Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gardner Lake, Connecticut

This is a simple, rather charming ghost story.

In 1895, a grocer by the name of Thomas LeCount decided to move from the south side of Gardner Lake to the east side. Now, where as slackers such as you or I would decide to simply build or purchase a house in the new location, a go-getter such as Thomas LeCount figured that he already had the house he wanted, and he had the ambition necessary to simply move the house from one spot to the other. He figured it would be easy, as the lake was frozen, and....

...well, you probably have already figured out where this is going.

The two-story house was raised and placed on sleds. LeCount and company go about 300 feet onto the lake when the ice began to crack. After attempting to pull the house back, the moving crew decided to stop at nightfall and complete their work the next day. The problem is that the local mill drained some water out to use it to generate power, resulting in the ice no longer having water to rest on top of. The ice finished breaking, and the house pitched over into the water.

The house did remain in place until the spring thaw, until sinking into the lake, coming to rest on the bottom 15 feet below the surface.

The thing is, portions of the second story remained above the water line (come versions of the story claim that the house floated for several years which seems unlikely at best, but the second story and/or attic remaining above the waterline? That's actually pretty likely). The second story remained visible for years, and locals would fish off of it in the summers, and ice skate through it in winters. By 2005, the house had rotted away, and I suspect (though I cannot confirm) that the top floor was gone long before that.

But nobody died, and the situation was more comic than frightening. So, where does the ghost story come in?

Well, locals have long held that, at night, piano music could be heard coming from the lake. The house did, in fact, have a piano (as well as some other furniture) in it at the time that it sank. Allegedly, scuba divers in the lake have reported that portions of the house, including the piano, are still present underneath the water. And, on quiet nights, music can be heard coming from the spot on the lake where the house came to rest.

Commentary: First off, this is a delightful story. It is whimsical in a way that ghost stories so rarely are. That said, it is difficult to fathom the "ghost's" alleged origins - most ghost stories either have an origin as part of the story, or imply some sort of weird or dark doings that caused the place in question to be haunted. But not this one. It is just a rather odd and funny story about a house move gone bad, with ghostly music tacked on as almost an afterthought.

My guess - having the second story of a house peeking out from a lake is pretty odd, and it sounds as if it became a local landmark. That being the case, it seems likely that kids and local raconteurs began circulating the story in order to creep out each other or others. The house sticking up out of the water was probably sufficiently weird to give the story staying power, and now it's just part of the local lore.

Regardless, it's a fun story and I am glad that I encountered it.

Sources: iO9, Wikipedia, Damned Connecticut

Friday, June 26, 2015

Night Marchers of Hawaii

Mainlanders such as myself tend to think of the beaches of Hawaii as being places of calm seas, warm sand, and half-dressed attractive people. I should, of course, know better - I am a native Californian and know that many people hold the same false view of my own home state - but nonetheless, this is how I think of Hawaii.

However, legend holds that the beaches of Hawaii are home to a rather fearsome group of spectres - Huaka'ipo, better known to mainlanders like me as the night marchers (though the words actually translate into "Spirit Ranks").

The Huaka'ipo are said to be the spirits of Hawaiian warriors who march in a single line throughout the island, playing drums and chanting. At sunset, or before the sun rises, the spirits march from their burial places to the locations of past battles, homes, or sacred places.

It is said that you her the drums first, followed by the sounds of chanting and conch shells, and then you may see torch light, and possibly smell a foul odor, before finally seeing the Huaka'ipo - and as they are non-corporeal, they may march through fences, walls, even homes. But resist the urge to look - the spirits are touchy, and are said to kill anyone who does not bow their head and look at the ground as a show of respect, some versions of the legend require that any witness lay face down on the ground to show respect, and some even hold that you must go inside or otherwise get away from the marchers to avoid attracting notice. Some legends hold that anyone killed in this manner is doomed to accompany the Huaka'ipo for their eternal march. However, if you are descended from one of the spirits, then you will be safe from their wrath.

There are, of course, other ways to avoid their notice. Specifically, placing leaves of the ti (not a typo) plant around your home will ward off evil spirits, and the Night Marchers (whether the Night Marchers are considered evil is open to debate, I suppose). Also, showing them respect may result in great things coming to you. Some versions of the stories even hold that the night marchers are a harbinger of death, rather than the cause of death, though these stories seem to be in the minority.

Most versions of the legend hold that there are multiple marches, each led by a different chief or commander, and that the characteristics of the march will correspond with the tastes and desires of that leader. And some marches are said to count gods among their members, with even brighter torches burning either out of respect to the god or due to the god's power. The marches containing gods usually contain six - three male and three female.

Typically seen at night, these spirits may be seen during the day of they are transporting a descendant to the afterlife. Whether that descendant is going to a more "normal" afterlife, or doomed to march with the Huaka'ipo is unclear.

Commentary: There is so much going on in this story, and it is fascinating to me both as a ghost story enthusiast and as an anthropologist.

When I first read about the night marchers, my first thought was that it was similar to the watchers in California's coastal mountains. But as I read more about them, it became clear that this was a very different sort of affair.

It seems entirely possible that the legend is based on actual rituals in which dancers or marchers would move about a territory either as a show of force or to collect tribute or both. In fact, such processions are common throughout the world, and the belief that the marchers may have in their ranks (or may become) spirits or gods while engaged in the ritual is also not uncommon throughout the world. It's easy to see how such a practice might, over time, become a ghost story, much as the very real 'Antap group became boogey men in Californian folklore. Some of the sources I read hinted at such an origin for the legend, though none explicitly stated it. I will need to do a bit more research to check into this.

Another similarity I noted was to the Wild Hunt of European folklore. In the wild hunt, spirits (or faeries, or demons, or ghosts, all depending on which version you encounter) head out along the countryside. In some versions of the story, it's demons chasing the souls of sinners, in others seeing the hunt can be a harbinger of death. In all cases, what is said to be seen are spectral humanoid creatures with the accoutrements of hunters chasing across the countryside.

And, of course, the versions of the story that hold that seeing or hearing the marchers is an omen of death are similar to the Banshee stories, as well as other ghost stories from throughout the world.

So, what to make of these similarities?  Well, my take on it is that some elements of the story grew up in Hawaii - probably including all of the standard parts (the form and nature of the march, the presence of gods, etc.), either as an element of folklore, or as a post-contact description of traditional practices. Other elements were likely added over time, as people from different cultures settled in Hawaii during the 19th and 20th centuries. I suspect that some aspects, including the apparent grouping of them all into the "night marchers" rather than individual parties of spirits, comes from the development of both tourist culture and modern media, which tends to result in the homogenization of local variations.

I also wonder, though I have no information to support this, whether the claim of safety if you are a descendant of one of the marchers might be a reaction to non-Hawaiian invasion of the islands. Throughout the world, local folklores change, sometimes radically, when outsiders arrive, especially when they are colonizers. The claim that you are safe if an ancestor is among the marchers seems consistent with these sorts of changes - a way of saying "you may live here, but you don't belong here, like I do!"

Sources: Funkypickens, Listverse, Hawaii News Now, Wikipedia, Huffington Post,

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Okiku's Well

Near the city of Himeji, in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture, stands Hemeji Castle, a large and imposing structure, as the best castles are. As with other castles, this one contains a well, which served as a source of water in normal times, and prevented an embargo on water from being a deciding factor during a siege. This well, stories hold, is the source of a haunting that may have destroyed a proud samurai. 

The story holds that, during the 18th century, the Samurai Aoyama Tessan served the lord of Hemeji Castle, and employed a young female servant named Okiku. Tessan wanted Okiku for his lover, but she refused his advances, leaving him frustrated. Then, one day, he came up with a fiendish plan: in the castle were ten Defltware plates, valuable plates imported to Japan from Europe, and Aoyama hid, destroyed, or otherwise did away with one of them (in some versions of the story, the plates were the property of the lord of the castle, in others they belong to Aoyama or his wife). He then accused Okiku of having stolen the tenth plate. Such a crime could carry the death sentence.

Okiku, seeing that she was in danger, frantically searched for the missing plate, and upon deciding that it was not to be found, began counting and re-counting the plates that she had, hoping each time that the total would come to ten, but, of course, it never did.

Aoyama, seeing that his plan had created the very situation that he had hoped for, made his move. He told Okiku that he would overlook her alleged transgression and she could live on if she would agree to become his lover.  She refused, and, in a fit of rage, Aoyama threw her down the well, where she died.

Later, her voice began to be heard from the well, counting to nine, and then shrieking rather than saying "ten". It is said that she would also rise from the well, frightening any who saw her.  Aoyama was terrified by the spirit, and sought relief. It is sometimes said that Aoyama never found relief, and eventually was driven insane by the vengeful spirit. In other tellings, Okiku was not trying to torment the samurai, but was stricken with sorrow over her fate, stemming from her inability to find the tenth plate. In these tellings, an exorcist, or sometimes just a neighbor, shouts out "ten" after the spirit calls out "nine" but before she can shriek, thus leaving Okiku to believe that the missing plate has been found and releasing her from her counting task to find rest.

Himeji castle still stands, and there are those who say that, to this day, at midnight, Okiku's voice can be heard counting to nine, as she emerges out of the well. After she reaches the top of the well, she will shriek rather than say "ten."

It is worth noting that, in some versions of the story, Okiku throwws herself int he well out of desperation, rather than being thrown down. And in some (including, I am told, the version told at Hemeji Castle, which is a tourist attraction) she had overheard scheming on the part of Aoyama, who planned to betray his lord, and Aoyama contrived the plan to hide the plate in order to do away with Okiku, rather than to gain leverage over her.

Commentary: This Japanese folk tale is also the source material for many other media. Kabuki plays, written stories, traditional puppet shows, and, int he 20th and 21st centuries, film and television. The story has a lot of staying power, not no wonder given how well it uses elements of ghost lore common across the world.

The story is, by an large, a straightforward one. Depending on the version, it is either about the spirit of a woman who even in death cannot break free from the evil deeds of a man (shades of La Llarona), or a vengeful and accusing spirit (a story common enough in ghost folklore, but very well executed by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales).  Unlike many ghost stories, which are culture-specific, this one travels well and makes sense in the context of many different regional folklores. This leads me to winder if this is because there are many similarities between Japanese ghost folklore and that of other areas (especially Europe and North America), or if the story is, like the Delftware plates involved, a product of cultural mixing with elements of European folklore blending with Japanese (I don't know enough about Japanese folklore to say, but I do know that reading ethnographies of Native Americans written from the late 19th through the​ mid-20th century reveals just such a mixing as regards ghost folklore, so it is absolutely conceivable). 

Most dramatized version vary significantly from the folktale, often with different samurai playing the role of the villain, and with their particular treatment of Okiku varying a bit as well. In some versions, the Samurai doesn't simply throw Okiku down the well, but also tortures her before she is left in the well to die. In others, as noted above, Okiku throws herself into the well to escape Aoyama. In some versions of the story, Okiku and a Samurai other than Aoyama are already lovers and she wishes to marry him, but he is more interested in an offer from a woman of his station. In this version, Okiku intentionally breaks a plate to see how the Samurai will react, and he tries to cover for her claiming that it was an accident. Okiku reveals that she was testing him, and in a fit of rage, the samurai kills her and throws her down the well.

Elements of the story show up frequently in Japanese pop culture (for example, the ghost in the well in Ringu, which became the ghost in the well in the American film The Ring, was inspired by this tale). And, given the popularity of Japanese horror, spreading throughout the world, it is likely that the influence of this story will spread across the world.

Sources: IO9, Wikipedia, Artelino, Wikia