Epistolary horror: Ghosts of Ancient Rome

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

Very superstitious 

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

Roman colosseum at night

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

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

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

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

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

Story 1: Pretty Little Truths 

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

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

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

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

And then there is the next one. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

athenodorus and the ghost
Seriously, brah?

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

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

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

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

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

Story 3: DIY Haircuts

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

cut hair
Poor bastard.

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

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

Pliny interprets the event in hindsight:

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

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

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

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

I’ll close things off as Pliny does:

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


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

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

Not someone to look up to: Mikoshi-nyūdō

This will by Monster Meet’s first post on a solidly Japanese monster, and I have to say: I have no idea how I haven’t written about one until now.  I love old Japanese monster mythology for the same reason that I love old Fae mythology: it is both magical and deeply creepy, and makes (to me) an unnerving intuitive sense.  

Take the name of this monster for example: mikoshi-nyūdō. Nyūdō (at least according to Wikipedia–if I have any readers fluent in Japanese, please help me out) translates to priest–specifically, a tonsured (read: the fancy haircut with the bald spot on top) Buddhist priest. Mikoshi means anticipation, expectation, and “looking over the top (of a fence).”

Is your skin prickling yet?

When met on a dark road (or a bridge or intersection), the mikoshi-nyūdō will at first appear to be a harmless priest or monk. If you’re lucky, you might get a couple of warning signs–the “wara wara” sound of whistling bamboo, the presence of a third eye, or sudden sprouting of hair.

mikoshi-nyūdō 1776
The priest’s expression may also be somewhat of a giveaway.

After that, there a set number of ways that the situation can play out. Almost none of them are good for you.

Scenario 1: The signature move

As you come closer to the mikoshi-nyūdō, his neck will stretch so that he reaches towering heights as fast as you can look up to watch him. Typically this will result in you (the victim) craning your own neck or falling back in shock, whereupon the mikoshi-nyūdō will lunge forward and rip out your exposed throat.

Congratulations! You have just become a stereotypical mikoshi-nyūdō victim.

Scenario 2: The staring contest

Say that you’re a more aggressive type (or are like me and would stupidly ooh and aah at the presence of a supernatural creature), and just stare at the mikoshi-nyūdō head-on.  Unfortunately for you, the mikoshi-nyūdō is much like a Lovecraftian Old One: You can’t look at him for any extended period without being struck dead with a fear. So whether you try to follow his towering eyes or just gape at his skeletal chest, you’re still lunch.

Scenario 3: Fly, you fools

“I’ve got the bamboo right here.”

Okay, so you can’t really look at the mikoshi-nyūdō without dying. Wouldn’t it make sense to say, walk around him? Pretend like he’s not there? Wrong again. The mikoshi-nyūdō will not like being ignored, and will run you through with a bamboo spear (or two, or several), and then maybe crush you into a pulp for good measure.

Whether you determine that that is better or worse than getting your throat ripped out is a personal choice.

Scenario 4: The attempt to GTFO

See the results of scenario 3.

Scenario 5: Grovelling

There’s a story about a merchant who was travelling late one night and suddenly felt unwell. He got off his horse to take a break, and then looked up and saw a figure standing a little way down the road. It was almost 13 feet tall, and its eyes shone like mirrors. The merchant hit the ground, trembling in fear, and the thing ran at him, jumped over him, and disappeared.

Badly shaken, the merchant made it to a nearby house and asked if there were strange things or ghosts around those parts.The family replied, “what, like a mikoshi-nyūdō?”

The merchant made it to his destination, but lost all appetite and fell ill with a fever. He died 13 days after the encounter.

So no, grovelling doesn’t work, either.

Scenario 6: Calling the bluff (or, the only thing that might actually work)

Mikoshi-nyūdō with cigarette
“Womp womp.”

The only real way to survive a mikoshi-nyūdō encounter is by calling the monster out. If you encounter a priest late at night and his neck starts to grow, look down, not up, and tell him “You lost! I anticipated your trick!” This is supposed to make the mikoshi-nyūdō so furious that he vanishes.

Other methods of pissing him off so much that he goes away include smoking tobacco (to show how not intimidated you are) and calculating its height by a margin (say, your thumb) before he can try to bamboozle you.

In conclusion…

What have we learned today? Meeting a mikoshi-nyūdō in the wild is not recommended. All in all, the best policy seems to be to cover and just yell “you lost!” at any priestly passerby.

Also maybe turtlenecks. The jury’s still out.

Happy new year! My resolution is to do more neck stretches. Share yours in the comments below.

Come here, you: Huggin’ Molly

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers (and to anyone else who enjoys eating a lot and being appreciative generally)! For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time when we visit family and reminisce about decades past. Sometimes we even become something of the selves that we were in those years: Siblings rib on each other; younger generations roll their eyes at old-timer’s antics; and parents lecture their children about the dangers of the world, especially after dark.

As the nights get longer and colder, there’s a lot of dark to go around. This full moon, we’re going to visit a monster that is just as concerned with keeping you safe as the most paranoid of parents.

Welcome to Abbeville, land of free hugs

creepy street night
I.e. if the street looks something like this, hurry home.

Abbeville is a town in southeastern Alabama that’s been around for almost 200 years. For at least half of those, parents there have been warning their children that after sunset–especially on those nights that are the blackest and most quiet–it is not advisable to be caught out of home. The familiar warning carries a special weight in Abbeville: There, anyone wandering the streets after dark is liable to get a visit from Huggin’ Molly.

The stories about Huggin’ Molly comprise a fairly transparent effort to get children to behave. Still, I’ll be damned if they aren’t effective. Molly is said to tower in the shadows, almost seven feet tall, wide as a door, and dressed completely in black (either a shroud, a cloak, or a dress and wide-brimmed hat, depending on who you ask). She moves quickly, often too quickly for anyone to escape. And if she catches you–when she catches you–you learn how Huggin’ Molly got her name: She wraps her arms tight around you, presses herself close, opens her mouth wide next to your ear, and screams.

Herding children since the late 1800’s

When discussing Huggin’ Molly, many cite the story of Mack Gregory, an Abeville native who had a run-in with the monster when he was a teenager in the 1920’s. Mack worked for a grocery store at the time, and had just finished his final delivery as it was getting dark.  He was walking home when he sensed someone behind him. He turned and made out a figure following in the shadows: very tall, very wide, all dressed in black.

Mack walked faster, and the figure increased their pace to match. He slowed, and the figure, coy, slowed too. Knowing that he was unlikely to be able to outrun Molly entirely, Mack hurried at a jog until getting in sight of his front door, and then sprinted with all his might to get inside, slamming the door behind him.

When he looked back out again, Molly was gone. Her message, however, stuck around: From that point on, Mack refused to do another night delivery.

Free hugs sign
Well, I’m sold.

A similar story comes from the mother of another teenager who was out late. A sixth sense told her that he might be in danger, and she was compelled to run out to the porch. There, in the dim light of the night, she saw him hurrying up the way, a dark figure coming up fast on his heels. She screamed at her son to run, and held the door open until he could rush into the safety of the house.

In both cases, although the child got away, Molly still achieved her goal: She got their butts inside. Her legend was powerful enough to motivate not only the kids who actually saw her, but any who heard their stories.

Will the real Huggin’ Molly please stand up?

I love the Huggin’ Molly not only because she is odd and profoundly creepy, but also because at least at one time, she appears to have been based in reality.

Some say that Molly was never a ghost (contradicting what I had initially assumed), but a human with a supernatural talent for making people poop their pants. The original Molly might have been a mother distraught from the death of her only child, seeking comfort by forcing her love on other children. Another theory is that (especially given her size) she might actually have been a “he”–some grown man with an unusual interest in public safety, a cruel sense of humor, or both.


There are at least three situations in which Molly was definitely a human. The first involves a disgruntled professor from the Southern Alabama Agricultural College, which used to be local to Abbeville. Students from out of town liked to go out and visit friends at night, roaming the streets and generally causing a ruckus. The professor hated that. He donned the Molly disguise to scare them back to their beds. It is quite possible that he was the original Molly, and the legend simply outgrew him.

Then there were the copycats. In Baton Rouge, a man capitalized on his Molly costume to chase after pretty young women and girls. In Headland (a couple of towns over from Abbeville), a Huggin’ Molly impersonator caused such a stir that the editor of the local newspaper had to post a strongly worded warning:

“Some unprincipled person is parading the streets of Headland at all hours of the night dressed as a ‘Woman in Black.’ It is frightening the women and children and causing our large number of dogs to be kicking up a racket at most any time of the night. I have been requested to notify the person or ‘Thing’ that it will be shot on sight by a certain husband and father whose wife and children were frightened out of their wits the other night. Somebody is likely to get ‘hurted’ if they don’t learn to behave themselves.”

No word on whether the announcement had any sort of effect.

Huggin’ Molly today

There are many who still remember the tales of Huggin’ Molly that they heard as kids–some who even might tell the same stories to their kids now.  Either way, her legend is still going strong.

The last time that Molly was seen (that I have found recorded) was in 2010 during the annual Yatta Abba Day, a celebration of the Abbeville’s heritage. A local teacher was leading a tour through the cemetery when a dark figure appeared between the headstones and stormed away, scaring the living daylights out of everyone present. It is unclear if this was just a publicity stunt; if it wasn’t, at least no one got hugged.

Molly’s legend doesn’t just survive through stories and sightings. One Abbeville resident has capitalized on her popularity to build a 50’s diner-style restaurant called “Huggin’ Molly’s.” Themed menu items feature “Molly’s Fingers” and “Come back sauce.” As one Youtube video says, it is “sure to give you goosebumps and leave your stomach screaming for more!”

If I am ever in that area, I am going out of my way to visit.

Do you enjoy hugs? What is the worst hug you have ever experienced? Share your horror stories in the comments below.

Image credits: Thank you to yoyoj3d1 on Flickr for the free hugs photo, Phillip Mullen on Pexel for the creepy street shot, and Archie Binamira (also on Pexel) for the ghost lady!

Code brown: the Lady of Raynham Hall

When I was about 5 years old, my family squeezed into a minivan and took a trip through the English countryside. I have a lot of scattered memories from that vacation, among them mist, cobblestones, and seeing this picture on the back of some tourism brochure and being scared sh*tless by it.


I never knew the story behind the photo–to be honest, had forgotten about it entirely–I until this week, when happened upon it again by chance. I knew then that I was fated to write this blog post.

The photo’s subject is a spirit called the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, so named for her customary 18th-century brown brocade dress. It’s not surprising that I stumbled across her (I’m embarrassed I haven’t covered her already); her photo is among the most famous paranormal images in the world.  

Dorothy in life.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our most fearsome lady is reported to be Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726), sister of the first Prime Minister of England and 13th child of a Whig member of Parliament. Dorothy fell madly love with one Lord Charles Townshend, who loved her in return. But when Dorothy asked her father for permission to wed, he refused, fearing that people would assume he had arranged the marriage for his own monetary gain. So Lord Townshend went off to marry someone else, leaving Dorothy alone.

Lord Wharton
The notorious rake, apparently.

Enter Lord Thomas Wharton, a politician and rake “void of moral or religious principles.” It’s unclear if Dorothy actually had an affair with Wharton, or if their relationship was nothing more than a mild flirtation. It’s possible that she went for it–after all, she’d lost the man she loved and Wharton was a smart, charming dude willing to comfort her. But Wharton was married and kind of a douchebag, and theirs could not have been a long-term thing.

Then Lord Townshend’s wife died, and suddenly he was available again. He hadn’t heard about the business with Wharton, and asked Dorothy to marry him anew. Dorothy’s father was no longer around to get in the way, and she gladly accepted.

Now, I feel obligated to mention that contemporary sources–as well as recent documents uncovered by the descendents of the Townshends–indicate that the two’s 13 years of marriage were happy and normal. But if crime television has taught us anything, it’s that a cheerful facades can hide terrible secrets. According to legend, the Townshends had terrible secrets.

Lord Townshend, love of Dorothy’s life, was none too happy when he finally discovered that she’d hooked up with Wharty-poo (never mind that he himself had abandoned her to bang another woman). Some versions of the story go that she was still hooking up after she and Townshend had married, which would have been a bold move, considering her husband’s violent temper. However it went, Townshend took his revenge by locking Dorothy away, refusing to let her even see her children.

Eventually, she died. Officially, the cause was smallpox. Unofficially, people wondered if Townshend hadn’t pushed her down the stairs, or worse, if the funeral was a sham and he wanted her to die alone, shut up in Raynham Hall. Either way, no one would ever see Dorothy alive again.

Raynham Hall.

About a century later, one of Townshend’s descendants held a Christmas party at Dorothy’s old estate. As they headed to bed, two guests were surprised to see a woman standing at the end of the hall, wearing a very dated brown brocade dress. Before they could approach her, she faded out of sight.

They might have assumed that they had been seeing things. But then, the next day, one of them ran into the woman again, this time face-to-face. Her pale skin all but glowed in the dark, and her eyes had been replaced by dark, gaping holes.

When this story came out, several servants quit and abandoned the premises. The legend of the Brown Lady had begun.

There were, of course, detractors. One was author Frederick Marryat, who decided to stay in the haunted section of Raynham Hall to prove how bunk the ghost stories were. Here’s his daughter’s account of how that went:

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.

The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses. My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.

I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham.”


And so it went. King George himself visited the property at one point, and woke up to find the lady standing over his bed, hair disheveled, eyes wild. He fled immediately, swearing to “not spend another hour in the accursed house, for tonight I have seen that which I hope to god I never see again.”

Now we come to the famous photograph. In September 1936,  London-based photographer Captain Hubert A. Provand visited Raynham Hall along with his assistant Indre Shira with the aim of capturing property photos for Country Life magazine. According to their account, they were setting up a photo of the stairway, Provand with his head under the camera’s fabric, when Shira spotted a vapoury form coming at them down the stairs. He cried at Provand to take the shot. The photo that resulted is the one that the world wonders at today.

Since then, the Lady has not been seen much. Doubt is back in style. People maintain that the Country Life photograph could be easily faked–that there is damning evidence of double exposure and maybe even prop placement with a Madonna statue. I could also point out that Marryat’s story was doubtless exaggerated–not only did Marryat write fiction himself, but his daughter (who wrote the passage I quoted above, which is often quoted by people telling the story of the Lady) also wrote sensational novels, in addition to being an ardent Spiritualist. Between the two of them, it would be hard not to embellish.

Still, Dorothy Walpole’s legend has a nice ring to it, and has survived the better part of 300 years. The current owner of Raynham does not believe the photo was a fake. When asked about his infamous relative, he simply replied: “She isn’t there to haunt the house but she is still there, I know she’s there and I’m glad she’s around.”

What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever taken a photo of? Share your story in the comments below.

All images–except that the candle–were pulled from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain. The candle photo is by Paolo Costa Baldi [CC BY-SA 3.0], also from Wikimedia Commons

You Used to Beat Me with our House Phone: The Haunting of 57 West 57th Street

Ah, New York. There’s so much history here, and so much madness. In the case of the penthouse at 57 west 57th street, that madness left an impression.

57 West 57th street began its life as a Medical Arts Building in the late 1920’s, and originally wasn’t supposed to lease apartments at all. Devoted mostly to private practitioners, one of the building’s most prominent features was an entire floor dedicated to Doctor Browning’s Sanitarium. Less than three months after said floor opened, 27-year-old Esther Glasser evaded the nurses and her sister to leap out the 14th-story window. A cab driver below witnessed her body explode against the sidewalk; the event likely didn’t get the building very good press. Still, things continued well enough until Edna Crawford arrived.

Born in Kansas City, Edna had moved to New York with the hope of finding a wealthy husband. Albert Champion, who had rapidly come into money after inventing the spark plug, seemed to fit the bill–never mind that he was already married and eleven years her senior. Albert took one look at beautiful Edna and saw no reason to argue. He divorced his long-suffering wife (she had once been his childhood sweetheart, and had lately sued him for “extreme cruelty,” citing his numerous affairs) and married Edna instead.

A photo of the unfortunate Albert, courtesy of the Agence de presse Meurisse at Wikimedia Commons

Any happiness in their marriage didn’t last. Albert was jealous and possessive; he lavished Edna with gifts but refused to give her her own spending money. On a trip to Paris, Edna found some relief in Charles Brazelle, who was as taken with Edna’s money as Edna had been with Albert’s. Albert discovered their affair and confronted them. He threatened to leave Edna penniless, and Charles punched him so hard that Albert died a few hours later, alone in his hotel room. Edna and Charles claimed he died of a weak heart. The police didn’t argue, and Edna left Paris $12 million richer from her late husband’s will.

Charles, who was technically still married; (no word on what his wife thought of all of this) accompanied Edna back to New York, and started pestering her immediately for a modern penthouse of their own. That’s when they stumbled upon the “housekeeping apartments” on the 17th and 18th floors of the 57th street Medical Arts Building. The apartments were not for rent, so Edna bought the whole building.

Edna and Charles renovated the 17th and 18th* floors into an apartment for each of them, with a secret staircase between the two. They decorated as opulently as possible: gold and silver walls, marble mantels, stained glass windows, fountains, exotic plants, etc. Edna took $30,000 worth of Russian clerical vestments and made them into a canopy for her bed, and then commissioned a 40-foot mural of her and Charles as central figures in a Venetian carnival, herself wearing nothing but a mask and high heels. Meanwhile, Charles started a club in the basement of the building and began to gleefully collect rent.

Shockingly, this union based on violence and greed didn’t last. Charles turned out to be even worse than Albert. He hired French staff to monitor Edna’s movements, attempting to confine her to her apartment. The couple had a lot of drunk fights, some of them violent. Worried for her safety, Edna’s family hired her some bodyguards. Charles countered by using his master key to sneak through the building’s offices, hunting Edna while avoiding confrontation. Sometimes he would disappear in the building for days at a time; no one could find him, but they could feel him watching.

At last there came the night when Charles attacked. Edna, drunk and on drugs, failed to fight him off, and he beat her to death with a telephone. Her bodyguards (who apparently weren’t competent enough to stop him from killing her) tossed Charles out the window, and he slammed onto the terrace below, dying not long after.

An example of a Venetian carnival painting that Edna and Charles might have inserted themselves into. It’s titled Scene de carnaval, ou Le Menuet by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It took the building a few years to rent out the penthouse after that. Once they found someone, however, it quickly became apparent that it would be hard to keep the rooms occupied.

Carlton Aslop, a well-respected socialite (and friend of Judy Garland), was the first to finally move in, bringing his new wife and four Great Danes along with him. They redecorated, settled in, and tried to relax. This proved difficult, as the Danes began to suffer from nervous breakdowns, staring at odd spaces in the room or at the walls with their ears flat and their eyes wide. Both Carlton and his wife heard the clicking of high heels and muffled arguing when they should have been alone. Mrs. Aslop began to behave oddly, and within a year fled the building–and her husband–without a backward glance.

Depressed, Carlton tried to throw parties to cheer himself up, but the apartment frightened his guests as badly as it had his wife and pets. They would come back from using the bathroom upstairs white-faced and shaking, unable to articulate what they had seen. One was followed by something on the stairs–she demanded to know who was responsible for the practical joke, but no one at the party owned up to it. Carlton at last had his own nervous breakdown and committed himself to the sanitarium downstairs. Once he got out, he never came back to the apartment again.

In 2011, the company fordProject bought the space* and opened an art gallery there. The New York Times reported that their first exhibition was called “When the Fairytale Never Ends,” which the curator described as an “an artificial paradise” with a dark side. The reporter noted that the gallery did not really feel like a gallery, with the odd shapes of the walls obstructing sightlines and the video viewing room upstairs feeling rather “claustrophobic.”

From what I can tell, the gallery might have continued for some time after that, but it’s no longer clear if it still exists. The 57 West 57th street website makes it look like the floors are available to rent, so if you have a lot of money and and balls, you might be able to go up there and find out if the apartments are really haunted yourself. For the rest of us, there are a number of dental and dermatologist offices on the lower floors for a lower-budget, health-conscious supernatural tourism.

Would you be interested in living at 57 West 57th street? Even with a broker’s fee? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*In researching this post, I found some conflicting reports on whether the apartments were on the 17th and 18th floors or the 18th and 19th. The New York Times seems to think it was the latter, but the Daytonian in Manhattan blog (which seems to have done marvelous research into it) claims it was the former. Either way, I’m not sure I’d want to hang out anywhere around that part of the building.

Spring-heeled Jack: An Energetic Victorian Nightmare

Eighteen-year-old Jane Aslop did not want to go outside. It was dark, cold, and too late at night for any ordinary visitor, but the ring at the gate and her curious family compelled her to investigate. As she crossed the yard, she picked out a cloaked figure hunched just beyond the wall.

“Hello?” Jane asked. “Can I help you?”

“I am a policeman,” the figure snapped. “Quick, bring a light! We’ve caught Spring-heeled Jack!”

Jane knew that name, and trembled as she ran to fetch the officer a candle. He snatched it from her, pulling her arm. Then, instead of turning away, threw back his hood and held the light to his face.

Jane screamed. The man was not an officer, but a hideously ugly devil, with bulging eyes and a strange helmet. He grabbed her face and neck with metal talons, pulling her towards his chest, and then opened his mouth and vomited blue fire.

Jane screamed again, and, struggling, managed to break away and run back to the house. The thing caught her at the doorstep, pinning her down and scratching her, ripping out chunks of her hair. Her sisters, hearing her cries, came and managed with difficulty to pull her away. They stumbled back inside as a group, slamming the door her attacker’s face. The fiend did not stop, but pounded at the door.

Afraid for their lives, the family rushed upstairs and hung out the windows, screaming for the police. Only then did the devil laugh, turn, and vanish back into the dark. Jane collapsed against the door and sobbed with shock.

Spring-heeled Jack had come again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though he might be familiar to British audiences (as well as fans of the show Luther, as I learned after writing this article), Spring-heeled Jack is, at least to me, new news. Most accounts put him in and around London from about 1837 through ‘67, though there have been sightings of him as late as the 1930’s. Miss Aslop’s was one of the first–and biggest–cases that brought real attention to his name. Jack was said to be a tall creature (with some reports putting him at ten feet), often dressed in a light-colored suit or oilskin and a dark cloak. He had talons in place of fingers, bulging eyes, and a strange lamp held to his chest. Most important of all, Spring-heeled Jack was said to be able to bound fifteen to twenty feet in the air, which he often did to attack his victim or escape the police. He was impervious to bullets. More than once he breathed fire.

Jack was fond of leaping through the night to terrorize people on the street–especially women walking alone–and, when that didn’t entertain him enough, attacked people at their own homes, playing games where he rang the bell and waited to reveal himself as a monster. He sexually assaulted, scratched, slapped, and beat people, tore chunks of hair from their head (as mentioned in the Aslop case), and caused carriages to crash by jumping suddenly into the middle of the road. People were driven into fits of fear at the sight of him, and did not recover for days. Many efforts were made to apprehend him, but none were successful–scapegoat after scapegoat passed before the local judges, but even when a few men were put away, the attacks continued.

As time passed, the monster morphed: a flame-spitting demon became a transparent ghost, a poltergeist, or just a good, old-fashioned assailant. Toward the end of his heyday, Jack took to torturing a group of sentries, sneaking up during the night watch to slip a cold, clammy hand over one of their faces, or slap them, hard, before laughing and bounding away again. Those in charge of the station issued threats, but to no avail–Jack continued to torture them, even giving one guard two black eyes. The attacks only stopped when the guards started to carry guns with live ammunition with them during their shifts at night.

And there was the curious thing–the thing that has led many to believe that Jack might not have so been supernatural after all. He seemed to respond to violent defense, even as people claimed he was impervious to their weapons. There were those that whispered, too, of a wager between a handful of young aristocrats to scare the public–a wager that got out of hand. Perhaps Jack was human, after all.

But if that were the case, not all of his appearances could have featured the same person. Fire breathing alone, for example, is a very particular skill. The money and time one would have to have to buy and craft so convincing a costume limits the candidates who might have pulled it off, as well–never mind the time it could take to do the pranks themselves, and in varying parts of the country. Even if the game was solely that of those aristocrats, and if two or three of them spread out to do it, they surely would have aged over the thirty years that Jack reined, which would make his exploits rather difficult at the end.

There remains also the issue of the jumping–even an Olympian champion might struggle to make the types of bounds ascribed to our bogeyman. Though we cannot underestimate the power of public imagination, the original claims must have come from somewhere. In his comprehensive and well-researched paper on Jack and his legacy, historian Mike Dash discusses the possibility of a special type of shoe that might assist such dramatic leaps, but ultimately dismisses it as an invention as likely to be dangerous to the wearer as to his victim, especially on as varied terrain as that of London and the English countryside. So if it wasn’t a shoe, and the accused aristocrats weren’t all better than Olympians, how do we have accounts of Jack bounding over carriages, or onto buildings?

Even if we ignore the issue of the jumping, and how particular a person would have to be to able to convincingly pull off Jack’s antics, the fact remains that, if we accept that he is human, more than one person must have done it. And that brings us to the true horror of the story. We know for certain that the original Sping-heeled Jack spawned dozens of copycat criminals who sought to hide their rape, burglary, and murders under his supernatural guise. Add the possibility of several people acting as the original Jack himself, and we have an enormous number of brutalities committed under his name.

Perhaps it does not matter so much whether or not Jack himself was real, if the horrors he inspired were.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Have an excellent full moon my friends, and a better Thanksgiving.

If one can jump for joy, can they also jump for horror? Perhaps Jack was merely trying out a new aerobic routine? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Clean-up on Aisle 15: The Haunting of Toys ‘R Us Sunnyvale

There is nothing more banal than a chain store. But one store in Sunnyvale, CA is not quite as *soulless* as the others: the East El Camino Real Toys R’ Us.

*Not actual Sunnyvale Toy’s R Us due to licensing issues, but in the same spirit! Photo credit to Flickr user Nicholas Eckhart.

By all accounts, the spot has been haunted for some time, but no one really investigated it until around 1978, eight years after the store opened and ninety-four after the alleged haunter’s death. Local writer Antoinette May began to document complaints from employees and customers alike: cold spots, toys jumping off the shelves, weird voices calling people’s names, an unseen hand stroking their hair. Aisle 15C appeared to be a hot spot for the phenomena: several people reported the scent of fresh flowers there at odd hours, overpowering  the plastic and rubber of new toys. Dolls that shouldn’t have been able to talk began to. Lights snapped back on moments after they were shut down; women were frightened out of going to the bathroom alone by water suddenly bursting out of the  faucets and the feeling of someone standing there, watching them.

One night, very late, an employee locked up the building, only to jump at a loud, insistent banging from the opposite side of the door. Assuming he had inadvertently trapped someone inside, the man unlocked and reopened the door, but there was no one there. Unnerved, he  locked everything back up and turned to go to his car, but the banging started again, just at his back. This cycle was to repeat a few more times before the employee finally gave up, ran to his car, and sped home.

All this mayhem attracted the attention of the media, as well as of media celebrities–namely, the infamous Sylvia Browne.  Bowling over teenagers and other, lesser known supernatural enthusiasts, this self-proclaimed psychic decided to hold her own seance in aisle 15. She brought with her several employees, a camera crew, and photographers armed with two 35mm cameras: one high-speed, and one infrared. Browne had all the lights turned off save for the one directly over them, way down at the end of the aisle. She sat everyone down, took a beat, and then began to commune with the Toys ‘R Us  spirit world

Up to this point, everyone had assumed that the ghost was that of John Murphy, original owner of the ranch the store was built over. Instead, Browne directed herself toward a spot just beyond the group and described a tall, lanky man in his early thirties–much younger than Murphy should have been. No one outside of Browne could see anything, but some reported hearing or feeling a buzzing in the silences after the medium spoke. The ghost, she reported, was a man named Johnny Johnson.

Johnny (or John, or Yon, or Johan) ostensibly informed Ms. Browne that he had been a preacher and ranch hand in the 1800’s. He joked that she had better move before her feet got wet–a cryptic remark until later research revealed that Browne had been standing in a spot where there used to be a well. Browne discussed Johnny’s life with him–how he had been desperately in love with his employer’s daughter, Elizabeth, and how Elizabeth had left to marry a wealthy lawyer on the east coast. Johnny was still waiting for her to come back. Browne tried to get him to cross over to the other side, but he refused.

Meanwhile, both cameras’ shutters snapped like popcorn. When the film was developed, the regular, high-speed roll would show nothing but Browne and an uncomfortable circle of employees at the end of a dark aisle. But the infrared showed an extra man there, indistinct, leaning against a shelf with his hands folded before him. He was tall, young, and lanky, and stood not two feet away from the farthest employee.

Who was this strange, mournful figure who would sigh “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away…” over a toy store intercom some hundred years after his death? Paranormal researchers scrambled to find out. In the end, they uncovered the tale of a preacher suffering from encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), who after beginning to work on the ranch slowly lost his mind. In his compromised mental state, a day of chopping wood became Johnny’s nightmare when he slipped and buried the ax in his own leg. Alone in the woods, Johnson screamed and bled to death before anyone could find him. According to Sylvia Browne, he has never come to terms with the fact that he’s dead, and you can’t blame him. Neither does he seem inclined to move forward.

Now, this is all a wonderful, terrible story, but we cannot avoid the fact that Toys ‘R Us is a business, and because of Johnny, business is booming. The manager admitted (at least in the mid-nineties) that the ghost sightings brought about consistent boosts in sales, so it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t all some highly finessed–if desperate–marketing ploy. If it is, you almost can’t even be angry. In the spirit of marketing, I will leave you today with the wisdom of Google reviews: 

We’ll see you on the 17th.

What are your feelings about chain stores and ghosts? Do paranormal encounters improve your shopping experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Hell Gate

I’ve never slept well with open doors. As a child, I’d see the light flickering through the crack and imagine it was an otherworldly train, drifting through the dark to steal children who hadn’t properly fallen asleep. It would squeeze down the hall: a luminous blue fog shaped into a car, blank faces pressed against its windows, hands reaching from the gaps to pull any errant child aboard. I’d close my eyes and lay very still, light dancing behind my eyelids, and pray the conductor would pass over me.

I haven’t seen that train for years, but to find it again, I needn’t look far.

By Friedo at English Wikipedia

Finished in 1916, Hell Gate Bridge is a monster made of more steel than the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges combined. In spite of a mid-90’s effort to repaint it, it’s once-violent red has faded to a ghostly pink, giving it a splotchy, desolate appearance. Two stone towers squat at either end, arms and eyes of a structure built so precisely that when the final section was lifted into place, it only had to be adjusted by half an inch.

Since its inception, Hell Gate has been used exclusively for railroad traffic, and today is owned and operated primarily by Amtrak, though it supports some other passenger and freight trains. Its path stretches between Astoria and Randalls and Wards islands, which at the time of its construction housed a correctional facility and mental institution, respectively. The original lattice design of the bridge had to be altered, in fact, to soothe worries that the asylum patients might climb up it and escape. At 1,017 feet, Hell Gate was hailed as the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 1932, when Australia, inspired by Hell Gate’s grandeur, built the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was not the last time Hell Gate would impress.

Even before the bridge was constructed, Hell Gate pass–site of the battling currents of the East, Hudson, and Harlem rivers–was infamously unsafe. Many ships opted to avoid it altogether. In the fall of 1780, the strait swallowed the motherlode of ships–the British man-of-war Hussar–dragging 140 of its crew and its $800 million worth of treasure* down into the silt. The wreckage has never been completely recovered**. Word has it also that when the tide was low, the British would chain American captives to a rock wall in the Hell Gate basin. Then, as the tide time came in, they’d sit in their boats at watch the water rise, relishing the screams of the drowning men. Later, lighthouse keepers claimed that these screams never really stopped, and could be heard echoing through the dark some one hundred years after the river ran over the rebels’ heads. Naturally, the strait continued to be a magnet for death even after the bridge was put in, attracting suicides and Mafia body drops. Once Hell Gate took them, the victims might never be found.

By squirrel83 at Flickr.
By squirrel83 at Flickr.

By the time the 70’s rolled around, the tracks were so seldom used and the bridge had fallen into such disrepair that it’s no wonder its reputation snowballed like it did. Teenagers whispered of a pedophiliac rapist living at the base in Queens–a vagrant that would pull children in to do hideous things to them before murdering (and, according to some, eating) them. The story goes that by the time the police finally went down there, all they found was a room full of photographs of the psychopath’s crime, and a horrible, pervasive stench.

After its new coat of paint in 90’s, Hell Gate was briefly able to pull itself out of the mud. Except that the color faded even as the painters put it on. Except that people started to climb up to explore the tracks late at night, and wonder about how many had died there. Sometimes, stumbling over the black rails, they would see lights. The lights would wax, consolidate into one or two spots, then barrel straight at the traveller along the tracks, only to disappear before running them over.

And sometimes, people would turn and see faces staring back at them from a half-formed train car.

If you’d like to experience Hell Gate in all its glory, the city of New York has made it quite easy, even going so far as to construct a cheerful walking path right along where American soldiers were drowned, where asylum inmates reached up in hopes of escape, where children were rumored to have been dragged to their doom.

Can’t make it right away? Not to worry! Even in the event every human in New York is wiped out, Hells Gate Bridge will last for a milenium more–seven hundred years after all other bridges crumble to dust.

It’ll wait.

* Mimimum estimated 2015 market value.

** Not for lack of trying. For more info, see Myths and Mysteries of New York: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained, by Fran Capo

Hello and Welcome.

I am glad to be here, and glad you are here, too. Sit down, have a drink–don’t worry, it’s red, but it’s not blood. Don’t mind the dust on the chair, or that strange smell. We’re all friends here. And we’re here because we like monsters.

So let’s talk monsters.

You are doubtless familiar with the basics; pop culture is saturated with them now: vampires, zombies, werewolves, dark-eyed, grinning demons. I love those guys–they’re what got me started in this, my Stygian profession. But we’re getting bored of them. It would seem that our time is lacking in imagination–that as we go about our daily lives, we’re running out of things to be unreasonably afraid of.

No longer!

There are plenty of other things that go bump in the night (or in the day, right behind you) that are still lurking in the shadows, waiting for their moment in the spotlight. They deserve a chance to make someone shudder, squeal, or laugh a little too loud.  This is a blog about those guys–the unique ones. The specific ones. The ones you won’t see coming.

So sit back, sip your drink, and let’s warm up with something more familiar–a real-live ghost story that was related to me just over four years ago.


It was late December, just after Christmas, in an underground metro station just outside the Oregon Zoo. When I say underground, I mean *deep* underground–at about 260 feet below the surface, Washington Park is the deepest subway station in the United States. It’s set up with a set of elevators at either end of the platform, which has an island of wall in the center to divide the city and suburb bound trains. The only normal way in and out of the station is to take one of those elevators; as I would find out, they shut down the platform after a certain hour at night, and when they do, those elevators get locked with it.

Of course, were you to get locked down there, I suppose you could always try to escape through the tunnel. It dumps right out into a graveyard. In fact, they had to relocate 14 bodies when they were building it.

Anyhoo, it was around 10:30 pm. I had worked late, and got off the elevator just as my train was pulling away. The next one wouldn’t be by for 40 minutes. I settled in on the cold stone seats, and prepared myself for a miserable wait.

Now, being a person somewhat small in stature, my wait was complicated by a fear that someone would show up on that empty, echoing platform and decide to harass or mug me. Imagine my relief when I heard the elevator bang, and not a vagrant but a security guard came strolling down the platform.

“Hello, there!” he said.*

We exchanged pleasantries, and I expressed my gratitude that there was someone on duty. The guard smiled and acknowledged that it could get creepy down there, alone at night. But no night, he said, could compare to a shift he worked there in ‘04.

I bit.

He had to close the elevators that night, and he and one other guard were the only ones left–had been for hours. It was around 1:00 am. Our guy was the only one physically underground; the other was manning the camera feeds remotely, coordinating with him over the radio. The two of them were supposed to work together to make sure no one else was still down there, so that when they shut the elevators they wouldn’t inadvertently entomb anyone under 24 stories of rock.

The platforms were both empty and the radio man gave our friend the all clear to shut down the first set, which he did. All seemed well, but as our friend walked down the platform towards the other, his companion came over the radio.

“M23-10–hold up, we have someone else on the platform.”

By Bruce Fingerhood from Springfield, Oregon, US (tunnel Uploaded by Mackensen) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The cold Trimet station got a little more interesting. “Someone else?” I asked.

“It happens,” the guard explained. Sometimes some hapless traveller will come down while security is closing the first set of elevators. So he took another walk around, trying to find them–even called out. Nothing. He assumed his radio friend had made a mistake, and told him so. He headed back to shut the rest of it down.

But the radio stopped him again.

“M23-10, do not proceed. There is another person on the platform.”

The train echoed down the tunnel as he continued. He raised his voice over it.

“So I looked around again, but nothin.’ He even tried to give me instructions, but I swear the station was empty. So by now, I’m a little freaked out. Finally I go and I stand on the walkway and look up at both of the cameras and wave my arms around.” He demonstrated; the train lights illuminated the station. “’See?’ I say. ‘No one else here!'”

“And he says to me,” the guard leaned in, “all shaky-like, ‘M23-10. They’re standing right next to you!'”

The train ripped out of the tunnel and slowed to a stop in front of us. He grinned, and I did, too.

There’s something  magical about a well-timed ghost story. I got on the train that night electrified by the thought that there could be monster lore on a site built less than ten years before. Age was no longer a prerequisite for supernatural fun. And I thought, what else could be out there?

What have you seen?

* As this happened four years ago, all quotes are paraphrased, and the radio codes are deliberately pure nonsense.