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.
It was October 1966, around 9:45 p.m. Two boys–Martin Munov and James Yanchitis–were walking home along a chain link fence below the elevated New Jersey Turnpike. On the other side of the fence lay some shrub brush and a steep, nigh insurmountable slope up to the road. It wasn’t until they stopped to rest that Yanchitis noticed someone standing over there, staring through the links at the house opposite. The stranger’s green suit reflected subtly in the streetlight.
“He was strangest guy we’ve ever seen,” Yanchitis would later recount. “He was standing behind that fence. I don’t know how he got there. He was the biggest man I ever saw.”
Yanchitis urged Munov, whose back was to the man, to turn around and look.
“Jimmy nudged me and said, ‘Who’s that guy standing behind you?’ I looked around and there he was… behind that fence. Just standing there. He pivoted around and looked right at us… then he grinned a big old grin.”
The two boys ran like mad. Later, their accounts to both the police and to John Keel (paranormal investigator and author of “The Mothman Prophecies”) would be identical. The man on the other side of the fence was over 6’2” and broad in the chest, with a black belt, beady eyes, and a smile to make your blood run cold. The legend of the Grinning Man had begun.
A salesman sewn up
Three weeks later, on November 2, 1966, 50-year old sewing machine salesman Woodrow Derenberger was having an awful commute home from work. The evening was cold and wet, and he’d already had an incident where a machine became dislodged from the back of his truck. Now he had to drive infuriatingly slow down interstate 77 to keep from losing anything else, other cars zipping past. Imagine his frustration when something large and dark pulled up beside him, then swung ahead and cut him off.
It was not a police car, nor some douchebag in a sports car. It was not a car at all. It looked like a kerosene lamp chimney, windowless, glistening black, 30-35 feet long–long enough to block off both lanes of the highway. It was not on the road so much as it was floating above it, a good 8-10 inches off the ground. Then a door opened in the side of the thing, just like it would any other car, and a man stepped out.
The man was smiling. He looked like any other man, albeit unusually tan for that time of year. His hair was slicked back, and he sported a metallic blue suit under his dark blue overcoat. He approached the side of Derenberger’s car, grin stuck firmly in place, arms crossed with knuckles in his armpits. Then, without the man ever opening his mouth, he and Derenberger had a conversation.
“He walked to the right hand side of the truck, and he told me to roll down the window. He asked me to roll down the window on my right hand side of my truck, and I done what he asked…he asked me, he said ‘Why are you frightened?’ He said ‘Don’t be frightened, we wish you no harm’. He said ‘We mean you not harm, we wish you only happiness.’ And I told him my name, and when I told him my name he said he was called ‘Cold’.
“…He asked me what the city of Parkersburg–he pointed to the light. He didn’t point but he gave the impression that he was pointing, and he asked me what that was called and I told him it was Parkersburg, it was a city, a town. And he asked me if most all the people lived in this city or town. And I explained to him that it was a place of business, it’s where we transacted our business but the people lived in communities, outline communities, most of the people…and again he told me not to be frightened, which I was.
“I was very frightened and as far as I can understand, this was all mental, there was no spoken words from him. I knew what he was asking me but yet he stood there and his mouth did not move. He had a smile on his face, he appeared very courteous and friendly, and after I talked with him a while, he told me, he said ‘We will see you again’.”
“Well, I did believe it, but now I don’t know how to answer that honestly. Because I’m afraid he will. And I don’t want him to, but I have a feeling that he will.”
Friends for life
Cold did come back. He came to Derenberger’s house. Interacted with Derenberger’s wife. He revealed his first name was Indrid, that he was from another dimension, not unlike our own. He took Derenberger away for days at a time.
Derenberger went to reporters with his story. He gave interviews, wrote a book. The ensuing media blitz and harrassing calls eventually caused his wife to divorce him. She had said from the beginning that Cold’s agenda was an “evil” one. Derenberger lost his job, his home, his friends. Still, Derenberger continued to accept Cold’s visits. Continued to leave with him, though every time he returned he complained of debilitating migraines. This continued to his dying day in 1990, at the age of 79.
Where in the world is Indrid Cold?
So what’s been happening since 1990? The thing about Indrid Cold (and his ilk) is that they look so much like everyone else that it’s difficult to say whether any alleged sightings of him hold water. Even those that have been reported have been few and far between.
It’s a new decade, everybody! This is the time when everyone looks at how much has happened over the past few years and makes guesses about what will happen next. We live in an era of constant and dramatic change; as interesting as that can be, being stuck in such flux is not always pleasant. As my gift to you, let’s explore something that has not changed: old guilts and fears from way back in the beginning of human civilization.
Bad deaths all around
The Edimmu (or Ekimmu, but Wikipedia, Unimpeachable Source of All Knowledge, says Edimmu is the right way to go so we’re going with that) is often referred to as the oldest vampire legend in history. It was born in our first civilization–in Sumer, cerca 4000 B.C.
Between inventing the 60-minute hour and beer, ancient Sumerians worried a lot about what happened to the spirits of people whose lives ended in a less-than-ideal manner. After all, there are many ways to die poorly: if someone murders you, if you get in a freak accident, if you get lost in the desert, if you bleed out during childbirth, if you perish without ever having known love, etc. Or maybe you die in a normal way, but nobody bothers to bury you and your corpse is left out to rot. What happens then?
When fate deals out such terrible things, it is like justice has been snatched away. Indeed, that is what “Edimmu” translates to–“that which is snatched away.” And you’d better believe that someone will pay.
Of course, that someone might not be the person who wronged the angry soul–the Edimmu–in the first place. Edimmu don’t really discriminate that way. But hey! At least they’re making someone as miserable as they are.
Being more spirit-based than your traditional vampire, the Edimmu doesn’t have a real *look* in the way that a Nosferatu (or Edward Cullen) does. Some depictions cast then as winged demons, walking corpses, or shifting shadows, but more often they have no corporeal form at all. Instead, your only warning of their presence is a cold draft that raises the hair on the back of your arms. This makes the Edimmu damn hard to run away or hide from–you can’t avoid what you can’t see.
Compounding the problem is how easy it is to catch an Edimmu’s interest. You might infer from the aforementioned extensive list of bad ways to die that there would be Edimmu being created constantly. You would be correct. The odds are in no one’s favor. Even if you went about your life never killing or wronging anyone and making sure that everyone you knew was buried quite well, one day you might happen upon a corpse or ingest a little ox meat and boom! You’d be cursed with the company of an Edimmu.
Once an Ediummu is latched onto you, you’re in for a ride. Lower-key tales of Edimmu cast them as mere irritants who, banshee-like, will sit outside your house and wail when someone is about to die. Moderate-key versions describe them blowing through your house, stealing away the life force of those they pass through (especially if the victim is a child). Then there are the more intense versions of the myth, in which the Edimmu telekinetically attacks you on and off over the course of years, slowly crushing away your will to live as they give you hope that they’ve finally gone away before coming back again. Once they’ve sucked the last of your life out of you, they possess your body, and then go about doing the same thing to those you love.
So really the moment you realize that you’ve got an Edimmu on your tail, it’s best to nip that garbage in the bud.
How do you stake a ghost?
One of the reasons that we know about the Edimmu at all was that we found a spell a mother wrote in hopes of keeping the monster away from her children. When things like that failed, exorcisms were the way to go. These involved not only invoking one of the three most powerful gods of Sumerian lore, but also setting a bunch of stuff on fire. (This, as one author points out, might be the birth of our conception of how to handle modern vampires, i.e. burning them or subjecting them to the biggest fireball of all: the sun.)
Though such tactics might have been effective in individual cases, the legend of the Edimmu continued. After Sumer faded into the history, the vampire-ghost fever was picked up by the Babylonians, then the Assyrians, and then the Egyptians and beyond. It did it not even stay isolated in the Middle East–the Inuit have their own variation of the Edimmu, way over on the other side of the globe. Today, it is said (by internet sources citing nothing, but still) that the Edimmu lives on, plaguing those experiencing homelessness with disease and despair. Certainly their legend has influenced countless other ghost and vampire myths that we now take for granted.
Whether it’s our love of beer or our fear of pissing off those who have passed away, it’s nice to know that at least in some respects, humanity has never changed.
What burial rite might you be most likely to screw up and get an Edimmu on your case? Share yours in the comments below.
In the spirit of the holidays, let’s talk about a monster that can leave you looking like Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining!
Yuki Onna (which translates to “Snow Woman”) is a Japanese yokai that borders on the edge of being too popular to be featured on this blog. First written about during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573), she has survived centuries to proliferate in movies, video games, and anime, even having her own TV Tropes page. There are as many versions of her tale as there are designs of a snowflake. Most nowadays cleave to a romantic, sorrowful, un-Monster-Meet-like interpretation of her, but it was not always that way.
Different Japanese prefectures have different takes on Yuki Onna, but by and large, she was originally conceived of as either a harbinger of the changing seasons and/or a gifter of icy death.Travellers would spot something in the falling snow: a beautiful woman with translucent skin, black hair, blue lips, and turbulent, violet eyes. Leaving no tracks–sometimes having no feet at all–she would drift lightly a few inches above the snow. Though the wind might howl and the traveller’s eyelashes be crusted with ice, the woman would be wearing nothing more than a light kimono (and sometimes less than that).
If you as a traveller were exceptionally stupid, you might persue this woman, whereupon she would lead you to your icy death (pro tip: never follow supernatural beings in the wilderness; they almost always lead you to your death. Especially if they’re trying to be all seductive.). Try to ignore her, and Yuki Onna might call to you. In certain prefectures, responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine your death. In others, not responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine to your death.
Sometimes Yuki Onna would show up with a child in her arms (especially if there was one missing and their parents were out searching for them). Try to take the child, and it would become so heavy that you would be dragged down and die frozen in the snow. Refuse to take the child and you would be–have you guessed it?–shoved down a ravine to your death. Alternately, Yuki Onna might just eat you (if you looked her in her face), or suck out your vital energy (if you happened to live in a certain prefecture).
When not frightening strangers in snowy passes, Yuki Onna could be found tricking her way in (or straight up busting in) to houses to freeze everyone inside. She’d also wander through villages demanding water (give her cold water, and she would bulge to a monstrous size; hot water, and she would disappear). There are several stories of her appearing on or around the New Year, which range from simply showing up in a ghostly, frightening manner to her stealing away children en masse to play in a field.
In sum, Yuki Onna seems to have started out representing all of the cruelty of winter. It might even be said that she represented the cruelty of life, as Wikipedia puts it (with shocking poetry): “Old tales about yuki-onna are mostly stories of sorrow, and it is said that these tales started from when people who have lived gloomy lives, such as childless old couples or single men in mountain villages, would hear the sound of a blizzard knocking on their shutter door and fantasize that the thing that they longed for has come. It is said that after that, they would live in happiness with what they longed for in a fantasy as fleeting as snow.”
After the 18th century, Yuki Onna started reflecting a more romantic version of reality. Nowadays, she shows up less as a scantily clad woman who would brutally murder you and more as a scantily clad woman who maybe you could marry and be happy with for a while–at least until her identity is revealed.
One story makes her out to be a moon princess, who long ago grew bored with her pampered life and so fell with the snow to the earth. Now she can’t get back, and so appears on winter nights with the full moon, longing to go home. (This seems much more romantic than, say, the version of Yuki Onna that eats child livers.)
Another tells of tells of a man who married a beautiful woman who was pale as snow. The man loved to take long, hot baths at night, and was puzzled by his wife’s refusal to bathe as he did. Finally he badgered and cajoled her enough to try it, and when he looked in to see how she was doing, all that was left of her were a few icicle fragments in the water.
The most popular tale comes from a Westerner retelling (probably with embellishments) a story he was told while collecting Japanese ghost stories around the turn of the 20th century. The tale describes two woodcutters–one older, the other younger–who were stranded in a hut during a blizzard. The younger man woke in the dead of night to find a pale woman standing over his friend. As he watched, she sucked the life out of the older man until he was nothing but a frost-covered corpse. The woman went to do the same to the younger man, but stopped at his handsomeness. She told him that she’d let him go, but that if he ever spoke to anyone–even his own mother–of what had happened, that she would find him and kill him.
The young man recovered from the trauma of the night, never saying a word of it. He met a pretty young woman on the road one winter, and ended up marrying her. They led a happy life, having a whopping ten children. Then, one fateful night, the man was watching his wife sew in the light of a paper lantern. Something about it reminded him of his terrible vision during the blizzard all those years ago. He finally got it off his chest, telling his wife every detail. She listened patiently until he was finished, and then turned on him, lips darkening, eyes black with rage. Only then did he recognize her as the woman from the hut. Yuki Onna raged against him, stopping short of killing him only for the sake of their children. Then she vanished in a gust of snow, never to be seen again.
One interesting take involves “paradoxical disrobing”–the phenomenon where people with severe hypothermia suddenly feel very hot and start to take off their clothes. It could be that before that phenomenon was known, those that happened upon half-naked corpses in the snow drew their own conclusions about what had gone down. Other explanations include optical illusions brought on by temperature inversion, delirium from hypothermia, or just plain hyperactive imaginations during cold, dark storms.
It makes sense for us to be afraid of winter. We may have forgotten just how much sense it makes, locked up inside our cozy homes drinking beverages with enough cholesterol to kill a horse, but it does. Stories like that of Yuki Onna help us remember if not the particulars, then the emotion behind them.
Stay warm out there.
If a ghostly snow lady called to you, would you answer, or pretend to be absorbed in your phone? Share your survival plan in the comments below.
About an hour outside of Prague, alone among thick forest, swamps, and mountains, there sits a 13th-century castle atop a sheer limestone cliff. The castle Houska (Hoe-skuh) has no outward-facing fortifications, and is guarded only by a lone statue of the saint Ludmila, now weathered and half-covered with moss. Houska cannot be reached by bus, and is too remote to bike to. The only way in is by car.
Though the years have added new structures and purpose to Houska, its original, deeply odd shape remains. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and resources to erect that original structure, but when it was finished, there was little in it that made sense, and even less to encourage human habitation. Houska was not positioned along any trade route, political line, or militarily strategic position. There was no water nearby. There was no kitchen. Some even claim that many of its windows were fake–stone frames that looked pretty from the outside, but let no light within.
Most strangely of all, the castle had no fortifications of any kind. At least–it’s fortifications were not facing the outside. All instead turned within, aimed toward a chapel built over layers upon layers of heavy stone slabs.
The walls of the chapel are thick. Unusual frescos stretch along them: Saint Michael the Archangel skewers a horned demon. A left-handed centaur aims her arrow at another woman’s throat. As the sun lowers down over the mountains, light disappearing off the altar, screams can be heard echoing from under the rock.
Pit of despair
One of the great things about Houska is how far back its story goes. It could well be that humans inhabited (or avoided) its site since pre-recorded history. The stories that we can corroborate begin around AD 900, when a Slavic prince built a wooden castle there in honor of his beloved son. No sooner did people start to move in did a great crack split underneath of it, releasing unspeakable horrors that quickly left the castle abandoned and the surrounding countryside in terror.
For 300 years, giant creatures with leathery wings stalked the sky, picking off livestock and travelers that got too close to the hole. Half-human, half-beast hybrids attacked people in the woods. Crops wilted and died. Any effort to investigate or seal off the hole was met with frustration at best. It was so deep that none could see its bottom; though the villagers tried to fill it with rocks, it simply swallowed them whole.
Come the mid-1200’s, one Duke Ottokar decided that something had to be done. The Duke set up a little experiment: prisoners condemned to death would be released from their sentence if they would agree to be lowered into this pit and report back on what was down there. The first man to go was a young, eager fellow. He held tight to his rope while the crowd watched the shadows of the pit swallow him. The rope went a little further down, then a little further. Then the screaming began.
The man’s howls echoed in the hole, his rope trembling in the hands of the men desperately pulling him back up. By the time he reached the surface, it was too late. The man’s hair had gone completely white, skin withered and gray, eyes wild, speech hysterical and rambling. He blubbered about a terrible smell, screams in the dark, and then lapsed into incoherence. A few days later, he would die without offering the frightened people any more information.
Some say that the Duke repeated experiment a few more times after that, with similar results. Others say that after seeing what happened to the first guy, no other prisoner volunteered for the job. Either way, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was now: The pit was clearly a gateway to Hell. It had to be covered up.
Down the rabbit hole
The Duke set his men about the long and expensive task of saving the countryside. First the pit was covered with tons of heavy slabs. Then they built a chapel on top of that, with the hope that its symbolism and power would keep the demons permanently at bay. Around that chapel they erected a castle, all of its fortifications built inside out: it was not meant to keep invaders out, after all, but in.
It was a great effort, but not entirely a success. To this day, disturbing visions plague Houska’s surrounding hillside: A horse (or man) runs full speed, their headless stump of a neck gushing blood. A woman in white peeks out of the castle walls. A group of shackled men shuffle forward, carrying dismembered body parts and cringing against attacks from a great black dog. 19th-century poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night and not only saw a disturbing funeral procession, but also had a prophetic dream of the year 2006. It’s not exactly a walk in the park.
Add to that the strange, sometimes evil things that keep happening there. Houska has been used variously as a hunting lodge (it is filled with an insane number of deer heads), a dumping ground, and a sanitorium. During the ugly Thirty Years’ War, a sadistic Swedish officer named Oronto took up residence in the castle, hoping that its power would boost his black magic. In a last, desperate effort to stop him, a party of hunters set out to shoot him down. They finally managed to get him through a window of the castle, but as he died, he called out for his black hen–presumably in an effort to work some spell to keep himself around for a while yet. While he didn’t survive, his spirit did, and haunts the castle still.
Then there were the Nazis. Houska was one of several castles that they holed up in during the war, where they stored thousands of confiscated books. It is said that they might have conducted human experiments within the castle walls. Certainly they would have tried to plumb its depths for knowledge of the occult–one of their increasingly desperate tactics to get any edge they could. We may never know; when the Allies defeated them, they burned all records, leaving only nasty memories (and a set of bikes) behind.
Flip that castle
Has the bright light of modernity made the castle any happier of a place to be? Yes and no.
“Yes” in that there are no longer human experiments conducted there (so far as I know…). The castle is now open to the public and can be visited April through October. There are brightly lit, cheerfully decorated parts of it that would fit in in an episode of Gilmore Girls. These can be rented out for various personal, corporate, and artistic occasions–you can even have your wedding there.
“No” in that weird stuff keeps happening. Car batteries won’t start. A wine glass floated several feet into the air in the middle of a conversation. A couple that was winding down in the hunting lodge one evening heard a loud thump. Alarmed, they turned and were faced with two shadowy figures, which approached and started whispering about killing little girls.
But modern science and historical sleuthing can explain this stuff away, right? The visions could be the result of noxious gas leaking out of the crack in the limestone. The reason that Houska didn’t have the usual human accommodations or strategic positioning could be that it was built simply as an administrative building.
The Astonishing Legends podcast (besides being a great resource for those who want to dig more into Houska in general) explores the gaps where these common explanations don’t quite make sense. Why would Duke Ottokar choose to build an administrative building over a giant hole in the ground? Houska is not situated over a volcano…any noxious gas that the initial crack might have produced should have dissipated over the centuries, right? And what kind of gas would it be, exactly, that would cause everyone to have the same types of visions over the years, that wouldn’t automatically kill anyone who got close enough, and that, instead of making people tired and dull, would make them active and fearful (like the poor sap that was first lowered into the pit)?
My favorite myths are ones that can’t be fully dismissed. Houska is one of them. If nothing else, it is a bottomless pit of mystery, and will hopefully leave us guessing for years to come.
Did you know that “Houska” means “braided bread roll” in Czech? Figure out the significance of that sh*t in the comments below.
Happy (almost) Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, we’re going to cover a more traditional monster this month: a good old-fashioned baby-eating hag. Normally I shy away from doing monstrous witches (as I’ve noted on this blog before, the misogyny underlying the myths can get to be a bit much), but this particular witch is so fun that I could not pass up the opportunity.
That winter skin tone
Black Annis (also known as Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes, and Cat Anna) seems, on the surface, to be a witch as stereotypical as a pumpkin spice latte. Hailing from Leicester, England, she’s got blue skin (like a Smurf! …Or a corpse) and a taste for human flesh. But Annis is no basic witch. If you’re looking for costume inspiration for your office Halloween party, look elsewhere. The iron talons replacing Annis’s hands will be difficult to type with, and her skirt of tanned children’s hides will certainly get you in trouble with HR (not to mention how difficult it will be to find a top to pair it with; many depictions of Annis have her with no top at all, which will definitely get you in trouble with HR). She doesn’t have a tell-tale hat or broomstick that would help your office workers guess what you are, and in some descriptions has only one eye.
Even if she doesn’t inspire social acceptable costumes, Black Annis looks pretty awesome. A 19th century poem describes her thus:
“‘Tis said the soul of mortal man recoiled
To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and features livid blue
Glared in her visage, whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims close embraced…”
There is a wealth of artistic interpretations of her out there, but none with permission to share, so I’ll just link to a few of my favorites here (and here and here and here and here) for you to get a taste.
It’s what you do that defines you
As cool as Black Annis looks, for me, monsters don’t come to life just by looking scary. It’s what they do. Here is where Annis gets really fun. Like any good bogeyman, she steals, skins, drinks the blood of, and eats children who wander too far into the woods. But that’s just her baseline. Annis has also been known to get creative, climbing up into trees so that she can jump down on unsuspecting passersby. If not enough people come to the woods, she comes into town. The people of 18th-century Leicester had to build their houses with as few and as narrow of windows as possible, fearing that Annis would wriggle her long, thin arms through any apertures and dig her talons into their children.
If she can’t get human flesh, Annis will rip apart farm animals. She is also a major-league teeth grinder, loud enough that if you are lucky, you can hear her coming and have a few precious moments to hide. Piss her off, and her howls will echo for miles.
There is an account from 1942 that describes three children running into Black Annis around Christmas time. Just as the sun set, their stepmother sent them into the forest to collect wood. They begged her not to make them go, knowing that their only protection from Annis was daylight (which turns her to stone). But the stepmother insisted, and so into the dark they went. A snuffling noise caught their attention, and, unable to locate its source, they looked through their witch stone to see what it was. Through the hole, they saw Annis’s blue, hideous face leering at them. Screaming, the children dropped their sticks and fled. In her rush to give chase, Annis bloodied her shins on the sticks, and paused to tend to her wounds. Even though that gave the children a head start, and even though they ran with everything they had, Annis still caught them at their cottage door.
That might have been the end of the them, if it had not been for their father. Hearing their screams, he came out and buried an ax in Annis’s face. Still she did not fall, screaming “BLOOD! BLOOD!” as she stumbled in the direction of her cave. Then the Christmas bells started to toll, and, at long last, she fell down dead.
But apparently not dead-dead, because stories about her persist.
Back in her heyday, Annis lived in a cave she dug with her own talons, decorated with (you guessed it!) human skin. 19th-century eyewitnesses described “Black Annis’s Bower” as 4-5 feet wide and 7-8 feet long, having a “ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side.” Nowadays, the cave is filled in with earth, and a housing estate sits on the site where Annis once sat sucking on her bones. But it’s said that a tunnel once connected that cave with Leicester Castle, and that Annis haunts the area still.
Where did Annis come from? Some say that she might be inspired by a nun (who really seemed to be an okay person, so idk) that took care of a leper colony in the late medieval period. Others think that maybe Annis was born of a cultural memory of real child sacrifices to an ancient goddess (!). Really, Annis could be based on any number of goddesses or mythical figures (including Hel, daughter of Loki and some time goddess of the underworld).
Regardless of who thought her up, it’s hard to argue with Black Annis’s efficacy as a bogeyman.This Halloween, let’s honor her by growing our nails out, getting a little crazy with that turquoise eye shadow, and seeing just how deep we can wedge our arm into the couch to retrieve that long-lost, scrumdiddlyumptious Cheeze-It.
Happy Halloween, everybody.
What brand of umbrella would be best to shield oneself against a full-grown witch dropping out of a tree? Share your recommendations in the comments below.