The History of Horror's Most Iconic Monsters

The History of Horror's Most Iconic Monsters

From modern horror films to ancient mythology, monsters have come a long way.

Monster stories have been around since the dawn of humanity. Many of the superstitions of the past have survived in modern horror fiction. However, you might be surprised by where some of our favorite monsters came from.


Many cultures have myths about blood-sucking undead, but the modern vampire myth draws mainly on Eastern European traditions. Vampire burials, in which rituals were performed on a corpse to prevent it from rising again, were apparently performed in rural regions of Europe as recently as the early 20th century. Corpses suspected to be vampires could be decapitated or staked to the ground, or have rocks shoved into their mouths. Different regions each had their own methods of dealing with vampires, some of which survived into modern stories, such as crosses and garlic. However, folklore vampires were quite different from what we think of today. They were grotesque corpses, swollen with blood, returned to prey on their families and livestock. The traits described by folklore were quite likely inspired by the actual appearance of decomposing corpses, as people assumed the darkened and bloated flesh were signs that the vampire had recently fed on blood.

The Victorian-era writers of gothic literature took the contradictory legends of the middle ages and whittled them down into the vampires we know today. One of the first major vampires works was John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre,’ conceived during a horror story contest when a group of writer friends were trying to entertain themselves on a gloomy night in Switzerland (19th century Romantics were weird people, and also high on opium). This was the same event that led Mary Shelley to write ‘Frankenstein.’ ‘The Vampyre’ would go on to influence Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ which established most of the vampire rules we know today. The iconic trope of the vampire hunter also originated here, with the character of Van Helsing. These stories presented vampires as aristocratic and seductive predators, more likely to live in a castle than a humble graveyard.

1922’s silent classic ‘Nosferatu’ was one of the first vampire films. It was a loose adaptation of Dracula with all the names and locations changed to avoid copyright infringement, but Stoker’s widow nevertheless sued and nearly succeeded in having every print of the film destroyed. Aside from being one of the first great horror films, ‘Nosferatu’ also invented the idea that vampires can be killed by sunlight. Most subsequent adaptations of Dracula, and other stories, retained sunlights lethal effect on the vampire. Vampires have increasingly been depicted as more science-based creatures rather than supernatural, as in Richard Matheson's novel 'I Am Legend' or the ‘Underworld’ films.


While there are stories about shapeshifters from many cultures and time periods, the werewolf myth originated in Germanic shamanism. Some vikings, known as Ulfhednar, wore wolf hides into battle rather than armor. According to the legends, they were ferocious, nearly invulnerable warriors that derived their power from the Norse god Odin. To become one of the Ulfhednar, a viking had to survive in the wilderness for an extended period, essentially living like a beast.

As hard as it is to believe, many people were put on trial as suspected werewolves during the mass witch hunts that began in the 15th century. The people conducting these trials believed that Satanic rituals were being used to turn people in man-eating wolves. Europe once had a much larger wolf population, and thus wolf attacks on rural communities would have been a common occurrence, possibly giving rise to the werewolf paranoia of the day. Clinical lycanthropy, the delusion that one can transform into an animal, may have also played a role in shaping the myth.

Traditionally, werewolves appeared as large wolves, sometimes without tails. However, early werewolf films typically depicted them as bipedal, human-wolf hybrids, possibly due to the limitations of their special effects. By picking and choosing elements of contradictory legends, Universal Pictures standardized the modern depiction of werewolves. Folklore typically depicted werewolves as the results of a ritual, whereas Universal’s 1935 film ‘Werewolf of London’ introduced the idea that werewolves transmitted a curse or infection by biting their victims. This was carried over into Universal’s far more successful take on the legend, 1941’s ‘The Wolf Man’ and its follow-ups, which also featured the werewolf’s connection to the full moon and its vulnerability to silver. While some legends did involve silver and the moon in some capacity, these elements were not firmly established until appearing in Universal’s horror films.


Of all the iconic horror monsters, zombies are undoubtedly the most modern. Though many cultures have had their own kind of living dead throughout history, the concept of the zombie originated with Haitian folklore. In the context of Haitian voodoo, a sorcerer, known as a bokor, could create a zombie by separating a person’s soul from their body. This would produce the perfect slave: a functioning body with no independent will or thought. Rumors of zombies coming from Haiti captured the Western public’s imagination, and became popular in fiction. Voodoo-inspired zombies appeared most notably in the films ‘White Zombie’ in 1932, arguably the first zombie movie, and ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ in 1943.

While folklore insists on a mystical origin, some scientists have attempted to explain zombies according to natural phenomena. The most notable hypothesis suggests that the bokor uses a poison, possibly derived from puffer fish venom, to induce a state indistinguishable from death. When the victim is buried, the bokor returns under cover of night to retrieve them from the grave. This hypothesis was put forward by Wade Davis, whose book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ inspired a Wes Craven zombie film of the same name.

Most depictions of zombies followed the voodoo tradition, depicting them as mindless slaves to a sorcerer (sometimes replaced by a mad scientist or aliens, in more science fiction-themed works). This came to a halt with George Romero’s genre-defining ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968. Inspired by the aforementioned ‘I Am Legend,’ Romero and co-writer John Russo decided their film would be about recently dead corpses inexplicably reanimating and devouring the flesh of the living. Initially, the creatures were referred to as ghouls, but Romero exclusively used the term 'zombie' in the script for his next zombie film, 1978’s ‘Dawn of the Dead.’

As Romero continued his successful ‘Dead’ series on film, Russo created his own follow-up to ‘Night,’ a novel entitled ‘Return of the Living Dead.’ The film rights to the novel were sold, resulting in 1985’s horror-comedy ‘The Return of the Living Dead.’ However, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon essentially ignored Russo’s novel, creating a completely different kind of zombie. Although Romero’s zombies are more widely known, O’Bannon introduced the idea that zombies hungered exclusively for brains. Since 2004, with the release of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and the ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake, zombies have become a cultural phenomenon across films, novels, comics, and video games.

Cover Image Credit: Hammer Films

Popular Right Now

8 Reasons Why My Dad Is the Most Important Man In My Life

Forever my number one guy.

Growing up, there's been one consistent man I can always count on, my father. In any aspect of my life, my dad has always been there, showing me unconditional love and respect every day. No matter what, I know that my dad will always be the most important man in my life for many reasons.

1. He has always been there.

Literally. From the day I was born until today, I have never not been able to count on my dad to be there for me, uplift me and be the best dad he can be.

2. He learned to adapt and suffer through girly trends to make me happy.

I'm sure when my dad was younger and pictured his future, he didn't think about the Barbie pretend pageants, dressing up as a princess, perfecting my pigtails and enduring other countless girly events. My dad never turned me down when I wanted to play a game, no matter what and was always willing to help me pick out cute outfits and do my hair before preschool.

3. He sends the cutest texts.

Random text messages since I have gotten my own cell phone have always come my way from my dad. Those randoms "I love you so much" and "I am so proud of you" never fail to make me smile, and I can always count on my dad for an adorable text message when I'm feeling down.

4. He taught me how to be brave.

When I needed to learn how to swim, he threw me in the pool. When I needed to learn how to ride a bike, he went alongside me and made sure I didn't fall too badly. When I needed to learn how to drive, he was there next to me, making sure I didn't crash.

5. He encourages me to best the best I can be.

My dad sees the best in me, no matter how much I fail. He's always there to support me and turn my failures into successes. He can sit on the phone with me for hours, talking future career stuff and listening to me lay out my future plans and goals. He wants the absolute best for me, and no is never an option, he is always willing to do whatever it takes to get me where I need to be.

6. He gets sentimental way too often, but it's cute.

Whether you're sitting down at the kitchen table, reminiscing about your childhood, or that one song comes on that your dad insists you will dance to together on your wedding day, your dad's emotions often come out in the cutest possible way, forever reminding you how loved you are.

7. He supports you, emotionally and financially.

Need to vent about a guy in your life that isn't treating you well? My dad is there. Need some extra cash to help fund spring break? He's there for that, too.

8. He shows me how I should be treated.

Yes, my dad treats me like a princess, and I don't expect every guy I meet to wait on me hand and foot, but I do expect respect, and that's exactly what my dad showed I deserve. From the way he loves, admires, and respects me, he shows me that there are guys out there who will one day come along and treat me like that. My dad always advises me to not put up with less than I deserve and assures me that the right guy will come along one day.

For these reasons and more, my dad will forever be my No. 1 man. I love you!

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

From One Nerd To Another

My contemplation of the complexities between different forms of art.


Aside from reading Guy Harrison's guide to eliminating scientific ignorance called, "At Least Know This: Essential Science to Enhance Your Life" and, "The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer" by Charles Graeber, an informative and emotional historical account explaining the potential use of our own immune systems to cure cancer, I read articles and worked on my own writing in order to keep learning while enjoying my winter break back in December. I also took a trip to the Guggenheim Museum.

I wish I was artistic. Generally, I walk through museums in awe of what artists can do. The colors and dainty details simultaneously inspire me and remind me of what little talent I posses holding a paintbrush. Walking through the Guggenheim was no exception. Most of the pieces are done by Hilma af Klint, a 20th-century Swedish artist expressing her beliefs and curiosity about the universe through her abstract painting. I was mostly at the exhibit to appease my mom (a K - 8th-grade art teacher), but as we continued to look at each piece and read their descriptions, I slowly began to appreciate them and their underlying meanings.

I like writing that integrates symbols, double meanings, and metaphors into its message because I think that the best works of art are the ones that have to be sought after. If the writer simply tells you exactly what they were thinking and how their words should be interpreted, there's no room for imagination. An unpopular opinion in high school was that reading "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne was fun. Well, I thought it was. At the beginning of the book, there's a scene where Hawthorne describes a wild rosebush that sits just outside of the community prison. As you read, you are free to decide whether it's an image of morality, the last taste of freedom and natural beauty for criminals walking toward their doom, or a symbol of the relationship between the Puritans with their prison-like expectations and Hester, the main character, who blossoms into herself throughout the novel. Whichever one you think it is doesn't matter, the point is that the rosebush can symbolize whatever you want it to. It's the same with paintings - they can be interpreted however you want them to be.

As we walked through the building, its spiral design leading us further and further upwards, we were able to catch glimpses of af Klint's life through the strokes of her brush. My favorite of her collections was one titled, "Evolution." As a science nerd myself, the idea that the story of our existence was being incorporated into art intrigued me. One piece represented the eras of geological time through her use of spirals and snails colored abstractly. She clued you into the story she was telling by using different colors and tones to represent different periods. It felt like reading "The Scarlet Letter" and my biology textbook at the same time. Maybe that sounds like the worst thing ever, but to me it was heaven. Art isn't just art and science isn't just science. Aspects of different studies coexist and join together to form something amazing that will speak to even the most untalented patron walking through the museum halls.

Related Content

Facebook Comments