Excursions Into Almost-Human Territory

On Christmas Eve, Santa shows up in Swedish homes to hand out Christmas presents. Of course, what it really is is an older family member in red clothes and a beard. Sometimes they wear a plastic Santa mask. When I was little, my grandfather played Santa. He showed up in a Santa mask, and I was terrified. It sort of looked like Grandpa, but I wasn’t sure those were his eyes behind the mask. Something was terribly wrong. My mother tells me I was terrified and cried until Grandpa took the mask off, and became himself again.

I’ve always been fascinated by the almost-human, and often return to it. I’m far from alone in my obsession. Folklore is full of humanoids with a strange or ominous agenda. There are Swedish creatures like the huldra woman, who lives in the forest and whose back is a rotten log. Some Swedish trolls ...