Standing in line this week for my annual peppermint mocha latte at Starbucks, I realized that peppermint, unlike pumpkin spice, has its limitations as a holiday flavor. Peppermint beer, mashed peppermint potatoes, pretty much anything in the savory category seems less than immediately appealing (though I’m sure it’s been done, and done well). So Halloween and the fall season really chose a winner with pumpkin spice (its taste and smell are extremely effective triggers for nostalgic, overwhelming emotional memories). Peppermint is not bad, not by a long shot, but some things are just more easily adaptable to holiday theming. Which made me think about, you guessed it, holiday horror, Saint Patrick’s Day edition.
As I discussed in breaking down why clowns are scary (IT release date: September 8th, 2017!), certain features are reliably seen as scary, or at least confusing—for example, face paint or a mask blocking our ability to read facial expressions, or worse, when the painted facial expression is the opposite of the expressed, e.g. an angry clown with a painted-on smile. There’s also the fear that comes from flipping or violating the expected motivations, expressions, and behaviors of a well-known cultural symbol like the clown. This is why it’s fun / frightening to turn Santa Claus, the snowman, the Easter Bunny, dolls, and even children into horror movie characters—they’re supposed to be good, full of joy and wonder, and now they’re evil! (Notice the rise of holiday haunts and horror). But not all holiday characters are as adaptable, or at least not as much fun (in my opinion), to adapt. Case in point: Saint Patrick and leprechauns.
Let’s start with a very short history of Saint Patrick’s Day. Saint Patrick was born to a wealthy family in Britain (this is around 390 AD, so records are fuzzy. In fact, some scholars argue that Britain was not the country as we know it, but a location around present-day France). He was captured at age 16, by Irish Pirates (yes, Irish Pirates) and forced into slavery. While in Ireland, he converted to Christianity and reportedly heard a voice telling him to escape back to Britain—which he did. His devotion to Christianity deepened and he was soon ordained as a bishop. Once again, he heard voices, this time the voices of the Irish calling to him, telling him to return to Ireland to convert the masses—which he also did.
Saint Patrick returned to Ireland and spent the rest of his days converting the Irish people to Christianity. This is where the story of “chasing out the snakes from Ireland” originates—there were no snakes in Ireland, just “evil” pagan religions that he “ran” out with the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (wait! That’s like the three-leaf clover! Also, not recommended for actual snake removal). Saint Patrick went mostly unsung as a national hero until his work came to attention again in the 17th century and his death on March 17th, which was named as an official Christian Feast Day.
However, the day as we know it—full of parades and green beer—did not arrive until the 19th century, and not in Ireland until the 20th. The evolution of Saint Patrick’s Day into a commercialized “moral holiday” used to justify excessive drinking and shenanigans is a whole other topic, for now I’ll just note that Saint Patrick, unlike Santa Claus, does not lend himself to horror adaptation. He was the son of wealthy slave owners, became a slave, and then was Christian who ran out the pagans. Depending on where you stand religiously and ethically, he could be a hero (though remember, there were no actual snakes involved, so he’s not your snake annihilating superhero) or a villain, and generally the best holiday characters for horror adaptation are strictly one or the other (i.e. Santa Claus or Krampus). Not to mention they usually have some characteristic that is otherworldly or magical.
So, if not Saint Patrick, what about the leprechaun? The mythic character is caught up in the 21st-century version of Saint Patrick's Day, displayed and dressed up as every Irish thing we can think of. Surely they are perfect for a horror makeover? Not really.
The origin of the leprechaun is a topic of debate, because fairy and elfish creatures appear across many folklores and myths, and there are several potential “first encounters.” Under slightly different names across different regions, he’s presented as a nature spirit, a kind of fairy gifted with supernatural powers. Another theory suggests that the stories passed down about the leprechauns are actually stories referencing the early people of Ireland, who were shorter in stature, lived in hidden, sometimes underground areas, and notoriously, “prankishly pestered their conquerors.”
My favorite, and the most recent, theory as to the emergence of the leprechaun: Lewy Body Disease. Kevin Foy from University College Hospital in Galway published an op-ed in the academic journal Transcultural Psychiatry, noting that the experiences reported by his elderly patients with Lewy Body Disease (a type of dementia that includes hallucinations) are quite similar to stories of leprechauns told by the elderly living in Ireland in the 1800s. Foy shared two cases of patients (living in different homes, not related) reporting to see and hear leprechauns in their homes. These creatures caused mischief, upturning chairs, stealing money, and generally terrorizing their lives. The thought is, perhaps this very real brain disorder laid the groundwork for the tales of fairies and leprechauns, and, who knows, perhaps the voice of Saint Patrick himself could be heard, calling him back to Ireland.
Over the centuries, several characteristics came together to create the Leprechaun we know today: a human-like creature, short in stature (this ranges widely, from some stories placing them around only two inches to as tall as five feet), wearing a green or red coat, cobbling a solo shoe, collecting gold, and, if captured, granting three wishes in exchange for their freedom. They are neither all good nor all bad. Some tales highlight their more sprite-ish, jubilant nature, while others warn of their cunning expertise in manipulation (or ability to drag chairs onto the roof, according to one report from Foy).
Perhaps it’s this existence between good and bad that has allowed the leprechaun to become a symbol with so many diverse connotations: the Fighting Irish, a cereal box cartoon character, a mischievous fairy, and a proud symbol of the Irish. It is also this point that makes them a poor choice for a horror icon. When it comes to monsters born of dissonance, and I’m NOT talking about the troubled or misunderstood serial killer, but rather the twisted Santa Clause, the killer clown, the flesh-hungry bunny (remember Bunnicula?)—we like the extremes. It’s the thrill of imagination, of turning these innocent, often childhood symbols into something so far from what we are used to, what we grew up with and expect. In a way, leprechauns are too much like us: they have good and bad intentions and motivations, and some days it’s easier to swing one way than the other. There isn’t as much room for stretching between the extremes in the imagination, making it feel somehow less satisfying in the transformation.
So, that’s my theory: Saint Patrick's Day, from the man to the elusive elf, does not lend itself to horror adaptation like Christmas and Valentine's Day. Similar to the holiday’s associated flavor of choice, peppermint, it’s not impossible to adapt it in new, fun ways (let’s not forget the Shamrock Shake), and should someone try another horror movie with a Saint Patrick's day or leprechaun villain, sign me up. But for now, I’m okay leaving my Irish icons right where they are.