November 25, 2012

American Horror Story and New England Folklore

This fall, Tony and I have been watching American Horror Story: Asylum on the FX channel. The show is lurid, violent and cheesy, but it shows me things I've never seen on TV before, and it's definitely not boring.

While watching the first episode I was surprised (and excited) to see that the show draws upon New England folklore. 

The series is set in and around Briarcliff Manor, a large insane asylum in Massachusetts. (The audience is reminded throughout the series of the Massachusetts setting by the Boston accents the actors attempt with varying success.) In the current day, a young newlywed couple played by Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum are exploring Briarcliff, which has been abandoned for many years and is rumored to haunted. A system of tunnels run underneath the hospital out into the woods. Needless to say, bad things happen.

Briarcliff Manor
While I was watching I was immediately reminded of Danvers State Hospital, the notorious asylum in Massachusetts which was abandoned for many years. The similarities are too big just to be coincidence. The Massachusetts setting, the haunted abandoned insane asylum, the tunnels underneath - it all makes me wonder if the show's creators have some connection with Massachusetts, or maybe just really loved Session 9. Briarcliff even looks similar to Danvers.

Danver State Hospital before it was renovated

The main storyline in American Horror Story: Asylum is set not in 2012, however, but in 1964 when Briarcliff is a bustling asylum run by the Catholic church. In the first episode we're introduced to various residents, including Kit Walker, a white Massachusetts man suspected of murdering his African-American wife and other local women. Therapists claim that guilt over hiding their interracial marriage drove him to become a murderer.

Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Alma Walker (Britne Olford)

But Kit tells the therapists what sounds like an unbelievable story. He and his wife were abducted by extra-terrestrial aliens who probed and experimented on them. His wife is not dead, but is still off somewhere with the aliens.

Betty and Barney Hill

I almost fell off the couch when I saw these scenes. This situation (an interracial couple abducted by aliens in the 1960s) is clearly a reference to Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple from New Hampshire who claimed they were abducted by aliens in 1961. The Hill's story is well known, and inspired the book The Interrupted Journey and the movie The UFO Incident. Some people have theorized that the stress of being an interracial couple in the early 60s led to their concocting the UFO abduction story.

Just to be very clear, neither of the Hills were murdered and they were never confined to an insane asylum. The theory about the stress of their interracial marriage also seems a little lacking, since thousands of people of many races have also claimed they were abducted. But the American Horror Story writers are clever to use the Hills as an inspiration for their show, which deals thematically with the conflicts between religion and science, and with the various civil rights movements (feminism, racial equality, gay rights) that were bubbling up in the early 1960s.

Just a final warning if you haven't watched American Horror story yet. If you are squeamish about violence, weird sexual situations, and poorly done Boston accents don't watch this show. But you should definitely watch if you want to see something crazy that is loosely inspired by some famous folklore from this area.

November 18, 2012

Boiled Cider Pie

Thanksgiving is one of New England's great gifts to American culture. Originating in Puritan feast days, the holiday gradually spread across the country bringing turkey, stuffing and pies with it.

Modern Americans eat a wide variety of pies on Thanksgiving, many of them unrelated to the holiday's origins in New England. Let's face it, the Puritans weren't eating coconut cream or key lime pie, so a few years ago I wrote about the obscure pies of old New England, like squash pie, mincemeat pie, and boiled cider pie.

At the time I had never eaten or made a boiled cider pie, but this year in honor of Thanksgiving I decided to give it a try. I was really happy with the results.

Boiled cider is not something you see in many 21st century pantries. Its use has been recorded as early as the 1670s in western Massachusetts, and it was a common sweetener in the Colonial era. It makes sense. Molasses and sugar were expensive imports, but apple cider was locally produced and inexpensive. You can still buy boiled cider at country stores in northern New England and online from the King Arthur store, but I decided to make my own using instructions from an old Yankee Magazine cookbook.

It was easy, but took a long time. I poured a gallon of cider into a large pot, and then boiled it at high heat until it was reduced to a single cup of gelatinous goop. Even though I boiled it over high heat it still took around two and a half hours! I didn't need to stir it much until the end when it was really getting thick.
Boiling, boiling, boiling...
... Still boiling more than two hours later!

What I had after two hours and thirty minutes of boiling.
After it cooks down to a cup, let it cool. I put it in the refrigerator but I don't know if this was the smartest move. The boiled cider became almost completely solid which made it harder to use in the recipe. I would recommend letting it cool on the counter or maybe not boiling it down as much. The cider that is sold commercially is more syrupy and less goopy than what I made.

There are a few boiled cider pies floating around on the web, but I liked this one from Wood's Cider Mill in Vermont, which has been owned by the same family for seven generations. They make and sell boiled cider so I figured they must know what they're talking about. Also, their recipe is simple and really focuses on the boiled cider as the main ingredient. I baked the pie for an hour, which is 10 minutes longer than the recipe instructs, but that could just be my stove.

Sugar, eggs, milk, a little flour, and boiled cider. Mix it well because that boiled cider is thick!

It's looking a little  like pumpkin pie, but don't be fooled.

Boiled cider pie - sweet, tart, goopy and historic!
The pie came out great. Its consistency is similar to a custard or pumpkin pie, and although it's really sweet the sweetness is cut by the cider's tartness. If you like cider, sugar and pie crust (and who doesn't?) you will like this pie. It's like autumn, New England, and three centuries of history all in one dessert.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

November 12, 2012

Bittersweet: Protection from Evil Magic

I don't know about where you live, but there is still some nice autumn color here in Boston. The leaves on the oaks in my neighborhood are tuning dark red, and the Norway maples are bright yellow.

I found this colorful viney shrub on a neighborhood perambulation. The plant is called bittersweet, and its branches are often used for autumn wreaths and centerpieces. Maybe you'll see some bittersweet adorning the place you eat your Thanksgiving dinner this year.

There are a few types of bittersweet, including an invasive species from Asia (which is what I found) and a species native to North America. According to the folklorist Clara Kern Bayliss, people in Vermont believed that the root of the bittersweet plant provided protection against evil witches and malevolent magic. However, certain conditions applied to collecting the root. You couldn't just go out and start digging.

Bayliss notes that a doctor in Shaftsbury would go with his wife and daughter on a certain day of the year to collect bittersweet root to ward off witches. The doctor and his family would not talk, or look from side to side, from the moment they left their house until they returned.

Unfortunately Bayliss doesn't indicate on what day of the year they would collect the root. Was it the same day every year, or did it change depending on the weather or other criteria? I'd love to know.

It's not surprising they gathered the plant in silence. Silence is an important ingredient in some folk magic, and speaking often breaks a spell. For example, you can control a witch with their own witch bridle if you throw it over their head, but they will be freed as soon as you speak a word. Somehow silence was important to maintain the efficacy of the bittersweet.

There is a third plant sometimes called bittersweet, the bittersweet nightshade. This is a weedy invasive import from Europe with poisonous berries and toxic leaves. Leave this one alone!

Special note to my Wiccan and witchy readers: New Englanders wanted protection from witches who practiced maleficium, or harmful magic. Other than the very religious, most people didn't shun magic or fortune-telling. I don't want anyone to get offended by all this negative talk about witches!

I got my information from Clara Kern Bayliss's 1908 article, "Witchcraft", which appeared in The Journal of American Folklore.

November 04, 2012

Bigfoot: He's Wicked Strong!

I was a big comic book fan when I was a kid, and one activity most young comic geeks engage in is determining which superhero is stronger. Can the Incredible Hulk beat up the Mighty Thor? Who can lift the heavier weight, Superman or Captain Marvel? A quick search of the Internet will show you that adult comic book fans still play this same game.

The Hulk, who gets his strength from gamma radiation, usually tops the list of the strongest superheros. A lot of other superheroes and villains in Marvel Comics get their power from gamma radiation, like She-Hulk, the Abomination, and Doc Samson.

One under-appreciated gamma powered hero, though, is Sasquatch. Sasquatch was originally a Canadian physicist named Walter Langowski. While playing around with gamma radiation (as physicists so often do in the comics), Walter gained the ability to transform into a giant, orange-furred musclebound monster who looks just like the cryptid Bigfoot. Assuming the name Sasquatch, Walter uses his super strength to fight crime with a band of other Canadian heroes called Alpha Flight.

Unfortunately, not even gamma radiation could make Sasquatch an A-list superhero like the Hulk, and I don't think he's appearing in any comic books currently. Much like the real-life Sasquatch, the comic-book version is now quite elusive.

But that's not the only trait they share. Like Walter Langowski, the real-life Sasquatch or Bigfoot is also fantastically strong, as this example from Joseph Citro's Weird New England shows.

Bigfoot has been seen quite a few times in a Longmeadow, Massachusetts area called the Meadows. The Meadows abuts the Connecticut River, and many locals have seen large hairy humanoids swimming in its waters. Others have seen hairy faces peering into their windows at night, and found footprints leading from their houses down to the river the following day. Some residents speculate that the creatures inhabit a series of tunnels that run under the riverbanks.

The Meadows. Photo from this site.

A man named Joe operated a car crushing business in the Meadows for many years. One summer night he and some friends were sitting outside the office trailer enjoying some beer when they heard something moving through the bushes by the river bank. Abruptly, a large man burst into the car crushing yard. But was it a man? Although his bearded face looked human, he was eight-feet tall, naked, and covered with hair. It was a Bigfoot.

The Bigfoot wandered around yard for a while before picking up a crushed car chassis. Joe and his friends gasped! The crushed car weighed more than 2,000 pounds. The Bigfoot eventually put it back down and walked back to the river, where he swam away into the night. The next day Joe shut down his business and found a new location in town.

The Bigfoot seen in the Meadows was not a gamma-radiated anomaly - many people who see Bigfoots claim they are very strong. For example, in his book Passing Strange Joseph Citro mentions a 1951 Bigfoot encounter in Sudbury, Vermont where a Bigfoot moved a 450 pound oil drum.

To sum up, don't mess with Bigfoot because he's wicked strong - and he's not confined to the comic books.