Halloween Monsters: The Grim Reaper

For several years, I’ve been on a fact-finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” including their origins and evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture.

Today, let’s take a look at the GRIM REAPER.

Various cultures through history have personified death. And, in fact, many of those images are figures who are not terrifying, but who are helpful, kind, and even attractive. The idea of those earlier incarnations is like that of angels or sometimes gods/goddesses/demigods who help you through the steps of passing into the afterlife.

Not the reaper though. One of the most common and enduring images of death, the Grim Reaper, is usually a skeletal figure, shrouded in a dark, hooded robe, and carrying a scythe. But this imagery makes sense when you look at the origin.

According to every source I looked at, the Grim Reaper originated out of Europe in the 14th century during the plague called the Black Death. During this period, between 25 and 75 million were estimated to have been killed. Because of the speed and how many were affected, bodies did actually pile up. Death literally walked among us, so the personification of death seems inevitable in those circumstances.

The iconic imagery of the Grim Reaper doesn’t need much explanation. A walking skeleton is literally walking death. The black cloak hides him in the shadows and also is similar to that of a plague doctor as depicted in historical art. The scythe is a farming tool from the time period. The wielder would cut swaths of wheat from the earth. Similarly, the reaper cuts down and reaps human souls as easily as wheat. In addition, and this is just my personal opinion, the plague doctor’s mask looks both a bit skeletal, but also, to me it has a similar shape to a scythe.

Sometimes, the reaper may be also depicted as holding an hour glass as he waits for the sands of time to run out on a life before he reaps that soul. In English-speaking countries the Grim Reaper is usually thought of as a male character but this is not the case everywhere. For example, French, Spanish and Italian speakers often consider the Grim Reaper to be female because the word for “death” is feminine in their languages.

It is not too difficult to see how the reaper imagery would translate to a traditional Halloween monster. The practice of dressing up started as a way to ward off evil. It’s not surprising that death (especially in the form of the plague) would end up on that list. Even more so, maybe, because part of the history of Halloween is a belief that on that night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s a fairly simple costume to put together.

Because death comes for us all, I personally think it is likely this imagery will have a longer staying power than many other Halloween monsters. Every soul would be scared to see a cloaked figure in the distance, holding a scythe, slowly approaching, and counting down those final grains of sand.

Looking for some new reaper-related paranormal romance books to consume? Check these out…

Interested in the history and evolution of other traditional Halloween “monsters” in folklore, literature, and pop culture? Check out my other posts…



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