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.