Things That Go Bump in the Vault

Things That Go Bump in the Vault

By Adrienne Rusinko and Katie Zondlo

Throughout time and place, demons have played a unique role in humanity’s folklore. Cultures and religions around the world have attributed various misdeeds, ranging from the mischievous to the downright nefarious, to supernatural entities. Stories of demons have been used as explanations for the unknown and warnings to keep communities in line with societal norms. Depictions range from Paleolithic cave art to theatrical performances to modern video games. 

Princeton University Library’s Special Collections, which hold materials spanning millennia across the globe, have a fair share of demonic depictions lurking on the shelves. One never knows which ghost, goblin, monster, or other feared spectre could possibly come traipsing through the vault’s locked door.

Kitāb-i ʻAjāʾib-i makhlūqāt
(Islamic Manuscripts, Third Series no. 349)

Horned humanoid being with six heads riding a horned animal

Demons represent the signs of the Zodiac in this early 20th century Islamic manuscript that originates from Isfahan, a city located in central Iran. Watercolor illustrations of the beasts were later added to the Persian book of spells, along with depictions of constellations and archangels. There are written incantations and rituals to assist the reader with warding off and protecting themselves against these powerful creatures.

化物太平記 / 十返舎一九著
Bakemono Taiheiki / Juppensha Ikku cho
((JRare) PL797 .B35 1804)

Four fierce beings looking at a snake

Depicted in this book from the East Asian Library’s Rare Books collection, which is accessible in the Special Collections Reading Room in Firestone Library, are Yōkai, the supernatural entities of Japanese folklore. Various stories describe ghosts, shapeshifters, and other monsters, but this word is often translated into English as “demons”. This image comes from one book of a three-volume set written and illustrated by Juppensha Ikku in the Edo Period entitled 化物太平記, or Monster Taiheiki.

A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Children / Robert Kent
(CTSN Eng 18 96399)

A man standing in a circle holding a book and a stick looking at a demonic figure sitting under a cross

The title page picture of A Timely Warning to Rash and Disobedient Children is a variation of a woodcut that appears at the start of many modern editions of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Faustus is shown standing inside a magic circle at the exact moment when he conjures the fire-breathing demon Mephistopheles through the floor. The book serves as a reminder to children to always be good, otherwise they may suffer consequences from their misbehavior. Read more about the often-repeated woodcut on Cotsen’s curatorial blog.

土佐光成 [A demon and people’s festival] / Tosa Mitsunari
((CTSN) 101962 Print Case LA / Box 67)

People at a festival with one dressed as a demon

Illustrated by Japanese painter Tosa Mitsunari in the Edo Period, this work from the Cotsen Children’s Library, 土佐光成 (A Demon and People’s Festival), shows amused onlookers watching a man dressed as a demon perform at the festival. While the specifics of the event are not described in our documentation, it is possible that this depicts the Mamemaki ritual from the Setsubun festival, which is supposed to ward off evil spirits at the start of the spring.

Spectropia, or Surprising Spectral Illusions: Showing Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour
(GAX 2003-0344N)

Ghostly figure with hair on its chin and nose

Tricking your eyes with creepy optical illusions is the goal of this book from the Graphic Arts Collection, and this image is the most nightmarish. The scientific process works by staring at the black dot on the ghoul’s nose for 20-30 seconds, and then turning to look at a white wall or ceiling. The demonic image will appear in your vision, but in different colors. There is more about this unique sight deception, and you can stare at other scary specters, on Cotsen’s creative literacy blog, Pop Goes the Page.

 Halloween A B C / Eve Merriam
(CTSN 2765 Eng 20)

Three demons dancing under a letter D

Inside Halloween A B C, award-winning poet Eve Merriam conjures clever Halloween canons, one for every letter of the alphabet. The compilation of cursed poems has been challenged and even sometimes banned by libraries for its mature content, despite being specifically written for children. Deftly illustrated by Lane Smith, “D is for Demon” features three little dancing devils, all jovially reacting to the heat that resides under their feet.

Four horizontal magic lantern slides
(CTSN 33922236 Opticals)

Two people frightened by a ghost with the head of a pumpkin

Long before video streaming services, the humble magic lantern was used to display lighted images for both education and entertainment. Dating back to the 17th century, magic lanterns were the earliest projectors, typically using a simple candle to illuminate a picture for an audience to enjoy. The Cotsen Children’s Library collection offers this spooky slide of a pumpkin-headed ghost scaring two unsuspecting passers-by; the illustration is hand painted on glass and mounted inside a wood frame. 

The Gout
GA 2006.01301

A small demon biting a swollen foot

This famous image The Gout by James Gillray, from the Graphic Arts Collection, is a representation of the joint pain associated with gout, a form of inflammatory arthritis. Gout was historically noted as the “King’s Disease” or “Rich Man’s Disease” due to a diet high in uric acid, usually from consuming too much meat and seafood. This flame-mustachioed demon gnawing on a foot symbolizes the hot and tender pain that those afflicted often describe as “torturous.”

Note: Demons also appear in political cartoons, a medium that often leans on tropes or generalizations in order to provide wider context to the often brief captions. It’s important to mention that these works provide a glimpse into the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions of their time. While the cartoons shared below clearly utilize the demon imagery as visual satire, indicating what is happening is bad, their depictions also employ and contribute to harmful and offensive racial stereotypes.

The Life of William Cobbett, Written by Himself 
GA 2006.01335

A man in a burning room surrounded by demonic figures

Plate 8 from The Life of William Cobbett, Written by Himself (the work itself created by James Gillray) from the Graphic Arts collection shows William Cobbett, English radical pamphleteer, journalist, and politician, entering a hell of his own making while considering reform versus revolution. The caption describes the demons emerging from the fireplace as “bats and harpies of the revolution” while “Old-Beelzebub” demands “his property – the Forfeit Soul, which I had pledged!”

The Consular Family on Their Last Journey
GA 2014.00155

People in a coach driven by devilish beings and pulled by a dragon

Another Graphic Arts piece by Thomas Rowlandson, noted political satirist and caricaturist of the Georgian Era, titled this work The Consular Family on their Last Journey, which depicts Napoleon and his family descending into hell on the coach of “the Prince of all evil”. The carriage is decorated with winged skulls and a hand holding a dagger. A demonic coach driver looks jubilant as his fleet of fire breathing monsters leads them downwards, with his lackeys cackling in the back.

Two Fat Men in Suits Dance Happily with a Demon
William H. Walker Cartoon Collection

Two large men dancing with a demon

This unfinished political cartoon from the Public Policy Papers’ William H. Walker Cartoon Collection is described as “Two fat men in suits dance happily with a demon.” While we may never know who these men are intended to depict or what the smirking demon represents, it can easily be applied to any number of circumstances. This basic sketch would lend itself well to The New Yorker magazine caption contest.