Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Demonic Mirror

In October, 2007, the Modesto Bee (the newspaper of Modesto, CA and the surrounding area) asked its readers to share their ghost stories for the usual Halloween scare-fest that most media attempt to put out.

Included in this story was one from a fellow Named Gary Metzger, who worked in an Italian Restaurant run by an older Sicilian man near Sacramento during the 1970s. The following is taken directly from the article:

“My boss told me to clean all of these gilded mirrors along one wall of the restaurant. He told me to leave alone one really old, dusty one at the end. Well, by the time I got to it, I forgot his orders. I dusted it off, squirted it with water and wiped it down.

“There was one smudge in the lower bottom corner that wouldn’t rub off. I looked at it real close, and it was like I was looking through it at this tiny pinpoint of light. And then the pinpoint got larger and this demonic face was jumping at me. It stayed in the mirror, but I yelped and my boss heard me. He came and took me to a table. He asked what I saw.

“He told me he had bought it in the old country and the salesman warned him there was a demon trapped in the mirror. He said the salesman also told him not to break the mirror or the demon would go free.”

Commentary: I'm not really sure how to classify this particular story, but it is a good one. On the surface, it appears to be a variation on folktales concerning evil spirits trapped in objects. The fact that it's a mirror fits, as these objects often have rather sinister natures in folklore as well as folk magic, and breaking this mirror would certainly bring bad luck.

Going with the folktale angle, the idea of a successful businessman purchasing a cursed item that will ultimately be his undoing is an old one. Though, in this case, the purchase is not claimed to have done him any good at all. I have to wonder why the Sicilian man doesn't claim that the mirror brings him business success due to the demon being trapped inside.

Another folktale angle is that of the apprentice dabbling into things that he isn't yet meant to know. He was told to clean the mirrors, but not one in particular. He forgets this admonition, and pays a fearful price for his lapse in memory. It's played out on a small scale, but the basic story arc is a familiar one.

On the other hand, depending on the religious leanings of Mr. Metzger, this story of the demon in the mirror might have another meaning. I have written in the past about how members of certain types of religious backgrounds use stories of demonic encounters as a way of proving their own worthiness, and it is possible that this is just such a story. However, without information concerning the religious background of Mr. Metzger, it's impossible to say if this is the case here.

Of course, one has to ask whether or not Mr. Metzger experienced something or not, and if so, what he experienced. It is, of course, entirely possible that this was simply a good, and very creepy story that he had come up with, and the newspaper's request for stories was an excellent opportunity to share it. If so, my hat's off to him.

It's also possible that he perceived something weird. In that case, one has to wonder what he perceived. Given the rather odd nature of both human memory and human perception, it is possible for someone who is both perfectly sane and perfectly honest to experience or remember experiencing something vividly that never happened. So, that's a possibility. The flipside is that something truly weird really did happen. However, without providing us with the name of the restaurant, or even which Sacramento-area town it was in, we can't check up on the story. So, we are at a dead end.

Sources: Newspaper

The Blackwell Tunnel Hitchhiker

In either 1972 or 1960, a motorcyclist was riding on Blackwall Lane, heading into Greenwich. It was a dark, wet night, and the motorcycle lost traction, causing it to skid out of control. The cyclist hit the curb, or perhaps it was a road sign, and was killed instantly.

Whether the accident occurred in 1960 or 1972, by 1972 a strange apparition was to be found at Blackwall Tunnel, the vehicle tunnel that provides a subterranean route to connect Greenwich with London north of the Thames River. The apparition, variably reported as a young woman or a young man (and occasionally reported as a child), appears at the entrance to the tunnel, trying to flag down passing motorcyclists for a ride. One cyclist picked the spirit up, and drove through the tunnel, discovering upon emerging at the other side that his passenger had vanished. He drove back through the tunnel searching for the person who he was certain had fallen off into traffic, but found no trace of them.

Confused, the cyclist drive to the address that had been provided, only to discover that the young woman or man who he had picked up had died in a motorcycle accident.

Commentary: Not only a vanishing hitchhiker story, but a vanishing hitchhiker story in an underground tunnel. In your face, Resurrection Mary!

...but, seriously...

The vanishing hitchhiker is an old an honorable ghost-story urban legend. Depending on who you ask, it may go as far back as 2,000 years (some folks will point to a Bible story in the Book of Acts concerning the Apostle Phillip baptizing a charioteer. Whether you buy that early vintage (or even the origin of the modern vanishing hitchhiker genre in this story), these types of tales have been around for a very long time.

One element of the story that is interesting to me is that the gender and age of the ghostly passenger is variable. Although most of the on-line versions refer to a young woman being the hitchhiker, other versions describe it as a child or teenager of either sex, and there are versions of the story in which it is a man in biker's leathers (cue either Steppenwolf or the Village People Music).

It's interesting to note that this story may have picked up it's "origin tale" in the late 20th century, at least two decades after it was first reported. In a 1994 letter to the ever-so august publication The Fortean Times, a man claimed to have been staying in the area of the tunnel in 1960, when he and his wife heard a motorcycle accident that claimed the life of the cycle's driver. It is this letter that also claims that the phantom sound of the accident was repeated two days later.

As with all ghostly stories, there are those who believe this whole-heartedly, and those who dismiss them entirely, and many more people who don't really believe, but don't really disbelieve either. One website asks the question "..but it is worth asking if there is nothing to the tales why do people keep telling them?" as if it is a question unanswerable by those who don't believe, or are at least on the fence. The simple truth, though, is that we keep telling them because they are great stories, and we all like that little "creeped-out/chills-down-the-spine" feeling that we get when we tell the tales.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, these are great stories and an important part of our folklore, and that alone is reason to pass them on.

Sources: Mysterious Britain & Ireland, the Londonist, Road Ghosts, Internet, Published Book, Wikipedia

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cleopatra's Needle

Not my photo

Cleopatra's Needle is a large, stone obelisk, taken from Egypt and placed on a parapet overlooking the River Thames in London. One of three obelisks taken from their homes to be placed in European cities, this one was sent to England as a gift to celebrate Admiral Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1819, though it wasn't erected in England until the 1870s. During the journey, the barge carrying the obelisk capsized in the Bay of Biscay, killing six sailors and nearly sinking the obelisk.

Since then, screams, pained moans, and mocking laughter have all been heard in the vicinity of the monument.

It is claimed that this location is a popular spot for suicides, and the most common two ghost stories feature this: A naked phantom can sometimes be seen jumping into the river, but not making a splash; on one occasion in the 1920s, it is said that a police officer was summoned by a girl in Victorian clothing who alerted him that someone was about to commit suicide. When he reached the river, he saw the same girl tumbling into the river, and then vanishing. Other stories hold that the spirits associated with the obelisk may move the depressed and vulnerable to consider taking their lives when they otherwise wouldn't.

The rest of these are my photos.

Strangely, an apparition of a bear has also been seen in the vicinity. This is possibly because Chelsea was a venue for Bear-baiting during the sixteenth century, and probably has nothing to do with Cleopatra's Needle itself.

Commentary: The Needle is an interesting item for many reasons. Unlike many of the artifacts left from the ancient world to end up in London, the spire was sent as a gift and not simply looted*. Also, contrary to the name, the obelisk pre-dates Cleopatra by a considerable span of time.

There is an urban legend - that is, a story with no actual backing evidence that nonetheless gets spread around - that there are more suicides from this spot than any other on the Thames. The story is common, and one can't find a mention of Cleopatra's Needle that doesn't reference it, but it appears to be bunk. I have to wonder if it comes from the fact that Cleopatra is reputed to have committed suicide, thus leading to people looking for a suicide connection at the obelisk, despite the fact that it is not, in any way, connected to Cleopatra.

The connection with suicides is puzzling. The Needle is on the channel of the Thames at a place where the edges of the channel aren't particularly deep, and you would have, at most, a drop of 30 feet to the water below (I observed this while visiting, and can assure you that it is the case). During low tide, you'd probably quickly hit the mud beneath the water, leaving you dirty, wet, and annoyed, but very much alive. I suppose that the truly determined might lie face down in the mud to finish the job, but as Tower Bridge isn't that far away, and provides a much higher location to jump into much deeper water, it seems like a bit of a waste of time to try jumping off of the parapet for the Needle. That being said, for all I know, the Thames may have been different enough during the late 19th century that such a suicide plan might actually make some sort of sense. But nowadays, the claim that there are more suicides from this location than any other on the Thames seem more than a little suspect.

There are two sphinxes, cast in bronze (and British, rather than Egyptian-made) facing the obelisk, which is a reverse of how they would normally be placed (the job of a sphinx being to guard an object or place, not to stare at it). They were damaged in a German bombing raid during the first World War (or, as the English still refer to it - the Great War), as was the obelisk itself. It does make for a rather odd scene, as the obelisk is visible from a garden across the street: there you are, strolling through an English public garden, looking at the sculptures of famous Brits, and suddenly you come face-to-face with an obelisk and a couple of Sphinxes. It's as if someone was stupid enough to make Patrick Flanagan a city planner.

When I visited, the obelisk was covered in a box, as preservation work was being done. This is unfortunate in that I didn't get to see it, but it is nonetheless good to know that measures were being taken to protect a rather remarkable artifact. So, lacking access to the needle, my girlfriend and I decided to have our picture taken with the sphinxes.

Because, really, if you're an archaeologist, there's great humor in having your photo taken with a fake artifact that has been erected next to a horribly misplaced artifact.

It was raining, those are NOT orbs.

Regardless of the details, the oddity of this item on the River Thames and the fact that people died bringing it to London were likely sufficient to ensure that it would forever more have some sort of story attached to it. And, if you're going to have a story, it might as well be a ghost story.

*Not that I have an opinion about such things. No, not at all.

Sources: Blog, Covent Garden Website, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet, Internet

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Holborn and British Museums Underground Stations

The London Underground station for the British Museum is abandoned, what is referred to as a "ghost station" and, appropriately, it is said to be haunted by a ghost of a long-dead Egyptian Princess. The station operated during the first three decades of the 20th century, opening in 1900 and closing in 1933, when other nearby stations made it redundant. As early as the 1930s, possibly even as early as 1900, stories began to spread about the station being haunted by a wailing spirit that appeared in a loin cloth and an Egyptian head dress. This spirit is said to be the ghost of an Egyptian Princess named Amen-Ra whose mummy is stored at the museum.

The spirit is said to appear late at night within the station, wailing and screaming in the now-dead language of ancient Egypt, possibly in anguish over the desecration of her grave. It has been stated that, prior to the station being closed, a newspaper offered a cash reward to anyone willing to spend the night in it, potentially facing a vengeful spirit. Nobody ever took the paper up on the offer.

The haunting didn't remain confined to the British Museum station. After the station closed, aspects of the haunting moved up the track to Holborn Station.

In 1935, two years after the station closed, a movie named Bulldog Jack, loosely based on the Bulldog Drummond stories, made use of the story, and had as a plot device a secret tunnel leading from the British Museum to "Bloomsbury Station" (a fictional station clearly intended to be the British Museum station). It is often said that, on the night that this movie opened, two women went missing from Holborn Station, and never-described marks were found in the British Museum Station during the investigation.

It has also been said that, late at night, one can still hear the Egyptian spirit screaming if one is standing down the tunnel in Holborn Station. In fact, this is used in Keith Lowe's novel Tunnel Vision as the main character uses the story to try to scare his girlfriend.

Holborn station is currently decorated with images of Egyptian artifacts, as a way of advertising its proximity to the Museum, but to someone who knows the ghost story, these decorations seem amusingly macabre.

Holborn Station also has another ghost story, though one with scant details. During World War II, disused parts of the station were converted into offices, a dormitory, and cantine for government workers who needed to be protected from the Germans' night-time bombing. In the 1950s these facilities were used to house migrants, and in the 1960s may have been used as part of a military emergency facility near Holborn Station (I have been able to find very little on this latter use). Over the years, these facilities fell into disrepair and decay, and became rather eerie (look here for photos). The abandoned offices began to earn a reputation for being haunted, though the descriptions of the alleged haunting seem to be unavailable.

The Platform at Holborn Station

Commentary: Okay, so first things first, let's deal with the mummy. There isn't one. Mind you, there are plenty of mummies at the British Museum, but none of them belong to a princess named Amen-Ra. In fact, Amen-Ra is an Egyptian god, not a princess. The assignation of the Amen-Ra name to the ghost in the station comes from an artifact called "the Unlucky Mummy" which is, in fact, not a mummy but a lid for a burial that indicates that the grave's occupant was a woman, but gives no other indication of her identity. It was suggested by museum workers in the late 19th century that the grave might have belonged to a priestess of Amen-Ra, and in the popular imagination the alleged priestess (who may not actually have been a priestess anyway) has been given the name Amen-Ra, even though her name in life was probably something more like the Egyptian equivalent of Theresa or Betty (maybe Akana or Ebio).

The object was purchased by the British Museum in 1889, and Akana or Ebio or Theresa or Betty has since been blamed for all manner of problems (including the sinking of the Titanic). This item is probably worthy of an entry by itself, and I suppose I should give it one, but back to the matter at hand...

The story of the tunnel between the museum and the British Museum Station is completely fictional, it comes directly from the movie as far as I can tell. However, as happens, many people have chosen to believe that the museum's denial of the story is an attempt to hush up the truth rather than a statement of the truth. This is, on the whole, odd given that, if such a tunnel did exist, then the British Museum Station would have been an ideal place to store artifacts during the Blitz, rather than routing them down to Aldwych Station, as was actually done.

At the Egyptian Room in the British Museum

The stories of the women vanishing and the newspaper offering a reward for anyone willing to stay in the tunnels appear everywhere that the ghost stories appear. However, few verifiable details are ever given (Which newspaper? What were the women's names?), and as such they can't be completely disproven - but the urban legend experts over at Snopes have noted on many occasions that unverifiable details in a story are often red flags that the story is more legend than truth. So, they are great for the creepy story (I intend to use them when telling the story), but may not be true. That being said, missing persons cases are not uncommon in large cities such as London, but that doesn't mean that they are connected to a ghost, and early-20th century newspaper publicity stunts were also not uncommon. So, perhaps these events occurred, but perhaps they did not.

The haunting of the dormitory areas of Holborn station are disappointingly mundane - there's just a general reputation, no details given, pretty much as you'd expect for a disused place that is run-down and creepy. This is really too bad, as it would be great to have more detailed stories about the place. Regardless, the area has now been renovated and no longer has its creepy atmosphere, mores the pity.

Sources: Internet, Underground History,, H2G2, Internet, Mysterious Britain, Wikipedia

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman of Japan

Should you find yourself on the streets of Tokyo at night, be wary of any young woman wearing a surgical mask who wishes to speak with you - and this might be tougher than you think as surgical masks are commonly worn by the sick and those wishing to avoid sickness in Japan. There is a ghoulish spectre who takes advantage of the common use of masks for her own vicious ends, and she is known as Kuchisake-onna, the slit-mouthed woman.

Appearing as a beautiful young woman, dressed stylishly and wearing the surgical mask, she will approach and ask "do you think I'm pretty?" If you answer yes, she will remove the mask, revealing that her mouth has been slashed from ear-to-ear, and ask "do you think I'm pretty, now?" Those who answer "no" will be killed with the knife or shears that she carries, those who answer "yes" will be followed home, where they will be killed and their mouths cut to resemble Kuchisake-onna's.

There are many stories describing the origins of this malicious spirit, but the most common one is that she was the wife of a Samurai. She was a beautiful woman, and she may have been cheating, or the samurai may simply have been pathologically jealous and convinced that she would stray. Regardless, one day, he took a blade to her mouth, slicing through both cheeks, while screaming "who will think you're beautiful now?" Whether he killed his wife then and there, she died of her injuries, or she lived but harbored malice for the wrong done to her is unknown.

What is known is that she has been said to appear throughout Japan, and in specific places in nearly every neighborhood of Tokyo.

Commentary: This is a classic urban legend from Japan. Kuchisake-onna has been known since at least the 1970s, and may date to even earlier (at least one source claims that it is derived from a legend that may be as much as 1,200 years old, though it is also possible that the legend and the urban legend were linked together post-hoc). Rumor holds that there are coroner's records from the late 70s that describe a woman who had been chasing small children was either killed or injured when hit by a car, and that her injury involved the ripping of the cheeks, possibly spawning a Kuchisake-onna scare in 1979.

In true urban legend style, there are many variations on the story. Although usually told as a ghost story - the woman is the wife of a medeival Samurai - there are variations in which she is a recent victim of domestic violence, or the victim of an incompetent plastic surgeon, and therefore may be a ghost or may simply by a person who has suffered a psychotic break due to trauma. In some variations of her story, the victims are not killed, but simply have their mouths slit. Also, in some versions of the story, answering "yes" a second time will result not in death or injury, but in Kuchisake-onna giving the potential victim a valuable but blood-covered ruby.

It's worth noting that the Japanese versions of the phrases "Am I pretty?" and "Am I to cut?" sound very similar. This particular spirit isn't just evil, she's evil enough to crack bad puns.

Kuchisake-onna also moves with the times. Some variations on the story hold that she can move up to 100 meters in 3 seconds, faster than an automobile (potentially preventing escape by vehicle). Others hold that she now drives a red sports car, thus eliminating the need for her to run quickly.

Also, over time, ways to escape Kuchisake-onna have entered the legend. In some versions, answering "yes" a second time allows escape, in others, telling her that she is "so-so" or "of average appearance" confuses her and escape can be made while she tries to figure out what to do next. A particularly funny escape plan holds that saying the word "brillcream" three times will help you escape. In one of my favorite versions of the story, throwing a piece of Pocky, candy, or some fruit at her or on the ground will force her to try to dodge it or pick it up, allowing escape.

What's interesting to me about the escape methods is that they all seem to follow a pattern seen for vicious monsters in folklore around the world - provide them with a task they must complete (picking up the Pocky) or confuse them (always in some formulaic way - you'd think that these creatures would eventually work out a standard course of action) and you can escape. It just goes to show, whether urban legends or ancient myths, folklore seems to follow some basic rules.

It's worth noting that there are two films based on the Kuchisake-onna legend. Fans of Japanese horror films may want to look into them.


Oh, Youtube searches, is there anything that you can't do?

Sources: Japan Times, Hometown Tales Podcast, Scary for kids, Blog, Wikipedia, Internet

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Daschund of Baker Street (AKA, possibly the dumbest ghost story ever told)

Two women shared lodging on Baker Street in London. One owned a pet daschund, who, one day, went missing. The women searched but could not find the dog, and it appears that the animal was presumed dead.

However, for several weeks after the disappearance, the dog was seen wandering Baker Street, apparently the dogs spirit was no resting easy.

Commentary: Okay, this has got to be my candidate for the most pitiful excuse for a ghost story ever. I wouldn't have bothered to include it, except for the fact that I personally find it hilarious that anyone would bother to consider this a ghost story at all. I could only find one reference for it, the, ahem, august Paranormal Database, and I am surprised that it even showed up there.

This is a ghost story? Really? Really?

Okay, so many ghost stories can be explained by anyone with a knowledge of sleep physiology, or how our brains visual centers work, or carefully examination of the physical environment. But this particular story requires absolutely no special knowledge or investigation.

If a dog disappears, and then is seen for a few weeks thereafter in the general vicinity of where it vanished, then why immediately assume that it's a ghost dog and not, oh, I don't know, maybe the real dog wandering around the neighborhood wondering where the fuck precisely it's owner is? I mean, as far as alternate explanations go, this is a pretty easy one.

Sources: Paranormal Database

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Ghost of Mary Nichols

On the night of August 31st, 1888, a woman named Mary Ann Nichols was on her way to a boarding house after having spent the evening at a local pub. She discovered upon arrival that she lacked the money for a bed that night, and so went to work to make the money - Nichols was a prostitute and was aware that she would be able to walk the streets and produce the money in short order.

At 3:40 am, she was found by a local carter, laying on her back on Bucks Row (now Durward Street) with her legs stretched out and her skirt up. The carter didn't look too closely and didn't know if she was alive or dead. When the police finally arrived, it was found that she had been savagely attacked, and her head nearly cut off. Her murderer was never found, but in short order Mary Ann Nichols became known as the first confirmed victim of Jack the Ripper.

Since that time, people walking on the road at night have reported seeing a strange, green glowing figure of a woman huddled in the gutter of the street at the spot where the body was discovered.

Commentary: As I prepare for my trip to London, I decided to look up London ghost stories, and figured that there would be some related to Jack the Ripper - and I was not disappointed. In addition to the story of Mary Ann Nichol's ghost, there are also hauntings attributed to Annie Chapman, the second victim, and Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim. This isn't surprising, as Jack the Ripper has held the public imagination consistently since 1888. Given that the locations of the murders are well known, anything that seemed odd in these locations would be likely to be attributed to the ghosts of his victims, and it would be a shock if ghost stories weren't told about the murder locations.

What is both interesting and disturbing about the fascination that we have with these murders is what it says about our history, as well as our present. The murder victims were of the lower ranks of Victorian society, living in the slums, and working as prostitutes at the time of their deaths. Had the murders not been so grisly, it is possible that they wouldn't have gathered the attention from law enforcement that they did. That being said, some of the accusations thrown at the police force - that it would have captured the murderer had it been more concerned about the victims - are probably unfair to at least some degree. While it is likely that more effort would have been made especially early on if the victims hadn't been prostitutes, it is also true that this case grabbed such media and official attention that the police were being pressured to find the murderer, regardless of whether they were inclined to do so or not. So, while class politics likely played a role in the investigations, there is no reason to expect that the murderer would have been caught if middle-class or upper-class women had been the targets.

It is also worth considering that someone who is unknown, Jack the ripper, is the focus of the public fascination with the case. While the victims' names are known, all that most people know about them otherwise is that they were prostitutes. They are sometimes portrayed as victims made vulnerable by a profession that they were forced into, sometimes as outsiders whose "immoral" profession adds additional spice to an already wild story. The reality is rather different. Look here for a brief biography of Mary Nichols, and even in these few paragraphs, she appears neither as a wanton harlot nor as a faceless victim, but as someone with a rather more complex past who ended up where she was through a variety of circumstances, some forced upon her and others of her own making. This is worth remembering, as all of us (including, obviously, myself, based on the fact that I went looking for, and posted, a ghost story related to this) are prone to probing the sensationalism and forgetting that these were real people with real lives who were killed by Jack the Ripper.

One final note: Look through the sources. You'll notice that the cut-and-paste is once again present in them thar inter-tubes.

Sources: Mysterious Britain, Internet, Paranormal Database, Internet