Saturday, January 12, 2019

Haunted Fiance, or Haunted House?

So, this is one that a friend told me about the other night. It is a story about some friends of his who live in Lake St. Louis, a suburb of St. Louis in Missouri.

He has a close friend, who for the purposes of this entry we will call Jack, who is engaged to a woman, who for the purposes of this entry we will call Melinda.

Melinda reports that she is routinely pushed and even knocked over by some unseen force within her house. She also reports that she sees people, usually non-descript but human-shaped figures, momentarily appear at various places in her house.

My friend tells me Jack's various ex-girlfriends have reported similar incidents, leading him to believe that that Jack is being followed by spirits that create grief for the women involved with him.

Commentary:  I am always happy when someone tells me a story rather than me going and looking through dozens of essentially identical websites to report on some place. The face-to-face trading of stories is always more fun.

I don't know Jack or Melinda. I do not know any of Jack's ex-girlfriends. I cannot speak to the veracity of any of this story. I am doubtful, based on things that I have heard about Jack in the past (his friend has told me stories about him that leave me suspecting that there is a bit of tall-tale telling that occurs, though my friend doesn't see it that way).

From what I can gather, Jack is not doing anything to harm his fiance or the ex-girlfriends, though the potential "story to explain domestic violence" angle had occurred to me. This seems to be more of a "late at night, when people are generally telling creepy stories, this comes up" thing, rather than an attempt to explain obvious injuries or otherwise try to inject real-life violence into someone's awareness through a motaphoric story.

That said, I don't really know what's going on here. But, this is a story that came my way, so I am putting it up here.

Source: Personal Story (third-party)

The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado

In Estes Park, Colorado, stands the Stanley Hotel - a large, beautiful edifice that houses many of the tourists that pass through or come to stay in Estes Park. The hotel was built between 1906 and 1909 by Freelan Oscar Stanley (who, according to the hotel's promotional material, was suffering from consumption - that is, tuberculosis, when he arrived and was somehow miraculously healed by the surroundings...color me skeptical - also, along with his brother, he was a co-inventor of the early automobile known as the Stanley steamer), and was something of a luxury palace: a hydroelectric plant built up-mountain supplied electricity to the hotel (keep in mind that much of the US was not yet on the electrical grid at the time), and telephones (still something of a luxury item in 1909) were installed in each room. That said, it was a summer resort, closed int he winter, with the only heat coming from fireplaces on the first floor until a more extensive heating system was installed in the 1970s or 1980s, depending on which source you trust.

Like many such landmark buildings, the Stanley Hotel has a reputation as a haunted place.  And, like many an allegedly haunted hotel, the symptoms of the haunting are usually location-specific. So, to that end, I am going to structure this entry by location:

General Hauntings
Yeah, for all that I say about the localized nature of the claims, there are a few things that are reported throughout the hotel. This includes apparitions stealing guests belongings (the sources are unclear as to whether this is in one room or in multiple rooms, so I'm placing it in this section); figures, sometimes looking very much like living people, sometimes more shadowy or faded, appearing in guest rooms at night, and just standing there; some visitors have reported seeing people walking through the hallways, who then would hide and/or vanish (though this was reported by the TV crew of the show Ghost Hunters*, so take it with a table spoon of salt); people have also reported hearing children running and playing on the floor above wherever they are, only to find the area empty (again, though, this was reported by the crew of the same sensationalistic TV show); Allegedly, Stephen King saw two unattended children in the hotel during his short novel-inspiring stay in 1974 (though I suspect that this story was retrofitted into the hotel's legends to accommodate the events of the novel The Shining); and, finally, people report seeing a well-dressed man who looks like Freelan Stanley standing or walking at various places throughout the hotel, though he is reported to favor some specific locations (described below).

The Ball Room
One of the more persistent stories is that hotel staff, often specifically stated to be the kitchen staff, will hear a party occurring in the ball room, but find the room empty on investigation. At other times, staff and guests have reported hearing someone playing the ballroom's piano, again only to find the room empty, and the piano unattended, upon investigation. It has been claimed that the unseen pianist is the ghost of Flora Stanley, Freelan Stanley's wife, who apparently was quite the pianist in life. It should be noted that different stories hold that this music is heard not from the ball room but from the music room and the concert hall, so there is that.

The Music Room
As noted, the ghostly Mrs. Stanely has been said to play the piano in this room, as well. Again, Mr. Stanley is said to appear in this room. There is also a flag hanging on one wall that, allegedly, a face will mysteriously appear on from time to time (or the face is always there as part of the fabric...the sources are inconsistent on this one).

The Billiard Room
People report seeing Mr. Stanley (or, the more ambiguous "feeling his presence") in here, said to be one of his favorite rooms in life.

The Lobby
The Lobby is yet another place where people report seeing Mr. Stanley.

The Bar
Again, Mr. Stanley is said to be strolling through the bar on his way to the kitchen.

The Grand Staircase
While probably technically part of the lobby, the staircase is plenty impressive and deserves its own entry, if for no other reason than that I get to link to a photo. People have seen a woman in early 20th century clothing descending down the stairs, and she has been said to show up in photos even if she were not visible when the photo was taken.



Room 217
Probably the most famous room at the hotel due to the fact that this is where Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining while staying in this room at the mostly empty hotel in the days before it closed for an extended period. Other than a nightmare that shocked him awake, nothing spooky is said to have happened to MR. King here. However, legend holds that during a power outage in 1911, a maid named Elizabeth Wilson entered the room, sparking a gas explosion (gas was used for lighting in the building at the time, a common arrangement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The resulting explosion did considerable damage, and sent Ms. Wilson hurtling to the floor in the room below...but she survived and apparently lived a long life. However, guests have reported seeing a young woman in period clothing appearing in the room, and then walking through a wall where the door once was, and many have assumed that this is Elizabeth Wilson. People have also reported clothing being mysteriously folded, having suitcases unpacked and items mysteriously put away, doors opening and closing on their own, lights turning on and off, and an unseen force (assumed to be Ms. Wilson) getting into the bed to separate unmarried couples.

The Fourth Floor
The fourth floor is reputed to be the most haunted part of the building. Stories include hearing children rushing and playing through the halls, despite there being no children present (allegedly the children of wealthy visitors and their families would stay on the 4th floor - though some stories report that the hotel maids lived with their children on this floor); the ghost of two little girls are said to be seen on a pair of couches in the hallway on the 4th floor; apparitions seen walking in the halls and vanishing; noises have been said to come from the elevators even when the elevators are not operating; and several rooms specifically said to be haunted, including:

Room 401
This room is reputed to be haunted by an apparition of a man who appears and steals guest's belongings - mostly small objects such as jewelry, keys, and wallets. The closet doors are also said to unlock, objects (including furniture) are said to move, and the Ghost Hunters staff (who, again, are a bunch of sensationalist doofuses) claim that one of theirs stayed in the room and his water glass mysteriously cracked. People also report seeing the spirit of one Lord Dunraven, former owner of much of the land that is now Rocky Mountain National Park, in this room.

Room 407
People report Lord Dunraven's ghost standing in a corner of this room. Apparently just sort of standing there, hanging out...doing some sort of Lord Dunravenly thing. People outside of the hotel have reported seeing a face peering out the window from this room even when the room was empty. Also, the lights are said to turn on and off of their own accord.

Room 418
Allegedly the most haunted of the fourth floor rooms (I'm always really curious as to how people measure "most haunted" as allegedly most haunted places are usually somewhat less creepy and busy than the supposedly less haunted places nearby), staff report hearing noise (primarily of children playing) coming from the room despite it being empty. The apparition of a little boy is said to appear to guests. People have reported seeing an impression on the empty bed, as if an invisible person were lying on it.

Room 428
A shadowy figure in a cowboy hat has been said to appear and frighten people in this room. Frequently he startles them by appearing at the foot of the bed and watching them sleep...which is creepy even for a ghost. In addition, the furniture is said to routinely re-arrange itself.

The Tunnel
There is a tunnel cut into the granite beneath the hotel, connecting the staff entrance to the hotel proper. A good deal of what I have read describes this as a cave system, and suggests that it is as old as the hotel, but from what I can tell, it was constructed in the early 1980s. People have reported seeing a ghostly cat with glowing green eyes in the tunnel (how they would distinguish it from a normal cat is unclear), as well as smelling what appear to be baked goods, a phenomenon normally attributed to the ghost of a chef who worked at the hotel. 

The Concert Hall
A separate building, but on the hotel grounds, the concert hall is also said to be haunted. One ghost said to inhabit the hall is a former handyman by the name of Paul. He had his own room on the basement level. Paul is said to like to mess with flashlights (though I couldn't confirm whether this refers to a common parlor trick of making flashlights flicker as a form of poor-man's Ouija board, or something different), he is reported to have pushed or nudged a man working on the floors of the concert halls, he is said to be the voice on an EVP saying "get out" (one source suggests that this may be Paul trying to maintain curfews), and another one of the sources I used said that Paul "interacts with men" - though it is unclear as to what that means.

Another ghost often associated with the concert hall is that of a woman named Lucy. Who she was is unclear, though most sources report her as being a homeless woman - possibly a runaway. Children report interacting with her, and she is also said to mess with flashlights (again, not clear on what that means).

The Creepy Mirror
Finally, in the basement of the concert hall, there is a haunted object. Typically referred to as the "Creepy Mirror." Stories of people taking selfies in the mirror only to have a second person show up in the image, someone not present when the photo was taken, abound. So, all in all, the Stanley Park hotel has an abundance of ghost stories for you. Which, considering that it was, apparently, the inspiration of one of the best known horror novels ever, seems appropriate.

* Just for the record, in case I seem like I am overly dismissive of the people from Ghost Hunters - they have a long history of transparently editing video and making highly dubious claims for the sake of ratings. If they were generally just viewed as being goofy entertainment, then this wouldn't bother me, but they tend to portray themselves, and be portrayed by their fans, as serious researchers, when these guys wouldn't know actual honest research if it crawled out of a dark allegedly haunted swamp and bit them. They annoy me intensely. 

Commentary: Although now known primarily as the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, the Stanley Park Hotel has a long history tied in to the development of health resorts (which promised all manner of essentially magical healing) in Colorado during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of the things that really struck me in researching this entry is the degree to which it is so typical of the haunted hotel archetype. Rather than a single over-arching haunting, there are numerous room-specific hauntings, with each of them exhibiting it's own trends and flavor. Given the Steven-King derived fame of this hotel, I have to wonder whether it fits this mold so well because the pattern set at this hotel has been exported to others, or if people felt the need to make this hotel's stories fit an archteypical structure in order to fit Stephen King's model into something more familiar.

Even most of the specific haunting elements are almost prototypical - the phantom parties in the ballroom are commonly reported in haunted hotels. The late Mrs. Stanley playing the piano is a different touch, not entirely unique (I can think of several other similar claims at other places, including hotels) but it is not the standard hotel haunting, unlike the phantom party.

In going through the various alleged hauntings that I listed above, I tried to steer clear of stuff that seems to have been purely from the novel The Shining. You see, the paranormal waters have been muddied by two facts: 1) The Shining was conceived here after Steven King had a nightmare, and as a result many of the sources take elements from the novel and place them in the hotel, despite the fact that those elements are purely products of Stephen King's imagination; 2) the hostel has discovered that it can cash in on it's haunted reputation (in fact, the allegedly most haunted of the rooms, up on the fourth floor, have to be booked by a specific section of the hotel's website, and haunted tours regularly occur and are a fair money maker for the hotel), meaning that there is a lot of impetus to keep the stories rolling. As a result, it is difficult, and possibly impossible, to tell what people have experienced, what people have claimed to have experienced, what is people muddling fiction with fact, and what is just pure marketing.

Sources: The Bloggess, Wikipedia, Allstays, Haunted Places in America, Spooky Mountain News, Legends of America, TV News, Hotel Website, CSICOP, Amy's Crypt, My Haunted Library, Rocky Mountain Paranormal, TripSavvy.com,

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Freetown State Forest

The Freetown-Fall River State Forest, near Freetown Massachusetts, has a reputation for being one of the eastern U.S.'s true hot spots for the just plain weird. All manner of strangeness is alleged to occur here, from the ghost stories that I love so well to the presence of strange folkloric creatures, and both cult activity and UFO sightings are ubiquitous.

Off the top, I will note that many of the stories that I have seen attribute some of the weirdness here to the strained and often violent relationship between the Native American population and the various white settlers. I am going to avoid bringing that up except for where it is particularly relevant for three reasons: 1) the "cursed by a shaman", "Native American burial ground," and other such type explanations are, frankly, overdone and played out, and usually indicate a lack of imagination on the part of the storyteller; 2) as I work with Native American leaders as part of my day job, I have a lot of conversations about oddball topics that bother them, and they have often brought up that these stories can be irritating because they are often more connected to beliefs about the perceived alienness of Native Americans than to anything that is actually happening; 3) because I have access to archaeological and ethnographic records archives, I have been able to look up what is actually located at various locations where all manner of Native American sites are said to be be the cause of hauntings...and there is pretty much never anything to the stories.

The Forest covers around five and a half thousand acres of land, and has numerous unpaved roads and paths running through it. It is popular with hunters, campers, hikers, and other outdoors folks. The forest falls within an area that many paranormal enthusiasts call the "Bridgewater triangle," a portion of southeast Massachusetts where all manner of weirdness is said to occur. As put by Mysterious Universe:

The forest sits squarely within the infamous “Bridgewater Triangle,” a 200 square mile area within southeastern Massachusetts that is the epicenter of a mind boggling array of inexplicable bizarre phenomena reported since colonial times, including strange creatures, Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, specters, ominous black helicopters, mysterious orbs of light, strange disappearances, giant snakes, poltergeist activity, and cattle mutilations, to name but a few. The exact boundaries of the Bridgewater Triangle are nebulous, but were perhaps most clearly laid out by cryptozoologist Loren Coleman in his book Mysterious America: The Ultimate Guide to the Nation’s Weirdest Wonders, Strangest Spots, and Creepiest Creatures. Coleman defines the Bridgewater Triangle as being comprised of the towns of Abington, Rehoboth and Freetown at the points of the triangle, and Brockton, Whitman, West Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Bridgewater, Middleboro, Dighton, Berkley, Raynham, Norton, Easton, Lakeville, Seekonk, and Taunton inside the triangle. Within this cauldron of weird occurrences, Freetown State Forest is said to be the most active; a veritable wellspring of the weird and bizarre.When discussing the numerous cases of strange phenomena within Freetown State Forest, it is hard to even know where to begin.

So, let's start with the general weirdness of the forest, shall we. The forest is alleged to be the location of all manner of Satanic and/or occult activity, with rumors of cult rituals, animal and human sacrifices, and the summoning of demons and spirits. The presence of "occult" graffiti (from images I saw, most likely from kids who saw their older brother's heavy metal album covers) is frequently used to back up claims of cult activity. The area is also reputed to be the sight of a large amount of violent crime, including murders, and one doesn't have to look far to find a list of bodies said to have been found within the forest (I have not been able to actually fact-check any lists, though, so I have no idea what, if any, truth there is to these claims).

UFOs are also said to be frequent visitors to the area. As noted below, Ronald Reagan of all people is reputed to have seen one here in the 1970s. There seems to be little specific information on them, but they are definitely part of the folklore.

And where there are cults and UFOs, what else do you always have?  That's right, cattle mutilations! Allegedly two incidents of cattle mutilation occurred in the late 1990s, with internet lore attributing them to cult activity. Rumor holds that there were other, earlier episodes as well, though I couldn't find any specifics.

Finally, the area is said to be rife with bigfoot sightings. While this is interesting to many, I am more of a ghost guy than a bigfoot guy (or UFO guy, for that matter), so I will note this and move on.

Now on to the specifics.

For starters, the Forest is reputed to be a refuge of the Pukwedgies, a race of dwarf/troll-like creatures around 2-3 feet tall, who are said to glow some of the time. The creatures are known from stories told by Wampanoag peoples, but are similar to dwarf-type of creatures found in folklore throughout the Americas (and, really, throughout the world). The Pukwedgies seem to delight in frightening people, playing pranks, pushing, throwing rocks, and the like. They have been said to get more vicious, though, attacking people with spears and knives, pushing people off of cliffs, and allegedly luring people into the forests to their deaths.

Continuing with the folklore, there is a rock known as Profile Rock, AKA Joshua's Mountain. The rock looks like a stylized profile of a human face (really, it is pretty cool, look at the photo below). Local lore claims that Native American lore holds that this is the image of Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, and that it stands where the chief's son died - but the truth is that the profile was created by activities in the 19th century, likely involving dynamite for construction and/or mining. Personally, I think this looks more like a Yeti in a Darth Vader costume. Regardless, people report hearing voices, feeling sinister presences, and even seeing evil-looking (though surprisingly non-specific) apparitions here. In addition, the apparition of a lone man is said to appear atop the rock, sitting and looking out, and there are rumors of ghostly warriors that dance around the rock. The location has been subject to a large amount of vandalism, and clean-up efforts appear to be a never-ending chore.



Let us now move our tour to the former quarry of the Fall River Granite Company, where the 80 foot drop down is topped by the Assonet Ledge, AKA The Ledge. It is said that people who visit here are overwhelmed with a sense of dread, which may contribute to the allegedly high number of suicides that take place here - and one of the suicide victims, a woman who waited for her boyfriend who never showed up, is said to now be a ghost that haunts the ledge. It is also alleged that then-California Governor Ronald Reagan was flying over the ledge in a Cessna when he spotted a UFO (though I am skeptical of this sort of claim for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that planes move fast and even if he did see a UFO, there's no reason to think he was over this specific spot). Oh, and naturally this is said to be the location of all manner of Satanic Activity.

Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder (measuring roughly 5 feet by 9 feet by 11 feet) covered in all manner of symbols and drawings. The rock was described by Cotton Mather in the 17th century, and at the time lay in a creek bed. It has since been moved to Dighton Rock State Park. The inscriptions have attracted a good deal of attention over the years, with people attributing them to everyone from Phoenicians to Vikings. I am not an expert in Eastern US Rock Art, but I am an archaeologist, and based on what I have been able to find, the carvings on the rock, while unusual and ornate, are nonetheless not out of the wheelhouse of most Native North American groups, and indeed some of the panels have been shown to be remarkably similar to local native rock art. Additional carvings may have been made by settlers from the 17th century onwards. Most of the "oh, aren't these mysterious" writings regarding the rock art appear to be based on pre-20th century assumptions about the "primitiveness" of Native Americans, the same assumptions that prevented people from recognizing them as the builders of Cahokia...in other words, it's mostly racist and garbled nonsense.

Finally, on our little travelogue we come to the Hockomock Swamp. Although not entirely located within the Forest (the swamp's 16,950-acre size dwarfs the forest) it is nonetheless adjacent to the forest, and likely deserving its own entry. As I think I will give it its own entry down the road, I will only briefly touch on it here and note that early settlers called it "The Devil's Swamp," and that all manner of weird creatures, ranging from bigfoot-type beings to red-eyed dogs to a pterodactyl-type flying creature have been spotted here, and it is reputed to be the haunt of many a spirit.

Commentary: There is a lot going on here, but there is one type of event that often comes up in discussing the Freetown State Forest that I have only briefly touched on in this entry. Most of the online discussion I have found bring in numerous murders in the area over the years. I will not be discussing these, as most of those for which information is readily available are recent enough that many immediate family and friends of the victims are still alive. While I doubt that I get enough circulation to grab the attention of any of those impacted by the murders, I find it distasteful to use someone else's family tragedy to gain cheap thrills. When something has retreated enough into the past and acquired enough folkloric baggage for it to no longer cause hurt to living people, then I am comfortable discussing it. But these cases are not appropriate for a blog meant for fun.

As rich as the stories here are, there are certain trends that are readily visible. The first is that much tends to be made of the conflict between the native Pocasset Wampanoag people and the European settlers that began to push in during the 17th century. While this history is notable and important, from a ghost story standpoint, it is also something of a red herring - there is little land across the Americas that much the same story could not be told about. It seems to be brought in here both because of the local folklore regarding the Pukwedgies, and because, as is often the case, non-Native American people tend to feel very comfortable blaming strange things on "those mysterious Indians."

Another thing that I notice is that many of these stories seem to be very much an artifact of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus on Satanic cults sounds to me much more like the typically misleading and hyperbolic accounts that were common int he media during my childhood and teen years than anything that actually occurred (seriously, the story of the man int he cabin could have been ripped right out of many of the stories told in my own town ont he other side of the country, every one of which was eventually proven to have either neither happened or have been a gross distortion of something much more mundane). And, it is worth noting, some of the more lunatic fringe elements of the religious right in the U.S. made great efforts to promote these ideas among law enforcement - while most law enforcement officers recognized this nuttiness for the paranoia that it was, a few succumbed, which likely explains much of the stories presented about Freetown.

Sources: Mysterious Universe, New Bedford Guide, Freetown State Forest Website, Lore PodcastAtlas Obscurasomethingsthere.comroadtrippers.comBoston.com, American Heritage

Sunday, November 11, 2018

My house in Fresno, California

I bought a house about three years ago - a nice, if rather weird, house that had previously been used as a hospice and elder care facility. When the realtor showed it to us, she notified us, as required by state law, that people had died in the house. This didn’t particularly bother me - interacting with human remains is something that I have done routinely throughout my education and career, so if I was worried about being haunted or cursed I am likely way past the point of no return. Also, I have been present in hospice facilities during the death of family members, and that experience, while never pleasant, was also never traumatic. So, that people died under hospice care in my House was fine, and it lowered the cost because other potential buyers were actively avoiding the house.

Most of the peculiarities of the house were weird architectural elements added to help it better serve as a care facility - things such as a sun room added on behind the living room (so that you have windows looking out of one room, into another room), or an entire bathroom being converted to one giant shower. Other oddities were more just strange things that we discovered: a photo of an old man over the door to the garage, a stack of mirrors in one of the closets, a lock on the master bathroom that allowed you to lock someone in but not lock anyone out, weird acoustics that make it sound like people are talking in one room when they are in another, etc.

After we had been there for a few months, my wife told me that our daughter would come into our bedroom at night, stand at the foot of the bed and stare at us. And my wife brought this up a few times, saying that it was ongoing. Now, most nights I was asleep and wouldn’t have noticed a thing, but other nights I was having trouble with insomnia and was awake, and I know that my daughter didn’t enter our room.

Around the same time, my daughter told me that, at night, the wooden supports in the house walls would whisper to her. They would say "we are your friends, and we love you."

About a year after that, I fell asleep on the couch in the living room, and woke briefly to the sound of someone walking in the kitchen (adjacent to the living room). The house is 60 years old and many rooms, including the kitchen, have squeaky floorboards with distinctive sounds, and this was the sound of an adult. Anyway, when I asked my wife the next day why she hadn’t woken me up to head to bed when she was in the kitchen, she told me that she had not been in the kitchen.

More recently, my daughter has begun complaining of having “bad thoughts” about creepy entities when she is in bed at night, and about two weeks ago, she called me in after I had put her to bed. When I got to her room, she told me that she had seen a shadowy figure come in through the exterior wall, cross over her bed, and enter her closet.

Commentary: Now, I don’t believe in ghosts, or anything supernatural for that matter. I think that what I experienced was likely just a mix of normal hallucinations while sleepy (everyone gets them, it’s normal and explains many ghost stories), and my daughter is a six year old who is beginning to understand and cope with the concept of death, and her reaction has been to occasionally freak out and over-interpret things (we played the Oregon Trail board game recently, and while she has always been a gracious loser, drawing the “you have died of dysentery” card freaked her out) - add to that the fact that her bedroom window faces the street and that odd shadows are common when cars drive by. Even the thing about the supports in the walls talking to her started as a joke between her and I when her mother was having to spend time in the hospital for eye surgery (I started talking about the beams talking because I thought she'd find it funny, and she did, and it helped distract her away from worrying about her mom).

But, still, explainable or not, and I do feel that it is very explainable, it’s pretty creepy.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Haunting (or not) in Seattle

On a message board that I frequent (yes, some message boards still exist!) I asked posters to share their real-life ghost stories, and I received this excellent one from a user with the handle Tombobodil:

"So a couple of years ago I was living in an old apartment building in Seattle with a couple other people. It was a really old building that was sandwiched right up next to the neighboring buildings. It was one of those situations where they're so close there isn't even a sliver of an alley; the sides were basically flush with one another.

It was a medium sized two story place with a half second floor where the bedrooms were and a wide wooden plank staircase that led from the bedroom floor to a shared rec area/kitchen at the back of the apartment.

The whole building was brick and wood and so was drafty and creaky, but nothing that I wouldn't by default attribute to just "old building noises". But one night I woke up at like 2 o'clock in the morning with a pretty bad stomach ache, and after trying and failing to fall back to sleep decided to head downstairs to try to find some Alka Seltzer.

About a third of the way down the stairs, I not only heard, but FELT something coming slowly down the stairs behind me. I was pretty groggy, and assuming it was just one of my roommates turned around to see. But there was no one there. The steps however kept coming. Muffled creaky steps and I could SEE the planks of the staircase bowing slightly with each step, coming slowly towards me.

Now I'm one of the most staunchly anti-superstition, pro logic, pro science and reason person I know. The kind of person who, if I saw a literal ghost that I could examine and interact with, wouldn't think "ghost" I would think "extra-dimensional alien" or maybe just "I'm having hallucinations", and maybe it was because I was also half asleep, but I just stood stone still fucking frozen with a deep panicky dread that completely bypassed the reasonable part of my brain.

The steps continued until it reached the step I was on and I FELT the stair bow slightly underneath me and reverberate with the phantom step. The steps continued to the bottom of the stairs before stopping without a trace. Now I honestly couldn't tell you what I was thinking at that moment but I was wide awake and under no illusion that I had just imagined that.

I didn't wake up any of my friends, but told them about it in the morning. Now they knew me well enough to know that I wouldn't put any stock in something I had dream or imagined or anything like that. If I was taking it seriously and talking about it the way I was, it either really happened, or there was something seriously wrong with me mentally. In either case it wasn't a matter to be dealt with flippantly. So they agreed to stay up with me and see if it happened again.

And sure enough, it did. At the exact same time and in the exact same way. The steps started on the first stair, there was sound and movement of the step, and they passed slowly down the stair case, disappearing after the last step.

After a few moments of being legitimately spooked, we immediately started trying to figure out what the hell might be causing it. Weird temperature fluctuations, some kind of elaborate prank? We stayed up the next two nights, and on the second night it stopped."

Commentary:

Much as Tombombodil provided the story, he also provided an explanation for what occurred:

"So what was happening is that at some point, the section of the building we were in shared a stairwell with the building next door, the wooden staircase in that stairwell got retrofitting into the stairs between the floors of our apartment. But the wooden planks of the stairs were still the same planks that spanned across to the other building even though they had partitioned the space off with walls etc. 

So some guy who worked night shifts was getting up, and coming down the stairs to go to work, and was stepping on the other half of the same planks that made up our stair case; thus the sound, vibrations, and movement."

Thanks, Tombombodil, I very much enjoyed this one.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Toyols: Evil Construct Fetuses of Asia

Here's a bit of nightmare fuel for you.

In south Asia, it is said that the there is a creature that may be created by a sorcerer, witch doctor, or shaman out of a dead human fetus or stillborn child. The creatures are said to look like green-skinned, red-eyed goblins, and are controlled by individuals who have created or purchased them. Although their description is often described, they are said to often be invisible without the aid of magic, and some stories seem to suggest that the toyol never leaves it's home, but rather projects itself as a spirit to commit whatever acts may be required of it.

Stories regarding these creatures are spread throughout Asia, and the remains to be used vary - some hold that a stillborn child will do, others than an aborted fetus is best, and others seem to state that any deceased human child will work.The remains are re-animated using magical embalming techniques, and it becomes a servant of the magician that created it, or may be sold to another if the magician decides to do so. Toyols are kept in jars (filled with oil from a human corpse, known appropriately as corpse oil) when not needed, and are brought out when desired by their masters. The toyols are controlled by chants that provide instruction, as well as discipline should the toyol obey. However, the toyol becomes more powerful every year, and can become dangerous to its owner.

The creature is in many ways child-like, needing clothing, food (usually sweet foods, but in some traditions, blood from the mistress of the house though some versions that that they will breastfeed but take blood instead of milk), and toys, and must be cared for. In return, the creature will serve its master, committing acts of theft, sabotage, murder (usually using it's shard claws or reaching through the chest to stop the victim's heart by squeezing it) and other crimes as needed. Male toyols are preferred, as they are more docile and can be easily controlled. Female toyols are more vicious and bloodthirsty. The female toyols tend to be closer to their owners, and often are more possessive of their owners, but (in accordance with the social traditions of the place where these stories originate) will not leave the home and are used more like particularly horrifying guard dogs than the supernatural petty criminals that the male toyols are said to be. Female toyols are also said to be more demanding of their owners, and to make demands that cannot be negotiated with, the way that they can with male toyols.

As noted above, in many versions of the legend, toyols are kept in jars, and in some there is a written contract with the spirit animating the toyol. In these stories, breakign the jar may free the toyol from its obligations, and allow it to attack and possibly kill it's owner. What happens with the contracts is not clear, with some stories sayign that the contracts have end-dates and that after that the toyol may be laid to rest, while others hold that there is no end, with the toyol becoming both a servant and a curse to the owner and to all of their descendants (so, the family curse isn't just for European families in creepy 17th century mansions).

In some versions of the story, a master-less toyol may just wander into the wilds, and go where it can occasionally interact harmlessly with human homes. In these versions to he tales, the toyol can be a heart-breakingly sympathetic character, essentially a lost eternal child that knows it cannot be part of any family, but will seek them out in order to observe longingly, and sometimes sneak into the house to play with toys. However, toyols don't like to be abandoned, and many stories hold that, if they learn that they are to be abandoned or destroyed, they will kill their master and themselves at the same time (worth noting - toyols are intensely jealous, and may take poorly to their master having a child of their own). Toyols who have committed crimes will often fear death, as they will have to go through judgement before being reincarnated, and they will likely be reborn as a lower life form to make up for their sins before being able to work their way back to human.

Though generally used for petty crimes, the toyol could be made more powerful through special rituals and could be used to commit more serious crimes, such as murder, or to bring the owner extraordinarily wealth. In addition to rituals, other ways to increase a toyols power include setting a toyol to suck blood from the toe of a sleeping bride on her wedding night (the bride is usually said to be a relative of the toyol's owner), or having the toyol take control of the owner and eat raw meat.

Luckily for the virtuous among us, defenses against toyols are well known. Placing valuables above needles will keep them from being stolen, and toyols fear being hurt by needles. Placing valuables next to mirrors will also keep them safe, as toyols are afraid of their own reflection. Fianlly, placing sand, strands of garlic, marble, and the like in various parts of the house will distract a toyol, who will spend time playing with them until it forgets its task.

Although generally said to be used for crimes, petty or otherwise, the toyols can also be made to commit other heinous acts, including seeking out spirits of wandering children to be made into other toyols; gathering information (for committing crimes, or for military intelligence); looking into human bodies to identify illness or injury; and foretelling the future.


Commentary: This is more folklore than the typical ghost story that I bring you, but it is so disturbing, weird, and just plain odd that I had to share. Most of what would normally be in the commentary is in the main text above, due to this being a piece of folklore rather than a reported haunting. Nonetheless, there are a few elements of the story that bear further exploration.

First off, though this creature is Asian in origin, and likely not related to European folklore, there are parallels with the homonculus of European folklore and magical traditions - primarily that a sorcerer or alchemist could use magic to create a small humanoid servant for it's own purposes. That said, many aspects of this story  - specifically the use of an aborted or stillborn fetus to create the creature - are specific to Asia, though I do wonder if this story hasn't made the rounds of some of the more rightward churches in the US and Europe, as it seems almost custom-made for linking abortion with black magic/Satanism.

The Atlantic article linked below states that a likely origin for these creature is in pre-Islamic mecca, where infanticide (including burying infants alive) was not uncommon (though, it should be said, this was not uncommon in many parts of the world, including Europe). The story would then, presumably, have spread with the expansion of Islam, likely especially as it was spread through the Moghul Empire. That said, as noted, infanticide is a common practice in cultures throughout the world, and creatures similar in some respect to the toyol are also found in mythologies across the world so while that is a possible origin, it is not the only likely one.

As noted, while the toyol as described above seems to be endemic to Malaysia and Indonesia, variations on the story are common throughout Asia. Versions are reported from China, Singapore, the Koreas, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines, and I would be surprised if versions were not also present in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Japan, given the geographic spread of these stories. One version of the story even holds that Buddhist monks may carve stone bodies for the spirits of deceased children who are otherwise stuck on earth, though it sounds from my limited reading as if these creatures are more like normal children and are not thought to be evil, but rather are the result of a kind deed done by the monk. 

Given that variations of the story are found over a wide geographic range, there is no surprise that the stories appear highly variable, and often scaled to the scope of the people in a region. In small villages, the toyol is said to be the tool of the petty local witch or magician, and commits minor nuisance crimes. In more prosperous areas, the power of the toyol is said to be greater, and their capacity to enrich or harm are more extreme. This seems to make sense, as it is likely that common folklore will scale to the surroundings.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

I don't know how I have managed to keep this blog as long as I have and not brought up one of the great American spooky stories, but I have, so it is long since time that I brought this up.

The story goes that one night, some time between the late 1920s and the mid-1930s, shortly before midnight, at a crossroads near Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, a good harmonica player but lousy guitar player named Robert Johnson begasn a ritual to summon the Devil. Johnson pulled out his guitar and began to play, quite poorly. Shortly after the stroke of midnight, a large man, his skin and clothing as black as coal, approached, took the guitar from Johnson, tuned it, played a short tune, and handed it back to Johnson.

Johnson got the guitar into position, played, and was shocked to discover that he was now amazing. He looked up towards the coal-black man, only to find that he had vanished. Johnson walked back through the dead of night, and would soon discover that he was now a brilliant guitarist not just on the instrument that he had brought to the crossroads, but on every guitar that he picked up.

Johnson's newfound skill began to bring him success. He had became a popular guitarist and singer at the juke joints of the American south, and also found himself popular with the ladies.

But he knew that there was a cost, and that the Devil would quite literally collect his due. Johnson knew that in exchange for his talent, he had pledged his soul to the Devil, and that he would burn for eternity after his death.

As he shot to local fame, Robert Johnson wrote and performed songs with the usual blues subject matter of hard women and harder working conditions, difficult lives, and the need for relief. But he also wrote and performed other songs. Songs about bad dealings at crossroads. Songs about being pursued by demonic hounds. And songs about the Devil pursuing him. Some hold that he was writing songs based on the folklore of the region, but others claim that he was trying to tell people about what he had done.

One day, in August 1938, Johnson began behaving strangely, and people reported seeing him walking on all fours and howling like a dog. He had been working as a musician at a dance hall in Greenwood Mississippi at the time, and despite his odd behavior, he showed up for work that night and performed as normal. Later on, he fell ill, and suffered from painful convulsions that lasted for three days. Finally, he died. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband (again, he was popular with the ladies, not all of whom were single), some say that he simply dropped dead without cause. Most agree, though, that the Devil had made good on his part of the bargain, and now expected Robert Johnson to pay the bill.

Commentary: As I said above, this is one of the great American spooky tales, and I am surprised that I haven't covered it before. However. I am happy to do so now.

For anyone who tells you that overt connections between music and Satan began with heavy metal, let me introduce you to the mother genre of all rock music - the Blues. Stories such as this one surround Robert Johnson, one of the great early figures of the blues, but some would hold that other musicians (including Tommy Johnson - there were a lot of men with the surname Johnson in early blues, just as there were a lot of men with the surname King in mid-20th century blues) made the same deal. And blues music often contained Satanic imagery and subjects, such as Robert Johnson's own The Devil and Me Blues and Hellhound on My Trail Blues. Overtly Christian imagery and subjects were also, of course, part of early blues, which makes sense as blues is closely connected to Gospel music.

Robert Johnson was born in 1911, and died in 1938 at the age of 27 years. He had wandered the south as a musician and manual laborer during the 1920s and 30s, with accounts holding that he had either run away from home or been kicked out by his father as a teenager. However, as is typical for an African American in the early 20th century, his life was not well documented, and it is difficult to sort out what was true and what was rumor.

One thing that does seem to be certain - he hung out at juke joints as a young man, and played harmonica well. However, he wanted to be a guitar player, and was so bad at it that many musicians, including iconic bluesmen such as Son House, recall him "annoying people to death" with his attempts to coax any sort of decent sound out of a guitar. Then he vanished for somewhere between six months and a year, and when he re-appeared, Son House recalls being amazed at how skilled a guitar player Johnson had become.

I set the story in Dockery, Mississippi, but others would place the story in other locations throughout the south. Robert Johnson was a traveling worker and musician, and there is no shortage of crossroads in the south that claim to have been the location of his Faustian bargain.

Although the story of Robert Johnson is the prototype of the bargain between a musician and Hell, it is not the first such story. As documented in one of my earlier entries, the violinist Paganini is said to have either made such a pact himself, or to have bee the product of a pact between his mother and a demon. And, of course, in more recent years, heavy metal musicians play up this Satanic imagery to create their own mythologies.

Of course, the truth probably has less to do with deals made in Hell than with hard work. As noted, Robert Johnson vanished from the juke joints for somewhere between six months and a year. Though the documentation is sparse, he probably traveled to work, possibly with his family, and while doing so, he appears to have found a guitar teacher. The identity of the guitar teacher is unclear (and, really, it might have been more than one) but most sources point towards Ike Zimmerman (or, in some records, Zinnerman) being the teacher. It is said that the two played guitar at night in cemeteries in order to be in a quite place for practice, which may explain another variation of the story, where Johnson is said to have made his deal with the Devil in a cemetery, while playing his guitar on a tombstone.


Sources: Wikipedia, Open Culture, UDiscover Music, NPR, The Guardian