Which international folk villain is coming for you?
As every child knows, whether they’re lurking in your closets, hiding under your bed, or just plain going bump in the night, there are bogeymen everywhere. (Note: bogeyman or boogieman, but never Boogie Man, which is a completely different thing.) But they’re not just skulking in the backstreets and attics of the United States—when we say “everywhere,” we mean bogeymen are international. While the monsters are dark manifestations of fear that threaten naughty children, a closer look at the villains of folklore from around the world reveals plenty of terrors that will have us sleeping with the light on well into adulthood. Here are 13 of the worst and where you can find them.
Watch out for: Kappa
Aliases: gawappa, kawtarō, suiko, kawappa, kawako, kawaso
Japan’s humanoid amphibious water demons are roughly the size of a child, but don’t let that fool you. Kappa lurk in the muck of rivers and ponds, waiting for the perfect moment to reach out with slimy, webbed hands and drag unsuspecting humans down to the clammy depths. The creatures are after their favorite human delicacies, liver and blood, but it is said that they are truly after the shirikodama, a mythical ball said to contain the human soul and stored, um, where the sun don’t shine/somewhere below the bowels. Although they range from slimier to hairier from the east to west parts of Japan, all kappa are distinguishable by a shallow, water-filled divot on the crown of their head that is said to hold their power—if the water dries up, the kappa may die.
Here’s what to do: Kappa are both highly competitive and obsessed with politeness, so you can easily trick them into spilling their power water. A deep bow, possibly one initiating an irresistible sumo challenge, will oblige the kappa to return the gesture, thus tipping out his water in the process. It is possible to befriend a kappa; in return for gifts of his very favorite food, cucumber, he may help you irrigate your fields or teach you the secrets of medicine. But your best line of defense against the kappa might just be a good offense: farting. Kappa are very proud of their own loud and noxious gasses and are highly offended by those of others.
Or you could just stay away from water. The creatures are so well associated with water danger, that these days, a deceptively cute cartoon version of a kappa appears on warning signs near potentially dangerous ponds and rivers all over Japan.
2. You are here: Spain, Portugal, Central and South America
Watch out for: El Coco
Aliases: El Cuco, El Cucuy (Latin America), La Cuca (Brazil)
No one really knows what El Coco looks like, although originally he was said to be a ghost with a grotesquely carved pumpkin for a head. These days, he is a shape-shifting monster, a manifestation of fear that takes the form of every shadow, snatches up disobedient children, and carries them off to unknown horrors. In Mexico, he’s known as El Cucuy, possibly for the soft, sinister “cuu-cuuy!” noise he makes as he moves stealthily through the night, looking for victims.
In Brazil and some parts of Catalonia, be on the lookout for La Cuca, a monster that most often takes the form of a female humanoid alligator or dragon, sometimes with a horned spine and dragon claws, who spends the nights gathering up disobedient children in a sack to dine on later.
Here’s what to do: El Coco only terrorizes children, so if you’ve grown to adulthood, you should be safe. If not, always eat your dinner, go to bed early, and do what your parents tell you—otherwise, El Coco will getcha.
3. You are here: Australia
Watch out for: Yara-ma-yha-who
With bright-red fur and a large toothless mouth, the yara-ma-yha-who appears to be nothing more than a curiously large mammalian tree frog. But the creature’s feeding habits make it the stuff of nightmares. The yara-ma-yha-who drops down on unsuspecting people from the branches of the fig trees and sucks its victims dry using suction cups on the ends of its fingers and toes. Then the creature unhinges its jaw and swallows its prey whole, washing down the poor human with a drink of water. After a short nap, the yara-ma-yha-who then vomits up the still-living—and now slightly shorter—victim and performs an elaborate ritual to check if its victim is awake, before wandering off for another nap.
Here’s what to do: If you can’t avoid the creature’s favorite fig trees, stay still! Children are taught to play dead if they’re caught by a yara-ma-yha-who. After reassuring itself that its victim remains unconcious after the first feast, the monster will wander off, giving the victim a chance to jump up and run away. But a yara-ma-yha-who will try and attack the same victim again in the future, each time leaving the victim slightly shorter and slightly redder, until the victim fully transforms into one of the little red vampiric beasts.
Watch out for: Jumbees
Aliases: jumbies, duppys, duppies
On any dark back road of any Caribbean island, you could find yourself haunted by one of the malevolent entities known as a jumbee, an evil spirit doomed to sow death and illness wherever it goes. You may run into the gaunt figure of a backward-footed douen, who wears nothing but a conical hat. Douen are said to be the ghosts of unbaptized children who wander the streets at night wailing out the names of local children and stealing the ones who answer. The quiet old lady in the local village just might be an Ol Higue, a blood-sucking soucouyant who sheds her skin at night and turns into a little ball of light that can slip through any crack to bite and drain the life out of her victim. Or you may hear the rattling chains of the rolling calf, the fiery red-eyed demon spirit of an evil butcher doomed to roll the hills at night looking to destroy the humans it encounters.
Here’s what to do: If you meet with a jumbee, your chances of survival are slim, but there are plenty of ways to prepare yourself ahead of time if you suspect one is around. Most of the spirits are obsessively curious and can be distracted with a pile of salt, rice, or sand. They are driven to count each grain and the arduous task usually takes them until the sun rises, when they are forced to retreat. A pair of shoes left by the front door will similarly frustrate a jumbee, who will spend all night trying and failing to get the shoes on its backward feet. And if you ever come across the skin of an Ol Higue, rubbing it with hot pepper or salt will cause her to shrivel up when she puts the skin back on, thus removing at least one evil spirit from the area.
5. You are here: Belgium, possibly the Netherlands
Watch out for: Kludde
Aliases: kleure, klerre, kledde, waterkledde
Wander the lonely waterways of the Flemish countryside at night and you risk being attacked or dragged into the water by an immense doglike demon with bear claws, a sharp black beak, and glistening green scales that peek out from its shaggy black fur. The shape-shifting kludde spawns from the cremated bodies of witches and wizards and can move at incredible speeds, thanks in part to its bat wings and habit of walking on its hindquarters. You may only catch sight of its bulging crimson or intense blue eyes, but you’ll know he’s around from the ominous sound of the chains permanently wrapped around his body.
Here’s what to do: Don’t even try to kill a kludde, because if you succeed, seven more will spring from its corpse. However, you can escape attack. Some say that if you’re being chased by a kludde, you can throw a handkerchief behind you, and the creature will be obliged to stop and rip the cloth apart, fiber by fiber, allowing you to get away.
6. You are here: Philippines, especially in the towns of Capiz and Duenas in the Visayan provinces
Watch out for: Aswang
Aliases: manananggal, tik-tik, fi-fi, bayot, wak-wak, sok-sok, mariz, kling-kling
The shape-shifting Filipino aswang might be the most terrifying of all the monsters on this list. A combination of a vampire, zombie, ghoul, witch, and werewolf, the demon is still said to be the cause of mysterious attacks that happen today. Generally humanoid with ugly, gray skin, coarse, quill-like hair and milk-white eyes looking out of its emaciated face, an aswang can take many forms, most often being that of a giant, evil-looking pig, or jackal-like dog. It seeks out human livers and blood, and will resort to snatching recently deceased cadavers if fresh food isn’t available. But an aswang’s favorite food is a human fetus. Making its way to the home of a pregnant woman, the aswang is silent except for a tik-tik noise that gets quieter as the demon gets closer. From the roof, the thing lowers a long, dexterous, noodle-like proboscis through a crack, and uses it to suck the fetus through the sleeping mother’s belly button.
Here’s what to do: Such monstrosities can’t set foot on holy ground, so if you meet one, run toward a church. Much like the Gothic vampires of Dracula fame, aswangs can’t stand garlic or religious artifacts (such as a wooden cross), and can be repelled with these objects. A whip made entirely from a stingray’s tail is also said to keep the horrors at bay.
Watch out for: Vodník
Aliases: vadzianik, vdianyk, wodnik, vodenjak
The Czech Republic is crisscrossed with rivers and dotted with ponds, so it’s no surprise that one of the country’s most notorious bogeymen is a water spirit. If you hear a child crying by a river at night and investigate, you could find yourself face-to-face with a deceptive vodníck. You might not notice that the tall, elegant gentleman’s coat is perpetually wet or that his skin is tinged green, but you will certainly notice his webbed hands and eccentric, old-fashioned hats. Vodníci are proud and decorous, but they are also vengeful soul collectors who, if they feel slighted, won’t hesitate to cruelly drown an offending human. They have a weakness for the souls of beautiful people and will leave pretty ribbons or mirrors along the shore to entice young women nearer.
Stray too far east and you might instead encounter one of Russia’s vodyanoy, a similar, although far more malicious water demon that delights in drowning humans and destroying watermills. You’ll know the difference because vodyanoy are fat, mud-covered old frogmen with swampy beards and eyes that burn like coals.
Here’s what to do: Both vodníci and vodyanoy can be appeased with some of their favorite human vices: pipe tobacco and beer. But that doesn’t always work, so the best course of action is to keep your distance from the water.
8. You are here: Nepal
Watch out for: Kichkandi
The lonely, winding roads of Nepal are an ideal haunting ground for the country’s white-clad virgin ghosts. Melancholy and helpless, with long black hair and bony features, the kichkandi are nevertheless stunningly beautiful. Their only defect? Backward feet. It is said that they are formed from the tormented spirit of a wronged woman and are anchored to the earth by a small bit of uncremated bone. Kichkandi prey on lonely men and suck their life force and blood from their bodies, which is why sightings of the creatures are often followed by illnesses.
Here’s what to do: A priest could bless a kichkandi away, but most men are simply warned to not stop for lonely women on the road. To this day, plenty of Nepali cabbies and long-haul truck drivers have stories of their own encounters with kichkandi, and many hang two or three lucky red bangles from their rear-view mirrors to ward off the evil spirits.
9. You are here: Southern Africa
Watch out for: Tokoloshe
Aliases: tokolosh, tikoloshe, tikolosh, hili
Lest you think you’re safe from supernatural beings in this day and age, Southern African headlines continue to feature the recent nefarious deeds of the feared tokoloshe. On its own, a tokoloshe is merely a mischievous dwarflike monster, known for leaving people with strange itchy scratches and stealing their groceries. But once it falls under the spell of an evil witch, a tokoloshe becomes an instrument of vengeance that bites off peoples’ toes, causes illness, and ruins people’s lives. The creatures can easily go invisible simply by drinking water or swallowing a pebble, and so are rarely seen, but their general appearance is said to be a cross between a human and some sort of dog or bearlike animal with long teeth and exaggerated sexual features.
Here’s what to do: To avoid a nighttime visit from a tokoloshe, many women and children will raise their beds on bricks, to make it easier to check beneath for a hiding monster. But the only way to truly rid yourself of a vengeful tokoloshe, is to visit a nyaga, or local witch doctor, who will perform rituals using traditional medicine to banish the creature.
Watch out for: La Llorona
A woman in white is a common ghostly figure around the world, but La Llorona’s plaintive and almost piercing cries are what set her apart as truly terrifying. They say that many years ago, a beautiful woman named Maria discovered that her husband had been unfaithful and, in a rage, she drowned her children in the river. Realizing what she had done, she took her own life and now wanders the Earth, crying, in search of her little ones. Some say that in her desperation to find her children, she’ll kidnap living ones playing alone as replacements. Others say she’s tortured by her grief and will savagely punish anyone in her way. Even just hearing her wail is sure to bring misfortune down on any poor soul’s head.
Here’s what to do: There are no protections against La Llorona, no ways to trick, repel, or outrun her. Your only line of defense is to keep small children from playing alone by the river, and never, ever go looking for her.
11. You are here: Germany (also Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands)
Watch out for: Nightmares
Aliases: alp, machtmahr, mahr, (German), mare (Danish), mara (Swedish), nachtmerrie (Dutch)
While the rest of the world merely has to deal with thoughts of bogeymen sparking nightmares, the denizens of Germanic, Scandinavian, and even some Slavic countries have to worry about actual nightmare monsters causing night terrors and bad dreams. In Germany, the male version of the sleep demon is called an alp, a shape-shifting goblin that always wears a funny little hat. Maras, however, are generally female and, while they also take many forms, often appear as beautiful women who enter through the keyhole. All nightmare creatures sit on, or ride, the chests of their victims to incite the nightmares, crushing them not only psychologically but physically as well.
Here’s what to do: In Germany, sleeping with a broomstick under your pillow, while uncomfortable, will ward off wayward alps, as will a horseshoe hung from a bedpost. Prayer, religious symbols, or upside-down broomsticks seem to do the trick to keep away mara, and both creatures can be frustrated if you’ve plugged up all the cracks, holes, and keyholes in your room. After all, if they can’t get to you, how can they torture you?
12. You are here: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the Arab world
Watch out for: Ghūls
Aliases: gūl, ghoul
Ghosts and ghoulies aren’t just general scary creatures best known for adding to the allure of Halloween—in Persian and Arabic folklore, ghūls are very specific demons dead-set on harming or even killing human beings. A fiendish, and often female spirit, shape-shifting ghūls live deep in the desert. In their natural form, they are said to be hideously ugly and are sometimes described as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of different animals. Their main goal is to lure the lone traveler off his path in the guise of a beautiful young woman, in the form of a recent victim, or with an enticing fire deep in the desert. The ghūl then proceeds to overtake her victim and feast on its raw flesh.
Here’s what to do: Like many demonic creatures, religious sayings and artifacts should repel or kill a ghūl. If you happen to have a sword handy, striking a ghūl once will end her evil ways. Don’t get too excited, though—any more abuse than that, and the ghūl will come back to life.
13. You are here: Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan
Watch out for: Shurale
Turkic folklore tells of a large, bearlike creature with thick curly fur, a horn on its forehead, and surprisingly long, slender fingers that he uses to tickle his victims to death. That’s right, the tickle monster has a name and, in fact, that name is so famous that there is a well-known poem about the creature, written by Ghabdulla Tuqay, which later became one of the most famous Turkic ballets. Of course, the shurale has other ways of bringing harm to humans—from leading them off the path and deep into the woods, to making them sick—but is there really a fate worse than being tickled to death?
Here’s what to do: Believe it or not, it’s said that turning your clothes inside out and wearing shoes on the wrong feet will distract the shurale just enough that he’ll leave you alone. We say, if it saves us from being tickled to death, it’s worth a try.