November 13, 2019

Folklore and Pagan Gods in The Lighthouse

My work schedule has been very busy the last few weeks, but I did manage to see The Lighthouse, the new film by Robert Eggers, the New Hampshire-born director who gave us The Witch a few years ago. My review is a little delayed but I wanted to post it anyway because The Lighthouse has some interesting New England folklore in it. Be warned: my review has a few (but not many) SPOILERS.


The plot is relatively simple. In the late 1800s, two lighthouse keepers (or wickies as they're called) arrive for duty at a lighthouse located on a small rocky island off the coast of Maine. The older wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) has served on the island many times before. His new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a former lumberjack reporting for his first stint in a lighthouse. When asked what happened to his previous assistant, Wake replies that he went insane and became convinced the lighthouse was enchanted and that merfolk haunted the island. Oh, and by the way Wake adds, never kill a seabird because they contain the souls of dead sailors.


After this ominous set-up the two men settle into a monotonous routine. As the senior lighthouse keeper Wake tends to the actual light itself, a role he guards jealously. He forbids Winslow from even entering the chamber at the top of the lighthouse and instead assigns to him all the manual labor: hauling coal, cleaning their tiny living quarters, and emptying bedpans. Winslow grows to resent his poor treatment, and his unhappiness is only compounded by a one-eyed seagull that regularly torments him. Winslow's sole pleasure is a scrimshaw mermaid he finds hidden in his mattress which fuels his sexual fantasies.

Over the course of their four-week stint the two men gradually come to an understanding, but things become complicated when the ship that is supposed to bring their replacements is delayed by a powerful storm. The men are stuck on the island. The storm lasts for weeks, and when their liquor runs out Wake and Winslow start to drink kerosene sweetened with honey. And that's when things start to get really weird...


As he did with The Witch, Robert Eggers incorporates local folklore into his film to make it feel authentic. Much of the dialogue was influenced by 19th-century writers including Sarah Orne Jewett, whose novels and stories were drawn from her experience living in Maine. I've read that Eggers used Jewett's work to craft the two distinct dialects the lighthouse keepers speak: Wake's nautical one and Winslow's inland Maine dialect. I think Willem Dafoe has the easier job, since he basically gets to talk like a pirate or Mr. Crabs from Spongebob Squarepants. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, has to speak with an accent somewhere between a classic Boston accent and the "Yah cahn't theyah from heyah" Mainer accent. He does a good job though, and I enjoyed hearing him deliver his dialogue.


One of the key plot points is Wake's admonition to never kill a seabird. This is an actual piece of nautical folklore although I think it is particularly local. Many people are familiar with it from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where a ship becomes cursed after a sailor kills an albatross. According to this article the belief was still extant as late as 1959, when sailors transporting an albatross in a cage blamed various malfunctions on the bird's accidental death.

However, there is one possible link to Maine's folklore. Maine lumberjacks believed that is was bad luck to kill gray jays (also known as gorbeys), which were small birds that frequented lumber camps. They were said to be the souls of dead lumberjacks, and hurting a gray jay would bring grave misfortune. In one tale a brutish lumberjack plucks the feathers from a gray jay on a cold winter night, thinking it is the soul of a deceased colleague that he despised. When he awakes in the morning he finds he finds himself bald, weak, and constantly pursued by stormy weather. He had plucked the feathers from his own soul.


The island in The Lighthouse may be haunted by a mermaid. I won't give away too much, but if it is she's definitely not the happy Little Mermaid variety. There are quite a few mermaid and merman stories from New England, and none of them are happy. They're much closer to horror stories than fairy tales.


One of the earliest comes from John Josselyn's 1674 book An Account of Two Voyages to New England. Josselyn, an Englishman, visited New England in 1633 and 1638. While visiting Maine some of the settlers told him about strange things that had happened to them.
One Mr. Mittin related of a triton or merman which he saw in Casco Bay. This gentleman was a great fowler, and used to go out with a small boat or canoe, and fetching a compass about a small island (there being many small islands in the bay), for the advantage of a shot, was encountered with a triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the canoe, had one of them chopt off with a hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man. The triton presently sunk, dyeing the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.
Gruesome. Merfolk were generally believed to be aggressive, and an almost identical encounter with a violent merman supposedly happened in Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, according to author Edward Rowe Snow. 

Snow also claims that in 1900 a lighthouse keeper at Nantucket's Great Point saw something humanoid emerge from the ocean and crawl into the woods near the beach. Other people who lived nearby saw signs that something large had crawled through the underbrush and made a nest. It's kind of creepy. The plot of The Lighthouse might not be that far from reality (or at least folklore). 


There are several references to classical Greek and Roman gods in The Lighthouse. The myth of Prometheus, the Titan who was punished for stealing fire from Mount Olympus, is alluded to throughout the movie, as is the myth of Proteus, the shapeshifting Old Man of the Sea. I was also struck by this curse that Wake hurls at Winslow when the younger man complains about Wake's cooking:

WAKE: Hark, Triton, Hark! Bellow, and bid our father, the sea king, rise up from the depths, full-foul in his fury, black waves teeming with salt-foam, to smother this young mouth with pungent slime... 
(addressed directly to Winslow)... to choke ye, engorging yer organs till ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more... only when, he, crowned in cockle shells with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, takes up his fell, be-finn├Ęd arm -– his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and runs you through the gullet, bursting ye, a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now -- a nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself, forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea... for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea.

Triton was the son and herald of the sea-god Poseidon and mermen were sometimes called 'tritons' after him (as in Josselyn's account). Wake seems to be invoking Poseidon but the 'slithering tentacled tail' also makes me think of H.P. Lovecraft's squid-like deity Cthulhu, and Eggers has said that Lovecraft's weird fiction was one of the film's inspirations.


The references to classical mythology are more prominent than the nods to Lovecraft, though, and I don't think they are out of place in a film set in New England. Many of the original English colonists were well-versed in classical mythology. For example, Thomas Morton invoked a variety of pagan gods (including Neptune, Triton, Priapus and Ganymede) at his 1628 May Day celebration in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course, the Pilgrims at Plymouth weren't too happy about this and burned down his settlement, but even the die-hard Puritans of Boston and Connecticut knew their ancient gods. For example John Winthrop Jr., the son of Massachusetts's first governor, was so skilled in alchemy and medicine that his peers dubbed him the Christian Hermes. 

In 1776, four captive British sailors carved a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine, for an innkeeper in Windham, Connecticut, while in 1820 Ephraim Lyon of Eastford, Connecticut started a church of Bacchus and declared himself its priest. Perhaps Lyon was just really the town drunk, but in the 1800s many large New England towns also built athenaeums, libraries named after the Greek goddess of wisdom. Many athenaeums were decorated with statues of her. In downtown Boston there are also several large mercantile buildings from the late 19th century decorated with statues of Poseidon and Hermes as well. New England was founded by Puritan Christians but they brought the gods of their ancestors with them as well. We can try to escape the past but it usually catches up with us, which is one of the film's themes.


I'm the perfect audience member for The Lighthouse. I like horror movies, I like art films, and I love weird old New England stuff. I enjoyed The Lighthouse and will probably see it again. It had good actors, beautiful cinematography, sea shanties, writhing tentacles, a sinister seagull, and something gruesome in a lobster trap. 

I'm curious how audiences will react to the movie. When I saw The Witch some audience members were puzzled and angry after it ended because it was not the straightforward horror film they expected. The Lighthouse is much weirder than The Witch and even harder to categorize. Is is a dark slapstick comedy? A mythopoetic meditation on the price we pay to tell the truth? A 19th century nautical version of The Odd Couple with repressed erotic undertones? If you see it let me know what you think.

November 03, 2019

Encountering A Ghost at New Hampshire's Haunted Resort

Well, another Halloween has come and gone. I'm a little sad because it's one of my favorite holidays but I console myself at its passing by knowing that the truly spooky season has just begun. Halloween kicks off the darkest time of the year. The days are rapidly getting shorter, the trees are growing bare, and we set the clocks back tonight. Boston may even see some snow flurries on Friday.

In other words, we're entering the bleak, barren time of the year.  It's the perfect time for weird tales and ghost stories - particularly if they might be true. Someone emailed me a story (which might be true) just last week and gave me permission to share it. Here it is for your November pleasure.


In October of this year a Canadian woman (I'll call her Shawna), her daughter, and a cousin decided to visit New Hampshire during foliage season. Their trip included staying at the Bretton Woods Resort. Bretton Woods is one of the great New England resorts, with a fabulous old grand hotel (the Mount Washington) and the smaller Bretton Arms Inn on the grounds. Bretton Woods has everything you could want in a mountain resort: good food, fireplaces, hiking and horseback trails that wind through the woods and along rivers, and skiing in the winter.

Lobby of the Mount Washington Hotel.

Bretton Woods also has a ghost. Shawna discovered this first hand during her visit while staying at the Bretton Arms Inn.
On our first night my teenaged daughter woke up screaming that she saw an apparition beside her bed (we were in a bedroom with two twin beds adjacent to the main room). As a result we had to sleep with the lights on for the second night. For the record, my daughter does not believe in ghosts (at all) and does not suffer from nightmares
I put it from my mind until a week after we returned to Toronto and Googled Mt Washington Resort when I discovered the resort has a history of this (we had no idea before).
Like most paranormal accounts the story is quite short. I think it's interesting that Shawna didn't know about the resort's haunted history. It makes her story more credible.


The ghost that haunts Bretton Woods is said to be the spirit of Caroline Stickney, the wife of Joseph Stickney, a wealthy industrialist who built the Mount Washington Hotel in 1902. Mr. Stickney died one year after the hotel was completed, but Caroline remarried a wealthy European prince and continued to spend her summers at the hotel. She had a private suite she stayed in, and even had a special balcony built above the main dining room so she could survey what the other guests were wearing. She wanted to be sure that she was the best dressed person in the room! 

A portrait of Caroline Stickney at the Mount Washington Hotel.

Caroline Stickney died in 1936. The winter after she died a hotel caretaker reported seeing strange things. He said he saw a well-dressed woman walking into the dining room at night - and there were no guests staying in the hotel at the time. That winter other staff reported that lights would turn themselves off and on when no one was in the room.

Caroline's ghost has haunted the resort ever since. She is a benevolent ghost but can be frightening to those who aren't prepared for the encounter. Her spirit is the most active in Room 314 of the Mount Washington Hotel, which was her private suite while alive. Guests who stay in this room often report a wide range of strange phenomena including flickering lights, faucets and fireplaces that turn themselves on and off, and objects disappearing. 

Tony and I stayed at Bretton Woods way back in November 2013. There weren't a lot of guests at the time since foliage season had ended and ski season hadn't begun. Our room was in the Mount Washington and the hotel, with its long empty corridors and formal public spaces, reminded me of the one in The Shining. We didn't encounter anything ghostly but we did have dinner with a family member who lived in the area. She had once worked at a conference there and had seen strange things happen. Office supplies vanished only to reappear someplace else, and files had moved around on their own. 

As a hotelier who loved the Bretton Woods I don't think Caroline Stickney means any harm to the guests. But still it must be quite a shock to wake up in the middle of the night and see her standing above your bed.

October 24, 2019

Pickets, Cabbages, and the Pigman: Halloween Lore

I used to have a neighbor from Detroit, Michigan. One day in the fall while we were discussing the neighborhood trick-or-treaters he told me that he wasn't a big fan of Halloween.

When he was a kid in Detroit the night before Halloween was called Devil's Night, and it was a night for arson and vandalism. Teenagers would light fires across the city and burn down abandoned buildings, of which there were a lot at the time. In 1984, there were more than 800 fires in Detroit on October 30. Yikes! Happily things have gotten much better since then and in 2018 there were only four fires on Devil's Night.

His experience in Detroit was much different from mine growing up in the 1970s in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The night before Halloween didn't have a special name or any activities (criminal or otherwise) associated with it. Kids might pull some pranks on Halloween night itself (egging houses, throwing toilet paper in trees) but nothing as serious as arson. The main focus was on trick-or-treat (before it was banned because of a poison candy scare) and Halloween parties. And it was definitely only a one day celebration. There were no other days with special names.

Vintage photo from this site.

I assumed that's how things always were but I was wrong. Like all holidays Halloween changes and evolves over time. When my mother was a child in Haverhill during the 1940s there were three nights of activity around Halloween. Three! Here's an account by Charles W. "Charlie" Turner that appeared in The Haverhill Gazette's October 27, 2005 issue. Charlie's looking back nostalgically to his childhood in the Acre, a dense urban neighborhood in Haverhill:
"It all began on October 28, which was known as Cabbage Night. ... Many families raised cabbages in their gardens and young men went there to steal them. Afterwards, they raced through the streets throwing the plants at houses along the way. Ma warned me to stay away from the windows just in case..." 
"The second night, Oct. 30, was called Beggars-Night. This was the night when children put on their costumes and went from door to door in search of treats. ..." 
"On Oct. 31, Halloween came and most everybody stayed home. This was the night for mischief ... a return to those places that ignored a child's request for a treat. Most of the time it was cut clotheslines and soaped windows in our neighborhood. However, on the other side of Main Street, things could be worse. There were broken windows, messes on porches, and even an occasional tipped car." 
It turns out that special names for either Halloween or the days surrounding it were once common across the country. Most of them were coined after the pranks that kids pulled. Baltimore had Moving Night (because you moved things out of your neighbor's yard), Ohio had Doorbell Night (because of ring and run) and Vermont had Clothesline Night (because you'd throw toilet paper on clotheslines).

Are any of those special names for Halloween or the days surrounding it still in use today? Well, I think the citizens of Northfield, Vermont still observe Picket Night on October 30, when kids steal pickets from fences.

I know this because Northfield is supposedly home to one of New England's creepiest monsters: the Pigman! This porcine terror is associated with Picket Night and Halloween. According to one version of the legend, on October 30, 1951 a high school student named Sam Harris left his house for some Picket Night fun. He was planning to egg houses, throw toilet paper, and steal pickets with some friends. But he never showed up at the rendezvous point to meet his friends, and he never went back to his parents' house either. Sam Harris was never seen again. It was as if he vanished into thin air.

Did he vanish, or was he transformed? Later that fall someone (or something?) strange was seen in the woods outside town. It had the body of man but the head of a hideous pig. People in Northfield whispered that it was really Sam Harris and that he had sold his soul to the Devil. He had become a hideous pigman. 

Image from American Horror Story.

The town historian responded to these rumors with a column in the local paper. There were no such things as monsters, she wrote, and Sam Harris had been a good boy and a model citizen. But the day after the column was published the historian was found murdered in the Devil's Washbowl, a desolate area in the woods. The words "PICKET NIGHT" were carved into her flesh. The message was clear: the Pigman was real. Something monstrous and piglike is still said to be lurking in the woods outside Northfield to this day...

How's that for a story? There are several different legends associated with the Pigman but that one is particularly creepy and very appropriate for Halloween. It's nice to know that weird old folklore is still being celebrated in New England. Have a safe and happy holiday but whatever name you celebrate it!

October 15, 2019

Bunhgole Liquors: Salem's Haunted Liquor Store

A few weeks ago we went up to Salem on a pre-Halloween excursion. We did a lot of our usual things. We drank cocktails made with pumpkin vodka. We visited witchcraft stores. We bought candy at Ye Olde Pepper Company. We visited a cheesy haunted house where we had to wear 3-D glasses.

You get the idea. We also took photos of Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street. It's a popular photo stop because it has a cool retro sign and "bunghole" sounds like a dirty word. Of course a bunhgole is actually the hole cut into a wooden cask so liquor can flow out, but the owners of Bunhole Liquors still play up the raunchy innuendo of the name. Their website has the motto "We're not #1 butt we're right up there," and you can buy t-shirts with slogans like "I Got It In the Bunghole."

Like many places in Salem, Bunghole Liquors is surrounded by some strange legends and weird history. According to their website the building on Derby Street was originally a funeral home where embalming was performed in the basement. During Prohibition the funeral home operated as a speakeasy. Guests would drink contraband alcohol in the basement surrounded by corpses and embalming equipment. It sounds creepy to me but I guess some people will do anything for a drink! The secret password to get in was "See you in the bunghole."

There are persistent rumors that a network of tunnels once ran between various buildings in Salem, and according to Sam Baltrusis's book Wicked Salem the bootlegging morticians smuggled in their illicit booze using a tunnel that ran from the basement of the funeral home down to the harbor. Is that true or just a rumor? I don't know but you can read more about Salem's tunnels in Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin's 2012 book Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City.

After Prohibition the owner of funeral home gave up on embalming and went into the liquor business legally. In 1933 Bunghole Liquors became the second liquor store to open in Salem after Prohibition.  The tunnel (if it existed) was sealed up and the embalming equipment was sealed in the walls behind plaster. So let that sink in for a minute. Bunghole Liquors used to be a funeral home. Corpses were embalmed in the basement. The equipment was just shoved into the walls and hidden away. And there may have been a secret tunnel.

That sounds like the setup for a horror film to me, and unsurprisingly some staff at Bunghole Liquors have reported some strange things when working late. According to Baltrusis's Wicked Salem workers at the Bunghole tend to avoid the basement, a location where security cameras have recorded unexplained lights. Several have reported seeing a woman disappear after walking into the store. Perhaps strangest of all are the accounts of an unseen phantom cat that rubs against the legs of people working there. 

It's all kind of spooky, but what do you expect from a store that sells wine, beer and spirits? Get it? Spirits? I know, a bad pun. 

October 06, 2019

Slipperyskin: Bear, Monster, or Spirit?

If you've ever encountered a bear out in the woods you know they can be pretty scary. But do you know what's even scarier than a bear? A super-intelligent bear. One that is sly, tricky and really hates humans.

People in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom were supposedly harassed by such a creature in the 1700s. The Wabanaki Indians called him Wejuk or "wet skin" because he always slipped away when they tried to capture him. Following the Wabanaki lead the the English settlers called him Slipperyskin.

Slipperyskin caused a lot of trouble. He knocked over fences, terrorized livestock, and ruined cornfields. Those are probably things any ordinary bear might do, but Slipperyskin was no ordinary bear. He was a very intelligent and tricky bear, so he also put rocks into maple syrup buckets and farm machinery. He once rolled a log at hunters who were chasing hime. He even threw stones at small children walking to school. Bears don't have opposable thumbs so I'm not sure how he accomplished this.

It was pretty obvious Slipperyskin didn't like humans. The feeling was mutual and many attempts were made to catch or kill the pesky bear. None were ever successful but at least one was quite humorous. In the early 1800s Vermont governor Jonas Galusha came up with a scheme to trap Slipperyskin. The governor doused himself with female bear scent and walked into the woods, hoping to lure Slipperyskin into a clearing where hunters waited with rifles. Mere minutes after heading into the woods the governor ran into the clearing chased by an amorous Slipperyskin. The hunters fled in panic at the sight of the giant lustful bear. Governor Galusha escaped with his life but sustained severe damage to his dignity.

Although he was quite a terror Slipperyskin never killed anyone but he was once accused of eating a minister. One day a group of ministers were picnicking on the shores of Westmore's Lake Willoughby when the bear emerged from the bushes with a furious roar. The holy men fled in all directions as the ursine horror attacked their picnic lunch.

After Slipperyskin departed they returned to the picnic ground. All of the ministers were present expect one. The ministers looked with dread upon the picnic blanket where a mass of torn clothes and amorphous biological matter hinted at the grim fate of their missing companion. It was clear the bear had killed and devoured him. However, closer examination later showed the disgusting mess to be half-eaten cheese and not a human corpse. Their missing companion was later found alive and well. Under the cover of the bear attack he had secretly fled an unhappy life in Vermont and set up a new one in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Vermonters stopped seeing Slipperyskin in the early 1800s but his legend lives on. Some of the stories about him, like those with the governor and the ministers, are pretty humorous and I wonder how seriously we're supposed to take the stories about this clever and infuriating bear. Was he even real? After all, bears don't normally do the things Slipperyskin did. 

Some Bigfoot researchers think the stories are really garbled accounts of Sasquatch encounters but I'm not entirely convinced. I think the Wabanaki would be able to reliably identify a bear, as would the English frontiersmen who were settling in Vermont. And besides, does it make sense to explain away a legendary bear with a legendary hairy humanoid?

There's a big chance Slipperyskin might just be a tall-tale people told to amuse each other. Still, folks in New England have been encountering weird things in the woods for centuries, and often those weird things throw rocks and cause mischief. They ruin farm machinery and cause trouble in bars. At different times people have called them witches, demons, poltergeists, Bigfoot, or even Slipperyskin. Maybe they're all just different manifestations of some strange phenomenon associated with this corner of the country.

Think of it this way. Perhaps Slipperyskin was just one manifestation of the New England genius loci, which is a Latin term meaning "spirit of a place." Maybe this clever bear was just a particularly cranky version of the spirit of this stony and wooded corner of the country. Then again, does it make sense to explain away a legendary Vermont bear with a concept from ancient Roman religion? Maybe not but it's interesting to consider. 

I first learned about Slipperyskin in books by Vermont's Joseph Citro. A great source of information about him is this article in The Northland Journal