Folklore and traditions are ingrained in cultures across the globe. They tell imaginative tales that cover a wide range of topics: romantic encounters, origins of popular holidays, and lighthearted fables. In the spirit of Halloween, however, we’re examining the darker side of folklore. These are not the stories that populate children’s books, but rather the deep-rooted cautionary tales passed on from generation to generation.
Many of these tales include terrifying creatures or dive deep into the ghostly histories of centuries-old paintings and other mysterious works of art. Though fantastical, many believe these legends are rooted in truth. Below, explore the eeriest, most blood-chilling stories and traditions from around the world.
Chilling Folktales from Around the World
Also referred to as The Peony Lantern, the story of Botan Dōrō originated in 17th-century Japan and continues to be one of the most famous ghost stories in Japanese culture. Though there are multiple versions, the general storyline is as follows: On the first night of Obon—a Japanese festival that honors ancestral spirits—a widowed samurai meets a beautiful woman named Otsuyu and quickly falls in love with her. They meet every night from dawn until dusk, and she is always accompanied by a young girl holding a peony lantern.
Soon, someone grows suspicious and spies on them, horrified to discover that Otsuyu is a skeleton. Though petrified, the samurai’s love for Otsuyu is so strong that he ignores warnings to stay away and follows her to a grave in a temple. The next day, his dead body is found entwined with the woman’s skeleton. This famous folktale has been the subject of many Japanese paintings and was also developed into a Kabuki play.
The Headless Horseman
There are many stories in folklore surrounding headless horsemen—from the German folktale by the Brothers Grimm to the Irish Celtic legend of dullahan, a headless demon on a black horse. The most persistent American version of the myth is a loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which draws from historical facts about the American Revolutionary War.
Legend has it, during the Battle of White Plains, a Hessian artilleryman was decapitated by an American cannonball. He was buried hastily in the churchyard of Sleepy Hollow by his comrades. In the middle of the night, it is said that he rides out to seek his head or take anyone else’s in his path.
Jasy Jatere: God of the Siesta
The tale of Jasy Jatere stems from Guarani traditions in Paraguay. Parents often use the spooky story as a scare tactic to get their children to behave. Supposedly, Jasy Jatere roams the streets during siestas looking for children who would rather play than nap. Most variations depict Jasy Jatere as a child himself, with long, light-colored hair, but some say he is a small man who takes children prisoner before scooping their eyes out so they cannot find their way back home.
In China, stories of an undead creature known as Jiangshi have existed since the Qing Dynasty. Though the word literally translates to “stiff corpse,” these reanimated bodies are often referred to as “hopping vampires” because they move by hopping with arms outstretched and hide in coffins or unlit areas during the day. The pale, lifeless creatures are often depicted as rotting or decomposing and are believed to kill the living with one touch. Chinese residents who fear the dead place a six-inch piece of wood at the bottom of the door to prevent them from entering their homes.
One of Mexico’s most popular tales centers around La Llorona, which translates to “weeping woman.” Though no one is certain from where the story originated, it has been haunting Mexican families since well before the Spanish conquest. Details vary from source to source, but the general idea is that La Llorona started out as a beautiful woman named Maria. After her husband left her (some versions say for a younger woman), she drowned her children in a river out of rage.
Maria felt immediate remorse and threw herself into the river in an attempt to reverse her sins. Instead of finding forgiveness, she is cursed to walk riverbanks for eternity, where she kidnaps and drowns other children out of spite. It is said that if you hear her cry, you will soon encounter the same fate. La Llorona has been represented in many forms of Mexican art throughout the years including film, poetry, theater, and literature.
The Scariest Creatures To Walk The Earth
The Banshee is Ireland’s best-known spirit. This female figure roams the countryside and is said to wail as a warning that death is near. Though she does not cause death, her presence is believed to foreshadow death’s arrival. Historians have traced the Banshee story back to the 8th century, when it was customary for women to sing sad songs to lament a death. There are a few variations as to how the Banshee appears: some depict her as a beautiful, young woman with flowing white hair, while others describe an old woman with dirty, rotting teeth and long fingernails.
Deer Woman is an animal spirit that appears throughout Native American art and mythology. She is sometimes depicted in animal form, sometimes human form, and sometimes both. Deer Woman is associated with love and fertility, but in contemporary tellings she takes on a mischievous role. The spirit is known to seduce promiscuous men and leave them to die or waste away from longing.
The legend of the Chupacabra began in Puerto Rico in 1995 after a series of attacks on livestock occurred. The animals appeared to be drained of blood with puncture wounds around the neck, but the deaths were never explained. Though the description of the creature varies, it’s said to have a forked tongue, large eyes, and alien-like quills. The tale of the Chupacabra eventually spread to other parts of Latin America and even to the United States. It is still widely believed to be true.
Hawaiian art and culture has a rich history of mythology and folklore, and one of their scariest tales is that of the Hukai’po, which translates to “Spirit Ranks.” Also known as Nightmarchers, the Hukai’po are thought to be ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors who come out on sacred nights to reenact old battles, toting archaic weapons, helmets, cloaks, and raised torches. Anyone in their path risks harm, though it is suggested that you may be spared if you show proper respect to the marchers.
The legend of La Ciguapa is one of the most renowned in the Dominican Republic. Ciguapas are small, feral women that inhabit the mountain areas, lurking in the shadows and waiting to capture lonely men. They appear to have extremely long hair that covers their thin bodies and backwards feet. One of the earliest written accounts of these creatures appeared in novelist and poet Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi’s 1866 short story “La Ciguapa,” where he provides a lengthy description of the mountain women. Since, they have been an important part of the Dominican Republic’s culture and represented in mythical paintings and sculptures.
Cursed Objects from Around the World
Crying Boy Paintings
In 1985, a series of fires broke out in England that destroyed various homes and businesses. A group of paintings known as “Crying Boys” were the lone survivors of the fires, and as a result, all of the paintings belonging to the series were thought to be cursed. The original collection, created by painter Bruno Amadio, intended to depict children who had been recently orphaned as a result of World War II. The paintings were mass-produced in England, but everyone who had one sought to destroy theirs after the curse of the fires.
The Basano Vase
Legend has it this 15th-century vase was given to a bride on the eve of her wedding in Naples, Italy, but she was murdered that night holding the artifact. After her death, any family member it passed to also died. The family stored the vase, but it resurfaced in 1988 with a note warning of its capabilities. Even so, the vase was auctioned off for $2,250 without the note. The pharmacist who bought it died shortly after as did various others who owned it until, finally, a family demanded that the police do away with it completely.
In 1974, a group of seven farmers in China accidentally uncovered a 2,200-year-old Terracotta Army while digging a well for their village. It was a series of 8,000 sculptures that had been buried alongside a grand tomb. Instead of fame and fortune, the seven farmers found only despair. Three of the seven died painful deaths, and all their land and homes were destroyed as a means to unearth the army. Many believe they were cursed by whoever was buried alongside the figures.
The Hands Resist Him Painting
The Hands Resist Him is a haunting painting created by Bill Stoneham in 1974. The work depicts a young boy standing next to a female doll who has hollow eyes and a downturned smile. Behind them are disembodied hands reaching through the glass panels on the door. Though the contents of the painting are spooky in itself, some also believe that anyone in contact with it will die. The art critic, gallery owner, and first owner of the painting each died within a couple years of each other after coming in contact with the painting.
Tomb of Tutankhamun
After the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, many believed the Egyptian Pharaoh cursed all who entered it. Aside from the curse of the pharaohs—which is a belief that anyone, thief or archeologist, who disturbs the mummy of an ancient Egyptian person will be cursed—an expedition led by Howard Carter furthered the mysticism. During the expedition, a canary that led Carter to the tomb died, Carter’s financial backer, George Herbert, died after a mosquito bite grew infected, and numerous other deaths became associated with the decade-long dig.