Supernatural creatures keep us out of the water and away from the woods, warn us against being unfaithful or greedy, make children obedient and help us refrain from dangerous habits. And ghosts, spirits and demons also have the function of providing restitution to the wronged and giving explanations for death, evil actions or bad luck. Here are seven hair-raising, terrifying creatures from five continents.
7 Terrifying Creatures From Around The World
Venezuela — El Silbón
If you find yourself in the vast grasslands of Los Llanos in Venezuela and Colombia, make sure to pay attention to the sounds around you. If you hear someone whistling a tune reminiscent of do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti, you know there’s danger ahead. The distant whistling means that El Silbón (“The Whistler”) is nearby. And hearing it means that he’s coming for you.
El Silbón is a lost soul; a rickety ghost-like character who can’t find peace. He carries a sack full of bones, including the bones of his father, whom he killed. As with most legends and superstitions, there are many variations of the story, but the most common ones are of a son killing his father because the father molested or killed his daughter-in-law, or of a spoiled boy killing his father for failing to bring home deer for dinner.
In either case, the grandfather brutally whipped El Silbón and sent him out on the plains, forcing him to forever carry his father’s remnants — and then the grandfather released rabid dogs to kill him. In some variations of the story, he’s still hunted by dogs, which is why a dog’s bark is one of the few things that can scare him away.
You’re extra likely to fall victim to this terrifying creature if you’re an unfaithful man, a womanizer or a drunk. Should he catch you, your bones will end up in his sack and forever rattle around in there together with the bones of his other victims. Each night, he enters a house to count all his bones on the floor. Legend has it that if no one in that house hears the counting, a family member will be dead by morning.
Sweden — Skogsrået
Imagine that you’re out walking in the dark and dense Swedish forest. Suddenly, you see a beautiful young woman with long, blond hair. She’s walking farther into the forest and is calling for you to join her. You’re mesmerized by her and start to follow. When she finally stops, you see to your deepest despair that there’s a large hole in her back and that she has a tail. When she turns around, her face looks like rotting wood. She laughs then disappears, and you’re lost in the woods forever.
This is what would happen if you let yourself be seduced by Skogsrået, a mythological figure from Sweden. She’s the ruler, or rå, of the forest and protector of wild animals. In Scandinavian folklore, most areas of human life has a protector rå. There’s a rå for mountains and mines, mills and homes, as well as all types of natural landscapes.
Back in the day, lots of men used to work in the forest for long periods of time, and Skogsrået may be a product of their longing for female company, paired with their fear of getting lost in the woods. She will try to seduce you, but the trick to get away is to never say your real name.
Japan — Onryō
Vengeful ghosts are a common superstition worldwide, and the Onryō from Japanese folklore is especially thirsty for revenge. It’s even capable of causing natural disasters in its rage.
Tales of Onryō often say that the ghost doesn’t cause physical harm, but instead psychological terror. The ghost’s target may be left unharmed, while everyone they love dies, their home is destroyed, and they have to live the rest of their life in misery.
Japanese ghosts, much like Western ones, are people who were killed wrongfully. These ghosts don’t end up watching over their loved ones as a benevolent spirit might, and instead wander around, never finding peace. In many cases, the souls that turn into Onryōs are victims of murder or betrayal — often by their husband — and so they died with strong feelings of jealousy, rage and hatred. They continue to spread that rage in their lives as ghosts, so much so that the very ground they walk on is cursed.
Onryō is usually depicted as a woman with a white burial kimono and long, black, unruly hair covering her face. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably watched a Japanese horror movie before; they often feature Onryōs. Even though these movies are modern, the typical physical manifestation of the ghost originates from the dance-dramas Kabuki, which were popular several hundred years ago.
Canada – Wendigo
In the folklore of the Algonquian tribe in eastern Canada and the Great Lake region, the huge, corpse-like Wendigo is believed to come out to feed on humans during blizzards. The more people Wendigo eats, the bigger it gets — but it will never get enough.
In some variations of the myth, the Wendigo appears as an evil spirit who possesses people and drives them to become greedy and murderous, and eventually to resort to cannibalism. Or, alternatively, the Wendigo was once a human, who, after eating members of his own community, was driven away from the tribe and turned into a Wendigo. The origins of the Wendigo are likely tied to the fears of starvation during the long, cold winters in the Algonquian lands, which could (hypothetically) drive people to cannibalism.
Like many terrifying creatures and spirits from around the world, the Wendigo is also a conceptual figure. It has served, and still serves, as a metaphor for colonialism, destruction of the environment and insatiable greed.
Austria – Krampus
Krampus is probably one of the most terrifying creatures on our list, at least aesthetically. He looks a lot like how the Devil is imagined in Christianity: a goatlike humanoid creature with huge horns, hooves and matted fur.
In and around the Alps, the belief in Krampus — or something a lot like him — predates Christianity. Like many European pagan beliefs, the Krampus myth merged with the new belief system, and Krampus is now mostly known as Santa’s evil companion. He is believed to punish naughty children with corporal punishment or even abduction, stuffing them in a barrel he carries on his back.
Going outside during the longest winter nights of the year to make noise and create chaos in order to scare away demons has a long tradition in Northern Europe. In modern Austria, it’s common to dress up as Krampus on December 5th and roam the streets in big, horrid crowds of other Krampuses (so-called Krampusläufe, “Krampus runs”). During the Krampusläufe, children try to outdo each other in bravery by getting close to the Krampuses and avoiding getting hit by them.
South Africa — Tokoloshe
A small, gremlin-like creature, ranging from mischievous to murderous, the Tokoloshe is a figure in Zulu and Xhosa folklore. Tokoloshe can become invisible by drinking water or it can take the form of snakes and frogs, depending on who you ask. He roams the night, causing trouble and inflicting pain. Evil-minded and jealous people can call on Tokoloshe to harm others and make their lives unbearable, and he can haunt you for years if you’re unlucky.
Tokoloshe is just tall enough to reach into your bed to make you ill or even strangle you — but not if you put your bed on bricks! The threat of Tokoloshe killing you in your sleep may serve as a warning to people not to sleep too close to the floor in a room with a fireplace, because the low oxygen levels near the ground can cause otherwise healthy people to die in their sleep.
Russia — Vodyanoy
In Slavic mythology, if someone drowns or a dam breaks, there’s only one thing to blame: Vodyanoy (водяной). A naked man covered in algae and mud with a frog’s face, a long beard and blue skin, he’ll try to lure you into the water to drown so that you can work for him in his underwater kingdom for the rest of time.
This terrifying creature appears mostly at night where the water’s current is strong, so you should keep away from the water in those circumstances. Also, never boast about your swimming abilities; that’s another reason for Vodyanoy to take you (nobody likes a braggart).
Vodyanoy is a somewhat modern manifestation of water demons that have existed in Slavic belief for centuries. People would make sacrifices to Vodyanoy in the hopes of attracting his goodwill.
Related European water spirits include the Nix in German folklore, or Näcken in Scandinavia, who lures his victims into the water to drown by playing the violin just next to a dangerous river. To a child, the threat of monsters and spirits seem graver and more real than the vague and uncertain threat of drowning.