Before I get into how magic beliefs and superstitions are dangerous today, I want to note that they’ve been aspects of moral lessons and horror stories for a long time, and have their place in stories.
In fact, long before the Leprechaun franchise had Warwick Davis running around punishing hapless people for taking his gold, you had Georges Méliès’ The Treasures of Satan (AKA Les Trésors de Satan or The Devil’s Money Bags). It’s barely a horror movie (there’s no gore, no nude scenes, etc.), but some of the basic elements of horror are still there, including a representation of a Satanic figure wreaking havoc on others. This was the era of evil featuring horns, tails, and pointed caps, and Méliès uses magic to prevent money bags from staying in the hands of the greedy blond man in the short film.
It’s perhaps an early, benign, magic-tinged cinematic warning that money is akin to poison at the table; He who drinks it might enjoy its rewarding flavor, but everything goes black and consequences are paid. It’s also a reminder that, quite often, sometimes a story is told more through action, including magical displays of power and trickery.
Also, back in those days, horror imagery probably carried more weight, as people were slightly more prone to believing in Satanic and supernatural things. Some nowadays are definitely still as gullible, and we’ll discuss that more below, but first let’s consider where some mythic creatures, superstitions, and magical power stories come from.
Magic, superstition, and the motivation of fear
In a forest at night, the Werewolf in some mindless rage slashes a gnarled old tree trunk with his claws, splitting it down the middle. As you picture this scenario, you’re not just thinking “That poor tree trunk!” right? Those halves of that imagined trunk sort of represent what this powerful beast could do to you! Chances are, even if not fully aware of it, this image at least dances around in your subconscious.
Well, that’s part of what makes a Werewolf story captivating. Also, because a Werewolf or “Wolfman” has a human side, it becomes even more relatable as a potential threat; the monster could be one of us and have all the appearances of normalcy until…he looks around,
the moon appears to him, and through sinister magic transforms into the mythic, snarling beast so many of us fear, know, and love. However, creatures like werewolves and vampires have not always just been pop culture fodder, but things people genuinely believed in!
Monster transformation resembles the human transformation
Horror fans have possibly already heard of Peter Stumpp, the so-called “Werewolf of Bedburg” accused of witchcraft, werwolfery, and serial killing cannibalism. Also, you may very well know how modern vampire myths tie together into vampire characters of today (with Dracula chief among them, and maybe Count Orlok or Nosferatu in a close second). In addition to some popular ideas about Dracula being based on real-life historical figures (Vlad the Impaler and Liz Bathory the most common), there is one interesting aspect of anti-vampire magic that has some vaguely scientific basis, which strongly suggests people genuinely felt vampires were real.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History website suggests “Garlic, specifically the chemical compound allicin inside garlic, is a powerful antibiotic. Some European beliefs around vampires stated they were created by a disease of the blood, so a powerful antibiotic would ‘kill’ a vampire.” See? It’s still definitely pseudo-science and superstitious, but there is a hint of science after the -pseudo part, right (in this case with a garlicky aftertaste)?
When it comes to serial killers, there is a tendency to regard them as monsters, much like Stumpp. To an extent, it’s understandable. Part of what makes Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer so fascinating is their ability to seem relatively normal while often doing such horrible things away from public eyes (especially true for Bundy who was typically less socially awkward).
There is a strong temptation to believe some supernatural explanation might exist, like maybe they were demon-possessed. Anything to prevent us from regarding these violent tendencies as humanlike, because that implies we could potentially end up just like them without magic, should our brains and life circumstances lead us down those darkened paths…though sometimes those evil deeds may be illuminated by the moon, right?
The moon awaits!
Ever hear the saying “the crazies come out at night?” or hear serial killers called lunatics? Well, putting aside how some maniacs are often enough active during the day (in real life and the movies), let’s consider why this idea persists. Much has to do with fears that the night and the moon will drive people mad. That’s where the word “lunatic” comes from, as well as “of the moon” or “moonstruck.”
The Scientific American notes that “Belief in the ‘lunar lunacy effect,’ or ‘Transylvania effect,’ as it is sometimes called, persisted in Europe through the Middle Ages when humans were widely reputed to transmogrify into werewolves or vampires during a full moon.”
The implication is that a person may be normal enough in the daylight, but the moon goes through them and scrambles their brain circuitry or chemistry. As the moon disappears, so does the Werewolf. Of course, the religious magic believers would benefit from such superstitions, as many counter-vampire measures would have us lean towards a church (a cross can ward off a vampire, or maybe words from a holy book, rosaries, holy water, etc. And this is all true without me vehemently criticizing religion.
Modern dangers of magic and superstitious thinking(!?)
Nowadays, unfortunately, some bizarre political belief systems have adopted some supernatural thinking and created deadly results. For example, a California QAnon believer killed his 2 children with a spearfishing gun, believing they carried “Serpent DNA” (NBC News speculates this is part of the magical, typically anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that “reptilian aliens secretly run the world and have taken over important positions in government, banking and Hollywood”).
Another man’s radical, magical beliefs inspired him to kill and injure family members, being a believer that the “deep state” was behind “a sex-trafficking ring run by Satanic cannibals,” taking out his agitation on his family for whatever reason.
So, what’s the relevance? Well, we know that people throughout history were targeted by believers in magic evils; accused of being witches, werewolves, vampires, etc. In fact, according to Nigeria’s Premium Times, people are still being killed for allegedly being vampires in Malawi.
Here is a TIME Magazine video on the subject:
What about witches? Well, here is Tennessee preacher Greg Locke saying to his congregation: “We got first and last names of six witches that are in our church. And you know what’s strange, three of you are in this room right now.” Obviously, he’s intending to drive some superstitious fear into his audience, right?
Locke has apparently also said, “You so much as cough wrong, and I’ll expose you in front of everybody under this tent, you stinking spell-casting, pharmakeia devil worshipping and mongrel,” with “pharmakeia” being a Greek word related to sorcery (according to Religion News Service, “vaccine skeptics have claimed that pharmaceutical companies were practicing sorcery by creating the vaccines, because of the resonance with pharmakeia”).
Vampires, witches, werewolves, etc. can all be fun ideas for horror movies and stories, but there’s evidence that, if we’re not careful, such ideas can help us wander off a proverbial cliff. The danger is not just the killer in the shadows or even some stray “lunatic” who can make eye contact with you and send a shiver down your spine. Life’s true horrors sometimes come with a set of magic beliefs and they can be hard to disprove when it comes to true believers. Also, nowadays, these beliefs have more ways of intermingling and become more complex and, in a way, maybe even refined.
If a star mysteriously glows, it will always seem magical, but to a superstitious mind, it might have some bizarre significance that gives them (the person, not the star) a twinkle of madness. There is also some importance in being able to question superstition globally, not just wherever one happens to live because things like the internet make all of these beliefs less localized.
For example, we might look at witch doctors in Tanzania killing albinos for magical body parts with disbelief, but it’s not necessarily stranger than any beliefs we have seen around in the United States today. So many of these beliefs can end up cross-pollinating, and will if we are not careful and willing to sometimes debunk dangerous ideas.
What are your thoughts on the dangers of magic beliefs, werewolves, witches, and their historical and present-day impacts? Let us know in the comments!