The Japanese have many wild and wonderful legends of ghostly beings, known as Yokai, and one of the most malevolent of them all is the Gashadokuro. The name literally translates to “starving skeleton”, but that doesn’t do this spirit justice. It’s also known as Odokuro, which is the much more apt “giant skeleton”. The Gashadokuro is, in fact, a gigantic skeleton that roams the streets after midnight and bites off the heads of anyone unlucky enough to get in its way.
The Gashadokuro gets its name from the fact that it’s created from the bones of people who have died of famine. When a village, for example, dies of starvation, there is a good chance the rotting bones will knit together to form a Gashadokuro, which will then seek to fulfill its unending appetite. The resulting skeletal ghost is said to be fifteen times the size of a man (or about 90 feet tall!).
As if being a giant skeleton wasn’t bad enough, the Gashadokuro is completely invisible before it strikes. The only way to know one is close is to hear the sound of bells ringing in ones ears just before it attacks. Shinto charms may also make the monster visible. There’s no real way to defeat these monsters; escape is the only way to survive an encounter with them. Laying the bones to rest with offerings of food may work, but the giant ghosts are very difficult to defeat. Otherwise, eventually these creatures will burn themselves out, the spiritual energy necessary to hold together all of the bones finally giving way, and they collapse.
The origin of the Gashadokuro is shrouded in mystery, but one possible explanation comes from 10th century CE. During a very bloody conflict within Japan’s government (which are quite common in the island nation’s history), the daughter of a warlord sought to protect her father and castle from an invading army by summoning a giant skeleton. She used a spell inscribed on a scroll and the skeleton appeared from a dark void to attack the soldiers. The famous Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre woodblock painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicts this event. After this mythical battle, Gashadokuro were apparently unleashed upon the world.