This Halloween, UCI Humanities scholars share terrifying tales from across the globe
Content warning: Some of these stories are seriously horror-inducing and not for the faint of heart.
While Halloween is neither universally celebrated nor homogenous in its traditions, every country does have its own fright-inducing tales, legends and folklore. These tales range from the clearly horrific to the more subtly disconcerting. Below, UCI School of Humanities scholars take you around the world to share in the tales that have forever haunted them.
“A particularly creepy story from Greek mythology is the encounter between the hero, Theseus, and Procrustes.
Procrustes was a man who would invite travelers to spend the night at his home. He would make them dinner and then tell them that he had a special bed which fit anyone who slept in it. What he didn’t say, however, is that he would make his guests fit the bed by either forcefully stretching their body if they were too short or cutting off their legs if they were too tall. Procrustes did this for a long time and killed many people until Theseus finally overcame and killed him by using his own bed against him.
What I find scary about this myth is the fact that Procrustes used the Greek concept of xenia, ‘hospitality,’ to trap his victims. Xenia dictates that hosts treat their guests well and offer them food, drink, and a place to sleep. So, I imagine people coming to Procrustes’ home, feeling as if they would be taken care of, and then finding themselves completely helpless as Procrustes mutilates and kills them — utterly terrifying!”
— Aleah Hernandez, assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Classics
“The ancient legend of Befana remains a tradition practiced by Italian children and their families. The legend says that an old woman wanted to accompany the Magi who were bearing gifts for the new-born Jesus Christ. She promised to join them later, but never did. The next day, she frantically ran after the Magi with gifts for the child, clutching her broom. But it was too late; the Magi were long gone. Ever since then, the old woman has been known as Befana. On the eve of January 6th, she flies a broom and wears a black shawl over a dress dirty with soot from the chimneys she climbs down to deliver her gifts.
When I was a child, Befana was very popular and was awaited with a mixture of joy and anxiety. Normally, kids hung hand-knitted stockings somewhere in the kitchen and wrote long letters to her expressing their wishes. For the good children, she brings sweets, toys and books. I rapidly understood that if I had been bad during the year, my stockings would have been filled with coal, carbone in Italian (which was a ‘rock’ of black sugar). That’s what happened to me, my stockings were always full of coal, I’m wondering why.”
-Fabrizio Di Maio, director of the Italian Language Program
“Japan has a long tradition of folklore about spooky beings called yōkai. One famous tale is that of Yuki-onna. Lafcadio Hearn famously included a version of the story in his 1904 collection of Japanese folklore Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. It goes like this: Two woodcutters become stranded in a snowstorm and take shelter in a small hut. One of the men, Minokichi, wakes up to find a beautiful woman dressed in white. She blows cold breath into the other’s face, killing him. She approaches Minokichi and tells him that she has decided to spare his life, but he must never tell anyone what he has witnessed. The following winter, Minokichi meets a girl named O-Yuki (a name which means ‘snow’). They marry and start a family. One night, Minokichi looks at O-Yuki and is reminded of the woman in white. He tells O-Yuki what he saw in the blizzard. O-Yuki reveals that she is the same woman! She tells Minokichi she should kill him for breaking his promise, but she won’t because of their children. She then melts away. A striking cinematic adaptation of this tale is included in Kobayashi Masaki’s 1964 film ‘Kwaidan.’”
— Jon L. Pitt, assistant professor of East Asian studies
“‘Sometimes I would see hundreds of little eyes sticking to the dripping wet glass of the window. Hundreds of round black eyes. Bright, humid, tearful eyes, begging for mercy. But there was no mercy in that house.’
This día de brujas read from the master of the uncanny, Amparo Dávila (1928–2020), the poet and storyteller from Zacatecas, México who was laid to rest this April 2020.
From her grave, she’ll guide you through a child’s unnerving torment over the preparation of Sunday supper. ‘Alta Cocina’ (‘High Cuisine’) disturbs that quiet creature inside you, that which gnaws at you through a multitude of desperate eyes. She’ll guide you through the horror of an ordinary Sunday meal.”
— Jeanie Toscano, Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Read Toscano’s translation of “Alta Cocina” here.