We bet that when the Lord of the Rings series first hit theaters in 2001, a lot of casual moviegoers were confused by the incredibly tall, incredibly sexy elves. “These aren’t the guys who make my Christmas presents and bake cookies in trees!” we imagine these people said to themselves. Well, these people are ignorant, because really, the tall elves came first. Tolkien based his own version of the mythological race on German and old Norse mythology, in which elves were divine beings on par with angels.
They didn’t become Santa’s little helpers until 1879 or so, via the popular Godey’s Lady Book. Even crazier, in this book the tiny elves who didn’t wrap their gifts on time were brutally slain by an angry St. Nicholas. Legolas would not have stood for that kind of crap, we can tell you right now.
The modern zombie is a slow-moving undead devourer of brains, but in the voodoo tradition, zombies are just regular animated corpses brought to life by witchcraft, and they don’t even eat human flesh. According to scholar Wade Davis, Haitian voodoo priests apparently still practice a form of zombification that essentially boils down to psychoactive hypnotism. The people-eating masses that we think of today when we hear the word “zombie” didn’t come about until director George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. The taste for brains wasn’t accepted by popular culture until after Return of the Living Dead, a 1985 parody of Romero’s movie
By the way, you know how all the nerdy non-religious types on the Internet like to joke that Easter is Zombie Jesus Day, because Jesus rises from the dead? By current fantasy-genre standards, Jesus is actually more of a lich. Make sure to bring that up next year so everyone will know how dorky cultured you are.
By now you’ve probably had enough pedantic snobs tell you that it is the creator of the monster, not the monster himself, who is called Frankenstein. But as we’ve noted before, the whole “Me Hate Fire” thing? That’s an invention of the 1931 Boris Karloff film. In the book, the creature is incredibly intelligent, sensitive, and emotional, though that doesn’t stop him from killing a couple of people to get back at Frankenstein.
Oh, and the scene from the film where the little kid wants to be friends with him and he accidentally drowns her? That would never happen – in fact, the creature of Shelley’s novel actually saves a girl from drowning, and then everyone drives him out of town anyway because he’s so hideous. Poor dude. It’s not his fault he’s so horrific.
So you know how on St. Patrick’s day, pretty much everything turns green? Well, before the 20th century or so, most of the Irish myths surrounding leprechauns agreed that they all wear red. According to William Butler Yeats, because the leprechaun was a solitary figure, he always wore red, whereas fairies that live together in groups wear green. The guy in the Lucky Charms commercials should probably stick to green, though — red would make him too easy a target.
As with leprechauns, you usually think of a ugly little green guy when you hear the term “goblin,” but in England and Germany where the first goblin myths originated, they weren’t really ever depicted as green. In fact, they were associated with the color red as well; in England, goblins called “redcaps” wore red clothing stained with the blood of their enemies. Yikes. We’re not sure when the shift happened from red to green, but we’re hoping that the Green Goblin from Spider-man had something to do with it.
And hey, goblins aren’t all bad! Sure they reportedly steal babies and trade places with them, but according to Scottish legend they also build castles! One 13th-century castle rumored to have been made by goblins was actually on sale last year, and it looks pretty damn awesome.
Critics of the Twilight series would have you believe that Stephenie Meyer makes a mockery out of the traditional vampire legend by ignoring all the classic side effects of being a vampire – inability to see one’s reflection, strong aversion to sunlight, crosses, and garlic, transformation into a bat, killed by a stake through the heart, all that jazz. But really, these elements are pretty modern in and of themselves, when you consider that vampire stories have an extremely long history in Asia, the Middle East, and especially Eastern Europe. Most of what we now consider vampire canon comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – before him, sunlight, crosses and reflections were not really much of an issue.
Even some of the real elements Stoker used perpetuate myths to this day. Yes, we realize vampires don’t actually exist; we’re talking specifically about the man Stoker modeled Dracula after, Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian warlord whose reputation for cruelty was greatly exaggerated. The vampire bat, which had only recently been discovered when Stoker began writing, also got a bad rap for being associated with Dracula. If you get bitten by a vampire bat, it’s not going to be on your neck – it’s actually going to be on your big toe. Apparently bats are all secretly foot fetishists.
The way most people think of killing werewolves is also a pretty modern invention. Then again, of course a silver bullet wasn’t always the way you killed a werewolf, because bullets weren’t invented until the 1500s or so in Europe, and werewolf myths have existed since Virgil. The silver thing wasn’t common until after the premiere of the 1941 film The Wolf Man. The idea that lycanthropy could be transmitted through biting like a disease is pretty new as well – before that, wolfmen were considered to be evil servants of the devil who chose their powers willingly.
Some even theorize that the werewolf myth was used to explain serial killings due to the cyclical nature of these kinds of attacks. Hey, there’s an idea – maybe Jack the Ripper was a werewolf? Come on, it’s no crazier than some of the other common Ripper theories.