Many creatures look like humans or disguise themselves as humans. Many of them, including vampires, ghosts, and werewolves, have fascinated and terrified us for centuries. And, like those mentioned, we’re terrified of them for good reason: we just never know who or what lurks in the darkness ready to strike. But, have you ever seen that coworker of yours eat garlic? Or can you say for sure you’ve been with him during a full moon? How do you know your closest friends aren’t something entirely other than human?
How do you know that everyone you know isn’t one of these creatures?
Changelings come from European folklore, and are creatures, usually fairies, that are switched with human infants. They look like completely ordinary human babies—but they’re not. Children stolen by fairies and switched with a changeling are rarely recovered, however, and as the changeling grows it will start looking and behaving less and less human. Why do fairies, or other creatures, do this? According to some, for sport. But other stories posit that being raised by a human is more respectable than being raised by another kind of creature, so using a changeling was a way to increase a child’s social status.
Medieval literature is rife with the fear of changelings, as society struggled to come to terms with such fears as infant mortality, developmental disabilities, childhood illness, and the like. Because illness and disease were caused by evil spirits or sin, both of which children were thought to be protected from by God, it was difficult to understand why some children suffered the way they did. They ended up inventing stories of stolen children and fairy replacements to try to understand their tragic reality.
But it’s not just a medieval fear. The 2008 film Changeling starring Angelina Jolie explores a real-life case of switched children: in 1928 Los Angeles, a single mother discovers that her son has been kidnapped. The police find him in a few days, but the mother, Jolie, does not believe that the boy returned to her is her son. What follows is an account of the police corruption, female disenfranchisement, and power imbalances rampant in the time, as well as a take on the infamous Chicken Coop Murders. Jolie’s son may not have been taken by fairies, but the title of the movie suggests the sinister nature of its plot.
2. Demons and the Devil
The best way to tempt humans to sin is to convince them you’re one of their own and live among them. To this end, demons and the Devil will sometimes disguise themselves as humans in order to carry out their agenda. Sometimes, this manifests as demonic possession of someone who is already human, but many times demons will simply take a human form. Demons, however, tend to be bad at disguising themselves, especially if the people they’re trying to fool are righteous. Some neglect to hide the horns on their heads or their forked tongues. The Devil, especially following the Renaissance, could never remember to hide his hooved feet. Men who are actually demons are usually described as “dark,” and, to hear descriptions of them, are visually very striking, as if dragging gloom and evil along with them wherever they go.
When demons are just wearing human disguises, they can typically be spotted easily. Being found out will usually cause them to disappear, defeated. Sometimes, however, the person who discovers a demon or the Devil won’t repudiate them, and open themselves up to temptation. The best example of this in folklore is of Faust, who traded his soul to the Devil; Tom Walker, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Devil and Tom Walker,” does the same thing.
But confronting demons is not always a wise idea. For example, the 1998 film Fallen is a modern-day depiction of Azazel, who takes over people’s bodies in order to do evil. No less harrowing is 2010’s The Last Exorcism, which instead deals with Abalam. Speaking of exorcisms, have you ever seen The Exorcist?
Demons aren’t the only ones who find human disguises useful. Angels also frequently use such disguises to deal with people directly—for good reason, as the Bible describes angels as being terrifying creatures to behold. Nonetheless, angels’ first appearance in the Bible is in Genesis, where a pair of them is sent to assess the moral state of Sodom and Gomorrah. They do this by pretending to be ordinary travelers.
Many folklore stories describe angels, or beings thought to be angels, visiting humans. Whereas demons often choose to become powerful people, like a businessman or a lawyer, angels tend to take the forms of lowlier humans. They typically try to use words and wisdom to gently push people onto a holy path, though they can become violently outraged if they are treated improperly.
Angel disguises, like demon disguises, tend to be thin. Where demons are “dark,” angels tend to be radiant, white, and pure. Happiness is draped over them like a robe. Their holiness outshines and outstrips their false human forms. But those tainted by sin may not be able to see this, and they run the risk of facing divine punishment.
Maybe the best-known creature on this list, doppelgangers are entities that look like an exact duplicate of someone else. Obviously, they are not the same person—the doppelganger isn’t even human. But it is impossible to distinguish between the two. For all intents and purposes, they are the same.
Doppelgangers, however, don’t do much. Or if they do, it is rare for one to be discovered as a doppelganger. It could be that everyone has a doppelganger, and exact duplicate of themselves, living maybe one or two towns over, but the two never meet because their respective circles of friends never come into contact with one another. But should they meet—should you see your doppelganger, that is an omen of death. It won’t kill you, but something will.
Indeed, it’s said that everyone has a double. It could very well be that we all have a doppelganger that we have yet to meet. But, what if it works the same way for the doppelganger? What if, when a doppelganger sees you, the person it doubles, it is marked for death the same way you would be if you spotted it? What if you’re only alive right now because your doppelganger saw you first, rather than the other way around? How do you know that you aren’t the doppelganger?
Kitsune are fox spirits famous in Japanese folklore and mythology. Much like foxes, they use their cunning and intelligence to outwit those they come across, but what makes them the ultimate trickster is their ability to disguise themselves as human. Why do they do that? It could be to play a prank or to steal something, or maybe even to attack a victim. Sometimes, kitsune use human disguises to have sex with sleeping humans, much like a succubus. Whatever the reason, a disguised kitsune is always a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
That said, many kitsune disguises are imperfect. Some retain a foxlike shadow despite looking human, while others have to keep their long red hair. The best way to see through a disguise, though, is to keep the kitsune talking until it slips up and accidentally says something that reveals it isn’t a human. Can you outwit a fox?
6. Shapeshifters, Ghouls, Vampires, Werewolves
Many, many creatures look human but aren’t. Vampires are nearly indistinguishable from humans, apart from, in many cases, fangs. But their perfect disguises come at a cost: they have numerous physical limitations that clearly mark them as vampires. Werewolves have similar problems in that they usually are human, but on certain nights they become a hideous, carnivorous beast. Interestingly, in medieval stories, werewolves used to only be able to transform back into humans if they could get back into the clothes they took off before they transformed.
It’s fears like these that keep us arrested by the things that look human, from horror movie villains (not only the Thing, but even Michael Myers and Freddie Kreuger are more like monsters that only look human) to zombies, vampires, ghouls, ghosts. These creatures push at the limits of what it means to be a human. How do we treat something that so close to being like us, but at the same time couldn’t be more different? What does it say about us as humans if these creatures make us question our own humanity?
But such monsters tap into even deeper fears. The things that are familiar to us make the scariest monsters. When any woman we meet might be a kitsune, or when our friends might be vampires, or when our newborns seem strange, everything changes for us. We feel betrayed by our trust in our own species. We feel invaded and used. And when we think that something out there may have a body, a personality, a life indistinguishable from our own, and that it isn’t human despite the fact that you do everything it does, the same way—what does that say about us? How far can we trust that what we do makes us human? Or, thinking about it another way, isn’t it terrifying to think that we share such an intense, personal connection with the worst murderers and criminals just by being the same species? We are all so close to being monsters and we don’t even realize it.
That’s what creatures in disguise, evil or kind, good or bad, make us confront. They encourage us to face our fear head-on and decide on our own, human path.
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