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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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™.
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?
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.
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.”
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
…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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!]).
For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:
Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn the lights off.
Look at whatever you can see of yourself in the darkness in the mirror.
Repeat “Bloody Mary” aloud three times, keeping your eyes on your reflection.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Out of respect for everything happening in the U.S. right now, I’m not going to do a Monster Meet post this month. I stand with my black friends and commit to doing the anti-racist work necessary to move our country forward.
Looking for something to read? Support black writers like those in these lists and interviews!
During this whole self-isolation pandemic apocalypse thing, I have noticed two things about myself: 1) I miss eating out way more than I thought I would and 2) I have more of a sweet tooth than I thought I did. Based on what I’m seeing around the internet, it looks like I’m in good company. And in the case of Long Island patisserie Fiorrello Dolce, that company includes beings from beyond the veil.
Glazed and confused
Fiorello Dolce was founded in the summer of 2006 by Gerard Fioravanti and Steven Marinello. It’s a cute, modern shop situated at the far end of a little strip of stores in Huntington, New York. All of their pastries are made from scratch, using only butter and the freshest ingredients they can find. Executive Pastry Chef Fioravanti has an impressive pedigree, having studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and baked pastries with famous pastry chefs and for famous celebrities (including David Bowie!). He brought all that knowledge to Fiorello Dolce and ensured its success with legendary croissants, flourless chocolate cakes, and “frenangles” (a proprietary cross between a french croissant and a bagel that looks painfully good). In short, the launch of Fiorello Dolce was great; totally normal.
Then one day, when Fioravanti was working alone in the kitchen, the quiet was shattered by a voice shrieking his name. Startled, Fioravanti checked the tires of the cart he was wheeling–that shriek must have been them squealing, because there was definitely no one else around. But the tires seemed fine. It must have just been a weird fluke.
But then there was another weird fluke: a new employee–who claimed to have some psychic abilities–told him almost immediately upon their arrival that there were definitely ghosts in the shop. By now Fioravanti was beginning to become concerned, and shared his concerns with Marinello. Marinello scoffed them off, until a bunch of buckets spontaneously crashed off the shelves right in front of him. Then one morning when Fioravanti was baking blueberry muffins, he saw a “white shadowy light” blur past him out of the corner of his eye.
Over the next months came the real fun stuff. Oven doors opened by themselves. Untouched timers turned off before their time, causing batches of cookies to burn. Spatulas whispered and tinkled on their racks. A rolling rack shifted itself over a foot. Security cam footage revealed a roll of paper towels luxuriously unrolling itself in the dead of night–a feat no one could replicate even with the flow of the air conditioner.
One morning, the crew came in to find the front iPad blasting music, skipping songs after a few beats as if someone were searching for something they liked, until at last landing on “Blue Monday” by New Order and cranking the volume. Though there was no one behind the counter, security footage showed the screen lighting up and the password being typed in again and again. It only went dark with Fioravanti rushed over to turn it around.
That was it. Fiorello Dolce were totally haunted.
A calculated whisk
Despite the bizarre circumstances, business continued as usual. After all, there was nothing threatening about the disruptions–just a little startling (such as when one employee stepped into the walk-in refrigerator and jumped at a clap behind her, only to whirl and find that no one was there). But everyone was curious about what was up.
By happy circumstance, Giovanti met a ghost hunter, who then brought in a medium. They photographed orbs, found cold spots, and got repeated off-the-chart readings around the spatulas. Overall the energy they picked up was good-natured, which the staff was doubtless happy to hear. But there was something different about the alleyway immediately outside the back of the store–a sinking feeling of dread, foreboding. The medium quickly turned back inside.
Research revealed that the bakery was built on land that used to contain nothing but wetlands and run-down rowhouses–the poorest (and roughest) neighborhood in Huntington. The medium picked up one ghost telling him that his name was Eddie. Sure enough, after more research it turned out that a man named Eddie had been murdered in that very alley back in the 1970’s, which might explain the weird vibes. Fortunately, every other ghost the medium connected with seemed to have a less violent past.
It seems like Giovanti has brought in a few mediums over the years to try to figure this thing out, but the results have been no different. He even tried hanging up medicinal sage one night, to see if that would drive the spirits away. The next morning, the sage was on the ground. The ghosts were here to stay.
This might be because the team attributes many of the ghostly presences to family members who have come back to hang around and “help out.” Mediums have picked up staff’s grandparents, mothers, aunts. Giovanti has even mentioned that he recognized the face of an old landlord in one of the orb pictures–an elderly gentleman who loved the bakery and was always eager to offer tips on how things should be done.
So all in all, this is a positive haunting–spooky, but not scary (except, maybe, for that alleyway). It’s often joked that the ghosts are just there because they miss the sweet scent of baking treats.
In the meantime, the haunting press seems to be good for business; Giovanti is even planning to write a book. Fiorello Dolce was closed due to the coronavirus, but seems to have recently opened once again. I’m sure that Huntington–and all its ghosts–will be glad to have them back.
What pastry would you return to the mortal plane for? Share your favorites in the comments below.
Hey everybody. I hope that you all are doing well out there and are practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and covering your face when you go out so as to not inadvertently kill anyone. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, at the current U.S. “epicenter” in NYC, and things are getting pretty weird right now.
The news is frightening enough at the moment. So instead of digging into a pestilence monster (too real…), I wanted to share a couple of monsters I’ve come across on my wanderings through the internet that will hopefully make you chuckle. TO DEATH.
1. The Vampire Watermelon (and its nemesis, Vampire Pumpkin)
We have the Roma people to thank for this one. Basically the legend goes that if you leave watermelons or pumpkins out for 10 days under the full moon (or around Christmas? Or just leave them in a place where they are in a position to “fight one another”?), they will grow a bad temper and an insatiable thirst for blood.
Vampiric fruits look much like regular fruits, but will roll around and make growling noises (“brrrl brrrl,” to be precise). Also, they may attempt to infiltrate your house and murder you. You can protect yourself by going all metal on them and boiling them alive, then scrubbing them with a broom, and then burning that broom to ash. No word on whether you can then use the carcass to make pumpkin pie or watermelon jello shots.
Depending on how long this social distancing thing goes on, I may attempt to create my own vampiric produce on my patio next month. Perhaps I can pivot my talent for making plants dead into making them undead.
The Gulon does all of the above. It is a cryptid hailing from Scandinavia, where I can only assume it is a national treasure. A notorious glutton, the Gulon is about the size and shape of a dog, with the head and claws of a cat and the tail of a fox. Many dismiss its legend as people from the Middle Ages getting overexcited about seeing a wolverine. I myself like to think that the Gulon is real, and probably an ancestor of my cat.
3. Bakezōri, the sandals that stand up on their own
Truly, being shut in in a small apartment offers an olfactory cornucopia. Mostly the smells here have been good (like everyone else, we’ve been baking a lot of bread), but occasionally some less savory scents creep in. The Bakezōri is born of a neglected sandal–arguably the footwear (outside maybe of ballet flats) that smells the worst.
The Bakezōri is a type of Japanese Yōkai in the family of Tsukumogami–household objects that have been ignored for so long by their owners that they take on a life of their own (perhaps this is might be why Marie Kondo is so insistent about getting rid of your old crap). Basically what happens is that the much-beleaguered thong sprouts arms, legs, and an eyeball, and then runs around the house at night yelling nonsense and making mischief.
Come to think of it, this monster may also bear some relation to my cat.
That’s all I have for now. Stay safe out there, and keep others safe by going “out there” as little as possible. We’ll see you on the other side.
Really, which would win in a fight, though–a Vampire Pumpkin or a Vampire Watermelon? Perhaps I should cultivate both and set up a Produce Fight livestream so as to make a little cash on the side. Place your bets in the comments below.
The internet, as we well know, is whack. It offers an unimaginable amount of information, and also an unimaginable amount of B.S. I’m going to be straight with you from the start: the Rake is total B.S. We know where the legend came from. We’re able to track its growth. But like so many monster myths, though the Rake started out simply enough, he’s taken on a life of his own.
“Here’s what we’ve got so far: Humanoid, about six feet tall when standing, but usually crouches and walks on all fours. It has very pale skin. The face is blank. As in, no nose, no mouth. However, it has three solid green eyes, one in the middle of its forehead, and the other two on either side of its head, towards the back. Usually seen in front yards in suburban areas. Usually just watches the observer, but will stand up and attack if approached. When it attacks, a mouth opens up, as if a hinged skull that opens at the chin. Reveals many tiny, but dull teeth.”
As Rake stories developed and got passed around, the subconscious of the internet whittled him into something more elegant: a pale, hairless, naked man (sans genitals, because I guess that would be a little distracting from the terror) with pits for eyes and long, sharp fingers. Those fingers–which cut his victims open–are how the Rake got his name (alas, he is not secretly a cocky womanizer).
The Rake went from 4chan to LiveJournal and then back again, his legend taking on the form of a standard story, complete with epistemological mini-stories nested within. The story opens in the summer of 2003, with local news stations in upstate New York reporting sightings of a “strange, human-like creature” before an apparent media blackout. People involved in the sightings banned together to try to find answers. Together, they accumulated a group of documents spanning back to the 17th century that detail encounters with the Rake.
There is a suicide note from 1964, a mariner’s log from 1691, a (somewhat repetitive) translated Spanish journal entry from 1880:
“I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I see his eyes when I close mine. They are hollow. Black. They saw me and pierced me. His wet hand. I will not sleep. His voice (unintelligible text).”
The coup de grace is an account from 2006. In it, a woman describes waking up in the middle of the night. Sure that her husband has gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom, she tries to steal the sheets, only to find out that he is still next to her:
“When he turned to face me, he gasped and pulled his feet up from the end of the bed so quickly his knee almost knocked me out of the bed. He then grabbed me and said nothing.
After adjusting to the dark for a half second, I was able to see what caused the strange reaction. At the foot of the bed, sitting and facing away from us, there was what appeared to be a naked man, or a large hairless dog of some sort. Its body position was disturbing and unnatural, as if it had been hit by a car or something.”
The Rake looks at them, and then scrambles over, peering closely into the husband’s face. Neither of them dare move. Then the Rake dashes down the hall toward the childrens’ room. The woman screams and hurries to follow, but is too slow. By the time she gets there, her daughter is covered in blood, and the Rake is gone. Her husband frantically rushes their daughter to the hospital, but loses control of his car on the way and ends up in a lake, killing them both.
Obsessed over whether the Rake has visited again or not, the woman sets up a digital recorder near her bed. After weeks of nothing, she finally catches the Rake’s voice, shrill and high-pitched. With horror, she realizes that she’s heard it before, that he had said something to them that night, though she didn’t register it at the time. She can’t bring herself to listen to the recording, to find out what he might be saying now. She lives in terror of waking to find his face in hers.
There was even a detailed explanation of how the Rake reproduces, which involves french kissing, a pupua launching down the human’s throat, and a full-grown Rake bursting forth some months later (the author notes that this is “scientifically no stranger than seeing the presence of horse hair parasites living inside a praying mantis by placing it in water,” but offers no explanation of how they might have come upon this information).
“[I] woke up at 3 am to the feeling of something watching me. I felt extremely uneasy. I rolled over to look around the room and my eyes locked onto something standing beside my mom. It was extremely tall but looked as if it had a broken back and couldn’t stand up completely. It was slouched over and had extremely pale skin and bones sticking out under the skin everywhere due to how skinny it was. It had long claws hanging from both hands. It’s face was sunken in and eyes were completely black holes. A few greasy hairs were visible on its head. It had no clothes but also no genitals or nipples.
I was HORRIFIED. I rolled over and covered myself up head to toe with the cover. I refused to move or look out the rest of the night even though I was fully awake. Eventually, my mom finally woke up that morning. She immediately started complaining of her side hurting. She raised her shirt to look and found huge claw marks down her side. It was three deep wounds which were extremely inflamed and still bleeding. I felt horrible knowing that thing did that to her while I lay beside her hidden.
A couple months later I saw the creature again. Although, not as horrible as the first experience. I was woken up to the creature slouched on the floor on my side of the bed. It was watching me sleep. I covered myself up again immediately but this time got the courage to peek out and found it still looking at me. I’m not sure when it went away because I didn’t dare look again.”
“It was around 4:09 at night and I woke up from hearing scratching noises outside I was so scared but I got up and looked out the window the sun was starting to come up and birds were starting to chirp and all that. So I closed my window and pulled down the curtains. Just as I was turning around I see this naked man that was a very pale grey with huge hands and very long claws it sounded like it was weeping and then I stepped on a broken floorboard and it creeked and the thing slowly turned its head and what I saw has scarred me for life. Its eyes we’re pure white and had a bright glare to them and it’s teeth we’re very long I quickly turned around and about 5 mins of pure silence I got the guts to grab a baseball bat that was next to me and beat the crap out of it until it died but when I turned around all prepared to smack it in the head with my weapon it was gone. I was shocked and I dropped the bat and ran to my bed and buried my face into my pillow crying my eyes out because I could not believe what I just saw.”
Suddenly, the line between the fiction of the Rake and real, off-Photoshop encounters blurred. The Rake, born of 4chan, had become something bigger.
The Rake returns
So what are we to make of all of this, if these pre-4chan Rake witnesses swear up and down that their accounts are true? This is the internet, and as we know, no one ever lies on the internet.
The Rake could be explained away by science. Many accounts involve someone waking up in the middle of the night and seeing something standing over them. This might make the bulk of “real” Rake sightings easy to dismiss as colorful episodes of sleep paralysis. Factor in errant camera fluff for those non-bedtime encounters, and we’re all squared away. As I mentioned above, there is something nicely primal about the Rake. Any of us might imagine up a monster like that on our own.
Or, even more scientifically, there could really be a naked dude with eye bags, scoliosis, and acrylic nails going around to stand over people’s beds. It would be easy to confuse that dude and the Rake; anyone could be forgiven for mixing them up. Someone should really get on straightening that out. Surely it would put everyone’s mind at ease.
Who would win in a rap battle: the Rake or the dastardly rake Lord Byron? Share your opinions in the comments below.