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.”

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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. 

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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

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.

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?