Monster of the Week: The Mirocaw Harlequins

"Oh god, Harlequin, do not move like that! Harlequin, where are your arms?" image by Dr. Bantham

Author Thomas Ligotti possesses a rare talent in his ability to expose Lovecraftian horror just beneath the surface of daily life. And in his anthropological work "The Last Feast of Harlequin," he provides fascinating insight into the monstrous truth behind the town of Mirocaw and its bizarre clowning traditions.

At first the festival appears to be just another drunken celebration of clown abuse in small-town America. Then we learn the festival masks a far older and darker reality: the gathering of ghastly, pale-faced humanoids. They eventually leave the town for a network of earthen tunnels, and here the harlequins transform into humanity's secret, primal, wormlike form.

Questionable History

There's probably nothing in your religion about angels creating the first humans in the shape of earth-tunneling worm men. Likewise, your evolution text books likely didn't cover such a pre-bipedal stage of human monstrosity. And yet, as related in in this Daily Mail article, Dr. Heinrich Kusch claims our Stone Age ancestors created a massive network of subterranean passages that webbed through all of Europe. And, get this, the tunnels are "not much larger than big wormholes - just 70cm wide - just wide enough for a person to wriggle along but nothing else." Chew on that, worm face.

Troubling Biology

The prospect of a human/earthworm hybrid is as perplexing as it is horrifying. The last common ancestor of earthworm and man existed 600 million years ago, but if you just focus on the digestive system, we're not all that different. In fact, according to Dr. Alexander Khoruts in Mary Roach's "Gulp," humans are "basically a highly evolved earthworm surrounding the intestinal tract." And this is perhaps what makes the idea of a human worm so terrifying: it breaks us down to our most basic function.

Tears of a Clown

The Mirocaw Harlequins appear as ghastly, clown-faced men who quickly devolve into man-sized worms with a "horrible, mouthing umbilicus" where a face should be. They feast on human flesh and squirm through the "cloacal blackness" of their foul tunnels. In the town of Mirocaw, traditional clowns serve as a means of distracting or rationalizing this horrible reality. So think of that the next time you stare at a grease-painted face and shudder.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.