On Christmas Eve, Santa shows up in Swedish homes to hand out Christmas presents. Of course, what it really is is an older family member in red clothes and a beard. Sometimes they wear a plastic Santa mask. When I was little, my grandfather played Santa. He showed up in a Santa mask, and I was terrified. It sort of looked like Grandpa, but I wasn’t sure those were his eyes behind the mask. Something was terribly wrong. My mother tells me I was terrified and cried until Grandpa took the mask off, and became himself again.
I’ve always been fascinated by the almost-human, and often return to it. I’m far from alone in my obsession. Folklore is full of humanoids with a strange or ominous agenda. There are Swedish creatures like the huldra woman, who lives in the forest and whose back is a rotten log. Some Swedish trolls look human but not quite: they’re taller and more beautiful, and sometimes you can spot a cow’s tail peeking out from under a skirt. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Grinning Man haunted lonely American highways, and Men in Black showed up in the wake of UFO flaps to ask nonsensical questions. In these creepypasta days, the Slenderman lurks at the edge of crowds and playgrounds, and black-eyed children knock on your door late at night and ask to be let inside. Centuries-old or modern, seen in real life or manufactured, these entities all have the same elements in common: they kind of look like us, but something is wrong, and they have strange agendas. It brings a very particular kind of fascination and fear to our minds.