The Evolution of Classic Horror Characters

Scary stories have been capturing our collective imagination for centuries, through channels of storytelling such as folklore, literature and film – from the grotesque tale of the Minotaur in Greek mythology, to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein,” to Boris Karloff’s epic role in the 1932 film, “The Mummy.” To dissect where the fascination with these frightening creatures began, our editors explored four terrifying archetypes of horror folklore and film, charting their tales through their most well-known ambassadors. These notorious characters were chosen both for their popularity and the impact they’ve made on the evolution of the horror genre in popular culture.


Bram Stoker, the author of the 1897 novel “Dracula,” is often credited with inventing the vampire character, although mentions of nighttime creatures that survive off of human blood had been part of European folklore for centuries before. Throughout many depictions in literature and film, a vampire’s primary characteristics and physical attributes include the ability to easily seduce humans, pale skin, and unnatural good looks. When exploring different depictions of the vampire below, take time to consider what each iteration says about contemporary culture. Vampires in particular have morphed from frightening, unsightly monsters to handsome, compelling heartthrobs.


Popular culture’s interest in zombies has seen a resurgence in the last decade. Like the vampire, zombies can be traced back through mythology. In Haitian culture, mentions of the reanimated dead first appeared in the 17th century when slavery was a large part of the country’s economy. There were tales of slaves appearing “like dead” when they arrived, being worked to death, and also being controlled by Voodoo masters. The story of a zombie’s origin and cause of death have been creatively reinvented several times over. The characters below illustrate the various forms zombies have taken, from a shell of a human to violent corpses.


Witches, much like other horror movie characters, date back centuries and stem from a societal need for a scapegoat. Mentions of witchcraft can be traced back to ancient Egypt where it played a role in cultural and religious practices. The Salem Witch Trials, which took place in Massachusetts in the 1600s, initially blamed a group of women for a smallpox outbreak and quickly grew into widespread hysteria. Their mystical and far-reaching abilities have captured the imagination of authors and filmmakers alike.


Mystical tales of humans who transform into wolves according to lunar cycles date back to the ancient Greeks. Mentions of werewolves are sprinkled throughout Medieval European history, most notably perhaps with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood by the Grimm brothers. Occult writer Montague Summers further popularized the motif with his 1933 book, “The Werewolf.” These sharp-fanged creatures first hit the big screen in 1935 in director Stuart Walker’s film, “Werewolf of London.” Of the four archetypes explored, the werewolf’s physical features and character traits show the least signs of change. Over the last century, werewolves have maintained their full moon curse, ear-piercing howl, sharp claws and teeth, and their quintessential hairy exterior.


To review all of the monsters who have captivated mankind for centuries, click the button below. Next time you listen to a scary story, read a thriller, or watch a horror movie, keep in mind the long history behind these captivating characters.