Somewhere in its show-tuney middle, Disney’s animated musical Frozen throws a bone to the young monster geeks in the audience. Elsa, the magically (and literally) frigid young Queen who can freeze fjords and cause climate change and sculpt ice palaces out of the brisk air with a few waves of her hand, conjures up a personal bodyguard: “Marshmallow,” a formidable giant made of snow and ice.
He’s cool, no pun intended, but only the latest in a long list of terrifying pop-culture monsters confined either to wintry seasons or chilly climes, or both. Some are just grotesque version of arctic or Antarctic fauna, or aliens comfortable at equivalent temperatures on their own planets. A few are actual snowmen, monstrous supernatural versions of Frosty, as in the low-rent 1997 horror favorite Jack Frost or the even creepier wholesome “family” film of the same title that came out a year later. You may recall that even the slow-witted “Abominable Snowman” that affectionately plagued Bugs Bunny melted when he got below timberline.
But most of what falls into the category of “Abominable Snowmen,” sometimes known by their Himalayan name of Yeti, are shaggy, burly giants that haunt the cold places, and are generally quite content to be left the hell alone. They’re rarely a danger to humans so long as we’re sensible enough to stay where it’s warm.
Here are 13 of pop culture’s most memorable hyperborean horrors:
13. The Minnesota Iceman
Plenty of kids (and adults) were separated from their money in return for a look through the ice at this supposed hominid on the rocks, which toured the U.S. as a sideshow in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in the ’60s and ’70s. The caveman-sicle sported an empty eye socket where it had supposedly been shot, although his provenance was a bit vague: Exhibitor Frank Hansen claimed variously that it originated in the Bering Sea or in Minnesota, and also that he wasn’t the owner, but was acting on behalf of a shadowy Hollywood millionaire. However suspicious all this may seem, the figure managed to convince two famed cryptozoologists, Bernard Heuvelmans and Ivan Sanderson, of its authenticity after they examined it (through the ice) in 1968.
The Iceman must have been popular in the northeast, as a friend of mine saw it in the parking lot of the Millcreek Mall near Erie, Pennsylvania in the early ’70s. Steve Busti, owner of the Museum of the Weird in Austin, Texas, saw it in Honesdale, Pennsylvania around the same time, when he was four years old.
“My aunt took me to see it,” he recalls. “I remember I was too short, and I couldn’t see it, so she lifted me up, and I was face to face with this thing. What I remember most is the teeth. It scared the crap out of me.”
Busti has since to come to terms with this childhood fear, literally. His Museum of the Weird acquired the Iceman earlier this year, and it’s on daily display until next spring, when it will spend a few months at the International Cryptozoology Museum of Portland, Maine. In keeping with tradition, it costs an extra $4 for adults, $2 for kids under 8 to get a traumatizing look at the big guy.
12. Abominable Snowmen of the Talkies
Maybe because it’s a relatively inexpensive monster to create, the shaggy snow giant has been featured in a fair number of movies, often cheapies like The Snow Creature (1954), Half Human (1958; an American mangling of the 1955 Japanese film, the first monster picture Ishiro Honda directed after Gojira), Man Beast (1956) by the makes-Ed-Wood-look-like-Fellini auteur Jerry Warren, or the TV movie Snowbeast (1977), to name a few. A bushy, Morlock-like A.S. was one of the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), although it was one reportedly not played by Tony Randall, but rather by George Pal’s brawny son Peter.
The very cool-looking tusked, pig-nosed giants from the 1959 Swedish shocker Space Invasion of Lapland, later released in the U.S. in a mashup version by Jerry Warren under such titles as Terror in the Midnight Sun and Invasion of the Animal People, seem to fit the type as well, even though they’re technically aliens, not Yeti. This is also true of the unfrozen nightmare that terrorizes the Trans-Siberian railroad in the 1972 Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee team-up Horror Express. But I suppose this would mean admitting the various versions of The Thing from Another World, which somehow doesn’t seem quite right for this category, great as they are.
1957’s British production The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, however, with Cushing and Forrest Tucker on a expedition in search of the title creature in the title mountain range, had a particularly memorable twist (spoiler!): In this gem, directed by Val Guest from a script by Nigel Kneale based on his own TV play, the Yeti turn out to be not subhuman but probably superior, not only intellectually but ethically: It’s the humans, not they, who behave abominably.
11. Mickey’s Abominable Antagonist
If you don’t have a kid who devoutly watches the Disney Channel, you may not be aware of the current batch of Mickey Mouse cartoons. They’re really good; the first time that Mickey has truly been funny since the days of Steamboat Willie. A terrific Mickey short called Get a Horse!, which parodies modern movie 3-D, precedes Frozen in theatres, by the way, so don’t be late (Mickey’s voice is provided in this one via recordings of Walt himself).
But to our purpose here: Yodelberg, another of these neo-Mickeys, features a splendid Abominable Snowman, who, while trying to terrorize a yodeling, lederhosen-clad Mickey, must keep covering his mouth to stifle his repeated bellows, for fear of starting an avalanche. This same beast may also be seen, in animatronic form, at Disneyland itself, on the Matterhorn roller coaster there.
10. Jonny Quest‘s Yeti
Spoiler alert up front: A surprisingly common plot twist in stories involving yetis is the Scooby-Doo scenario: That they’re fakes, people in costume up to some sort of knavish chicanery. It’s the case, for instance, in the gnarly 1974 no-budgeter charmingly titled Shriek of the Mutilated, where the supposed Yeti turned out to be the disguise of choice for members of a cannibal cult.
More pleasantly, that’s also the twist in the classic Jonny Quest episode “Monster in the Monastery,” from 1965. In Nepal, Jonny and the gang encounter yetis that turn out to be bad guys in costume, trying to run off a band of peaceable monks. But there’s a further twist here: Real yetis show up at the end to throw the schemers a curve.
9. Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen
The Doctor also went a few rounds with the Yeti, although this adventure has proved almost as elusive as the creatures themselves have in real life. The Patrick Troughton incarnation of the Doc, along with Victoria and Jamie, encountered the beasts in Nepal (actually the mountains of Wales) in 1967. All but one of this six-episode serial is currently lost; the one that survives can be seen on the DVD Doctor Who: Lost in Time: Collection of Rare Episodes.
Better still, the adventure as a whole may be enjoyed as one of the fun, fast-reading Terrance Dicks novelizations from Target Books (1974). Happily, it’s now available on Amazon Kindle.
The Yeti in this tale aren’t organic, but rather furry robots controlled by the Great Intelligence, which has infiltrated the monastery The Doctor came to visit. These RoboYetis would return in the 1968 serial The Web of Fear, the TV version of which also remains fragmentary and unavailable at this writing.
8. Strange Abominable Snowmen
This 1970 paperback by Warren Smith offers a scientifically dubious case for the existence of the title beings. It’s included here for one reason and one reason only: The cover art simply kicks ass.
Since we’re on the subject, though, let’s pause to consider the adjective “Strange” in the title. As opposed to what? All those routine, run-of-the-mill abominable snowmen one encounters on a weekly, nay, even a daily basis, that fail to stand out from the common horde? It’s a bit like the addition of Incredible to the title of the movie version of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. Did we really need help figuring out that this wasn’t just a little bone loss, this was an incredible case of human shrinkage?
Anyway, enough with the Yeti for a while…
7. Monty Python Penguin
After all, not every snow monster is an Abominable Snowman. Who could forget the “electric penguin, 20 feet high, with long, green tentacles that sting people…” from Monty Python‘s great “Scott of the Antarctic/Scott of the Sahara” sketch.
This titanic flightless avian originates as a compromise when the Hollywood producers realize they can’t realistically have their lead actor battling a lion, as he has his heart set on doing, because, of course, there aren’t any lions in the Antarctic. But when they move the action to the Sahara, along with the lion, somehow the terrible penguin has made the trip as well.
The sketch starts about five minutes and thirty seconds into the episode; the penguin makes its terrifying entrance at about sixteen minutes in.
6. Walrus Giganticus
Remember back during the “Deepwater Horizon” oil disaster of 2010, when it turned out that British Petroleum, in its Emergency Response Plan for the Gulf of Mexico, listed walruses among the species that could be threatened by a spill? Since walruses are, you know, somewhat infrequently encountered in the Gulf of Mexico, this gave the faintest suggestion that perhaps their plan was simply boilerplate, hastily copied from some other plan. Or maybe BP was just trying to honor its countryman John Lennon?
Then again, who knows what obscure variety of enormous sea mammal might lurk in those warm and greasy waters? After all, that wondrous and lamented zoologist Ray Harryhausen brought a previously unknown species of pinniped to the attention of the world: Walrus Giganticus, the hyperborean behemoth that rises from below the ice to menace Sinbad and his hearty lads in 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.
You can get a glimpse of him in action here:
5. Marvel’s Ymir
The comics have also given plenty of life to the Yeti. My childhood comic of choice, for instance, Turok, Son of Stone, devoted an issue (#48, November 1965) to a memorable encounter with them, and Marvel has featured two such characters, one from Fantastic Four of the ’70s and the other from X-Force in the ’90s.
But it’s doubtful that comics have ever came up with a character quite as wintry and monstrous as Ymir, a towering thousand-foot-tall Frost Giant of the Norse, Jotnar school. Introduced in the pages of Journey Into Mystery #97 in 1963 – or rather, in the Poetic Edda of the 13th Century, but we won’t nitpick – Ymir is older than the gods of Asgard, and he doesn’t much like the crummy upstarts, either.
4. HeroQuest’s Frozen Horror
One of the expansions of Milton-Bradley’s fantasy board game introduced in the U.S. in 1990 was “The Frozen Horror,” from 1992. Its dramatis personae included a number of ram-horned Yeti and some sword-wielding Ice Gremlins, as well as a couple of armored, club-wielding polar “Warbears.”
Formidable foes all, no doubt, but it was the title terror, a sword-swinging snow ogre loosed from his long icy imprisonment toward which the warm-up quests built. Although many more elaborate versions exist, it’s the cool-blue version above that came with the Barbarian Quest Pack.
3. Hoth Wampa
The snowbeast which attacks Luke Skywalker in the frozen wastes of the planet Hoth near the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back is a little amorphous in the (original) movie itself. We didn’t get the best look at it until George Lucas decided to change things the first time.
In the merchandising world, however, the Wampa has done well for itself. The original Kenner figure from 1981 is shown above, but a later, “Power of the Force” playset included an upside-down Luke as captive. More recently, an ice scraper in the form of a severed Wampa forelimb has become available, as has a Wampa-skin rug, advertised with a model in Princess Leia slave girl drag sprawled thereon.
2. The Ice Giant
The brief 1912 epic Conquest of the Pole (A la Conquete du Pole) by pioneering film fantasist Georges Melies, about a race to the Arctic by airships, was inspired by Jules Verne’s 1864 novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. But as with later filmmakers, Melies was sure that Verne’s yarn, exciting though it may have been on its own merits, could nonetheless be enhanced by the addition of a monster. Thus the explorers, French of course, who win the race encounter this pipe-smoking Ice Giant, who proves to have a distressing taste for Gallic cuisine.
This was one of the last hits for the redoubtable Melies. Both as film history and as whimsical entertainment, it’s worth the investment of your time.
1. “The ‘Bumble”
Obviously the furry, hulking “Abominable Snow Monster of the North,” added by the brilliant Romeo Muller to the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the 1964 Rankin-Bass TV special of the tale, falls squarely into the Yeti category discussed near the beginning of this list. But is anyone likely to argue that this beast, dubbed “The ‘Bumble” by the bearlike prospector Yukon Cornelius, doesn’t deserve the top spot here?
Not to put too fine a point on it, The ‘Bumble is, for many of us born after, say, 1960, Our First Monster. The shuddery sight of his titanic feet stamping by, and the later pre-commercial cliffhanger as he begins to crest the mountains are deep in the programming of plenty of late-period Boomers. And, of course, like all the greatest monsters, The ‘Bumble is endearing, even lovable as well as scary, and not just when he’s reformed at the end, but even in mid-rampage.
This may be, in part, because so many of the characters in Rudolph – Santa, Rudolph’s dad, the Reindeer Coach, the Elf foreman and so on – are such, well, passive-aggressive dickheads to our heroes that the overt aggression of The ‘Bumble is oddly refreshing by comparison. With him, at least you know where you stand.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The Ten Least Intimidating, Supposedly Powerful Robots in Sci-Fi
The Top Ten Pop-Culture Cavemen Who Aren’t the Flintstones (or the Croods)
The Thirteen Greatest Fictional Snails
The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You’ve Probably Never Read