Middle Eastern Horrors and the Future of Creature Features, DRACULA, DEAD BY DAYLIGHT, And More
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The Bite #160
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Middle Eastern Horrors and the Future of Creature Features, DRACULA, DEAD BY DAYLIGHT, And More

May 11, 2021

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Middle Eastern Horrors and the Future of Creature Features

By Zaki Hasan

With this week’s VOD release of The Djinn drawing on long-standing myths from the Middle East for the titular antagonist driving the film’s scares, one realizes how little modern movie horror comes from that region of the world. This is made doubly surprising when one considers just how many foundational, archetypal tropes of good and evil –– stories that have resonated for centuries through all manner of interpretations –– first originated there. As such, it seems an appropriate time to look at what other creatures and concepts can be pulled from Middle Eastern folklore to gain new or renewed resonance on the screen.

One such example is Humbaba, the terrifying beast antagonizing the title character in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Originating in ancient Sumerian texts dating back to 2100 BC, the literary Gilgamesh was inspired by a historic king but is the progenitor of what we’d call superheroes today, an epic hero gifted with strength, courage, and cunning. During his travels, he encounters and must defeat the horrifying Humbaba (aptly called “The Terrible”), a giant creature with the face of a lion, the claws of a vulture, and a body covered with scales. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of, and which digital technology has finally evolved enough to be able to depict realistically.

In a similar vein are Yajuj and Majuj. Known as Gog and Magog in Western texts, these creatures are described in Muslim texts as having clawed hands, hairy tails, and large, pointed ears, with numbers so multittudinous as to be unknowable. Supposedly imprisoned behind an unbreachable wall for an eternity by the great king Dhul-Qarnayn (alternately posited as either Cyrus the Great or Alexander the Great), it’s said that even now the hordes of Gog and Magog work diligently to free themselves, and when they finally breach the barrier it will portend the End of Days.

A bit more disturbing is the Qareen. Although part of Arabian beliefs prior to the birth of Islam, they are most known today due to being mentioned several times in the Quran. A spiritual double from the unseen realm (imagine looking in the mirror and seeing your reflection smiling back at you –– even if you’re not), Qareen are described as “Shayateen” (devils) who are said to be attached to every living person on Earth –– the word literally translates as “Constant Companion” –– with the aim of subverting their behavior.

Also chilling in the same vein are Ghūl (translation: ogre). Again predating Islam but since adopted into Muslim theology, these creatures are said to be the daughters of Iblis (the arch-demon called “As-Shaithan” or “The Devil”). Wandering graveyards and open expanses of desert, only their hooved feet identified them as demonic creatures, and their mission was to seduce and devour wary travelers after adopting a pleasing form. Of course, Ghūl has been westernized as “Ghoul,” and the grave-robbing, dead-eating iteration of that word is what birthed George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and a half-century of zombie fiction, but its roots are just as terrifying –– maybe more so!

As the above represents only a fraction of the creepy concepts ripe for adaptation to the screen, it’s far past time that the crafters of creature features in Hollywood delved into Middle Eastern mythology for the next generation of cinematic scares. After all, there may be vast cultural and temporal difference separating us from these myths’ origins, but if human history tells us anything it’s that no matter where you look or when it happened, scary is scary.

Zaki Hasan is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle whose film reviews and analyses have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, IGN, HuffPost, and Philly Weekly. He is also co-host of the MovieFilm and Nostalgia Theater Podcasts.


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