Bogeyman | Origin, Definition, & Synonyms (2024)

legendary creature


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Also known as: boogie man, boogieman

Written by

Alison Eldridge Alison Eldridge was Managing Editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Alison Eldridge

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Que viene el Coco

(“Here Comes the Bogeyman”)

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Also spelled:
boogieman or boogie man
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bogeyman, any of a variety of fictional and oftentimes folkloric monsters described in stories designed to frighten children. Tales of the bogeyman and various analogues have been used for centuries all across the world to influence children to behave as their parents command and to exercise caution in dangerous situations or areas. The term is also sometimes used more generally to describe any fearsome or dreaded thing.

Creation of the bogeyman

The word bogeyman, used to describe a monster in English, comes from the Middle English bugge or bogge, which means “a frightening spectre.” Bogeyman itself is known from the 15th century, though bogeyman stories are almost certainly much older. Because of the nature of the tales and the often indistinct or changing nature of the monster, it is impossible to trace the character to a single origin in any culture, much less globally.

It is generally thought that the bogeyman was invented to serve as a caution or deterrent to children. By warning children that a bogeyman will capture them if they stray into the dark woods, for instance, parents might better ensure that children are cautious about where they go and when. In this way, the bogeyman may serve as a shorthand for the various dangers to lone children in the woods. Instead of explaining that they may fall into a ravine, be attacked by an animal, touch something poisonous, and so on, a parent may more easily say “if you go into the woods at night, the bogeyman will get you.” The bogeyman also represents a supernatural presence that can do things a parent cannot do and go places a parent cannot go. Children may know what punishments their parents are capable of assigning, but a bogeyman’s capabilities and motivations are unknowable—thus, all the more terrifying.

Sometimes children develop a concept of the bogeyman on their own. When children begin to try to make sense of the world around them, they often experience fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. This sense of dread, especially when alone or in the dark, can lead children to imagine unseen terrors lurking in the shadows, under the bed, or in the closet. However, because the bogeyman is a distinct entity, there is often a possibility of overcoming or defeating the monster. Parents of small children may employ “monster spray” or put on a night-light to keep the bogeyman away.

Cultural variations of the bogeyman

In some cultures, the bogeyman is amorphous, shapeless, and perhaps described as just a dark figure or something seen out of the corner of the eye. It may even be said to change its shape into anything it chooses or any number of terrible things. It may have claws or nails to scratch against doors or windowpanes, glowing eyes that can be seen in the dark, or horns like an animal. In other cultures, the bogeyman may have a more specific appearance or a recognizable role or belong to another species. It may be a witch, goblin, or ghost, or it may have animal characteristics. La Llorona is a Mexican bogeyman who is the ghost of a woman who wears a white dress. The vodnik (also called vodyanoy) of the Czech Republic is a water spirit who can assume many different forms to entice humans to the banks of rivers and lakes. The Yara-ma-yha-who of Australia looks like a frog with bright red fur, and the Kludde of the Flemish countryside (northern Belgium) is a large doglike demon with a beak, scales, fur, and sharp claws.

Most bogeyman stories involve the punishment, capture, or assault of a disobedient child. Hombre del saco (Sack Man) of Spain spirits children away in a sack, either to sell them or to eat them. The namahage of Japan look for disobedient children on New Year’s Eve; they take away children who don’t mind their parents or who are lazy or cry too much. A Brazilian lullaby warns children that if they do not go to sleep, they will be taken by a cuca, a crocodile woman.

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Various stories and traditions involve tales of how bogeymen can be subverted, outsmarted, or conquered. The kappa of Japan hold power in water-filled depressions in their heads; bowing to one will cause it to bow in return and spill its power-giving water. Leaving shoes by the door will deter the jumbee of the Caribbean region, who will spend the night trying to get the shoes onto its backward feet.

Portrayal of the bogeyman in Western pop culture

The pervasive fear of unknown spectres has led to a variety of depictions of bogeymen in popular media. Arguably, any number of supernatural horror movie icons—such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street film franchises, respectively—are bogeymen of sorts. Michael Myers, the slasher from the Halloween series of films, is often invoked in bogeyman discussions, as the original film (1978) mentions the bogeyman several times. Oogie Boogie, the villain in the animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), is more of a literal bogeyman (or “boogie” man, as he styles himself, given his penchant for dance and music), who appears as both a corporeal and a spectral figure and is composed of bugs and worms. A more modern bogeyman is Slender Man, a tall featureless humanoid who wears a suit, tales of whom originated on the Internet in the early 2000s.

Alison Eldridge

Bogeyman | Origin, Definition, & Synonyms (2024)
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