There are times when Halloween seems very much a modern fad, what with the profusion of industrially-produced candy and the annual emergence of terrible costume ideas riffing off current events. But what frightens us is largely the same as what spooked peoples centuries before. With the help of the British Library, WorldViews offers a few examples of scary motifs meant to inspire fear in a faraway time.
The image above, of three living men encountering three undead figures, is an old trope. The British Library explains on its blog:
The precise origins of the Three Living and the Three Dead are still somewhat mysterious, but there are many versions of the tale dating back to the 13th century, with the best-known coming from England and France. The basic version of the story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, which are in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated. Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late.
Monsters stalked the medieval world's spiritual landscape. This image, taken of a miniature that accompanies a version of Dante's "Divine Comedy," shows Cacus, a half-centaur, half-dragon, tormenting one of the historical Italians that Dante consigned to a sphere of hell.
The two images above depict people dressed up as hair-covered creatures known as wodewoses. Such "wild men" were a common theme of the Middle Ages, symbols of anarchy, terror and otherness that lurked on the fringes of the medieval imagination. They exist, in part, to prove to civilized man what he is not -- and also what he always risks becoming.
For what it's worth, the British Library advises in its blog, it's easy to dress up as wodewose: All you need is a "number of hairy suits, some false beards, clubs, and a predilection to dance."
A spooky "memento mori" found in a 15th century Italian text.\
Of course, people back then were also terrified of biblical cataclysm and destruction. Here's an image of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, riding to the world's ruin upon rather strangely-dotted steeds. The zombie-like monster accompanying them is another harbinger of medieval doom.
Another in the British Library's series of "The Three Living and the Three Dead," a scene of the raising of Lazarus is accompanied by a panel showing skeletons rising out of the earth and setting upon a party of travelers and their horses. We've been obsessed with the threat of the undead ever since.