Snow isn’t a particularly scary thing for those of us who live in cities, but once you’re outside that comforting envelope of civilisation the desolate crisp whiteness and obscure visibility can turn the landscape into a dangerous alien world. The idea that predators lurk, ready to come out in the snow and snare the unwary is hardly a surprise.
Yuki Onna is a Japanese ghost called the Snow Maiden. She is every rice-boy’s Japanese girl fantasy: beautiful, dark almond eyes; pale, almost translucent skin; delicate and demure. She might appear naked, invisible except for her dark hair and eyes against the snow. Other times she might be wearing a thin white kimono, but those dark eyes are cold and merciless. Her embrace, even her breath, is deadly.
For the hunter Hiro, trudging home through the snow, she was death. He saw her faint figure in the waivering snow. Fearing for a lone woman he called out, “Beautiful woman, beautiful woman, we must find out way home.”
She did not answer. He moved closer, calling, “Beautiful maiden, beautiful maiden, you have nothing to fear.”
Finally, he drew close enough to see her, the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on. His heart leapt for joy, despite the snow.
“Come closer, hunter,” she said, in a small voice. “And collect your reward.”
Hiro leaned forward, his lips ready to receive his kiss. Her pale, icy skin burned his cheek. At the last moment, he opened his eyes to see the cold, pitilessness in her eyes, but it was too late – her chill breath froze him into statue of ice.
Other times Yuki Onna preys on parents looking for children lost in the snow. She carries a baby in her arms, drifting through the snowstorm until someone finds her. Any who accept the child from her arms is frozen to death.
Sometimes, though, Yuki Onna can be merciful. In one Japanese folk-tale a young hunter/trapper/woodsman is spared because of his youth and good looks, but is made to promise that he will not tell anyone about the snow maiden. Years later he has met and married a beautiful wife who he regales with the story, only to have her reveal herself as Yuki Onna. In most versions she spares his life, sometimes because of the children, other times because he has technically told no one but her.
Another snow related spirit is Snegurochka. She’s another snow maiden, again with a heart of ice, but this time she has a loving mother with magical powers. When she meets a handsome woodcutter, but cannot love him, her mother gives her the ability to experience human feelings. Unfortunately the warmth of her love destroys her icy body and she melts away to nothing.
Perhaps the spookiest supernatural snow event was the incident of the Devil’s Footprints that happened on the night of February 7th 1855. During a night of particularly heavy snow, locals all over the West Midlands and Westcountry woke to find lines of sourceless cloven hoofprints that came out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly. Most of the prints were of a large, cloven hooved animal, but with seemingly two feet, walking in a straight line. Patches were found up to one hundred miles apart and some locals had seen a huge, devil-like figure trudging through the darkness, bent against the storm.
Hysterical bands of locals mobilised against the monster, but none found any sign of ‘Old Scratch’ making his way across the land. Some explanations have been offered, including old favourites like an experimental weather balloon with dangling, cloven-hoof shaped tethers, hopping mice and public hysteria… but none convince. The footprints have never happened since, but as Cornwall is full of myths where the Devil creates a stone circle during a throwing competition with a local giant, it’s possible that the Lord of the Flies might just have been out on a cold night, doing a bit of visiting.