The logic is old and tragic.
Children are vulnerable.
They are smaller, weaker, have fewer immunities, and are more susceptible to cold and poor nutrition, than adults.
They are less experienced, and their minds are undeveloped – making them poor judges of their capacities and of risks.
Their parents tell them what to do and what not to do to keep them safe as best they can.
Some children… do not listen well. They do not do as they are told. They wander off.
They are “naughty” – and in a perilous environment, or under stress…
“Naughty” children die even more often than other children do.
Yet abstract reasoning, and talk of possible consequences, makes little impression on children.
Something more… immediate is needed to evoke sensible fear and obedience.
Hence the Erlking, the Krampus, the Child-Takers, the Breath-Stealers, the Boogeymen, the Plague Demons, and a hundred other childhood menaces.
Shapes hung on “something that could get you” which are easy for a child to understand and fear. All meant to terrify naughty, disobedient, and wandering children – and, through that fear, to give them a better chance to live.
Those who tell such tales may not know that – they may well believe in them themselves, and gain some comfort from performing minor rituals meant to keep such menaces away from THEIR children – but populations with such myths had a survival advantage over those that did not or they would not be so universal.
The things which lurk in the night – and filling a child with terror – are kinder by far than the boiling kettle tipped by an inquisitive young hand to snuff out a life in scalding agony. They are more merciful than the icy ravine and the fall which leaves a broken child to scream and freeze and die. They are swifter, gentler, and so much less hopeless than the congestion of the lungs which is more likely to infect a child who has refused to eat some of what food there is to give them and has foolishly become chilled and vulnerable. The things which lurk beyond the house… may take a child who has strayed, just as might a pack of wolves or a mountain lion – but they will not leave a child to slowly suffocate in gurgling delirium and frantic gasps as their lungs fill slowly with their own fluids despite everything their desperate parents can do.
The terrors of the night also make for better gaming.
- A child dying in shrieking agony from massive burns leaves little room for heroism.
- Swearing mighty oaths of vengeance against the ravine where a child fell accomplishes nothing at all.
- Swords, and stealth, mighty weapons, and destructive spells cannot help a grandson slowly drowning as his lungs fill with mucus.
Situations like that – even if you’ve never encountered such a thing in reality (which is thankfully far rarer these days than it used to be in the industrialized nations) – are not fun to play. A few players can find satisfaction in working to reduce such tragedies in a setting – draining the swamp where the disease festers, or improving the irrigation system to better nourish the villagers – but that’s uncommon. Most players will find it a LOT more fun to have their characters live in a magical world where they can go and battle the evil witch who cursed the kettle (or child), or defeat the Erlking who steals children in the forest, or banish the plague-demon and thus heal the people it was afflicting.
There are myths, tales, and creatures of this general nature all over the world. Ghosts which haunt the streams where their own children drowned, and drown other children and steal their spirits to replace the ones they lost. Forest spirits which tear foolishly wandering children to bits. Lamia and Llitu which bring sickness. Cats and more supernatural predators which suck the life from sick children who would otherwise recover.
- The Erlking steals away the souls of lost and sickly children, leaving their parents to mourn their lost child – but the fate of those souls remains unknown. Perhaps the Erlking uses them, and their remaining years to reinvigorate his ancient people – or reshapes them into more forest spirits like himself. In this case, even beyond death, there may be hope if some sufficiently heroic group comes along.
- Gypsies, Jews, “cultists” (and many other maligned groups) were often accused of child-stealing – usually to sell or sacrifice in some peculiar ritual. Everyone knows it’s true! Can your heroes sort out the true culprits in time and save the children?
- Witches steal children as hostages, using them as slaves while blackmailing their families to conceal their activities and support them in luxury. Worse, a family which resists, or which guards their children too well, will soon find them dying in horrible accidents. Who will stop them?
- Demon-Cats hop into infants cribs, and the beds of sick children, to steal their breath and life force – giving themselves unnatural strength, vitality, and longevity. Still, if the creature can be hunted down and eliminated, perhaps the stolen vitality can be returned!
The Krampus is a minor oddity – a companion to Saint Nicholas, who punished naughty children. Mild misbehavior might warrant a mere beating, serious misbehavior anything up to a night in Hell – and truly bad behavior (or attempting to deny serious sins!) might lead to being torn apart and eaten alive while your soul went straight to hell for eternal punishment… Still, in most cases… the Krampus sought to reform naughty children, not to destroy them. Will you do battle with the Krampus – or will you break down the barriers which keep it out, so that it can attempt to reform a child before he or she is too corrupt for anything but being devoured?