How Does Culture Influence the Supernatural Creatures We Believe In?

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From treacherous trolls and fanciful fairies to grotesque ghouls and spooky spirits, every culture has its own unique folklore beings that, over time, become the subjects of long-told legends. While they’re often meant to explain the unexplainable or provide warnings to misbehaving children, supernatural creatures from around the world serve another interesting purpose, too: They reflect not only important lessons, but also the fundamental cultural values unique to the areas where they’re (reportedly) found.

Ready to learn about a nightmare-devouring Japanese beast, or perhaps discover why La Llorona’s weeping echoes across Mexican lakes? We’ll introduce you to a collection of supernatural creatures from all around the world, showing just how spooky legends can really get — and why these mythological creatures may have developed when and where they did.

The Philippines’ Shape-Shifting Aswang

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To this day, a mythical, bloodsucking creature known as the Aswang is still a fearsome topic in the Philippines. Among the more terrifying aspects of Aswang is their ability to shapeshift into humans by day. In theory, anyone you pass on the street could be an Aswang in disguise. Anyone.

By night, however, things take a terrible turn, as the Aswang morphs into a blood-thirsty creature that sometimes uses its long tongue to steal babies from pregnant parents. What could possibly be the origins of such a terrifying creature?  

According to historian and professor Anthony Lim, the answer may lie in colonization. As Lim explains, in the pre-colonial Philippines, shaman-type women called Babaylan lived across the archipelago’s various islands. The Babaylans’ roles included contacting and appeasing spirits of nature and other ancestral spirits to maintain safety and harmony among the different ethnic groups of the islands. When Spanish colonizers arrived, however, they may have felt threatened by these strong women figures, and they began spreading rumors that they were Aswangs in an attempt to sway the people towards Catholicism.

Japan’s Nightmare-Eating Baku

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While Indigenous dreamcatchers are still common in North America, in Japan, sleepers rely on a creature called the Baku. The Baku originated in China and made its way into Japanese legend somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Baku is a chimera, which is a beast made up of the parts of a vast array of animals. It has the body of a bear, the nose of an elephant, the feet of a tiger, the eyes of a rhino and the tail of an ox — all the spare parts said to have been left behind when the gods were creating animals. Legend says that the Baku is a nightmare eater. If you wake from a bad dream and call on it three times, it will come and devour your nightmare, leaving you to go back to sleep in peace. Just make sure it’s worth it before enlisting the Baku’s help. If it doesn’t find your nightmare satisfying enough, it may just stick around and dine on your hopes and dreams.

As bleak as this may sound, it makes sense when you consider the Japanese belief system called Shinto, which is all about maintaining peace with spirits that exist in everything around us. From that viewpoint, it seems wise to enlist the help of the supernatural when things swing to the extreme. However, using the spiritual world in an attempt to escape from the ups and downs of everyday life doesn’t align with Shinto’s view of maintaining harmony.  

Mexico’s “Weeping Woman,” La Llorona

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Throughout Mexico and the American Southwest, the tale of La Llorona is alive and well. While it varies slightly between regions, the basic structure of the story tends to remain the same. According to this legend, long ago, there was a woman named Maria who had two children. Their father, however, was unfaithful to Maria, and in a blind rage she drowned the children and, in some versions of the folktale, herself.

Because of her murderous deed, she was doomed to walk the earth, where to this day she still floats over bodies of water in search of her children. Now known as La Lorona or “the weeping woman,” she’s been said to occasionally attack small children and adulterous husbands.

Actress Patricia Velásquez, who starred in a movie based on the legend, explains that La Llorona is still used to keep children (and husbands) in line. “I grew up in Mexico, and La Llorona is very real for us… It’s really how our parents make us do what they want to,” she told Bustle. “You have to come in at 5, otherwise La Llorona is gonna come and get you.”

The United States’ Bigfoot Obsession

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In a culture so interested in modern science, it’s a little ironic how popular Bigfoot remains in the United States to this day. What is it about the large, half-human, half-beast that keeps enthusiasts hunting for evidence? Bigfoot’s legend first began as Native American folklore but exploded in popularity when a man named Ray Wallace “discovered” the creature’s footprints in 1958.

It wasn’t until Wallace’s death in 2002 that his children finally broke the news that the whole thing had been a prank. But by that point, it was too late. The hunt for Bigfoot was on, and it appears to be one that may last as long as there are still unexplored forests in America. Why?

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Bigfoot and similar mythical creatures, called cryptohominids, are “symbols of pure freedom, living by instinct and foiling every effort to pin them down. To search for Bigfoot in the forest is to taste that freedom.” In an age of technology, it makes sense that Bigfoot represents an old feeling of pioneering spirit or uncharted adventure. There’s something kind of inspiring about the idea that the creature is still out there somewhere, roaming wild and free, uninterested in the advances of modern civilization.

Russia’s Wild and Witchy Baba Yaga

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In Slavic cultures, Baba Yaga is often portrayed as a fierce old woman who lives in the woods, usually in a twirling house that stands on chicken legs. Very powerful and skilled in magic, she may harm or help those who come across her, depending on whether or not she deems them worthy.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes Baba Yaga as “the power of annihilation and the power of the life force at the same time.” The author continues by explaining that “Respect in the face of great power is a crucial lesson.”

Baba Yaga was likely developed in ancient times as the incarnation of the very woods she’s said to inhabit. Much like the wilderness itself, she is capable of sustaining life if approached with respect, but capable of great harm if approached carelessly — serving as a tale of caution for those who don’t value forests or the creatures living within them.

Ireland’s Harbinger of Death, the Banshee

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The Banshee began as a supernatural figure of Celtic lore, whose scream was said to announce impending death. The Banshee could appear as a young or old woman, usually with red eyes and a long, flowing dress. Depending on the region, these beings of legend were sometimes believed to be dark fairies, ghosts or even witches.

Though no one knows exactly how Banshees originated, they may be related to the Irish custom of keening. When a person passed away, a group of keening women used to weep and sing funeral songs. The Banshee’s cry may have also originated in the cries of crows, rabbits or weasels, all of which are common animals in Ireland and whose shrieks would sound terrifying in the dark.

Given that Banshees likely developed at a time when life expectancy was much shorter, they were potentially an ever-present reminder of death. As morbid as it may sound, the legend may have been a way for Celts to stay mentally prepared for the harsh realities of ancient life.