One of the many interesting things about Melonheads is that in New England the legend is only found in Connecticut. But it is also found in the Midwest, particularly in Michigan and Ohio. Much like their New England cousins, these Melonheads also lurk in the woods and delight in terrifying teenagers.
In Ohio, the legend is found in the rural areas outside of Cleveland, and the creatures' origin is ascribed to a mysterious man named Dr. Crowe. Dr. Crowe allegedly experimented on children that he either kidnapped or acquired from a local insane asylum. He imprisoned them in his secluded house, where he injected them with chemicals and possibly radioactive materials. These painful experiments caused them to mutate. Eventually the children rebelled and killed their tormentor. They escaped into the surrounding woods where they have remained to this day.
There are several versions of the Dr. Crowe legend. In some he has a kindly wife who treats the children well, and the mutant children only rebel against him when they see him abuse her. In another, he actually experiments on children with hydrocephalus. Hydropcephalus is a real medical disorder that causes fluid to build up in the skull, giving its sufferers enlarged heads. Let's be clear, though: hydrocephalus does NOT make anyone into an insane monster.
In Michigan, the Melonheads are said to have either escaped or been released from an insane asylum near the Felt Mansion in Ottawa County. They didn't wander far from their old home, and now lurk in the woods surrounding the mansion.
|Melonhead illustration from Joseph Citro's Weird New England.|
I don't know why the Melonhead legend is only found in these three parts of the country. Did it spread from New England to the Midwest, or did it happen in the opposite direction? It's a good topic for a folklore master's thesis, I suppose. I do know that the legends in all three areas have one thing in common: they use the language of science to explain where the Melonheads came from. Inbreeding, evolution, mutation, psychology, radiation - these are all terms from the physical and social sciences. They give the Melonheads an aura of plausibility.
Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies, werewolves - these creatures are all supernatural in origin. We live in a scientific age, so we deserve scientific monsters. The Melonheads are one of them.
Extraterrestrial aliens are another monster of the scientific age, and it's interesting how similar they are in appearance to the Melonheads. Although the Melonheads are feral and bestial, both they and the gray aliens often share a similar physical morphology. They are short, thin, and have really big heads.
|The Dover Demon!|
The Dover Demon was never quite categorized as either supernatural or scientific, but in earlier eras, little supernatural monsters with large heads were also said to lurk in the woods. The fairies, gnomes and dwarves of European legend often were described this way. In Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe has the legend of the makiawisug, small magical people who live in the forests. They are often called pukwudgies these days by paranormal investigators, and illustrations show them with small bodies and large oversized heads.
|Illustration by Lupi, used without permission.|
Fairies, gnomes and pukwudgies are not monsters of science, but they share similar traits with the Melonheads. They dwell outside the fringes of our civilized world, terrorizing those who trespass on their territory. One key difference is that there are ways to placate the supernatural creatures who live in the woods, such as leaving them offerings of food and milk. There is no way to interact socially with the Melonheads. They simply emerge from their hiding places and terrify trespassers. Some accounts from Connecticut say the Melonheads abduct lost hikers and transform them into new Melonheads; fairies and aliens also enjoy abducting humans.
So what does all this mean? There are some practical, "commonsense" explanations for the Melonheads. Michigan's Felt Mansion was a seminary for boys in the 1940s, and one man who studied there claims that the local townies called the seminarians "melon heads" because they were so educated. (Egghead is a more common derogatory term for the educated, but you get the point.) In the book Weird U.S., writer Ryan Orvis claims to have met an Ohio man who used to scare teenagers out parking in cars at night when he was a kid. A friend who helped him had hydrocephalus, and supposedly this led to the legend of the Melonheads. Similarly, perhaps random encounters with hydrocephalic individuals cruelly gave rise to the legend.
I suppose any of these origins are plausible, but they don't explain the particular form the legend took or why it persists. It's a long road from someone being called a "melon head" to stories about cannibalistic mutants that live in the woods. Maybe there is something primitive deep inside us that fears the darkness outside our little circle of light and knows that monsters are out there waiting for us. It might not be rational, but I think the feeling is persistent and powerful.
That still doesn't explain why so many of these monsters have a particular shape though, does it? All these creatures are childlike and sometimes almost embryonic in appearance. That doesn't really seem like a shape that people would inherently find frightening.
If you like supernatural or paranormal explanations, maybe you're inclined to believe there is some force (or some entity) out there that takes this shape repeatedly over the centuries, materializing as small big-headed monsters to scare the pants off us before disappearing into the darkness. Right now sitting here at my computer, I don't find that explanation too compelling, but if you bring me out into the woods at night I might just change my mind.