Fairy Tale Friday: The “Alp” in German Folklore

When I first moved to Germany nearly 3 years ago (my, the time flies!), I did a deep dive into Grimm’s fairy tales and German folklore. I’d had a novel idea on my back burner ever since, which became a screenplay in October. It was so much fun to go back over all my notes and fall in love with the weird and wonderful world of these legends all over again.

One fairy tale critter I did not use in my own story is called an alp. There are a ton of variations and different names for this bringer of nightmares in difference Germanic offshoot languages, but if the name sounds like “elf” to you, you’re totally on target. Of course, unlike Tolkien’s graceful warriors, elves were largely regarded as small, ugly nuisances if not outright dangerous during medieval times and before. And technically speaking, it isn’t an alp unless it is wearing a special hat from which it draws its power.

The alp specifically comes at night and sits on the chest of sleeping people and steals away their life force, or in some version, grows increasingly heavy until they crush their victims to death. They mostly attacked women, but the attacks were rarely if ever considered sexual. Alps could also cause horrible dreams in the process, but by sitting on the chest, the sleeper could not move or wake. It was a good old fashioned explanation for the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. They were usually male, as opposed to it’s female (and for some reason equine) counterpart, the mara (from which the term “nightmare” is derived). In addition to sucking up your spirit, they are also big fans of breastmilk, so nursing moms were especially vulnerable.

I’ve run across variations on the alp in a couple forms of popular media. Most recently, there is a chest-sitting demon in the movie I reviewed last week, The Curse of Sleeping Beauty. The main character suffered from both vivid dreams and sleep paralysis, and they were central to the plot. In this tale, the alp was something like a gatekeeper between the waking world and the world of dreams.

The first time I saw something like the alp though was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Easily one of the scariest episodes of the entire show took place in a hospital. Kids in the children’s ward were mysteriously dying in their sleep. As a twist on the alp mythos, this demon was called Der Kindestod (the child death). Though they tried to warn the grown-ups, only the kids could see the monster, as well as Buffy when she was delirious with fever. The Kindestod also did it’s spirit sucking through it’s super creepy eye stalks. <shivers>

What about you? Do you know any myths or creepy critters that act the alp? Tell us all about it in the comments.

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