Thrill of the chase: The Wild Hunt

Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.

It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.

An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.

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Turns out there a buttload of classical paintings for the Wild Hunt. This one is by Franz von Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.

The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.

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All images in this post are going to be large and in charge, because the details are awesome (looking at you, lower right corner). Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons

The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt.  One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.

Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?

Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.

 

Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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You’re as Cold as Ice: The Ijirait

Hello, 2017! It was exceptionally chilly earlier this week, which got me thinking about icicles, snowstorms, hypothermia, and all the other fun winter-themed things that can kill you. Monster Meet has yet to feature an honest-to-goodness snow monster, so I figured now was a great time to visit one. Let’s put bad weather in perspective:

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Some ambiance-building bones for your viewing pleasure.

Way up above Canada, in the highest part of the world, where the sun moves strangely and a single mistake might cost you your life, the Inuit test the bounds of human awesomeness. These badass people face things that most of us would find unimaginable, and on a day to day basis. What sort of thing might scare them? Answer: the Ijirait (Ijiraq being the singular form), beings with one foot in this world and the other in the spirit realm. Watching, robbing, and daring any human to cross them, these shape-shifting monsters wander the most desolate parts of the arctic.

Inuit elders in the South Baffin region whisper that long ago, a group of hunters went too far north and got trapped in the expanse between the living and the dead. Thus the Ijirait were born. Now when other hunters enter that region, they see strange, moving mirages; hear eerily human whistling; and catch glimpses of shadows standing the corner of their eye. No matter how fast they turn, or how far they look, they’ll almost never see what haunts them. They usually never see their families again, either…once a human steps into the territory of an Ijiraq, even if said human is an excellent navigator with great survival skills, even if the human’s camp is within sight of where they stand, the spirit (for lack of a better world) will confound and confuse them so that they will wander, terrified, until they collapse and die in the cold.

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Any number of arctic animals, including birds like this one!

Shaman visions have indicated that in their natural form, the Ijirait might look almost human, but with mouths and eyes that open sideways. Other stories have them appear–when they do appear–as hideous human-caribou hybrids, or simply as caribou with slightly unusual antlers (note: woe to the hunter who mistakes an Ijiraq for her prey). Most agree, however, that the spirits can shape-shift into any number of arctic animals, possibly with the one unifying feature of red eyes.

The Ijirait might even disguise themselves as humans, hunting caribou and passing through markets terribly, horribly close to people’s homes. This might be because beyond confusing travelers and generally making people feel uneasy, the spirits delight in kidnapping and then abandoning human children. The only youngsters not doomed to die in the snow are the ones with whom the Ijiraq happens to pass by a certain type of cairn–an inuksuqaq. Upon seeing an inuksuqaq, the monster will change its mind and return the child…but if it doesn’t see one, well. That kid’s pretty much screwed.

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Fig 3: territory to bypass.

From what I can tell, the Ijirait can’t be fought, and they can’t be hidden from. The only way to avoid an altercation with them is to a) have a woman giving childbirth near you at all times (it’s said that the Ijirait fear said women intensely, though to be fair anyone should probably be afraid of someone pushing a miniature version of herself out of her body) or b) to simply bypass their territory altogether.*

Ijirait survivors are encouraged to record their stories immediately, because amnesia hits hard not long after an encounter. People who aren’t monster enthusiasts suggest that this might be because the pockets of sour gas present in the arctic ground–which could cause victims to see things and get disoriented in the first place–might have lasting cognitive effect. Who knows. Me, I like to think that the amnesia is just the human brain protecting itself after a harrowing, awe-inspiring encounter.

Some things we just weren’t meant to see.

What sort of bone-chilling things do you see on the winter sidewalk? Do you think you can draw an effective caribou-human minotaur? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Some Inuit elders argue that the Ijirait are not so much evil as they are misunderstood, and that much of their animosity comes from resentment of people encroaching on their land. In this version of the legend, the spirits are sometimes even helpful, bringing travelers messages in a way that is sure to get their attention.

ALL PHOTO CREDIT GOES TO: The Bone Collector II via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND. Thank you very kindly.

Hot diggety dog: Black Shuck

I lived in England for a few years when I was little, and had an imaginary friend. If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, you might remember the Shadow People and the nightmare that scared me so badly. This was the counterpart to that. Some kids imagine happy-go-lucky playpals; I had a silent jaguar made of shadows. He was so real to me that I could almost make him out if I squinted in the dark.

Browsing for a monster interesting enough for a Halloween post, I came across a British phantom not unlike my long-lost companion. Given that this full moon is the Hunter’s moon, I figured the topic would be especially appropriate. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Black Shuck.

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Liza Pheonix’s artist depiction, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (CC license 3.0)

There’s quite a bit on ole’ Shuck out there, as he’s been haunting Britain’s East Anglia (just northeast of London; coincidentally the area I lived in) since at least 1577. On August 8th of that year, during one of the worst storms in memory, an enormous black dog burst into a crowded Blythburg church. Racing through the panicked congregation, he killed two people and then made his escape, leaving scorch marks on the door. Almost at the same time in Bungay (a few towns over), the scene repeated itself with another black dog and another church and more of the faithful slaughtered. There’s a lovely rhyme that goes with the legend:

“All down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew.”*

The countryside erupted in terror. Was this demon canine a manifestation of the devil? Retribution for everyone’s sins? The Black Shuck obsession was born.

Though Shuck may have existed before–black dogs were common additions to the dark party of the Wild Hunt, and people accused of witchcraft were said to have called upon beasts much like him–after Blythburg, the legend really took off. For the next five centuries, people would see horrible hounds lurking in churchyards, blocking crossroads, peering out of bushes, bearing down roads. Shuck didn’t enter a church again, but seemed to be everywhere else. Anyone who laid eyes on him was doomed to death or misfortune. The fear was common enough that Conan Doyle picked up on it for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Those unfortunate enough to behold Black Shuck described him as a hellhound. As his name suggests, he was entirely black, with ragged, matted fur (‘shucky’ colloquially meant shaggy or unkempt) and big, shining, red (or often red) eyes. He was usually large (could get as big as a calf), and was sometimes accompanied by clinking chairs or curling mist he might float on. Some people heard or felt him without seeing him directly. He surprised others by appearing without a head.

Mike Burgess’s site Shuckland analyzed 261 accounts of the creature (comprised of legends and actual encounters), and found that in most cases, Black Shuck would first appear to witnesses in rather ordinary (if creepy) ways. This included crossing their path, coming up behind them, or just appearing on the horizon, watching them get closer. Burgess notes that in such cases, people might not immediately realize what this black dog was, especially if his eyes weren’t glowing and he wasn’t floating or missing a head. Many times Shuck would ignore the witness entirely, but now and then he would follow them or become suddenly hostile.** Shuck’s exits were what really marked him as supernatural: he would stand unharmed as a car ran through him, or vanish into walls or shadows, or simply disappear into thin air.

 

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Abraham Fleming’s original 1577 description, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Black Shuck sightings do still happen now and again, but not with the regularity that they used to (encounters peaked in the early 20th century and then again in the 1970’s). Those who don’t believe in monsters blame the birth of his legend on a mishmash of leftover Nordic myths*** and tales spread by 16th-century clergymen looking to put a little fear of god in their peers. But recently surfaced evidence suggests that at least at one time, Black Shuck may have been terribly real.

In 2014, the bones of a very large dog–we’re talking 7 feet high on his hind legs–were unearthed in a shallow, unmarked grave under an abbey just a few miles from the original church attacks. Analysis revealed that the dog would have weighed over 200 pounds, and could have been buried  between either 1650-1690, 1730-1810 or post 1920 (I know…I’m not sure how carbon dating works, either). All signs pointed to Shuck. Who so hastily buried this beast under the church? What damage was done before they could?

This Halloween, I wish you a new pet at least as exciting. I hope he does all kinds of tricks. Be it the shadow-jaguar of my childhood or a floating, headless hell beast, may your friendship be lively and your nights very, very long.

Happy haunting.

 

What sort of imaginary friends did you have as a child? Has any animal ever stuck to you a little too close? Share your story in the comments below.

 

*Presumably the author of this rhyme meant “fire” to signify either lightning, church candles, or an ethereal glow; as for “quire,”my guess would either be the bible or a literal “choir” (just spelled rather differently).

**Shuckland has a marvellous wealth of encounter descriptions; if you have a few hours to kill, I would recommend checking them out.

***Burgess disagrees with this theory.

 

Choo choo: The Snallygaster

 

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Ambient creepy image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the deep cold of February, 1909, a group of men near Sharpsburg, West Virginia crowded around a homemade incubator, close enough to feel its heat. They might have held their hands out for warmth, but I doubt any of them would have gotten too close. Carefully hidden away from the eyes of the town, that incubator housed a egg the size of an elephant. The gentleman were attempting to hatch the spawn of the Snallygaster, dreaded terror of the Middletown Valley.

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One of the said seven-point stars.

Though its name sounds like an invention of Lewis Caroll, for generations of folks living in the hills around Washington DC and Maryland, the Snallygaster was no laughing matter.  In the 1730’s, German immigrants reported a dragon-like schneller geista “quick ghost”–that came out of the sky with tentacles and a metallic beak to suck men’s blood or carry them away. The beast was half-reptile, half-bird, and had teeth sharp enough to part flesh like butter. It kidnapped children and decimated poultry. The Germans painted seven-pointed stars on their barns to keep the Snallygaster at bay; you can still see some of those stars today.

Tales of the Snallygaster seemed to abate in the late 1700’s, but reappeared, weaponized, less than a century later when white settlers wanted to scare away freed slaves. People offered the “Snallygaster” food sacrifices and hid their families indoors, but the carnage continued. For decades, white countryfolk blamed the racial atrocities they committed on the creature. That would shortly come back to bite them, as by 1909, the legend had got out of their control, and the Snallygaster began to appear and attack in places they hadn’t meant it to.

Now the Snallygaster roamed the countryside, large as a dirigible, wreaking havoc wherever it went.  It could change shape, but one man summarized the consensus that it usually had “enormous wings, a long pointed bill, claws like steel hooks, and an eye in the center of its forehead.” It passed through the sky silent as a cloud, and then would swoop down to attack with a whistle “like a locomotive,” or, as another man put it, like a “cross between a tiger and a vampire.”*

The creature left footprints in the snow of New Jersey, and scared the bejeezus out of a man who found it hanging out near his kiln. It was shot here, found roosting in someone’s barn there, seen drifting through the sky, tentacles writhing, always huge, always “headed this way.” Then there were the eggs. The Snallygaster’s eggs were the size of horses–of small cars!–and were found laying around where Snallygaster was known to have passed. Our friends from the beginning of this post never did manage to get that egg to hatch, and that’s probably a good thing for them. They might have ended up like Bill Gifferson, found drained of blood with a hole in his neck.

By now the sightings were so common (and such a nuisance) that the Smithsonian put a price on the Snallygaster’s hide to the tune of $100,000 a foot. Teddy Roosevelt himself thought about coming to collect, but then sightings of the creature abated again. Finally, the Snallygaster reportedly drowned and was subsequently exploded in a 2500-gallon vat of moonshine. Fitting dramatic end to a dramatic life, right?

You forgot about the eggs.

This is where things really get weird. In 1932, the Snallygaster (or rather, one of its children) decided to give a local resident an existential crisis. The poor man reported seeing the creature swoop down from the sky on a penny-farthing, wearing water wings and shouting Balance the budget!” Later, in 1973, the Snallygaster appeared as a land-bound ape-thing that screamed bloody murder in the middle of the night and made a mess out of the heads of cattle. After several sightings, an extensive hunting party set out to find the creature with tranquilizer darts and a large steel cage. They returned empty-handed.

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Not Eastern Racers, but alarming enough nevertheless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where is the Snallygaster today? There doesn’t seem to be any recent sightings. Certainly the horrors that inspired it are still around–racial violence being the obvious one, but also the nasty clusters of Eastern Racer snakes (which apparently can get up to five feet long and move quite fast) that might have made people see tentacles. The last real Snallygaster sighting was over 40 years ago, and as I’ve heard tell that the Snallygaster’s lifespan is 20 years, it might be gone for good. But it’s difficult to say for sure.  Feel free to go out and try to find one, if you like.

I’ll stay here and look out for any suspicious clouds.  

 

 

Have you ever seen something strange in the sky? What do you think a “cross between a vampire and a tiger” sounds like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*I’m not quite sure what this means, as the sound my mind conjures for “vampire” is “slurp.”

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.

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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.

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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.

The Black Hat of Guatemala: El Sombrerón

One of the most interesting things about monster stories is what they can teach you about life.* The legend of el Sombrerón is no exception. This Guatemalan boogeyman appears in tales spanning much of the country’s history, and remains important even now. Though he used to appear more frequently, these days he comes chiefly on nights with a full moon, such as the night that I’m posting this. Look out your window, dear reader, and then shut it tight.

Though he might announce his presence with dark, baying dogs or the jingling of spurs on his black boots, el Sombrerón can also appear without warning from out of a shadow. Some say he’s preceded by a swift, cold breeze. His most distinctive features are his eponymous hat–so wide that it obscures his face–and his short stature. Like many monsters, he dresses all in black, and speaks to no one. Invisible, he upsets cups, knocks over candles, and sends horses galloping through the streets. He braids horses’ and dogs’ hair so delicately that the patterns have to be left forever or cut out. Beneath the white light of the moon, he roams from town to town, accompanied by his mules, dogs, and a cart full of coal.

Does he sound like more like an average poltergeist than a serious problem? For some families, he is. Others, however, will be unlucky enough to find his mules hitched outside of their home. These are the families with long-haired, beautiful daughters. This is where trouble really begins.

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Thanks to Jorge Jaramillo over at Flickr for  this origami representation.

El Sombrerón has a thing for this type of woman, and, as night falls, will pull out his silver** guitar, walk up under her window, and begin to sing in a voice only she can hear. Woe betide she who responds to his charms. The legends vary on what exactly seals her fate–whether it’s hearing his song, looking at him, or letting him braid her hair–but once she engages with him, she’s pretty much screwed. The woman becomes completely enamoured of Sombrerón, and her torture begins.

His braids won’t come out. Bits of dirt and rock appear in her food, discouraging the already heartsick women from eating at all. She won’t sleep, and she won’t think of anything but him. As el Sombrerón visits her less, she wants him more, and any efforts to remove her from his presence will only hasten her descent into madness. Finally, the woman will die of a broken heart, and el Sombrerón will abduct her soul to stay with him forever. In some versions of the legend, he seems upset that he killed his beloved, and will visit on occasion to cry at her grave. Other times, he simply moves on to the next house.

I’ve only found one tale in which the woman escapes this devil’s lust entirely. The story is repeated often: el Sombrerón once targeted young Susana in la Recolección, a cobblestone mission in the mountains of Guatemala. Alarmed at her declining health and the strange signs in their home, Susana’s parents took her to be blessed by a priest, and cut her hair as short as it would go. El Sombrerón apparently moved on after that. No word on what Susana thought about the whole thing….it seems that normally even if the woman doesn’t die, she is cursed to live out life as a spinster (¡qué horror!), unloved and still secretly pining away.

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Probably not him, but a nice and dramatic picture, anyway.

Where did this monster come from? There’s a story about a Mayan family who sought to correct their errant son’s behavior with the help of a brujo, or medicine man. The brujo told them to make as big of a hat as possible, which they did, and he infused it with magic. The parents then left the hat in their house, and awoke one night to find their son struggling under it. The son couldn’t take the hat off, and endured endless ridicule from the townspeople as a result. He grew no taller as he aged, but he did grow more frightening. Using the magic from the hat, he learned to turn invisible, to scale walls and walk across ceilings. Ultimately he caused even more mischief than he had before.

The site where I found the story doesn’t mention anything about maidens, but it’s easy to imagine the boy reaching a certain age and and deciding to use magic to get what he wanted from the opposite sex. Another blogger points out that el Sombrerón’s obsession with long hair and braids might suggest Mayan origin, as well–or at least an appreciation of Guatemala’s indigenous roots. It’s an interesting thought, one more colorful than the simple explanations that cast him as the devil or a goblin.

Regardless of his origin, the take-aways of Sombrerón horror stories are clear: follow your parents’ orders and do not engage with strange men. Many writers have pointed out how depressingly gender-specific these lessons were intended to be; stories of el Sombrerón’s are told chiefly to scare young women into doing as they’re told. He reinforces the traditional courtship model (of women withholding their affection and attention until marriage) by demonstrating a worst-case scenario of what happens when you break it.

But el Sombrerón can teach us all a little about how dangerous passion can be. If you’re so obsessed with something (or someone) that you find yourself overlooking rocks in your food, it might be time to dial things back a little.

He also teaches us that getting a new haircut can be a fabulous way to bounce back after a romantic disaster.

 

 

Have you had any experience with men wearing strange hats and playing guitar? Share your story in the comments below.

 

*In addition, of course, to what they teach you about what storytellers want to teach you.
**Disregarding acoustical improbability for the sake of a smoother story.

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.

springheel_jack
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.

spring_heeled_jack-penny_dreadful
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.