Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Magpies and Monsters: Liminality and Hybridity in Creatures of Folklore


Why are magpies treated with such suspicion? And what do they have in common with the monsters of folklore and popular fiction, such as vampires and werewolves?

This is a study of the creatures that feature in folklore, be they real, imaginary or somewhere in between. I will draw on superstitions, proverbs, folktales, literature and poetry as well as film and television to examine the attitudes towards certain creatures and the characteristics ascribed to them. I hope, with the support of psychological and cognitive theories, to demonstrate that these creatures all have something in common – that they are all in some way liminal or hybrid – and that this status can explain some of the folklore surrounding them.

Liminality and hybridity

1 a of or relating to a transitional or initial stage. b marginal, insignificant.
2 occupying a position on, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
[Latin limin-, limen ‘threshold’ + -al]

1 Biol. the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties.
2 offens. a person of mixed racial or cultural origin.
3a thing composed of incongruous elements, e.g. a word with parts taken from different languages.
1 bred as a hybrid from different species or varieties.
2 Biol. heterogeneous.
[Latin hybrida, (h)ibrida ‘offspring of a tame sow and wild boar, child of a freeman and slave, etc.’]

Liminality was first proposed as an important concept by Arnold van Gennep, in his book The Rites of Passage. After anthropological studies of ritual behaviour surrounding such major life events as birth, physical puberty, betrothal and marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, and death and funerals, van Gennep formulated a hypothesis that these rites of passage could be subdivided into rites of separation from one’s old status; transition rites; and rites of incorporation into one’s new status. He labelled the middle period of transition the ‘liminal’ period, a word taken from the Latin for ‘threshold’, as the person has neither left their old status behind, nor entered their new one, but is on the threshold (van Gennep 1960: 11). Van Gennep also noted that people in this liminal stage are commonly considered to become either sacred or profane, and that magico-religious practices are employed to protect both the liminal person and their community (van Gennep 1960: 12-3).

Van Gennep was concerned exclusively with human rituals and rites, but the concept of liminality has proved to have a usefulness beyond this sphere of study. As can be seen in the definition given above, a liminal thing occupies a position on or on both sides of a boundary or threshold: so it can refer to something which is, or appears to be, both one thing and another; or neither.

Definition 1b of liminal also introduces the useful concept of marginality. This can be related to the cognitive theory of categories and prototypes. The psychologist Eleanor Rorsch carried out experiments in 1973 and 1975 in which college students were asked to judge the typicality of several members of a category, based on a seven-point scale. There was a high level of agreement as to what were good and bad examples of the categories; so ‘chair’, ‘sofa’ and ‘table’ were judged to be the best examples of the category furniture, and ‘vase’, ‘fan’ and ‘telephone’ were thought to be the worst (Ungerer and Schmid 1996: 13). Rorsch demonstrated that a category or concept is ordered around a prototype, which operates as a cognitive reference point. As one moves towards that periphery of a category, the members share fewer and fewer characteristics with the prototype member. The boundaries of cognitive categories are vague and merge into one another; they are ‘fuzzy’ (Ungerer and Schmid 1996: 14-5). If something that is liminal is marginal, then it could be assumed to exist at the edge of one of these mental categories, possibly overlapping into another one.

A hybrid also evidently occupies such a position, having characteristics that identify it with more than one prototype and which place it in more than one category. However, hybridity does differ from the concept of liminality: a hybrid overtly displays different sets of characteristics and, as is the case with some of the creatures I will look at, may consist of large sections of its constituents; whereas a liminal thing or creature is not so obviously piecemeal, and may therefore provoke a deeper sense of unease.

Real animals

This section will deal with real animals, that is, those known to science and, more importantly, in people’s everyday lives.

Gustav Jahoda proposes a theory of superstition which may explain why liminal creatures attract so many of them. He quotes Lawrence Pervin:

It may be suggested that activity involving the feeling of participation in the turn of events, with the hope of mastery, is preferable to and less anxiety-arousing than no activity at all or activity which leaves the person feeling a helpless victim of inevitable events.

and suggests that superstition is precisely such an activity (Jahoda 1969: 134). The plethora of folk wisdom that has grown up around certain creatures may therefore be an attempt to contain the uncertainty they provoke through their liminal status.


The owl makes many appearances in a range of folklore fields. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions, its mournful cry has been held to portend a death since at least the third century BC; and it is considered especially unlucky to see an owl in the daytime (Opie and Tatem 1989: 295-6). These superstitions were no doubt reinforced by medieval bestiaries, which taught that, ‘the owl is a dirty bird, preferring darkness to light’ (McCulloch 1962: 147). According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, a seventeenth-century proverb says that, ‘The owl is the king of the night’ (Wilson 1970: 604); ‘to fly with the owl’ means to go about after sunset, and thereby avoid arrest (Wilson 1970: 271), and another proverb counsels that, ‘He is in great want of a bird that will give a groat for an owl’ (Wilson 1970: 302).

It is this final proverb that could be the key to the owl’s poor reputation in folklore: one must be desperate for a bird if one were to choose such an un-bird-like bird. The owl is a highly non-prototypical bird, being large, nocturnal and obviously predatory. To move further from the centre of the concept "bird" one would have to reach for a non-European species such as penguin; and of course this facility would not be available to previous generations. Its association with night and death probably stem from this liminality; one could speculate that it is especially unfortunate to spot an owl during the day because then you are seeing an unnatural creature at a time that is unnatural to it.


The bat also suffers from being at the edge of the bird concept: while it can fly, and so looks like a bird from a distance, seen close to it is very different. This must have been confusing for our ancestors, who had a less clear-cut understanding of the animal kingdom; bats are also often seen at twilight, the threshold between day and night. It is no wonder, therefore, that a variety of suspicions attach to them. They were connected with the witches’ hour in Scotland, and it was believed that they were an omen of death, especially if one flapped against the window or entered the house (Opie and Tatem 1989: 14). This last superstition adds to the liminality of the bat an extra fear of something that belongs outside crossing the threshold of human habitation.

DH Lawrence, in his poem ‘Bat’, covers several of these themes, including bats’ appearance at twilight, their resemblance to birds, and the unease they provoke by their unnaturalness:

Look up, and you see things flying
Between the day and the night;
And you think:
‘The swallows are flying so late!’
Bats, and an uneasy creeping in one’s scalp
As the bats swoop overhead!
Creatures that hang themselves up like an old rag, to sleep;
And disgustingly upside down.
(Muldoon 1997: 22-3)

Frogs and toads

The entire amphibian class must be considered liminal because they live both on land and in water, and are moreover often seen sitting at the boundaries of land and water, such as around a pond. The unusual life cycle of the frog or toad must add to its mystery: it begins life confined to water, swimming in an indistinguishable mass, but gradually comes to be an air-breathing individual which moves by hopping (itself a rather liminal means of locomotion, being neither a jump nor a walk). This may have resulted in a feeling that the amphibian occupies a liminal position between concepts of fish and reptile.

Superstitions recorded in the ODS are mainly concerned with folk-medicine and how frogs and toads can cure thrush, whooping cough, stomach complaints and eye diseases by taking the ailments onto themselves (Opie and Tatem 1989: 169-70, 407). It is not clear why common amphibians should be thought so generous, but their liminality and ensuing mystique must play a part. Additionally, toads are held to be witches’ familiars, and so are unlucky in the house, but sometimes are a premonition of money (Opie and Tatem 1989: 408); this last may be connected to the myth that toads have a jewel in their heads. A general antipathy to frogs is recorded in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’, in which the narrator recalls how, as a small boy, he was ‘sickened’ by frogs croaking around a pond: ‘The great slime kings / Were gathered there for vengeance...’ (Muldoon 1997: 68). On the other hand, Norman McCaig’s ‘Toad’ is more welcoming, as it associates the toad with money as a metaphor for poetic inspiration.

Proverbs involving toads and frogs often revolve around parochialism. A late seventeenth-century English proverb reminds one that, ‘The frog cannot out of her bog’ (Wilson 1970: 291). The sentiment of this is surprisingly similar to the Japanese adage, ‘The frog in a well cannot comprehend the sea’, and the Brunei-Malay proverbial phrase ‘like a frog under a coconut shell’, meaning someone who is isolated from outside communications. Christina Rossetti’s ditty ‘A Frog’s Fate’ concerns a frog who is ‘Contemptuous of his home’ and so hops ‘beyond / The village and the village pond’; needless to say, he comes to a sticky end, and dies wishing for his old familiar surroundings (Muldoon 1997: 98-9). It could be that this metaphor of parochialism reflects anxiety about the dual life of the frog or toad, and a subconscious desire to pin it to one category or other, thereby ending the uncertainty its liminal status creates.

Black and/or white animals

While not obviously liminal, many black and/or white creatures attract suspicion or dislike, and liminality can be considered as an explanation for this.

Black sheep are unlucky, especially as the first lamb of the season (Opie and Tatem 1989: 29); black cats can be lucky or unlucky, depending on who one asks and what they are doing; to see a white rabbit is unlucky, yet one says ‘white rabbits’ on the first of the month for good luck; to see a white horse is lucky if you spit (Opie and Opie 1959: 206); the all-black crow or raven is an omen of death (Opie and Tatem 1989: 111), as in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem ‘The Raven’. This is confirmed by the proverbs involving crows and ravens: ‘An evil crow, an evil egg’ (Wilson 1970: 232); ‘You look as if you would make the crow a pudding’ [i.e. die] (Wilson 1970: 502); ‘The croaking raven bodes misfortune, death’ (Wilson 1970: 665). In fact, the corvine family is emblematic of blackness: ‘As black as a crow’ (Wilson 1970: 63); ‘To say the crow is white’ [i.e. deny the truth] (Wilson 1970: 156); ‘A white crow, raven’ [i.e. a rare thing] (Wilson 1970: 885).

Black-and-white animals are no less subject to folkloric injunctions; thus to meet a piebald horse is lucky if some action is performed (Opie and Tatem 1989: 305-6); a magpie is unlucky, especially if it is chattering, crossing one’s path or alone, but it can be propitiated by bowing, taking off one’s hat or saying a prescribed greeting which acts as a charm; magpies also have a divination rhyme attached to them which dates from at least the eighteenth century (Opie and Tatem 1989: 235-6) . There are many variations of this rhyme according to region and time period, but the one that appears in the ODEP is as follows: ‘One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a wedding, four for a birth, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret not to be told, eight for heaven, nine for hell and ten for the devil’s own sel’’ (Wilson 1970: 596).

One particularly interesting proverb marks out several species of black or black-and-white birds as undesirable: ‘In March kill crow, pie and cadow [jackdaw], rook, buzzard and raven; or else desire them to seek a new haven’ (Wilson 1970: 511).

Suspicion towards black animals could perhaps be understood because black is associated with death and mourning, but this does not explain the same feelings directed against white and pied animals. The rarity of albinism and melanism may have something to do with it: although a black sheep, for example, looks like other sheep in all other ways, there might be a lingering feeling that it is somehow fundamentally different, and certainly peripheral to the concept "sheep". A contributing factor may also be the knowledge, much older than the science that proves it, that black and white are not ‘real’ colours, but the presence and absence of light. Black-and-white creatures, as well as suffering from all this prejudice, additionally occupy the liminal position of being neither one thing nor the other.

Cryptozoological animals

Cryptozoology is concerned with the study of creatures that are allegedly real but which remain uncaptured and uncatalogued by science; their existence is therefore officially unproven. These creatures exist on the threshold between the real and the mythical; only a few people actually believe that they exist, but they are definitely in a separate category in the popular imagination to entirely mythical or fictional beasts. In a word, they provoke scepticism, which is itself a position on the boundary between belief and disbelief. As shall be seen, their alleged characteristics are often hybrids of other, real creatures; this hybridity could be said to damage the case for their existence, since it provides explanations for sightings and evidence.

The Loch Ness monster

A large, freshwater creature has been thought to live in Loch Ness in Scotland for a very long time; the earliest record is from the sixth century, when St Columba is supposed to have driven away a monster by calling on God (Grimshaw and Lester 1976: 3). Celtic folklore has many stories of kelpies or water-horses which live in lochs, and it is from this that one might assume the legend of the Loch Ness monster arose (Eberhart 1983: 35); these local legends did not have to cede to Christianity in the remote Highlands as much as they did elsewhere (Grimshaw and Lester 1976: 8). The major change came in 1933, when the national press discovered the story and it became a sensation. The number of reported sightings increased massively after that date. Taking all these reports into account, one can come up with an aggregate description of ‘Nessie’: it is black or brown, 20-30 feet long with a small, horse-like head on a long neck, a thick body that can contract into humps and at least two flippers. Sonar tracking of animals in the loch purported to have measured the monster moving at ten mph on the surface and diving at up to five (Eberhart 1983: 33). It seems to be a hybrid of popular knowledge of eels or sea snakes, seahorses and extinct marine reptiles such as plesiosaurus. In fact, sightings now resemble the latter more and more closely as popular interest in dinosaurs and other ancient lifeforms has increased.

The Yeti, Bigfoot and the Sasquatch

These humanoid creatures are believed by some to exist in the remoter parts of the world. However, as humans encroach more and more on previously unexplored territory without finding any, their existence seems increasingly doubtful.

The yeti is thought to live in the uninhabited tracts of Asia, and was mentioned to European mountaineers as early as 1800. It is described as being between four-and-a-half and sixteen feet tall with long arms and a partly bipedal, partly quadrupedal gait (Eberhart 1983: 117). The huge range of alleged height comes from the fact that there have been very few sightings, and so the yeti’s height has been estimated from its tracks.

Bigfoot, as it is known in the USA, or Sasquatch in Canada, is also mainly known from its tracks, though there are regular sightings too. It is said to be seven to eight feet tall, with long arms, a flat, ape-like face and covered in reddish-brown or black hair. It walks upright (Eberhart 1983: 151).

These creatures are the best known of a range of wild humanoids from across the world, including the Alma of Russia and the Gin-Sung of China (Eberhart 1983: 118). All these appear to be hybrids of man and ape, with some local wildlife thrown in: yak-like fur for the yeti, and bison hair for the Sasquatch. It is possible that they are the manifestations of distorted racial memory of the other simian species with whom we used to share our ancient habitat; however, modern evidence is easily explained, and their continued existence is extremely improbable.

The Kraken

Many cryptozoologists believe that the monster known to the medieval Norwegians as the Kraken and immortalised by Tennyson as a harbinger of Armageddon is in fact the giant squid, a species classified by science in the 1870s. From dead specimens it has been estimated they could grow up to 150 feet in length (Eberhart 1983: 95). While this is a convincing theory – especially as other cephalopod species often swim near the surface of the sea – it can never be proved. Moreover, the legend of the Kraken is intrinsically related to other sea-monster myths, which were influenced by whales, biblical and religious teachings and pure flights of fancy.

Extraordinary humans

1 an imaginary creature, usu. large and frightening, compounded of incongruous elements.
2 an inhumanly cruel or wicked person.
3 a misshapen animal or plant.
4 a large usu. ugly animal or thing (e.g. a building).
5 (attrib.) huge; extremely large of its kind.
[Middle English via Old French monstre from Latin monstrum ‘portent, monster’, from monere ‘warn’]

We now start to deal with creatures that are not merely liminal, but could be considered in some way monstrous. This section considered human beings who are outside the ordinary. They are liminal because they exist at the edge of our concept of human; indeed, for many centuries there was serious debate as to whether they could possess souls.

People suffering from gigantism can grow in excess of nine feet tall, whereas dwarves can be less than three feet tall when fully grown; both conditions are caused by hormonal imbalances. These real conditions, as well as the discovery of pygmy tribes and races on average rather taller than the European explorer, no doubt contributed to the belief in supernatural giants and dwarves and such bizarre races as the Anthropophagi, who were believed to be cannibalistic giants with no heads and eyes in their chests (Kappler 1980: 130, Thompson 1930: 19).

Humans with deformities which we now understand to be the result of genetic mutations were thought to be indications of divine wrath until the end of the sixteenth century (Thompson 1930: 17); thus people with extra fingers, androgynous sexual characteristics, unusual hair growth and so on were feared as monsters. After the sixteenth century such people gradually became objects of curiosity rather fear, leading to the rise of the ‘freak’ show as part of a travelling fair or circus. Again fairly minor deformities such as these became exaggerated when related to distant races, leading to belief in tribes with one eye, multiple eyes or limbs, animal-human hybrids and so on.

Conjoined twins were a particular conundrum for previous generations; in particular, there was much discussion as to whether they possessed one soul or two or none at all:

Les essais de définition que nous venons de voir s’attachent surtout à l’aspect physique des monstres. Mais le Moyen Age s’est également préoccupé de leur nature morale. Les monstres sont-ils intelligents, peuvent-ils être bons, vertueux, ont-ils une âme?

[The attempts at definition we have just seen are connected above all to the physical aspect of monsters. But the Middle Ages was equally preoccupied with their moral nature. Are monsters intelligent, can they be good, virtuous, do they have a soul?]

(Kappler 1980: 220 - the translation is my own)

Early authorities considered that if the ‘monster’ had two hearts, it was two human beings (Thompson 1930: 123). However, since this could not be determined until after death, and conjoined or ‘Siamese’ twins can exhibit distinct personalities even if they share a heart, the Church decreed that a being with one head was one individual, and a two-headed being was two individuals (Thompson 1930: 126). The situation regarding ‘duplex monsters’, where a subsidiary part is nourished by the principal organism, was more complex; though some are reported to have had a head, heart or lungs, if they displayed no independent reasoning then they had to be counted as parasites rather than individuals (Thompson 1930: 124-5).

This sort of reasoning may seem convoluted in these days of X-rays and neuropsychology, but the issues surrounding conjoined twins continue to trouble us: the 2001 case of ‘Jody’ and ‘Mary’, in which doctors went to court to be allowed to separate the twins, resulting the death of one, raised strong emotions. ‘Freak’ shows are undergoing a renaissance, thanks partly to the voyeurism made possible by the Internet. However, many of the (willing) participants say they want to challenge our concept of what it is to be human; they are using their liminality to explore the boundaries of perception.

Mythical creatures

This section will deal with the creatures of mythology that display liminality or hybridity; as will be seen, this is a large proportion of them, since one easy way to make something monstrous or fabulous is to amalgamate parts of the everyday.

Part-human monsters

Many of the most dangerous creatures of mythology are those that have human heads and therefore human cunning; that they are hybrids of human and non-human makes them all the more monstrous.

The sphinx is a female monster with the head of a woman and the body of a lion; it is found in the earliest mythologies and some have suggested that it was a primitive god and now forms part of the collective unconscious. The giant Sphinx at Giza is 190 feet long and dates from around 2500 BC. In Greek mythology the sphinx of Thebes posed a riddle to Oedipus, and killed herself when he guessed it and was allowed to pass. A related creature is the manticore, which, according to medieval bestiaries, has the head of a man with a triple row of teeth, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion. It eats human flesh and whistles like a pipe (McCulloch 1962: 142).

The Minotaur is a figure in Greek mythology. It was the offspring of Queen Pasiphaë of Crete and a bull, and had the body of a man but the head of a bull; sometimes it is depicted standing upright with bovine legs. It was kept in the labyrinth at Knossos and each year devoured seven youths and seven maidens sent in tribute from Athens until Theseus killed it.

Harpies and sirens also feature in Greek mythology. The former have a woman’s head and torso but a bird’s wings and claws; the latter may be very similar or may be a form of sea-nymph that lure sailors with their singing then transform into birds of prey and devour them. Both ‘harpy’ and ‘siren’ have entered the language as derogatory epithets applied to women.

The three Gorgons of Greek mythology, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa, had enormous teeth, bird’s claws and wings and snakes for hair. They were so frightful they turned any onlooker to stone. Medusa was killed by Perseus, who showed her her own reflection in his shield, and cut off her head.

The mythological centaur has the head, arms and torso of a man on a horse’s body, in place of its head and neck. They are usually shown wielding a bow and arrow and are wild and lawless; one exception was Chiron, who tutored the Greek heroes Jason and Heracles. A satyr (Greek) or faun (Roman) was a minor woodland god, with the hind legs and horns of a goat; he was associated with Dionysian (or Bacchanalian) revelry.

Merfolk are found in Greek, Roman and Celtic mythologies. They are human from the waist up, with a fishtail instead of legs, though in some stories they are able to acquire legs on land. They are not always dangerous, but are not to be trusted. It has been suggested that they come from sightings of dugongs, manatees or seals swimming upright in water; however, it seems more likely that they are simply the delusions of overworked sailors, especially as the beautiful mermaid is far more common than her male counterpart!

Dangerous creatures

Creatures that are hostile to the human heroes of mythology display a high degree of hybridity, often combining the most dangerous aspects of several notoriously dangerous animals.

The griffin (or gryphon) is a monster often encountered by mythological protagonists, since it is a guardian of treasure. It has the head, front legs and wings of an eagle, and the body, hind legs and tail of a lion. Related to the griffin is the hippogriff, which has the front parts of an eagle but the hindquarters of a horse.

The leucrota is mentioned in bestiaries. It is approximately the size of a donkey, with a horse’s head, cloven hooves, the chest and legs of a lion and the hindquarters of a stag. Its mouth opens to its ears, it has a continuous bone in place of teeth, and its voice imitates that of a man (McCulloch 1962: 136).

Dragons are so well defined in the popular imagination that it seems difficult to identify their constituent parts. However, it is significant that they vary from region to region: they can therefore be seen as ancient phallus gods or chaos demons combined with local reptiles, such as the Nile crocodile, large lizards of the Monitor family, or snakes.

The mythological basilisk (as opposed to the real lizard) is, according to Pierre de Beauvais’ bestiary, hatched from an egg that spontaneously generates inside a seven-year-old cock which is incubated by a toad after laying. It has the upper parts of a cock and the lower parts of a snake and can kill men by its glance. It is also said to catch birds to eat by breathing fire, and is therefore associated with the dragon (McCulloch 1962: 93, 199). A very similar monster is the cockatrice, a mythical serpent hatched from a cock’s egg incubated by a reptile, whose glance can also kill.

The chimera is a female monster from Greek mythology, with a lion’s head, goat’s body and serpent’s tail. It was killed by Bellerophon, riding Pegasus. ‘Chimera’ now has a generic usage in English, meaning an illusion or terror of the mind, or a plant with tissues of different genetic make-up result from grafting – in other words, a hybrid.

Benign creatures

Not all animals encountered in mythology are antagonistic towards humans. Those that are not tend to be of a slightly different configuration: rather than hybrids of two or more animals, they are a real animal but with an extra, magical feature.

Pegasus, from Greek mythology, is a horse with wings, which sprang from the blood of the slain Medusa. It was ridden by the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon.

The unicorn is normally depicted as a white horse with a lion’s tail and a single horn in the middle of its forehead. According to the bestiaries it is a fierce, strong animal that can only be captured when it is lured into suckling at a virgin’s breast (McCulloch 1962: 179). It has been suggested that it was inspired by misinterpretations of drawings of the oryx antelope in profile, so that its two horns appear as one. However, the myth of the unicorn appears to be very old, older perhaps than such drawings; and a horned horse is not so fanciful that it could not be imagined unprompted.

The phoenix is another ancient creature, a symbol of regeneration from at least the Egyptian civilisation and possibly earlier. It is usually described as an exotic, multi-coloured bird with long tail feathers; every 500 years it burns itself on a pyre and rises rejuvenated from the ashes to live again. Various magical powers are attributed to it, especially ones of healing.


Frankenstein n. (in full Frankenstein's monster)
a thing that becomes terrifying to its maker; a monster.
[Baron Frankenstein, a character in and the title of a novel (1818) by Mary Shelley]

Although Frankenstein and his monster were created by Mary Shelley at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the way they were instantly welcomed into popular culture signals that they speak to some much older concepts within the human psyche. Jasia Reichardt opines that, ‘only a human being or a humanoid can be a true monster... The essential condition for a monster is that the human characteristics it possesses must not be changed too far’ (Bann 1994: 139). This is true for all the monsters in the section, but perhaps for Frankenstein’s creation more than any other. It is made out of human parts by a human, talks, and indubitably has a soul; yet it is a hybrid of organs and parts from other humans, and liminal because it is essentially a dead man walking. The reactions of other characters in Frankenstein towards the monster are violent and extreme, mostly in response to its face, that signifier of humanity, which combines lustrous hair and white teeth with the thin, yellow skin and black lips of a corpse.

‘Frankenstein’ joined the ranks of popular monsters because of the uncertainty he provokes: is he alive or dead? Is he a perpetrator or a victim of unnaturalness? The story has been extended in numerous films, most recently in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), which retold the Frankenstein saga: a young man made with blades instead of fingers attempts to find love and understand his own nature.

zombie n.
1 colloq. a dull or apathetic person.
2 a corpse said to be revived by witchcraft.
[West African zumbi ‘fetish’]

It could be argued that Frankenstein’s monster is a unique zombie, resurrected by lightning; most zombies in popular legend, however, take the shape of a whole body reanimated by magic. The zombie is an ancient feature of African mythologies, which were mixed with Catholicism by slaves taken to the Caribbean; most modern zombies are associated with the resulting practices of voodoo. They are liminal because they are not alive and not dead; they also appeal to the basic human dread of not being allowed to rest in peace after death.

The voodoo ritual supposedly involves casting incantations over soil from the dead person’s grave; the zombie then becomes the unthinking slave of its master. Depending on the variation of the story, the zombie may not need to eat, or it may require human flesh or organs for sustenance. They are also often said to continue the natural processes of decay once resurrected (Golden, Bissette and Sniegoski 2000: 316). Killing them (a second time) is usually just a matter of decapitation or hacking them to pieces; perhaps they are not afforded the special methods of destruction accorded to other monsters because they rarely display the same individuality.

Zombies are often the stars of horror movies, and these tend to be monster movies that concentrate on gore rather than motivation. In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) the dead are reawakened by a passing comet, and proceed to devour the live population of America in a single evening. The film depicts a world turned upside-down, and had an enormous impact in a late-60s landscape rocked by the Vietnam War (Golden, Bissette and Sniegoski 2000: 319). Re-animator, a 1985 film based on HP Lovecraft’s 1920s stories, had the monsters brought to life by a serum created by a mad scientist. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (1983-92) is ultra-violent but with comic elements mixed in. The zombies are generated this time by a group of students’ discovery of the legendary Book of the Dead: parts of Egyptian mythology relating to mummies are often appropriated by zombie stories.

werewolf n. (also werwolf) (pl. –wolves)
a mythical being who at times changes from a person to a wolf.
[Old English werewulf: first element perhaps from Old English wer ‘man’ = Latin vir]

The werewolf is an ancient part of human consciousness and therefore appears in folklore from its beginnings. Some have hypothesised that it is a manifestation of our animal subconscious, and our fear that this bestial nature could override all that makes us human. The werewolf is obviously liminal because it is neither truly human, nor fully a wolf.

Throughout history there have been accounts of ‘real’ lycanthropes, but nowadays such a transformation is recognised as impossible, and the term ‘lycanthropy’ is used to refer to a psychological condition in which the sufferer believes him- or herself to be an animal.

Wolves were once thought to be the preferred shape for a witch travelling incognito; this developed into a belief that a witch could curse someone to become a wolf at night and hunt humans, and awake to be tormented by the knowledge of their crimes (Golden, Bissette and Sniegoski 2000: 230). The curse could be passed on to another innocent who was non-fatally bitten. This shift of perspective from monster-by-choice to victim-of-circumstance has particularly suited contemporary retellings of the werewolf myth. In some variations, the animal only emerges on the three nights surrounding full moon; this may be a vestige of pagan lunar worship. Werewolves can only be killed by silver, usually in the form of a silver-tipped arrow or bullet.

The lycanthrope is often the subject of the more thoughtful film and television outings. Many recent productions use the werewolf myth as a metaphor for the traumatic change and incipient sexuality of adolescence. American Werewolf in London (1980) and Teenwolf (1985) do so with tongue in cheek, but the 2001 film Ginger Snaps relates lycanthropy to a teenage girl experiencing her first period, and is much darker. Oz, one of the central characters of Seasons Three and Four of the popular US TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a werewolf, and the viewer follows his struggles to control his condition and avoid hurting his friends during his wolf phase. The many Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde interpretations obviously owe much the werewolf tradition, as do other transformation films such as The Fly (1958, remade 1986).

vampire n.
1 a reanimated corpse supposed to leave its grave at night to suck the blood of persons sleeping.
2 a person who preys ruthlessly on others.
3 (in full vampire bat) any tropical (esp. S. American) bat of the family Desmodontidae, with incisors for piercing flesh and feeding on blood.
[French vampire or German Vampir from Hungarian vampir, perhaps from Turkish uber ‘witch’]

The vampire is probably the best known of all popular monsters. It is known in one form or another to all races of human beings and its tradition stretches into the mists of time, yet it continues to fascinate us today. Its liminality must play no small part in this: it is not alive, but neither is it dead, and (unlike the zombie) its physical form and personality remain intact. Vampires probably also speak to a deep-seated fear of the powerful parasite that feeds off human energy, particularly the blood, which was seen as the carrier of life. As Paul Barber explains at length in Vampires, Burial and Death, the legend also served to explain the processes of decay in dead bodies.

The first recorded vampire was the Babylonian goddess Lilitu, who was renamed Lilith in the Hebrew tradition and portrayed as a succubus who tempted Adam. Classical vampires were nearly always female lamiai, who were alleged to attack babies and women in labour, which explained deaths in childbirth. However, until the Middle Ages vampires were generally regarded as non-corporeal beings who invariably killed their victims; the notion of the revivified dead who could pass their curse on seems to have originated in the Slavic regions (Golden, Bissette and Sniegoski 2000: 140). By the seventeenth century, the vampire as we know him today had emerged in the form of the Undead: these creatures have supernatural strength, can assume a variety of forms and are adept in hypnotism, which they use to subdue their victims. They are only vulnerable during the day, when they can be staked, decapitated or burnt (Frost 1989: 7).

Count Dracula is, for most modern Westerners, the ultimate vampire, with a legend that has extended far beyond Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s supposed source was the fourteenth-century Prince of Walachia, Vlad Dracul (‘the little dragon’), or Vlad the Impaler. Though he certainly terrorised his enemies and subjects by killing thousands of them by impaling, the records do not suggest he drank human blood.

Vampire stories are hugely popular and each new addition to the genre permeates the collective unconscious and becomes part of the folklore. Anne Rice’s best-selling novels, beginning with Interview with the Vampire (1976, also a 1994 film), are told from a vampire’s point of view, and play up the sexual element of vampirism. This is also evident in the multitude of Hammer horror films, which are sometimes more vamp than vampire. Some of the very first motion pictures featured vampires, including The Haunted Castle (1896) and the classic Nosferatu (1922). More recent interpretations include Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, half-heist, half-horror movie; Habit (1997) which links a craving for blood with drug addiction; Blade (1998) and Blade II (2002) in which a ‘good’ half-vampire hunts down ‘bad’ ones; and since 1997 the cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This has been especially influential in recent perceptions of vampires, since it has a strong and consistent mythology which is starting to affect the much older lore that precedes it. In the world constructed by Joss Whedon, the series’ creator, vampires are dead bodies inhabited by demons; they can be killed by sunlight, burning, decapitation and penetration of the heart or injured by holy artefacts, and when slain they turn to dust (Golden, Bissette and Sniegoski 2000: 90-1).

The vampire is the most powerful embodiment of the threatening state of liminality, but it pervades every part of folklore, from the smallest superstition to the largest archetypes, as I hope this brief outline of the characteristics of folkloric creatures has shown.


Bann, Stephen (ed.) (1994) Frankenstein, Creation and Monstrosity. London: Reaktion Books.

Barber, Paul (1988) Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality. London: Yale University Press.

Concise Oxford Dictionary, 9th Edition on Oxford Compendium 3.0 CD-ROM (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1997.

Curran, Bob (2000) The Creatures of Celtic Myth. London: Cassell & Co.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis (ed.) (1993) Boundaries and Thresholds. Exeter: Short Run Press.

Eberhart, George M (1983) Monsters: Including Bigfoot, Many Water Monsters and Other Irregular Animals. London: Garland Publishing.

Frost, Brian J (1989) The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

van Gennep, Arnold (1960) [1908] The Rites of Passage, tr. Monica B Vizedom and Gabrielle L Caffee. London: Routledge.

Golden, Christopher, Stephen R Bissette and Thomas E Sniegoski (2000) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Monster Book. London: Pocket Books.

Gose, Elliott (1988) Mere Creatures: A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children. London: Toronto University Press.

Gould, Charles (1992) [1884] Mythical Monsters: Fact or Fiction? London: Studio Editions.

Grimshaw, Roger and Paul Lester (1976) The Meaning of the Loch Ness Monster. Birmingham: University of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

Infopedia UK 96 CD-ROM, 1996

Jahoda, Gustav, (1969) The Psychology of Superstition. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Kappler, Claude (1980) Monstres, Démons et Merveilles à la fin du Moyen Age. Paris: Payot.

McCulloch, Florence (1962) Mediaeval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Muldoon, Paul (ed.) (1997) The Faber Book of Beasts. London: Faber & Faber.

Opie, Iona and Peter Opie (1959) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem (eds.) (1989) Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phipps, Kevin, reviews of Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition and Re-animator: Millennium Edition, for ‘The Onion AV Club’ at

Rowling, JK (2001) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. London: Bloomsbury.

Saeed, John I (1997) Semantics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thompson, CJS (1930) The Mystery and Lore of Monsters. London: Williams & Northgate.

Ungerer, F and HJ Schmid (1996) An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics. London: Longman.

Warner, Marina (1994) Managing Monsters: Six Myths of our Time. The Reith Lectures 1994. London: Vintage.

Wilson, FP (ed.) (1970) The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, 3rd edition. Oxford: Clarendon.

Essay index! -or- Take me home!