Never let you down: The Elevator Game

Do you like being trapped in a small space? How about in a small space in an unfriendly dimension? If so, this month’s post is for you! 

I’ve decided to try something experimental to teach you about the wonders of the Elevator Game–a try-at-your-own-risk, internet “ritual” that was born cerca 2008 and has seen an uptick in the past couple of years. 

The goal of the game is to get to another dimension, and then (of course) to get home. All you need to play is:

  1. Yourself (you must play alone),
  2. A 10+ story building with an elevator that services at least 10 floors, and
  3. To follow the “rules” of the game. These include pressing the floor numbers in a specific sequence, among other things.

Let’s play here live. Instead of reading this post in order, press the button at the end of each section to travel to the next floor in the sequence. 

As we go, we’ll discuss what you can expect to happen, and outline any of those other pesky “rules” that might be helpful for staying alive.

Sound good? Scroll down to start on the first floor.

Floor 1

Here we are! You can start the Elevator Game at any time of the day, but you must start the game on the first floor. You must only call the elevator using the “up” button. And, to reiterate, you must be alone. 

Before you step in, take a long moment to familiarize yourself with the lobby around you. How many lights does it have? What is the exact pattern along its walls? What does it smell like? How do shoes sound scuffed against its floors? It will be important that you remember every detail later. Maybe life-or-death important. 

Now, let’s step inside. Once you’re in, do not get off the elevator at any point until we reach our destination or until you return safely to this lobby. Got it?

Going up!


Floor 1

Back at the lobby at last! Thank god. Only…are you sure it’s your lobby? Take a look around. Take a listen around. A smell around. Is anything…off? No? Are you sure? 

Remember how I told you to pay attention when you got on? Just because you’ve exited the ritual doesn’t mean that you’re back where you belong. So…are you sure? Because once you step off the elevator, that’s it. 

If you’re not sure, you’re going to need to start the ritual all over again, completing the sequence again and again until you are.

Also–you’re still remembering not to acknowledge the woman, right? Even though she’s getting a little closer?


Floor 2

A few fun elevator music facts:

  • “Muzak” is an official brand name, not unlike Kleenex or Chapstick
  • 7-Eleven weaponized it in the early 90’s to deter teenagers from loitering around their stores
  • The tunes are deliberately calibrated to hack into your brain and manipulate your emotions. Its inventors found it especially helpful, for example, to lull people into a sense of docility as they hurtle hundreds of feet through the air in a small metal box. 

Going up!


Floor 2

At this point, you may hear someone scream your name. Not to worry. It’s time to go to floor 10, our ultimate destination, for the first time. We’re not in the other world quite yet, but I assure you: we’re close.


Floor 3

Good choice. Though that woman’s laughter is going to stick with you for a long time, isn’t it? 

Hit 1 to go to the first floor and get the sweet hell out of here. What’s that? It’s not working? Hit it again. Again!!


Floor 4

Enjoy the elevator ride and this little box you’re trapped in. Claustrophobia impacts about 12.5% of adults at some point; fortunately, it doesn’t impact you. You don’t mind that you can’t stretch your arms out without hitting either wall. Nor that if this box was airtight, you’d run out of oxygen in less than 2 days

Also: You’re still alone, right? You have to be alone this entire time, until the moment when you’re not.

Going down!


Floor 5

When the doors open on 5, a woman might get on. 

If she does, do not look at, speak to, or acknowledge her in any way. Even if she looks like someone you know. Especially if she looks like someone you know.

She may try to get you to break the rules. She’ll say that there’s been an accident and ask for your help. Or she might scream obscenities into your ear. Or she might simply stand in silence, staring until the urge to look at her becomes almost unbearable. 

Don’t do it. Do not so much as glance at her feet

Now is the moment of truth. You’re going to press floor 1. Only, if the ritual has worked, the elevator isn’t going to go to floor 1. It’s going to floor 10. 

She’s watching you. Press the button.


Floor 6

Did you know that incidents involving elevators and escalators kill about 30 and seriously injure about 17,000 people in the U.S. each year? Elevators specifically cause almost 90% of the deaths and 60% of the injuries. 

Passenger elevator deaths were categorized as follows:

  • Falls (60%)
  • Caught in/between (21%)
  • Other (19%)

“Other,” you say? “Other” meaning what?

Going down!


Going up…

Can you feel your stomach jump? It’s working! Are you really sure you want to do this, though? I haven’t mentioned yet what’s on floor 10. 

If you hit any button other than 1 or 10 before you reach the 9th floor, you can still back out. In fact, I will go so far as to recommend that you back out, since the other thing I haven’t mentioned is that it’s a little unclear if you can ever really come back after visiting floor 10. 

We’re passing 8 now…what’s it going to be?


Floor 10

You will see floor 10 now as it is in our world: ordinary enough. Maybe a little quieter than you would like it. And your blood might be pumping a little faster now, because we’re about to get to the part of the game that people really, really don’t like.

Ready?


(Floor 10)

The elevator doors slide open into darkness. The 10th floor is completely deserted. Other than that and the fact that all the lights are off, it looks almost normal. 

Well, you’ve gotten this far, haven’t you? Why don’t you get off?

“Where are you going?” asks the woman. Or maybe she shrieks as your feet cross the threshold. She’s prone to do either–she’s wily that way. You’ve remembered not to jump and look at her right? Even though it’s just you and her here, alone in the dark?

That loneliness is a sign that you’ve made it. This other world is many things, but it’s not populated. As you move down the hall past tightly shut doors, you realize that your cell phone and watch are no longer working. That’s too bad, because at this point, you are really craving some light. 

Hold on–there’s light there, coming through the window. It’s red–a searing red, but not a red that’s warm. It’s–well, it’s coming from a cross. A blazing red cross, glowing way off in the distance.

Except wait: There’s a red cross down the hall now, too, bright in the black. Or was that where you saw it originally? Has it been there all along? It’s closer than the other one. A lot closer.

What’s that? You want to go home? Well, better get back to the elevator, then. Only…which elevator was it? It’s important that you take the same one. Do you remember the one that you took? I can see you’re a little dizzy. Maybe a lot dizzy. Well, hurry back. You’re going to have to execute the ritual in reverse, if you ever want to get home. The hall is tilting merrily, but I’m sure you’ll find the elevator before you pass out. 

(Don’t pass out, by the way. If you do, you’ll never get home.) 

See you’re back in the elevator now! Well, an elevator. The woman is there waiting for you, but I get the feeling that she might be waiting in every elevator, don’t you? I think she might be smiling. But don’t look! Execute the ritual in reverse now, go on. 

What’s that? You don’t remember the numbers? I didn’t tell you to write them down? Oh. Sorry about that. I know the room is spinning and all, and there’s a pretty heavy ringing in your ears, but I’m sure you can figure it out. Go on. Press the right button, just as soon as it holds still. 


Home at last!

Only–are you? You were supposed to move laterally, not upward, right? Oh, well. I’m sure it’s no big deal. When you go to sleep tonight, I’m sure you’ll wake up in your own bed, and not in the hallway on the 10th floor. 

Maybe I should have given you more detailed instructions for this game right from the top. Or been a little more clear that people who have played this game often don’t end up in the greatest of places, even if they seem to have made it out. 

You see, even if you think you’ve played the game right, if you break a single rule, you’ll end up in a world that seems like yours, but is not. A world that will turn on you by degrees. Many report a feeling of being followed, of seeing and hearing strange sounds, of developing a slow, uncontrollable shake. And if they’ve gone and looked at the lady from 5–whew. God help them. They’ll continue to look at her for the rest of whatever remains of their lives. They’ll spot her in a busy crowd. On their street. Outside their window. 

But that’s not you. You followed all the instructions to a T; you never looked at or acknowledged that woman with the brown hair and polka dot dress and blue eyes that struck you right in your guts, and, if you visited the 10th floor, you flawlessly executed the trip in reverse (1-6-5-10-2-4-1. Or was it 1-4-2-5-10-6-1? 1-5-10-4-6-2-1?). Right? 

Right. 

What do you think–was it worth it? Or next time, are you taking the stairs? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Derrick Treadwell of Unsplash. Thank you very much!

17 stories below: Myths of the Moscow Metro

In the very first post on this blog, now 6 (!) years ago, I mentioned my strange encounter with a security guard deep in the Portland subway system. It was that encounter that helped to encourage me to write this blog in the first place. 

Subways have always been a fascination of mine. Living abroad as a kid, I have memories of pressing my face against the windows of the London and Tokyo metro systems and imagining all kinds of things lurking in the darkness beyond. When I moved to New York City, one of the first things I did was to look into legends of the “mole people” living in hidden cities in abandoned parts of the MTA (it turns out there are some, but often they are just people that needed help). 

So really, it was only a matter of time before I got to a post like this. I’ve never been to Moscow, but have heard about the beauty of its metro system, as well as about the host of urban legends connected to it. I’ve also had a great time watching my husband play Metro Exodus while attempting to learn to crochet (really, the humanimals are a lesser horror), so it felt like this full moon was a perfect time to take a look. 


What lies beneath

Moscow metro gilded ceiling
Exhibit A.

The Moscow Metro system (or Metropolitén) opened in 1935, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful underground systems in the world. Many stations practically double as underground art museums. The whole thing was built during the Stalinist era, with an eye toward showing off Soviet power. All of the metro’s gilded sculptures and murals are impressive enough. But dig into legends, and you’ll discover that these stations deep beneath the surface might be only just the surface. 

“Metro-2” is a second, hidden train system said to be buried below the one that the people of Moscow use every day. Also constructed by Stalin in the 1930’s, it was built to accommodate Soviet citizens in case of war, offering protection 45 stories below Moscow’s streets. Legends about what this “metro system” is vary. It could be a handful of tube lines connecting different cities, a secret passageway for officials, or even an entire hidden city complete with food and swimming pools.

Underground switch
A supposed Metro-2 entrance.

While Metro-2 is shrouded in secrecy, some officials haven’t denied its existence. In 1991, the US Department of Defense wrote a report about an extensive underground installation network linked by subterranean transit under Moscow and its suburbs, which sounds an awful lot like Metro-2. 

There are many tales of enthusiasts disappearing when they’ve gone looking for it.  The “diggers” that have come back report hearing the sounds of KGB boots around alleged Metro-2 entrances. One even said that her friend was shot when they got too close. 

So it is very possible that there really is a Metro-2. As Atlas Obscura points out, Russian leaders have a history of impressive subterranean projects. The Metropolitén is one itself, but Metro-2 might be something more. 

Welcome to the underworld 

You know how you probably shouldn’t build a house above a burial ground? Well, you might not want to build a subway station (or multiple subway stations) below one, either. But that’s what the Metropolitén constructors did

Ghost stories abound. There have been encounters with people from out of time–Muscovites, Civil War soldiers, people on horseback. Staff have reported bloodied WWII soldiers wandering around Sokol station in the wee hours of the morning. A girl in a bright dress who ran into the tunnels to escape a group of drunkards still peers out of the dark. A conductor who was burned into a charred husk wanders the tracks in a rage, seeking revenge on his supervisors that blamed him for the accident. 

On September 9, 1999, just after midnight, five women riding in a car on the orange line suddenly lost consciousness. A male passenger filmed the face of a young woman peering at them from outside the train. One year earlier to the day, a young woman had lost consciousness at a station along that line, and fell under an approaching train. 

Aviamotornaya escalator
Going down…

The most haunting (😏) story involves your worst fear re: escalators. In 1982, a loosened chain on one in the Aviamotornaya station resulted in the stairs suddenly pulling apart. Some people plummeted into the 150-foot shaft beneath them; others were ground into the machinery. Still more were killed as the commuters stampeded over each other in an effort to escape. Meanwhile, the escalator kept running. The workers responsible for keeping an eye on it were absent. 

All in all, there were about 30 dead. So now, naturally, gore-covered ghosts wander the station, terrified and missing their hands.

A dark zoo

Moscow Metro Tunnel
A biological cornucopia!

Ghosts aren’t the only thing wandering around the Metropolitén. Much like there are supposedly alligators in the New York subway system, Moscow’s boasts massive, radioactive rats. These glow in the dark, and will maul railway workers that get separated from their group. 

Tourist sites report that the Metropolitén “is also rumored to be filled with extraordinary flora and fauna,” to the point that university groups will travel down into it to get interesting things to study. 

In a less uncanny twist, there are (and this is 100% real, yo) dozens of stray dogs that will ride the subway with you. These cuties (and fatties, if this video is to be believed) have mastered the complex system as well as any commuter, and will go back and forth from the suburbs into the city center in search of food and friendly pets. No word on how they fare against radioactive rats.

Train to nowhere

The Metropolitén looks something like a spiderweb, with strands criss-crossing and radiating out of a circle that holds it all together. It is on that circle that, in the wee hours of the morning, a silent ghost train runs. Its cars are styled like the ones from the 1940’s. Depending on the night, they are either full of grim, grey-suited passengers, or are glaringly empty. The train stops at every station, but only rarely do its doors open to let the living aboard. 

Inside of train car
Better nab a seat. It’s going to be a long ride.

Much has been made of this train. Some say that it ferries the souls of people who died building the metro under Stalin. Others say that the train’s purpose is not to transport old souls, but to collect new ones. 

There is a Youtube video claiming to show the train at the Polezhaevskaya metro station.* In the video, a semi-transparent train drifts into the station, lights glowing in the dim. A “mysterious” (and very difficult to see, IMHO) man gets off, while living passengers continue about their business unawares. Then the train pulls away, disappearing as if it was never there.

One thing is certain: if you’re on the platform late at night, and an old, ghostly train does pulls up, and its doors do open, it would be best to stand away from the platform edge. Even if you’re not stupid enough to straight-up walk in, if you stand too close, its passengers might make your choice for you. 


So what do you think? Would you descend into the world of the Metropolitén? Or would you prefer to take the bus? Let me know in the comments below. 

*The video was later used to try to prove the existence of a Chinese ghost train, but it seems like it was originally used for the Russian one. It’s fun to pretend that it’s totally not using the classic double-exposure trick that’s the oldest in the book.

IMAGE CRED: Abderrahman Ait Ali for the fancy ceiling; Anakin (not the pod-racer) for all the underground; Sansculotte for the real (I think) Aviamotornaya escalator; and Kucharek for the ambient inside of a car

Epistolary horror: Ghosts of Ancient Rome

History! It’s important that we know it, and that we learn from it. One of the reasons that I’m so into ghosts is how they represent history encroaching upon the present: literally, they can’t be ignored. This month has been full of historical events, great and terrible. So let’s talk about some historical ghosts: specifically, some ghosts from ancient Rome.

Very superstitious 

An important source of our knowledge about day-to-day life in the heyday of the Roman Empire comes from a fellow named Pliny the Younger (the Elder, apparently, didn’t make it out of Vesuvius). Pliny was a Roman author and administrator fond of literature, villas, and exchanging correspondence with prominent people. This correspondence–carefully crafted and edited and then published by Pliny himself–included accounts of the eruption of Vesuvius (sorry, Pliny the Elder), one of the earliest written mentions of Christians, and what we’re all here and excited for: ghosts. 

Roman colosseum at night
AMBIENCE

Book 7, Letter 27 of Pliny’s letters addresses one Sura, an influential Roman senator.  It contains not one, not two, but three accounts of the supernatural, varied in their intensity and weirdness. While there are some accounts of ancient Roman ghosts (or disproven ghosts) in other correspondence and plays, this seems to be one of the most famous, and the most fun to look into. 

Some context before we get started: in addition to being great at things like aqueducts and roads and public bathroom-building, the Ancient Romans were pretty superstitious. Like discriminate-against-left-handed-people and put-penis-necklaces-on-children superstitious. Their concept of ghosts was pretty similar to our modern Western one, but had some specific assumptions attached to them: 1) That hauntings were caused by improper burial, and 2) that ghosts, however ghostly, could not be seen in the dark of night: you had to shine a light on them for their horror to be revealed. 

Even given all their superstition, belief in ghosts doesn’t seem to have been a certain thing (or at least, no more certain than it is now, with 45% of Americans believing in presences from beyond the grave). Pliny’s letter starts with a request that Sura help him ascertain whether ghosts really exist based on the subsequent stories. 

“The present recess from business affords you leisure to give, and me to receive, instruction. I am extremely desirous therefore to know your sentiments concerning spectres, whether you believe they actually exist and have their own proper shapes and a measure of divinity, or are only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”

Considering that all of the stories rather seem to support the existence of ghosts, we can guess that Pliny has already decided.

Story 1: Pretty Little Truths 

The first story goes something like this: a little-known, low-station nobody named Curtius Rufus joins the entourage of a newly made governor to Africa, only to come nose-to-nose with a startling vision:

“One afternoon as he was walking in the public portico he was extremely daunted with the figure of a woman which appeared to him, of a size and beauty more than human. She told him she was the tutelar Genius that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, where he should hold office, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die.”

Funny thing: all of those predictions came true. Not in the least (and maybe especially because) after Curtius did achieve all that success, he couldn’t help but believe in the last part of the prophecy, too. And so when he arrived in Africa and saw the visage of the ghost again when stepping off his ship, he freaked out. He fell a ill, and though everyone thought he would recover, he so believed in the power of the prophecy that he gave up fighting and died. 

Curtius was a real dude. He really reported this vision (noted by Tacitus in Annals 11), and really died in Africa after climbing up from nothing to achieve his position in Africa. So, as Pliny hints, there is something to the story. 

And then there is the next one. 

Story 2: The Classic Too-Good-to-be-True Real Estate Deal

This tale will feel a lot more familiar (indeed, one scholar notes that it is so familiar as to fit into one of the Aarne-Thompson index, a compendium that classifies tales from around the world into over 2,000 basic types. For your reference, this is type 326A.). It goes like this:

A house in Athens is super dope–nice and spacious, a great deal. The only problem is that anyone who moves into it is promptly driven mad by fear and dies. Every night, the living lie in dread as rattling chains echo through the halls. The sound draws ever closer, inch by inch, until finally an old man appears before them, squalid, shaking his manacled feet and hands. As Pliny puts it:

“The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone.”

So, predictably, no one wants to rent the house. Just as predictably, the property owner lowers the price, with the hope that some poor, out-of-the-loop sap would come in and take it off his hands.

Enter Athenodorus the philosopher (which philosopher it is not entirely clear, but as in the previous story, it might have been a real person). Athenodorus is not a sap; he knows right away when he sees the ridonkulously low price of the house that something is up. But when he is told that something is a haunting, instead of running, he is excited. Finally, something interesting to put his philosopher’s mind to–whether or not ghosts exist! So he rents the house and settles into his office for the night, applying himself to a bit of writing so as to pass the time.

athenodorus and the ghost
Seriously, brah?

In the dead of night, the faint clanking of manacles begins. Athenodorus ignores them. They come closer. Athenodorus continues to ignore them. At last, they sound behind him in his chamber. Athenodorus turns around and sees the old man standing there, exactly as he has been described, beckoning to him.

Athenodorus holds up his hand and tells the ghost to hold on a sec, and continues writing.

The clattering of chains rings in his ears; the ghost is right next to them now, shaking the manacles over his head. Finally, Athenodorus stands up, and follows the ghost in a painful shuffle out to the courtyard, where it vanishes. 

The next morning, Athenodorus has the spot dug up, and finds bones entangled with rusted fetters. He has them properly buried, and then poof! Haunting solved.

It’s funny that even 2000 years ago, solutions to hauntings were as obvious as any cliched horror movie. Humans really feel strongly about properly burying their dead. 

Story 3: DIY Haircuts

The last story is, in my opinion, the weirdest one. It’s also the one that hits Pliny closest to home, happening literally in his own house. 

cut hair
Poor bastard.

One of his servants is sleeping in bed one night with his brother, when he wakes to see a figure sitting there with them. The figure picks up a lock of hair from his brother’s head, shears it off, and scatters the hair all over the floor. In the cold light of morning, it’s revealed that the brother has indeed received a terrible haircut, and there really is hair everywhere. 

It happens again to one of Pliny’s slaves. This time, the boy himself watches figures in white come through the window, take his hair, and cut it off. Again they scatter the hair, and then leave the way they came. 

Pliny interprets the event in hindsight:

“Nothing remarkable followed, unless it were that I escaped prosecution; prosecuted I should have been, if Domitian (in whose reign these things happened) had lived longer. For an information lodged by Carus against me was found in his scrutore. Hence it may be conjectured, since it is customary for accused persons to let their hair grow, that this cutting of my servants’ hair was a sign I should defeat the peril that hung over me.”

As the scholar that I’ve been linking to this entire article points out, this story comes across as a little flimsy compared to the other two. Their argument is that this hair stuff is all just a set up for the real point of the letter, which Pliny so carefully slips in: that Pliny had an informant tell on him against one of the senate’s most hated emperors. In other words, Pliny wants Sura (and everybody) to know that even though he seemed to do just fine during Domitian’s reign, he was one of the cool kids that was prosecuted, too. 

So the whole hair thing could be totally made up–just a cheap framing device to sneak in that little tidbit. Or it could be just a prank the servants were playing on one another.

Or…it could be real. The afterlife could just be that alien. Ghosts could just be doing creepy things for unknowable reasons. In a way, the very weirdness of these kinds of ghostly encounters–that specificity–is perhaps the greatest argument for their truth. 

I’ll close things off as Pliny does:

“I beg, then, you will apply learning to this question. It merits your prolonged and profound consideration; and I am not myself an unworthy recipient of your abounding knowledge. And though you should, after your manner, argue on both sides; yet I hope you will throw your weightiest reasons into one scale, lest you should dismiss me in suspense and uncertainty, whereas I consult you on purpose to determine my doubts. 

Farewell.”

Who would you rather you rather cut your hair yourself or have a ghost cut it for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: Nilesh Rathod for the colosseum that has nothing to do with anything; Henry Justice Ford for the nice print; Vive la Rosière for sacrificing your own hair for the sake of Wikimedia images.

Hippity hoppity: the Jiangshi

Adios, 2020! This year sure has sucked. Speaking of sucking, it’s time to pay another visit to a monster we know and love: the venerable vampire.  I do try to cover lesser-known monsters on this blog, but seriously, variations of the vampire are everywhere (see here and here and here and here and here). This Chinese iteration is well-known in the East, but less so out here, so I figured we’d give it a shot.

Also, it’s hilarious. And terrifying.

Hop to it 

You’re probably wondering about all the hamfisted word plays on hopping. Thanks to good old rigor mortis, the Jiangshi (僵尸 or 殭屍, literal translation “hard corpse”) wakes from its eternal slumber to find that its legs are too stiff to walk. So instead, it makes due by moving around via little, pogo-stick-like hops, arms outstretched for balance, grasping for its victim’s face. 

Typical Jiangshi attire, sans the mold.

Though that image is hardly intimidating, the Jiangshi’s calf power is something to be feared.  It can hop very quickly and be on you in a moment. And you don’t want it anywhere near you. In varying states of decomposition (not unlike a Western zombie), a Jiangshi is often covered in fuzzy green or white mold. Its nails are long, curved, and black, its tongue wild and impossibly long. Its eyes bulge hungrily from its skull, serrated teeth stretching forward like that of a shark. A single breath from it will kill you dead.

Though often dressed in fancy Qing official attire,* Jiangshi have lost all humanity. They cannot speak and operate on base instinct, ravenous beasts hunting for prey.** Similar to the Edimmu and other vampires of old, the Jiangshi traditionally feed not off of blood, but qi–a person’s life force. Though blind, they can sniff the living out, or jump on them by detecting their breathing. Like other vampires, they operate only in darkness, hopping out of their hiding places in caves and other abandoned places to haunt the night. 

It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump…to DEATH

The Jiangshi was formed independently of the Slavic vampire, first showing up in written records during the Qing Dynasty in scholar Ji Xiaolan’s Yuewei Caotang Biji (閱微草堂筆記, c. 1789 – 1798).  Ji Xiaolan notes that as with many undead creatures, there are multiple ways a Jiangshi can be created. These include but are not limited to:

  • Neglecting a corpse, especially if it is left out to absorb the yin energy of the moonlight;
  • Having a funeral but failing to bury the body, leaving it open for lightning to strike it or a pregnant cat to leap across its coffin;
  • Death by unpleasant means;
  • Transmission of the Jiangshi “virus” through biting;
  • Sorcery; and 
  • The deceased just being kind of a dick who doesn’t want to leave this earthly plane.
Quick, grab the virgin piss!

With so many paths to Jiangshidom, it’s a wonder the world isn’t vibrating under the force of a million hops. Fortunately, just like there are multiple ways to create Jiangshi, there are multiple ways to keep them at bay. Some of these are even incorporated into day-to-day life, like the feng shui convention of nailing a 6-inch panel of wood along the bottom of a house’s threshold, preventing any Jiangshi from getting inside (I guess they don’t hop very high). My other favorite countermeasures include:

  • Glutinous rice, which I kept seeing on Jiangshi-warding lists without elaboration. I finally found something that indicates that since sticky rice is used as a way to draw poison out of the living, it can also be used against Jiangshi (or maybe a living person turning into a Jiangshi). No word on how to encourage someone whose main diet is human lifeforce to eat a ball of carbs…fortunately, some lists have it that throwing a ball of rice at the vampire will suffice.
  • Tacking a piece of paper with a spell written on it to the Jiangshi’s forehead. Watch your fingers!
  • Dropping a bunch of coins on the ground, turning the Jiangshi into Count von Count
  • The urine of a virgin boy (presumably in a squirt gun).
  • Holding your breath.
  • “Broom.”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Bounce, baby out the door

The Jiangshi is fun in its own right, but what I love most about this vampire myth is that it’s based–just a little–in reality. 

The story goes that the original Jiangshi were created by accident. Way back when, families of migrant workers who died far away from home used to pay “corpse drivers” to bring the bodies of their loved ones back for burial. It’s said that for convenience’s sake, the drivers would bind the hands, knees, and ankles of a batch of corpses and then animate them with magic, teaching them to hop themselves home. The driver would then shepherd them under the cover of night, synchronizing their hopping to the beat of a drum. He’d ring a bell at intervals, warning the living away from the bad luck of setting eyes on the unholy undead.

You’d think that was a wild story, but it’s not far off from the truth. There really were corpse drivers who brought deceased workers the long way home under cover of night. But they didn’t (to my knowledge) animate them with magic. Instead, they tied a row of corpses upright along a pole strung between two men’s shoulders–one at the front, the other at the rear. The men would then ferry that load. Naturally, the pole would bounce under the weight of all that flesh, giving the corpses the appearance of hopping when viewed at a distance. It must have been almost as much of a sight to behold as would a Jiangshi itself.

These days, the Jiangshi can be found not only on dark roads, but in movies and anime and cosplay conventions around the world. The 1980’s Mr. Vampire comedy-horror series ensured their place in our collective memory for generations to come. 

That is, if a broom doesn’t get them first.

Man jumping
Count yourself lucky I don’t come after you with a Roomba.

With all that calf work, how does a new Jiangshi avoid shin splints? Share your theories in the comments below. 

*The common depiction of Jiangshi as Qing officials may have originated with said officials’ reputation (at least among the Han Chinese) for being kinda bloodthirsty.

**At least, traditionally. Most of what I’m covering here is the more traditional Jiangshi–more recent movies have taken inspiration from your Twilights and such, making Jiangshi occasionally into more romantic, blood-sucking figures. But I digress.

IMAGE CRED: Wikimedia Commons for the Qing official; Anna Toss for the impassioned attack; Steve Halama for the exuberant hop.

Black bird shrieking in the dead of night: Nachtkrapp

I recently joked to my husband that I have so little knowledge about birds that I can barely tell the difference between a pigeon and a penguin. My interest in the animal kingdom lies chiefly with mammals. To me, birds have always been nice-looking and -sounding, but largely decorative and not terribly interesting. 

Except for corvids.* Even I know that corvids–especially ravens, crows, and rooks–are freaking sweet. Not only have they symbolized mischief, misfortune, and death for hundreds of years, but also have proven in recent studies to be scientifically, frighteningly smart. 

Raven profile
Try me.

Did you know that carrion crows can differentiate distinct numerical quantities up to 30? That they can take advantage of traffic lights to get cars to crack walnuts? That they can recognize crow and human faces? Corvids generally have been proven to be able to make and use tools, take the presence of other corvids into account, work with episodic-like memory, plan for the future, understand complex object permanence, learn from vocal cues, and flexibly follow abstract rules. It’s incredible. Rook intelligence rivals that of some primates–in some tests, they actually performed better than a chimpanzee.

Combine corvid intelligence with jet-black feathers, massive beaks, and a penchant for dead flesh, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for creepy. Solitary rooks will occasionally sing to themselves, producing strange clicks, wheezes, and human-like notes. At dusk, they gather in massive flocks that can blot out the sky, The Birds style. Ravens have so few predators that they play catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, and can mimic full sentences and different human voices.  

It’s no wonder birds like these inspired Poe, Hitchcock, George R.R. Martin, and others. And it’s no wonder that they morphed into an ur-bogeyman: the Nachtkrapp.  

Raise you up on raven wings

Nachtkrapp translates to “Night Raven” (not, sadly, the almost-as-feared “Night Crap”). He is a giant corvid with pits for eyes and holes peppered through his wings–a carcass-like terror that brings disease and death to anyone who so much as looks at him. That’s bad enough, but I’d take that fate over the one in store for children who refuse to go to bed.  Emerging from his secret hiding place in the dead of night, Nachtrapp rips those naughty children from their sheets to carry them to his nest. There, he uses his giant beak to messily eat them alive, ripping off their arms and legs before finally picking out their heart

Raven croak
Crawk, sweet nightingale

Though the Nachtrapp name is specific to South German and Austrian mythology, similar legends can be found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. Some versions go that the raven takes children away in a bag, others that he will come in and crow so loudly that it will frighten them into silence. If kids are lucky, they’ll come across the Guter Nachtkrapp rather than the straight-up Nachtkrapp–the worst ole Guter will do is sing the child sweetly to sleep

Proceed with caw-tion

It’s not hard to imagine where the legend of the Nachtrapp came from. Wikipedia posits that it kicked off during one of the rook infestations of the Middle Ages. Seeking wildly to get their children to go the heck to bed, mothers took a look at the flesh-tearing, baby-sheep-stealing, aggressive corvids in the crops and got inspired. 

And why not? After all, we’re still battling black birds today–both in our nightmares, and on our morning jog. A single crow in Vancouver made mailmen’s lives such hell that they refused to deliver to his territory for over two months. That same crow–named Canuck by human admirers–is known to draw blood, and nicked a knife from a crime scene. He and his buddies forced Vancouverites to invent CrowTrax, an online tracker of violent crow attacks. From founder Jim O’Leary: “It was just a war zone. Just about every day someone would say, ‘I got smacked by a crow.’”

The only remedy against bird attacks seems to be to wear elaborate hats.** To defend against red-winged blackbirds (note: not a corvid), one Massachusetts woman wears one with large plastic flowers. Against magpies, Aussies wear empty tubs of ice cream on their heads. But against crows and ravens? I don’t know. With their skill at facial recognition, that Rocky Road with googly eyes might only make them laugh

As for protection against Nachtrapp? Well. You should just stop thinking about having your intestines picked out (warning: graphic), and go the caw to sleep. 

Raven in trees
Maybe wearing an ice cream tub just in case.

Which would you rather face: COVID or corvid? Pick your poison in the comments below. 

*Also owls.

**Or avoid their territory completely. But that can be difficult when you’re competing with them for french fries.

IMAGE CRED: Meg Jerrard on Unsplash for the intense profile; Franco Atirador on Wikimedia Commons for the screamy boi; Mark Timberlake on Unsplash for the sick silhouette.

Full moon AND Halloween AND 2020 edition: Thinning the veil

Happy Halloween, everybody! Of course the year that the stars aligned so that there was a full moon (and a Blue Moon!) on Halloween had to be 2020. It is truly a year of enormous things. For this special occasion, I wanted to do something a little special. Let’s talk about Halloween itself, specifically as it relates to The Veil.

If you read this blog, you’re probably the type of person who already knows about Halloween’s origins, but I’ll cover them just in case. Halloween is one of the last truly pagan holidays the U.S. has left. We inherited it from the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sow-wen), the October 31st-November 1st celebration that represents the Celtic New Year. During Samhain, people did (and do) a lot of stuff the broader U.S. still does today: carve faces into produce, bob for apples, dress as demons, crowd around fires, etc. Samhain is the time to harvest what you can from the previous year, and then step back to watch it die. 

Halloween moon
So long, and thanks for all the fish.

As you know, winter brings no small amount of danger. But Celtic tradition has it that the change to winter is even more dangerous. On Samhain–on Halloween–the veil between this world and the next lifts, and horrors walk. 

Rather than exploring a specific monster, let’s explore lots of them at once by poking at that gauzy boundary. It will be a bolt of fun!

More chiffon than chenille

People familiar with Spiritualism have probably heard the term “beyond the veil” or “the veil is thin” or some such. This is what the mediums are talking about. “The veil” refers to the border between our physical, logical plane and the ineffable. As the name “veil” suggests, that border isn’t super sturdy. Things can (and do) get through–from our side, and from theirs.

These crossings are assisted by the fact that the veil varies in its thickness. Beyond Samhain, you might experience a thinning of the veil between waking and sleeping, around sunrise or sunset, visiting charged places like cemeteries, or even viewing art. You might notice a pattern here: the key to these thinly-veiled spots is that they are places between places. As the sun sets, it is neither day or night. The cemetery houses both the living and the dead. Art is both emotion and physical output–you get the idea.

Creepy fog
Fog is another veil-thinner, because it’s…between needing an umbrella and not?

I should note that a thin veil isn’t all bad. Some actively seek it out. Thinning veils are said to help psychics get a boost in their powers, allowing even ordinary people to better intuit or learn things. They also help us feel close to those who have passed, if not talk to them directly. There’s a lot of wisdom behind the veil. Useful things. Things that can change us for the better.

Of course, there are also some decidedly not useful things.

At the junction between summer and winter, between life and death, it’s easy to see why the veil around Samhain diminishes into no barrier at all. And with no barrier, there’s nothing to protect us from what’s beyond.

Pay no attention to the horror behind the curtain

Samhain honors the inevitability of death; it is a time to remember the dead and to be touched by them. But play your cards wrong, and you can end up among those remembered. 

In trying to talk to grandma, you might instead call up something much less friendly–something that doesn’t go away when it’s told. Many mediums point out that even if you don’t run afoul of a straight-up evil spirit, ghosts can be as nasty and deceitful as any stranger in real life. Also as mercurial–you might run into one that seems fine, but then you let on that it’s dead, and it loses its XScreamSnickersBar™. 

Ghost behind curtain
I’m good on any inter-veil wisdom, thanks.

In short, ghosts are whack. You have to be careful who you’re talking to, and how you talk to them. A long list of protective steps is recommended, even for first-time dabblers. 

Then there are the fairies. Oh, yes–I’ve covered at length before how very not-Tinkerbell-y the fairies of European lore can be (and lots of other cultures’ lores, for that matter). When the veil thins, they all come through. There are fairies that will steal your soul to pay their Halloween tithe to hell, or that simply keep it as a collectible in a jar. You can be drowned, turned into a husk of a human, cursed, kidnapped, or have your children kidnapped or even murdered for the slightest offense.

You might run into the Wild Hunt, or the Sluagh, or the Fachan–a chain-wielding, fur covered monstrosity with body parts sticking out of its stomach, so hideous that one look can stop a man’s heart. Or you could bump into a Red Cap, a fairy that looks like an innocent old man but is unstoppably fast and strong and will hack you to bits with a scythe. A monster specifically associated with Samhain is Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta, a tailless black sow that wanders around with a headless woman and devours souls. There is truly no shortage of fun. 

See you on the other side

So it’s 2020. There’s a full moon, a blue moon, and lots of SourPatchZombieKids™ goin’ down. How bad could this Halloween be? 

Devil behind curtain
Everything’s f i n e.

First off: The veil is thin indeed. HiggyPop’s Forecasted Paranomal Activity barometer shows it at a mere 30.7% of its full strength, which means we’re at Threat Level Severe. Tonight during the witching hour (3:00 AM), it might drop down to 0%. To make things even more exciting, this is the year that the UK HAUNTED team has for some reason decided to attempt to break the Guiness World Record for the #WorldsLargestSeance, streaming it live so that countless amateur mediums can join in from home. With all of that psychic energy flooding past whatever tatters remain of the veil, what could go wrong?

Me? I’ll be deep in the woods by the time you read this, camping in the dark mountains on what promises to be a very exciting night. I have one flashlight and no extra batteries.

What could go wrong, indeed. 

If the veil were a shower curtain, what kind of shower curtain would it be? Fabric? Vinyl? A map of the U.S.? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: All images to the good miscellaneous artists free on Canva.

Backseat driver: Bride of the 13 Curves

Anyone with even a passing interest in urban legends and folklore will know that ghost bride stories (especially in the U.S., which I am most familiar with) are a dime a dozen. Certainly there are some practical reasons for this–white wedding dresses double nicely as ghostly attire, so anyone seeing a pale apparition is likely to think “bride” (though I guess they could also think “guest wearing a hotel robe” and or “toga-sporting frat bro”). But I suspect the root of all these legends goes deeper than that. Weddings are extremely emotionally charged. More pointedly, weddings are (according to historical sexist assumption) extremely emotionally charged for women, since of course we could have no other goal in life other than to get married and pop out babies. Frustrated emotions are a great recipe for hauntings. Add in some more sexist stuff about women being more ~mysterious~ and ~emotional~, thus being more ghost-like even in life, and it’s not a shocker that ghost bride legends grow like weeds. 

That these legends are so common (and so irritating in their implications) is why I have ignored them on this blog so far (except for a passing story here). But having recently been a bride myself (#COVIDwedding), I figured that it was about time that I gave one a shot.

Seatbelts: You gotta wear ’em

Okay, so this legend is also pretty typical in that it starts out with a car crash. 

Marcellus, New York is a little town not far from Syracuse, with a population of about 6,200. It’s a scenic area full of hills, valleys, and winding, winding roads (I once ate Burger King on a road trip down one of these roads, and regretted it bitterly). The windiest of these is Cedarville Road, an unlit, rapidly twisting mile of asphalt through thick woods that has earned the moniker of “the 13 curves.”

Like this, though not this road exactly.

Regardless of how you feel about the veracity of ghost stories, this road can legitimately be dangerous. A woman died there in a 1941 collision, and 2 more girls died in 1959 when their toboggan slid onto the road and met with a station wagon. The officer responding to that scene had trouble standing up straight, the road was so icy. Even discounting weather conditions and the fact that the road is infamously dark, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that quick switchbacks + speeding cars can equal disaster. 

Naturally, such a disaster is said to have befallen our veil-toting protagonist, sometime between 1900s and today. The legends vary, but generally speaking say that a buggy, car, or motorcycle was carrying newlyweds down Cedarville Road when, around the 6th curve, the husband lost control of the vehicle. It spun out and smashed into the creek, killing the bride, groom, or both. Regardless of who died when, the groom didn’t see fit to stick around. But the bride sure did. 

Why did the ghost bride cross the road?

The script for 13 Curves bride sightings varies as much as the origin legends, but the most basic follows the experience of Msmarymac, who relates what happened when they were driving down the expanse of road one night with a friend:

Blood and glowing eyes not shown here.

“While making our way around the sixth curve, a dim glowing white shape appeared in the road ahead of us. It slowly made its way from the left side of the road to the right. When it got right in the middle of the road, it stopped and turned towards us. It was about the height of an average woman, but it was not very well defined––it was more of a staticy blur than a clear image. It did have a red glow up near where the head would approximately be on a human being.

I slowed the car to a near halt, amazed at what I was seeing. “Do you––“ I started to ask.

“Yeah, this is nuts,” my friend responded before I could even finish the question.

Just after our exchange, the shape darted to the right, off the side of the road, disappearing. We hightailed it out of there.”

There are also fun tales of people checking their rearview mirror out of habit, only to find a blood-covered woman staring at them from the back seat. That alone is enough to cause someone to crash, but 13 Curves bride also enjoys darting out at random into the road. Some say that her goal is to make an already dangerous road more, trying to create crashes so that others can suffer as she has. 

The woman of your dreams

So we know that at least 3 people have died on Cedarville Road. Is there evidence of a couple dying there as well? Something other than hearsay on which we can base this story?

In short, no. The William G. Pomeroy Foundation highlights that while we have written histories of the other deaths, nothing shows up about the demise of a newlywed couple, which is odd since something as juicy as that would have surely made the news. Their article suggests that the whole thing can be traced back to a deliberate hoax, wherein a local woman wanted to get back at some “smart aleck” teenagers. She enlisted the help of her daughter to dress as the bride, and then drove the teens down the 13 Curves and scared the bejeezus out of them. 

But that doesn’t seem to matter. Regardless of how little the 13 Curves bride legend is based in reality, it continues to have legs. People flock to the road at night in an attempt to see the ghost, particularly around Halloween. Locals seemingly do as much as they can to encourage them. A sign sits at the top of the road telling the bride’s story, and homeowners near it set up frighteningly realistic decorations that look like the bride, even dressing up as her themselves to see if they can’t scare some passerby. 

You yourself could go on a drive to see the ghost this Halloween–it’s a socially-distanced activity perfect for the whole family. 👌 Even if there was no ghost to begin with, who’s to say our collective subconscious hasn’t brought some shade to life?

Collect them all! What is your favorite ghost bride story? Anyone know of any that actually involve a ghost groom (I Googled for that in vain)? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

PHOTO CRED: Strong Unsplash representation this month; a big thanks for the not-technically-the-road-but-a-road by Lauren Coleman on Unsplash and creepiest-Creative-Commons-bride-I-could-find-that-was-not-a-zombie by Joel Overbeck on Unsplash.

Webs of deceit: Tsuchigumo

Content warning: spidey bois.

Let me take you back to somewhere around the year 1000 in Classical Japan. Minamoto no Raikō, legendary commander and warrior, lies suffering from a fever, preparing to die. Noh theatre performances still capture the moment to this day. From Raikō (in translation)

“Oh, life is so fragile. Looking back, it is like a bubble that disappears here and appears there. I float and reincarnate in this world. No one can understand my serious illness, just as heavy as this duvet. There is no one to be blamed for this illness, so I can hold no grudge over it. I have to remain in bed by myself and continue to agonize even while resting.”

Various cures are tried, but nothing seems to help. Then, in the dead of night, a Buddhist monk appears abruptly at Raikō’s door. 

“Though it is a beautiful night with the clear moon, misty clouds suddenly rise in the middle of the night and hide the moon.”

According to legend, the monk is strange-looking and large, almost 7 feet tall. Taken aback, still feverish, Raikō demands to know who he is and what he’s doing there. In response, the monk berates him, and quotes an old poem:

“My husband will come tonight as the spider’s behavior tells me so…”

It’s the only clue Raikō needs.

“Did you say the spider’s behavior? I see. I did not identify you and now understand that your behavior is like that of a spider, which rudely approaches me.” 

The monk acts fast, throwing out his hands and shooting out thousands of strands of web. Raikō would be captured and doomed, if it were not for the sword he has hidden under his pillow. He slashes at the monk, and the monster disappears, leaving puddles of blood in his wake.

Familiar foes 

From here, the Noh play and the legends diverge a bit, though the core arc of the story remains. Either Raikō or his retainers follow the trail of blood to a cave deep in the mountains, where they find, to their horror, tunnels made of spider silk big enough for a man to walk through. Deep in these tunnels lies the tsuchigumo, the enormous arachnid yōkai, with the face of an oni (demon) and the body of a tiger. 

Yorimitsu killing Tsuchigumo
Like so.

A battle ensues. The tsuchigumo offers a fearsome fight, trying to ensare its attackers with silk. When its its abdomen is finally split, an explosion of human skulls (1,990, according to one tale) precipitates thousands of baby spiders. These scurry at the humans and up the cave walls, and the warriors must kill every last one before they can finally declare victory. Once they do, Raikō’s mysterious illness is cured, and everything is well again.

But this will not be the last time (and is maybe not the first) that Raikō faces down the hideous spider. The showdowns happen again and again with similar scripts, but different details. In one version, Raikō’s servant boy turns out to be secretly poisoning him. When Raikō cuts him open, the illusion breaks, and he finds that the boy has covered him in spiderwebs. They follow the boy’s trail of blood and discover a tsuchigumo, dead from the wound Raikō inflicted.  In another version, Raikō and his retainers face down an entire yōkai army, headed by a beautiful and mysterious woman. Suspecting trickery, Raikō targets the woman, and when he cuts her the army vanishes and she flees into the mountains. They hunt her down to a cave, where she morphs into a giant spider, rearing back and ready to fight Raikō in her true form.  

Raiko tormented by the earth spider
Less stripe-y, but you get the idea.

Hairy inspiration

So where did the tsuchigumo stories come from? There are no native tarantula species to Japan, though there are plenty of other frightening-looking spiders, and neighboring China and Vietnam have some bad boys that look like this:

Aphonopelma catalina tarantula

…which might have provided some inspiration. These tarantulas do burrow in the ground with silk tunnels like the ones described in the stories. And “tsuchigumo” does translate roughly to “ground spider.”

It’s not a big leap for any anyone to look at one of those and go “hey, that’s heinous. Sure glad it’s not car-sized, amirite?” Humans have done just that all around the world. Giant spider monsters are, after all, not unique to Japan, nor are tsuchigumo even the only spider yōkai

Tangled web of history

But the name “tsuchigumo” happens to have some historical context that casts these stories in a new light. It turns out that back in the day, “tsuchigumo” was used less to describe a literal tarantula monster and more as a derogatory term for the indigenous, earthen-mound-dwelling rebels who dared to fight back against the power of the Yamato court. 

Tsuchigumo
Who’s the real monster?

One can see evidence of this still even in that Noh play I quoted above. When getting ready for the final tsuchigumo standoff, one warrior comments: “Even a handful of soil and a branch of tree in this land belong to the Emperor [emphasis mine]. So, there is no room for a demon to live.” When you look into the history, a lot of the pieces start to make sense. Those that fought against royalty had to resort to underhand tactics such as guerilla warfare, just as tsuchigumo resort to trickery in order to try to best the military might of Raikō and his ilk. 

Of course, that hardly makes the tsuchigumo less affecting. It’s said that some human tsuchigumo were cut up and buried in separate pieces at Mount Yamato Katsuagi shrine to prevent their grudges from coming back and harming the living. To me, this sounds like precisely the recipe to encourage grudges to come back and harm the living. 

So which is worse: vengeful ghosts or spiders with fangs the size of your arm? Some dilemmas are too dark for even a monster blog to decide.

Would a tarantula look better or worse with frosted tips? Share your opinions in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Tokyo National Museum for the OG; Utagawa Kuniyoshi for the leopard-y guy; Chris A. Hamilton, Brent E. Hendrixson, and Jason E. Bond for the very detailed tarantula; Brigham Young University for the 3-eyed guy.

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody–

Sleepovers! Those are a thing that used to happen, back in the days before COVID-19. The ones I experienced growing up were pretty stereotypical. There was ice cream, sleeping bags, attempts to reproduce music videos, and, of course, dares. More often than not, these dares included one many American girls might be familiar with: the dare to lock yourself in the crapper and invite a ghost to kill you. 

I had always assumed that the Bloody Mary “game” was just shallow fun, with no real meat behind it in terms of meaning or actual sightings. Hot damn, was I wrong.  

Bathroom roulette

Let’s start out with an introduction. The Bloody Mary legend is young-ish, with first written mentions dating back to the 1970’s. It’s unclear where exactly it came from, but it does seem to have some ancestry in older British traditions of catoptromancy (such as one where a girl would walk up a flight of stairs backward in a darkened house, holding a candle and a hand mirror that would show either the face of her future husband [score!] or her own skull [eat more healthily and avoid cigarettes and fast-moving buses!]). 

Bathroom
Behold this place of horror!

For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:

  1. Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn the lights off. 
  2. Look at whatever you can see of yourself in the darkness in the mirror.
  3. Repeat “Bloody Mary” aloud three times, keeping your eyes on your reflection.
  4. Bolt before Bloody Mary coalesces in the glass.

The details of the rules vary. Some say you’re supposed to spin while you say her name, others that you need to have the water on or have a single lit candle below the mirror. You can say “Bloody Mary” a bunch of times (way more than three), or for good measure add “I killed your baby!” You can do it by yourself or in a group. Sometimes, you have to flush the toilet before you leave.

Even if you escape that vision in the mirror, you might experience “signs” of Bloody Mary for the rest of the day–a bloodied knee on the playground. Splattered ketchup across your shirt. A dead bird on the way home from school. 

And if you don’t escape her? If a woman drenched in blood, or headless, or simply very dead does coalesce before you, either over your shoulder or in place of your own reflection? Bloody Mary can scratch you, show you a sign of your own impending death, or reach out of the mirror, grasp your shirt, and drag you through. 

Gory histories

So this is all good and well. But as a kid I never stopped to ask: who is this Bloody Mary ghost supposed to be? It turns out that there are three generally-cited possibilities.

Erzsébet Báthory

Elizabeth Bathory
“I’m so bored while not murdering” Bathory

The first and least likely (IMHO) is Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered a metric butt-ton of women in the late 1500s (possibly as much as 650, though it’s possible that Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy to steal her property and tortured/murdered much fewer). Legend has it that she bathed in her victim’s blood to preserve her youth. 

It’s all very grisly and memorable. But Erzsébet (or, anglicized, Elizabeth) is “Erzsébet,” not “Mary.” What’s more, her life doesn’t resonate with the Bloody Mary game in a way that the other candidates do, as we shall see.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots
Bearing it all pleasantly.

The second candidate is Mary Queen of Scots, who was an unlucky contender for the throne against Queen Elizabeth I. After a life spent mostly imprisoned and struggling for power, Mary was beheaded in 1586. She went to her death bravely, even making jokes, but the executioner botched the job horrifically

The first swing buried the axe into the back of Mary’s skull. The second went into her neck, but didn’t sever it. Finally, the P.O.S. executioner just sawed away at the sinew attaching Mary’s head to her body, blood sluicing everywhere, Mary’s faithful dog still clinging to her skirts, trembling. Job finally finished, the executioner held her severed head aloft, crying “God Save the Queen!” But he’d only grabbed Mary’s wig, and her head fell out and smacked to the floor. 

In short, there is plenty about the scene that makes it easy to believe that Mary might come back as a vengeful ghost. But for me, she’s not as strong of a contender as Elizabeth I’s half-sister, Queen Mary I. 

Queen Mary I, “Bloody” Mary

Queen Mary I actually was nicknamed Bloody Mary, thanks to her burning some 300 Protestants at the stake. Those killed included many vulnerable poor and disabled people. One victim was even pregnant–the trauma of the burning made her give birth, but her newborn was simply tossed back in the fire with her. 

Queen Mary I, Bloody Mary
Those arms are definitely long enough to reach out and pull you over the sink.

Hard as it is to empathize with someone who could order that, Mary I wasn’t the only monarch to do so, and much of the vitriol against her seems to stem from misogyny and cruelty against her frumpiness. She was a miserable woman. Her father was King Henry VIII, who famously annulled his marriage to her mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to the much prettier and more charming Elizabeth I, who Mary would forever be compared unfavorably to. She was plagued throughout her life by terrible menstrual pains and irregular periods. She married someone ten years her junior whom she was madly in love with, but who was indifferent to her. 

Desperate for affection and political security, Mary hoped, at least, for a child. But when she finally got pregnant–the happiest point of her life–people whispered that it was all a fake, that her growing stomach contained nothing but a tumor. That was cruel enough, but then, when Mary went to give birth, nothing happened. Her stomach deflated, and no baby came out. The vicious rumors were right, but not through any fault of her own. She’d wanted to be pregnant so badly that she’d tricked her body into believing that it was, leaving her with nothing but very public humiliation and hate. 

A common plight

Why do I think that Queen Mary I is mostly likely the Bloody Mary? Because in addition to actually being nicknamed that and killing a bunch of people, Queen Mary I’s problems with fertility and periods dovetail perfectly with the game of Bloody Mary itself. 

Think about it: the game is played mostly by girls. In a bathroom. Looking at your own reflection, you’re summoning another woman that’s covered in blood. It’s frightening, sometimes painful. And in some cases, you take pains to flush the toilet before you leave. 

As scholar Alan Dundes points out, when you look at what goes into the game, it’s hard not to see Bloody Mary as a handy way for pre-pubescent girls to process the oh-so-taboo prospect of getting your first period, and all of the horror that entails. Enter Mary I, Queen of frustration, pain, and blood. Who better to teach you about the importance and terror of periods than the woman whose problems with them made her life a living hell?

The monster in the mirror

So there is all of that. Bloody Mary is a surprisingly nuanced allegory for something almost all girls have to contend with. But clever though that allegory might be, here’s something even more fun: sometimes, Mary isn’t an allegory at all. Given the right conditions, shrieking slumber party participants will actually see another face in the mirror. 

A 2009 study of 50 test-naive individuals revealed that after less than a minute of gazing into their reflections in dim light, so-called “strange-face illusions” began–for every single participant. From Giovanni Caputo, the author of the study:

“The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).”

Obviously in the context of Bloody Mary, we are interested chiefly in this last one. Caputo himself seems puzzled by it, especially as he tries to put together what exactly is happening with these illusions. As he puts it:

“The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear (Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new traits.”

Maybe, he postulates, this “strange-face” illusion thing is just a misfiring of the brain’s face-processing mechanism–with the dim light and the fixed attention, it’s freaking out and scrambling and deforming your own face. Seems simple enough. And yet…

“Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top down accounts seem to provide adequate explanations.” 

God, I love me some weird stuff that science can’t explain. And I love me some weird modern rituals that get at the ID of our brain, and some dramatic and twisted histories. Who would have known that plain old Bloody Mary would have all three?

Had any fun times gazing into a dark mirror? Maybe you haven’t looked close enough. Give it a try and share your hallucinations (…?) in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Wolfmann for the bathroom; Public domain for Bathory; Public domain for Mary Queen of Scots; Public domain for Mary I; Susanne Nilsson for the candle.

Ghosts of the Revolutionary War: Fort Mifflin

Happy hangover-after-Independence Day! In case you haven’t gotten enough America, I’ve got a themed post for you. I hope you like history. And ghosts. 

Authentic reenactments

Fort Mifflin from above.
Fort Mifflin from above.

Fort Mifflin, located on “Mud Island” in the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia, is a historic landmark that attracts thousands of school groups, history buffs, and curious tourists each year. Visitors walk one of the only remaining Revolutionary War battlefields and see barracks, hospital grounds, gunpowder rooms, and more. They learn from uniformed guides and reenactors how 200+ men gave their lives in 1777 so that Washington could make his escape, and then how the fort morphed to be used in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and others. 

One of these visitors included a woman who was especially impressed by the casemates, a fortified area that was constructed after 1777 in order to protect soldiers from any future bombardments. The casements are dark and dank, with few windows and so many bugs that they were deemed unsuitable for habitation not long after they were built. But during the Civil War, Fort Mifflin housed people there anyway, using the cave-like rooms as makeshift prisons. Awed by this more atmospheric section of the fort–and the excellent tour guide that presided over it–the visitor went immediately to pass on her compliments to Dori McMunn, then Executive Director of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware. Pleased, McMunn asked her if she could give a description of her guide, so that McMunn could pass along her compliments. 

Not wanting to disturb the woman, McMunn merely thanked her and sent her on her way. But as soon as she was gone, McMunn went into the casements to look for the mysterious man. As she had suspected, they were empty–just the moisture on the ceiling and the bugs on the walls. There was no sign of any man there at all. 

It wouldn’t be the first time guests would come with enthusiastic compliments about “reenactors” that weren’t part of the staff–including more reports specifically about the Civil War fellow. Fort Mifflin’s caretaker also got word of someone giving tours in the powder room, again with guests offering compliments on “how good he was, and how authentic he looked.” Spoiler alert: There was no one giving tours in the powder room. It seemed that the human tour guides were getting a helping hand.

A second kind of history

Unnerving though these appearances were, it is likely that no one was surprised by them. There is a history of odd things happening around Fort Mifflin, not only to visitors, but to staff and more sanctioned reenactors. 

A closer look at what I believe are the officer’s quarters at Fort Mifflin.

Take a former tour guide, who slept in the officer’s quarters for a few nights. Every morning at 3am sharp, the man was awoken by a rapping on his door. There was no one outside. The guide knew–and probably laid very still in his bed knowing–that 3am happens to be the time which those at the fort used to switch shifts for the next watch.  

Or take a story from a reenactor that chose to spend the night in the casements. He fell asleep with a fire in the fireplace and the door locked from the inside. Some time later, he started awake. There was a man in his room, a soldier in Revolutionary War gear, warming himself by the fire. When the reenactor looked twice, the figure was gone. His door was still locked. 

He wasn’t the only one to get a surprise. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2009, “re-enactors who spent the night at the fort reported seeing ‘black, pajama-like shadows’ that spooked them so bad they fired blanks from their period firearms at them. Some saw jiggling doorknobs, a figure peering from an unoccupied room and a hissing shadowy figure. At night’s end, ‘I was picking up trash when I heard the most pleasant woman’s voice in my ear say: ‘Thank you!’’ said re-enactor Ryan Rentschler, who was so unnerved that he ditched the fort sleepover to camp out in a friend’s van.”

To some staff, the occurrences are so common as to almost become old hat. There are numerous accounts of interrupted work, such as the deliberately-closed door to the blacksmith shop repeatedly opening itself on a hot day (staff presumed that 18th-century “Jacob the blacksmith” was feeling stifled). Once a dark figure disappeared into one of the buildings at closing time, only to leap out at the guide that went to hunt them down. Pencils and files spontaneously going missing from office drawers. Windows spring open in the dead of winter. You get the idea.

200-year-old celebrities 

On top of all of these are the handful of personalities who are regulars. One is “The Lamplighter,” a man with black hair and a white puffy shirt who drifts through the soldier’s barracks, carrying a long pole with a dim candle at the end to light lamps that disappeared some 200 years ago. 

Fort Mifflin as darkness falls.

Another is Elizabeth Pratt, or, less kindly, “the Screaming Lady.”  Legend has it that she was a wife living in the officer’s quarters that had a nasty falling out with her daughter. Before they could reconcile, the daughter got sick and died. Mad with grief, Elizabeth took her own life shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, her anguish didn’t die with her. There have been reports of her screams echoing from the officer’s quarters, to the point that neighbors have called the police. She is also sometimes seen by children peering out the window of her old room, one hand to her forehead, perhaps hoping to see her daughter among the kids outside. 

Perhaps the most sinister ghost is that of the “Faceless Man.” During the Civil War, Private William H. Howe was arrested and held at Fort Mifflin on two charges: desertion and the murder of the officer that went to arrest him. Howe admitted to the desertion, but never to the murder. Nevertheless, it was his fate to become the only prisoner to ever be hanged at Fort Mifflin, a black bag over his head. Supposedly, the grass still refuses to grow at the site where he died, and he is still floats around the casements–a man whose face, even in death, cannot be seen. 

History lives” at Fort Mifflin

Far from trying to quiet these stories, the Fort Mifflin on the Delaware nonprofit organization has chosen to lean into them. And why not? Ghost hunters have helped to raise nearly 40% of the site’s budget. You can go on candlelight ghost tours and even book private overnight stays today. I myself might try to, provided the pandemic ever clears up.

If we’re lucky, we might get a more intimate glimpse into the past than the lovely grounds and educational materials alone can offer. As the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance’s Lewis B. Gerew II noted, “It’s great to have a piece of history actually interact with you.”

Which war would you most like to interact with a ghost from? Share your preferences in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Big thanks to Surfsupusa for Fort Mifflin from above, Larry Lamb for a closer look at the buildings, and Charles Homler for Fort Mifflin at night.