Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

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.

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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.

legend_nian2Thus 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.

Appearance

nianDepictions 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.

Origins

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.

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If I fits, I sits

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.

9753b31f15dd7a88d4f2e91b0add00baNight 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.

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Rawr

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.

Modern-day Usage

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:

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  • A Chinese animated comedy film called Mr. Nian (年兽大作战) is set to come out on February 8th 2016, the date Chinese New Year falls on this year. The main character is 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.
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Ride ’em Cowboy
  • 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.

 

 

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Malicious Myths: The Nian (年兽)

Malicious Myths: Jólakötturinn

yulecatIf you’re not a cat person, then prepare to have your feline fears suitably justified. For Christmas is coming, and the horrifying Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is on the prowl. This monstrous creature, a staple of Icelandic folklore, stalks the snowy countryside and searches out those who haven’t received new clothes on Christmas Eve. Anyone who has not had the fashionable wherewithal to update their winter wardrobe will be devoured by this malicious mog. Yes, you heard me, devoured. Or, as the Icelanders would euphemistically call it, to be “claimed by the Christmas cat”.

So, if you ever find yourself lacking in fresh wintry apparel on Christmas Eve and hear a pitiful meowing at your door, you know exactly who’s waiting for you on the other side. But how does the cantankerous kitty know if you’ve received any new clothes, I hear you cry? Well, he patrols your homes and peers into your windows, of course. He’s the cute, cuddly peeping Tom-cat who has a passion for frolicking in the snow and the fresh taste of human blood.

Yet you can’t entirely blame him; after all, it’s in his nature. Jólakötturinn heralds from a wide pantheon of celebrated child-eaters. He is the house pet of Grýla, a horrifying ogress who loves nothing more than her mischievous sons, the Yule Lads, and the sweet, sweet taste of baby meat. While the thirteen Yule Lads wreak havoc on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, Grýla and Jólakötturinn are busy gorging on plate after plate of baby back ribs. In some versions of the tale, the Yule Cat eats the food of those who haven’t received new clothes, rather than eating them. So, instead of preying on those too poor to afford new threads, it simply eats the only square meal they’ll probably have that year. Nice.

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Chilling with some of the Yule Lads

Stories of this ferocious feline were considered so terrifying that, at one point, it was illegal to use them to scare children. However, the allure of child abuse proved too strong and the ban was soon lifted. The stories themselves served as an incentive to maintain a good work ethic, as working hard was the only way to guarantee you would get new clothes for Christmas. In short, the moral of the story was: work hard for material gain or slack off and get eaten by a giant cat.

And it seems this tactic has worked rather well, since the people of Iceland put in more overtime than any other European nation. They may have traded in the loom for a modern computer, but their productivity doesn’t appear to have waned. Even to this day, people still consider receiving new clothes before Christmas to be of paramount importance. Honestly, we couldn’t think of a more stylish way to avoid being eaten alive.

Appearance

108251763_33547_originalTo all intents and purposes, Jólakötturinn looks just like a normal cat. Aside from the fact that he’s monstrously huge, has whiskers as sharp as needles, giant eyes that glow like beacons, and razor sharp claws the size of an average snowmobile. He is often depicted as looking emaciated, since it seems the good ol’ Icelanders rarely forget to update their wardrobe and he’s probably gone several years without a decent meal. He has a particularly strong, large tail, which allows him to leap great distances and pounce on his “oh-so-passé” prey. The jury is still out as to whether large balls of twine, toy mice, or lazer pointers have any effect on this furry foe.

Origins

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These pants are so last year!

The origins of Jólakötturinn are shrouded in mystery and, although he is believed to date back to the Dark Ages, written records of his mythos didn’t appear until the nineteenth century. Historians posit that he may be connected to several other mythical animals associated with the Yuletide season such as the Yule Goat, a pagan deity who was charged primarily with watching people closely and making sure their Yule preparations were done correctly. After all, Christ was born in a barn, so it seems only fitting that farm animals should be sent to do his bidding.

Yet the most likely explanation for his conception was as a simple yet effective threat. Farmers created the horrifying figure of the Yule Cat to encourage their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Any worker who was seen to be diligent and hardworking was rewarded with new clothes, while those who were lazy and idle were given nothing and risked becoming the kitty’s next meal. What better way to get your employees to reach their quota than risk of feline dismemberment.

tumblr_nlwnt1ylqg1u8cvvto1_500Unfortunately, this doesn’t account for those who were too poor or unlucky to receive new clothing during the Christmas season. While it seemed these ill-fated souls were doomed to spend the rest of their days jostling for space in a cat’s stomach, this dilemma opens up a whole new meaning behind the myth. People were not only encouraged to be assiduous during the run-up to Christmas, but were simultaneously urged to help those less fortunate. Like Dobby and the fabled sock, families would give clothes to the needy and destitute so that everyone could enjoy a carnage-free Christmas.

Modern-day Usage

References to our terrorist tabby are few and far-between. In fact, they’re so rare that we could only manage to dredge up two:

  • The Yule Cat mythos was popularised by Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum in his poem Jólakötturinn. It was this literary work that promoted the idea of giving to the needy, as evidenced in the lines:  “You may have it now in your mind/to help, when it’s needed./Maybe there still are children/that receive nothing at all”.
  • Iceland’s very own mental patient Björk wrote a song called “Jólakötturinn”, which was based on Kötlum’s poem and even uses some of the lines as lyrics.
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Please lemme eat ya

 

 

 

Malicious Myths: Jólakötturinn

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

krampus-movie-posterRelease Date: December 4th 2015

Director: Michael Dougherty

Country of Origin: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 1 hour 38 minutes

Apologies for all of those who were waiting for a Malicious Myths segment, but sadly that will be postponed until next week. If you really need to get your fix, why not go back and read our post on good old Krampus himself?

From the director who masterminded the magnificent Trick ’r Treat, comes a movie about the true meaning of Christmas: consumerism, greed, and a reminder of your deep seated hatred for your dysfunctional family. When I first heard about Krampus, I was convinced that it was going to be a train wreck. It’s incredibly difficult to make anything Christmassy seem scary without it coming off as trite and kitschy, not to mention I have an extreme dislike for comedy horrors in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and Shaun of the Dead as much as the next person, but I’m a firm believer that incorporating horror elements into a comedy film doesn’t make it a horror comedy; it’s just, at best, a parody. It wasn’t until after watching the trailer for Krampus, however, that I became truly intrigued.

The film is set three days before Christmas, when Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), along with their children Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony), welcome their much maligned extended family members into their home to celebrate. This motley bunch include Sarah’s sister Linda (Allison Tolman), her gun-toting husband Howard (David Koechner), their raucously redneck children Howie Jr., Stevie, and Jordan, and the vile Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When Max is driven to distraction by his relatives and ends up destroying his letter to Santa, his German grandmother warns him that the power of the Christmas spirit is not only a force for good, it also wards off evil. Soon, the family find themselves at the mercy of something older than good old Saint Nick; the dreaded shadow of Santa Claus.

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Just your typical family get-together

It’s a stellar cast, and one that blends the comedy and horror elements of the film perfectly. The opening sequences, in which we are introduced to them as a family unit, feel incredibly genuine and are delightfully funny without coming across as too cliché or hammy. In a world where at least one new Christmas comedy comes out every year, it’s hard to maintain any sort of originality and yet Krampus manages to play with the genre’s stereotypes without necessarily succumbing to them. You’ve got the brothers-in-law who just can’t get along, the hateful older relative who drinks his/herself into an eggnog-fuelled coma, the mother exasperated with her ungrateful family after slaving away over a hot stove; yet it’s all done so seamlessly that you forget you’ve seen it all before.

krampus04In fact, the humorous elements are so well-executed that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a fully-fledged comedy. Yet it’s when the horror begins that the film really starts to show its teeth. The snow and stunning set pieces (resplendent with the most terrifying snowmen I’ve ever seen) create a suitably oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere that was chilling in of itself. Without giving too much away, the monsters are beautifully well-realised and stunningly designed. They’re the perfect mixture of the festive and the grotesque, with a certain ridiculousness that makes them both comical and horrifying. The celebrated (and rightly so) film critic Mark Kermode compared it to Gremlins in its delicious nastiness and Poltergeist in terms of its family feel. High praise indeed, but one the film has certainly earned. It’s refreshing to see a family comedy that’s not afraid to show its monstrous side.

There were moments where I laughed myself to tears and times where I gasped with fear, which really speaks to how effective this was as a comedy horror. But what marred my enjoyment and what I’d describe as the film’s major problem was pacing. It started off as a slow burner, which served it well when it came to establishing the family dynamic, but then it seemed to introduce the titular character far too early. I was eager to see how they were going to portray Krampus, and his opening sequence is a work of pure art, but the initial reveal came just a little too early for me. Not only that, but thereafter the pace slowed once again and the film unfortunately dragged for a good ten minutes. This sets a regrettable yet recurring pattern, as the pace suddenly quickens and then just as rapidly drops far too often.

With that out of the way, Krampus is not only by-far and away the best Christmas film this season, I personally found it to be one of the most enjoyable horror films of 2015. Its sharp, its witty, its delightfully dark, and I felt sucked in by the narrative from beginning to end. So if you’re sick of those cheesy carollers’ smiles, tired of encountering random objects covered in fairy lights, and shiver inwardly at the thought of hearing “Fairytale of New York” one more time, treat yourself to a little holiday horror and go see a film that is sure to amuse and terrify.

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Please God, not The Pogues

Acting: 8/10, all of the actors were perfectly cast and really sell the family dynamic. Koechner and Ferrell are particularly charming and elevate the comic elements of the film.

Storyline: 8/10, the storyline is an interesting take on the Krampus mythology and sets the film apart from other Christmas-based horror films.

Fear Factor: 7/10, some of the creatures are honestly disturbing and are sure to satisfy the most morbid of curiosities.

Overall: 7.5/10, Krampus is a clever and entertaining romp that doles out fear and fun in equal measure.

 

 

Time to Spread the Christmas Fear: A Review of Krampus (2015)

Malicious Myths: The Were-Hyena

Were-hyenas are a type of therianthrope, which is an incredibly nerdy way of saying someone who can shapeshift into an animal or human-animal hybrid. Unsurprisingly the animal of choice in this instance is a hyena and, still less surprising, the myth originates from North Africa, where hyenas are as common as disgruntled Englishmen on the London Underground. Yet don’t immediately dismiss the were-hyena as simply the African equivalent of our beloved werewolf; they’re far more complex than that.

While werewolves are solely human at heart, were-hyenas begin life either as humans who can transform into hyenas or, rather bizarrely, as hyenas that can disguise themselves as humans. Unlike werewolves, were-hyenas can go both ways, making them the proverbial bisexuals of the therianthrope community. Essentially being a were-hyena is a two way street, with horror at both ends. They can be solitary but are also known to hunt in packs, because apparently being imbued with bestial strength and an insatiable appetite for human flesh isn’t terrifying enough. They have been known to call out people’s names at night to taunt them and lure them away from safety, singling them out before eventually devouring them. So next time you hear your mom calling you from down the stairs, you might want to consider taking a baseball bat with you, just in case.

It was believed that magicians and witches were able to transform into these creatures at will but another, rather odd, African superstition placed the blame of were-hyena attacks almost solely at the blacksmiths door, as it was thought that blacksmiths were particularly prone to becoming were-hyenas. This was taken to the extreme in Ethiopia, where people genuinely believed that all blacksmiths were witches or wizards known as bouda who could transform into hyenas at will. Ethiopian Christians typically accused Ethiopian Jews of being bouda, spreading rumours that they unearthed Christian corpses and consumed them. Since Jewish men in Ethiopia were also, rather conveniently, often blacksmiths, it is commonly thought that one belief arose from the other.

Since, in all cases, were-hyenas could control their own transformation, they could theoretically appear at any time, but preferred to change under the shadow of night. When not stalking prey, they are known to engage in all sorts of distasteful activities, including grave-robbing, cannibalism, pillaging, and making horse shoes (they are blacksmiths after all).

In the Kunari language of the former Bornu Empire, which once occupied much of the territory around Lake Chad, they were referred to as bultungin or literally “I change myself into a hyena”. This inevitably led to a lot of pronoun confusion, as people were never quite sure whether they were being accused of being a were-hyena or whether their friend was in fact just confiding in them about being a were-hyena themselves. It was traditionally believed that a handful of villages in the region, such as Kabultiloa, were occupied entirely by these creatures, which would probably explain the low house prices.

Evidently they don’t like wearing pants

Yet the were-hyenas grip extends even further, deep into Sudan, Tanzania, and Morocco, where some of the Berber people regard them as men or women who change into hyenas at night and resume their human form at dawn. As far as Persia there were rumours of a creature known as a kaftar, a monstrous “half-man half-hyena” that loved to slaughter children. And in Greece, right up until the 19th century, people believed that the ghosts of werewolves that weren’t destroyed properly would haunt battlefields as vampiric hyenas and drink the blood of dying soldiers. In short, ancient people thought hyenas were kind of…well…jerks.

Another potential version of the were-hyena was a creature called a hyena man, who had two mouths so that it could talk and eat at the same time. Any person who had tasted human flesh could be transformed into a hyena man by a magician, so keep an eye on all of your cannibal friends. They were said to have a preference for living near graveyards and eating the flesh of the dead, although they’re also quite partial to the flesh of the living. Some appear handsome (in spite of the rather obvious two mouths), while some appear strange and have the smell of a hyena about them. So if you see any handsome two-mouthed men on Tinder, be prepared to swipe left.

Appearance

The were-hyena is said to metamorphose between three main forms: that of a human, a human-hyena hybrid, and a hyena. As a human, they appear largely the same as you and I, although perhaps with a fancy Mohican to sweeten the deal. As hybrids, they walk or stand on their back legs, have some of the facial features of a hyena, and have large golden eyes that glow red right before they attack. When they metamorphose fully into hyenas, they are much larger than their natural counterparts and are sometimes completely hairless. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they are said to have the odour of rotting flesh about them and are known to bury their victims alive, coming back later to feast on their remains.

Origins

The were-hyena was thought to be the ultimate manifestation of people’s real-life fear and hatred of hyenas. This is supported by the were-hyenas nature itself, as they were not only humans who could transform into hyenas but also hyenas who could dupe people by taking on human form. The vitriol towards our furry friends is the result of both myth and reality, as several of the animal’s features appear to offend us in a very basic way. They are nocturnal, which is naturally perturbing as it means oftentimes they can see us while we cannot see them. Their characteristic yipping noise, which sounds eerily like hysterical human laughter, is particularly unnerving and perhaps gave rise to the belief that they could imitate human speech and call out people’s names.

And, even though it has now largely been proven that they kill much of what they eat, they were historically regarded as scavengers that fed on rotting flesh, giving them the reputation of being both cowardly and repulsive. In African folklore, they were even accused of robbing corpses from their graves, having a negative influence on people’s souls, collecting human bones and piling them up as trophies, kidnapping children, and tricking people for their own amusement.

One myth in particular, which originates from the Beng people of the Ivory Coast, is known as “The Dispersal of All Animals” and describes how Hyena, the villain of the story, attempts to convince the other animals to kill the first man and woman to have ever lived. Fortunately Dog, foil to the hyena in many respects, warns our progenitors before they get straight up murdered and essentially wiped from all existence.

Talk to the hand, haters

In the border zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan, hyenas are still regularly killed by hunters as they are thought to kill donkeys, dig up human graves, and bite off the limbs of children who sleep in the open. Not to state the obvious here but perhaps children should just stop sleeping in the open desert alone when there are bloodthirsty hyenas about. In Arab folklore, it was even suggested that hyenas were vampiric creatures that could mesmerise victims using their eyes or entice them with their pheromones. Move over Sex Panther, we want a spritz of that Sex Hyena.

This hatred for the animal was, in some cases, then attached to and magnified by prejudice towards a certain group, such as blacksmiths or Jews, and may well have been an early form of anti-Semitism. Various details of the mythology were likely inspired by the rich heritage of Africa’s many indigenous folk religions. It may have even derived from fear of the the Korè cult, a branch of the Bambara people in Mali who attempted to “become” hyenas by imitating their behaviour using masks and roleplaying games. In other words, the terrifying mythology behind the were-hyena may just have been inspired by, for lack of a better word, furries.

Modern-day Usage

Though were-hyenas are undoubtedly not as popular as their lycanthropic cousins, there are a few modern-day references to this giggling ghoul:

  • The 2011 horror film Hyenas, written and directed by Eric Weston, is about a roving pack of were-hyenas that are being hunted down by a man seeking revenge for his dead family.
  • The 1994 film Le Cri du Coeur or The Heart’s Cry, directed by Idrissa Ouedraogo, features the story of a were-hyena.
  • In the first season of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an episode entitled “The Pack” involves a group of Buffy’s friends and classmates becoming possessed by the spirits of hyenas and devolving into creatures resembling the were-hyena.
  • In the autobiographical novel The Life and Adventures of Nathanial Pearce by Nathaniel Pearce, the author recounts a story he once heard from a man called Coffin about a servant who asked for leave of absence. Supposedly, not long after the leave of absence was granted, the other servants observed the aforementioned servant transform into a large hyena and rush off across the open plain. On his return the next morning, the servant was confronted by Coffin about the incidence and readily admitted that he was capable of such a transformation. The novel also described several native stories in which dead hyenas had been found with earrings on their ears, leading to the belief that they were women who had transformed.
  • The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons features a fictional creature known as a gnoll, which looks like a human with a hyena’s head.
Malicious Myths: The Were-Hyena

Malicious Myths: Krampus

Much like Japan with the Teke Teke, the attitude towards parenting in Germany appears to be somewhat devil-may-care; quite literally when it comes to Krampus, a horrifying demon who carries a bundle of birch twigs and threatens German children with painful ass-beatings if they misbehave. He’s the marginally less cheerful companion of Ol’ Saint Nick and, as firm proof of Santa’s superior delegation skills, he focuses on punishing the naughty children while Santa can kick back and chill with the good kids. These punishments can be anything from being threatened with the birch rod to being carted off to Hell; so be good or Krampus will take you on a one-way joyride to the underworld.

In most Alpine German-speaking parts of Europe, Krampus features as one of the Companions of Saint Nicholas, alongside a blackamoor who kidnaps children and squirrels them away to mid-12th century Moorish Spain and a Gandalf lookalike, among others. Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s his image was largely banned, as were celebrations involving him, but he appeared to enjoy a resurgence in popularity towards the end of the 20th century. Evidently German children had started acting out again and perhaps, dare I say it, even having fun, so it was time to wheel out the birch-wielding goatman to whip them all back into submission. An on-going debate still rages in Austria as to whether Krampus is appropriate for children. You know, because he’s a festive representation of the devil and all that.

And never is this debate more heated than on the night before December 6th, or the Feast of St. Nicholas, known to some as Krampusnacht or “Krampus Night”. On this night, locals don their friendly, furry Krampus costumes and visit children’s homes to remind them that a horrifically scarred ass awaits them if they don’t amend their mischievous ways. Our cheeky devil is sometimes accompanied by Saint Nicholas on these occasions, who dispenses lovely gifts to good children, while Krampus provides naughty children with only coal and bundles of birch twigs known as ruten. So, if you’re low on kindling on the run-up to Christmas, just push over a few old people and Krampus should show up at your door with ample supplies.

Please don’t touch me

Yet this is nothing compared to the terrifying Krampuslauf or “Krampus Run”, where local men get stinking drunk before dressing up as Krampus and chasing unwary passers-by. It is customary to offer these extreme cosplayers a relaxing glass of schnapps, because nothing calms an alcohol-fuelled demon down like the promise of sweet peach liquor. During these horrifying endurance races, the merry Krampus is sometimes accompanied by perchten; women dressed as wild pagan beasts with rotting animal skulls for heads. And we wonder why our Germanic cousins grow up to be so serious.

During the Christmas season, people exchange holiday greeting cards known as Krampuskarten, which each depict delightful images of Krampus beating, kidnapping, or eating young children. And, just when children thought they were safe for the rest of the year, in some places such as Styria, birch bundles are painted gold and displayed in the house year-round as a constant reminder of his oppressive presence.

Appearance

Although there are some minor variations in depictions of Krampus, most share several common physical features. He is covered in black or brown fur, usually that of a goat, ram, or bear, and has the horns of a goat or a ram on his head. He stands upright and has the facial features of a man, although he has cloven hooves instead of feet and a distinctively long, pointed tongue that constantly lolls out of his mouth. Kind of like a dog sticking its head out of a car, only with more general hatred for mankind and less whimsy.

He is sometimes depicted carrying chains or wearing shackles on his wrists, which symbolises his enslavement to Saint Nicholas, and he loudly thrashes these chains for effect. More often he is shown bedecked with charming bells and simply won’t be seen without his characteristic bundle of birch twigs or, as he likes to call them, the “Ass Swatter”. The bells are designed to warn children of his impending approach, while the birch rod serves to remind them why they should have ran away after hearing the bells. He sometimes appears with a sack or washtub strapped to his back, which he uses to cart off naughty children before drowning them, eating them, or taking them to Hell.

Origins

Krampus’ name is derived from the German word “krampen”, which means “claw”, and he is thought to be the son of Hel from Norse mythology. For those who don’t know, Hel was the ruler of Helheim (the Norse realm of the dead) who had the upper body of a living woman and the lower body of a corpse. So perhaps not the most functional upbringing. Depending on the story, Krampus was either enslaved by Saint Nicholas and was forced to do his bidding, or decided to work for Saint Nick of his own freewill. It seems the repression hit Hell pretty hard, and what’s an out-of-work demon to do?

“And what would you like to be beaten with this Christmas, little girl?”

Though the Krampus mythos is now part of the Christmas canon, he is largely thought to have pre-Christian origins. Anthropologist Maurice Bruce posits that he was based on the legendary Horned God of the Witches, as his bundle of birch twigs has deeply pagan origins. Similarly John J. Honigmann attests to the “heathen” elements of Krampus’ character and argues that he was once a pagan creature who was eventually assimilated into Christian tradition.

Modern-Day Usage

Krampus is not widely known outside of Europe but his popularity is growing as a horrifying alternative to the traditionally merry, consumerist Christmas that we have become accustomed to. In light of that fact, here are a few references to our festive furry friend:

  • Since the 19th century, Europeans have happily exchanged Krampuskarten featuring images of Krampus, as well as humorous rhymes or poems. Originally he was portrayed as a menacing character, looming over unsuspecting children or lecherously chasing buxom women, but nowadays more modern versions employ a “cuter” Krampus in an attempt to improve his public image.

  • The 2015 horror-comedy Krampus , directed by Michael Dougherty of Trick R’ Treat fame, is based around a dysfunctional family who are attacked by Krampus.
  • An indie horror film called Krampus: The Christmas Devil was released in 2013 and revolves around a detective searching for missing children.
  • Krampus features in the episode of American Dad entitled “Minstrel Krampus”, where it transpires that he was in fact the real hero of Christmas after he is murdered by Santa Claus.
  • In the children’s TV show Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated, the Krampus features as an antagonist to our hapless, mystery-solving heroes.
  • On an episode of the political satire show The Colbert Report, Stephen decides to join forces with the Krampus in order to fight the “War on Christmas” but is swiftly whipped and then threatened by the demon himself.
  • A Christmas episode of the supernatural show Grimm featured the Krampus as a humanoid ram dressed in a Santa suit. In the episode, as in folklore, he kidnaps naughty children but instead leaves behind coal in their wake.
  • Artists Brian Joines and Dean Kotz created a five-issue comic book series known as Krampus, with Krampus as the main character.
  • Let’s Kill Krampus is a card/role-playing game where you can either play as Krampus or as one of eight children. As the former you attempt to eat all of the children, while as the latter your aim is to ultimately kill Krampus.

  • Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount of erotic fiction about Krampus, including A Kiss From Krampus by Red Hanner, Punished By The Krampus by Sapphire Del Ray, and Christmas Spirit by Alise Bell.
  • There is an Italian folk-metal band called Krampus. Yes, you heard me, an Italian folk-metal band.
  • In the indie video game Don’t Starve, the Krampus will appear and steal the player’s items if the player has been “naughty”, i.e. if they’ve been killing too many non-aggressive animals such as rabbits or beefalo.
  • In the strategy-based video game Medieval II: Total War, there is a mod where Krampus is included among Santa’s units.
  • During the Frost Moon event of the video game Terraria, Krampus features as an enemy.
Be good, kids!
Malicious Myths: Krampus

Malicious Myths: The Jiangshi (僵尸)

After working in a Chinese middle school for nearly two years, I considered myself pretty hip with the lingo. When a student jokingly told me their favourite animal was a “turtle’s egg”, I was already aware that the Chinese word for turtle egg (王八蛋) was in fact a horrific insult. When another student tried to get past me by called their friend “sb”, I kindly informed them that I knew the term “sb”, or “shǎbī” (傻逼), meant “retard”.

Yet my confidence was soon to be shattered in a lesson on Halloween, when I asked one of my students to pretend to be a zombie. In the strangest gesture I have ever seen, the teenager placed their arms straight ahead of them and hopped on the spot, much to the delight of their peers. I hoped this might be a one-off, but it happened again in every single one of my nineteen classes. I was stumped.

That is, until I discovered the mighty jiangshi. The term jiangshi (僵尸) literally means “stiff corpse” in Chinese, perhaps because the term “wobbly corpse” wouldn’t inspire much fear. These Chinese zombies have almost completely succumbed to rigor mortis and so are too stiff to move properly. Instead they must hop around with their arms outstretched in a manner that looks totally cool and is certainly not ridiculous. Okay, it’s ridiculous. Also, they’re blind. And incapable of independent thought or speech. Basically they just kind of suck all round. They locate prey using their sense of smell or by listening out for their breathing. So if you happen to meet a jiangshi, the key is to hold your breath…indefinitely.

They are sometimes referred to as the Chinese vampire, the “hopping” vampire, or the “hopping” zombie because of their penchant for jumping around and draining people’s life force. Yep, unlike vampires, they do not drink blood but instead feed off of the “life force” or qi of their victims. They usually strike at night and spend the day resting in a coffin, hiding in dark places such as caves, or contemplating how pathetic they are.

Some things that can help ward off a jiangshi are: mirrors, as they are terrified of their own reflection; an item made from the wood of a peach tree; a rooster’s call; the hooves of a black donkey; and the blood of a black dog, to name but a few. They also have an obsessive desire to count things. So apparently just throwing a load of objects, such as rice grains, at their feet will halt their path, as they will feel an overwhelming urge to catalogue your useless junk. According to the Chinese practice of feng shui, most Chinese homes are equipped with a comedy oversized wooden threshold on their front doors to prevent jiangshi from entering the house. After all, it’s not like they can just hop over it or anything. Oh wait.

While jiangshi may not seem all that terrifying at first, there are six levels of this creepy bopper that become less laughable and increasingly more dangerous as they go on. They start off as white jiangshi, since they are covered in tiny white hairs. White jiangshi are deathly afraid of sunshine, fire, water, chickens, dogs, people, and…well pretty much anything. They also move incredibly slowly and can be killed very easily. Just pushing them over will apparently do.

However, after a couple of years spent feeding on the life force of ox and sheep, the white hairs on their body turn black. These black jiangshi are still afraid of sunlight and fire, but will boldly confront chickens and dogs. They still take great pains to avoid humans, and will only try to drain their life force once they are asleep. So watch out for that heavy corpse breathing!

Five years later, if the black jiangshi drinks up just enough life force, its black hairs drop off and it starts swiftly bouncing around like some kind of demonic pogo stick. These jumping jiangshi no longer fear any kind of domestic animals and are extremely dangerous. While dogs become deadly silent in their presence, cats will hiss at them with great ferocity. After one hundred years, the jumping jiangshi magically acquires the ability to fly and can also climb trees and high buildings. These flying jiangshi stalk their prey with ease and can drain the life essence from any creature without even leaving a mark. But, on the bright side, at least you won’t have to cover up any hickeys with a ridiculous scarf.

After nearly a thousand years, the flying jiangshi inherits demigod-like status and becomes a ba (魃) or Drought Demon. Ba can shapeshift into any creature, cause droughts, and infect large groups of people with plague. It is thought they can even fly into the heavens to kill celestial dragons. Tens of thousands of years may pass before the ba makes its final transformation and becomes The Demon King. The Demon King enjoys practically godlike status and has virtually limitless powers. It can even challenge heavenly deities so, if you see one, prepare for the end of days.

Appearance

Jiangshi are normally depicted as stiff looking corpses dressed in official garments from the Qing Dynasty. Their arms are outstretched and they move with a disjointed hopping motion, kind of like a rabbit on LSD. While some jiangshi appear to be just normal people with a fetish for ancient Chinese clothing and an overwhelming desire to hop wherever they go, those who have been left to rot too long before being reanimated may be in a horrifying state of decay.

They have greenish-white skin, perhaps derived from fungus or mould having grown on their corpses or perhaps because they were just filthy people. They have long white hair on their heads and, in some accounts, are portrayed with more bestial features such as claw-like fingernails and a long, prehensile tongue. Sometimes they are shown with a mystical white tag glued to their forehead, as this is the sign that a Taoist priest has reanimated them.

Origins

Jiangshi may be the result of several misdeeds, including the use of necromancy to resurrect the dead; the spiritual possession of a corpse; a corpse who has absorbed enough qi to reanimate of its own volition; a corpse who has not received a proper burial after its funeral; a corpse who has been struck by lightning or jumped over by a pregnant cat; and a person whose soul fails to leave their body for various reasons, including an improper death, suicide, or the simple desire to want to ruin other people’s lives for no reason.

Stories of jiangshi began emerging around about the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty, and were usually related to a practice known as “transporting the corpse over a thousand li” (千里行尸). It was, and still is, commonly believed that a person’s soul would become homesick if they were buried in an unfamiliar place, so it was paramount that the body be brought home for the funeral. Supposedly if someone died far away from home and their relatives could not afford a vehicle to carry their corpse back for burial, they could hire a Taoist priest to conduct a ritual that would reanimate the deceased and incite them to “hop” their way home. These priests would transport several corpses late at night and would ring bells to notify others of their approach, as it was considered bad luck for anyone to set eyes on a jiangshi.

This practice was also called “driving corpses in Xiangxi” (湘西赶尸), as many people left their hometowns to work in Xiangxi Prefecture of Hunan Province. In actual fact, it is commonly thought that corpses would be arranged upright and tied to two long bamboo rods, which would be supported and carried by two men at either end. To the untrained eye, as the bamboo flexed up and down, the corpses would appear to be hopping.

Modern-Day Usage

Though the jiangshi may not be the most popular monster in the Western canon, it has graced media of all kinds in the Far East. In fact, in Hong Kong and East Asia, there is even such a thing as a jiangshi genre of film. Without further ado, here are some modern-day references to our bouncy buddy:

  • The two short stories “A Vampiric Demon” and “Spraying Water” in Pu Songling’s epic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio both contain jiangshi.

  • Encounters of the Spooky Kind, a 1980 Hong King comedy horror directed by Sammo Hung, is credited to have pioneered the jiangshi film genre.
  • The 1985 Hong Kong comedy horror film Mr. Vampire, directed by Ricky Lau, is considered the most successful of the jiangshi film genre. The story revolves around a Taoist Priest, who happens to have supernatural powers and be adept at kung fu. He is on a quest to vanquish a vengeful ghost, assisted by his incompetent sidekicks.
  • The Era of Vampires, released in 2002 and directed by Wellson Chin, is one of the only films in the genre that is not a comedy.
  • Jiangshi feature as enemies in the expansion pack for the video game Sleeping Dogs known as “Nightmare in North Point”.

  • In the video game Phantom Fighter, you play a traveling monk who goes around fighting jiangshi.
  • There is an optional boss in the video game Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia which is a jiangshi. It is the only boss in the game that cannot be permanently destroyed.
  • In the video game Super Street Fighter IV, the alternate costume for the character Rufus is that of a jiangshi.
  • The plot of the video game Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines revolves around a conflict between classical Western vampires, who are the “good” guys, and jiangshi, who are of course the bad guys.
Malicious Myths: The Jiangshi (僵尸)

Twice the Horror, Half the Size: A Review of Teke Teke (テケテケ)

Release Date: March 21st 2009

Director: Kōji Shiraishi

Country of Origin: Japan

Language: Japanese

Runtime: 1 hour 10 minutes

Teke Teke is one of those funny, little made-for-T.V. movies that immediately endear themselves to you. They remind you of a simpler time when, as a child, you curled up on a sofa, peered from behind a huge cushion and caught those first, tantalising glimpses of horror. They were low budget, they were poorly acted, and they were brilliant. After researching the urban legend behind the film, I just couldn’t wait to get a hold of it and enjoy some grainy, shaky camera action. I settled down to watch Teke Teke with a cup of tea and a bucket full of low expectations.

Yet this film, with its eerie score, creepy camera angles and rather candid performances, surprised me. It not only shattered my low expectations, it was…dare I say it…actually rather good. For those of you who don’t know what the teke teke is, I won’t ruin it for you. If you’d rather not go in blind, you can read my post about the urban legend here. Teke Teke is a creature feature at its finest, and we’ll leave it at that.

The film tells the story of a high school student named Kana and her childhood friend Ayaka. After a brutal murder takes place in their local area, Kana naturally starts to panic. The victim has been severed in half, a scene resplendent with delicious gore, and subsequent murders in the area lead Kana to deduce that this isn’t just an isolated incident. However, her (rather brief) investigation into the deaths brings her face-to-face with the stuff of nightmares; an urban legend from her childhood that seemed too farfetched to be true. The teke teke, the cautionary tale parents had used for centuries to dissuade children from staying out too late, is out there. The violence with which this realisation hits Kana is catastrophic as she discovers that, this time, the Bogeyman might just be real. In spite of its low budget and seemingly cliché plot, Teke Teke is a J-horror movie with a delightful twist. The acting is surprisingly sincere, as Kana and Ayaka behaved exactly as I imagined two high school girls would. Their performances were strong enough to leave me with the impression that they must be friends in real life, and that’s quite an achievement for a movie made for peanuts.

The score of the film, though repetitive, is oppressive and suitably terrifying, making the opening sequences so unbearably distressing that I nearly switched the film off altogether. The way the camera distortedly follows the creature, dragging you along with it, forcing you to see through its tortured eyes, is a work of pure genius and enthralled me instantly. And don’t get me started on the sound the damn thing makes when it runs. Let’s just say, my house has tiled floors, my dogs have long nails, and after watching Teke Teke that noise sent me into PTSD-style fits for days.

The reveal sequence, in which we’re finally exposed to the teke teke at its most horrifying, is about as disconcerting as any reveal in a Hollywood blockbuster. The only problem is this sequence, which made me recoil in horror the first time, gets re-used so often throughout the film that it detracts from the tension and becomes, quite frankly, rather ridiculous. There are so many subtle yet petrifying scenes involving the creature that there was really no need to keep re-using this shot, and this is precisely what makes it quite so disappointing. It’s understandable, considering the film’s low budget, but it none-the-less diminishes the quality of the film in my eyes.

What I loved most about the film is that, in such a short space of time, it manages to do what no other J-horror movie I’ve seen has done. It manages to explore the concept that urban legends have countless variations, which have each been adapted over generations, and sometimes, when it comes to the question of solving the mystery, there is no clear cut answer. In a game as dangerous as this one, in a world where the supernatural is purely the stuff of fiction, you’re going to have to risk gambling. There are no experts in the occult; there are no friendly exorcists on hand to save you. All you have is your gut and you gotta trust it, for as long as it’s still attached to your body that is.

Teke Teke may not have the best special effects and it may not win any awards for its acting, but I guarantee it will surprise you. The sheer, delicious creepiness of it left me giddy and, for a film that lasts about as long as it takes me to bath my dog, that’s really rather remarkable. Be sure to wade through the credits, as there’s a little Easter Egg waiting for you at the end. With all that out of the way, let’s just say I won’t be walking around in the dark anytime soon, but I will be watching Teke Teke 2. Acting: 6/10, no Oscars here but not your typical made-for-TV cringe-fest either

Storyline: 6.5/10, in only 1 hour and 10 minutes there’s not much meat to it, but it does more than the average J-horror

Fear Factor: 7/10, overuse of the one sequence aside, the special effects are, on the whole, better than your average B movie and the teke teke is downright freaky

Overall: 6.5/10, if you’re looking for a cheeky horror quickie, Teke Teke is your best bet

Twice the Horror, Half the Size: A Review of Teke Teke (テケテケ)