Even though you coughed up the gold to rent a proper room after a few days on the road, you find that you’re unable to settle in and get comfortable. Maybe it’s because you’ve spent the past few nights on alert, watching for hungry animals or generally unfriendly creatures. Maybe you’ve always had a hard time sleeping in a new place. You tell yourself that there is nothing to worry about, but some part of you refuses to listen.
The darker it gets, the more convinced you are that you’re being watched. You can feel eyes on the back of your neck, like something is staring from every shadow, every dark corner. You aren’t sure what it’s waiting for, but you are sure that when it decides to strike, you probably won’t be ready.
It’s time to talk boogeymen, gentle traveller.
The boogeyman is more concept than creature, a formless thing that is lurking in the shadows and waiting for you to step out of line, to make some social error when you think no one is watching. There is no consensus about where the boogeyman comes from, and it may in fact be a threat as old as human civilization itself, less a literal monster and more a promise of consequences for breaking the social contract. Its physical description varies wildly depending on the culture telling the tale, but no matter what type of monster you’re getting ready to tangle with, you can expect something that is both a strict enforcer of social expectations and a physical representation of fear itself.
Broadly speaking, you can sort boogeymen into a few categories based on the sort of fight you might expect.
The Corporeal Child-Eating Creature
Sometimes and in some places, the boogeyman is a physical monster, complete with frightening appearance and voracious appetite for rule-breaking children. Creatures like the Gurumapa of Kathmandu, Cuca of Brazil, and some versions of the infamous Eastern European Baba Yaga are all boogeymen that do some very real, very serious damage to those who catch their attention. Though the specifics of their appearance vary, there’s a strong tendency toward features that mimic predatory animals. Claws, fangs, and an animal-like appearance are common, sending a clear message that this is a thing that will devour you if it gets the chance.
The bad news is that there aren’t many stories of successfully defeating this type of monster. The good news is that, since their primary prey tend to be children, if you can put up more of a fight than an average human child, you might have a chance at surviving. Though there is a strong supernatural component to these creatures, they also have a definite physical presence, which means there’s at least a chance that they can be killed. Be ready to combat claws, teeth, and brute strength, and remember that losing means being devoured, possibly alive. No pressure.
The Ethereal Wraith
For every story that describes a boogeyman as a tangible creature, there is another that describes something that is basically made of shadows. Stories of the Babau of Italy, Serbia’s Bauk, and Der Schwarze Mann of German do not describe a physical monster, but a malevolent spirit that is always watching. They hide in the dark places, lurking under beds, in closets, forests, abandoned buildings, and caves, waiting for their chance to snatch any child who has done what their parents warned them against. It’s unclear what happens to the victims of these kinds of boogeymen. Stories tend to describe children being disappeared by these sorts of spirits, not eaten so much as erased.
Unlike their corporeal counterparts, this style of boogeyman is entirely supernatural. You’ll probably need some kind of magic on your side to defend yourself against one of these shadowy spirits, and would probably be wise to keep the darkness at bay. Think of the protective glow of a nightlight in your childhood bedroom and apply the same principle. If you take away places for it to hide, it’ll have a tougher time sneaking up on you.
The Opposite of a Good Guy
Though boogeymen tend to operate solo, there are some stories that paint them has the bad half of a pair. If there is someone who rewards good behavior or looks out for us, then there must also be someone waiting to punish our missteps, these stories reason. The most famous example is Krampus, Germany’s horned counterpart to Santa. While Santa rewards the good kids with presents, Krampus scoops up the bad ones and drags them away to be tortured or maybe eaten. Stories of El Coco from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America tell of a shapeshifter that is the opposite of a guardian angel, ready to spirit away the bad kids. These dark counterparts can fall into either of the previous two categories, with some occupying very real bodies and others more spirit-like in nature.
On the plus side, if your foe is part of a duo, you may have a shot at appealing to the better half for some measure of protection. On the negative, the supposed good guys don’t seem to have a problem with children being taken away, so maybe they’re not the best possible ally.