Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Devils Gate, Pasadena, Los Angeles County

At Devil's Gate Gorge in Arroyo Seco there sits a large rock outcrop that many believe is shaped like Satan's head, hence the name of the location. Factual information about the location's history is hard to come by, having been buried in tall tales and folklore, and these have, in turn, influenced much of what people say and have written about it in the tight circle of fact and nonsense that is human collective memory.

Holy crap, I read what I just wrote and realize that I have been listening to a lot of Aaron Mehnke's podcast* lately.

Regardless, what become common belief tends to color what people wish to write about and tends to change stories that we hold to be true of older stories. So, keep in mind that, especially when talking about Tongva beliefs below, there is a fair chance that the story is more nonsense than sense. But it's entertaining nonsense, and in the end, isn't that the highest form of truth?  The answer is no.

Okay, I promise that I have all of that out of my system now.

As noted above, the rock formation, from one angle, looks like a devil's head.  See what you think:

Local stories holds that the sounds of the river moving through the gorge sounds like laughing, which was allegedly thought by members of the local Tongva ethnolinguistic group to be the culture hero Coyote laughing**. Some telling shold that the Tongva felt that the location was supernaturally powerful and to be avoided, and others that it was the gateway to the afterlife and therefore to be shunned by the living. I am skeptical of the claim that the Tongva had these story, especially the variations about avoiding the location - this sort of embellishment is often added to ghost stories to make them seem more authentic, but is almost always false.

In 1920, the gorge was dammed to create a reservoir and control flooding in the Los Angeles river system. However, the Devil's Head remained above water and continues to be visible

As time went on, the place began to collect other stories, the most entertaining of which involve Alastair Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, and their friend, Jet Propulsion Laboratory c-founder and scientist and all around really weird guy, Jack Parsons.  According to the story, Ol' Al , Ron, and Jack were convinced that the Devil's Gate Gorge was a gateway to Hell (one of specifically seven) and full of all manner of supernatural power. Some folks have claimed that the location of the Jet Propulsion laboratory was intended to use power from the Devil's Gate, and is tied in to the various occult movement that have become popular in Los Angeles and Hollywood during the 20th century. While these stories tend to breakdown into incoherency pretty quickly, they are fun to hear and tell.

Among the stories are claims that Hubbard and Parsons too part in rituals at the gorge with the intention of tapping into the Hell gate's energy, possibly to create a Moon Child, a being that would embody a feminine divine force. Parsons and Hubbard did, in fact, engage in rituals for this purpose in 1946, though whether they did anything at Devils Gorge is not reported anywhere.

In the 1950s, a series of children went missing in the area, including 13-year-old Donald Lee Baker and 11-year old Brenda Howell in 1956, and 8 year-old Tommy Bowman in 1957 and 6-year-old Bruce Kremen in 1960. Bruce Kremen is especially baffling, as the boy was attending a YMCA camp, and left the counselors to walk 300 yards back to the camp lodging, only to vanish. The 1956 disappearances were explained years later when serial killer Mack Ray Edwards was caught. The later disappearances are still unsolved, and may have been tied in to Edwards, or may be due to some other cause. Regardless, they have added to the grisly history of the area.

Modern L.A.-area ghost hunters like too claim that these rituals opened the gate, allowing evil entities into our world. And they flock to the location hunting for these entities (I wonder what the OSHA requirements for protective equipment are? A Mojo hand? a gris-gris bag?).  Stories for the location include the (disappointedly mundane given the history above) usual orbs in photos and phantom voices. In one case, someone did report hearing singing coming from the metal gate shown in the picture above, and seeing red eyes peering from the back of the tunnel.

The folks at Offbeat L.A. provided a short and enjoyable description of the area, though they refer to mysterious wood structures that, to this individual who deals with utilities, look exactly like transmission line structures, so, you know, grain of salt and all.

*Which, if you haven't been listening to it, I have to ask, what is wrong with you? If you like the sordid tales that I post here, Aaron Mehnke's providing you the stronger stuff, and in excellent, if sometimes very wordy, format.

** I am not a specialist in Tongva mythology, but I am a professional archaeologist and anthropologist that works in California, and this explanation of allegedly local Native American belief sounds to me more like a 20th-century white-person claim than an actual part of the local Native Folklore, but, again, as I am not an expert on the stories of this particular region (my graduate research was performed farther north in the Santa Barbara area, and my professional life has been primarily in the San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevadas), I may be wrong and it is possible that this place was forbidden in the Tongva belief system. Incidentally, as I refer to utility companies later in this entry, I am an archaeologist employed currently by a utility company to help them comply with federal and state cultural resources laws - so I help protect archaeological sites, historic buildings, and spots important to Native Americans - yep, it's an actual job with a good career path and decent pay, so if you decide to get a Masters degree in archaeology, yes you can actually have a good job, no matter what all of those condescending assholes will imply.

Commentary: Naturally, the ghost hunters who visit the area are looking for the "norm" of our time - orbs, cold spots, and the like. Which is disappointing given the allegedly deep supernatural meaning of this place. I have to admit that, in reading LA Ghost Portal's write-up, I was a put off by their description of trying to reach out to the spirits of missing and dead children. That just seemed really tasteless to me. On the other hand, I included them in my description here, so perhaps I am guilty of the same tastelessness.

What I like about this story is the way that it weaves numerous different strands present in other ghost stories together. Appeals to Los Angeles supposed hedonism?  Check! Reference to a cult? Check, and bonus (both Crowley's temple and Scientology make an appearance!)! Reference to dark rituals?  Check! Reference to Native American sacred sites?  Check! Turning the mundane (a gate) into something creepy?  Check!

The story is, undoubtedly, mostly bullshit, though, wonderfully, the one element that might be true is the most outlandish - while I can't confirm that Parsons and Hubbard ever engaged in rituals at the Devils Gate, it would not have been any weirder than things that these two were confirmed to have gotten up to around that point in time.

Source: Atlas Obscura, LA Ghost Portal, Timeout, Offbeat L.A., Weird U.S.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

An Evil Gnome in Tulare County

A family moved in to a farm house near the Tule River in the area around Porterville, in rural Tulare County, California.

After moving in, the mother, Tammy, began to feel on edge, as if she was always being watched. And one location, in particular, made her uneasy: the barn. Even the family's animals (pets as well as fowl such as geese and chickens) avoided the barn, and everyone got the creeps when near it. They could never put a finger on what bothered them, but knew that something was not right.

One night, when returning home from the grocery store with one of her children, Tammy heard a sinister chuckling and saw movement out of the corner of her eyes. Turning, she saw a small (2-3 feet tall), gnome-like creature. It as wearing a red hat, a gold-colored shirt, and black pants, and when it "smiled" at her, it revealed to rows of brown, decayed, and sharp teeth.

Tammy ushered her child into the house, and they huddled inside as the creature waited outside. They said that they could see it's red hat through the kitchen window, which would have required it to climb the wall, grow, or hover, as that window is a good ten feet off of the ground. The creature eventually left. Although Tammy and her family would occasionally hear the creature chuckling, they never saw it again, and eventually moved off of the property.

Eventually, a woman named Charlie and her family moved into the house, and it all began again. They noticed that animals, both domestic and wild, avoided a building that they called "the shack" (presumably the barn that made Tammy uneasy). On at least one occasion, Charlie felt so unnerved while walking near the shack that she picked up her two young children and broke into a sprint to get away from it.

And then, one day, things picked up and became much more frightening.

Charlie heard what sounded like a car fighting with something inside the shack. When her husband went to investigate, he found a cat alright, entirely skinned on one side and with a huge bite taken out of its neck. He stepped out to clear his head, and when he stepped back in, the cat was gone.

A short time later, at 3 a.m.*, Charlie and her husband woke to a guttural, eerie singing coming from the back yard. Looking out their window, they saw the same creature. It was looking at them as they looked through their window at it. It pulled a fish out of the koi pond that Charlie had installed, and smiled as it ate the fish and stared at the couple. Charlie's husband yelled out the window that he was going to call the police, an the gnome flipped them off** and then walked away, laughing the entire time. When the police arrive,d they found nothing but child-sized foot prints.

The creature returned every night at 3 a.m., messed about with their lawn ornaments (mostly gnome and fairy ornaments, naturally) and eating the fish in the pond. Finally, the family locked the ornaments away and put the fish into a tank in the house. When the creature showed up the following night, it was pissed. It proceeded to scream in it's odd, guttural language, while running in circles around the house. Charlie ran downstairs to find the dogs barking at the dog door, which she quickly secured from the inside before running upstairs to lock all of the windows.

The family left shortly thereafter. When a writer introduced Charlie and Tammy to each other, they went back to look in on the property. The barn/shack was gone, but when they went to speak with the current resident, they were rudely rebuffed and sent packing. A commenter claiming to be Tammy claimed that she would later learn, however, that others in the area had been terrorized by the creature for years, and that, some years later, the creature seemed to follow her to her new home. Some web commenters from the area claim that, while they never saw anything, they always felt uneasy in the vicinity and avoided the property in question.

* I make a point of noting the time only because 3 a.m. plays a prominent role in modern ghost folklore. This seems to be a development of the last few decades, with midnight being important in earlier folklore. Initially, the 3 a.m. time, from what I have read, comes from the three numbers that mark "the beast" in the book of revelations, which has come to be the "number of the devil" in popular folklore, and so the fact that there are three numbers have made 3 a.m. (get it get it?) important to many people who like a religious bent to their ghost stories. I have also heard that as this is three in the dark, it can be a dark reflection or parody of the holy trinity.  Personally, I have always thought this was a rather silly conceit that generally just makes me roll my eyes, but that's me.

** Well, rude hand gestures ARE the universal language, after all.

Commentary: While not specifically a ghost story, I feel like this one falls more on the weird spirit side of the spectrum than the cryptozoological one, so I decided to add it here.

That said, the story fits very nicely into the tradition of the western European Faerie stories. Although we tend to use the term "fairy tale" nowadays to describe something both fantastic and gentle if not childish, the actual folklore from which the term "fairy" comes were, in fact, more often dark and molevolent (indeed, if you were to tell a 10th century person that they were "fae" they wouldn't think that you were calling them feminine, they would think that you were saying that they were doomed to a horrible fate at the hands of the supernatural). When Black Sabbath sang about fairies in boots dancing with dwarves, they weren't trying to call up a cartoonish image, but were, instead, trying to describe something otherworldly and terrifying.

So, the idea of a malicious gnome terrorizing a family in an isolated farmhouse is absolutely in keeping with these older traditions. That said, the description of the creature in the story doesn't match that of a gnome so much as it does a faerie (later Christianized as a demon) from northern Europe known as a Redcap - these creatures looked in many respects like the garden gnomes that we appreciate so much, but were vicious murderers whose hats were red with the blood of their victims. Should their hats dry out the redcap would die (or be sent back to Hell, or be banished from the material plan, etc. etc.). The redcaps wore iron boots (unlike other such folkloric creatures, they weren't afraid of iron), but nonetheless ran faster than any human could. They were vile, often dirty, and enjoyed the pain and suffering of others.

It is interesting to me, as a resident of the San Joaquin Valley, where this story takes place (Tulare County is just south of Fresno County, where I currently live) that this story is reliant on northwestern European faerie mythology, and not the more common Latino folklore that permeates much of our local ghost folklore (in fact, I went for a walk this afternoon along a trail said to be haunted by a La Llorona spirit). Given the tendency for many neo-pagan groups to rehash selective elements of Celtic and Germanic folklore, it may be that this is the source of this, or it may be something else.  Regardless, it makes for an interesting story.

Naturally, the internet being the internet, on the web pages where this story was posted there is a lot of speculation as to what happened, ranging from discussions of fairies to speculation that the little man might have been an escaped mental patient. And in one web forum the there is an active debate as to whether or not one more fervent evangelic Christian poster is justified in calling this thing a demon.

The text of the story at Weird Fresno is taken from Mysterious Universe, so they may seem redundant, but the blog comments at Weird Fresno are worth a look.  First, off, there is someone who claims to be the "Tammy" from the story, further describing her experiences.  Secondly, there is a commenter who claims to have seen the same type of creature at another location in another state.  As stated above, this story bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the faerie folklore from which gnomes are derived, so it seems only fitting that others would claim similar encounters.

Sources: Weird Fresno, Mysterious Universe