January 17, 2022

A Werewolf in Natick? A Story for the Wolf Moon

On Monday, January 17, the Full Wolf Moon will rise at 4:13 pm and cast its lupine light across New England. Get out there and howl, folks! We're supposed to have a lot of rain here in Boston, so the moon may not be visible, but it will still be up in the sky even if you can't see it. 

In honor of the Wolf Moon, here is a story about a possible werewolf I found on Phantoms and Monsters. Phantoms and Monsters is a great site if you enjoy reading about paranormal encounters - check it out if you like weird tales.

The story goes something like this. In the spring of 2006, a group of friends from Natick decided to go camping. Rather than drive up to New Hampshire or out to western Massachusetts, they decided to camp closer to home. They chose a patch of woods behind some apartment buildings near an old, abandoned factory.

Oliver Reed in The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

My first thought on reading this was, "That's probably not an official camp site." My second thought was, "Camping near an abandoned factory sounds like it would be spooky." My second thought was definitely correct.

The person who submitted the story wrote:

Now before I go further I must say that my area has experienced very weird sounds. Although in my opinion, they are very un-wolf like. They sound like a woman screaming crossed with long dog barks. A very indescribable and terrible sound. They come from various directions, though usually from the apartment area. (Phantoms and Monsters)

Coyotes? Maybe, or maybe not. But strange sounds in the woods just add to the spooky vibe.

The friends set up their tents and settled in for the night. After everyone had fallen asleep, one of the campers left her tent to urinate. She felt like she was being watched, though, so she woke up her boyfriend and asked him to come with her. He also felt they were being watched as they stepped away from the tents. 

As he stood watch, the boyfriend saw something moving through the trees away from the tents. It was tall, grey, and covered in fur:

He could see it through the brush... a large (approximately 6.5-7 foot in height) man-shaped figure, covered in grayish fur, sporting wolf-like features and a bushy tail swaying behind it. He was shocked and ran into the tent, leaving his girlfriend who came running in a moment later, after hearing the rustling of the creature.

They spent the rest of the night awake in their tent, occasionally hearing strange cries in the woods. They and the other campers quickly left the woods once the morning came.  

That's the end of the story. Like most monster stories, it's pretty simple. People see monster, people freak out, monster leaves. It's as if the monster just wants to be seen and acknowledged. Maybe the monster just wants to remind us that there are still weird things lurking out there in the world, even in a patch of woods near an abandoned factory.

An abandoned factory in the woods behind some apartments sounds like a liminal space to me. A liminal space is someplace that isn't quite one thing or another, a zone between one place and another. Liminal spaces are thresholds. 

It makes sense that the campers would see a werewolf in a liminal space. A werewolf is part human and part animal. It's both these things, and yet neither. The campsite was forested but formerly industrial, it was suburban and yet wild. It's the type of place where teenagers go to do forbidden things, and where campers would see uncanny creatures. It makes sense.

Did they really see a werewolf? I can hear some of you asking that question. I am a little skeptical that there are large, physical monsters roaming around our woods. (Of course, I don't go into the woods late at night!) I don't think that means the campers made this story up, though. There are lots of middle positions between hardcore skepticism and total belief. Maybe the campers inadvertently conjured up something from deep inside their psyches, or maybe they glimpsed the spirit of that land, what the ancient Romans would call a genius loci.

Happy Wolf Moon everyone!

January 11, 2022

Stomping through the Snow with Bigfoot in 1976

We had a nice storm last Friday, getting around 10 inches of snow here in the Boston area. I made sure to strap on my boots and stomped around in the snow while it was still fresh.

Forty-five years ago, in December of 1976, someone stomped through the snow near Robinson State Park in Agawam, Massachusetts. Someone who apparently did not wear shoes. Residents of the town found bare footprints, and each footprint was 27 inches long. Someone, or something, quite large had been walking in the snow.

Many people assumed the tracks were made by Bigfoot. It was 1976, after all, and Bigfoot was a popular topic in the mass media. Bigfoot tracks were being seen all across the country. A documentary about the mysterious humanoid, In Search of Bigfoot, had played in movie theaters around the US, and a bionic Bigfoot (from outer space!) had been featured on The Six Million Dollar Man, a popular TV show.  So perhaps it was inevitable that Bigfoot would even appear in Massachusetts. 

Ted Cassidy as Bionic Bigfoot in The Six Million Dollar Man

The Agawam police took the footprints seriously, sending out a "Bigfoot team" to investigate. Bigfoot hunters, who were less common in 1976 than they are now, also came to town. At least one of them, Lee Frank, was invited by a concerned Agawam citizen.

"The prints look good - but "Bigfoot" tracks are a dime a dozen...we really need to see him," said Lee Frank, who reportedly travels all over the United States investigating sightings of the legendary animal.

Frank and other trackers spent Wednesday night camping in zero temperatures beside the footprints in the snow, but failed to spot a 7 to 12-foot monster on the prowl by Westfield River. "Bigfoot" investigators also planned to spend Thursday camping in the woods in hopes of spotting the big fellow.

"Whatever the tracks are, they merit further investigation," Frank said, adding that it is impossible to determine at this point how the tracks were made." ("'Bigfoot' Eludes Team On Overnight Campout", Morning Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), December 31, 1976, from Bigfoot Encounters).

The Agawam police were unsure if the footprints were really made by Bigfoot, or if they were a hoax. It turns out they were a hoax. In early January, the police confiscated two large plywood feet from David Deschenes, a 16-year old Agawam resident. 

"I did it as a joke for the little kids around here, but it got out of hand. The next thing I knew the police were out at two in the morning looking around, taking it seriously. I didn't feel like going out to tell them I was 'bigfoot'", Deschenes said. ("Bigfoot Sorry About Stepping On Law," Kenosha (Wisconsin) News, January 6, 1977, from Bigfoot Encounters).

I find hoaxes really interesting, because even if they are not strictly true, they illustrate what people think might be true. So while Bigfoot was not really running around Agawam, people were willing to think he was. David Deschenes was just enacting something his neighbors thought might be possible. The people in 1976 weren't that different from previous generations of New England residents, many of whom also believed large hairy humanoids were running around the region. They called them "wild men" instead of Bigfoot, although, if real, they were equally tricky and elusive as their modern counterpart. 

David Deschenes may have been a hoaxer, but he was also a trend-setter. In 1977, the company K-Tel produced and marketed plastic Bigfoot snowshoes for children. Kids all across the nation were soon leaving Bigfoot tracks in the snow, just like David had. I wanted these as a kid, but never bought them! I should have followed David's lead and just made my own.

January 02, 2022

Two Phantom Houses Adrift in Time

I was browsing through my library of New England books and came upon two interesting stories. Both are supposedly true, and although they occurred more than 100 years apart they are very similar. They're about phantom houses that seem to travel through time. 

The first story comes from Footsteps in the Attic (2002), a book by paranormal investigator Paul Eno. In the summer of 1975, Eno was vacationing in Vermont when he met two local surveyors, Clement Ridley and Bud Harper. They told Eno about something strange they had seen. 

The previous summer, Ridley and Harper had been hired to survey a farmer's land in Johnson, Vermont. As they looked over the property they noticed an old wooden farmhouse that was not shown on any maps. The house was rundown but there was fresh laundry drying on the clothes line and smoke coming from the chimney. Someone was clearly living there. Oddly, there weren't any cars parked in the yard or any electrical or phone lines. 

The John Balch House, Beverly Massachusetts

Ridley and Harper saw a man in the yard. He carried an axe over one shoulder and wore an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat. They called out to him, wanting more information on the property, but the man didn't hear or see them. They called out again and walked closer to the house. This time the axe-wielding man seemed to see hear something, but didn't see the surveyors even though they were only fifty feet away. 

Ridley and Harper got a little spooked. Why couldn't the man see or hear them? And should they be concerned he was carrying an axe?They decided to leave the area. 

They returned a few days later to continue surveying the land, but when they arrived they were surprised to find there was no old wooden house. Instead, they just found an overgrown cellar hole. Some of the stones looked blackened, as if they had been scorched in a fire long ago. 

Ridley and Harper were even more spooked than they had been when they encountered the man with the axe. A few days later, they learned from someone at Johnson's town hall that there had once been a house in that location - but it burned down in 1910.

Cue the spooky music.... 

Here's a very similar story, but from the 1840s. Caroline Howard King, a wealthy young woman from Salem, was vacationing in Beverly, Massachusetts with her family when she too encountered a house seemingly adrift in time. 

On a warm summer day King went for a walk in the woods with her cousin Nony and their maid Lucy Anne. People in Beverly called the woods Witches Woods, and said they were haunted. King and her companions didn't think anything strange would happen to them on a sunny afternoon, but they were wrong. 

After walking for only a short while they realized they were lost. It seemed as if the path they had followed into the woods had vanished. They wandered around for what seemed like hours until they finally came upon the ruins of an old farmhouse. King knew this was what the locals called the Homestead, and it was said to be haunted. Very little remained of the farmhouse – just a foundation, a chimney, and a stone stoop. An enormous lilac tree grew next to it. The trio explored the Homestead but there wasn’t much to see.

They soon located a path that climbed up a nearby hill. When they reached the top they could see a farmhouse below them where the ruined Homestead should have been, but this one was not in ruins. It was well-kept and smoke rose from its chimney. A small lilac shrub grew in front of it. As they watched a woman emerged and fed a flock of chickens in the yard from the stone stoop. Lucy Anne ran down to ask the farmwife for directions while King and her cousin waited at the top of the hill. 

Lucy Anne was dejected and confused when she returned. She couldn’t find the cozy little farmhouse anywhere, just the ruined Homestead and “hateful solemn old pine trees.” But now that she was back on the hill she once again could see the well-kept farmhouse with its smoking chimney. It was as if King, Lucy Anne, and Nony were looking backwards in time to a moment in history before the Homestead became a ruin. 

The threesome became even more eager to find their way home after they had this frightening realization. Luckily, they found a dry stream bed and after following it towards the ocean they emerged from the woods near their vacation house.  

Caroline Howard King includes that story in her memoir When I Lived In Salem (1822 - 1866), and I also include it in my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. The similarities to Paul Eno's story are pretty obvious. One difference is that people in Beverly knew there was something weird about the Homestead, but no one in Johnson, Vermont seemed aware of the phantom house in their town. Also, the Homestead can only be seen in its original state from a distance, not up close, unlike the Johnson house.

I'm not really sure what to make of these stories. Neither one provides an explanation of why these houses seem to slip through time (if that's even what's happening). Or are the people who see them looking through some kind of window to the past? It's not clear.

If there's any lesson, it's that the past is not really gone and is here all around us. We live in one of the oldest parts of the US, with a rich history of strange phenomena. Maybe that history sometimes literally shows itself to the lucky few. And who knows, maybe 200 years from now someone will see a phantom McMansion appear along with its ghostly owner on a riding lawnmower. We too will become part of New England's weird and wonderful past. 

December 22, 2021

In 1692, Invisible Witches Danced in Boston on Christmas Day

Christmas fast approaches, bringing with it Santa Claus, presents, eggnog and... dancing witches? 

As I mentioned in a recent post, the Puritans who colonized New England really hated Christmas. They believed it had no basis in the Bible, and disapproved of how it was celebrated with drunken carousing and public disorder. In 1659, the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even enacted a law called "Penalty for Keeping Christmas," which fined anyone who celebrated the holiday. 

The law was repealed in 1681 under pressure from the British king, but the Puritans still did not embrace Christmas. They thought it was a holiday for heretics (like Catholics and Anglicans) and for witches, who apparently, liked to celebrate Christmas with dancing. 

We know this fact about witches from A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning (1693), the Reverend Cotton Mather's account of the torments of Mercy Short. Short was an orphaned Boston serving girl who became tormented by invisible witches after mocking Sarah Good, an accused Salem witch being held in Boston's jail. After seeing Sarah Good and making fun of her, Short was stabbed by invisible pins, burned by unseen flames, and at times made deaf and blind. She also shouted profanities and claimed to see the Devil and witches hovering around her. Her torments lasted for many months. 

Merry Christmas?

Reverend Mather treated Short's afflictions with prayer and Bible readings, with mixed results. Groups of people would often join Mather in Short's room to witness her torments and to pray over her. No one except Short ever saw the spectral witches that allegedly assaulted her, but on Christmas Day, 1692, the following occurred:

On the twenty-fifth of December it was, that Mercy said, They (the invisible witches) were going to have a Dance; and immediately those that were attending her, most plainly Heard and Felt a Dance, as of Barefooted People, upon the Floor; whereof they are willing to make oath before any Lawful Authority. 

If I should now venture to suppose, That the Witches do sometimes come in person to do their Mischiefs, and yet have the horrible skill of clothing themselves with Invisbilities, it would seem Romantic. And yet I am inclinable to think it...

It probably seems strange to a modern reader that anyone believed evil invisible witches danced around an afflicted teenaged girl on Christmas Day, but this incident just demonstrates how much the Puritans hated Christmas. In their minds, it was literally a Satanic holiday. 

Some details about Mercy Short's life can provide more context. Prior to living in Boston, Short had lived in New Hampshire with her parents and siblings. In 1690 their family was attacked by indigenous Wabanki warriors. Short's parents and several siblings died in the raid, and Short was sold into captivity in Quebec. She was eventually freed and made her way to Boston, where she found work as a servant. 

Significantly, Mercy Short claimed the Devil looked much like a Wabanaki man. Modern psychologists who have studied her case suspect she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was caused by seeing her family killed. Concepts like PTSD didn't exist in 17th century Massachusetts, so she processed her anguish using the concepts she did have: Puritan theology, witchcraft, and the Devil. 

I don't want to end this on a grim note, since it's almost Christmas. So here are the positive aspects of Mercy Short's alleged witchcraft affliction. First, although she claimed some neighbors were among the invisible witches, no one was formally accused of witchcraft and no one was executed. Cotton Mather thought demons could easily impersonate a living person and therefore felt neither he nor Short could be sure if any neighbors really were afflicting her. 

Second, Short said a radiant bright spirit told her that her torments would end on March 16, 1693. And you know what? They did. Her afflictions ended as suddenly as they began. She was free from pain.

Finally, it is socially acceptable to celebrate Christmas here in New England. So take off your shoes and dance like a barefoot witch on December 25 if you want!

December 13, 2021

Folklore Books (and Weird Fiction) for Christmas

Drinking eggnog. Wrapping gifts. Hallmark Christmas movies. These are all perfectly fine ways to get in the holiday mood, but sometimes I find myself wanting something different. Maybe something that will connect me to New England's historic roots, or evokes the increasing December darkness. Or maybe a folktale about murderous Christmas elves, or a tale about a snowy Massachusetts seaport with unholy secrets...

I've published this list before, but here it is again: those books that really put me in the Yuletide mood. I reread some of these every year. What are your favorite holiday folklore books or strange Christmas tales?


The Dark Is Rising
Susan Cooper
1974


This novel is aimed at young readers and I loved it when it came out way back in the 1970s. Many other people have loved it since. The Dark Is Rising tells the story of an eleven-year old boy who becomes involved in a battle between the ancient forces of light and darkness during the Christmas season. I’ve re-read the book as an adult, and the first chapters still wonderfully evoke the excitement of the holiday season and the uncanny dread of the oncoming darkness. The Dark Is Rising is set in England and full of British folklore, but author Susan Cooper has lived in Massachusetts for many years and was partially inspired to write the book by the marshy landscapes of the South Shore.


The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of 
Our Most Cherished Holiday
Stephen Nissenbaum
1997


Ever wonder why Americans celebrate Christmas the way we do? Nissenbaum’s book traces the development of our modern child-focused and gift-focused holiday from the raucous holidays of the past. Several chapters in The Battle for Christmas focus specifically on early New England, looking at why the Puritans hated Christmas, which people celebrated Christmas despite it being banned, and how capitalism shaped the holiday. Christmas used to be a multi-week drunken orgy when the lower classes extorted food and liquor from the  wealthy. Nissenbaum explains how it became a holiday where we sit peacefully around Christmas trees and exchange presents. 



A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clarke Moore
1823



Do you exchange presents at Christmas time? Do you incorporate Santa Claus into you celebrations? Do you spend the holiday with your family? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can thank Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was a prominent New York City clergyman who was annoyed at the drunken Christmas celebrations that kept disrupting his family’s peaceful home. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823 to encourage a gentler, sober and more familial holiday. And it worked! Moore’s poem permanently shaped the way Americans and much of the world celebrate Christmas.


The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft
1923

 

A man returns to his family’s ancestral Massachusetts home for their traditional Yuletide festivities. Since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story, tradition doesn’t mean candy canes and stockings hung by the fire. Moldering grave yards, strange subterranean realms, and sinister cultists all play a role in the festivities, as does that famous book of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. If you think your family's holiday celebrations are weird, read “The Festival." It will help put things in perspective. Although the story is set in Kingsport, a seaside town “maggoty” with subterraneous evil, Lovecraft based the setting on Marblehead, a town whose Colonial-era architecture he loved.  


Christmas in New England
Amy Whorf McGuiggan
2006


Although McGuiggan’s book touches on Christmas’s troubled history in Puritan New England, it’s real focus is on how people have celebrated the holiday here for the last two centuries. Christmas in New England touches on all the region’s Yuletide greats: the many carols composed here, how lighthouse keepers marked the holiday, and the guy from Maine who invented earmuffs. A book to read when you want to feel good about the world.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
Late 14th Century


There’s zero connection to New England in this 14th century poem, but it’s still fantastic reading for the holiday season. Sir Gawain beheads a gigantic Green Knight who has interrupted King Arthur's New Year’s party. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and exits the hall, telling Sir Gawain to come visit him in one year so he can in turn chop off Gawain’s head. Yikes. Being an honorable knight, Gawain departs Camelot the following year to find the unkillable Green Knight’s distant abode, but gets delayed at the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely young wife, where a multi-day Christmas celebration is happening. The Bertilaks play strange and erotic mind-games with Gawain, and a twist ending changes our perception of the entire poem. A good movie based on this poem was released this summer (The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel), but to me the original poem can't be surpassed.



Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Stories: Icelandic Folk Tales
J.M. Bedell
2015

Again, no connection to New England, but lots of dark folk stories from Iceland. Many of them are set at Christmas time. The elves in these tales are not cute and whimsical, but instead are strange, dangerous, and often murderous. As are the trolls, witches, and lustful ghosts with shattered skulls who appear. Merry Christmas? This book is holiday reading for those of you who wish every holiday was like Halloween.