Shapeshifting soul thief In their true form, beldams are hideous old women with demonic features. As shapeshifters, the often present themselves as beautiful women to attract their prey.
- Careful readers will notice that Beldams seem to have some knowledge of the future. It is plausible that a Beldam could lay an elaborate trap for your adventures and ensure it is placed in their path.
- Beldams share similarities with Baba Yaga the 'witch of the woods'. They will have great power in their own domain but are susceptible to games and bargains.
- If you want to have a combat encounter with a Beldam, you could look for stat blocks for illusory witches and spider queens for inspiration.
- A small village is filled with sorrow. Over the past months several of the children have gone missing. Observant players notice that the parents all seemed busy with other tasks at the times their children disappeared
- There is a strange house said to appear in the heart of the woods. Most who have seen it have never been able to enter. A few claim to have entered it but they all have a different account of what it looked like inside. Observant players will notice that the interior seems to match the preferences of the NPCs who describe them.
- The party is content. They have been resting for days in a luxurious inn that caters to their every need. One night, a disheveled man wearing a feline brooch bursts through their bedroom door. He claims that the inn is an illusion, and that the party is in grave danger.
A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline's mother. Only …
Only her skin was white as paper.
Only she was taller and thinner.
Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.
"Coraline?" the woman said. "Is that you?"
And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.
"Lunchtime, Coraline," said the woman.
"Who are you?" asked Coraline.
"I'm your other mother," said the woman.
Long ago, the gods granted the Beldam dominion over the forest. This forest spirit had the form of a hideous old woman. She lived inside a dreadful little house, hidden away from mortal eyes. In the early time, she had almost no interaction with us. Few wanderers stepped into her domain. She would watch them with pursed lips and a hungry gleam in her eye. The forest would twist according to her wishes and confound the travellers. She would lead them right back the way they came. She would only watch.
As the human population expanded, it wasn't long before the Beldam decided that the world would not miss a few of them. Those who wandered into her domain began to disappear in violent acts of opportunity. And so her hunger grew.
Civilization progressed. The human population exploded. And then, sometime in the mid 1800s, the Beldam changed. Her hunger grew and grew and she could no longer be satisfied by meat alone. She increased the ambition of her illusions, transforming herself into a beautiful young woman so that she would appeal to mortal men and children. She warped her little house into something bigger, placing it closer and closer to the hearts of human settlements. She crafted cunning illusions and wove them all about herself as a spider weaves an intricate web. The effort drained her, sharpening her hunger. From then on, human flesh would not sustain her.
She began to capture human souls to feed herself.
The "Other Mother"
In the Neil Gaiman story Coraline, a young girl finds a mysterious door that leads her to an alternate reality. Everything beyond the door mirrors the world she came from but appears better. The colours, the flavours, the sounds - everything seems more vivid, as if it was created to please her. It is there that she meets the "other mother" - a woman who looks just like her mother but much kinder and more beautiful. As the story progresses, Coraline begins to see through the cracks in the illusion and comes to the horrifying realization that the "other mother" intends to steal her soul.
As the contest between them escalates, we learn much about the powers of a well established Beldam. First and foremost is her ability to shapeshift. When we first meet her she is an almost perfect replica of Coraline's mother, only more beautiful (the name Beldam comes from "belle-dam" which is french for "beautiful woman"). The only unsettling feature are her eyes. Her eyes are black buttons.
In her true form, she appears as a tall, pale, spider-like monster with a horrible grin and long claws fashioned from sewing needles. Some speculate that the needle-hands are a necessity. Her body is decaying because it has been too long since she last trapped a child's soul, so she is forced to fashion it from other parts. I think it's possible she fashioned these hands intentionally as better tools for crafting her fake reality and her doll spies.
The Beldam also has the power to create life. She fashions many dolls who appear as doppelgängers of people Coraline is familiar with. These dolls sometimes disobey the Beldam and side with Coraline, which indicates that a spark of human soul is likely involved in their creation. Her lesser dolls travel to the real world and act as her spies. It reminds me of voodoo magic.
The "Other World"
Surrounding the Beldam is the other world that she has crafted to captivate her intended victim. She shows almost complete mastery over the constructed world. It is like an elaborate spider's web rendered in bright colours rather than hung invisible. Her control seems to extend even as far as the weather.
You will notice that when Coraline first arrives, the "other mother" offers delicious food - food that she does not touch herself. Be warned: ingesting the food of a faerie realm is extremely dangerous. It may dull your senses, increase the power of the illusion, or in the worst cases, trap you forever in the other realm. One of my favourite expressions of this danger is shown in Guillermo del Toro's film Pan's Labryinth when Ofelia encounters the Pale Man at his banquet table.
The window to the soul
The power of the human soul is no small thing. A Beldam captures human souls by taking possession of her victim's eyes when they are freely given.
Our eyes have contained our human soul since the scales fell from them in the garden of eden. They are the window between our divine essence and the earthly realm. "The eye illuminates, understands, expresses, protects, scorches and stares." (Book of Symbols, Taschen)
When Coraline first encounters the Beldam and sees that her eyes are replaced with black buttons she does not perceive the danger, but the hair rises on the back of our necks. When we encounter a demon so close to human form but with eyes devoid of any human spark, our soul trembles.
Written by Giles Ravensong.