In October the nights get longer and the air gets colder. For the ancient agrarian Celts in the British Isles, this time marked the end of the growing season for crops. They would have to harvest as much food as they could to last them through the winter, but if there was a poor yield, the anxiety of that problem would be settling in right about at the end of October. Winter, that cold and dark time of year when the danger of sickness and starvation is at its height, would just now be reaching the tips of its icy fingers into people’s lives, and the dread of death, even the memory of death in previous winters, would intensify. With this recalled memory of death, the veil between this world and the invisible one was either imagined to be, or else truly perceived to be by those with the sight to see it, made thinner.
The Celts acknowledged this thinning with their festival of Samhain on October 31st, and the Christians of Western Europe acknowledged it by commemorating the victorious Saints and the souls of the departed on November 1st and 2nd, respectively. The Christians prayed for things in their proper place—Saints and souls secure in the care of God—but they also, like the pagans, understood that not everything was in its proper place, and that just the other side of that thin veil they knew, “there be dragons.”
And not just dragons, but also boggles, spirits, bugbears, specters, witches, hags, hobgoblins, warlocks, hell-wains, pixies, fays, goblins, leprechauns, mares, sylvans, succubuses, and banshees. An old Cornish folk prayer goes, “From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night: Good Lord deliver us.” This time of year is the natural time to give some thought to all the things that go bump in the night. I can only barely scratch the surface of the inventory of frightful things that have been given names by people over the centuries, but I think I might could put most of them into four broad categories:
Ghosts are the souls or spirits of dead people, and more specifically those souls which wander upon or haunt this world instead of going where they ought to go after death. There are many possible reasons suggested for why they don’t move on: they have unfinished business, they don’t know they’re dead, they simply don’t want to leave, or they’re trapped for some reason. Some suggest that apparitions that tend to repeat the same actions over and over aren’t actually souls at all but rather some sort of “energy” imprinted on a place, replaying again and again like a record skipping. That could apply to human apparitions, but also to “ghost ships” and other phantom objects. But generally, and especially if the apparition interacts with the living, the ghost is assumed to be a lingering human soul. The nature of existence and perception for these souls is generally thought to be shadowy, so that they don’t experience time or physicality the same as the living. But while they may only be shades of their embodied selves, ghosts are said to be able to muster enough physically interactive energy to be seen, heard, felt, and even to move objects, close doors, and make commotions—to go “bump” in the night.
Demons are evil, non-human spirits. Most cultures have a concept of demons, but in Jewish and Christian tradition, they are generally understood to be rebellious angels, turned grotesque in their fall from grace (though there’s a widespread ancient belief that at least some of the demons have a different origin). Demons are unambiguously bad, unlike ghosts and fairies (and maybe monsters?) which can fall on a sliding scale of benevolent to morally neutral to malevolent. Demons actively seek to corrupt and destroy, to confuse, terrify, oppress, and even kill. They are deceivers, taking various forms and conjuring fraudulent visions to fool people. Because of this, Christian spiritual counsel usually warns that any paranormal activity at all, whatever category it appears to fall under, may actually be demonic.
While ghosts and demons are of the spiritual realm, monsters are definitely physical. Monsters are aberrations of nature, things that violate the proper order of the cosmos. Mere deformities or disorders of nature don’t make things monsters; monster-making requires the supplanting of proper nature with an altogether different nature. Monsters ought not to be. An example of a foreign, improper nature is being un-dead. Zombies, the Mummy, and vampires are un-dead monsters. Werewolves take two distinct natures (wolf nature and human nature) and disastrously cram them together. Unlike centaurs or mermaids where dual natures balance out and work in harmony, werewolves, Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly, and other similar monsters wreck both the natures that have been thrown together. Sometimes the nature of a monster is only improper because of its context, being a creature out of time and place. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, and The Blob all come from times and places (natural and proper to those creatures) that make them into monsters as soon as they enter the world of people. While monsters are often violent and dangerous, the aberration of their nature doesn’t always dictate that they must be. In Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” we see a monster that, though becoming violent and dangerous, yet begins innocent, experiences fear, and craves belonging. We can sympathize with its plight. Regardless of their actions though, it’s their very nature—their very existence—that is what makes monsters inappropriate and dissonant with the world. Any redemption they may get must come with their undoing.
You may notice that all the monsters I’ve listed are fictional creatures, and that throughout history, most accounts of monsters were actually of entirely natural animals that people simply hadn’t yet accounted for in their understanding of “proper” nature. But I still think the category of “Monster”, with it’s concept of aberrant vs. proper nature, is valuable. Especially now in this technologically advanced but morally regressed age, recognizing the meetness of “proper” nature may preserve us from monsters of our own making.
Fairies are the most ambiguous of the preternatural creatures. Ghosts and demons are clearly of a non-material, spiritual nature, and monsters certainly inhabit the tangible realm of physicality, but fairies seem to fall somewhere in between. Like spirits, they’re usually hidden from our mortal eyes and ears, only occasionally being glimpsed by those in the right place, at the right time, or by those very few privileged to have the “second sight.” Unlike spirits, though, they tend to be very connected to the physical realm, deriving their natures from the localities they inhabit (or else bestowing their own natures on the localities they inhabit). The Victorian trend of depicting fairies as diminutive ladies with butterfly wings is a late departure from the more traditional notion that fairies can have many sizes and forms. The realm of faerie would include elves, gnomes, goblins, nymphs (naiads, dryads, etc.), fauns, and giants.
These hidden peoples are presumed to have their own societies, concerns, and aims, operating most often independently of human comings and goings, though not always. Fairy-folk are notoriously unpredictable: sometimes aloof, sometimes curious; sometimes helpful, sometimes mischievous. Fairies may be noble or neutral or capricious or wicked. Dangers from fairies may include kidnapping, vandalizing, and even killing. Generally, it’s best not to cross a fairy, and certainly not to anger one.
Rev. Robert Kirk, a 17th century Presbyterian minister in Scotland, wrote a book about fairy-folk which, according to this article, he equates with “those elemental guardians of the nations who, according to the New Testament, have been appointed as wardens in the earth, but who frequently forget their roles and resist the sway of God.” For, “though Christian tradition came soon to abominate all the lesser spirits venerated or feared in pre-Christian culture as just so many demons, this was not the view taken of them in the Pauline corpus; there they appear as perhaps mutinous deputies of God, part of the compromised cosmic hierarchy of powers and principalities, whom Christ by his resurrection has subdued, but not necessarily as servants of evil; Colossians 1:20 even speaks of them as being not only conquered by Christ, but reconciled with God.”
The things that go bump in the night—ghosts, demons, monsters, or fairies—may set our hearts pounding and our hair on end, but they also could not have any power over us were it not given them from above (Jn 19:11). None of the creatures in the catalog of the creepy can exist outside the purview and authority of God, and none of them will escape that final Day of judgement.