Hippity hoppity: the Jiangshi

Adios, 2020! This year sure has sucked. Speaking of sucking, it’s time to pay another visit to a monster we know and love: the venerable vampire.  I do try to cover lesser-known monsters on this blog, but seriously, variations of the vampire are everywhere (see here and here and here and here and here). This Chinese iteration is well-known in the East, but less so out here, so I figured we’d give it a shot.

Also, it’s hilarious. And terrifying.

Hop to it 

You’re probably wondering about all the hamfisted word plays on hopping. Thanks to good old rigor mortis, the Jiangshi (僵尸 or 殭屍, literal translation “hard corpse”) wakes from its eternal slumber to find that its legs are too stiff to walk. So instead, it makes due by moving around via little, pogo-stick-like hops, arms outstretched for balance, grasping for its victim’s face. 

Typical Jiangshi attire, sans the mold.

Though that image is hardly intimidating, the Jiangshi’s calf power is something to be feared.  It can hop very quickly and be on you in a moment. And you don’t want it anywhere near you. In varying states of decomposition (not unlike a Western zombie), a Jiangshi is often covered in fuzzy green or white mold. Its nails are long, curved, and black, its tongue wild and impossibly long. Its eyes bulge hungrily from its skull, serrated teeth stretching forward like that of a shark. A single breath from it will kill you dead.

Though often dressed in fancy Qing official attire,* Jiangshi have lost all humanity. They cannot speak and operate on base instinct, ravenous beasts hunting for prey.** Similar to the Edimmu and other vampires of old, the Jiangshi traditionally feed not off of blood, but qi–a person’s life force. Though blind, they can sniff the living out, or jump on them by detecting their breathing. Like other vampires, they operate only in darkness, hopping out of their hiding places in caves and other abandoned places to haunt the night. 

It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump…to DEATH

The Jiangshi was formed independently of the Slavic vampire, first showing up in written records during the Qing Dynasty in scholar Ji Xiaolan’s Yuewei Caotang Biji (閱微草堂筆記, c. 1789 – 1798).  Ji Xiaolan notes that as with many undead creatures, there are multiple ways a Jiangshi can be created. These include but are not limited to:

  • Neglecting a corpse, especially if it is left out to absorb the yin energy of the moonlight;
  • Having a funeral but failing to bury the body, leaving it open for lightning to strike it or a pregnant cat to leap across its coffin;
  • Death by unpleasant means;
  • Transmission of the Jiangshi “virus” through biting;
  • Sorcery; and 
  • The deceased just being kind of a dick who doesn’t want to leave this earthly plane.
Quick, grab the virgin piss!

With so many paths to Jiangshidom, it’s a wonder the world isn’t vibrating under the force of a million hops. Fortunately, just like there are multiple ways to create Jiangshi, there are multiple ways to keep them at bay. Some of these are even incorporated into day-to-day life, like the feng shui convention of nailing a 6-inch panel of wood along the bottom of a house’s threshold, preventing any Jiangshi from getting inside (I guess they don’t hop very high). My other favorite countermeasures include:

  • Glutinous rice, which I kept seeing on Jiangshi-warding lists without elaboration. I finally found something that indicates that since sticky rice is used as a way to draw poison out of the living, it can also be used against Jiangshi (or maybe a living person turning into a Jiangshi). No word on how to encourage someone whose main diet is human lifeforce to eat a ball of carbs…fortunately, some lists have it that throwing a ball of rice at the vampire will suffice.
  • Tacking a piece of paper with a spell written on it to the Jiangshi’s forehead. Watch your fingers!
  • Dropping a bunch of coins on the ground, turning the Jiangshi into Count von Count
  • The urine of a virgin boy (presumably in a squirt gun).
  • Holding your breath.
  • “Broom.”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Bounce, baby out the door

The Jiangshi is fun in its own right, but what I love most about this vampire myth is that it’s based–just a little–in reality. 

The story goes that the original Jiangshi were created by accident. Way back when, families of migrant workers who died far away from home used to pay “corpse drivers” to bring the bodies of their loved ones back for burial. It’s said that for convenience’s sake, the drivers would bind the hands, knees, and ankles of a batch of corpses and then animate them with magic, teaching them to hop themselves home. The driver would then shepherd them under the cover of night, synchronizing their hopping to the beat of a drum. He’d ring a bell at intervals, warning the living away from the bad luck of setting eyes on the unholy undead.

You’d think that was a wild story, but it’s not far off from the truth. There really were corpse drivers who brought deceased workers the long way home under cover of night. But they didn’t (to my knowledge) animate them with magic. Instead, they tied a row of corpses upright along a pole strung between two men’s shoulders–one at the front, the other at the rear. The men would then ferry that load. Naturally, the pole would bounce under the weight of all that flesh, giving the corpses the appearance of hopping when viewed at a distance. It must have been almost as much of a sight to behold as would a Jiangshi itself.

These days, the Jiangshi can be found not only on dark roads, but in movies and anime and cosplay conventions around the world. The 1980’s Mr. Vampire comedy-horror series ensured their place in our collective memory for generations to come. 

That is, if a broom doesn’t get them first.

Man jumping
Count yourself lucky I don’t come after you with a Roomba.

With all that calf work, how does a new Jiangshi avoid shin splints? Share your theories in the comments below. 

*The common depiction of Jiangshi as Qing officials may have originated with said officials’ reputation (at least among the Han Chinese) for being kinda bloodthirsty.

**At least, traditionally. Most of what I’m covering here is the more traditional Jiangshi–more recent movies have taken inspiration from your Twilights and such, making Jiangshi occasionally into more romantic, blood-sucking figures. But I digress.

IMAGE CRED: Wikimedia Commons for the Qing official; Anna Toss for the impassioned attack; Steve Halama for the exuberant hop.

Black bird shrieking in the dead of night: Nachtkrapp

I recently joked to my husband that I have so little knowledge about birds that I can barely tell the difference between a pigeon and a penguin. My interest in the animal kingdom lies chiefly with mammals. To me, birds have always been nice-looking and -sounding, but largely decorative and not terribly interesting. 

Except for corvids.* Even I know that corvids–especially ravens, crows, and rooks–are freaking sweet. Not only have they symbolized mischief, misfortune, and death for hundreds of years, but also have proven in recent studies to be scientifically, frighteningly smart. 

Raven profile
Try me.

Did you know that carrion crows can differentiate distinct numerical quantities up to 30? That they can take advantage of traffic lights to get cars to crack walnuts? That they can recognize crow and human faces? Corvids generally have been proven to be able to make and use tools, take the presence of other corvids into account, work with episodic-like memory, plan for the future, understand complex object permanence, learn from vocal cues, and flexibly follow abstract rules. It’s incredible. Rook intelligence rivals that of some primates–in some tests, they actually performed better than a chimpanzee.

Combine corvid intelligence with jet-black feathers, massive beaks, and a penchant for dead flesh, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for creepy. Solitary rooks will occasionally sing to themselves, producing strange clicks, wheezes, and human-like notes. At dusk, they gather in massive flocks that can blot out the sky, The Birds style. Ravens have so few predators that they play catch-me-if-you-can with wolves, and can mimic full sentences and different human voices.  

It’s no wonder birds like these inspired Poe, Hitchcock, George R.R. Martin, and others. And it’s no wonder that they morphed into an ur-bogeyman: the Nachtkrapp.  

Raise you up on raven wings

Nachtkrapp translates to “Night Raven” (not, sadly, the almost-as-feared “Night Crap”). He is a giant corvid with pits for eyes and holes peppered through his wings–a carcass-like terror that brings disease and death to anyone who so much as looks at him. That’s bad enough, but I’d take that fate over the one in store for children who refuse to go to bed.  Emerging from his secret hiding place in the dead of night, Nachtrapp rips those naughty children from their sheets to carry them to his nest. There, he uses his giant beak to messily eat them alive, ripping off their arms and legs before finally picking out their heart

Raven croak
Crawk, sweet nightingale

Though the Nachtrapp name is specific to South German and Austrian mythology, similar legends can be found in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia. Some versions go that the raven takes children away in a bag, others that he will come in and crow so loudly that it will frighten them into silence. If kids are lucky, they’ll come across the Guter Nachtkrapp rather than the straight-up Nachtkrapp–the worst ole Guter will do is sing the child sweetly to sleep

Proceed with caw-tion

It’s not hard to imagine where the legend of the Nachtrapp came from. Wikipedia posits that it kicked off during one of the rook infestations of the Middle Ages. Seeking wildly to get their children to go the heck to bed, mothers took a look at the flesh-tearing, baby-sheep-stealing, aggressive corvids in the crops and got inspired. 

And why not? After all, we’re still battling black birds today–both in our nightmares, and on our morning jog. A single crow in Vancouver made mailmen’s lives such hell that they refused to deliver to his territory for over two months. That same crow–named Canuck by human admirers–is known to draw blood, and nicked a knife from a crime scene. He and his buddies forced Vancouverites to invent CrowTrax, an online tracker of violent crow attacks. From founder Jim O’Leary: “It was just a war zone. Just about every day someone would say, ‘I got smacked by a crow.’”

The only remedy against bird attacks seems to be to wear elaborate hats.** To defend against red-winged blackbirds (note: not a corvid), one Massachusetts woman wears one with large plastic flowers. Against magpies, Aussies wear empty tubs of ice cream on their heads. But against crows and ravens? I don’t know. With their skill at facial recognition, that Rocky Road with googly eyes might only make them laugh

As for protection against Nachtrapp? Well. You should just stop thinking about having your intestines picked out (warning: graphic), and go the caw to sleep. 

Raven in trees
Maybe wearing an ice cream tub just in case.

Which would you rather face: COVID or corvid? Pick your poison in the comments below. 

*Also owls.

**Or avoid their territory completely. But that can be difficult when you’re competing with them for french fries.

IMAGE CRED: Meg Jerrard on Unsplash for the intense profile; Franco Atirador on Wikimedia Commons for the screamy boi; Mark Timberlake on Unsplash for the sick silhouette.

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.

Webs of deceit: Tsuchigumo

Content warning: spidey bois.

Let me take you back to somewhere around the year 1000 in Classical Japan. Minamoto no Raikō, legendary commander and warrior, lies suffering from a fever, preparing to die. Noh theatre performances still capture the moment to this day. From Raikō (in translation)

“Oh, life is so fragile. Looking back, it is like a bubble that disappears here and appears there. I float and reincarnate in this world. No one can understand my serious illness, just as heavy as this duvet. There is no one to be blamed for this illness, so I can hold no grudge over it. I have to remain in bed by myself and continue to agonize even while resting.”

Various cures are tried, but nothing seems to help. Then, in the dead of night, a Buddhist monk appears abruptly at Raikō’s door. 

“Though it is a beautiful night with the clear moon, misty clouds suddenly rise in the middle of the night and hide the moon.”

According to legend, the monk is strange-looking and large, almost 7 feet tall. Taken aback, still feverish, Raikō demands to know who he is and what he’s doing there. In response, the monk berates him, and quotes an old poem:

“My husband will come tonight as the spider’s behavior tells me so…”

It’s the only clue Raikō needs.

“Did you say the spider’s behavior? I see. I did not identify you and now understand that your behavior is like that of a spider, which rudely approaches me.” 

The monk acts fast, throwing out his hands and shooting out thousands of strands of web. Raikō would be captured and doomed, if it were not for the sword he has hidden under his pillow. He slashes at the monk, and the monster disappears, leaving puddles of blood in his wake.

Familiar foes 

From here, the Noh play and the legends diverge a bit, though the core arc of the story remains. Either Raikō or his retainers follow the trail of blood to a cave deep in the mountains, where they find, to their horror, tunnels made of spider silk big enough for a man to walk through. Deep in these tunnels lies the tsuchigumo, the enormous arachnid yōkai, with the face of an oni (demon) and the body of a tiger. 

Yorimitsu killing Tsuchigumo
Like so.

A battle ensues. The tsuchigumo offers a fearsome fight, trying to ensare its attackers with silk. When its its abdomen is finally split, an explosion of human skulls (1,990, according to one tale) precipitates thousands of baby spiders. These scurry at the humans and up the cave walls, and the warriors must kill every last one before they can finally declare victory. Once they do, Raikō’s mysterious illness is cured, and everything is well again.

But this will not be the last time (and is maybe not the first) that Raikō faces down the hideous spider. The showdowns happen again and again with similar scripts, but different details. In one version, Raikō’s servant boy turns out to be secretly poisoning him. When Raikō cuts him open, the illusion breaks, and he finds that the boy has covered him in spiderwebs. They follow the boy’s trail of blood and discover a tsuchigumo, dead from the wound Raikō inflicted.  In another version, Raikō and his retainers face down an entire yōkai army, headed by a beautiful and mysterious woman. Suspecting trickery, Raikō targets the woman, and when he cuts her the army vanishes and she flees into the mountains. They hunt her down to a cave, where she morphs into a giant spider, rearing back and ready to fight Raikō in her true form.  

Raiko tormented by the earth spider
Less stripe-y, but you get the idea.

Hairy inspiration

So where did the tsuchigumo stories come from? There are no native tarantula species to Japan, though there are plenty of other frightening-looking spiders, and neighboring China and Vietnam have some bad boys that look like this:

Aphonopelma catalina tarantula

…which might have provided some inspiration. These tarantulas do burrow in the ground with silk tunnels like the ones described in the stories. And “tsuchigumo” does translate roughly to “ground spider.”

It’s not a big leap for any anyone to look at one of those and go “hey, that’s heinous. Sure glad it’s not car-sized, amirite?” Humans have done just that all around the world. Giant spider monsters are, after all, not unique to Japan, nor are tsuchigumo even the only spider yōkai

Tangled web of history

But the name “tsuchigumo” happens to have some historical context that casts these stories in a new light. It turns out that back in the day, “tsuchigumo” was used less to describe a literal tarantula monster and more as a derogatory term for the indigenous, earthen-mound-dwelling rebels who dared to fight back against the power of the Yamato court. 

Tsuchigumo
Who’s the real monster?

One can see evidence of this still even in that Noh play I quoted above. When getting ready for the final tsuchigumo standoff, one warrior comments: “Even a handful of soil and a branch of tree in this land belong to the Emperor [emphasis mine]. So, there is no room for a demon to live.” When you look into the history, a lot of the pieces start to make sense. Those that fought against royalty had to resort to underhand tactics such as guerilla warfare, just as tsuchigumo resort to trickery in order to try to best the military might of Raikō and his ilk. 

Of course, that hardly makes the tsuchigumo less affecting. It’s said that some human tsuchigumo were cut up and buried in separate pieces at Mount Yamato Katsuagi shrine to prevent their grudges from coming back and harming the living. To me, this sounds like precisely the recipe to encourage grudges to come back and harm the living. 

So which is worse: vengeful ghosts or spiders with fangs the size of your arm? Some dilemmas are too dark for even a monster blog to decide.

Would a tarantula look better or worse with frosted tips? Share your opinions in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Tokyo National Museum for the OG; Utagawa Kuniyoshi for the leopard-y guy; Chris A. Hamilton, Brent E. Hendrixson, and Jason E. Bond for the very detailed tarantula; Brigham Young University for the 3-eyed guy.

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.

Piss off, coronavirus: 3 monsters weirder than the times we live in

Hey everybody. I hope that you all are doing well out there and are practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and covering your face when you go out so as to not inadvertently kill anyone. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, at the current U.S. “epicenter” in NYC, and things are getting pretty weird right now. 

The news is frightening enough at the moment. So instead of digging into a pestilence monster (too real…), I wanted to share a couple of monsters I’ve come across on my wanderings through the internet that will hopefully make you chuckle. TO DEATH.

1. The Vampire Watermelon (and its nemesis, Vampire Pumpkin)

A real vampire watermelon with tell-tale “blood spots.”

We have the Roma people to thank for this one. Basically the legend goes that if you leave watermelons or pumpkins out for 10 days under the full moon (or around Christmas? Or just leave them in a place where they are in a position to “fight one another”?), they will grow a bad temper and an insatiable thirst for blood. 

Vampiric fruits look much like regular fruits, but will roll around and make growling noises (“brrrl brrrl,” to be precise). Also, they may attempt to infiltrate your house and murder you. You can protect yourself by going all metal on them and boiling them alive, then scrubbing them with a broom, and then burning that broom to ash. No word on whether you can then use the carcass to make pumpkin pie or watermelon jello shots.

Depending on how long this social distancing thing goes on, I may attempt to create my own vampiric produce on my patio next month. Perhaps I can pivot my talent for making plants dead into making them undead. 

2. Gulon the Pooper

Gulon pooping
Possibly the best image of all time.

Raise your hand if you’ve been eating more than usual lately. Keep your hand raised if your favorite snack is the flesh of your enemies. Now keep your hand raised if you like to squeeze yourself between two trees to force the poop out of your butt like a Play-Doh Fun Factory Machine in order to make room for round two. 

The Gulon does all of the above. It is a cryptid hailing from Scandinavia, where I can only assume it is a national treasure. A notorious glutton, the Gulon is about the size and shape of a dog, with the head and claws of a cat and the tail of a fox. Many dismiss its legend as people from the Middle Ages getting overexcited about seeing a wolverine. I myself like to think that the Gulon is real, and probably an ancestor of my cat.

3. Bakezōri, the sandals that stand up on their own

Bakezori
A depiction of the fiends (sans eyeballs).

Truly, being shut in in a small apartment offers an olfactory cornucopia. Mostly the smells here have been good (like everyone else, we’ve been baking a lot of bread), but occasionally some less savory scents creep in. The Bakezōri is born of a neglected sandal–arguably the footwear (outside maybe of ballet flats) that smells the worst.

The Bakezōri is a type of Japanese Yōkai in the family of Tsukumogami–household objects that have been ignored for so long by their owners that they take on a life of their own (perhaps this is might be why Marie Kondo is so insistent about getting rid of your old crap). Basically what happens is that the much-beleaguered thong sprouts arms, legs, and an eyeball, and then runs around the house at night yelling nonsense and making mischief. 

Come to think of it, this monster may also bear some relation to my cat. 

***

That’s all I have for now. Stay safe out there, and keep others safe by going “out there” as little as possible. We’ll see you on the other side.

Really, which would win in a fight, though–a Vampire Pumpkin or a Vampire Watermelon? Perhaps I should cultivate both and set up a Produce Fight livestream so as to make a little cash on the side. Place your bets in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Ke4roh for the malevolent melon; Whatever 16th-century scholar that took the time to painstakingly paint individual poops coming out of the Gulon; Jippensha Ikku for the sandal chase.

The original spine-chiller: Edimmu

It’s a new decade, everybody! This is the time when everyone looks at how much has happened over the past few years and makes guesses about what will happen next. We live in an era of constant and dramatic change; as interesting as that can be, being stuck in such flux is not always pleasant. As my gift to you, let’s explore something that has not changed: old guilts and fears from way back in the beginning of human civilization.

Bad deaths all around

The Edimmu (or Ekimmu, but Wikipedia, Unimpeachable Source of All Knowledge, says Edimmu is the right way to go so we’re going with that) is often referred to as the oldest vampire legend in history. It was born in our first civilization–in Sumer, cerca 4000 B.C. 

Sumerian worshipper statue
Statue of a concerned-looking Sumerian worshipper.

Between inventing the 60-minute hour and beer, ancient Sumerians worried a lot about what happened to the spirits of people whose lives ended in a less-than-ideal manner. After all, there are many ways to die poorly: if someone murders you, if you get in a freak accident, if you get lost in the desert, if you bleed out during childbirth, if you perish without ever having known love, etc. Or maybe you die in a normal way, but nobody bothers to bury you and your corpse is left out to rot. What happens then?

When fate deals out such terrible things, it is like justice has been snatched away. Indeed, that is what “Edimmu” translates to–“that which is snatched away.” And you’d better believe that someone will pay.

Of course, that someone might not be the person who wronged the angry soul–the Edimmu–in the first place. Edimmu don’t really discriminate that way. But hey! At least they’re making someone as miserable as they are. 

Nagging guilt

Being more spirit-based than your traditional vampire, the Edimmu doesn’t have a real *look* in the way that a Nosferatu (or Edward Cullen) does. Some depictions cast then as winged demons, walking corpses, or shifting shadows, but more often they have no corporeal form at all. Instead, your only warning of their presence is a cold draft that raises the hair on the back of your arms. This makes the Edimmu damn hard to run away or hide from–you can’t avoid what you can’t see. 

A relief featuring depictions of the Ediummu (also Lamasthu, who we’ve talked about before).

Compounding the problem is how easy it is to catch an Edimmu’s interest. You might infer from the aforementioned extensive list of bad ways to die that there would be Edimmu being created constantly. You would be correct. The odds are in no one’s favor. Even if you went about your life never killing or wronging anyone and making sure that everyone you knew was buried quite well, one day you might happen upon a corpse or ingest a little ox meat and boom! You’d be cursed with the company of an Edimmu.

Once an Ediummu is latched onto you, you’re in for a ride. Lower-key tales of Edimmu cast them as mere irritants who, banshee-like, will sit outside your house and wail when someone is about to die. Moderate-key versions describe them blowing through your house, stealing away the life force of those they pass through (especially if the victim is a child). Then there are the more intense versions of the myth, in which the Edimmu telekinetically attacks you on and off over the course of years, slowly crushing away your will to live as they give you hope that they’ve finally gone away before coming back again. Once they’ve sucked the last of your life out of you, they possess your body, and then go about doing the same thing to those you love. 

So really the moment you realize that you’ve got an Edimmu on your tail, it’s best to nip that garbage in the bud. 

How do you stake a ghost?

One of the reasons that we know about the Edimmu at all was that we found a spell a mother wrote in hopes of keeping the monster away from her children. When things like that failed, exorcisms were the way to go. These involved not only invoking one of the three most powerful gods of Sumerian lore, but also setting a bunch of stuff on fire. (This, as one author points out, might be the birth of our conception of how to handle modern vampires, i.e. burning them or subjecting them to the biggest fireball of all: the sun.)

Though such tactics might have been effective in individual cases, the legend of the Edimmu continued. After Sumer faded into the history, the vampire-ghost fever was picked up by the Babylonians, then the Assyrians, and then the Egyptians and beyond. It did it not even stay isolated in the Middle East–the Inuit have their own variation of the Edimmu, way over on the other side of the globe. Today, it is said (by internet sources citing nothing, but still) that the Edimmu lives on, plaguing those experiencing homelessness with disease and despair. Certainly their legend has influenced countless other ghost and vampire myths that we now take for granted. 

Whether it’s our love of beer or our fear of pissing off those who have passed away, it’s nice to know that at least in some respects, humanity has never changed. 

What burial rite might you be most likely to screw up and get an Edimmu on your case? Share yours in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Internet Book Archive on Flickr for the relief, and Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) on Wikimedia Commons for the intense worshiper.

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.

Arguably worse than licorice: Black Annis

Happy (almost) Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, we’re going to cover a more traditional monster this month: a good old-fashioned baby-eating hag. Normally I shy away from doing monstrous witches (as I’ve noted on this blog before, the misogyny underlying the myths can get to be a bit much), but this particular witch is so fun that I could not pass up the opportunity. 

That winter skin tone

Blue hag
Like, this, only more blue.

Black Annis (also known as Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes, and Cat Anna) seems, on the surface, to be a witch as stereotypical as a pumpkin spice latte. Hailing from Leicester, England, she’s got blue skin (like a Smurf! …Or a corpse) and a taste for human flesh. But Annis is no basic witch. If you’re looking for costume inspiration for your office Halloween party, look elsewhere. The iron talons replacing Annis’s hands will be difficult to type with, and her skirt of tanned children’s hides will certainly get you in trouble with HR (not to mention how difficult it will be to find a top to pair it with; many depictions of Annis have her with no top at all, which will definitely get you in trouble with HR). She doesn’t have a tell-tale hat or broomstick that would help your office workers guess what you are, and in some descriptions has only one eye.

Even if she doesn’t inspire social acceptable costumes, Black Annis looks pretty awesome. A 19th century poem describes her thus:

“‘Tis said the soul of mortal man recoiled

To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild

Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew

In place of hands, and features livid blue

Glared in her visage, whilst her obscene waist

Warm skins of human victims close embraced…”

There is a wealth of artistic interpretations of her out there, but none with permission to share, so I’ll just link to a few of my favorites here (and here and here and here and here) for you to get a taste.

It’s what you do that defines you

Tanning hide
Like this, only more f-ed up.

As cool as Black Annis looks, for me, monsters don’t come to life just by looking scary. It’s what they do. Here is where Annis gets really fun. Like any good bogeyman, she steals, skins, drinks the blood of, and eats children who wander too far into the woods. But that’s just her baseline. Annis has also been known to get creative, climbing up into trees so that she can jump down on unsuspecting passersby. If not enough people come to the woods, she comes into town. The people of 18th-century Leicester had to build their houses with as few and as narrow of windows as possible, fearing that Annis would wriggle her long, thin arms through any apertures and dig her talons into their children.

If she can’t get human flesh, Annis will rip apart farm animals. She is also a major-league teeth grinder, loud enough that if you are lucky, you can hear her coming and have a few precious moments to hide. Piss her off, and her howls will echo for miles. 

There is an account from 1942 that describes three children running into Black Annis around Christmas time. Just as the sun set, their stepmother sent them into the forest to collect wood. They begged her not to make them go, knowing that their only protection from Annis was daylight (which turns her to stone). But the stepmother insisted, and so into the dark they went. A snuffling noise caught their attention, and, unable to locate its source, they looked through their witch stone to see what it was. Through the hole, they saw Annis’s blue, hideous face leering at them. Screaming, the children dropped their sticks and fled. In her rush to give chase, Annis bloodied her shins on the sticks, and paused to tend to her wounds. Even though that gave the children a head start, and even though they ran with everything they had, Annis still caught them at their cottage door. 

That might have been the end of the them, if it had not been for their father. Hearing their screams, he came out and buried an ax in Annis’s face. Still she did not fall, screaming “BLOOD! BLOOD!” as she stumbled in the direction of her cave. Then the Christmas bells started to toll, and, at long last, she fell down dead.

But apparently not dead-dead, because stories about her persist.

Heeere’s Anny!

Cave
Like this, only with more skins.

Back in her heyday, Annis lived in a cave she dug with her own talons, decorated with (you guessed it!) human skin. 19th-century eyewitnesses described “Black Annis’s Bower” as 4-5 feet wide and 7-8 feet long, having a “ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side.” Nowadays, the cave is filled in with earth, and a housing estate sits on the site where Annis once sat sucking on her bones. But it’s said that a tunnel once connected that cave with Leicester Castle, and that Annis haunts the area still

Where did Annis come from? Some say that she might be inspired by a nun (who really seemed to be an okay person, so idk) that took care of a leper colony in the late medieval period. Others think that maybe Annis was born of a cultural memory of real child sacrifices to an ancient goddess (!). Really, Annis could be based on any number of goddesses or mythical figures (including Hel, daughter of Loki and some time goddess of the underworld). 

Regardless of who thought her up, it’s hard to argue with Black Annis’s efficacy as a bogeyman.This Halloween, let’s honor her by growing our nails out, getting a little crazy with that turquoise eye shadow, and seeing just how deep we can wedge our arm into the couch to retrieve that long-lost, scrumdiddlyumptious Cheeze-It. 

Happy Halloween, everybody. 

What brand of umbrella would be best to shield oneself against a full-grown witch dropping out of a tree? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: Marc Palm for the ogress; Ser Amantio di Nicolao for the tanning hide; David Quinn for the cave.