Religion teaches its followers lessons through parables about kindness and love and doing the right thing. But if all that fails, there’s always the threat of a scary monster to drive the point home.
Found in Jewish folklore, the Dybbuk is the spirit of a dead sinner who, instead of continuing on to the afterlife, decides to hide out by inhabiting the body of a living person, where they can either live quietly or, more frequently, pester and torture the victim.
Luckily, they can’t just hang out in anybody. The victim has to have committed some sort of sin in order for the Dybbuk to get inside. So, as long as you never, ever do anything bad, you’ll be just fine! Even if you do manage to come down with a case of Dybbuk, it can be exorcised by a properly trained rabbi.
Dybbuks are actually starting to get some mainstream attention, with two major horror movies in the last few years: 2009’s The Unborn and the currently-unreleased The Possession, which both feature the demons as antagonists.
Goliath wasn’t the only giant in the Bible. In fact, he was possibly a descendant of an entire race of giants collectively known as the Nephilim. Although theologians are divided on their origins (some think they were the children of angels who mated with human women, and others think they were the offspring of those descended from Cain), they all seem to agree that the Nephilim were huge, fierce creatures.
Pretas are beings unique to Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. While Western culture does have a tradition of spirits of the dead being punished for their sins in ironic ways, they don’t have anything on Pretas. Those who are greedy or jealous in life can become cursed by karma and returned to the world of the living, which doesn’t sound so bad, except they become filled with a constant, aching hunger and unquenchable thirst.
No matter how much they eat or drink, Pretas are never satisfied. Either they have trouble finding food or drink, or they are unable to consume it when they do, as Pretas are often depicted as emaciated corpses with tiny mouths or impossibly thin necks. And, if all that weren’t bad enough, the thing for which they hunger is typically something embarrassing, such as human waste.
In Western religion and pop culture, demons tend to have very specific powers that they can use to torture humans. Maybe they can disguise themselves as others or manipulate people to their will, for example, but usually not both.
This is not the case for the Rakshasa of Hinduism and Buddhism. They’re formerly evil humans said to hold a wide range of powers, including shape-changing, creating illusions, and working powerful magic. They tend to have toxic fingernails or claws and they eat people, to boot. They can appear in all kinds of forms; beautiful or ugly, massive or stunted, or even animal-like bodies. Their king, Ravana, was worst of all. He was said to possess ten faces, dozens of arms, and exceptional cunning.
Image at left by Flickr user manohara upadhya via Wikimedia Commons
Djinni are very different from their contemporary cultural representation, the genie. Instead of granting wishes, Djinni are a separate race from humans that live in a parallel reality to us, according to Islamic texts. They’re made up of flame and smoke (as humans were made up of clay), and as they are the only beings besides humans that were given free will by Allah, they’re also capable of being benevolent, neutral, or evil, just like the rest of us. In fact, Satan was originally a Djinn named Iblis, but when he refused to bow to Adam, Allah cast him out of paradise.
Naturally, the most well-known Djinni are the evil ones, particularly those called Ifrits, malevolent beings who can change shape and form, have command over fire, and are immune to human weapons. As it so happens, Ifrits are currently experiencing a bit of popularity at the moment, scoring an appearance in a subplot of the current season of True Blood.
Although traditionally used in Judaistic texts as a word simply meaning “destruction," Abaddon is later personified in Christian texts (and Christianity’s various offshoots) as an actual being. Given titles like “Lord of the Pit,” “King of the Locusts” and “The Destroyer," Abaddon has been said to have a number of attributes and also to have committed various acts.
According to some texts, Abaddon was originally the angel Muriel, who gathered the dust that formed Adam. Others say that he was actually the angel tasked with sealing Satan into Hell. Apparently, he didn’t stay an angel forever, though, as later writings describe him as living on a throne of maggots and commanding an army of locusts that are shaped like horses with human faces and scorpions’ tails.
Another type of ghost from Eastern religions, the Pishacha is the spirit of a person who committed fraud, adultery, rape, or similar criminal acts. Like other entities, they can change shape or become invisible, and they can even possess humans and sicken them physically or mentally.
But where Pishacha get really creepy is in the way that they’re described: according to many texts, they’re humanoids with a deep, obsidian skin tone, red eyes, and bulging veins covering their bodies. Yikes.
8. Azi Dahaka
Zoroastrianism, a once-thriving major world religion, is now limited primarily to areas of Iran, Pakistan, and India, but it still has its evil beings. Foremost among those is Azi Dahaka, who has moved into general Iranian folklore as well.
Azi Dahaka has been described as a being with six eyes, three mouths, and three heads, although there’s no indication that those are evenly spread out. He knows all the sins in the world, and, when wounded, he bleeds snakes, rats, and insects. Azi Dahaka also figures heavily into the Zoroastrian apocalypse. According to prophecy, he will eat all the world’s livestock and one third of humanity itself.
Yet another ghost found in Far East religions, Vetala do have one feature that distinguishes them from their brethren: instead of bothering with the living, they spend their time possessing the dead. After they successfully inhabit a corpse, it stops decaying and they’re free to walk the earth once more.
Some of you might already be thinking of zombies and, in fact, Vetala were believed to have a form of omniscience due to their undead nature and thus made desirable slaves, giving them similarities to the slave zombies of Central American legends. Unlike zombies, however, Vetala had no interest in brains or human flesh. Their goal was simply to annoy and torment the living out of jealousy.
Chinese folk religions are much smaller than they once were, with the majority of their former adherents converting to Taoism or other religions in the last few centuries, but some of their myths and legends continue on into modern Chinese folklore.
One such legend is that of Hundun, a faceless deity who was the personification of chaos. Described as being either a humanoid with no orifices or even as a formless living sack — he was sometimes also said to have useless vestigial limbs — Hundun was believed to primarily favor the wicked and eschew goodness. He was killed when two other gods, Hu and Shu, who always thought Hundun kind, decided that they should drill holes in his body and give him eyes, a nose, a mouth, etc. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, Hundun died from this impromptu surgery a week later.
11. Xing Tian
Another god from Chinese folk religion and mythology, Xing Tian was a giant warrior who served under the Emperor Yan. When Yan was defeated by the Yellow Emperor, Xing Tian’s pride was so wounded that he challenged the Yellow Emperor to a duel. During the duel, the Yellow Emperor decapitated Xing Tian and hid his head inside Changyang Mountain. This is where things get bizarre. Instead of dying, like a normal person, Xing Tian lived on and searched in vain for his head. After an unspecified amount of time, however, Xing Tian simply gave up and grew a new face... on his torso. Using his nipples for eyes and his belly button for a mouth, Xing Tian became the headless giant, forever raging against the other gods.