Hold on to the Handrail: Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Let’s face it: monsters can be pretty complex. A lot of them tend to shapeshift and do contradictory things. They kill us in all sorts of troubling ways, and remind us about aspects of ourselves that we’d rather leave buried. This year alone, we’ve covered monsters whose mouths open sideways, monsters that can electrocute you, force you to carry around a human leg, and that incite otherwise sane, normal people to kill each other. It’s spring now. It’s been a whirlwind few months. Let’s take it easy and get back to the essentials: a straight-up, crap-your-pants boogeyman.

RawHead (or, somewhat confusingly, “RawHead and Bloody Bones”) is about as basic of a monster as you can get. And I’m not talking pumpkin-spice-latte basic. I’m talking horror so distilled that its legacy has stuck around for at least 450 years.

under the stairs
A different point of view.

Imagine you’re a child again (or, if you are still a child, hello! We would have been best friends growing up.). As a child, you usually have an adult around, but not always. Sometimes you have to do things by yourself. This can be exciting, but there are some things you wish you didn’t have to be alone for, even if that makes you a baby. Things like crossing by a silent, black stretch of water. Things like going up or down a dark set of stairs.

Now imagine you are in England in the 1500’s (or, if you’d rather not, don’t…the story will end the same). You are descending the stairs. You know there is a space beneath them, like many staircases. You hate the way the boards creak over that space. You wish there was a light down there, just to scare away, you know. Mice.

You know you should go quickly–just run and get it over with–but as you reach the middle of the stairs, you cannot escape the thought that there is something down there, waiting under your feet. It would be easy to look at check…there are gaps between each stair. You could do it right now. You do do it right now.

It’s dark, but something glistens in what little light makes it through the gaps. It is a slick dome, a wet mess of red and white with eyes that turn up to look at you. It is a man whose head has been peeled of skin. He sits curled up on a pile of human bones. Child-sized bones.

The man smiles, and then reaches up to grab you.

Rawhead and Bloody Bones

Steals naughty children from their homes,

Takes them to his dirty den,

And they are never seen again.

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Topical photo!

Or so the rhyme went. Parents and nurses warned kids about Rawhead and Bloodybones from a young age. If you swore, he’d get you. If you misbehaved, he’d get you. If you went too close to a pond, or to a dark cupboard, he’d get you. He was the monster du jour (or rather, du siècle) to frighten kids into doing what their caretakers asked.

I imagine that those threats worked, but many worried that the medicine was worse than the disease. John Locke himself implored caretakers not to invoke Rawhead’s name, saying:

“Such bugbear thoughts, once got into the tender minds of children, and being set on with a strong impression from the dread that accompanies such apprehensions, sink deep, and fasten themselves so, as not easily, if ever, to be got out again; and whilst they are there, frequently haunt them with strange visions, making children dastards when alone, and afraid of their shadows and darkness all their lives after.”

In other words, “please don’t scar the children.”

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Rawhead says “go to your room.”

Obviously, parents didn’t heed his plea. Rawhead not only endured, but came to the United States along with British immigrants. Our melting pot made him even stranger. He took root in the south, not as something that lurks under the stairs, but as a bipedal zombie with the head of a razorback boar.

The story goes that that boar was beloved by a witch and then slain by some supremely shortsighted hunter however many centuries ago. The witch brought her friend back to life, and in a terrible way. In some tellings, the zombie Rawhead collapses back into a pile of bones after eating the hunter alive. In others, he’s still wandering the woods.

Rawhead’s bare-boned (see what I did there?) terror has inspired people for generations. Clive Barker wrote a short story about him, which was later turned into a B-movie. Siouxsie and the Banshees wrote an appropriately creepy song. It’s all glorious.

There’s something almost comforting about such a simple monster. Care bear. Bug bear. It’s one in the same to me.

Has your foot ever gotten caught between the stairs? Have you spotted any mysterious piles of bones in your cupboard? Share your story in the comments below.

Photo credit props:

Stairs: Henry Söderlund at Flickr.

Pile of bones:  Indofunk Satish via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Muscle man:  Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt

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.”

Dead baby jokes: Lamashtu

This month, let’s talk about old fear. Ancient Mesopotamian religion kicked off as much as 6 thousand years ago, but the spirits of its deities can still be recognized today: Tammuz, god of food and vegetation; Dagon, god of fertility; Enlil, god of breath. All were thought to be like humans, but immortal, shining so bright that they could not be looked at. They were not mystical beings, but masters that humanity should obey and fear.  Most of them were good, or at least chaotic-neutral. One of them was not.

Lamashtu was a deity that destroyed lives. She did it not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was distinct in that way from her peers, who might be destructive, but were so under obligation, or with some purpose other than destruction for destruction’s sake. Lamashtu personified a fear as old as the human race: fear of losing a newborn. She took the already bloody, dangerous process of delivery and made it that much worse.

Known for her signature move of ripping babies from breasts to slurp their blood and gnaw on their bones, Lamashtu appeared as a mythological hybrid with a hairy body, a lioness’s head, donkey’s teeth and ears, a set of long fingers and fingernails, and sharp bird talon feet (what is it with female monsters and taloned feet, anyway?). She was often depicted standing on a donkey, simultaneously gripping snakes and nursing a pig and  a dog. When not terrorizing the living, she traversed the underworld in a boat. Her name meant “she who erases.”

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Lamashtu’s name in cuneiform, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The style her name was written in signaled her power and deity status. 

Beyond kidnapping, Lamashtu’s rap sheet included (but was not limited to):

  • Killing children
  • Killing unborns
  • Killing infants
  • Torturing/attacking mothers and expectant mothers
  • Eating men and drinking their blood
  • Disturbing sleep
  • Bringing nightmares
  • Killing foliage
  • Infesting rivers and lakes
  • Bringing a lot of disease/sickness
  • Bringing death
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The plaque in question, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Lamashtu appears at the bottom center. Pazuzu is the dude to her left, as well as the guy grinning over the whole scene like a Disney villain over the front of a 90’s VHS tape.

Understandably, the Mesopotamians were terrified of Lamashtu and did everything they could to discourage her visits. Expectant mothers wore amulets with the sign of Pazuzu, Lamashtu’s husband/rival who was not super great in his own right (he tended to bring famine and drought), but was the only person who might get her to stop. Amulets are hardly the only protective artifacts we’ve found, however. Especially in the first millennium, anti-Lamashtu paraphernalia was everywhere. Fun tip: there is (or was recently) an actual Lamashtu exorcism plaque on display at the Louvre (field trip, anyone?). It depicts the exorcism scene with Pazuzu watching. The patient reaches out in pain; priests in the fishskins of the god Ea crowd around him. Lamashtu appears large and terrible at the bottom, barely held back by Pazuzu. The inscription describes her as furious and cruel, a dazzling goddess; she is a she-wolf; she snatches the young man on the path, the girl at play, the child from the arms of his nurse.”

I’ll leave you today with an ancient Mesopotamian ritual and incantation against Lamashtu-induced illness. Those of you who fear for your family’s safety–or who see long, strange fingers peeking around your doorframe when you’re lying sick in bed–perhaps will find the information useful. The ritual goes as follows:

  1. Procure a Lamashtu figurine. (This is stumbling block #1. Good luck.)
  2. Place a sacrifice of bread before the figurine, and pour water over it.
  3. Put the figurine on the back of a black dog.
  4. Have the black dog carry the figurine to be placed at the head of the sick person for three days.
  5. Stuff a piglet’s heart in the figurine’s mouth, and leave it there for the duration of those three days.
  6. Offer further food sacrifices, and recite your incantation thrice daily:

Great is the daughter of Heaven who tortures babies

Her hand is a net, her embrace is death

She is cruel, raging, angry, predatory

A runner, a thief is the daughter of Heaven

She touches the bellies of women in labor

She pulls out the pregnant women’s baby

The daughter of Heaven is one of the Gods, her brothers

With no child of her own.

Her head is a lion’s head

Her body is a donkey’s body

She roars like a lion

She constantly howls like a demon-dog.

7. At dusk on the third day, take the figurine outside and bury it near the wall.

Easy-peasy, right? At least the stakes aren’t life or dea–oh, wait. Yes they are.

I’ll leave you to it.

How many dead houseplants and brutal sinus infections can you blame on Lamashtu? Share your story in the comments below.

It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Fishmen: The Finfolk

Growing up, my bedtime stories were the works of H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Edgar Allen Poe, and Doctor Seuss. This may explain a bit about me). The Shadow Over Innsmouth particularly came to life for me; it left such an impression that I enjoy ocean-centered nightmares to this day. Imagine my delight, then, on discovering a blog post about the Orkney Finfolk, a group of gloomy fish-people who like to steal humans and live in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea (*ahem* Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. I should mention that I’m not the first one to make a connection to the Cthulhu mythos, either). These Finfolk have a lot in common with the fishy villagers of Innsmouth, but are–perhaps literally–several centuries older.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
Something like a Finwife, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, the Finfolk seem kin to mermaids or selkies, but you’d be a fool to mistake them as such. They come in two genders. Finmen at first appear like any other man, but a closer look reveals that their “clothes” are actually artfully folded fins arranged specifically to fool humans. Their faces are dark and gloomy, their eyes black. Finwives, on the other hand, look more or less like mermaids (unless they look like old hags, but we’ll get to that in the moment). Topless in the freezing North Sea waves, they dust themselves with crushed pearls and cry out at fisherman. These are the Finfolks’ natural forms, but really they might appear in any form, as they are accomplished sorcerers and shapeshifters. They might show up as driftwood, as a tree, as someone close to you…

Nothing stops the Finfolk from crossing from sea to land: unlike selkies, they come and go as they please (several sites describe them as “amphibious”). Their motivations for venturing into human territory are two-fold: 1) to cheat or otherwise obtain silver, which they are obsessed with, and 2) to steal humans, whom they will drag away screaming and then force into permanent matrimonial servitude.

Obviously, this latter threat is what the people of the Orkney islands were most concerned with. They told stories all the way up through the 19th century of women disappearing off beaches and men out of boats; spouses abducted onto crafts that flew across the waves with unnatural speed; floating plants bursting to life to snatch a passerby into the cold, grey water. Depending on the season, the kidnapped’s destination was either the magical, vanishing island of Hildaland or the fearful Finfolkaheem, an opulent kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Both are described as Finfolk utopias, though for the human captives, they would be more like hell.

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Underwater Kingdom painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First there is the particular torture of the places themselves. Hildaland is guarded by monstrous whales and hideous tusked Finmen, so good luck getting rescued out of there, never mind escaping it. It’s surrounded by mist; mortal boats might pass straight through it without realizing that it’s there (if they’re lucky). Finfolkaheem is even worse, though it would certainly be interesting to see. Full of massive crystal halls, multicolored seaweed, tiny phosphorescent creatures, and curtains fashioned after the aurora borealis, the Finfolk raise sea-cattle, ride sea-horses, herd whales, and train sea lions within the city’s borders. For humans, it’s a prison of the worst sort: there’s no escaping from the bottom of the ocean alive (no word on how the Finfolk keep them there to begin with. Sorcery?). That deep, the pressure and darkness alone would be enough to drive you insane.

Worse than the supernatural prisons are the Finfolk spouses themselves. Finmen are notoriously cruel and territorial, even to people they’re not married to (for example, they’ll stab secret holes in the fishing boats that cross them, enjoying the panic of fishermen that realize, too late, that the ocean is swallowing them alive). One of the reasons Finfolk prefer to marry humans (as opposed to each other) is because Finwives age much faster when coupled with their own species; I can only guess that this is because Finmen are moody pains in the a** and beat them mercilessly if they don’t bring home enough silver. The ladies aren’t blameless, though…Finwives pummel their human spouses just as cruelly, and for the same reason. Human spouses of either gender are worked to death, helpless in the face of monsters as old as the ocean itself.

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Eynhallow in 1980, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It does look kind of decimated, doesn’t it?

But some people fought back, and that’s why we don’t see much of the Finfolk today. You see, the Finfolk greed for silver can be turned against them: throw a handful of coins away from yourself, and you might outrun your fishy pursuer. The Finfolk also hate pure salt, which one man in particular took advantage of. After a Finman stole his wife, the Goodman of Thorodale  laboriously figured out where Hildaland was, boated out there, out-bluffed the terrifying creatures in the water, landed on the island, took out a bag, and rained salt everywhere. The Finfolk fled screaming into the sea, taking their livestock and prisoners with them. Their fields dried up, and Hildaland ceased to be a magical place. Now it is called Eynhallow; you can visit it today.

The final nail in the coffin for the Finfolk seems to have been the arrival of Christianity. Accounts claim that the Finfolk abhor crosses, and the more that appeared on the islands, the deeper they dove. After the 19th century, there ceased to be much mention of them at all.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still be out there, though. Deep beneath the North Sea waves. Dreaming.

How long can you hold your breath underwater? How about in the face of nameless horror? Share your story in the comments below.

Slim Fast: The Pishtaco

Last month’s post on el Sombrerón reminded a couple of my friends of a monster their old high school Spanish teacher told them about. They’d forgotten what the creature was called, but  remembered its legacy well enough for it to still disturb them some ten years later. A quick Google search yielded a goldmine of stories about this monster: the Pishtaco, a  400-year-old Peruvian terror who actually resurfaced in the news back in 2009. In him, we have a magnificent example of how monsters can dramatize the very real nightmares of a community.

Let’s roll back to the legend’s birth. In 1571 Spanish priest Cristóbal de Molina noted a specific revulsion among the Inca: they absolutely refused to bring firewood into the homes the conquistadors; not out of spite, but out of fear. It seemed that word had gotten around that during a battle some fifty years earlier, the Spanish, lacking proper dressing for their wounds, had taken Incan corpses, cut strips of flesh from their backs, and used the some human fat instead.

Now, the Inca knew that their people’s grease must be valuable–certainly it was of a better quality than that of the foreigners, as the Inca grew up with a hardier, healthier lifestyle. Fat was important in their culture; they had a whole deity devoted to it. The Spanish were already exploiting them in almost every other way–why not use that quality fat, as well? The Inca were sure that Spanish were willing to kill them for it to use in their cryptic European medicines.

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A small yet horrifying depiction of Pishtacos in action, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculous? Perhaps not. Funny thing: Europeans really did use human ingredients in their quests for self-improvement, and often. Sure, they often got said ingredients from condemned criminals, but did they treat the indigenous Americans any better? Fat especially was considered a remedy for arthritis and gout, and could be used to speed the healing process. Regardless of whether the Spaniards intended to take it from the Inca or not, Incan fears were not entirely unfounded. Thus the soul of the Pishtaco was born.

This fat-sucking devil appears rather human, and rather European–often he’s even described as having blonde hair. Typically handsome and sporting an impressive beard, the Pishtaco changes his clothing to stay more or less modern with the times. He carries a knife; his eyes flash in the dark. There are stories of him raising a hand to his intended victim, only for the victim to realize that the Pishtaco’s fingers are writhing like worms. As the fingers drop to the the ground, the victim then freezes with terror, giving the creature his opening to attack. This is one of many examples that illustrate how adept the creature is at hypnosis; he doesn’t seem to need more than a command or a look to secure his victim’s fate.

The Pishtaco has been categorized by some as a vampire, albeit an odd one. Though it’s true that in some versions of the legends he eats what fat he extracts, more often he seeks to profit from it, usually by selling it to other foreigners. This role is one of the most fascinating aspects about the creature: he’s an outsider, an invasive species. What exactly the Europeans have been suspected to do with the fat he sells them has changed over the years…first it was incorporated into medicine, then friars were suspected of using it to oil their church bells to make them more sonorous, now it could be used in plane engines or beauty products.

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Human fat, courtesy of Bullenwachter over at Wikimedia Commons. You’re welcome.

So how does he extract the fat from his victims? In the more supernatural versions of the tale, the Pishtaco sucks the fat out through his victim’s skin or inserts a tube to tap them like a woodsman taps sap from a tree. Said to be priapic and rather violent, he occasionally rapes them while he’s at it. Sometimes the victim even survives the procedure, finding a strange gaps in their memory and feeling suddenly lightheaded and weak. In the more literal (and recent) accounts, the Pishtaco is less forgiving. He dismembers the victim entirely, then strings their body parts up to hand over an open flame, bottles lined under to collect their dripping fat.

It was a few of these grease-filled bottles that caused such a stir in 2009. The Peruvian police reported that they’d apprehended a group of men who had been trafficking human lard since the 1980’s. There was video footage of the trafficker’s lab, complete with stacks of  bones and a half-rotted man’s head. One of the men confessed to selling the bottles of fat–which tested positive as human–to the Italian Mafiosi for $15,000 a pop. The police said that this grease was to be used in European skin softener. The legendary Pishtaco had suddenly come terribly to life.

Fortunately, this particular incident turned out to be a hoax: there wasn’t really any fat sold to the Europeans (or at least, no one could find anyone who might have been buying it), and the numbers and locations of alleged victims and perpetrators didn’t add up. Unfortunately, the police were the ones perpetrating the hoax, and had done so to cover up a secret governmental death squad that killed 46 people over the span of two years. This was a horror of its own, and did little to quell Peruvians’ fears. People continued (and still continue) to see Pishtacos everywhere. They are the businessman with his briefcase; the fellow with headphones giving you the side-eye. Some say the Pishtacos are planning an onslaught; some even claim they plan to harvest hundreds of Peruvians to pay off the national debt.

Though there hasn’t been any big news since the police scare, I doubt that the Pishtaco’s story is over. Even if human fat trafficking is a stretch, organ trafficking isn’t. What’s more, the perpetrators in 2009  never themselves claimed to be selling things to cosmetic companies–they were more in the line of Satanic candles, which is a little easier to imagine, so there might have be some truth in that tale. Between all this and the terrible historical context of the Andes, it’s no wonder people are jumpy.

Sometimes, the things that go bump in the night come uncomfortably close to reality.

Have you seen (or heard) any Pishtaco-type tales? Did you pronounce the word “fish taco” or “pistachio” in your head, and then giggle uncontrollably? Share your story in the comments below.

The art of avoiding eye contact: Two Face

There has been a picture circulating the depths of the internet; perhaps you’ve seen it. A forlorn man stares off to the left, while a strange, shrunken face grimaces from the back of his skull. “Edward Mordrake,” the picture is labeled, and is often accompanied by a sad tale of a man so ashamed by his mutation that he wouldn’t come out in public. His second face couldn’t speak, but its eyes followed those who crossed it, and it leered when Mordake cried. He said that at night, the face would whisper evil, Satanic things to him in a voice only he could hear. Driven to insanity by this affliction, Mordake committed suicide at the age of twenty-three…or so the story goes. The tale became so popular that it was even picked up in American Horror Story.

Though Mordrake has since been dismissed as a hoax, his is far from the first story of a double-faced monster to capture our imagination.  Let’s not talk about the better known ones today–not Batman’s foe Two-face, nor Doctor Jekyll, nor even the mayor from Nightmare Before Christmas. There’s an earlier, more interesting iteration: a creature known chiefly to the Sioux, Plains, and Omaha tribes.  

Let’s start with a story.

A very pregnant Sioux woman stays behind while her husband hunts in the woods. As she goes about her business, a stranger appears and tries to get her attention. Seized by a terrible intuition, the woman does not look at him, but turns her back and continues to work. The stranger becomes agitated. The woman feels heat and smells something burning.

“Look!” the stranger cries. “A fire!”

But the woman does not turn. She puts the fire out without looking at him–without speaking to him–and the man goes away.

Her husband returns, and the woman tells him about the visit.

“You did well not to look at him,” her husband says uneasily. “This man has an evil power over women. Ignore him, and after his fourth visit, he’ll leave you alone.”

The women assents. The next day, the stranger returns. She ignores him; he starts a fire and cries for her to put it out. She does, but does not look at or speak to him. The same thing happens the next day, the stranger’s antics becoming increasingly wild. The woman does not pay him heed. It is easy.

Now it is the fourth day, and the stranger leaves her lodge in a huff. The woman pauses, then rises to spy on him through the cracks in the wall. She wants to know what manner of creature it is that she has successfully escaped.

What she finds confuses her. The man has razor-sharp elbows, for one–an inhuman trait that is hideous enough by itself. Though he’s turned away, a face on the back of his head meets her eye and grins. His head pivots, and the woman sees that there is a face leering at her from the front, as well.

I knew you’d look,” the stranger says, and rips the woman to pieces. 

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Thank you to Porsche Brosseau on Flickr for this horrifying illustration. See footnote for links to more of their work.

The creature Two-face had as many names as it had terrors associated with it: Hestovatohkeo’o, Héstova’kéhe, Héstóvátóhke, Héstova’éhe, Anuk Ite, Anog Ite, Anukite, Anuk-Ité, Anuk Ite Win, Winyan Nupa. Sometimes people called it Sharp-elbows, thanks to the weaponized joints it used to tear victims apart. Occasionally the creature appeared as a female: The Double-faced woman. Some said it acted alone, others that it was part of a tribe. Some said it was cursed. At times it was a cannibal, but mostly, it just wanted to destroy.

Regardless of the details, the legends repeated the same points: the creature walked among us, trying to get our attention, trying to get us to witness the hideous secret it had hidden on the other side of its skull.  The only weapon against the Two-faced One was inattention and a quick escape. If you met the creature’s eyes, you were good as dead.

A Lakota variation on the legend helps to illuminate what might lay behind the fear of two-faced creatures. This iteration was female, a monster that came to young women in dreams to teach them Quilling. This might seem like an odd detail–why would this two-faced beast spend weeks instructing young women how to attach porcupine barbs to ceremonial robes?–but it makes sense if one considers the importance of the robes, and the difficulty of the task. A good quiller was valuable indeed, but the woman often needed to disregard societal norms to become adept at her art. She would shut herself away, refuse marriage, and sometimes lay with women. In short, by being visited by the creature, young women would develop a covert personality themselves. The Double-Faced One became her natural mentor–someone capable of beauty, but with an edge people didn’t understand.

The metaphor makes  as much sense for her as it does for Doctor Jekyll or Harvey Dent. We’re afraid of what others might be hiding within. We’re even more afraid of finding that thing out–or worse, finding some dark secret within ourselves (looking at you, Mordrake). If anyone discovers that secret, we’re obligated to make sure they don’t spread it around.

And if someone forces his terrible secret on us…well. Watch out for elbows.

Has a bad case of bedhead ever made you concerned about alternate personalities? Share your story in the comments below.  

*Link to Porsche’s work here

Season for Purresents: Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat

Happy holidays, everyone! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Winter Solstice, I hope you’re enjoying these long, dark nights. Doubtless you’ve heard of the horror Krampus, who is making a comeback this year in the public imagination.  We’re not going to talk about him this month, but about another Scandinavian beastie, since that cold, dark area of the world is so ripe with holiday horror. It is my pleasure to introduce the Jólakötturinn, an Icelandic feline with a hunger for human flesh who will teach us the true meaning of Christmas.

Though some claim he’s been around for generations, written accounts of the Jólakötturinn (who in English might be called the Yule Cat, or Christmas Cat) date only back to the 19th century. Said sometimes to live with the terrible ogress Grýla, sometimes to exist on his own, the Yule Cat stalks the Icelandic countryside during the holidays, peering into houses and looking for a human snack. Jóhannes úr Kötlum authored a poem (later adapted by Bjork and translated here from Icelandic) that describes the Jólakötturinn more or less like an ordinary cat, only much larger and with a few exaggerated characteristics:

“You all know the Christmas Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

the two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

to look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

were a terrible sight…”

If the idea of an enormous cat doesn’t scare you, you may want to think twice. How many cats do you know? Sure, they might purr and meow and rub your legs, but have you watched how they treat the odd fly? The mouse? A scrap of wrapping paper? It might very well be that your cat defers to you only because you are much bigger than he; imagine those cute little teeth, those sharp claws, only twenty times larger, with you as the fly, or the scrap of paper. This is the Yule Cat, roaming “at large, hungry and evil/In the freezing Christmas snow.”  Mewling. Moaning. Hunting you.

cat-eating-prey
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In this picture, you would be the bird.

But only if you fit a certain criteria, and this is where the Yule Cat legend gets weird.

While the Yule Cat might have a taste for human flesh generally (with a special emphasis, of course, on children), he can only eat those without a new item of clothing during the holidays. Any article–even as little as a belt or a scarf–could save you from the creature, but if you can’t find one? As the song goes, “you better watch out”–the Yule Cat will come and grab you (or, in milder legends, grab your Christmas dinner, which is not terrifying so much as it is disappointing).

Why the Cat operates with this filter is unknown. Some postulate that he might be acting as sort of macabre fashion police, an incentive for people to keep up with the latest trends. Others wonder if the Cat wasn’t originally an invention of farm heads to encourage hard work before the holidays, promising their employees a fashionable reward in exchange for extra labor. This theme of the Cat inspiring hard work repeats itself: there are accounts of 19th-century women sewing frantically during Advent to make their families new clothes, and the National Museum of Iceland says explicitly that the Cat “helped combat laziness and inertia.” Still today, Icelanders are said to clock in more overtime than most other European nations, and some attribute this to leftover fear of the Cat. But what of those who work very hard, but still cannot make ends meet? Or those unable to work at all?

Because any way you look at it, this monster chiefly tortures the disadvantaged. And that’s where the fuzzy, gooey, Christmas magic comes in: the only way the Jólakötturinn might be  completely defeated is by helping those in need.

Want to avoid seeing your neighbor get disemboweled by foot-long claws? Best wrap them up some socks.

Happy holidays, everyone.

This post is dedicated to Pluto, my beloved droopy-eyed, long-fanged black cat who passed away this December. May he rest in peace, or if he can’t do that, pay us a visit for a true Christmas miracle.

The Kongamato: Destroyer of Boats, Soiler of Underwear

You might remember our visit a few weeks ago to the billabongs of Australia, when we encountered everyone’s favorite dog/sheep/serpent/flippery thing.  Now we travel to the Jiundu backwaters of Zambia, Angola, and the Congo, where something else waits to burst from the murk–a prehistoric monster that should have went extinct, but never did. As it turns out, a lot of scary things can come from swamps.

Accounts of the Kongamato date back to 1745, though given that this “breaker of boats” is essentially a pterosaur and that the locals were already well acquainted with it then, it’s likely to have existed long before. What’s a pterosaur, you ask? A pterosaur is like a pigeon, if the pigeon had a seven foot wingspan, an elongated head, a snout, needle teeth, black eyes, and leathery red or black scales instead of feathers. Also, the pigeon would not only fly, but walk flat-footed or run on all fours, like the Landstriders in The Dark Crystal. The pigeon comparison doesn’t work for you? Fine. Imagine instead the pterosaur subspecies that Jurassic Park has made so popular–the pterodactyl. That is what is living in the Bangweulu swamps. That is what the fisherman there have feared for centuries.

Ivan T. Sanderson, an accomplished biologist and cryptozoologist from the early 20th century, became famous for bringing his account of this hellish reptile back to the Western world. As was usual for kongamato sightings, he encountered the creature at night. Sanderson had just shot a fruit bat, which had then fallen into the water. He was reaching for it when his companion warned him to duck.

“Then I let out a shout also and instantly bobbed down under the water, because coming straight at me only a few feet above the water was a black thing the size of an eagle. I had only a glimpse of its face, yet that was quite sufficient, for its lower jaw hung open and bore a semicircle of pointed white teeth set about their own width apart from each other. When I emerged, it was gone. … And just before it became too dark to see, it came again, hurtling back down the river, its teeth chattering, the air “shss-shssing” as it was cleft by the great, black, dracula-like wings.”

As mentioned, the sighting was not unexpected for the local Kaonde, nor for any number of other tribes near the swamp. Many viewed the Kongamato simply as a danger to be avoided–in the same category as a lion or a rogue elephant, if more rare and more frightening. Though white cryptozoologists were never able to locate bones or other such proof of the creature’s existence, numerous, consistent eyewitness accounts and grevious wounds spoke to something out in the reeds. The kongamato was said to upset boats, attack children, dig up corpses to feed on. It was a fact of life, if an unhappy one.

But for Western tourists, the kongamato was a fascinating treat. Sanderson was far from only one to report back on them; Frank Welland emerged in 1932 to also affirm their existence, emphasizing the compatible accounts from the local people:

“The evidence for the pterodactyl is that the natives can describe it so accurately, unprompted, and that they all agree about it. There is negative support also in the fact that they said they could not identify any other of the prehistoric monsters which I showed them.”

Sightings continued through the 1950’s, with one engineer’s report making it into the newspaper after he saw two “prehistoric” dark birds glide overhead when he went to get his canteen out of his trunk. A year later, another man would be hospitalized nearby with wounds to his chest. When asked to sketch the creature that attacked him, he drew what looked like a pterosaur. Even as late as 1998, Steve Romandi-Menya, a Kenyan exchange student visiting Louisiana, affirmed that the kongamato still haunted the bush-dwellers remaining at home.

Is there something else these could be? Sanderson referred to his kongamato offhandedly as “the Granddaddy of all bats.” Considering that the largest known bat is otherwise the Philippines’ Giant Gold-Crowned Flying Fox–whose maximum wingspan is 5 feet 7 inches–the suggestion that the kongamato is actually a heretofore uncategorized species of them is not implausible, though hardly less horrifying. Another theory is that the kongamato could be a giant stingray which, when disturbed, overturns boats and flaps a bit out of the water, though that does not account for sightings of the kongamato high up in the air or running before taking off, and is not entirely reassuring, either. The simple answer is often the best one; perhaps legends are real. It was just off the coast of Africa that fishermen caught the coelacanth, a marine contemporary of the pterodactyl. Who’s to say the pterosaurs couldn’t have survived mass extinction, too?

In 2010, the Creationist group Genesis Park traveled to the swamps to look for evidence of the kongamato themselves. They interviewed local fisherman and held night-long vigils, but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps it is time we took up the torch. After all, the swamp’s other claim to fame is that they are a popular site for bird-watching. Perhaps we will spot a lovely sparrow in addition to our flesh-eating friend.

Would you come on an ornithological trip to search for a prehistoric hell beast? What three items would you bring, besides a pair of binoculars and your trusty khaki shorts? Share your answers in the comments below.

Blobs in the Deep: The North Carolina Sewage Monster

Warning: My beta reader has referred to the monster of this post as “okay, like, legit disgusting.” If you are eating or are easily disturbed, you might want to sit this one out.

On April 27, 2009, the town of Raleigh, North Carolina contracted South Carolina-based Malphrus Construction to pilot a robotic surveillance camera into the sewers under Cameron Village. They were, they claimed, looking to take a survey of the sixty-year-old system, which had been struggling with infrastructure issues. Later it came out that the company might actually have been looking for a discarded weapon, but once the camera got down below the surface and shined its light into the black, filthy pipes, everyone forgot about that in a hurry.

Imagine, if you will, inching through those conduits: shadows at your back, shadows just beyond the reach of your light. The pipe is small enough that your eyes are nearly at its ceiling, which is speckled with the type of debris one might expect to find in a sewage conduit. Brown water flows steadily over your feet, only to disappear into the darkness ahead. You come across a seam in the pipe that is not as flush as it should be, and cannot fail to notice that there is something bulging out of it, just above the stream of the water.

It is pink and black, bulbous, with tendrils like blood-poisoned veins stretching out to cling to the wall.  Sinewy and visibly slimy, at the touch of your light it shudders and retreats back into the crack, but only a little. It ticks, retracting, and shudders again. Horrified, you try to move forward, only to find two more straight ahead, facing each other across the sides of the tunnel. They sit quietly until you approach, and when you do, retract and retreat again, fighting their own weight, away from the shine of the light.

Think I’m embellishing? Take a look at the video.

When the footage hit the web, many doubted its authenticity. How could such a horror be real? Assuming that it couldn’t, everyone slept a little better. Then Marti Gibson, the Environmental Coordinator for Raleigh Public Utilities, confirmed that it was.  She wrote in addition to i09 and urged people not to worry; the creatures were nothing but slime molds–repugnant, but not worth a panic.

Then, a few hours later, Gibson abruptly retracted that, calling the blobs a collection of worms and stating that regardless, the city of Raleigh was not responsible for the things discovered by a private contractor.

Now it was early July. In the span of four days, the video of what lurked under Cameron Village had been viewed 4.7 million times. Exasperated commenters assured their less well-informed peers that the blobs were just worms–tubifex worms, in fact, the type that people use to feed their fish. Ed Buchan, with the comforting heft of an environmental coordinator position at the Public Utilities Department, assured folks that the tubifex theory made sense. Tubifex worms feed of off debris and are known to cluster in groups about a half inch to an inch in diameter, he said, and conjectured that they’d moved in response to the heat of the light. These worms, he stated, were not dangerous to the water system–were completely harmless. No need to panic.

Biology professor Thomas Kwak at North Carolina State University disagreed. They could not be worms, he said, giving voice to investigators skeptical that Tubifex worms could appear as uniform as the creatures in the pipes did, or move and pulse as one like the blobs had, or never show up individually in the video on or around the mass itself. More likely they were bryozoans, creatures that feed off bacteria, thrive in the dark, and are commonly found both in sea and freshwater environments. But these, he assured everyone, were also harmless. Though they could grow to be the size of a watermelon, they need not be removed from the tube.

Doctor Timothy Wood, bryozoan expert of Wright State University, threw the ball back yet again:

“No, these are not bryozoans! They are clumps of annelid worms, almost certainly tubificids (Naididae, probably genus Tubifex) […] The contractions you see are the result of a single worm contracting and then stimulating all the others to do the same almost simultaneously, so it looks like a single big muscle contracting.”

So the creatures were not bryozoans. And so, the intrepid observer might ask, if they were not those, but also might not have been tubifex worms, what could they be?

An excellent question, and one that seems to have been hastily avoided. Many considered the case closed with the final tubifex argument, but the issue of the blobs appearing to be uniform–without any spare worms around–was never addressed. Nobody went in to take a sample to settle the matter. Nobody pointed out other, less tidy options–the ones you and I might be thinking of now.

Everyone did agree, however, that they wouldn’t take responsibility, and that we really shouldn’t trouble ourselves to go back and bother the creatures again.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Would you?

The Bunyip: Swamp Monster of the Down Under

Let’s play a game. What is thirteen feet tall, bipedal, and with scales all over?

By Robertpeters9 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
No idea? Okay, what is snake-like, but with flippers, and black fur all over?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Not quite? What is essentially an enormous dog, only aquatic and possibly covered with feathers or featuring tusks?

By Macfarlane, J. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Still don’t get it? Surprise! This is the same creature, one and all. Regardless of how it’s appeared, this puppy has been terrifying Australians for some 50,000 years, ever since they first arrived on the continent. It lurks in the swamps, riverbeds, and billabongs;* howls in the night; and has a hunger for human flesh–especially that of women and children. Ladies and gentlemen, meet…the bunyip!

The stories surrounding this terror are only slightly more straightforward than its physical description. The bunyip was said not only to kill people by eating them, but to crush them to death with its arms. Indigenous Australians thought the bunyip to be a malevolent spirit from the Dreamtime, the realm in which earth itself was created.  As such, it was purported to have supernatural powers,  and on a continent full of things that can easily kill you, it scared some people so bad that they would actually avoid water sources for fear of falling in its clutches. Some have suggested that this might account for its varying descriptions–if a person was lucky enough to run into a bunyip and survive, she was likely too afraid to have taken careful stock of what the thing actually looked like.

When white settlers showed up, stories of the bunyip not only persisted, but proliferated. On July 2, 1845, the Geelong Advertiser provided the first written mention of the creature, interviewing indigenous Australians upon the discovery of a strange new bone:

“[T]hey one and all recognized the bone and picture as belonging to the “Bunyip,” repeating the name without variation. One declared he knew where the whole of the bones of one animal were to be found; another stated his mother was killed by one of them, at at Barwon Lakes, within a few miles of Geelong, and that another woman was killed on the very spot where the punt crosses the Barwon at South Geelong. The most direct evidence of all was that of Mumbowran, who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.”

They weren’t the only ones talking about it. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley returned from his adventures living with the Wathaurong people to write a memoir. He himself had seen the bunyip several times–but only a large back drifting through the water, never a tail or head. He, too, knew of a woman who had been killed by one.

But even as the settlers were infected by bunyip fever, descriptions–and interpretation of–the creature began to change. In a rash of sightings in the 1840’s and 50’s, the bunyip went from being a horrifying supernatural predator to a shaggy herbivore the size of a large dog. In March of 1846, the Port Phillip paper reported the sighting of a bunyip (or an immense platypus) sunning himself on the side of the river Yarra. A crowd gathered and a team went to investigate, but the creature disappeared when they came within a few feet away. In 1852, a pair of friends canoeing on Lake Tiberias actually bumped into a bunyip with their boat, whereupon it simply turned and swam out of sight. As the years passed, the bunyip got even smaller–on one occasion in 1886, a couple of horseman came across one near a river, and threw rocks at it to drive it away.

A lack of recent sightings has led some to believe that if the bunyip did exist, it’s gone extinct. But with such a long and complex history, it would be foolhardy to say that nothing could have existed at all.

Even if you disregard supernatural explanations, the bunyip still represents a cultural terror passed down over millennia–a terror that might have been carried over from something very real. It could have been from something as simple as the saltwater crocodile–a known aquatic mankiller–but there were other, bigger things around when humans first arrived on the continent. Take the Diprotodon, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived, who could have existed alongside humans for as much as 20,000 years and whose name means “two forward teeth.” This is the creature crytozoologists point to most often as the inspiration for the bunyip, but there is also the Nototherium, the Zygomaturus, and the “ancient leaper” Palorchestes to consider.

Then we have the theory that for later sightings, witnesses might actually have encountered escaped convicts skulking in the swamp. Nicknamed swaggies, these fellows would evade capture by hiding out in one of the more inhospitable environments of Australia, only to rise, dripping and covered with muck, when the coast was clear. If the observer were forced to choose between that and a supernatural man eater, in theory the former would win, but it’s difficult to say by what margin.

Regardless of what the bunyip is or where it came from, I’ll leave you today with the wise words of a children’s song from Dot and the Kangaroo:

“So you better come come quickly

You better hide very soon

Or the bunyip’s going to get you

In the bunyip

Moon…”

Thanks for reading.

Have you ever seen a bunyip? Perhaps in your local sewer drain, creek, or the quagmire of your neighbor’s overwatered yard? Share your story in the comments below.

*billabong = stagnant river backwaters