Troublesome, mischievous and downright evil spirits have haunted the folktales, myths and traditions of civilizations throughout history. From Hungry Ghosts in China who are mollified each year with offerings of food and entertainment to the Domovoi, a mischievous Russian house spirit who punishes lazy home owners by spreading manure on the doorstep, this guide will introduce you to a few of the unsettled ghosts, creatures, zombies and soul-stealing hell-fairies who you may encounter when visiting countries around the world. Happy Travels!
China – èguǐ, The Hungry Ghost
In China, Ghost Month is when tradition decrees that hell is opened up and mischievous and evil spirits roam the land. These unfortunate souls are called Hungry Ghosts, and are the spirits of ancestors whose families had failed to provide offerings and veneration to their memory. Alternatively, a Hungry Ghost may result from the tortured spirit of a person who was evil in life, committing murder, rape or theft. Hungry Ghosts can be identified by their long, thin necks; a consequence of being starved of offerings, or as the result of unfulfilled desires.
If you travel to China in the seventh month of their calendar year when Ghost Month is observed, it would be wise to adhere to local superstition and avoid driving at night, swimming, or anything remotely dangerous. Hungry Ghosts are always seeking an unwary soul to take their place, and are not above drowning their victim or causing brakes to fail on the highway. Should you need to pacify a hungry ghost, you may be able to pay them off: burning paper money transforms into real currency in hell, which the spirit can use to make their stay a bit more comfortable.
By the 15th day of the Ghost Month, the whole community participates in the Hungry Ghost Festival, where offerings are made to wandering spirits and loud nightly shows are performed for their distraction and entertainment. If you attend one of these performances, you might discover that the first few rows are empty and cordoned off. Don’t be tempted to snatch one of these empty front row seats for yourself though, these are for the ghosts to enjoy the show.
Scandinavia – Draugr, The Again-Walker
When spending your vacation in Norway, Denmark or Iceland, you will find warm people, good food, beautiful fjords, and… hideous undead zombies. Draugr are the spirits of selfish, greedy, or evil people whose negative fixations provide the will for their spirit to animate their own corpses. Possessed with the useful ability to escape their burial mounds by turning into smoke or swimming through solid rock, the Draugr nevertheless prefer to haunt their burial sites in corporeal form, often in stinking, half decaying bloated and blackened bodies, utterly grotesque in appearance.
Draugr may hang about their burial site, guarding their treasure, or may venture into town during the night to torment the living, especially those who wronged them in life. Burial mounds may be suspected of harboring a Draugr if a ghostly light surrounds the mound or grazing livestock nearby suddenly become mad or aggressive. It is said that Draugr possess some magical ability, including the ability to enter the dreams of the living. If you have such a dream, look for a gift left by the Draugr after you awaken as proof of the visit, then get out of town by the shortest route possible. Encounters with Draugr are often fatal, and may result in you rising as a Draugr yourself.
Romania – Strigoi, Vampire
The legend of Dracula comes from the Romanian Strigoi, spirits of the undead who rise from their graves at night and terrorize the living by feasting on their blood. Strigoi are shapeshifters, able to become invisible or turn into animals at will. You may be familiar with the common undead Strigoi, but did you know that Strigoi may also be living humans? Living Strigoi can be evil sorcerers who prey on their victims, draining their vitality at night, something to consider when accepting hospitality in certain bed and breakfasts in Romania. Be sure to check with prior residents to be sure there hasn’t been a string of strange deaths after their visit.
A particularly disturbing form of Strigoi is the Strigoi Mort, a variant of undead creature that results from improper burial procedures. The Strigoi Mort will find their way back to their family and seem completely normal. They may even resume their role as husband, wife, or parent. All is not what it seems, however, for the Strigoi Mort will weaken the vitality of those around him or her until the family all mysteriously dies. If a Strigoi Mort can pass undetected for seven years and is unmarried, it is said that they can become more or less human again – even having the ability to bear human children. The child of a Strigoi Mort can lead a relatively normal life, but is cursed nonetheless. After death, children of Strigoi Mort are doomed to rise as Strigoi themselves. Should you find yourself in Romania, be sure to carry a sturdy, fire-hardened stake – the only sure way to defeat any kind of Strigoi.
Indonesia- Pocong, The Wrapped Ghost
Indonesian burials include wrapping the body in a shroud which is then untied or loosened before the body is interred so the soul can leave and find its way to the afterlife. Pocong are the unfortunate ghosts of those whose shrouds were not untied prior to burial. They are seen tied at the head and feet, and have limited mobility, causing these ghosts to appear as though they are bunny-hopping. This makes them relatively easy to spot (and out-run) in graveyards, though enterprising Pocong have also learned to fly on occasion.
These ghosts are not necessarily evil, but they will haunt the living in their desire for someone to finally untie their shroud and release them from this ghostly existence. They may also be quite frightening in appearance, with glowing green eyes and rotting skin under the shroud. It is advisable to be wary when walking through Indonesian graveyards, for when the Pocong sees a living person near, they will often pop out of their graves without warning in their haste for deliverance. You may be able to out-run the bundled-down and bunny-hopping Pocong, but it is often better to help them out instead. Simply disinter the body of the spirit, untie the shroud and the ghost will finally be free. A supremely grateful Pocong may even bless you with wealth for the kind act.
Mexico – La Llorona, The Weeping Woman
Mexico’s wild and rugged rivers are visited by locals and tourists alike, drawn to fishing, boating and leisure activities. If your next vacation finds you drawn to the many rivers of Mexico, be sure to watch out for La Llorona, the weeping woman. She appears as a young woman with long black hair wearing a white dress. Her plaintive cries can be heard at the water’s edge as she searches the rivers and streams for her lost children. “Ay, mis hijos!” you’ll hear, ‘Oh, my children!”
According to legend, La Llorona was once named Maria. Poor but uncommonly beautiful, she married a wealthy man who charmed her with lavish gifts. They married, and Maria bore her husband two sons. Although he was proud of his sons, Maria’s husband soon grew tired of her, preferring to keep company with those he considered equal to his own wealth and status. He left Maria for long periods of time, drinking and cavorting with other women and only returning home to visit with his sons. One night, Maria and her two sons were walking along the road when her husband drove by in a carriage. He stopped to speak with his sons, and Maria could see a well-dressed women in the carriage with her husband. After her husband drove off, she flew into a fit of rage and jealousy and threw her two young sons into the river. As the river carried them away, Maria suddenly realized with horror what she had done. She tried in vain to rescue her drowned children, but they were gone. Maria was overcome with grief and remorse. She screamed and wailed by the riverside, calling out for her children to return. Some say she plunged herself into the river after her sons, joining them in death. Others say she refused to eat or leave the banks of the river until she wasted away in her grief. How ever she perished, the spirit of Maria has become La Llorona, imprisoned by grief, eternally haunting the riverbanks wailing for the children she lost.
Whether you spend your days fishing, swimming or rafting the rivers and streams of Mexico, be sure to do as the locals do, and wrap up your visit before the sun sinks below the horizon. After dark La Llorona starts her nightly search, wailing and crying in the darkness. You may be tempted to help the poor beautiful woman, but stay your pity. As local children are taught from a young age, La Llorona shows no mercy for those hanging around the rivers at night. Whether you are man, woman or child, La Llorona has never satisfied her revenge and will pull you screaming from the riverbank to a watery grave.
Russia – Domovoi, The House Spirit
If you are fortunate, your travels through Russia might include a stay at the home of a Russian family, known as genial and hospitable hosts. Should you wish to have a comfortable visit, avoid offending the real master of the house, the Domovoi. Every Russian home is inhabited by this small, hairy, bearded man even though he is seldom seen, preferring to hide away in the oven or out in the barn. Occasionally, the Domovoi venture out, often taking the form of a cat or dog, and once in a while, disguised as the home owner him or herself. Russian families know that the happiness of the Domovoi is essential. They will often leave gifts of porridge, tobacco, bread, milk or salt in appreciation for the Domovoi’s protection and help with the chores. Domovoi are quite exacting in their expectation for a clean home, however and lazy home owners who offend their Domovoi with their sloth can expect any number of pranks to befall them, such as finding manure spread across the threshold, or poltergeist-like activity, such as knocking sounds or misplaced objects. Family members even might be pinched in their sleep, but seldom do Domovoi try and do real harm.
Domovoi can also portend the future. During your stay, if you feel the touch of a warm and furry hand, you can expect good tidings. But beware if the touch is ice cold, or a candle is extinguished of its own accord; death or hardship may be near.
If you are a house guest in a Russian home, do your best not to insult their Domovoi, for the worst thing that can befall a home is for their Domovoi to be so offended that it leaves permanently. If you offend your host family in some way however, their Domovoi may be asked to help drive you out. Using their best ghostly scare tactics, you may find yourself running from the house screaming as dishes are hurled at you with unseen hands. You’ll make it out with only a few cuts and bruises, and you’ll know next time to mind your manners to both the household and their Domovoi.
Ireland – Dullahan, The Headless Horseman
Most American children are familiar with the Legend of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, tale about a headless rider on a black horse who haunts the town of Sleepy Hollow looking for his lost head. This myth was probably brought to the colonies by Irish settlers, though apparently the tale was tamed in the retelling. The horseman in that famous tale hardly holds a candle to the absolutely terrifying Dullahan, a fairy spirit who haunts the dark roads of the Irish wilds, especially on festival nights. While the good-natured fairy folk are often considered honored guest at Irish feasts and festivals, no one welcomes the Dullahan, whose appearance portends certain death. If he crosses your path as you wander the winding roads back to your hotel after a night of frivolity and whiskey, your trip to Ireland might end with the loss of your very soul.
He is described as headless male spirit, dressed in a long black cloak and riding a magnificent black stallion. He drives an ominous funeral carriage with wheels made of human femurs and coverings sewn of human skin. Candles flicker behind the eye socket holes of human skulls ensconced around the carriage. He uses a human spine as a whip. Although the Dullahan is truly a headless horseman, it does not mean he is completely bereft of a head, as was his American cousin. No, the Dullahan carries his rotting head under his arm as he rides, and it proves to be his most fearsome aspect. The skin of his head is rotting and cheese-like, with a sickly yellow pallor. The eyes glow brightly as they roam the darkness, possessed of a supernatural sight that can see great distances in the pitch black of night. As if all this wasn’t enough to haunt your nightmares, the mouth is fixed in the rictus of a smile so large and gruesome that is seems to reach his ears. With large, sharp teeth and a lolling tongue, it is no wonder that the Dullahan is so feared.
The Dullahan cannot be out-matched or outrun, but he does not kill indiscriminately. If the Dullahan approaches and passes you by, you are likely to be doused with a bucket of blood, or be struck blind in one eye. Consider yourself lucky for the Dullahan rides until he finds the person whose soul was sent to collect. For that unfortunate person, the last thing they will hear before their soul is claimed by death is the sound of their name being called softly on the wind.
If the Dullahan calls your name that night, you may still have one chance to cheat death. Dullahan have an irrational fear of gold, and a piece of jewelry or your wedding band might be enough to scare off the nefarious creature. If you are so lucky, pack your bags and get on the next flight out of Ireland. Once safely back at home, your close encounter with the the Dullahan will count as a truly unforgettable experience, one you will ponder through many sleepless nights as you strain to hear the soft whispering of your name on the wind…
The United States – The Jersey Devil
New Jersey, a small, densely populated state in the United States has a reputation for being filled with smoke stacks, loud, fast-talking, horrendously-accented people, and gridlock traffic. What most visitors may not know about New Jersey, however, is that 22% of it’s land is contained with a huge, undeveloped tract of endless scrub pine forest known locally as ‘the Pine Barrens’, or the Pinelands, if one is being politically correct.
Far from the city-esque atmosphere of northeastern New Jersey, the Pinelands cover most of the southern area of the state, and is almost entirely unpopulated. Visitors seek out the unique ecology of the area, the quiet rural towns on its borders, and the opportunity to fish for small mouth bass. Some brave souls camp at an old boy scout retreat site named Mount Misery by Indian tribes who believed the area to be cursed. If you should decide to visit, you should heed the local superstitions. There are many reasons why locals are apprehensive about what lives in the deep forest, but for all ‘pineys’, none are more fearsome than Mrs. Leed’s 13th child, also known as The Jersey Devil. New Jersey adopted the Jersey Devil as the mascot for its hockey team, but in 1938, New Jersey also became the only state in the union with an official state demon.
The legend of the origin of the Jersey Devil takes us back to 1735 when Jane Leeds, also known as ‘Mother Leeds’ found out that she was pregnant with a 13th child. Already struggling to feed her twelve children, Mother Leeds cried out in frustration, “Let it be the devil!”. It was a stormy night when Mother Leeds went into labor. The midwife was present, as were other local women to assist with the birth. The cursed child was born a healthy male to the relief of all present. However, soon after the birth, the child started to change form. It developed cloven hooves, a tail, and bat-like wings. With horrendous animal-like screeching, the creature killed the midwife and escaped through the chimney and into the forest, where it remains to this day, hunting and killing livestock, hunters and lost children who stray too far into the pines.
The Jersey Devil is more than just legend to the people of the pines. Children know to be home before dark when the houses are locked and barred through the long night. Should you shirk these warnings and brave the sandy trails of the pine barrens after darkness falls, it would be wise to bring a good rifle and keep a watch out for two glowing eyes in the darkness. Just before you feel the creature’s sharp claws sinking into your back, you will hear the same blood-curdling screech that has been echoing through these woods for centuries.
I hope you enjoyed my fun little post in honor of Halloween! Whatever your plans for this holiday, be safe. You never know what kinds of undead creatures are lurking in your own neck of the woods.
Does your country, state or town have it’s own legends? Share your ghost stories, haunted houses, creature sightings or local legends in the comments!