5 Movie Monsters Ripped from the Pages of History Books
It seems like the subtext in most horror movies is that the true monster ... is us. Normally, that's a heavy-handed metaphor for man's inhumanity to man, but sometimes that whole "man is the real monster" bit is a tad more literal. Take, for example, these five poor wretches ...
The Demon King
The Byzantine empire was the Matrix: Revolutions of Roman empires: It made a ton of money and stopped some big invasions but wasn't much to talk about. (Also, Keanu Reeves was there.)
Michael IV ruled from 1034 to 1041. He was a peasant who fell in love with the empress (aw, that's sweet), even though she was married (aw, that's ... really not smart). Since Empress Zoe was the previous emperor's daughter, her husband, Romanos III, feared losing both his wife and his throne. The emperor asked Michael to swear on holy relics that there were no shenanigans going on, which he did. Silly Romanos! A peasant with the stones to ball the friggin' emperor's wife probably isn't afraid to break a sanctified pinkie swear.
Sure enough, in April of 1034, Romanos III was found dead in the tub. Cause unknown, but, y'know, not that unknown. Especially since Michael and Zoe were married the same day.
History's first twee murderers.
The new emperor, Michael, bribed the patriarch into properly crowning him, adding to his lousy reputation as a counterfeiter, adulterer, and regicidal boy toy. That's when Michael began bleating like a sheep, moving in erratic jerks, and hurting himself ... all things you might recognize from that exorcism movie that gets remade with a new title every year.
What was it called again? The Demon Be-gonner Guy?
Despite his efforts to conceal it, a lot of folks concluded that Michael was suffering from demonic possession as punishment for his sins. Although some historians considered him an "honest" and "brave" general who fought for the common folk against the nobility, Ioannes Scylitzes was not a fan, and further suggested that the empress's love for Michael was demonically influenced. By our count, he was at least three Game of Thrones characters.
The Boring Reality
It's often said that for every beautiful woman there's a guy who's bored of screwing her after he's murdered her husband and stolen her kingdom. Michael was that guy. Ignoring his adoring cougar wife, he struggled to rule amid epileptic fits. And just like all those crappy exorcism movies, epilepsy explains pretty much everything about this story.
The Werewolf's Last Confession
Peter Stumpp had many aliases, which is weird, considering that he was pretty conspicuous (he was missing his left hand). Oh, and also because all of his crimes were committed in wolf form. How many canines do you know with alternate identities?
Now, witch and werewolf trials were pretty common in Germany in 1589, due to it being Germany in 1589. The only things to do at the time were farm, worship the devil, and make either sausage or war. Clearly, Stumpp was a big fan of those first three. But it was the brutal manner of his execution that put this story on the front page of the Syphilitic Holsteiner Gazette.
When caught and pressed, Stumpp admitted to eating livestock and at least 14 kids (including his own son), two pregnant women, and sundry German maidens.
Not a fun guy at parties.
Stumpp credited his master-level display of lupine dickitry to a magic belt given to him by Satan. But in a Faustian twist, the pumps that came with it didn't match! Curse your treachery, Beelzebub!
Stumpp perpetrated his crimes on countless victims for 25 years by exploiting the "killer in the woods" cliche. He practically invented Jason Voorhees' patented shtick, including the bit about waiting for the rest of the stupid teenagers to split up and go looking for their missing friend. But one day some hunters got the belt off of Stumpp, and then it was time for old-timey German country justice, as seen in this creepy paper animation:
The captured Stumpp was tortured with a breaking wheel, stripped of his flesh with hot metal pincers, and then had all of his limbs broken. Which, for the record, is about as dead as you can get, short of being ground into a fine powder, mixed into a power shake, and digested by fitness freaks with high metabolisms.
The Boring Reality
What if I told you that people don't actually turn into werewolves?
Stumpp was a Protestant in a part of Germany that had recently been returned to Catholic control. Torturing a fellow Christian, even a heretic, could be a dodgy proposition to explain before the Lord, but a Satan worshiper guilty of the worst crimes -- ah! That's doing God's work. Basically, the new ruler of the region made a bloody example of him.
But Stumpp confessed to prosecutors, right? More like persecutors -- people give false confessions all the time, especially while you're torturing them. And even if you don't confess, what's to stop them from saying you did? If you're still not convinced that Stumpp's conviction wasn't on the level, his mistress and daughter (who were known to be of good character, save for that whole Protestant thing) were also tortured, flayed, strangled, and burned.
It would be 400 years before Germany finally settled down and took up much more acceptable hobbies, like fascism and coprophilia.
The Rebel Vampire
In the early 1700s, Serbian peasant Arnold Paole fought against the Ottomans as a hajduk -- a term that meant either "highway bandit" or "freedom fighter."
In Serbia is same thing.
Returning home from the war in Turkish Serbia, Paole had a great life waiting for him: a new patch of farmland ready for plowing, an eager new wife ready for plowing, and a hero's welcome from his town, which hopefully also involved plentiful plowing.
But something wasn't right with young Paole. He had ... changed. Neighbors noted his now gloomy demeanor. Of course, this being a rational period in history like rural 18th century Eastern Europe, everybody chalked it up to PTSD and worried no more. So imagine how unsettled they were to hear Paole's explanation: He had been attacked by a vampire.
According to Paole, he managed to slay the vampire, but sustained a nasty wound in the process. He made the mistake of trying to inoculate himself from vampirism by rubbing his foe's blood in his wound and eating soil from its grave. Come on, man, everybody knows you're supposed to eat the blood and rub the soil. What is this, your first vampire rodeo?
Astonishingly, villagers did not run to get their pitchforks, and Paole lived out the rest of his days in gloomy peace -- which in this case was literally just days. He fell from a hay wagon in the stupidest death any vampire ever suffered. What's a wagon's top speed? 5 mph? Geez, even toddlers and hemophiliacs laugh off a wagon fall, Your Dark Majesty. So the villagers buried Crazy Arnie, made a few wagon-based puns at his expense, and went back to plowing fields and each other.
And that's when the corpses started piling up.
About three weeks after his death, four people reported Paole stalking them ... and then died soon after. You know what happens next: shovel, stake, saw, scorch. The report says the mouth of Arnold's corpse was full of blood, he hadn't decomposed at all, and even creepier, he allegedly groaned when stabbed. Five hasty piles of ash later, everyone could rest easy.
Except for Paole's mother, who was not invited to bridge club that week.
The Boring Reality
Those attributes are as common in corpses as poor life choices at a Gathering of the Juggalos. Mostly they're due to gasses that escape during decomposition. Which, come to think of it, also describes a gathering of the Juggalos. Best to stab them through the heart just to be safe. Hey, it worked for the Serbs.
The Repentant Wendigo
First off, if you've never heard of the wendigo, it's North America's freakiest horror, "an owl-eyed monster with large claws, matted hair, a naked and emaciated body, and a heart made of solid ice."
Don't make an Ann Coulter joke don't make an Ann Coulter joke don't m- awww, rats.
A wendigo is a hunger spirit whose hobbies are eatin' folk and possessin' other folk to eat more folk. If a wendigo chew-chew-chooses you, you will suffer terrible side effects, like a feeling of incurable frigidness, and also a bellyful of your own family. According to legend, the wendigo grows as fast as it eats so that it never knows anything but bottomless hunger.
In the winter of 1878-79, a Cree Indian named Swift Runner murdered and ate his entire family. It was noted as a "particularly cold, bitter winter" in Alberta that year. When Runner walked into the Catholic mission in St. Albert come spring to report his family dead of starvation, he forgot to clarify whose starvation killed them. Priests eventually figured it out, mostly since he looked like a guy who had spent the winter eating eight people. Adding to their suspicions was the way he straight up told them, "Guys, I am being tormented by a wendigo, which is a thing that eats people."
Faster than you can say "please pass the mother-in-law," police had him up on a hangin' rope. His last words were "I am the least of men and I do not merit even being called a man." Dang, Swift Runner, you did not even try to live up to that name.
The Boring Reality
You can learn a lot about a culture by what they fear. In a hunter-gatherer society like the Cree (and most Algonquin tribes), people share almost everything they have, and the worst type of person is an insatiably greedy ghoul.
A nightmare the white man knows too well, my friends.
Plus: cannibals. Everyone hates those guys. "It's important to understand that cannibalism was repellent to the people," explained ethnohistorian Nathan Carlson in what was the least necessary explanation ever. Mix in the bone-cracking misery of a winter anywhere north of Delaware, and the wendigo is a perfectly logical scapegoat. Which is easier: to admit that you're the type of guy who starts gnawing on family when the fire goes out, or telling everybody you've been possessed by a monster that instantly absolves you of any responsibility?
The Zombie Gardener
What's your worst fear? Dying of an incurable disease doctors can't diagnose? Watching your loved ones in pain? Being buried alive? How about waking up from a coma and losing years from your life?
Haitian Clairvius Narcisse suffered all of these horrors in 1962 when he went to the hospital because he was coughing up blood. He presented symptoms of fever, body aches, strange tingling sensations, and blue lips due to cyanosis (lack of oxygen). A couple of days later, he was dead ... ish.
Not so dead that he couldn't be dug up and forced to work on a sugar plantation for two years, at any rate.
"Zombie sugar plantation" is at least three kinds of harmful situation.
After being buried, Narcisse drifted in a timeless semi-conscious state. That's when a bokor (Voodoo priest) and a couple of henchmen exhumed him, bound him up, and whisked him away to the fantastical world of a sugar plantation, which is nowhere near as fun and candy-themed as it seems.
For the next two years, farming was Narcisse's job, and zombing was his hobby. And he was not alone. The bokor had a whole zombie work crew, which he fed one meal a day: a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and zombie cucumber. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but zombie cucumber is an effective narcotic: It once got British soldiers so high that they could see their house from Virginia.
Narcisse said the bokor took his soul, and with no will to resist, he only escaped when one of the zombies rebelled against the abuse and killed their captor with a hoe. Free of the curse, the zombies were able to wander off in search of more lucrative employment, and possibly brains.
The Boring Reality
Ethnobotanist E. Wade Davis studied the case, purchased some zombie powder from local bokors, and analyzed it. He determined that it was a mix of skin irritants and tetrodotoxin (pufferfish poison, like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer made a bucket list). The irritants chafe the skin, allowing the poison to enter a person's system in nonlethal doses and cause a state that is nearly indistinguishable from death. When the victims who survive the zombie powder are dug up a few days later, the psychological effects of their "death" and a continuing diet of strong hallucinogens convince them they've been zombified.
So ... holy crap. That one was actually true? All right, there you have it: Zombies are real, and pufferfish are the cause. Kids, make your own zombies at home for fun and profit.
If you're not quite horrified enough yet, take in 8 Prehistoric Creatures Ripped Directly from Your Nightmares and 6 Terrifying Creatures That Keep Going After They're Dead, or see Cracked's Field Guide to Real Monsters for much more.
Brendan is a humoriatrist and monster. May God forgive him, because humanity will not.