Sunday, November 11, 2018

My house in Fresno, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Haunting (or not) in Seattle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Thanks, Tombombodil, I very much enjoyed this one.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Toyols: Evil Construct Fetuses of Asia

Here's a bit of nightmare fuel for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Robert Johnson at the Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haunted Bathroom, Bangladesh

As report by NBC news, in 2013:

Thousands of workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh stopped working and rioted earlier this week, demanding that a ghost be removed from their building. The problem began when a female worker said she felt sick and attributed her condition to “an attack by a ghost” inside a toilet in the women’s washroom. According to news reports over 3,000 frightened workers at a plant in the city of Gazipur protested, with dozens of them vandalizing the factory before police used tear gas to quell the riot.

As later reported by Stranger Dimensions, "The woman didn’t actually see a ghost. However, after falling ill, she assumed the vengeful toilet spirit was the cause of her illness. A djinn, perhaps."

The reports all suggested that factory owners brought in religious leaders to perform a ceremony to either exorcise the spirit or else put it to rest. Regardless, searching for this found no further reference after 2013, so I assume that the matter is resolved.

Little is said about the nature of the ghost, other than that it may be a Djinn rather than a ghost, and even there it is unclear if that is the web site author's views or the view of the local people, so make of that what you will.

Commentary:  Unfortunately, I don't have much in the way of stories for south Asia, as I am not literate in the languages of the region. As a result, I tend to see stories from this region only when they emerge into common world folklore, or when they are considered "wacky" and grab people's attention. But as one considers this particular story, the initial jokiness of "hey a haunted bathroom!" fades away as you wonder what conditions led to people being ready to riot.

As is pointed out by the Center for Inquiry and NBC, this appears to be a case of mass hysteria, where one worker became ill, and it set off a series of self-reinforcing events that included panic, violence, and mass action. Such events are fairly common throughout history, and that this appears to be such a case is unsurprising.

What interested me is a comment within Stranger Dimensions' write-up, not typically a website that I see containing these insights, but I think that they hit on something here. They note that conditions in many of these factories can be difficult, are often exploitative, and these tend to be unpleasant places to work. I do not know if these descriptions apply to this factory, but if they do, then that would  explain tensions being at a point where something that might, under other circumstances, be considered silly would lead to mass violence. I wonder if anything beyond the ritual was done to try to ease the workers' minds.

Sources: NBC News, Center for Inquiry, Stranger Dimensions, Mysterious Universe

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Haunted Lake (AKA The Pond outside of Francestown, NH)

Near Francestown, New Hampshire, there is a pond or small lake, known both as Scoby Pond (after David Scoby, who built a grist mill in the area) and by the more evocative name of Haunted Lake.

Image from old postcard of Scoby (AKA Scobie) Pond

The pond is, despite it's moniker, a rather picturesque place (rather like a place I worked once, a remote and quite beautiful lake with the dreadful name of Hell Hole Reservoir, but that is a story for another time). There are a number of explanations as to how the pond came to be named Haunted Lake, and the one that is, unfortunately, most likely true is that a fire burned the area at some point prior to 1753 (when the diary of Matthew Patten refers to it as Haunted Lake) and the burned-out and skeletal-looking remains of trees suggested to the settlers that the place had an eerie and otherworldy nature.

However, there are other possible origins for the name (and for these, go to the link for the History of Francestown below and start on Page 432).

One story holds that the children (and likely grandchildren) of David Scoby made tremendous sport out of running about in the dark to frighten people (described delightfully in the history as "Liquor-Laden Loafers") by pretending to be spirits and monsters. Given that a similar thing seems to be the origin of ghost stories at California's Rispin Mansion, I have to admit to a fondness for this explanation. That said, the "Scoby Boys" weren't active until the 1780s at the earliest, and, as noted above, the lake was referred to as "Haunted Lake" by 1753, so while this may have kept the name going, the name likely inspired the Scobys and was probably not inspired by their antics.

Another story says that two travelers bought land in the area, and in the 1740s, travelled to the area, starting out separately but eventually meeting and traveling together. One night, while camping near, or on the shore of, the pond, they fought, and one killed the other. The murders gave the victim a half-hearted burial and left the body. When Matthew Patten (a land surveyor) was sent out to perform surveys of the area, he and his chain men (people who assisted the surveyor by using chains that helped to measure distance) camped on the shore of the lake, and heard groaning and shrieking, as if from a man in desperate pain. The work crew, despite Pattens' efforts, left for Bedford the next day without completing the survey.

Yet another story holds that Davis Scoby found a skeleton of a large, but young, man while preparing the land for his mill. It is not specifically said that there are any haunting elements associated with this discovery, but that would seem appropriate for the lake's name.

Finally, one more story: Two hunters set out to hunt and trap near the lake. They would camp together at night, but head out in different directions during the day. One evening, one of the campers failed to return to camp. When the other camper went out to find him the next day, he discovered that his companion had been killed by one of the animals that prowled the area. The surviving hunter headed back for the 

 The odd thing is that, aside from the lake's name, and the 18th century reference to the sounds of pained shrieks and moans, there is little to indicate that anyone has had weird experiences out here. This is disappointing, but there you go.

That said, there is a lengthy list of deaths that occurred (or, at least, are said to have occurred) at the lake up through the late 19th century. None of them are said to be supernatural, but it will still make you feel somewhat creeped out.

Commentary:  This is a fun one. Most likely, the name haunted lake is due either to an eerie post-fire appearance, as noted above, or to bits of local folklore with little basis in reality. It's just the way that these things tend to go. But, that said, every community needs its local haunted property, and given that it is filled with water and typically literally opaque to humans, a lake makes for a good one.

There really isn't too much to say about the story itself, but I would like to discuss something having to do with two of the sources that, given what I do as my day job, I find interesting. The first is the diary of Matthew Patten - diaries such as these were kept by many people in the 18th and 19th centuries, and most were lost, a few found there way into special collections, and a few of those were published. These are often used by researchers who have to do historic research, and I found myself often consulting my copy of a similar diary, though this of a sailor, called Three Years Before the Mast when working on my masters thesis (this contained discussions of early Santa Barbara, California, and as my masters thesis looked, in part, at the archaeology of culture contact, this was a useful resource).

The second thing that is interesting is the late 19th century town history of Francestown. Books like this were common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for people doing any sort of historical research, or research into local folklore, these are gold mines. I often use these when writing historic contexts for my day job, and have found them consistently useful. Plus, it's fun to find out what all of the various places names in your town actually mean.

Sources: iO9Cow Hamphshire Blog, Diary of Matthew Patten, Published Book, History of Francestown, New Hampshire's Haunted Places,