17 stories below: Myths of the Moscow Metro

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

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

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


What lies beneath

Moscow metro gilded ceiling
Exhibit A.

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

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

Underground switch
A supposed Metro-2 entrance.

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

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

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

Welcome to the underworld 

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

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

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

Aviamotornaya escalator
Going down…

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

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

A dark zoo

Moscow Metro Tunnel
A biological cornucopia!

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

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

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

Train to nowhere

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Epistolary horror: Ghosts of Ancient Rome

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

Very superstitious 

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

Roman colosseum at night
AMBIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

Story 1: Pretty Little Truths 

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

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

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

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

And then there is the next one. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

athenodorus and the ghost
Seriously, brah?

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

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

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

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

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

Story 3: DIY Haircuts

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

cut hair
Poor bastard.

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

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

Pliny interprets the event in hindsight:

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

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

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

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

I’ll close things off as Pliny does:

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

Farewell.”

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

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

Full moon AND Halloween AND 2020 edition: Thinning the veil

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

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

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

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

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

More chiffon than chenille

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay no attention to the horror behind the curtain

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on the other side

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

Devil behind curtain
Everything’s f i n e.

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

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

What could go wrong, indeed. 

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

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

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody–

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

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

Bathroom roulette

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

Bathroom
Behold this place of horror!

For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:

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

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

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

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

Gory histories

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

Erzsébet Báthory

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

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

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

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots
Bearing it all pleasantly.

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

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

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

Queen Mary I, “Bloody” Mary

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

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

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

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

A common plight

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

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

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

The monster in the mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of the Revolutionary War: Fort Mifflin

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

Authentic reenactments

Fort Mifflin from above.
Fort Mifflin from above.

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

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

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

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

A second kind of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

200-year-old celebrities 

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

Fort Mifflin as darkness falls.

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

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

History lives” at Fort Mifflin

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

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

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

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

The cold never bothered me anyway: Yuki Onna

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.

Thin ice

Yuki Onna
Yuki Onna doin’ her thing and wearing clothes.

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.” 

Cold comfort

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.) 

Yuki Onna reconstituted.

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. 

Snowglobe

So what’s the deal with legends of deadly women emerging from the snow? Yuki Onna is hardly unique in that regard–there are stories of snow women from all over the place

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. 

IMAGE CRED: Sawaki Suushi for thoughtful Yuki Onna and Brigham Young University for the smug Yuki Onna.

Just slap some spackle over it: Castle Houska and the gateway to Hell

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.

Castle Houska
Castle Houska.

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. 

The chapel.

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. 

Ludmila trying to keep them demons at bay.

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. 

A shot of Houska’s interior.

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.

Houska, ext.

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.

IMAGE CRED: A big thank you to Ladislav Boháč for Houska in the hills; Scary Side of Earth for both the chapel and the chandelier; ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) for Ludmila; and ladabar for Houska’s exterior.

Ghosted by a ghost: the black monk of Pontefract

It was August, 1966. In an unassuming house at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, England, Sarah Scholes was watching her 15-year old grandson Philip Pritchard while his parents and sister were away for the holiday week. Though the weather was hot, the house was curiously cold. Then Philip walked into the living room and stopped: There was a fine white dust falling silently from chest-height all around the room. 

30 East Drive.

The pair were very confused. It would make more sense if the dust were drifting down from the ceiling (though not much more, as the house had been recently renovated). But appearing mid-air? Sarah called Philip’s aunt Marie over from where she lived across the street to get a second opinion. Marie did not know where the dust came from, either, but she knew it needed to get cleaned up. She went into the kitchen to get a rag, and slipped in a puddle of water that hadn’t been there a moment before. Grumbling to herself, she mopped the puddle up, only to have another appear. And another.

They called the water company. The water company couldn’t figure out where the puddles were coming from, either. Marie went home, and Sarah and Philip tried to move on with their lives. Then, around 7 o’clock, Philip’s startled cry came out of the kitchen.

“Grandma, it’s happening again!”

Loose leaf tea and sugar lay strewn all over the counter. The button on the tea dispenser clicked and then depressed, splashing steaming tea over the mess. Then it went down again. And again. And again, hissing, continuing to depress even as the water ran out, faster, and faster. “Stop!” Sarah cried. “Stop it!”

CRASH. Something in the hall. They stumbled over see what it was. The hall was empty, dark. The silence built, and then light clicked on, startling them both.

Rue Morgue notes that a typically agreed-upon definition of a poltergeist is trickster-like activity stemming from from psychokinesis (often perpetuated by a young person in distress). The poltergeist doesn’t seriously harm its victims, and quickly goes away with time or therapy. 

The things happening at 30 East Drive don’t fit that definition. For one, the presence there has shown itself on multiple occasions to not just be energy, but a tall figure robed in black. It has a tendency to come in full force and then fade away, but has persisted for over 50 years. Instead of coming from children, it attacks children. And it means people harm.  

Still, they call the Black Monk of Pontefract a poltergeist, anyway. The most violent poltergeist in Britain

Who you gonna call?

After that initial day of horror (which culminated in a violently rocking dresser and the two fleeing the house to sleep at a neighbor’s), the activity ceased for a full two years. Grandma probably  got tired of trying to convince the family that they hadn’t been seeing things; maybe she even managed to convince herself. 

A grandfather clock was one of the many objects hurled around.

But just as they started to relax, the ghost came back full force. Loud crashes became a part of daily life, as did objects (including a solid oak sideboard) flying through the air or disappearing and reappearing in odd places. Green foam burst out of the sink. An aunt got an entire carton of milk dumped over her head. The daughter of the family, Diane, was thrown out of bed, and, on a few occasions, would wake up on the floor with her mattress on top of her.

Things escalated from there. The disturbances became so common that the family gave the ghost a name: Fred. Though there were bad signs–attacks focused on Diane, family photos brutally slashed–the Pritchards refused to move out. It was their house, after all. 

Instead, they tried to force the ghost out with exorcisms. These were met with walls weeping with holy water, people getting slapped and shoved down the stairs, upside down crosses, and a pair of women’s fur gloves conducting the songs meant to drive Fred out. 

Then one night Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard woke to find a tall, dark figure hovering over their bed. He quickly disappeared, but later, other people started seeing him around the house, too, though they never saw his face. More people–the family and visitors alike–got pushed, slapped, scratched, bruised. Then Diane’s hair stood straight up, and she was dragged, screaming, up an entire flight of stairs. The incident left her badly traumatized, and with finger-shaped bruises on her throat.

And just like that, all supernatural activity cut off again. The ghost, it seemed, was over it.

Historical reenactments

A Cluniac monk, to help along your imagination.

But the living were not over the ghost. 10 years after Fred took his leave, Cluniac monk researcher Tom Cluniff happened to hear about what had gone on at 30 East Drive. He put the  pieces of the past together with the present. A 16th-century monk had been convicted for the rape and murder of an adolescent girl (in an uncomfortable twist, an adolescent girl about Diane’s age), and hanged just across the street from where the house now stands. 

Suddenly the black robes of the figure so many people had seen in the house (and around the neighborhood, by the way) made sense. Of course! Fred was a monk. And thus the moniker “Black Monk of Pontefract” was born, and the interest in the ghost renewed. 

One of the interested parties was director Pat Holden, a Pontefract native related by marriage to Jean Pritchard, matron of 30 East Drive. Holden was so excited about Cluniff’s findings–and what he’d heard about the haunting–that he decided to make a movie. 

Back in black

In 2012, Holden’s When the Lights Went Out captured both the idea of poltergeists as psychokinetic energy as well as the history of the Black Monk. Though the indie film garnered mixed reviews, it further reignited the imagination of the public, and, in so doing, reignited the haunting. 

Producer Bill Bungay discovered house was for sale, and bought it so that he could have his movie premier in style. He didn’t believe in the ghost, so even though his phone behaved oddly in the house and there were reports of strange lights and noises, he didn’t think much of it. He dismissed the warnings of the neighbors, who had seen Fred around again. He shrugged off the psychic who said during the premiere that she could see Fred watching them from his favorite place on the stairs. 

Then came one night when Bungay was outside 30 East Drive alone, locking up the gate after a day of documentary shooting. He put the plunger on the gate down and secured it (with difficulty) with a cinderblock. Then he turned to lock the door to the house. But his house key had disappeared from his pocket. He glanced uneasily over his shoulder, and found that the gate that he had just shut stood wide open. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

Marbles are a common projectile.

Bungay has shown Fred more respect after that (though Fred often throws things at him, missing him by a hair). He now rents 30 East Drive to people curious about the haunting. This has resulted in a number of interesting photos, and 288 accounts of happenings at the house. Included in them is a story where the neighbors were visiting Bungay, and one of their granddaughters came into the room, taking a bite out of a polystyrene orange. Her grandmother quickly took it and scolded her, asking her where she’d even got it from. The girl replied innocently: “A man in black gave it to me.” 

You can browse the rest of the occurrences here. They range from your typical bangings and mutterings to reports such as the following:

“Asked sister in toilet “Are you alright” which she replied “Yes thank you” BUT at the exact same time she replied the WHOLE GROUP said “Wow, did you hear that!”? A man’s “HMM MMM” mocking sister’s reply.”

“Possible spirits of dogs photographed.”

There are also a few more serious ones:

“Arriving early the group knocked on the door of 30 East Drive on the off chance there was someone in but the house was locked and vacant. As the group turned and walked back down the path someone started loudly and aggressively banging on the window as if to get their attention. The group presumed someone was indeed inside and returned only to reconfirm that the house was still firmly locked and vacant, a fact later confirmed when the house was opened for the waiting group 30 mins later.”

“Group leader asked if ‘Fred’ wanted to “play”. Then a noise was heard on the landing so the group leader rushed to see and standing in the doorway off the small bedroom was a really tall black figure which moved into the room behind the door. Not thinking, the group leader walked straight into the shadow, an experience that affected him badly.”

Want to get in on the fun? 30 East Drive is available for rent today for £300-400 a night (free if you happen to be a theoretical physicist). If you’re not in the UK, don’t have that kind of cash, or don’t have the desire to spend the night in a place where the bed was recently flipped over and trashed at 3am, you can join the 30 East Drive Facebook group

Either way, I would hurry up and get involved before Fred ups and loses interest again. It’s only a matter of time. 

Flour, snow, talc, or cocaine? Free associate your thoughts about white powder in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Mark Stevenson for the house photo; Twdk for the grandfather clock that is not THE grandfather clock (but it will do); F. A. Gasquet for less murder-y monk; James Petts for the marbles (again, not THE marbles, but hey).

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

mikoshi-nyūdō
“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.

black-lady-creepy-ghost-980263
Stylin’.

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!