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History, Powers, & What They Look Like

History, Powers, & What They Look Like

Warning: Major spoilers for The Watchers are ahead!


  • Changelings in
    The Watchers
    are based on European folklore about supernatural beings that mimic humans with eerie accuracy.
  • The film mentions an ancient war between faeries and humans, which explains why the changelings are trapped in a magical forest.
  • Changelings in
    The Watchers
    have superhuman strength and mimicry abilities, with Halflings being a mix of changeling and human.

Ishana Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut movie The Watchers centers around a group of strangers beset by mysterious creatures who watch them every night, and as it turns out, the creatures’ origin is based in real-world folklore. Based on the A.M. Shine novel of the same name, The Watchers stars Dakota Fanning as a young woman who finds herself lost in an uncharted Irish forest. Together with three other similarly-stranded strangers, she must find her way back to civilization while dodging the dangerous monsters that emerge from the forest each night.

For most of the movie’s runtime, the physical appearance of the creatures is hidden from the audience, as Mina (Fanning) and her companions are stuck behind a two-way mirror in the small building they’re stuck in, known as The Coop. As Mina and the others continue to explore The Coop in search of a way out of the woods, they stumble upon information about the creatures, and ultimately wind up face-to-face with them. The creatures’ origin has its roots in real European folklore, and their lengthy real-world history provides important context for the ending of The Watchers.

The Watchers Are Supernatural Creatures Known As Changelings

Changelings are prevalent in European folklore

close up of Madeline (Olwen Fouéré) in The Watchers
Image via Warner Bros

The eponymous creatures of The Watchers are revealed to be changelings, a common thread in the different branches of European folklore. Changelings are supernatural beings that are substituted in place of a person, typically a child, who has been kidnapped by faeries. The legends differ slightly from culture to culture, but a changeling can typically be identified due to the child not developing, displaying unusual behavior, or even advanced intelligence. It’s evident now that the legend of changelings was how medieval peasants explained unknown illnesses or developmental disorders like autism spectrum disorder.

Gaelic cultures referred to the collection of afflictions from the Faerie Realm as “Tinneas Sidhe.” The list of faerie-induced illnesses included strokes, which were believed to be caused by a “stroke” or blow from a faerie-dart.

The changelings of The Watchers align more with the Irish version of the legend, as they are not faerie-swapped children but the faeries themselves. They are able to take on the physical appearance and even voice and mannerisms of a human being so that they can substitute themselves for them, and in the case of the movie, leave the forest that they are confined to. The Madeline-Watcher is proven to require some time to get her appearance just right, which explains why they are determined to watch their human captives each night.

The War Between Man & Faeries Explained

Humans won a bitter ancient conflict

Daniel with a symbol marked on his forehead in The Watchers
Image via Warner Bros

Faeries, or fairies, are no longer commonplace in the world of The Watchers thanks to an ancient war between their race and humanity. Per Wilderness Ireland, Irish folklore indicates faeries were the original inhabitants of Ireland, and they lived harmoniously for a time with the Celts, the first humans to settle the island. In some cases, as mentioned in The Watchers, they even fell in love and procreated. However, the Celtic warrior tribe known as the Milesians attacked the faeries/changelings, and eventually drove them underground, which is where they’re found in The Watchers.

Why The Changelings Are Trapped In The Forest

It’s a result of their war against humanity

Having lost the war against humanity, the changelings were banished from civilization and wound up in the forest, which still bears some of the magic that they lost over the centuries. The visions that the human captives see (like Mina seeing her twin sister as a child) are echoes of the power of the forest that traps the changelings. The changelings lose their wings as a result of their captivity, further trapping them in the dark forest.

A.M. Shine, the author of the novel
The Watchers
is based on, is releasing a sequel titled
Stay In the Light
, due out in late 2024.

As the professor notes in his vlogs, the boat is the only way out of the forest, although it’s not explicitly clear why that isn’t an option for the Watchers, who theoretically could attempt to leave at night. Their nocturnal nature makes escape from the forest all but impossible, as even if they were able to escape, they would have nowhere to go in the modern world that would accommodate them, as most seem unable to mimic a person. Madeline, who is half-human and half-changeling, is able to leave because she can suffer the sunlight and pass for a person.

What Powers The Changelings Have In The Watchers

Their primary ability is the mimicry of humans

Alistair Brammer as John in The Watchers on a tv screen

First and foremost, the changelings can appropriate the physical appearance of a person, complete with their voice and mannerisms. It clearly takes time and practice to get completely right, as that is the given reason for the changelings’ desire to watch humans up close every night: to get better at mimicking people. When the changelings catch Daniel at the end of Mina, Madeline and Ciara’s flight from the forest, they all make an attempt at impersonating him, but it’s clearly not quite right, even if they get close to fully approximating his appearance.

In addition to mimicry, they possess superhuman levels of strength, as evidenced by their ability to completely tear apart the Coop once they grow enraged enough to finally break down the door. They also have elevated speed and agility, as evidenced by their pursuit of John, and how fast they are able to pull him into the tunnels. Most changelings do not have the ability to fly after centuries of banishment, but Madeline, who is half-changeling, unveils a set of wings and uses them to fly away after her final confrontation with Mina at Ciara’s house.

How Changelings & Halflings Are Different

After the surviving companions of the Coop escape back to civilization, it’s revealed that Madeline is in fact a halfling, or a being that is 50% human and 50% changeling. The term “halfling” has been popularized in fantasy fiction like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, and is typically a reference to a fictional race of creatures that are shaped like humans, only about half the size. In The Watchers the term is used to indicate a creature that is of two races, changeling and human.

Madeline is the centuries-old product of love between a human and a changeling, and as such she is able to perfectly mimic a person and travel outside in daylight. As previously mentioned, she eventually unfurls a functional set of wings, which the full changelings of the forest don’t seem to exhibit anymore. There is no indication of what Madeline’s true age is, or whether changelings or halflings age like humans do at all; as they can shift their appearance, it’s impossible to tell.

What The Faeries Look Like In The Watchers

They bear no resemblance to the bright, winged pixies of pop culture

A Watcher marks Daniel's forehead in The Watchers

The faeries/changelings of The Watchers are a far cry from the diminutive magical pixies that are a staple of popular culture. Instead they are depicted as slender, agile beasts with long fingers, sharp nails, and an animal-like mouth that emits horrific grating screeches and moans. When Mina and Madeline become trapped outside the Coop and hide in the rotting trunk of a tree to mask their scent, they get a clear view of the creatures, and note that prior to their mimicry of humans, they walk on all fours.

The creature concept and design is one of the stronger elements of the movie from a horror perspective.

Their true form is obscured for most of the runtime of The Watchers, but Madeline’s final transformation provides a decent look at what the pure form of a changeling might resemble. She appears almost like the biblical cherubim, the prototypical angel as depicted in Christian iconography; a human-like body but with massive wings sprouting from her shoulders. While The Watchers Rotten Tomatoes score is rough for a number of reasons, the creature concept and design is one of the stronger elements of the movie from a horror perspective.

Source: Wilderness Ireland

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