Whether you’re afraid of the dark, afraid of drowning, afraid of bugs, afraid of being alone, or—hell—afraid of sentient tires or tomatoes, chances are you can find something in the horror genre that hits you right where it hurts. Mythology and urban legends can do something similar, and maybe that’s why they fit into horror so well. Maybe it also explains why beloved Patrons have been looking for a list of scary mythical creatures for a while!
And so I bring you seven underrated mythical creatures with horror potential, the kinds of fears that they provoke, and how you can utilize them. But hey, don’t take this as a guide for your own writing. Go wild. Let your brain meat guide you.
TW: suicide, murder, sexual assault, child abuse, racism, cannibalism, colonialism
Fear: water/drowning (swamps?)
What Is It? A while back (before COVID, so it feels like a while back), I posed a question similar to what this article ended up being: What is a scary mythical creature you wish appeared in media more? I was surprised to find that the Kelpie was a lot of people’s answers, so naturally it would make sense to add it here.
Now, the Kelpie is kind of similar to mermaids in some iterations, so you might be thinking “What’s so scary about that?”
Well, it lures you to hop on its back and ride it, only to basically strap you to its back and drag you to the water, drowning you. Imagine sitting horseback (kelpieback?) unable to move as it gallops towards a lake and dives underwater with you still attached to it, keeping you trapped until your corpse is just flopping around on its back and it can then remove you and eat your liver. Yep.
Some other versions also note that the Kelpie prefers preying on children, so imagine you’re a young kid getting dragged under water and the nightmare fuel increases tenfold.
How You Can Write It: You can go campy horror film if you really want to. There’s always fun to be had with those. What about a group of dumb teenagers heading out to a cabin on vacation—a cabin that happens to be treacherously close to a mysterious swamp where none who enter ever return.
Hey, you just know those dumb kids are gonna take the first opportunity to go out into a cursed swamp.
Diao Si Gui
Fear: death, execution, suicide, depression
What Is It? The diao si gui is a ghost of someone who has been hanged, either by suicide or execution. According to legend, these real spooky ghosties appear as a hanged figure with its tongue sticking out, whispering to any who will listen that they should join them in death.
The stories surrounding the diao si gui vary, with some portraying them as a hanged figure that only stays where it died, attempting to convince hapless passersby to join them. Do not make eye contact with these hanging ghosts, lest you find yourself lured into the same fate. Other stories, however, depict the diao si gui as haunting figures, not bound to where they died, that latch themselves to someone and never leave them, slowly convincing them to hang themselves.
Whatever version of the myth you choose to run with, it’s a bad idea to look at these spirits or listen to anything they have to say. You might find yourself tempted to join them if you aren’t careful.
How You Can Write It: If you’ve never seen the movie It Follows, I highly recommend it. It features a creature (demon?) that manifests through a kind of sexually transmitted curse. Part of the fun is that it’s not entirely clear why it exists or what it’s supposed to represent. Many viewers take it as a kind of PSA on safe sex. And when I think of that film, I think of something similar for a story featuring the diao si gui, only the focus would be depression rather than sex.
The stigma around depression has slowly been changing, fortunately, and it’s becoming more common for us to seek help when we need it. So what about a book or a film featuring depression taking the form of a haunting specter draining the energy from its victims, whispering sweet nothings about the wonderful void that is death?
If you are like me and you’ve struggled with depression, you know that it really does feel like some kind of specter following you around that you can’t understand or combat. You are constantly tired and unmotivated, but also anxious because you know you aren’t being “productive” or doing anything useful with your time. It drains the life out of you, leaving you feeling helpless, like life is not worth living.
It would make for a dark story, certainly. But the beauty of horror is embracing the darkest aspects of humanity. Depression certainly fits.
Fear: karma for being a dick
What Is It? Depending on who you ask, the jikininki is either a ghost, ghoul, or some kind of zombie. But what stays consistent is what’s most notable about it: it is forever ravenous for human corpses.
The jikininki are people who, in life, were selfish and greedy. They took what they wanted with no consideration for those around them, slowly corrupting their soul until they became a creature that blurs the line between the living and the dead. They are similar to humans in appearance, transforming into a more feral, monstrous form at night when they seek out corpses and offerings to sate their undying hunger.
How You Can Write It: One of the reasons I love the evil corporation scifi trope is the same reason I see a lot of potential in stories featuring the jikininki: there is just something wonderful about seeing karma smack a selfish person right in the face. Anti-capitalist sentiment is growing amongst younger generations, in no small part because we are seeing the impact that human greed has, not only on people, but on the entire world.
When I picture the jininki, I picture a horror story a la Beauty and the Beast or Beastly, but instead featuring a greedy corporate asshat slowly losing his humanity until they must spend an eternity greedy for the flesh of human corpses just as they were once greedy for wealth. The fun part about this myth is that it’s noted that, in addition to being forever hungry, the jikininki are also forever ashamed of their accursed state, hating themselves and everything they did to get to this point.
There are many people I wouldn’t mind seeing get a taste of this curse. A horror story of this sort could be immensely satisfying.
As if the rest of the entries on this list weren’t already dark enough, please be warned that this one is extremely dark.
TW: sexual assault, abuse
Origin: South Africa
Fear: the loss of innocence, abuse, sexual assault
What Is It? The pinky pinky is a South African urban legend, visually depicted in different ways (as many of the myths on the list are), but most commonly as a ghastly young girl, half human and half monster, possessing claws and wearing pink. The pinky pinky is only known to haunt girls’ bathrooms, preying on the girls who enter it. Some versions of the myth say that she demands an article of clothing from the girls she stalks, and sexually assaults them if they refuse. Other version say the reverse, that she attacks only those who are wearing pink.
But whatever the case may be, the pinky pinky is an example of the abuse suffered by girls at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. And while the pinky pinky is typically described in the myth as being impossible to see by men or boys, some variations do mention young boys being attacked by the creature as well.
How You Can Write It: I’m thinking a real dark, coming of age horror film a la It. It would require treading very, very carefully, though. Horror can get pretty dark, sure, but anything to do with the sexual abuse of a child is particularly, well, horrifying. But I wouldn’t mind a group of girls investigating a ghost in the girls’ bathroom and, through the power of friendship and some ingenuity, finding a way to banish the creature so it can’t hurt another young girl again.
Abu Rigl Maslukha
What Is It? There’s a lot of variations of this one from all over the world. Americans probably know it as “The Boogeyman” (at least that’s what I knew it as), but I like the Egyptian version best. The Abu Rigl Maslukha (The Flayed Leg Man) is a monster that was burned as a child for misbehaving. Now, it swoops into the homes of misbehaving children, snatches them up, and brings them home to cook and eat. Delicious.
How You Can Write It: I’m not well versed in horror books or movies, admittedly, despite my love of all things gore. But I’ve always felt that horror stories that specifically focus on misbehaving children and teaching a rather brutal lesson are some of the most delightfully morbid. Horror movies, particularly slashers, tend to put a lot of focus on the characters being morally faulty or careless people who get their comeuppance when the monster comes for them. But I always find it scarier and more effective when the monster goes after you–not necessarily for no reason–but for something small, something that any of us could have been guilty of at some point. After all, it’s much harder to watch a scary movie and think, “Well, I’d never do that, so the monster would never come for me,” if it absolutely is something you’d do.
A child misbehaving, being disrespectful? Child’s play (ha, get it?). Nearly every kid in the world has misbehaved at some point. And that’s what makes a monster like the Abu Rigl Maslukha so terrifying.
So if you wanted to feature this creature in a horror story of your own, imagine one where the monster picks off young children one by one for the crime of refusing to eat their broccoli, or staying up late when their parents gave them a strict curfew, or whining at the store because they didn’t get the toy they wanted. All normal, innocent things that young children are wont to do. All things that would be absolutely terrifying if you learned of a monster that would hunt you down for it. No thanks.
Fear: lack of control/ awareness
What Is It? As far as scary mythical creatures go, this may be one of the more recognizable on this list. The poltergeist is a ghost with one notable distinction: they can react to the physical world in the way your average friendly neighborhood spirit cannot. They are known for loud noises and slight disturbances, such as moving objects around and poking, smacking, biting, and otherwise harassing humans in small, relatively ineffective ways. Rude.
How You Can Write It: While the creature in Paranormal Activity is more of a demon than a ghost, it still captures the capabilities of a really angry and really powerful poltergeist extremely well.
I think the fear factor of poltergeists tends to be underestimated. Typically, they’re these creepy, unseen entities that mess up your house, beat the crap out of you, and otherwise mess up your day, sure. But what about having them appear more often as serial killer-type figures? What if Jigsaw was an undead sociopathic ghost who could drag humans into playing his sick game without the limitations of being a mortal human capable of being hurt, killed, or subdued?
This would require some bending of the mythos, of course, but the fun of a good horror story (and stories in general) is that you can take a classic myth and write it however you want. Maybe vampires aren’t hurt by sunlight in your story. Maybe demons are invisible monsters. Maybe poltergeists have the strength of a pro wrestler without the disadvantage of being very, very visible to its victims.
There’s a reason Invisible Man is so effective as a horror movie. How do you fight something you can’t even see? Something no one will ever believe you about? Something that could kill you and everyone you love and easily slip away without ever being caught?
And if you’re dead, you have even less to fear. Barring some ancient ritual that might banish you back to the underworld, there’s nothing and no one that can stop you.
Origin: Peru, Bolivia
Fear: colonialism. Yep.
What Is It? A kind of mix between a vampire and a boogeyman, the pishtaco is a monster that preys upon and cannibalizes Peruvian/Bolivian indigenous peoples, consuming their body fat and dismembering them limb from limb. But the scariest part is what inspired these monsters: in mythology, they often appear as white men because of the origin of the myth, the Spanish conquest of the Andes, when Spanish missionaries killed natives and boiled them for their fat to use for medicine and grease for their weapons. They’re even featured in Mario Vargas Llosa’s legendary Death in the Andes as the mysterious possible cause of disappearances around the rural Peruvian town of Naccos.
How You Can Write It: History books gloss over the brutality of colonialism. I remember the books I had at school portrayed the settlement of the United States as a kind of ‘the friendly settlers moved in, but the evil savages who lived there didn’t want to share and scalped the poor, peaceful visitors’ situation. There is not a whole lot of mention of ‘the colonizers murdered indigenous people, dismembered them, and used their body fat as medicine.’ I think any horror movie that involves a pishtaco could also touch quite a bit on the reality of colonialism and shed some light on just how much history waters down the truth.
For this post, I’d like to give a special thanks to the extraordinary Desastr. She is one of my dearest writer friends and an avid worldbuilder, so I am always delighted to see what she’s up to. She has also helped me come up with many of the ideas I’ve had for my beloved Angry Noodle site, and I cannot thank her enough for being so creative and so in sync with the kinds of silly shenanigans I was hoping to post. If I ever had to pick someone to brainstorm any kind of speculative fiction with, I know without a doubt that Des is the one to go to.
Her Kingdom of Blood series also happens to be a delightful take on vampires, which I cannot get enough of in speculative fiction. If you are also a big fan of these fanged friends, I highly recommend you check out the comprehensive worldbuilding she has done for her creation. It’s truly impressive.
As always, thank you Des, thank you readers, and thank you beloved Patrons!