Not horsing around: the Nuckelavee

It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc.  It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.

Orkney Islands
One of the islands, courtesy of Colin Park at Wikimedia Commons.

Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.

At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.

Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.

Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:

 

***

Night beach
A little mood-setting image that sort of directly contradicts the first line of description of the story but that’s okay–AMBIANCE.

One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.

As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.

Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.

The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.

There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.

Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.

The Nuckelavee
A lovely illustration of the Nuckelavee, courtesy of contemporary James Torrance at Wikimedia Commons.

***

 

Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough.  Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.

Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?

Amirite?

 

Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.

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I do believe in monsters; I do!: “Night-mares” and SUNDS

I love sleep. I love learning about sleep cycles, the sleeping habits of famous artists, my own bedtimes, and, of course, dreams. My obsession has leaked out a little in this blog: last year we talked a little about the Shadow People, dark figures who show up in people’s bedrooms (among other places) when they’re not quite asleep, yet not quite awake. This year we took on the Popobawa, a Zanzibarian incubus that was real enough to his community that he caused real damage. Really, I figured I probably hold off on the sleep-related terrors for a while. But then I happened upon this article entitled “Can You Really Die in Your Nightmares?”, and…well, this is the result.

First, let’s look closely at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, sleep paralysis is something that is, arguably, even worse than your worst normal nightmare (“nightmare” meaning frightening dream). The scientific explanation for how sleep paralysis happens goes like this:

  1. There are a number of different sleep cycles we go through each night, from tiny wakening periods to light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. In REM—that most famous of sleep cycles–our heartbeat increases, our breathing becomes more shallow, our eyes dart back and forth behind closed lids, and we start to dream.
  2. To avoid us acting our dreams of being chased, stabbing zombies, or doing the polka with Captain Hook, our bodies shut down during REM sleep, essentially putting us in a state of temporary paralysis. As we exit REM, the paralysis releases, and we get up, rub our eyes, and try in vain to recall what in the hell just happened. At least, that’s how it normally goes.
  3. But sometimes things go wrong. The body gets out of sync, and we wake up (or think we’re awake), but the paralysis is still gripping us tight and we can’t move or cry out. Right around then is when we start to see things. Hear things. Feel things.
johann_heinrich_fc3bcssli_-_the_nightmare_-_wga08333
A famous depiction of sleep paralysis/night-mare/terrible time, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Remnants of dreams, surely. That’s what Western science would have us believe. But if those are remnants of dreams, they are scary as f***. Because the thing with sleep paralysis—and the things we see therein—is that it feels very much like we are awake. We perceive our room as it really is, we’re aware that we’re in bed and have just woken up, so it can be very disconcerting to know all this and then realize that there’s something standing your bedroom corner.

I’ve talked before about how I woke up one night to see a tall figure lurch at me from out of my closet—such a vivid experience that I remember it perfectly almost two decades later. But other people with sleep paralysis have had it worse. It’s common to not only see and/or sense a figure, but to have it on top of you, too feel its weight, and have the air crushed out of your chest. All this, and you can’t scream—can’t even move. The experience can last for several minutes, and can be so horrific that language can’t express it.

A lot of my research for this post came from looking through reviews (and reading sections of) a book called Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection by Dr. Shelley Adler, director of the Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In what I’ve read of her book,* Adler points out that while 25-30% of people will experience an episode of sleep paralysis (what she calls a “night-mare”, hearkening back to the original meaning of the word) sometime in their life, in the U.S. the phenomenon is “simultaneously very common and little known.” This might be because, as she explains, our culture enforces a strict dichotomy between what we consider “real” (“visible, measurable, evidence-based”) and “unreal” (“supernatural, religious, unprovable”). We take that “real” and “unreal” things are non-compatible for granted, but that’s something our culture has created for us—the rest of humanity doesn’t necessarily agree.

Nor should they, according to Adler. It is foolhardy to assume that just because we do not currently have the tools to “prove” that something exists must mean that that something does not exist. Also, things that are “not real” can have very real effects.

Sleep paralysis by Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr
A more modern depiction of the joys of sleep paralysis, courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr.

Across the U.S. in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, almost 200 people—mostly young, healthy men at an average of 33 years of age—abruptly died in their sleep. Some were said to cry out in the night. Others just went cold. Their spouses and families were stricken; their communities terrified. All of the men were Laotian-Hmong refugees who had recently come to the U.S., but besides that shared little in common. In whispers, they named the phenomenon the Night Terror; people became afraid to go to bed.

The refugees’ families often refused autopsies for religious reasons, but the few that did found no pathological evidence to explain why they died. A few showed slightly enlarged hearts, as if they had just…“shorted out.”

It’s easy to fill in the blanks with your imagination, knowing what we do about how intense little sleep-visitations can be. Adler claims that Laotian beliefs about demons, combined with the stress of being a refugee, might have exacerbated whatever genetic heart problems these men might have had and made their night-mares not just frightening, but deadly. That alone is bananas. But it’s not just Laotians that have died.

Check out this article from the American Journey of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, wherein data collected between 2001 and 2006 in Southern China revealed a whopping 975 cases of SUNDS—Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, what scientists call this mystery death in your sleep. It, too, explores the idea that SUNDS might be associated with funky stuff going on in REM sleep, and the breathing and heart abnormalities that might result. Funky stuff like things being out of sync. Like what happens in sleep paralysis—Adler’s night-mares.

Genetics, again, could play a part, as could stress, socioeconomic background, and being overworked. But that doesn’t change the fact that these SUNDS victims might have faced down something terrible in the dead of night, and that thing could have been the last thing they saw.

We humans face a lot of stressful, frightening things in ordinary life. Their pedestrian nature can be exactly what makes them so scary. So let me offer you the comfort of this supernatural horror, to help you keep things in perspective: in the end, it may not matter whether that monster in your closet is “real” or a leftover dream. He can still kill you.

fritz_schwimbeck_-_my_dream2c_my_bad_dream-_1915
A nice closing image to leave you with, courtesy of Fritz Schwimbeck at Wikimedia Commons.

 

Have you ever had an unfriendly night time visitor? One time, while camping, I woke up to find a raccoon standing on my sleeping bag. Share your thoughts on that in the comments below.

 

 

 

* Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to read though all of it yet thanks to moving last weekend and an exceptionally heavy workload at my day job. Apologies to Dr. Adler and everyone else.

 

WANT TO SEE MORE OF GERARD VAN DER LEUN? FIND HIM HERE.

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.

olkhon_island_and_lake_baikal
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.

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?

forest-2000030_1920
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:

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“…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.