Though it may be a great inconvenience and is certainly unpleasant at times, fear is an exceptionally useful emotion to have. Perhaps our most valuable weapon, fear has kept the human race alive for millennia.
After all, when faced with the glowing eyes of a big cat, the semi-silent warning of a serpent or the bones of a less fortunate creature, what more could our ancestors do than run away? It is safe to assume that those who stuck around to investigate were not around long enough to pass on their less-than-favorable traits. Indeed, one might say that the meek truly did inherit the Earth. And it shows in the common fears we humans experience around the world.
Why do we fear the dark? That’s where the predators live. Why do we cringe at the sight of blood? Blood attracts those predators. However as our species populated the world and predators became less threatening, our fears stuck around and soon became embedded in our folklore.
We personified our fears, gave them names, faces, stories and ways to defeat them. These monsters haunted our ancestors’ dreams for years. What is most surprising is just how similar monsters are worldwide.
What is interesting is just how many of these multi-cultural monster stories involve either children or childbirth. Here are but a few from cultures around the world.
The ancient Greeks had the lamia, a half-serpent creature with shape-shifting abilities. Forever tormented by the loss of her own children, the lamia fed on the blood of mortal infants.
In ancient Mexico, women who died in birth were believed to become civatateo in death. Civatateo attacked both travelers and children at cross roads, and only by offering food to the spirit would it cease its assault on the living.
The churel was believed to prowl the streets of ancient Indian communities with her backward-facing feet looking for young men to feed on. This demon was once a woman who died in childbirth, suffered a violent death or was wronged in life.
In some African cultures, children who died before the age of 12 were doomed to become abiku. These spirits possessed their living counterparts so they could satisfy their perpetual hunger, neglecting the needs of their living host.
These creatures were often blamed for the deaths and illnesses of women 8212; particularly pregnant women 8212; children, and young men. Even during the 19th century, vampires were blamed for many deaths in a New England town. The real culprit was tuberculosis. Which explanation would bring the community more peace?
That’s the driving force between all of these creatures: they can all be stopped via prayer or ritual. Wouldn’t it be comforting to know that what was responsible for the death of one child was no longer able to hurt yours? Women and children often died during birth, and many children never lived to see their seventh birthdays, let alone puberty.
Our ancestors, desperate for an explanation, must have searched their darkest thoughts, looking for something that could have possibly caused such tragedies. And once they found their culprit, they drew up rituals to thwart it.
Whether or not these practices saved any lives is highly subjective, but the placebo effect is immensely powerful. Though we may not believe in these ghouls as our ancestors did, the fears they represented do exist and keep us awake at night to this very day.
Samantha Hunter is a freshman anthropology major from Fort Worth.