Part of your world: terror in the depths of Lake Baikal

I’ve always loved marine biology. Aquatic creatures and plants are so distinct from what we experience normally that they often border on the fantastic. Deep water life is a special treat: it remains a poorly-known frontier, and so excites wonderful, terrible possibilities. We humans have felt the weight of those possibilities for some time, which is why I think there are so many monster stories that come from the water. This month, let’s visit a few in a Siberia.

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Lake Baikal, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

To call Lake Baikal a mere “lake” might be doing it a disservice. Formed by the slowly yawning gap between two tectonic plates, it is the largest, deepest, and most ancient freshwater body on Earth. To be specific, Lake Baikal has more water than all of the U.S. Great Lakes combined, and reaches a depth of 1,642 meters (or, for us Americans, a little over a mile). At 25 million years old, it has been around more than 4 times longer than the human race.

That’s not the only way Baikal is impressive. The lake is also considered one of the world’s clearest–one source says that you can see as far into it as 130 feet. Surrounded by Siberian mountains, it is teeming with rich biodiversity: over 80% of the life in and around Baikal is made up of creatures that can be found nowhere else on earth.  In short, the lake is an extraordinary place. It’s no wonder people have attributed magic to it.

Let’s start with the happier stuff. If you take a dip in Baikal’s waters, rumor has it that you’ll live a longer, healthier life–provided you don’t suffer hypothermia (in the winter, the ice can get to be over 6 feet thick). The lake is also associated with a couple of historical celebrities: Genghis Kahn was born on one of its islands, and Jesus himself supposedly once visited, as well. Looking out over the waters, he raised his hand, and proclaimed with satisfaction that “beyond this, there is nothing.” (This was said to account for the problems 19th-century Duaria (the land beyond the lake) had with growing corn.)

Frozen Lake Baikal
A frozen Lake Baikal, © Sergey Pesterev via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond that, Lake Baikal has proved to be a bit of a deathtrap. Earthquakes strike every few years. You can walk over the lake when it freezes, but woe to the man who goes unprepared. In 1920, the retreating White Russian Army attempted the cross, only to find themselves buffeted by freezing winds over the open expanse of ice. Many died of frostbite and hypothermia. Their corpses had to be left behind, frozen to the surface until they sunk with the spring thaw.

Locals living around the lake have reported ghosts boats that appear and disappear without warning, as well as boats (and crew) of their own that disappear. As recently as 2011, 4 experienced men piloting the Yamaha vanished near an area of the lake known as the Devil’s Crater. There, whirlpools are said to suck ships down like toys in a bathtub train. At the bottom of the pools, some whisper, lies Hell.

But out of all the delights that Lake Baikal has to offer, my favorites are the extraterrestrial ones. According to UFO enthusiasts, those deep waters are not going unused.

I’m not well-versed in UFO lore, and so was surprised to learn that it’s common to see crafts around–or in–bodies of water (though “in” would make them Unidentified Submerged or Unidentified Underwater Objects). Lake Baikal is no exception: not only mysterious in its own right, it is one of the biggest UFO hotspots in Russia. The surrounding villages have witnessed hovering lights in various colors and formations, as well as silent discs that have floated low in the sky for so long people threw rocks at them from sheer boredom.

On more than one occasion, these UFOs have dove into the lake to escape human pursuit. For a long time, Baikal was too deep and dangerous for anyone to go after them, or indeed to explore very deep under the surface at all. Thanks to modern technology, that is no longer the not the case.

Underwater cave with diver
Some say that the many tight, poorly explored caves under Lake Baikal might be a good extraterrestrial hiding place.

The first reported underwater anomaly came in 1977. A pair of scientists took a submersible some 3900 feet below the surface and turned off their lights to study how far sunlight could penetrate. After a few seconds of darkness, they were blinded by two spotlights shining at them above and at their side. Before the men could figure out where they had come from, the lights went out, leaving them alone in the dark once more.

The second incident happened in 1982, this time with military divers using Lake Baikal as a training ground. In the middle of their drill, a few strange underwater vehicles zipped past them, going much faster than anything the Soviet navy was capable of at the time. The ships were gone long before the soldiers could follow.

Then there was the third–and probably most famous–incident. Just a few days after seeing the strange vehicles, the same navy divers swam right into a group of 3 other, unexpected divers. These were almost 10 feet tall, decked out in silver suits and helmets, but with no other signs of scuba gear.

The men were ordered to capture the swimmers (referred to by the commander as Ihtiander, a shark-boy from modern Russian mythology) . The soldiers tried, but the silver suits evaded them. Each human found himself blasted to the surface of the late, riddled with decompression sickness. 4 of them managed to get in a decompression chamber in time to save themselves. The other 3 died shortly thereafter.

All this came out a few years ago, when (allegedly) military documents describing the event were declassified. The Russian government, of course, claims that nothing of the sort ever happened.

Lake Baikal circles in ice
One of the circles in question. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons and the ISS Crew Earth Observations Experiment

Regardless, interest in the lake and its possible extraterrestrial inhabits persists. In 2009, strange circles in Lake Baikal’s ice led to arguments over what might have created them: global warming or underwater spacecrafts. There’s a lot of stuff to explore, and a lot of people passionate about it. Ex-navy officer and UFO researcher Vladimir Azhazha says it best:

“I think about underwater bases and say: Why not? Nothing should be discarded, skepticism is the easiest way: believe nothing, do nothing. People rarely visit great depths. So it’s very important to analyze what they encountered there.”

 

What horrors have you found at the bottom of the pool? Share your story in the comments below.

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Pour one out for Mr. Brawny: the Hidebehind

Let’s talk about lumberjacks. Even with the advent of modern technology, logging is one of the most dangerous professions out there. In 2008, the rate of on-the-job deaths was at about 108 per 100,000 workers, 30 times higher than any other industry overall. The risks are plenty: you’re exposed to the elements, working with sharp things that can slice you and heavy things that can crush you, often far from help. But nowadays things are much easier than they used to be. Less than a 100 years ago, the difficulty of the  industry required not only that you adopt a profession, but a way of life.

Lumberjacks cerca 1900
The casual lumberjack, cerca 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Traditional lumberjacks were the epitome of manliness. They brought down massive trees using only saws, axes, and their own muscle, enduring cold and hardship that would send the rest of us running away screaming. Paid little, lumberjacks lived in primitive conditions. They rarely washed their clothes, and generally did every stereotypical thing that manly men are supposed to do: roughhouse, try to out-eat each other, tell tall tails, etc. Their heroes were people like Jigger Johnson, a man who kicked knots of frozen trees with his bare feet, drank so much he hallucinated, and bit off a man’s ear when he was 12 years old.

In short, lumberjacks were a stalwart bunch. They lived with danger every day, and so were fearless (and fearsome) men.

So what scared the lumberjacks?

The Hidebehind is a monster born from a simple but universal concept. You know how sometimes you’re walking alone and then you worry you’re not actually alone? When.you feel like something’s watching you, but when you whip around to check, nothing seems to be there?

The lumberjacks felt that in the woods. They were capable men who knew the forests well, and so when the trees stood more still and more quiet than usual, they would, too. At a whisper of underbrush any man would whip around, breath in his throat, hands tight on his axe, but he was always unable to locate his pursuer. Occasionally someone would go missing. These men were normally never seen again. If they were, it was when someone stumbled upon their bodies some time later, mouths wide, intestines strewn across the forest floor.

The Hidebehind
A Hidebehind illustration so innocuous as to almost be adorable, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Hidebehind” is a simple name to describe a primordial fear: a man-hunter that cannot be seen until it’s too late; a clever, quick monster that tucks itself behind trees, rocks, or whatever else is available as it closes the distance between itself and its prey. Word had it that the creature could make itself thin enough to hide behind trees only 10 inches across. Its appearance (which must have been either conjecture or a tale passed down from a rare survivor) was said to be something like a bear on hind legs, 6 feet tall, covered in black fur, with heavy claws and no discernible face.

The Hidebehind dined chiefly on human intestine, and was picky about the quality of what it ate. After scaring its victim half to death by stalking him through the forest, it would fall on him with a “demoniacal laugh,” either dragging him off to its lair or clawing open his torso then and there to get at the goodies within. One story had it that it would then run the intestines under its nose to smell them before it ate. If it detected any trace of alcohol inside, it would throws the viscera back in the victim’s face and bound away with a laugh.

The details about the exact intensity of the Hidebehind’s aversion to alcohol are a bit hazy. Some stories had it that no matter how much you drank, the Hidebehind would slice you open to get a sniff (as described above). Others said that as little as one beer (a bottle of Uno, according to the source) would keep a man safe “even in thickly infested country.” It seems that many lumberjacks shrugged and drank like fishes just in case. The monster’s odd Achilles’ heel makes you wonder if the whole thing wasn’t invented just to pressure younger lumberjacks to drink.

Regardless, tales of the Hidebehind had an impact. One story tells of a lumberjack travelling alone through the winter woods. The man became nervous when a branch cracked behind him and he could find no natural explanation for the sound. Then he came across the remains of a fellow lumberjack, intestines staining the snow. Instead of being more frightened–or horrified–the man relaxed with relief. He’d heard that the Hidebehind could go for 7 years without eating, and since it had just dined on someone else, he himself was probably safe.

How powerless were these manly men that they only thing they could do in the face of the Hidebehind’s horror was to be grateful that its latest victim wasn’t them?

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Spot the Hidebehind!

The traditional lumberjack has faded into history, but the Hidebehind has yet to go out of style. Versions of the monster have appeared in a number of different mediums, including books, games, television, and, most recently, on the Harry Potter themed news site Pottermore. Plaid flannel shirts may come and go, but much like a little black dress or darkwash jeans, the Hidebehind is truly timeless.

 

What is the smallest diameter tree you can hide behind? Hawk your skills in the comments below.

Seasick: The empty deck of the Mary Celeste

We’re going to do something a little different this month. Instead of looking at a specific haunting or mythological figure, let’s talk about a mystery that has scared seafarers for over 100 years.

Painting of the Mary Celeste
Painting of the actual Mary Celeste, back when she was named The Amazon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Mary Celeste is pretty famous, though I myself had never heard of her. Built in Nova Scotia around 1890, she was a ship some 100 feet long, rigged as a brigantine (for those of you [like me] who know less than nothing about boats, that means her sails were arranged so that she looked something like her picture to the left here). She set sail first with the name Amazon.

The ship proved herself unlucky almost as soon as she hit the water. Her first captain fell ill and died shortly after supervising the cargo load for her maiden voyage. Then her second captain collided her with a fishing boat. Then she ran into and sank a brig outside of London. Then a storm drove her to shore and damaged her so badly that her owners abandoned her as a wreck. Coming out of that, the Amazon was bought, repaired, upgraded, and christened with a new name: the Mary Celeste.

Another pro tip for us landlubbers: renaming a ship is supposed to bring terrible luck. Considering her already sketchy history, I’m not sure what drove the restorers of the Mary Celeste to tempt fate. But the stigma didn’t stop a flock of new investors, one of which who would become her new captain. His name was Benjamin Briggs.

Captain Benjamin Briggs
Photo of Briggs, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Briggs was a devout Christian and father of two children: one son, age 7 at the time, and a daughter, age 2. Briggs had considered retiring from seafaring and starting a business with his brother, but the call of the Mary Celeste was too seductive to ignore. With his wife, daughter, a cargo of industrial alcohol, and a crew of men described as “peaceable and first-class sailors,” Briggs set sail on his new ship for Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872.

“Our vessel is in beautiful trim,” Briggs wrote to his mother before they left. “I hope we shall have a fine passage.”

Genoa was a popular destination; by coincidence, an acquaintance of Briggs named David Morehouse would set sail for it 8 days after the Mary Celeste left port. Like Briggs, Morehouse was an experienced and respected captain. So when, in the middle of his journey across the Atlantic, he spotted a ship with oddly set sails jerking through the water, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

Morehouse hailed the ship. No one replied. He drew closer, and saw that it was none other than the Mary Celeste. The deck lay empty. Morehouse signaled the ship again, and the only response was its irregular bobbing in the waves. Worried for his friend–there were pirates active in these waters, and the weather had been terrible–Morehouse sent his first mate Oliver Deveau over with another man to investigate. What they found still puzzles people today.

The Mary Celeste
An engraving of how the Mary Celeste might have looked upon discovery, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There were no obvious signs of attack or fire. The sails were partly set but in poor condition; a few were missing altogether. The rigging was damaged, with ropes hanging loosely over the sides. Something had smashed the glass over the compass, and a makeshift sounding rod (a tool for measuring how much water is in a hold) sat abandoned in the middle of the deck.

Deveau called out. The hull of the Marie Celeste groaned; her sails flapped wetly in the wind. Far away, the crew of his own ship watched expectantly. But there was no response.  

Below, everything seemed to be in order, save for some water that had come in through the open windows to splatter the beds and the floor. Valuable personal items–including the captain’s sword–were all still there, as was a 6-month supply of food. According to some legends, half-eaten breakfasts still lay on the table, untouched by rot or flies.*

But no one was there. No bodies. No signs of violence. Deveau and his companion sloshed through 3 and a half feet of water accumulated in the hold–a significant amount, but by no means fatal for a ship of the Celeste’s size–and searched desperately for the missing crew. But the ship remained quiet. At last they could not escape the awful conclusion: they were on the Mary Celeste alone.

Sarah Briggs with child
A photo of Sarah Briggs, Captain Brigg’s wife, with one of their children. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They found the ship’s log in the first mate’s cabin. The last entry was dated the morning of November 25, a little over a week previous. According to the coordinates provided there, the Celeste had moved an incredible 400 nautical miles since. The men were flabbergasted. They went back to the deck and noticed that the lifeboat was missing, as were most of the ship’s papers and navigational instruments. They supposed the crew–Briggs and his men, as well as his wife and toddler daughter–must have abandoned the ship in an awful hurry. But why? The Celeste was still sound. What had caused the seasoned, level-headed captain to panic?

The men returned to their own vessel to report their findings. Captain Morehouse, disturbed, decided at length to bring the Mary Celeste in to Gibraltar for salvage. With his crew divided between two ships, it was hard going. I can only imagine what it was like for those unlucky enough to have to man the silent Mary Celeste. When they finally arrived, Morehouse wrote to his wife: “I can hardly tell what I am made of, but I do not care so long as I got in safe.”

The team’s arrival ignited a firestorm of speculation about the fate of the Mary Celeste, one that has not really died down since. Select theories include:

      • Pirate attack. Unlikely, as (as I mentioned) many food and valuables were still on board.
      • Someone going insane and killing everyone. The person people point a finger at ranges from Briggs to Morehouse to some other member of the crew. Some said that whoever-it-was was fueled by an alcoholic rage (though the alcohol in the Celeste’s hold wasn’t drinkable, and Briggs ran a dry ship).  Fiction writers (the fiends!) helped spread rumors with stories of “survivors” from the Celeste, but, as I mentioned, the evidence aboard the ship did not indicate violent attack. There were some stains on board that looked like blood but turned out (upon testing) not to be; some breaks in the wood initally thought to be ax marks that were more likely natural wear from the sea. Given also that Briggs, Morehouse, and the crew of the Mary Celeste were all known to be calm, even-tempered men, most people eventually dropped violence from the list of plausible explanations.
      • Sea monsters. Giant sea squid! Other horrific things! But if that were the case, how would they have gotten everyone so neatly? And what about the lifeboat and navigational instruments?
      • Water spouts. Apparently there is such a thing as a water tornado. That could work as an explanation, given the battered sails and how everything was soaked in the hold. But again, why jump ship? Did Briggs think it was sinking? Why abandon the relative safety of the larger ship for a rinky-dinky lifeboat?
      • Miscellaneous supernatural occurrences. Ghosts. UFOs. Time warps. Bermuda-triangle-like hotspots hundreds of miles away from the actual bermuda triangle. Other things that cannot–must not--be named. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
      • Exploding cargo. Now we start to get into more sane explanations. Recent experiments have shown that if one of the industrial alcohol barrels leaked and exploded thanks to a large wave (or someone lighting a pipe a little too close by), it would create a big burst of flame but not necessarily burn or harm the ship in any discernible way. If such an explosion happened, Briggs would have been alarmed and gotten everyone off the ship, only to see the Celeste drift away and be lost in the lifeboat at sea. Investigators, not finding any burn marks, wouldn’t have been the wiser.
      • Faulty equipment. Another more sane (but boring) theory where the Captain panics when he shouldn’t: if his compass was off and his water-measuring equipment was also off, leading him to believe that he was closer to land than he thought and that the Celeste was starting to sink when it wasn’t. In this theory, the banality of evil rules all: Briggs could have lost his life and the lives of his family and crew due to simple technical error.

     

  • Whatever the cause, the result was the same: the souls aboard the Mary Celeste vanished for good.
    Ship in a storm
    Dramatic ship painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

    So what happened to the ship itself? After an official inquiry, the Mary Celeste  was sold in a hurry and continued to bring her rapidly changing captains ill fortune. She lost one full cargo of lumber in an accident, and then when she was used to try to ship livestock, almost every animal in her hold wasted away. When yet another captain died prematurely on her watch, her cursed reputation was sealed.

    Finally, a man named Gilman C. Parker bought and ran her across a reef in an attempt at insurance fraud. Unfortunately for him, he and his associates were found out and vilified for it. Parker died in poverty less than a year later. One of his accomplices went to an insane asylum; the other committed suicide. And that was the last of the Mary Celeste, though certainly not the last of the curiosity over her.

    There is an abundance of material to read about this stuff, for those of you who are interested. The Smithsonian has an interesting theory, as do several videos on Youtube. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, I’d start on the Wikipedia page and then go on from there. I myself am deep in it, and will probably never get out.

    What do you think could have clear out the Mary Celeste without a trace? Extra points for fart jokes. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    *This is probably not true, but it does add a nice dramatic flair.

Courtesy flush: the haunting of the Hotel Galvez

I’m going to be straight with you: this post started with me Googling “bathroom ghost.” I was looking for a monster of a different sort–I enjoyed our Toys-R-Us(™) spirit a while back, and was hoping I could find something similar. Though it’s a little more posh, I came up with the Hotel Galvez.

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Modern-day Galvez seating area, captured by Patrick Feller.

Close up on Galveston, Texas: I’m not on the up-and-up of big vacation hotspots and so didn’t recognize the name, but some of you might. It’s an island in the Gulf Coast, set up to provide the perfect getaway: beautiful beaches, pools, an amusement park, and, of course, luxury hotels. The Hotel Galvez is a king among these, nicknamed the “Playground of the Southwest.” It has been frequented by people like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart. It’s a beautiful, massive building replicated to look just as it did when it first opened in 1911.

At the time, it was heralded as a symbol of renewal. 11 years before, the deadliest storm in U.S. history swept through Galveston and killed somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Word had it that the inhabitants of an orphanage were among the dead–in one case, the remains of a nun were found still tied to those of the children she was trying to lead to safety. There were so many bodies among the wreckage that the remaining Galveston residents decided to bury them en masse at sea. That didn’t work so well: the next time the tide came in, bloated, rotting corpses came in with it. These were hastily burned, and the island resumed its struggle to rise from the sodden ashes.

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The Hotel Galvez in all its glory, brought to you by Galveston.com.

The Galvez helped rebuild Galveston, bringing in tourists and money. It also brought lovers. In the late 1950’s, a woman named Audra stayed there to wait for her fiance, a sailor due to come in from Gulf for their wedding. Naturally (as I’m reporting her story on Monster Meet), Audra’s love was doomed. Her fiance’s ship went down in another terrible storm; Audra was told no one made it out alive. She hung herself upon learning the news–either in the bathroom of her room (501 or maybe 505, depending on who you ask), or in a turret elsewhere in the hotel. Because life is cruel, Audra’s fiance showed up shortly thereafter, in perfect health and anxious to see her.

For those of you keeping track, we now have 8,000+ violently dead, including nuns, orphans, and a heartbroken bride snuffed out at her prime–three types of ghosts so common as to be almost stereotypical. The stage is set: now let’s turn off the lights and watch what happens.

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Galvez dining area cerca 1911, courtesy of the DeGloyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Unless they are in the habit of Googling “is this hotel haunted” as part of their vacation planning, guests at the Galvez may at first have no idea that anything is amiss. Then they might notice a painting in the hall whose eyes seem to follow them, or pass two strange women in 19th-century outfits who vanish before you can look at them twice. The ladies bathrooms can also hold a surprise: on the most casual end of encounters, toilets flush repeatedly over the disembodied sound of children laughing.* On the more intense end, sobs fill the empty bathroom and the stalls rattle violently, making it very difficult for the living to poop in peace.

Guests’ rooms offer even more fun, especially if they’re on the 5th floor. Orbs of light float through walls, footsteps echo down the empty hall, and every once in awhile, someone will wake up to find a woman in white standing at the foot of their bed.  As you can imagine, if you’re not expecting this type of thing to happen and then it does, you might leave some nasty Yelp reviews. One woman on TripAdvisor rated the Galvez 2 stars because something repeatedly blasted her phone’s dial tone as soon as she turned off the lights (her rather sour review is titled “They didn’t tell us it was haunted”). Commenters elsewhere have reported flashing lights; invisible things climbing into their beds; and even something biting them, leaving marks that wouldn’t go away. In many cases, when guests report these mishaps to the staff, the staff just shrug. “That’s how it goes. It’s haunted here.”

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With all the breaking glasses and candles that won’t say lit, bartending at the Galvez must be a pain. (Photo cred to Patrick Feller)

They’ve got good reason to be jaded. If the guests are put upon, the staff are twice so.  One woman’s dusting was interrupted by the erratically flushing toilets and invisible laughing children; she ended up having to yell “I’m in here” to get them to stop. Another came in early for her shift in reception and received a call from one of the rooms that was not only vacant, but also in the middle of being renovated and had no phone in it at all (no one spoke on the other end of the line, and when the poor woman hung up, she realized her phone wasn’t even turned on, either). There have been glasses that fly off of tables and break themselves, candles that blow out on their own, and the presence of a strange man in the corner of the laundry room.

Then there’s dealing with the ghost hunters. The Galvez attracts plenty. Some come in low-key with EMF detector apps on their phone (yeah…I don’t know about that one, either) to see what they can find. One woman said that she communicated with Audra using the app: she asked Audra about herself, and Audra’s response was “Bathroom. Ow.” Other hunters come in with more advanced equipment, with more dramatic results. The Galveston ghost hunters went to stay on the 5th floor while it was being renovated, and witnessed all of the room doors slam against their safety catches for a few minutes. They also captured the image of what appears to be a nun.

Fortunately for everyone, the ghosts of the hotel Galvez don’t appear to have any darker plans than to be mildly irritating. So far. Business at the hotel seems to be doing well, whether in spite of or because of the ghosts. Between wedding pictures and shots of a brilliant blue pool, the Galvez Facebook page showcases a photo of a cocktail named “Ghost Bride,” so they don’t seem to be afraid of cashing in on their unorthodox reputation. Whether you’re looking to tan on the sundeck or poop your pants in long, empty hall of the 5th floor, the Galvez seems like the place to be.

Have you ever heard someone flushing the toilet while laughing maniacally? Have you been that person? Share your story in the comments below.

*Proof that bathroom humor never dies.

LINKS TO PHOTOS:

Patrick Feller, via Flickr

Galveston.com, via Flickr

Southern Methodist University, via Flickr

Hey! My eyes are down here: The Blemmyae

I was fortunate enough to be able to study abroad in Spain a few years ago. It was a great time in general, but I especially enjoyed going to museums and seeing the variety of weird medieval stuff they had on display. The description placards rarely satisfied me–though I might learn plenty about what materials were used to build something or when the creator was born, I would be left squinting at depictions of brightly colored monsters on somebody’s dresser or what have you for ten minutes at a time, wondering, what the f— is that?

Imagine my delight on recently happening upon an image like this, then:

Royal 15 E.VI, f.21v
“…oh hey…”

…next to an actual explanation!

The Blemmyae–or Blemmyes, or akephaloi–are pretty old mythical beings–older than Christianity. They first show up as far back as Herodotus’s Histories (440 B.C.): unnamed headless humanoids spoken of in the same breath as horned asses and men with dog heads who lived together on the “exceedingly mountainous and wooded” Eastern edge of Libya, on the outskirts of the “civilized” world. From there on out, the Blemmyae would be confined to outskirts, even as the world expanded and the definition of outskirts changed.

Mela (the earliest Roman geographer, first century A.D.)  was indirectly responsible for giving them their name. He wrote that there was a tribe near Nubia with the name “Blemyae,” and then Pliny the Elder (the guy who wrote the first encyclopedia) turned around and said that that tribe was the one that might be described as “[having] no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts.” His is the description that has defined the Blemmyae since, and led to many an amusing illustration.

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“My belly hair starts at my lip!”

Mind you, there was an actual nomadic kingdom of people in that area called the Blemmye that existed in Nubia from around 600 B.C. to 300 A.D.. They were a subset of the Beja people (who are still around today), and had entirely ordinary heads. Modern commentators guess that the rumors of their “headlessness” might have come from unusual hairstyles, shields with faces on them, or an ability to raise their shoulders high and lower their head as they marched forward into battle. That, or Pliny was just xenophobic and making stuff up.

Pretty easy to see through, right? You would think that people would have figured that out and let the idea die, especially as knowledge expanded and it became apparent that most everyone’s neighbors were just regular people. There was also critical physiological questions that hadn’t been answered: if the Blemmyae’s faces were in their chests, where were their brains? Their other organs? It was all a little suspect, but the idea of people with faces in their chests turned out to be stickier than simple explanations or common sense.

The Blemmyae appeared in writings in the 7th or 8th century, and then again in 1121, where descriptions now have them at 12 feet tall and 7 feet wide, and of a golden color for some reason. These were incorporated into the Alexander Romances, where they were shrunk back down again to 6 feet tall and then 30 of them captured to be shown to the world.

Then they spread. Medieval maps showed them further east into India and the the area north of the Himalayan mountains. They appeared in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville described as “folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders” on an island in Asia.  Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, claimed that they were also in South America: “eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders.”

So they were everywhere–just nowhere where Europeans could easily go and see them with their own eyes. And at first they were just a morbid curiosity, something to be frightened by only because it’s different looking.

Then came Shakespeare.

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3: “It was my hint to speak—such was my process—And of the Cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

Here is why we learn to be careful with sentence structure, ladies and gents. Ole’ Billy meant that the Anthropophagi were the cannibals, and that then there was a separate group (the Blemmyae) with heads beneath their shoulders. Instead, people heard that and went, “oh wow. Monsters with faces in their chest that eat people! Gee willikers!”

Which is how Blemmyae images morphed from this into this.

These days, the Blemmyae themselves don’t seem to be in style so much as the Anthropophagi-Blemmyae combination does. Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series seems to have something to do with it that…researching this post has made me put his books on my reading list. Still, though blood-soaked cannibals are great fun, there will always be a soft spot in my heart for anything that looks like this:

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“Ladies.”

Just can’t say no to that kind of charm.

 

Has excessive slouching led people to believe you might be one of the Blemmyae? Do you think it would be harder or easier to brush your teeth if your mouth was in your chest? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

ALL IMAGES: Courtesy of Wikimedia commons, and people long dead.

Hold on to the Handrail: Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Let’s face it: monsters can be pretty complex. A lot of them tend to shapeshift and do contradictory things. They kill us in all sorts of troubling ways, and remind us about aspects of ourselves that we’d rather leave buried. This year alone, we’ve covered monsters whose mouths open sideways, monsters that can electrocute you, force you to carry around a human leg, and that incite otherwise sane, normal people to kill each other. It’s spring now. It’s been a whirlwind few months. Let’s take it easy and get back to the essentials: a straight-up, crap-your-pants boogeyman.

RawHead (or, somewhat confusingly, “RawHead and Bloody Bones”) is about as basic of a monster as you can get. And I’m not talking pumpkin-spice-latte basic. I’m talking horror so distilled that its legacy has stuck around for at least 450 years.

under the stairs
A different point of view.

Imagine you’re a child again (or, if you are still a child, hello! We would have been best friends growing up.). As a child, you usually have an adult around, but not always. Sometimes you have to do things by yourself. This can be exciting, but there are some things you wish you didn’t have to be alone for, even if that makes you a baby. Things like crossing by a silent, black stretch of water. Things like going up or down a dark set of stairs.

Now imagine you are in England in the 1500’s (or, if you’d rather not, don’t…the story will end the same). You are descending the stairs. You know there is a space beneath them, like many staircases. You hate the way the boards creak over that space. You wish there was a light down there, just to scare away, you know. Mice.

You know you should go quickly–just run and get it over with–but as you reach the middle of the stairs, you cannot escape the thought that there is something down there, waiting under your feet. It would be easy to look at check…there are gaps between each stair. You could do it right now. You do do it right now.

It’s dark, but something glistens in what little light makes it through the gaps. It is a slick dome, a wet mess of red and white with eyes that turn up to look at you. It is a man whose head has been peeled of skin. He sits curled up on a pile of human bones. Child-sized bones.

The man smiles, and then reaches up to grab you.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Steals naughty children from their homes,

Takes them to his dirty den,

And they are never seen again.

pile of bones
Topical photo!

Or so the rhyme went. Parents and nurses warned kids about Rawhead and Bloodybones from a young age. If you swore, he’d get you. If you misbehaved, he’d get you. If you went too close to a pond, or to a dark cupboard, he’d get you. He was the monster du jour (or rather, du siècle) to frighten kids into doing what their caretakers asked.

I imagine that those threats worked, but many worried that the medicine was worse than the disease. John Locke himself implored caretakers not to invoke Rawhead’s name, saying:

“Such bugbear thoughts, once got into the tender minds of children, and being set on with a strong impression from the dread that accompanies such apprehensions, sink deep, and fasten themselves so, as not easily, if ever, to be got out again; and whilst they are there, frequently haunt them with strange visions, making children dastards when alone, and afraid of their shadows and darkness all their lives after.”

In other words, “please don’t scar the children.”

Skinless dude
Rawhead says “go to your room.”

Obviously, parents didn’t heed his plea. Rawhead not only endured, but came to the United States along with British immigrants. Our melting pot made him even stranger. He took root in the south, not as something that lurks under the stairs, but as a bipedal zombie with the head of a razorback boar.

The story goes that that boar was beloved by a witch and then slain by some supremely shortsighted hunter however many centuries ago. The witch brought her friend back to life, and in a terrible way. In some tellings, the zombie Rawhead collapses back into a pile of bones after eating the hunter alive. In others, he’s still wandering the woods.

Rawhead’s bare-boned (see what I did there?) terror has inspired people for generations. Clive Barker wrote a short story about him, which was later turned into a B-movie. Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote an appropriately creepy song. It’s all glorious.

There’s something almost comforting about such a simple monster. Care bear. Bug bear. It’s one in the same to me.

Has your foot ever gotten caught between the stairs? Have you spotted any mysterious piles of bones in your cupboard? Share your story in the comments below.

Photo credit props:

Stairs: Henry Söderlund at Flickr.

Pile of bones:  Indofunk Satish via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Muscle man:  Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt

Hold onto your butts: The Popobawa

Content warning: Sexual violence and supernatural endowment.

Smiles are contagious, but so are screams. In February 1995, fear spread like a disease among the inhabitants of Pemba, one of the two main islands that make up the Zanzibar archipelago. Much like the killer clown hysteria that hit the states last year, as the panic escalated, so did the violence.

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An example of a nighttime visitor, courtesy of Wikimedia commons

If you’re the type of person to read Monster Meet, chances are you’re familiar with the concept of incubi and succubi, horrificly rapey nighttime visitors that like to wake people by crushing their lungs. The Popobawa is an incubus on steroids. Its name translates roughly to “bat wing,” but other than maybe casting a shadow in that shape, the creature does not conform to its label. A popular Western misconception is that the Popobawa looks like a one-eyed goblin with wings, but in reality it is a shapeshifter that has appeared in various forms: animal, humanoid, amorphous shadow, etc. It attacks everyone, from strapping men to small children, and unlike many other Zanzibar spirits, cannot easily be expelled or protected against.

Much of the West’s information about the outbreak of ‘95 comes from anthropologist Martin Walsh, who happened to be living on Pemba at the time. It was March 12th, just after Ramadan ended, and until then Walsh hadn’t paid much attention to his neighbors’ anxious talk. He slept through the worst of what happened that night, but in the morning, his watchman Salim filled him in.

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Mood dressing courtesy of Indrajit Das, Wikimedia Commmons

The Popobawa had been disturbing the inhabitants of Pemba for about a month, smothering sleepers or scaring the bejeezus out of them with poltergeist-like shenanigans. People were frightened enough to abandon their bedrooms and start sleeping outside in groups, next to large, bright fires. But Salim could not be in a group that night. Instead he stood alone, on watch duty for the open entrance to Walsh’s compound. On edge in the dark yard, he saw movement and looked up to find a white dog right in front of him, staring at him and shuddering.

Salim felt his hackles go up. He loudly shooed the dog away, and was relieved to have it gone. But a few minutes later another strange animal took its place, also trembling and peering at him. Salim forced that one away, too, and then returned to his post, doubtless starting to sweat. He turned at a noise and found a dwarf staring at him now, shaking as uncontrollably as its predecessors. Bursting with adrenaline, Salim made a run at him; the dwarf hopped around some Land Rovers in the lot before disappearing into the dark. Scared shitless, Salim finally abandoned his post. He ran to check on his family, and didn’t tell Walsh what had happened until the next day.

When Walsh heard Salim’s story, he knew he had to investigate. In one night, the Popobawa (or mapopobawa, plural) had not only visited his compound, but had lead a frenzy of assaults and possessions that made people run wildly through the streets and into nearby rice valleys. With the help of his neighbor Jamila, Walsh began to collect stories from the people on the island with the hope of figuring out what the hell was going on.

It turned out that the Popobawa wasn’t new. Its first attacks came in 1965, shortly after a bloody revolution in 1964. Back then, as many as ten people a night were being assaulted in their beds, sodomized and terrorized until Karume (President at the time) came and challenged the Popobawa to attack him directly. The creature didn’t show, and the attacks dwindled after that.

But now it was back, and at the same time as an election cycle. This made people suspicious.  There were a number of explanations for why the Popobawa might be attacking, from jilted sorcerers wreaking revenge to the spirits of Karume reminding people of their power, but the theory that stuck most was that the ruling party (CCM) was instigating the attacks so as to tip the election in their favor.

The night Salim was visited, a group of young adults spotted what they thought was a CCM car driving erratically up the road toward town. This was third day such cars had appeared. The cars’ veering and tottering made people suspect that they carried evil cargo. The youths hurled insults at the car, damning its drivers for bringing the mapopobawa into town. That night, their bravery was rewarded with violent retribution. No one was surprised. The people of Pemba tended to favor the opposition party: this terror must have been an effort to distract or punish them.

But if the attacks were political, the CCM party would soon get its comeuppance. As the assaults on Pemba dwindled, the Popobawa migrated to the CCM stronghold of Zanzibar town in Unguja, where it continued with new vigor and violence. Poltergeist hijinks morphed into brutal sodomy, usually of men. To add insult to injury, the monster whispered to its victims that if they didn’t share their horror with their neighbors, it would come back. That made the panic spread even faster.

Unfortunately, being frightened tends to bring out the worst in people. As the assaults spread, mobs formed to attack anything (and anyone) that might be mistaken for the monster. Several people were killed. The most infamous was a young man who had come to Zanzibar for treatment for his mental illness. When the news displayed his body on television–along with his grieving parents–instead of repenting, people decried the segment as a government cover-up, and demanded to know where the real Popobawa they’d killed had been hidden.

No human stopped the attacks. After around 70 different assaults, they fizzled out on their own. There would be another spike of terror in the early 2000’s, but nothing on the scale of ‘95. Nowadays, people mostly joke about the Popobawa and its supernaturally large, dangerous dick. But there’s still fear there. It might easily come back.

How does something like this happen? If you’ve read this blog for awhile, you might be thinking “sleep paralysis”…I know I was. The hallucinations and dread that can accompany it fit the Popobawa victims’ experience perfectly. Add a spoonful of social reinforcement and a dash of harrowing political climate, and you’ve got yourself a good recipe for Mapopobawa’95 (also Clowns2016. *cough*).

That’s the easy explanation, if one can be had. The other is that Zanzibar has a very long, very rich history of myth and magic; maybe there really was something there. But that’s probably not what you want to hear, especially if you like to sleep. So yes: definitely just a hallucination. Nothing to worry your head about.

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Okay, maybe just one bat picture. Courtesy of Frank Vassen, Wikimedia Commons

Have you seen a Popobawa? How about a killer clown? Share your story in the comments below.