Monday, April 20, 2009

The Borley Rectory

In 1863, the Reverend Henry Bull had a rectory built in Borley, Essex to house himself and his family. The land on which the rectory was built was rumored to have been the site of a Medieval monastery, and the locals told stories of a ghostly nun who was often seen in the area. Bull ignored the stories and built his home in this location anyway.

After the home was built, strange things began to happen. Footsteps with no clear source were heard, the Bull children reported seeing a phantom nun walking about the grounds, and stories of a phantom coach with a headless driver began to circulate in the area. These stories squared with local legends concerning a nun who fell in love with a monk at the local monastery. The two chose to elope, and both were executed, along with the driver of the get-away carriage.

Two generations of the Bull family maintained residence at Borley Rectory until 1927, when reverend Guy Eric Smith became the rector of the church and took up residence.

After moving in, Smith's wife discovered a paper package containing the skull of a young woman in one of the cupboards. Shortly thereafter, the sounds of servant bells ringing (even after their strings had been cut) and sourceless footsteps became common. Lights appeared in the house (presumably in unoccupied rooms), and the phantom coach was again seen (though whether or not the driver was headless this time is unknown).

At the Smiths' request, the Daily Mirror newspaper put them in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. The newspaper also arranged for a paranormal investigator by the name of Harry Price* to come to the house.

After Price arrived, new phenomenon were observed, including tappings from spirits (often referred to as "spirit messages") and objects began to be thrown.

The Smiths left in 1929, and were replaced in 1930 by Reverend Lionel Foyster and his family. The old phenomenon continued, and were accompanied by even more violent throwing of objects, shattering windows, people being locked into rooms, people were physically thrown by unseen forces, and Adelaide Foyster, Reverend Foyster's step-daughter, was once attacked by something that was described only as "horrible."

Reverend Foyster twice tried to conduct exorcisms, but to no avail. A stone was thrown at him during his first attempt, and the second simply brought no result. The Foysters eventually left the home in 1937 due to the Reverend's poor health.

Harry Price continued his investigations during this time, and rented the house in 1937. He built a group of observers who would visit the house, often spending several days there, and keep track of their observations. During seances conducted during this period, contact was made with the spirit of a nun who had been killed on the grounds where the house stood. She claimed to have been murdered by Henry Waldengrave, who had owned the 17th-century manor house that had previously stood at the rectory's location.

A second spirit, going by the name of Sunex Amures, was contacted and announced his intention to set fire to the house in order to reveal the remains of a murder victim. In 1939, nearly a year later, the house's new resident, one Captain W. H. Gregson, was unpacking boxes when an oil lamp overturned and started a fire, severely damaging the house. After the fire, Harry Price returned to the rectory, and began exploring the basement, where he found bones, which were interred in holy ground at Liston Churchyard, putting the wronged nun's spirit to rest.

Commentary: ...and you thought that the howling cabin in Harry Potter was the most haunted house in England.

Although much of the legend that has been built up around the house implies that it was built at the abandoned site of a former monastery, it was actually built on the grounds of the previous rector's home, and the story of the monastery, eloping couple, and executed carriage driver was invented by the Reverend Bull's children and only later became part of the legend surrounding the place.

Harry Price's investigations at the house are what "made" him as a paranormal investigator, but have themselves been the source of much controversy. The Society for Psychical Research, once one of the most prominent paranormal investigation groups in the world, performed their own study of the house, and not only came to different conclusions than Price, but also accused Price of Fraud in his investigations. Later biographies of Price have portrayed him as a con-man who made a supplemental income by performing "psychical research."

However, Price also has his defenders, though their case typically seems rather weak. Nonetheless, it can be argued that he was not quite the cunning, cynical force that his opponents made him out to be, though he may still have been a con man. Indeed, his discovery of the bones of an alleged murder victim both seem rather remarkably convenient (especially seeing as how his spirit contact had said that he would burn down the house nearly a year before it actually happened), and the bones were buried in Liston churchyard rather than Borley churchyard after the authorities of Borley established that the bones were from a pig and not a human.

Childhood stories and possible hoaxing aside, it is still difficult to figure out what, if anything, actually happened at the Borley Rectory. As noted, some of the stories appear to have come directly from the imaginations of the Bull children, others may have been due to a hoax, and still others may have come from other non-paranormal sources. For example, after the fact it was revealed that Marianne Foyster was having an affair with a lodger, and used the well-known ghost story to create distractions and cover up some of her activity. In addition, the media attention focused on the house likely resulted in "bigger fish" stories being created, turning natural phenomenon into larger-than-life (or death) ghostly happenings in order ot feed the ravenous media creature.

Unlike the rather similar Amityville case, the media of the time was more limited, producing fewer reports to be examined, and there was no legal proceedings involved, further preventing the generation of publicly available information. As a result, this case can not be examined as exhaustively as the Amityville case.

So, in the end, what happened at Borley Rectory? Did something truly strange and unexplainable happen in the midst of the made-up stories and the media blitzkrieg? Or was the haunting simply a series of hoaxes?

I have no idea. I do know that those who advocate for proof of spirits would do well to steer clear of the Borley Rectory simply because there is so much confusion surrounding the place. Whether or not there is something strange sitting underneath the surface is an open question, but one that we would do well to consider somewhat skeptically.

SOURCES: Prairie Ghosts,, LLc,, Podcast, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet

*Irrelevant to most people, but funny to me - I used to work for an archaeologist named Barry Price, and so I keep having to go back and change my "b"s to "h"s when I write Harry Price's name.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Grandfather Ghosts

After my great grandfather's death, many of my family members reported hearing strange sounds in my grandfather's house. They would hear doors open and close, and the sounds of footsteps walking around at night. Whenever anyone would ask my grandfather what the sound was, he'd say "that's just my dad, coming to check up on us."

The house is an old one, and you can not only clearly recognize the sounds of footsteps, but you can also accurately determine where in the house they are coming from by sound alone. Although my family tried to explain it away with descriptions of the house settling, noen of them were ever happy with these descriptions.

Thirteen years ago, in my last few months living in Stanislaus County before heading to UC Santa Cruz, my grandfather died. After this happened, family members tell me that there have been no more mysterious sounds or unusual happenings. However, my father reports that he now hears opening/closing doors and footsteps in his house at night. Perhaps it is the fate of the men of my family that we get to spend eternity looking after the poor housekeeping habits of our male descendants. If that's the case, then here's hoping that I have daughters.

Commentary: I have heard this story from numerosu family members for many years. Myself, I have never heard nor seen anything unusual in either my grandfather's or my father's house, so I can not confirm any of the story.

What is interesting to me, however, is that the ghost, if indeed that's what it is, doesn't seem to be viewed with fear or suspicion by the family, but simply as a manifestation of a deceased relative's concern. This is especially interesting as some of the family members who are quite comfortable with the presence of this ghost (or ghosts) have commented that other alleged hauntings were not the work of dead humans but of demons and other diabolical forces. However, when questioned about their own experiences, they opt for the more comforting answer.

SOURCES: Personal experience, Personal account

Friday, April 10, 2009

La Llorona

There was a beautiful widow who had two children. Although her children meant the world to her, she knew that she could not support them on her own and so she began to search for a new husband. She spent most of her evenings in saloons, cafes, anywhere where the men of her town would gather, searching for a husband who could help support her family. One night while she was out, bandits attacked her home and killed her children. When she returned home, she saw what had happened, and the knowledge that she might have been able to stop the murders had she been home rather than at the saloon drove her insane. She began to wander, crying "where are my children?" To this day, her ghost is still seen wandering the countryside, calling out for her lost children.

If that sounds a bit off, try this version:

A widow with two children fell in love with a man who had no interest in children. After trying for a long time to get his attention, she finally decided that her children were the impediment, and so she drowned them in the river. When the man discovered what she had done, he was horrified and refused to have anything to do with her. She was hung, but her ghost can still be seen wandering the riverbanks, crying for her lost children.

Still not quite right? How about this version:

A woman married and had two children with a horrible man, a ne'er do-well and a philanderer. One evening, he came home with another woman on his arm. He told his wife that he wished to see his children, but that she meant nothing to him any longer, he had replaced her with someone younger an prettier. The only way to get revenge against this man was to kill the children, which she did. After she had drowned them in the river, she realized what she had done, and gave herself up to the authorities. To this day, her ghost can still be seen wandering the banks of the river, crying and searching for her lost children."

...and there are many other versions. In some, the mother murders her children, in others they die due to her neglect, and in others she is arguably blameless in their deaths, and yet blames herself anyway. In some versions, she kills herself, in others she is executed, and in others she dies a natural death but is condemned to Earth by God for her failings as a mother.

Commentary: La Llorona (pronounced La Ya-Rona) or "the crying woman" is one of the classic ghost stories. Although this story is a common urban legend, it has been attached to many specific locations throughout the Americas, primarily Latin America and locations with large Hispanic populations within the U.S. and Canada. In addition to tellings of the story, reported sightings of La Llorona are common in these areas as well.

The origins and meaning of the story are very much open to intepretation.

One origin claimed for the story is that the Aztec the goddess Cihuacoatl or Coatlicue appeared before the Spanish arrived, crying for the death of her children, thus prophesying the destruction of the Aztec empire at the hands of the conquistadors. Over time, this story may have evolved into the La Llorona story. However, I am very skeptical of this, as the story of the prophecy sounds like a story developed after the destruction of the empire in an attempt to mythologize and make sense of the empire's destruction, and therefore it seems just as likely that later La Llorona tales influenced this story as that a pre-Colonial story morphed into La Llorona.

Another source that is often broguht up is the Banshee of Irish folkore. While there are some similarities, and a few specific La Llorona stories clearly claim that the crying woman is a harbinger of death, there are also a number of differences (La Llorona is a ghost, while the Banshee is a fey spirit, just for starters). Also, La Llorona appears in places with large Spanish-speaking populations, begging the question of why these people would be continuing an Irish story. It is nonetheless very likely that Banshee stories did influence the development of various La Llorona stories.

Most likely in my own personal estimation, the story began as a folktale in Latin America and moved along with immigrant populations throughout the Americas. Local conditions, different storytellers, and local traditions influenced the further development of the story, and as such, you have a number of different variations now.

The purpose of the story is also variable. First and foremost, it seems to be a campfire story - the sort of story that friends tell each other for entertainment, without taking the story too seriously. A second function appears to be as a safety tool for parents - water figures prominently in many (if not most) versions of the story and the ghost is usually reported at the riverbanks, suggesting that the story may be used to scare kids away from drowning hazards, and in the arid southwest of the United States (one of the places where this story is especially popular) flash floods in the arroyos are a deadly hazard.

Also, La Llorona appears to have become something of a boogey man, with parents telling their children "if you're not good, La Llorona will get you!"

The ghost story is a popular one, and has served as the basis for a film. What seperates it from most urban legends is that, as mobile and clearly "urban-legendish" as it is, there are still sightings of La Llorona, elevating it to an allegedly true ghost story.

Special Treat: The guys from Hometown Tales put together a video segment on the La Llarona legend as it is known in New Mexico. Check it out:

SOURCES: Internet, Internet

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Amityville Haunting

Most of us are familiar with the outlines of the story, after all, it has been part of our collective pop culture since the 1970s. On the morning of November 13, 1974, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murder his entire family while they slept. He then attempted to hide the evidence but was eventually caught and convicted. He remains in prison to this day.

In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz bought and moved into the house with their children, but they stayed less than a month. After they left, they had a litany of eerie to terrifying encounters to recount. It started small, with objects moving, and sounds without sources, but eventually moved on to much larger and more menacing manifestations. George Lutz heard a phantom brass band marching through the house, the walls began to “bleed” a viscous slime, and the family began to see apparitions of ghostly people.

After a time, the manifestations went from ghostly to demonic. The family reported seeing a devil-like figure with glowing red eyes peering into the windows of their house. The youngest daughter had an imaginary friend named “Jodie” who she reported as looking like a cross between a devil and a pig. One day, after seeing the demonic figure peeking into the windows, George and Kathy found cloven hoofmarks in the snow outside of the house. George began to become violently angry, out of character for him. And clouds of flies would appear out of nowhere even on the coldest of days. A priest came to the house to perform and exorcism, and was told by a disembodied voice to “get out!” The priest was then followed back to the church by a menacing specter, and suffered from a number of different physical ailments.

The final straw came when a mysterious and unseen force began to rip doors and windows out of the walls, and the Lutz family fled in terror.

After they had left, the George and Kathy contacted Ed and Lorraine Warren, as well as the local television station, and asked them to investigate. The Warrens were considered by many to be the pre-eminent paranormal investigators of the day (but see commentary below), Lorraine was a psychic and Ed was a demonologist. The entered the house, took photos, looked about, and made careful notes of what they saw and, in the case of Lorraine, her impressions as a psychic. They concluded that evidence indicated that the family had left suddenly (for example, the fridge was stocked with food, not what you would expect if the family had planned on leaving), and that the house was definitely possessed by a demonic entity.

Further research showed that the ground on which the house was built was thought to be the home of evil spirits by the local Native American tribe, and prior to the colonization of the area by whites, this location was used as a dumping ground for the insane and diseased of the tribe.

And from there, the rest is history. Jay Anson wrote a book, chronicling the experiences of the Lutz family, and the book was made into a hit movie, which spawned numerous sequels that weren’t even claimed to be based on actual events (my favorite for sheer silliness has to be Amityville Dollhouse).
And with that, the true story of a real haunted house became known to the public, and the skeptics predictably refused to believe what was obvious right in front of them.

Commentary: What is written above is the story that most of the public knows, whether from Jay Anson’s book, from the movies, or from the fact that this story has been a big part of our pop culture for the last 30 years. And the story has many firm believers. In preparing for this entry, I came across numerous websites, essays, and articles in which supporters of the Lutz’s version of events rant about the “faithless” closed-minded skeptics who refuse to see what is in front of their face if it doesn’t jive with their pre-conceived ideas of how the world works.

But when you look into the story more, the truth is rather different than the commonly believed version of events.

For starters, William Weber, the defense attorney for Ronald DeFeo Jr., had contact with the George and Kathy Lutz, and even sued them for non-compliance on a book agreement that he had with them. Over time, a story came out that the Lutzes and Weber developed the haunted house story over a few bottles of wine in order to provide Weber with something to use to persuade a jury in a hoped-for new trial for DeFeo (remember, he doesn’t have to scientifically prove that ghosts or demons exist, just persuade a jury), and to allow the Lutzes something that they might be able to use (or sell in the form of books) in order to get out from under a crippling mortgage.

In addition, many of the details just didn’t work out. There are conflicting reports of how long the Lutzes stayed in the home, there are reports from neighbors that the night after they left “for good” they were back to hold a yard sale, there was no snow on the ground on the days when the cloven-hoof prints were said to be in the snow, and all of the original hardware was present and intact on the doors and windows that had allegedly been torn apart. Also, the police were never actually called, contrary to claims made by the Lutzes. Oh, and the priest who had attempted the exorcism? He says it never happened. And many of the elements that made it into Anson’s book seem to have been lifted from the film The Exorcist, which was quite the sensation at the time.

None of the subsequent owners or tenants of the house have had any supernatural experiences (though many have reported trouble with tourists coming to see the house (the house address has even been changed and the windows remodeled to hide from would-be curiosity seekers), a rather strange lack of behavior for a home supposedly ruled by diabolical forces.

What of the Warrens? While they were certainly a popular resource for those wishing to investigate the paranormal, and had a level of celebrity themselves, their methods were generally riddled with problems, and not reliable. In general, tracking down gaps in their logic and holes in their work has not proven difficult even for firm believers in the paranormal, and has proven very easy for those who question the existence of the paranormal.

In fact, the Warrens weren’t even the first investigators contacted by George and Kathy. That would be Stephen Kaplan of the Parapsychology Institute of America, who told the Lutzes that he’d be happy to look into the matter, but that if the story was a hoax, he would report it as such. He never heard back from George or Kathy.

And what of the claim that the house was built on a place of evil that had been used to house the sick and insane? Well, this seems to be an interesting riff on the “built on an Indian burial ground” chestnut that gets kicked around a lot. This part especially interests me because I am, by both training and occupation, an anthropological archaeologist and I work in North America – in other words, this is my turf. There certainly are areas that were considered “evil” or at least unwelcoming by the native peoples of the Americas, but there is no evidence that this location was one of them. And while it is not uncommon in many cultures to isolate the sick, there is little indication that this happened here. Moreover, what of the insane? The separation of the insane into separate “asylum” areas is not uncommon across the world, but neither is it necessarily the norm, and those asylum areas usually have things to keep the insane in – what I like to call “walls” – and there is no evidence of such a thing at this location. In other words, this part of the story appears to be complete fiction that takes advantage of the fact that most people have such a poor understanding of how the Native Americans lived that such a story sounds plausible to everyone except for actual Native Americans and anthropologists – who all regard the story as nonsense.

So, at the very best, being as charitable as possible to George and Kathy Lutz, a fair-minded person would have to conclude that whatever actually happened at the house, the story became heavily embellished afterwards, and the media circus that ensued pushed people to become more entrenched in positions that they took publicly.

On the other hand, many elements of the story contradict facts that can be verified, and those that don’t contradict verifiable facts are of the sort that they cannot be tested at all. There is a clear motive for a hoax, and evidence of an intentional push on the part of Weber and the Lutzes to do just that. I can no more prove that the story is a complete hoax than I can prove that there is not a teapot in independent orbit around the sun. However, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well…

In fact, even among those who firmly believe in hauntings and who investigate these matters, there seems to be a growing consensus that this story is a hoax. For most of these folks, the most interesting thing about the story is that something as flimsy as this has gotten the attention of the nation in the way that it has.

While it is sometimes true that those who are skeptical of something unusual are simply refusing to accept it because it doesn’t fit their world view, the facts of this case are pretty clear, and those who continue to espouse the “true haunting” account after sifting through the information that is widely available can be fairly said to be the closed-minded ones here.

To my mind, the most interesting thing about this story is not the alleged haunting, but the way in which stories spread through the media took on a life of their own and became "established fact" in the minds of many people regardless of what the true facts of the case were. In a purely logical/rhetorical sense, this is no different from how a particular political party's views become "obvious facts" for the party faithful despite evidence to the contrary, or how other news events become twisted in the public mind. The main difference is that this sotry is generally treated as nothing more than a "scary story", and as such belief in it is pretty harmless. However, it's good to keep in mind that the same things that got many people to believe in this rather obvious hoax also get people to believe things that can have a much bigger effect on their lives.

Personal Account: No, I don’t have personal experience with the house, and I have never been to Amityville. However, as a kid, my older sister loved horror movies, and I hated them. To be more specific, I was terrified of the movies.

On day, she and I were at home alone. Our parents had rented some movies for us – I don’t remember what I had, but she had Amityville 3 (AKA Amytiville 3-D , part of the early-80’s 3-D fad). She put the movie on, and seemed to enjoy it. I, on the other hand, cowered in my room, waiting for the movie to be over, occasionally slipping out to see what horrors were unfolding onscreen (these movies terrified me, but also kinda’ fascinated me), and what I saw when I ventured out left me feeling very frightened and disturbed.

Fast forward two decades, and I am now in my late 20’s, and have made my dark pact with Jabootu, demon prince of crappy movies. Amityville 3 is on the Sci-Fi channel, so of course I have to sit down and watch it. And, wow, it was bad. I mean, really terrible, not scary or creepy in the least, and nearly unwatchable due to poor performances and even worse writing.

All I could think as I turned off the television towards the middle was “THAT scared me? The only thing scary about this piece of cinematic offal is that someone was stupid enough to think that it would be a good idea to waste money making it!”

SOURCES: Internet , Magazine, Internet , Published Book , Internet , Internet , Snopes

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Rispin Mansion

The Rispin Mansion, in Capitola, CA is a forboding structure. A concrete mansion built in the style of an Italian villa, both majestic and oddly out of place. And, of course, it’s haunted. Although numerous different stories are attributed to the place – ranging from the truly strange and difficult to explain to the just plain stupid* - there are four that show up in every written account that I have found (though, interestingly, I have never heard anyone tell any of these four, they just show up in the written sources).

The first holds that a woman in Victorian-era clothes can be seen walking the top floor (odd, as the place wasn’t built until the 1920s). The second is that a man wearing glasses appears near one of the fireplaces and vanishes. The third is that a man can be heard calling for help from the basement. And the fourth is that an angry dog can be heard growling and sometimes be seen.

Other stories that I have actually heard from locals tend to be fairly typical of haunted houses – strange whispers that nobody can quite make out, weird feelings of being watched, cold spots, and things just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

*it was at this place that I watched a well-trained professional photographer explain to a guy that the “orb” in his photo was actually a well-understood photographic artifact and not a sign of ghostly interference – and watched the guy tell the photographer that she was clearly wrong and knew nothing about photography.

Commentary: The Rispin Mansion was built during the prohibition era by H. Allen Rispin, who had hoped to further develop the resort area in Capitola. In addition to its use as a residence, the mansion was also used for rum-running, and for this purpose there are numerous secret passages and hiding places throughout the mansion. Rispin overextended himself and hit trouble in 1928 and lost his holdings beginning in 1930 (though, to be fair, the 1929 crash and ensuing depression probably helped there). The mansion was then bought by Robert Hays Smith, who also suffered from the Great Depression and eventually sold the house to the Catholic Church, who used it as a convent. In 1957, the nuns left, and the building was derelict for a while, until a commune moved in during the 1960s. During the 70s, the mansion became the favored living quarters for local squatters. By the early 80’s, the ghost stories appear to have surfaced.

This particular haunted house is near and dear to my heart. You see, I have met the ghost.

When I moved to Santa Cruz in 1996, I immediately began to collect local ghost stories. It wasn’t long before I came across the story of the Rispin Mansion. Over the course of the next few years, I would ask locals about the building. In 1999, I finally hit the jackpot. I met a local woman who had been fascinated with the building since she was a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s. She was able to give me a large amount of detail about the building, and the lives of the various members of the Rispin family – outside of the scope of this entry, but fascinating stuff nonetheless. She also made clear her disgust of the vandals who would routinely do damage to the place. And then she told me something very interesting – as teenagers, she and her friends would go to the house in the evenings, and find hiding places – in secret passages, in hidden corners, etc. When others would come to do damage to the place, this group of self-appointed protectors would jump out of the passages screaming, let loose with eerie moans, and generally do all that they could to freak out any would-be vandals.

Given her descriptions of the place and how she and her friends would try to frighten others and matching it with the descriptions of the local ghosts, it quickly became apparent that many of the stories associated with this place have their roots in her activities (a few others probably come from the simple fact that it’s a big, creepy-looking decaying structure). In other words, it was one of those rare Scooby-Doo moments when you unmask the monster only to discover that it’s Mr. Johnson who runs the carnival.

Regardless of the source of the original stories, the place does have a creepy-ass reputation, and there are those who have sought to profit from this. When plans were developed in the mid-90’s to renovate the structure as a hotel (plans that only now, 13 years later, appear to actually be getting under way), one of the many “psychic spiritual medium and healers” that are rather ubiquitous in the Santa Cruz area came forth offering to “help the spirits move on” – and apparently was welcomed by the developers, whether because they thought she could help or as a PR move is not clear.

Regardless, it does appear that the mansion will soon be refurbished, and people coming to the area will be able to spend a night in the mansion. I have to say, I’m tempted to book a room myself.

UPDATE: As of early 2010, the house has been severly damaged due to a fire last summer, and there is a good deal of debate as to whether or not it is savable. The building may be torn down, unfortunately, removing a piece of Santa Cruz County's historic landscape. However, if it is salvageable, it may yet be renovated. We'll just have to wait and see.

SOURCES: Local Folklore, Consultation with Members of Santa Cruz County Historical Society, Newspapers, San Jose Mercury News, Internet , Internet

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ouija Boards

When I was a teenager, some friends of mine who went to my church started playing with a Ouija board. The girls began to get something, the pointer was moving on its own. They asked if it was good or evil, and it spelled out E-V-I-L, and they got scared. One of them asked what it’s name was, and a red ‘S’-shaped rash appeared on each of her wrists, the ‘S’ standing for ‘Satan’ you know. They called the pastor over right away, and he performed an exorcism on the house.

Commentary: This version of the story, with the red “S” shaped rash, was told to me by a neighbor when I was a kid. The story was told multiple times, sometimes with more embellishment than others (sometimes the board spelled out S-A-T-A-N, sometimes it simply went to “S”, and sometimes with the rash on the wrists. I always asked if she was present for the event, and she always said no. When I entered high school, I began to realize that similar stories were a dime a dozen, and that the stories were primarily told either by kids trying to freak each other out, or by a particular type of Protestant trying to warn others of either the existence of Satan or their perceived need for others to convert to their brand of Christianity. In other versions of this story, those told by non-Christians or Christians simply telling a scary story and not trying to use it as a conversion tool, the evil force might be the spirit of a dead killer, an unknown but malevolent spirit, or any number of other things, not necessarilly Satan.

In other words, I began to realize that this story was an urban legend – complete with the classic “this happened to a friend” line at the beginning (the only times I have heard it told as a first-hand account have been on anonymous internet sites). The story seems to have two sources – the first being the distrust of “the occult” by many religious groups of the Judeo-Christian traditions, where anything “magical” that isn’t seen as being strictly of the “godly” mold must be satanic (I have even seen this pushed farther, where anything that doesn’t directly support Christianity, whether supernatural or mundane, is seen as satanic). Unlike other supernatural stories popular among this particular group, the Ouija Board stories are, in my experience, often independent of the teller as victim or hero in “spiritual warfare”, and seem to be told in equal parts as a lesson and just to tell a good creepy story.

The other source of the story seems to be the campfire story tradition – the desire to tell stories that are allegedly true not to teach a lesson or keep someone in line, but simply to have fun with a scary story. In this sense, these stories often fuel a type of legend tripping in that they inspire young people to play at contacting dangerous forces through an item that is really just a rather odd toy and remnant of a very weird period in history . Some enterprising (and pranksterish) individuals that I have met have even figured out ways to conceal magnets in order to fool other people into thinking that they have contacted an entity more malevolent than a teenager with a mischievous streak.

Regardless, the Ouija Board makes for one of the most enduring elements of many a creepy ghost story, and as such is absolutely worthy of mention.

A few more, similar stories can be found here, here, and here.

SOURCES: Personal Account, Urban Legend

Pursuing Demon

“You don’t believe in demons? You’re being a fool! I know that demons are real. I was out at Robert’s house one day. I knew it was time to go, so I got on my bike and started to ride home. After a little while, I felt something that was just wrong. I felt this really intense cold behind me, and I looked around and saw a ball of…just blackness coming after me. I knew it was evil, I could feel it, and I knew I had to get away. I rode as fast as I could, all the way home, knowing that this thing was chasing me. I finally got home, and when I looked, it was gone. THAT is how I know that demons are real!”

Commentary: This is probably one of the first “personal account” stories that I collected, back when I was in high school. I listened as one of the other students in my electronics class told this story to another student who had begun to be open about his skepticism of supernatural claims. At the time, I dismissed the story as nonsense, but I see it somewhat differently now.

Was this kid making the story up, or did he have an experience that he couldn’t understand or explain (whether or not someone else might be able to understand or explain it)? I don’t know, but that’s not what interests me about this story. What interests me is how this story was used as a social tool.

In order to understand what interests me about this story, I have to give you a bit of background information. This kid, we’ll call him Joseph, was a member of an Evangelical Christian church that firmly believed in the reality of “spiritual warfare” – the idea that heavenly and diabolic forces were locked in combat and that humans were playing a rule in a real and bloody war through their choices and politics.

I heard Joseph tell this story under two circumstances – when he was trying to sway someone over to Christianity, or when he was talking to other members of his church. In the first case, the use of the tool was clear- it was intended to persuade someone that they were in danger and only Joseph’s group could save them from that danger. Joseph’s target on that day didn’t buy it, but nonetheless, it was pretty clear what Joseph was trying to do.

The other time that I heard this and similar stories was when Joseph and other members of his church had gathered together. They would trade “spiritual warfare” stories – most of which were much milder, those sorts of things that could easily be chalked up to an overactive imagination (“I was in my room reading a book that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be reading, when I felt a cold presence, and it frightened me, so I prayed….”). Joseph’s, however, was not alone in its more explicit nature – actually seeing the demon, having to escape, etc. These stories seemed to serve both for social bonding, they were stories that everyone told to frighten or excite each other and bring the group closer together. These stories were also as a sort of one-upsmanship, this particular group (and similar ones that I have encountered since then) viewed encounters with demons as a badge of honor – something that demonstrates how the teller encountered and defeated a demon, a religious variation on “big fish” stories.

SOURCES: Personal Account

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Devils of Mt. Mulligan, Australia

Mount Mulligan is known to the Djungan people of northeast Australia as Ngarrabullgan, and it is said that it is home to Eekoo – mountain devils or spirit-people who dwell in the mountains and cause danger and sickness to fall upon those who travel to the mountain. This is especially problematic, as there are numerous water sources on the mountain, while the surrounding area is extremely arid. Only powerful shamans should venture to the mountain, as they alone have the strength to ward or fight off the Eekoo.

Commentary: This story is representative of two aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture. The first is the “habitation” of the landscape with beings who hold great significance in the cosmology and mythos. The other is the use of mythology to warn against entering a dangerous place.

The question in this case is: why is Ngarrabullgan a dangerous place?

The answer is not known. What is known is that it was not always seen as a dangerous place. Archaeological sites dating from before 600 years ago are relatively common on the mountain. And then, suddenly, the number of sites drops off. Something occurred around 600 years ago that made this location less hospitable – whether it was a ecological change and the mythology changed to prevent people from wasting their time looking for resources, or a social change in which only shamans were to have direct access to the mountain’s resources is unknown. Regardless, it appears likely that tales of supernatural menace on the mountain began around 600 years ago.

SOURCES: Academic Publication

The Channel Islands 'Antap

Although the native peoples of the area, the Barbareno and Ventureno Chumash, had many stories about the islands, two are of particular interest here, and both were collected by anthropologist J. P. Harrington.

STORY 1: The first story concerns an Italian fisherman in the employ of a Chumash man. They go out to Santa Barbara Island during a fishing trip, and find a large rock containing a cave off of the shore of the island. The top of the cave contains a vent hole, and the Italian man climbs up to it and looks in. He begins acting strangely and returns to the boat. On the trip back to the mainland, the Italian tells his employer that he had seen two men in the cave, both Chumash, and that when water would rush into the cave, they would stand and begin blowing their ceremonial whistles. The Chumash employer returns home and tells his relatives of this. And elderly relative informs him that the whistling ceremony began on Santa Barbara Island, and that anyone who witnesses it will soon die. Not long after that the Italian man drowns while working off of the coast of Santa Barbara.

STORY 2: The second story concerns an Anglo-American (in the mid 19th century, these distinctions mattered) and a Chumash boy who went to Santa Cruz Island to gather abalone. The Anglo man found a cave in the rocks in which he saw two men with a bullroarer and an elderwood flute practicing ceremonial dances. When the water was at high tide, the cave was hidden, but at low tide it was exposed. As waves crashed into the cave, the two dancers were not affected. The man and the boy left to return to the mainland. On the way back, the man fell out of the boat and drowned. The boy returned home and told his grandmother what he had seen. She told him that he had seen the ‘Antap, a dangerous thing to see, and she gave him a potion made of toloache (Jimson weed) to prevent evil from coming to the boy.

Commentary: Probably the two most common things that one hears when an alleged haunting is discussed are: the location of the haunting is built on an “Indian Burial Ground” (usually nonsense), the other is that “The Native Americans have stories about this being a bad place” (also usually nonsense). There are many Native American stories about supernaturally dangerous places and things, but most of the popular ghost stories that claim a Native American link make that claim falsely. But not these two.

These stories, as noted, were collected by the early Californian ethnographer J. P. Harrington. Harrington was an odd and rather controversial figure who has gained both loyalty and notoriety amongst those with whom he lived and worked. ex-wife even wrote a tell-all book about her life with him in an age before tell-all books were the rage. The family of the woman who took care of Harrington in his old age, with whom I am acquainted, claim that the ex-wife’s book is all exaggeration and lies. Personally, I don’t claim to know, but I do know that he was a colorful character and a fascinating story in and of himself.

These stories are interesting because they show the continuation of older traditions, but also the way that those traditions were changed by the arrival of Europeans. The ‘Antap were an actual group in Chumash society – a religious/ritual organization that could only be entered if one’s parents paid for one’s entry during childhood. In order to rise through the ranks of Chumash society and become a person of high status, one must be a member of the ‘Antap. Like many traditional and “mystery cult” organizations, the ‘Antap held that it was dangerous for the uninitiated to witness ceremonies. As a result, the ‘Antap’s ceremonies, and many aspects of ‘Antap society, remained shrouded in secrecy, and the ‘Anatap themselves seem to have become boogie men towards the end of the prehistoric period. By the early 20th century, many have ceased viewing the ‘Antap as human shamans and ritualists at all, and have come to view them as supernatural beings, as seen in these stories (it should be noted, though, that many people continued to view them simply as powerful humans – shamans, sorcerers, or even assassins, but human nonetheless). As such, the ‘Antap had now become associated with places of magical danger.

SOURCE: Academic Publication