Like the ugly American I am, I first encountered the redcap in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Little did I know that the creature from Professor Lupin’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class is a figure from real-life (or Muggle, depending on how you look at it) British folklore — and a sinister one, at that.
England and Scotland seem to have worked out a joint custody agreement for this little gremlin. The legend traces back to the borderlands at the edge of the two countries, where it’s said that redcaps lurk in abandoned castles and other ruined buildings near battle sites — places where human blood has been spilled.
Why would anyone choose to live in a place like that?
Despite physical descriptions comparing them to small, wrinkled old men, redcaps are creatures of warfare. They’re drawn to violent bloodshed like a B-list movie monster to a gaggle of teens in the woods. Redcaps don’t get their name just from frivolous fashion statements — they dye those hats themselves.
And they like to keep that red nice and bright.
If their hat dries out, legends say that the redcap will die.
So, sure, any time you think of a creature that survives off of human blood, vampires are bound to come up. After all, if you’re being hunted down by a monster like that, “will it drink my blood or use it for macabre tie-dye rituals?” is not something you’ll have the luxury to worry about when you’re dead.
The distinction goes a little further than that, though.
Vampires are efficient. Elegant. And, depending on how you feel about sparkles, even sexy.
What I mean to say is that vampires get right to the point. They go for the jugular. Just a quick bite and it’s over — a relatively quick way to go. All you have to do is grin and bear it.
Redcaps are different. They can be a little blunt. Local folklore varies when it comes to their favorite murder weapons: they’ve been said to bludgeon their victims to death, crush them with falling boulders, or attack with their own sharp claws and fangs.
I don’t know about you, but I’d not too fond of any of those options.
Worse, if you come across a redcap, you can forget about trying to run away. Despite the fact that their shoes are made of iron, redcaps are said to be incredibly fast. Some legends even say that it’s impossible to outrun them. Looks like your best bet is just to avoid creepy, abandoned castles that have hosted bloody historical battles.
Uh, actually, that’s probably pretty good advice in general.
In fact, it makes me wonder where these legends come from. Many folkloric stories begin as cautionary tales — exaggerated metaphors that are based on a much more mundane, but nevertheless real, threat.
In times of war, it’s not uncommon for bandits and other unsavory scavengers to take advantage of the chaos. More than a few of these parasitic characters probably figured out that an abandoned castle makes a pretty good hideout. It’s not hard to imagine how stories about a particularly violent highwayman could grow to resemble redcap folklore — hell, maybe there even was some creep who dyed their clothes in the blood of their enemies. Real historical figures have done worse.
Even if there weren’t real-life stories about murderers hanging around ancient battle sites, there’s something poignant about the imagery.
Any ground so thoroughly soaked in blood will remain haunted long after it’s dried — whether you believe that’s literal or not. We humans are blessed and cursed with great imagination. A stain like that does not fade easily from the mind.
Maybe that’s what makes the redcap so unsettling — it’s a physical manifestation of the force that created its breeding ground.
A creature that needs bloodshed to survive and thrives on the ghosts of long-buried conflicts, one that preys as much on the lost and defenseless as the warriors — old and wrinkled, yet so swift that the sight of it makes its violence inevitable.
And that’s a heinous monster indeed.