The classic monster generally at least has the common courtesy to maintain a discernible shape. Otherwise the frightened villagers would run away, screaming “a formless thing! Save yourselves”. You don’t know whether to be scared or not. Leaves a lot to the imagination. Luckily, the folklore of Scotland, Ireland, England, and the Hebrides offer us an amorphous horror slithering and floating along desolate roads, or as a once popular video game called Neverwinter Nights described its particular gelatinous monstrosity, “Just when you thought that unsightly pasta stains had no champion, and you were comfortable in a world where mayonnaise didn’t fight back, comes a creature made entirely of the stuff that bursts out of mashed caterpillars. These are the rock stars of downtrodden gravy stains and greasy splotches everywhere: a large, intelligent cube of glop that can chase you down and digest you before you’ve accepted you’re being beaten up by an overachieving dessert,” a near perfect description for the folkloric horror called “Old Boneless” –or just Boneless, The Grey Man, Brollachan (Scottish Gaelic), or Caointech (the Hebrides).
This is a terrifying supernatural entity mostly in folklore of Oxfordshire, England. It is described as a clammy, white, stinking, shapeless mass. Boneless inhabits the lonely lanes of the countryside, especially on dark or foggy nights. The spirit is said to move along the ground, then it overtakes and engulfs travelers on dark, lonely roads (Rose, 1996, p48).
The 1958 horror film “The Blob”, starring Steve McQueen is widely described by cinema theorists as a Cold War parable, with the Blob itself considered a thinly veiled metaphor for Communism i.e. creeps forward, consuming everything in its path and consequently growing larger and larger, but various other psychological interpretations have been offered, such as the possibility that The Blob is truly a weird Freudian perinatal (birth-derived) fantasy. “A shape shifting monster terrorizes a small town. Curiously, although the monster can morph into any shape, it prefers to assume fetal and gynecological forms, killing as a placenta, amniotic membrane, an umbilicus, and a vagina” (Piven & Lawton, 2001, p271). While these reflect the cultural sensibilities of the 1950’s as re-imagined by modern film theorists working on dissertations, legends of blob-like monstrosities such as Old Boneless and is miasmic cousins predate the Hollywood film industry by several centuries. We might find a clue in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of what humanity would be without culture. “The extreme generality, diffuseness, and variability of human’s innate (that is genetically programmed) response capacities means that without the assistance of cultural patterns we would be functionally incomplete, not merely a talented ape who had, like some underprivileged child, unfortunately been prevented from realizing his full potentialities, but a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions” (Geertz, 1973, p.99). Thus, if monsters tend to embody shared psycho-cultural anxieties, what are we to make of a formless creature like Old Boneless? A blob is the ultimate symbol of the alien organism, a repository of the potentiality of every kind of horror. Look at it this way. If you’re going to be a mythological monster, it pays to have a back story. It makes you more horrible to have some sort of history and motivation. Even relatively formless ghosts are usually pissed off at something when they hang about haunting us. A blob, or atmospheric sort of creature is purely consumptive, even if folk traditions eventually ascribe some sort of human motive to its lurking about back roads and eating unwary travelers. If monsters are created by taking the average person, and negating some aspect of their humanity (e.g. control of animal impulses, conscience, tentacles, lack of fur, life when it comes to the undead), than a truly disturbing horror is one that negates every aspect of humanity, including the ontological imperative of actually having a shape. The boneless blob is the very symbolic edge of civilization, refusing not only to conform to human logic, but won’t even conform to a proper form. No wonder Celtic mothers have been keeping the Children in line with threats of Old Boneless for generations.
Our mother’s maids have so frayed us with Bull-beggars, Spirits, Witches, Urchins, Elves, Hags, Faeries, Satyrs, Pans, Faunes, Sylens, Kit-wi-the-Canstick, Tritons, Centaurs, Dwarfs, Gyants, Impes, Calcars, Conjurors, Nymphs, Changelings, Incubus, Robin Groodfellow, the Spoorn, the Mare, the Man-in-the-Oak, the Hell-wain, the Firedrake, the Puckle, Tom-thombe, Hobgoblin, Tom-tumbler, Boneless, and such other Bugs, that we are afraid of our shadow (Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcrafte, vii. 15, 1584)
Unless you are a really, really big and frightening animal, sight is a pretty important sense when trying to avoid being eaten by a predator. The keen-eyed Australopithecine ancestor that spotted the charging lion early lived to reproduce. We see shapes moving. We run away. Pretty adaptive strategy when you get right down to it. But what about when it’s dark, or foggy, or our vision is obscured? On the lonely roads, on the edge of civilization, amorphous entities creep, and we may be unable to discern many structures or shapes in the monstrous body, the very formlessness, an absolute rejection of human order can be nothing other than evil.
There are many British folktales telling of encounters with an eerie amorphous entity, animate and sinister, variously nicknamed ‘Boneless’ or simply ‘It’. One moonlit September night during the 1950’s, however, railwayman John Davies was riding his motorbike back home to his cottage in Derbyshire’s Longdendale Valley when he saw what appears to have been a bona fide Boneless crossing the road not far ahead. Moments earlier, he had felt an uncanny, seemingly reasonless compulsion to brake, and as he did so he spied what looked like a huge black slug sliding across the road and up the moor, making a scraping noise as its massive but near-shapeless form moved along. Up closer, it looked a little like a massive whale, and even possessed an eye-like structure, and Davies later learnt that it had been seen by others. One such observer was a friend of Davies, who had seen it sliding across the valley below Ogden Clough, where it was also observed on a separate occasion by another of his friends. Both of them were convinced that whatever it was, it was definitely evil, and both had fled in panic after spying it (Karl Shuker, 2012, “The Top Ten Paranormal Beast in Britain”).
The Irish incarnation of Old Boneless is “The Grey Man” and merrily engages in activities that assure human destruction through its ability to obscure obstacles (like hiding shoals from ships, or cliffs from hikers). While given human-sized proportions, he is still an amorphous man-sized mist.
No other being in the Irish fairy world is more mysterious or sinister than the Grey Man. The origins are uncertain, but he is known by a variety of names. In the most westerly parts of Ireland, in Galway, Sligo and Kerry, he is known by the anglicised name of Old Boneless. In Waterford and Wexford, he is regarded as little more than a hazy and ragged shadow, moving against the sun and trailing mist in his wake. In Kerry and Clare, he is a being of man-size proportions wrapped in a grey cloak made out of wreathing fog which he continually swirls about him. In Antrim and Down, he is a cloudy, cowled giant, robed like a monk in misty garments and glimpsed far out at sea or above distant mountains. Being a creature of mist and fog, the Grey Man sustains himself on the smoke from the chimney of houses. For this reason, he is one of the few fairies that will venture close to large towns or cities, where he can be just as troublesome as in the country or the scattered communities along the seashore. You know when he passes, for his cloak smells musty and unpleasant, heavy with the smell of woodsmoke and peat, and he leaves a cold, clammy air in his wake. The Grey man delights in the loss of human life and may use his misty cloak to deadly effect. For example, he may obscure rocks along the coast so that passing ships will smash into them; or he may obscure a road so that a traveller becomes lost or plunges to his death over a dangerous precipice. This fairy lacks the gift of speech and ignores the supplications of lost mariners and wayfarers. However, the phrase “God bless you!” appears to exert some power over him and may drive him away, at least for a while. A crucifix or holy medal, especially one which has been blessed by a bishop, may have a similar effect, but it should be remembered that such artefacts will not hold him at bay for very long. After this he will return, more virulent than ever (Curran, 1997, p19-21).
The Scottish Brollachan is yet another version of Old Boneless.
The Brollachan, whose name means Shapeless Thing in Scottish Gaelic, was deemed to be the offspring of a fuath and was supposed to inhabit mill streams. The Brollachan, although essentially a miasma without formal shape, did possess both eyes and a mouth. While having the power of speech, the spirit could only pronounce two phrases: Mi phrein (myself) and Tu phrein (thyself) (Rose, 1996, p49).From Widow M. Calder, a pauper, Sutherland. In the mill of the Glens MUILION NA GLEANNAN lived long ago a cripple of the name of Murray, better known as “Ally” na Muilinn. He was maintained by the charity of the miller and his neighbours, who, when they removed their meal, put each a handful into the lamiter’s bag. The lad slept usually at the mill; and it came to pass that one night, who should enter but the BROLLACHAN, son of the FUATH. Now the Brollachan has eyes and a mouth, and can say two words only, MI-FHEIN, myself, and THU-FHEIN, thyself; besides that, he has no speech, and alas no shape. He lay all his lubber-length by the dying fire; and Murray threw a fresh peat on the embers, which made them fly about red hot, and Brollachan was severely burnt. So he screamed in an awful way, and soon comes the “Vough,” very fierce, crying, “Och, my Brollachan, who then burnt you?” but all he could say was “mee!” and then he said “oo!” (me and thou, mi thu); and she replied, “Were it any other, wouldn’t I be revenged” (Campbell, 1862, p189).
And from the Hebrides we have a version of Boneless called the Caointech.
The Caointech is a death spirit in the folklore of the Hebrides Islands and southwest Scotland, whose name means “the keener” (one who wails or cries for the dead). She was envisaged as a nebulous, formless white presence, or as a small woman dressed in green washing bloodstained linen in a stream (Rose, 1996, p62).
Most monsters have the decency to represent something. Old Boneless represents absolutely nothing, that is, absolutely nothing human or animal beyond predatory devouring of the unsuspecting. Hegel proposed two kinds of monsters that will help us add Old Boneless and his kin to our monstrous roll call. “Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature makes provision for two kinds of monsters. On the one hand it accounts for monstrous deviations as necessary components of the richness of nature itself. Although these monsters exceed derivation from the concept directly, they do not resist its movement and therefore are nothing more than contingent particularities. Such monsters do not impede the demonstration of the science. On the other hand, the Philosophy of Nature is also afflicted by a kind of deviation that exceeds this determination of acceptable and accountable monsters. These second-order monsters resist the movement of the concept insofar as they constitute aberrations that deform the very method of rationality” (Gunkel, 1997, p43). A shapeless, insubstantial, mindless, motivationless monster that will nonetheless eat you defies categorization, eternally taxonomically identified as “other” or “miscellaneous”. Most monsters are described by what they are (an undead human, a half-man half beast, the souls of the departed), even if that is a deformation of the category of existence. Old Boneless is described by what he is not. What could be more monstrous to a thing whose ontological status cannot even be named? As Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes said, “Perfect order is the forerunner of perfect horror”. Could anything be more monstrous than a creature that steadfastly refuses to participate in the order of the universe? Old Boneless not only rejects order, he pretends it doesn’t exist at all as he floats in an amorphous mass on the back roads of the British Isles, absorbing the odd human into his absolute negation. And we have a strong suspicion that he’s a communist.
Campbell, J. F. 1822-1885. Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862.
Curran, Bob. A Field Guide to Irish Faeries. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 87-125. NY: Basic Books, 1973.
Gunkel, David. “Scary Monsters: Hegel and the Nature of the Monstrous”. International Studies in Philosophy 29:2, p23-46, 1997.
Piven, Jerry S. & Lawton, Henry W. Psychological Undercurrents of History. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001.
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins. London: Norton and Company, 1996.