I do believe in monsters; I do!: “Night-mares” and SUNDS

I love sleep. I love learning about sleep cycles, the sleeping habits of famous artists, my own bedtimes, and, of course, dreams. My obsession has leaked out a little in this blog: last year we talked a little about the Shadow People, dark figures who show up in people’s bedrooms (among other places) when they’re not quite asleep, yet not quite awake. This year we took on the Popobawa, a Zanzibarian incubus that was real enough to his community that he caused real damage. Really, I figured I probably hold off on the sleep-related terrors for a while. But then I happened upon this article entitled “Can You Really Die in Your Nightmares?”, and…well, this is the result.

First, let’s look closely at the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, sleep paralysis is something that is, arguably, even worse than your worst normal nightmare (“nightmare” meaning frightening dream). The scientific explanation for how sleep paralysis happens goes like this:

  1. There are a number of different sleep cycles we go through each night, from tiny wakening periods to light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep. In REM—that most famous of sleep cycles–our heartbeat increases, our breathing becomes more shallow, our eyes dart back and forth behind closed lids, and we start to dream.
  2. To avoid us acting our dreams of being chased, stabbing zombies, or doing the polka with Captain Hook, our bodies shut down during REM sleep, essentially putting us in a state of temporary paralysis. As we exit REM, the paralysis releases, and we get up, rub our eyes, and try in vain to recall what in the hell just happened. At least, that’s how it normally goes.
  3. But sometimes things go wrong. The body gets out of sync, and we wake up (or think we’re awake), but the paralysis is still gripping us tight and we can’t move or cry out. Right around then is when we start to see things. Hear things. Feel things.
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A famous depiction of sleep paralysis/night-mare/terrible time, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Remnants of dreams, surely. That’s what Western science would have us believe. But if those are remnants of dreams, they are scary as f***. Because the thing with sleep paralysis—and the things we see therein—is that it feels very much like we are awake. We perceive our room as it really is, we’re aware that we’re in bed and have just woken up, so it can be very disconcerting to know all this and then realize that there’s something standing your bedroom corner.

I’ve talked before about how I woke up one night to see a tall figure lurch at me from out of my closet—such a vivid experience that I remember it perfectly almost two decades later. But other people with sleep paralysis have had it worse. It’s common to not only see and/or sense a figure, but to have it on top of you, too feel its weight, and have the air crushed out of your chest. All this, and you can’t scream—can’t even move. The experience can last for several minutes, and can be so horrific that language can’t express it.

A lot of my research for this post came from looking through reviews (and reading sections of) a book called Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection by Dr. Shelley Adler, director of the Osher Center for Integrated Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. In what I’ve read of her book,* Adler points out that while 25-30% of people will experience an episode of sleep paralysis (what she calls a “night-mare”, hearkening back to the original meaning of the word) sometime in their life, in the U.S. the phenomenon is “simultaneously very common and little known.” This might be because, as she explains, our culture enforces a strict dichotomy between what we consider “real” (“visible, measurable, evidence-based”) and “unreal” (“supernatural, religious, unprovable”). We take that “real” and “unreal” things are non-compatible for granted, but that’s something our culture has created for us—the rest of humanity doesn’t necessarily agree.

Nor should they, according to Adler. It is foolhardy to assume that just because we do not currently have the tools to “prove” that something exists must mean that that something does not exist. Also, things that are “not real” can have very real effects.

Sleep paralysis by Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr
A more modern depiction of the joys of sleep paralysis, courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun on Flickr.

Across the U.S. in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, almost 200 people—mostly young, healthy men at an average of 33 years of age—abruptly died in their sleep. Some were said to cry out in the night. Others just went cold. Their spouses and families were stricken; their communities terrified. All of the men were Laotian-Hmong refugees who had recently come to the U.S., but besides that shared little in common. In whispers, they named the phenomenon the Night Terror; people became afraid to go to bed.

The refugees’ families often refused autopsies for religious reasons, but the few that did found no pathological evidence to explain why they died. A few showed slightly enlarged hearts, as if they had just…“shorted out.”

It’s easy to fill in the blanks with your imagination, knowing what we do about how intense little sleep-visitations can be. Adler claims that Laotian beliefs about demons, combined with the stress of being a refugee, might have exacerbated whatever genetic heart problems these men might have had and made their night-mares not just frightening, but deadly. That alone is bananas. But it’s not just Laotians that have died.

Check out this article from the American Journey of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, wherein data collected between 2001 and 2006 in Southern China revealed a whopping 975 cases of SUNDS—Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, what scientists call this mystery death in your sleep. It, too, explores the idea that SUNDS might be associated with funky stuff going on in REM sleep, and the breathing and heart abnormalities that might result. Funky stuff like things being out of sync. Like what happens in sleep paralysis—Adler’s night-mares.

Genetics, again, could play a part, as could stress, socioeconomic background, and being overworked. But that doesn’t change the fact that these SUNDS victims might have faced down something terrible in the dead of night, and that thing could have been the last thing they saw.

We humans face a lot of stressful, frightening things in ordinary life. Their pedestrian nature can be exactly what makes them so scary. So let me offer you the comfort of this supernatural horror, to help you keep things in perspective: in the end, it may not matter whether that monster in your closet is “real” or a leftover dream. He can still kill you.

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A nice closing image to leave you with, courtesy of Fritz Schwimbeck at Wikimedia Commons.

 

Have you ever had an unfriendly night time visitor? One time, while camping, I woke up to find a raccoon standing on my sleeping bag. Share your thoughts on that in the comments below.

 

 

 

* Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to read though all of it yet thanks to moving last weekend and an exceptionally heavy workload at my day job. Apologies to Dr. Adler and everyone else.

 

WANT TO SEE MORE OF GERARD VAN DER LEUN? FIND HIM HERE.

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Courtesy flush: the haunting of the Hotel Galvez

I’m going to be straight with you: this post started with me Googling “bathroom ghost.” I was looking for a monster of a different sort–I enjoyed our Toys-R-Us(™) spirit a while back, and was hoping I could find something similar. Though it’s a little more posh, I came up with the Hotel Galvez.

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Modern-day Galvez seating area, captured by Patrick Feller.

Close up on Galveston, Texas: I’m not on the up-and-up of big vacation hotspots and so didn’t recognize the name, but some of you might. It’s an island in the Gulf Coast, set up to provide the perfect getaway: beautiful beaches, pools, an amusement park, and, of course, luxury hotels. The Hotel Galvez is a king among these, nicknamed the “Playground of the Southwest.” It has been frequented by people like Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart. It’s a beautiful, massive building replicated to look just as it did when it first opened in 1911.

At the time, it was heralded as a symbol of renewal. 11 years before, the deadliest storm in U.S. history swept through Galveston and killed somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Word had it that the inhabitants of an orphanage were among the dead–in one case, the remains of a nun were found still tied to those of the children she was trying to lead to safety. There were so many bodies among the wreckage that the remaining Galveston residents decided to bury them en masse at sea. That didn’t work so well: the next time the tide came in, bloated, rotting corpses came in with it. These were hastily burned, and the island resumed its struggle to rise from the sodden ashes.

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The Hotel Galvez in all its glory, brought to you by Galveston.com.

The Galvez helped rebuild Galveston, bringing in tourists and money. It also brought lovers. In the late 1950’s, a woman named Audra stayed there to wait for her fiance, a sailor due to come in from Gulf for their wedding. Naturally (as I’m reporting her story on Monster Meet), Audra’s love was doomed. Her fiance’s ship went down in another terrible storm; Audra was told no one made it out alive. She hung herself upon learning the news–either in the bathroom of her room (501 or maybe 505, depending on who you ask), or in a turret elsewhere in the hotel. Because life is cruel, Audra’s fiance showed up shortly thereafter, in perfect health and anxious to see her.

For those of you keeping track, we now have 8,000+ violently dead, including nuns, orphans, and a heartbroken bride snuffed out at her prime–three types of ghosts so common as to be almost stereotypical. The stage is set: now let’s turn off the lights and watch what happens.

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Galvez dining area cerca 1911, courtesy of the DeGloyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

Unless they are in the habit of Googling “is this hotel haunted” as part of their vacation planning, guests at the Galvez may at first have no idea that anything is amiss. Then they might notice a painting in the hall whose eyes seem to follow them, or pass two strange women in 19th-century outfits who vanish before you can look at them twice. The ladies bathrooms can also hold a surprise: on the most casual end of encounters, toilets flush repeatedly over the disembodied sound of children laughing.* On the more intense end, sobs fill the empty bathroom and the stalls rattle violently, making it very difficult for the living to poop in peace.

Guests’ rooms offer even more fun, especially if they’re on the 5th floor. Orbs of light float through walls, footsteps echo down the empty hall, and every once in awhile, someone will wake up to find a woman in white standing at the foot of their bed.  As you can imagine, if you’re not expecting this type of thing to happen and then it does, you might leave some nasty Yelp reviews. One woman on TripAdvisor rated the Galvez 2 stars because something repeatedly blasted her phone’s dial tone as soon as she turned off the lights (her rather sour review is titled “They didn’t tell us it was haunted”). Commenters elsewhere have reported flashing lights; invisible things climbing into their beds; and even something biting them, leaving marks that wouldn’t go away. In many cases, when guests report these mishaps to the staff, the staff just shrug. “That’s how it goes. It’s haunted here.”

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With all the breaking glasses and candles that won’t say lit, bartending at the Galvez must be a pain. (Photo cred to Patrick Feller)

They’ve got good reason to be jaded. If the guests are put upon, the staff are twice so.  One woman’s dusting was interrupted by the erratically flushing toilets and invisible laughing children; she ended up having to yell “I’m in here” to get them to stop. Another came in early for her shift in reception and received a call from one of the rooms that was not only vacant, but also in the middle of being renovated and had no phone in it at all (no one spoke on the other end of the line, and when the poor woman hung up, she realized her phone wasn’t even turned on, either). There have been glasses that fly off of tables and break themselves, candles that blow out on their own, and the presence of a strange man in the corner of the laundry room.

Then there’s dealing with the ghost hunters. The Galvez attracts plenty. Some come in low-key with EMF detector apps on their phone (yeah…I don’t know about that one, either) to see what they can find. One woman said that she communicated with Audra using the app: she asked Audra about herself, and Audra’s response was “Bathroom. Ow.” Other hunters come in with more advanced equipment, with more dramatic results. The Galveston ghost hunters went to stay on the 5th floor while it was being renovated, and witnessed all of the room doors slam against their safety catches for a few minutes. They also captured the image of what appears to be a nun.

Fortunately for everyone, the ghosts of the hotel Galvez don’t appear to have any darker plans than to be mildly irritating. So far. Business at the hotel seems to be doing well, whether in spite of or because of the ghosts. Between wedding pictures and shots of a brilliant blue pool, the Galvez Facebook page showcases a photo of a cocktail named “Ghost Bride,” so they don’t seem to be afraid of cashing in on their unorthodox reputation. Whether you’re looking to tan on the sundeck or poop your pants in long, empty hall of the 5th floor, the Galvez seems like the place to be.

Have you ever heard someone flushing the toilet while laughing maniacally? Have you been that person? Share your story in the comments below.

*Proof that bathroom humor never dies.

LINKS TO PHOTOS:

Patrick Feller, via Flickr

Galveston.com, via Flickr

Southern Methodist University, via Flickr

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.

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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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The 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. 

twofaced
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see you on the 17th.

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