Sentinels of Straw


From the most ancient of times mankind has built humanoid figures, imagined personalities for them … and come to fear them. What if the statue of Zeus stepped off the dais? What if the child’s doll sat up from the floor where it was discarded? What if the scarecrow jumped off its cross and shuffled out of the cornfield?

 

There are countless stories based on this theme. The Jewish story of the Golem is one of the oldest, but probably Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is the best known today. Not all are horror stories, of course, as evidenced by Pixar Animation’s Toy Story movies. But many are. The only ones that matter here are horror stories.

 

Specifically, I want to talk about scarecrows. Growing up in Oklahoma, I’ve seen a few scarecrows standing guard in various fields, though they’re not really a common sight here. When seen, though, they can be rather creepy, even when the creator makes an effort to lighten them up with funny hats or silly grins.

 

My first experience with a scarecrow was as a kid. My dad and I built one for Halloween. Well, he built it. I mostly held boards for him to nail. We dressed it in some of my dad’s old clothes and left it lying on the floor of the garage. We had to take it apart the next day because my younger sister was just too scared of it.

 

There are several scarecrow movies out there, such as the one I mentioned a few days back, The Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Other movies employ scarecrow imagery to good effect, most notably The Blair Witch Project. Remember those stick figures? There are some good short stories about scarecrows, too. I remember reading a good one in The Horror Show magazine back in the 1980s, though I can’t remember the title or author now.

 

What is it that attracts us to such stories? My theory is that after we’ve created the thing we can’t help but project some personality upon it. It’s a blank slate, and humans being human, we let our minds wander. We ask the question every writer asks: What if …?

 

What if the scarecrow me and my dad made had known that it would be murdered the next day because of my sister’s fear? Would it have gotten up off that cold cement floor and tried to save itself?

 

The scarecrow isn’t likely to lose its small place in the horror pantheon anytime soon. As with any established figure, writing a new scarecrow story that will capture a reader’s imagination won’t be easy, but they can be used very effectively to heighten a sense of dread in a story, even when they aren’t actually shambling after us.

 

What scarecrow stories do you remember? Have you ever made a scarecrow? Did you project some personality onto it? If so, was it benevolent or malevolent? Were you afraid of your creation?


0 responses to “Sentinels of Straw”

  1. A dream I had…
    Man, one of the worst nightmares I ever had was about a scarecrow.
    It took place in the house that my son was born. I would stare out my bedroom window into the dark cow pastures just past a barbed wire fence that surrounded the property we were renting, and standing there, staring back at me was this scarecrow.
    In my dream, days seem to go by, and each time I looked out the window, that scarecrow was just a little closer.
    Just before I woke up, I looked out the window and the scarecrow was just past the fence, and it seemed to have just noticed that I was noticing it. Then, suddenly, its human eyes opened real wide, and it darted off into the darkness.
    Yeah. That was a good one.
    Great post!

  2. Good post, Steve. We don’t tend to see a lot of scarecrows over here in the UK, I read a Three Investigators mystery that involved one and got this delightful frisson of fear!

    • They’re not all that common on this side of the pond anymore. The only scarecrows I’ve seen lately are the little smiling variety they sell in craft shows. But what those lack in individual malevolence they make up for in numbers. Makes me think of Mickey Mouse’s broom in “Fantasia.”

  3. I made a scarecrow once. I used whatever I could find in the garage, a sponge for a head, rags to clean the car, whatever clothes I was allowed. I used twine and tape to put up the broomsticks… permission, but no help. I know there’s a picture of me somewhere “presenting” it I was so damn proud of that thing. I forget now what name I gave to it, but I used to picture it jumping off and dancing with me in the garden. I even started to feel that summer, like it was there to protect me, not the garden.
    When you put a lot of effort and heart into something you create, you give it a piece of your own heart, as writers we know this well. So do painters…
    Having taken way too many psych courses in my life I need to bring htis up, and not to be silly, but really. When little children really understand that their body can make poop, and they see it, they’re proud of it – and some get very upset when it gets flushed down. (yeah yeah, I know adults like this still.) But it’s one of the first things that we take pride in creating.
    People who grow up to work with wood, matel, create things with their hands, people who repair things, get great satisfaction from it. When someone crafts a doll, which is very personal, a lot of heart, and soul? goes into it. Welcome Chucky… 😉
    So I wonder… how evil can a hand-knitted scarf be? Heh heh heh…

    • Some of my writing stinks like poo and needs to be flushed …
      So, do you think we’re less likely to project evil personalities onto the scarecrow we create ourselves? And more likely to project the evil onto the neighbor’s scarecrow?
      A hand-knitted scarf, eh? Well, Martha Stewart, when you wrap it around your neck I guess you’ll find out if it’s evil or not. 😉

      • I htink when you look at what someone else made, it tends to look more like an oversized voodoo doll. You don’t know the heart or intentions of the maker.
        Mind you, Mary Shelly’s story is different. 😉 That was a story written out of desperation, incredible loss, and drugs.

  4. I once made a scarecrow as a kid. I must;’ve been around 6 or 7. Apparetnly I wasn;t too handy back then. Instead of looking imposing or frightening, he looked a little… slow.
    It was still cool to make one, though. Maybe I’ll see what I have lying around the garage. We do get crows where I live now. 😉

  5. Cool. This whole post reminds me of the first scarecrow movie I ever saw. It scared the crap out of me when I was a little kid–maybe five or six. It was called Dr. Syn and took place in the American Colonies pre-Revolutionary War. I haven’t seen it since then, but now I’ve got a hankering to find it on DVD.

  6. I don’t believe the maker or owner of any such figure would view them as evil to him/herself. Although, the intended reaction, as with scarecrows, may be to scare others, whether they be human or animal.
    I have a yard and house filled with gargoyles of all shapes and sizes. They, to me, as they were intended to be, are my friends and protectors. Most people who see them however view them as creatures of evil. Same holds true with the faerie statues and the Witch vane I have outside. It’s amazing what a person perceives as evil.
    The next town over from me puts up about 50 life-size scarecrows the school children create and line the main street with them. Some of them are extremely scary.
    Great blog. Yeah…, what if?

  7. First off, of course, scarecrows are designed to be scary, right? I mean, if they don’t scare off the crows from eating the crops, they’re kind of useless…but I’d also like to think that part of our fear of scarecrows might be inspired by something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story “Feathertop”.
    The two best recent cinematic uses of scarecrows would have to be in JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 and (especially) Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, in which the scarecrow persists in hopping after our heroine throughout the film.
    Here’s a bit of trivia about scarecrows from THE HALLOWEEN ENCYCLOPEDIA: “A common word for scarecrow in the north of England is ‘bogle’, which is also sometimes used for bogies.”

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