon that sings joyfully when it observes the suffering of its prey; and last but not least Yveltal, a legendary Pokémon that has the power to absorb the life force of all living creatures and essentially summon the apocalypse.
What did you think of our list? And which Pokémon do you think deserved a place on it? Please let us know in the comments!
Even without the stellar horror releases that littered the media landscape, 2015 was a pretty terrifying year in of itself. France suffered the Paris Attacks; the US was subject to nearly 300 mass shootings; and large parts of England appear to currently be underwater. The outlook for the planet isn’t great and, since North Korea apparently decided to ring in the New Year by setting off a nuclear bomb, the fate of the world is hanging by an ever thinner thread. So why, in light of all these real dangers, should you be excited about media that was designed to scare us? Because it gives us an outlet, a way to release all of that pent up fear in one hour-long frenzy of pillow-hugging, squealing, and violent popcorn throwing. So, as 2016 gets underway, take the time to indulge in a few of last year’s horror titles and feel the terror slip away. Let’s just call it Shock Therapy.
Although a lot of critics would disagree with me, I personally thought that 2015 was a strong year for horror in film. On the one hand, you had the numerous tacky sequels, reboots, and remakes like Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (yes, I really hate Paranormal Activity, thanks for noticing), Poltergeist, and Sinister 2. But, on the other hand, we were treated to some top quality horror titles reminiscent of 2014’s The Babadook and Oculus. Without further ado, here are my top film picks for 2015:
It’s Behind You – It Follows
It Follows was one of the most intelligent and impressive horror films that I’ve seen in decades. It combined an original story-line with a winning cast, stunning cinematography, and a soundtrack so provocative that I still get shivers down my spine when I listen to it. That being said, it tends to be one of those films that divides opinion. Some people, myself included, were willing to accept the film’s slow-pace and ambiguous ending because the journey was ultimately more important than the destination, while others were disappointed at the lack of closure and what they perceived as lazy “filler” scenes. For that reason alone, it’s definitely worth watching since, whether you like it or not, it’s sure to create a debate. For a broad perspective (and some spoilers!), we recommend reading Slash Film’s review, which you can find here, and Variety’s review, which you can find here. Alternatively you can read our review (with no spoilers) here.
Who Needs the Summer of Love – Spring
Spring is a romantic sci-fi horror which, if anything, makes it reasonably unique in the horror community. Like It Follows, Spring tackles an unusual story-line and its success in doing so, or lack thereof, has similarly divided public opinion. The score is beautifully simplistic, the cinematography is undeniably opulent and visually nourishing, the acting is superb, but the strangeness of the story and the use of that age-old, hackneyed “scientific” explanation has disappointed many viewers. As such, it makes for another fantastic watch since it’s sure to stimulate your brain cells and leave you wanting more. We recommend reading The Missing Reel’s review here, or alternatively check out our review here.
You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry – Krampus
Krampus is one of those films that puts a smile on my face every time I think of it. And that’s a relative miracle, considering I despise comedy horrors. My major bone of contention with this subgenre is that they’re often just comedies. If you can just bung a few scary moments or horror tropes into an otherwise non-scary film and call it a “comedy horror” or a “fantasy horror” or (dare I say it) a “Disney horror”, then Scary Movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Pan’s Labyrinth would all be considered horror movies. Where Krampus ultimately succeeds as an actual comedy horror is that the horror and comedy elements are perfectly balanced. The film is funny and scary in equal measure, leading to several moments where my brain became desperately confused as to whether I should laugh or cry (or wet my pants). Like Gremlins and Poltergeist, it’s the perfect gateway horror film for the younger generation and one that people of all ages are sure to enjoy. We recommend watching Red Letter Media’s video review here, or you can check out our written review here.
Honourable Mentions –Goodnight Mommy and Bone Tomahawk, both of which I have yet to watch but have been phenomenally well-reviewed.
Unlike the horror film scene, which has gone from strength to strength, it seems that horror television has really let the side down. There were very few fresh or new series’, leaving us only with stale continuations of franchises that are doomed to (hopefully) burn out in the near future. Don’t get me wrong, I love American Horror Story and The Walking Dead as much as the next person, but sometimes it really does feel like they’re flogging an undead horse. I’ve caught myself yawning my way through whole episodes or, in one instance, falling asleep in an almost upright position. At this stage, if I fall and crack my head open while watching, I’m going to consider suing these guys for “risk of criminal boredom”.
Let’s Get Groovy – Ash vs Evil Dead: Season 1
In amongst horror television behemoths like TWD and AHS, Ash vs Evil Dead stood its ground as one of the most anticipated horror series to grace our television screens. The show sees the return of notorious horror hero Ash, played by the ever enigmatic Bruce Campbell, as he forgoes a much deserved retirement and returns to his one true passion: fighting off evil Deadites. As a comedy horror, the show mixes fun and fear in equal measure, with enough hilariously over-the-top gore to give any of the Evil Dead films a run for their money. What started off as an unexpectedly popular and incredibly low budget festival film has spawned into one of horror’s greatest legacies; and this latest edition proves to be one of the best yet. We strongly recommend you read The Missing Reel’s reviews, as they’ve been following the series episode by episode. You can find their summary review here.
You Can Count on the Countess – American Horror Story: Hotel
After the crushing disappointment of Freak Show and the looming threat of Wes Bentley’s soul-suckingly dull return, my hopes for Hotel and for American Horror Story in general were all but dashed. In many ways, my misgivings were well-founded. Wes Bentley did in fact prove to be one of the worst leading men that the series has ever championed and, like Freak Show, it seemed that the season would largely depend on a sequence of unconnected, exploitative scenes that were designed to shock rather than create a coherent and interesting story-line. That being said, thanks to the superlative acting of Denis O’Hare, Evan Peters, and Kathy Bates, coupled with the intriguing character of the Countess (Lady Gaga) and the eventual development of a solid and stimulating storyline, the season seems to have turned its luck around. It’s certainly not one of their best, but it’s probably not their worst. Probably. We recommend you read Nouse’s episode by episode reviews here, but be forewarned that they are full of spoilers.
A Netflix Unoriginal – Scream: Season 1
Let me be candid here, just because Scream has made it onto my top 3 list does by no means indicate that the series is good or that I liked it. It was simply the lesser of several evils. Scream is one of my all-time favourite movie franchises, and the thought of watching an abortive televised attempt to bleed it dry troubled me deeply. Particularly since beloved horror director Wes Craven tragically died last year, leaving behind an illustrious legacy that could be deeply marred by such an unnecessary reboot. Yet marred it was not. To me, this Netflix original series (which was actually and unsurprisingly produced by MTV) was kind of like a well-choreographed train wreck; it was awful, but I somehow felt compelled to keep watching. In fact, I watched the entire first season in less than two days. It essentially copies several major story elements from the original films, but the key to its success is that it never takes itself too seriously. It makes no claim to be as good as its predecessors; it’s just grade-A TV schlock for teenagers. And, as such, it’s ultimately entertaining, so long as you take it with a pinch of salt. We recommend you read Bloody Disgusting’s incredibly well-balanced episode reviews here, which are chock full of delicious spoilers.
Honourable Mentions – The Walking Dead: Season 6 and Penny Dreadful: Season 2
2015 may not have been the most prolific year for horror gaming, but lack of quantity was definitely made up for by superb quality. Although the Top 3 games I’ve chosen for 2015 may have been some of the only ones to come out, they certainly made an impression on me and are worthy of any top list, regardless of their release dates.
The Butterfly Effect – Until Dawn
Although it only represented about 8 hours of solid gameplay, Until Dawn was one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. Within the first few weeks of owning it, I had already played it through three times, which goes to show just how little I value my free time. The key to the game’s brilliance is in its Butterfly Effect dynamic. The choices you make in-game will drastically affect the outcome of the story, so much so that certain characters will either live or die. What I loved about Until Dawn was that it inverts your expectations, toying with the behaviours that you will have learnt from other games. When a character dies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve “failed”; just because the game is telling you to do something, doesn’t mean you should automatically do it; and sometimes exploring the whole area for clues and opening that cellar door simply because “it’s there” isn’t always a good idea. For an ultimately negative but still well-rounded view, we recommend reading Polygon’s review here. If you want something a little more positive, check out our review here.
Let’s Get Digital – Soma
From the makers of the outstanding horror titles Penumbra and Amnesia comes Soma, a sci-fi survival horror about the ramifications of developing AI (Artificial Intelligence). It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a good sci-fi horror game and, in 2015, it seems horror fans were in for a real treat. And what a treat Soma was. As character Stephen Garrett, you find yourself trapped in a submerged research station known as PATHOS-II. The game’s underwater vibe is reminiscent of Bioshock, a game that didn’t exploit its horrific elements nearly as much as it could have done, and its futuristic facility setting evokes scenes from Dead Space. However, like the Amnesia series, the point of Soma is not to fight, but to hide. What follows is a subtle yet disturbing exploration into humanity, providing deep and probing layers of fear that go far beyond what you experience at face-value. We recommend you read Game Rant’s review here.
It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
For all of you citizens of the PC master race, I realise that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter technically came out in 2014, but for console plebs like myself it wasn’t playable until 2015. The game follows paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, who receives a worrisome fan-letter from 12-year-old Ethan Carter and is prompted to visit Ethan’s home in Red Creek Valley. The game’s graphics are stunning and the world that surrounds you evokes imagery of the New England countryside, making you feel as though you’ve just been dropped into a Stephen King novel. And the similarities to King’s work don’t end there. Like the fictional town of Derry, Red Creek Valley is a beautiful place with a dark secret. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might not be the scariest horror game in the canon, but the intrigue it produces in the player is undeniable. As you become more wrapped up in the fate of Ethan, you feel yourself slowly disappearing down a rabbit-hole that may have no end. Playstation Lifestyle’s review, which you can find here, describes these elements in far more detail.
To most people, the beginning of a New Year promises a fresh start; a chance to right the wrongs of the previous year (of which there are, undoubtedly, many) and become the person you’ve always dreamed of being, albeit after you’ve gotten over that horrific hangover. But it’s important to remember that not all New Year’s celebrations are full of such hope. The Chinese may not celebrate New Year at the same time as us, but that’s not the only thing that sets them apart.
Every year, when winter ravages the land and there is nothing left to eat, a terrifying beast rises up out of the sea and prowls the Chinese countryside in search of prey. It terrorises villages, kills livestock, razes farmer’s crops, feasts on the villagers themselves, and has a horrifying preference for child meat. After all, nothing goes down smoother than a ten-year old vintage. And by “ten-year old vintage” we mean your son. This ferocious beast travels from village to village, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. Its Chinese name of “Nian Shou” (年兽) literally means “The Year Beast”, and its presence has become synonymous with that of the New Year itself. So, while the rest of the world is popping bottles of champagne and drunkenly regaling their friends with their 2015 woes, the people of China are huddled up in their homes waiting to be devoured. Or are they?
It turns out that the Chinese preference for the colour red isn’t just a tribute to their Communist leaders (or should we say overlords). This love of all things scarlet dates back thousands of years, to when the Nian first began raiding the villagers’ pantries for long grain rice and supple young boys. In spite of its enormous size and brute strength, the Nian is deathly afraid of three things: loud noises, bright lights, and anything red. It might look like a fearsome lion, but it’s really more of a scaredy-cat.
Thus during the New Year or Spring Festival period, Chinese people make more noise and create more commotion than a busload of preteens at a One Direction concert. They beat drums, set off fireworks, burn firecrackers in the street, and (from personal experience) do everything in their power to assault your eardrums on an almost hourly basis. Seriously, it’s a small wonder that the entire population hasn’t gone deaf by now. At night, paper lanterns are crafted, lit, and paraded through the streets, while red decorations and couplets of auspicious sayings are hung from the doorways of houses. People will often stay up late or even all night long on New Year’s Eve simply to ward off any sneaky demons lurking nearby.
The tradition of the Nian has become so ingrained in the culture that, rather than a cheery “Happy New Year”, people will greet one another with the phrase “Guo Nian” (过年), which means “the passing of Nian” or “surviving the Nian”. And we thought New Year’s Resolutions were bad. So you may have to start a diet and give up smoking, but at least you didn’t ring in the New Year by congratulating yourself on not being eaten.
Depictions of the Nian vary depending on which part of China you’re in, but generally speaking it is immense in size and has a jaw so wide that it can scoop up several people in a single go. Remember that time you ate a whole can of Pringles and then cried bitterly about what a fat waste of space you had become? Well imagine doing that with a can full of small children, and that’s how the Nian rolls. It is often portrayed with a single horn or several large horns on its head, which it uses to skewer youngsters before toasting them over a fire like fleshy marshmallows.
In some instances it is said to have the powerful body of an ox and the head of a lion, but in other cases it appears as a half-dragon half-unicorn hybrid. The former usually depicts it with a snub-nose or relatively flat-face, while the latter portrays it with a much longer snout. In any case, it has large sharp teeth capable of tearing through even the strongest of children’s clothes. That is, until Matalan finally brings out their “flesh-eating monster friendly” range.
The story of the Nian dates back thousands of years, to a period that the Chinese refer to as “Shang Gu” (上古) or “the Ancient Times”. Long before the human race had achieved such heights of civilisation as the shotgun and the indoor toilet (both of which are still very hard to find in China), farmers were being terrorised by the ravenous Nian. It was supposedly so formidable that even other demons and beasts dared not get on its bad side, for fear that it would straight up murder them and feast on their tasty organs. At one point, to prove it was the baddest of the bad, it even killed every wild beast in the mountains and drove several species to extinction just to win a bet. Move over Chuck Norris, we got a serious badass over here.
On the run-up to New Year, villagers from across China would flee into the mountains and hide from the creature. That was until one year, when the people of Peach Blossom Village were preparing for their annual fleeing. As Hallmark always says, nothing brings a family together quite like fleeing for your life. Suddenly an old beggar entered the village, his hair a silvery white and his eyes a bright blue. Everyone was too busy making preparations to pay him any mind, but an elderly woman approached him and gave him some food.
She beseeched him to follow them into the mountains, as the Nian was fast approaching and would surely devour him if he stayed. The beggar promised that he could drive the monster away and would do so on one condition: the elderly lady must let him stay in her home for one night. But it wasn’t kinky geriatric sex that was on his mind. In spite of the woman’s entreaties, the beggar would not be moved and she was forced to head up into the mountains alone.
Night fell and the dreaded Nian dashed into the village, searching for a couple of kidlets to whet its appetite. It was furious to find that the village had been abandoned, but soon noticed that the candles in the old lady’s house were still lit. Approaching with caution, it was horrified when it saw a piece of red paper stuck to the door. Loud sounds like thunder began emanating from the house and the beast was paralysed by fear. At that moment, the beggar burst out of the house wearing a red robe and, with its enormous tail between its legs, the Nian bolted into the darkness.
The next day, the villagers returned and were amazed to find that their homes, livestock, and grain stores were still intact. The beggar was gone, but inside the elderly woman’s house they found the remnants of his nightly activities: a few candles, some used firecrackers, and reams of red paper. They realised that the beggar was actually a celestial being who had been sent to teach them how to ward off the Nian. Overjoyed at the prospect of a casualty-free New Year, they all dressed up, set about preparing a huge banquet, and then travelled to nearby villages in order to inform others of the incident.
From that day onwards, during the New Year period, people would stick red paper couplets to their doors, keep their homes well-lit, set off firecrackers, and violate all fire-safety laws known to man. The next day would be spent visiting friends and relatives to congratulate them on having survived the night and not blown themselves up. Seriously, it’s a miracle so few people end up blowing their hands off.
Wherever there are knock-off martial arts games or TV shows, there will always be the Nian. After all, cultural appropriation is totally okay so long as you keep it factual, right? Right?! With that said, here are a few modern-day references to our leonine leviathan:
A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian(年兽大作战) follows the story of a hapless and bumbling Nian.
There is a two-headed canine beast in the online game World of Warcraft called a Nian. During an annual event called The Lunar Festival, a boss version of this monster appears called Omen.
In the online role-playing game Guild Wars, the Nian is part of an event called the Canthan New Year Celebration.
There is a monster in the mobile strategy game Game of War called the Nian Lion whose appearance is clearly based on the Nian.
Nian or “The Year Beast” features as an event boss as part of the New Bloom Festival in the online video game DOTA 2.
In the video game World of Kung-Fu, the Nian features as a mount.
In the online game Perfect World: International, there are creatures known as Nienbeasts that are available as mounts and were visually based on the Nian.
The Nian makes an appearance in an episode of the animated sitcom Three Delivery entitled “Night of the Nian”.
There is a television series called Spirit Warriors which feature Nian as characters, although they are portrayed as humanoid rather than bestial.
In 2013, McDonald’s launched this amazing advert where a man refuses to give his hamburger to the Nian.