Illustration by Catherine Dousdebes.
Every country has a long, rich tradition of invoking supernatural threats in order to keep kids in line. Maybe parents save it for a last resort, but when they can’t get their kids to behave there is a certain terrifying monster who can. He has many names and takes on different forms (and even genders), but every culture on Earth knows him: the shadowy, elusive, diabolical entity who feasts on a strict diet of naughty children. He may be evil incarnate, but he also has an uneasy alliance with desperate parents who can’t get their kids to bed on time.
We know him as the boogeyman, but it turns out that every culture has a name for this figure who goes bump in the night. Parents around the world agree: Fear is an excellent motivator.
AKA: Bogeyman, Bogieman, Boogie Man, Bogy, Bugbear
Other known whereabouts: English-speaking countries
A shadowy, amorphous ghost who hides in dark places in order to frighten unsuspecting victims. He’s more of a nuisance than a danger, and his power is easily neutralized by bright light. His name probably originates from Middle English bugge, meaning “something frightening.”
Other known whereabouts: Belgium, Germany
The “buck riders” are ghost thieves who ride flying goats. They were a legend created by actual bands of thieves in the 18th century to intimidate and terrorize local farming communities.
AKA: Bütze, Buhmann, Mummelmann, Popelmann
Other known whereabouts: Netherlands, Scandinavia
A faceless goblin or ghost shrouded in a cloak. He hides in dark corners, under the bed or in the closet, and attacks children who stay up past their bedtime. His name either comes from Middle German bôtzen (to make a racket) or verbutzen (to conceal or disguise). Today, he’s most famous for the silly children’s song, “Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann” (It dances the Bi-Ba-Butzemann), which was originally about a poltergeist with rattling bones and a scythe.
4. Sack Man
AKA: Hombre del Saco, Hombre del Costal, Homem do Saco, El Roba-chicos
Other known whereabouts: most of southern Europe and Latin America
An ugly, gaunt man who kidnaps naughty children in broad daylight and carries them away in a sack. Depending on regional variants, he either sells the children or eats them. In some cultures a figure like Sack Man works as Saint Nicholas’ evil sidekick.
5. Baba Yaga
AKA: Baba Roga, Złota Baba, Ježibaba, gorska maika
Other known whereabouts: Slavic countries
A witch with a deep and powerful connection to the forest. She lives in a hut that stands on giant chicken legs, rides around in a flying mortar and carries a giant pestle. Ambivalent towards humans, she is just as likely to help you as eat you. Baba (Баба) translates as “woman” while yaga may derive from the Proto-Slavic word for serpent, but sounds similar to Polish jędza (witch), Serbo-Croatian jeza (horror) and Old Church Slavonic jęza (disease).
A monster with a body composed of different animal parts, eyes that are blobs of flaming spit and a coat made from the clothes of the children it’s eaten.
Water sprites who do the bidding of evil wizards. They can become invisible by drinking water and cause all sorts of mischief. You can protect yourself from them whilst you sleep by placing a brick beneath each leg of your bed, but banishing them for good will require the help of a witch doctor.
A man-eating giant with large, protruding fangs. Although he loves the taste of children he can be reasoned with and today enjoys an annual tribute feast in exchange for not eating local kids.
9. Wewe Gombel
The vengeful spirit of a woman whose broken heart drove her to suicide. Unlike the usual boogeymen, she kidnaps children to save them from bad parents! She lovingly cares for them in her nest atop a palm tree, refusing to return them until their parents repent for their abusive or neglectful ways.
Oga Peninsula, Japan
These ogres go from door to door on New Year’s Eve, looking for children who have misbehaved that year. They are more than happy to unburden parents by taking away children who are lazy, insolent or simply cry too much. Their name comes from their famous refrain — なもみコ剝げたかよ (Namomi ko hagetaka yo?), meaning, “Blisters healed yet?” — meant to insult people who lazily sit by the fire all day.
11. The Jersey Devil
New Jersey, USA
AKA: The Leeds Devil
A dragon-like creature with a strange amalgam of animal parts and a blood-curdling scream. According to legend, it was the 13th child of the terribly unlucky “Mother Leeds” in 1735. Ever since, it has been terrorizing those foolhardy enough to venture into the pine barrens at night.
12. La Llorona
The ghost of a woman who drowned her children in order to be with a man who ultimately spurned her. Destitute, she drowned herself — but she’s barred from entering heaven until she finds her children. At night, she wanders along the riverbanks looking for them, crying “¡Ay mis hijos!” (oh my children!) and snatching any child she mistakes for her own. Like the Irish Banshee, hearing her cry is considered a death omen. Her name is derived from the Spanish llorar (to weep).
13. Tata Duende
A small, bearded goblin with no thumbs and backwards feet who is said to be the guardian of the forest and animals. Parents warn their children that if they stay outside after dark or wander into the jungle, Tata Duende will get them. His name translates to “Papa Goblin.”
A man with incredibly long legs who walks around towns at midnight to catch and eat anyone who is still outside. His name is a contraction of the French maître (master) and minuit (midnight).
AKA: Coca, Cucuy
A famous Brazilian lullaby warns children to go to sleep or else a Cuca, a crocodile woman, will get them. She is a variation on the Portuguese Coca.