July 26, 2015

Finding Bigfoot At the Flea Market: An Encounter from 1977

When I was a kid my parents often took my brother and me to flea markets and yard sales. It was the 1970s and I guess this was the thing to do. Quite often we didn't find anything good, but every now and then we'd get some great stuff. I still have a large teak Buddha I found, and we definitely found plenty of old paperbacks about weird occult and paranormal topics.

I never had an actual paranormal experience at a flea market, but apparently they do happen. Or at least they did, back in the 1970s.

On the evening of May 7, 1977 a Lowell, Massachusetts man named Gerald St. Louis arrived at a flea market site in Hollis, New Hampshire. St. Louis had brought his wife and two sons with him. The flea market began the next day, and the St. Louises wanted to get a good spot to set up their table early in the morning. After sunset they went to sleep in their pickup truck. Attached to the truck was a small trailer.

They were awakened that night when their truck began shaking. Standing next to their vehicle was a large humanoid. Mr. St. Louis later described the creature as being 8 or 9 feet high, brown-colored, and covered in long hair. When he turned on the headlights it became startled and ran across the parking lot, jumping easily over a four-foot high fence. Once over the fence it stood and stared at the truck.

Needless to say the St. Louis family got out of there fast. They drove to the Hollis police station and reported their sighting to Chief Paul Bosquet. The police inspected the area, but found no sign of the creature. The ground was covered in pine needles and not even any footprints could be seen. Well, at least according to the press at the time. I've seen at least one article online that says 16-inch footprints were found in the soil.

Chief Bosquet said he thought the family had seen a bear. Whatever it was, it seriously spooked them. They left Hollis quickly and didn't even take their trailer with them. I guess they got more than they bargained for at that flea market. (Get it? Bad pun.)

Was it just a bear? I have no idea, but someone else had a similar experience a few days earlier. A woman named Regina Evans was camping in Hollis on May 5, 1977 when she was awakened in the middle of the night by someone shaking her trailer. She did not see the culprit, but large footprints were found nearby.

Andre the Giant and Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man.
The 1970s was a heady time for paranormal phenomena. The occult and metaphysical movements of the late 1960s had paved the way for Bigfoot, UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle to conquer America. Bigfoot was featured in movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972),  In Search of Bigfoot (1976), and just plain Bigfoot (1970), where a biker gang tries to save women captured by the cryptid. Bigfoot also showed up on TV. He was actually a bionic robot created by aliens on an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, while on the kids' show Bigfoot and Wildboy he fought crime.

As a result of all this, most Americans knew what Bigfoot looked like and what he did - jump out of the woods, scare people, and then disappear. Were the experiences of the St. Louis family and Regina Evans colored by the media? It's very possible, but something really did shake their vehicles in the middle of the night, and the St. Louises seemed legitimately scared.

Perhaps it was pranksters enacting the role of Bigfoot. It's a time-honored tradition. In ancient Greece people dressed like satyrs and in the Middle Ages they dressed like leafy, hairy wildmen. Dressing in an ape costume and running through the woods might just be part of our cultural heritage. We all think there are monsters in the woods, so someone needs to play the part.

Or who knows? Maybe there really are creatures lurking in the woods, and they are the ones who change costumes over time, appearing as whatever we expect, a goat-footed daemon to the ancient Greeks and a huge hairy monster to someone who just wanted to go to a flea market.

Bigfoot was not seen again in Hollis, but happily he's still out there somewhere, lurking behind the trees and evading easy categorization.

July 20, 2015

Celebrate H.P. Lovecraft's 125th Birthday This August

Cancel that clambake and skip the trip to the beach. This August you need to celebrate the 125th birthday of Howard Phillips Lovecraft!

H.P. Lovecraft, for those who don't know, was one of America's most influential fantasy and horror writers. Born into a wealthy Providence family on August 20, 1890, Lovecraft should have led a life of privilege and ease. Things didn't quite work out that way. His life is almost was almost as strange as his fiction.

After his father died in an insane asylum, little Howard and his mother went to live with her father in his Providence mansion. As a boy he was spoiled by his aunts and grandfather, but his mother told him he was too ugly to be seen in public and let him believe until he was three that he was a girl. Unsurprisingly, his mother also later died in an insane asylum and Lovecraft himself suffered from unspecified nervous and mental disorders throughout his early years.

H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft was quite intelligent. He never finished high school due to those nervous disorders but did read widely in his grandfather's extensive library. (It even included an original copy of Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, which makes me jealous!) When his grandfather lost his money and died Lovecraft and his two aunts fell into poverty. Due to his many neuroses and his belief that he was of a superior social class Lovecraft never found full-time work. Instead, he dabbled in amateur journalism and wrote an estimated 100,000 letters. That's right - one hundred thousand letters. And they were long! At one point he sent one aunt a forty page letter every week.

Because he wrote so many letters, we know that he was quite racist. In his letters he railed against blacks, Jews, Mexicans, the Irish, French-Canadians, Asians, Italians, and even people from Finland. In short, he said didn't like anyone except white people of Anglo-Saxon descent. He also expressed strong homophobic opinions in some letters. On the other hand, he briefly married an Eastern European Jewish woman, and was good friends with several gay writers, including the poet Samuel Loveman, who served as his muse for several years. These actions seem to contradict all vitriol he included in his letters, and even the racism in those decreased as he grew older. He died in 1937 at the age of 47.

Lovecraft was a big tangle of neurotic contradictions, but in spite of this - or maybe because of this - he posthumously became the 20th century's most influential horror writer. He moved horror fiction away from the standard Gothic tropes of witches, ghosts and old castles into a new direction featuring extra-dimensional alien gods, hidden lost races, and secret tomes of blasphemous horror. He also liberally sprinkled New England history and folklore into his stories. If you've never read any of his fiction, "The Dunwich Horror," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," and "Dreams In the Witch House" are good places to start and have a strong New England flavor.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

There are two big celebrations happening this August to mark Lovecraft's 125th birthday. For you cineastes, the Brattle Theater in Cambridge is holding an H.P. Lovecraft film festival from August 20 to August 24. They are showing a nice assortment of movies. Some are based closely on Lovecraft's writings, like the recently filmed but retro-spooky black and white films Call of Cthulhu (2005) and The Whisperer in Darkness (2011), which try to capture what a Lovecraft movie would look like if it were filmed during his lifetime.

The Crimson Cult (1968)
Other films update his stories and put them in a more contemporary setting. The Dunwich Horror (1970) takes Lovecraft into the Age of Aquarius, with Dean Stockwell as a dreamboat wizard aiming to destroy the world and Sandra Dee under attack by psychedelic hippies, while The Crimson Cult (1968) sets "Dreams In the Witch House" in swinging England, with Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele as a body-painted witch, and a brawny guy in a leather jockstrap. The New England flavor is gone, but these movies are so groovy it doesn't matter!

From Beyond (1986)
From Beyond (1986) gives Lovecraft the 1980s schlock treatment. When a group of scientists stimulate their pineal glands, they suddenly see the invisible extra-dimensional monsters that constantly surround us. Uh-oh! The monsters can see them as well. Rubbery special effects, leopard print lingerie, and lots of slime ensue.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Other films are inspired by Lovecraft but aren't based on a specific story. Hellboy (2004) makes Lovecraftian monsters and sorcery into an action blockbuster. John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1994) features a book so terrifying it drives its readers insane - and maybe worse. Lovecraft's work is quite popular overseas; in the Japanese film Marebito (2004), a lonely man exploring tunnels below the Tokyo subway system encounters a mysterious woman with strange appetites.

I'm sure that diehard fans will be flocking to Providence for NecronomiCon, a convention about all things Lovecraftian happening August 20 - 23. The convention features a wide variety of activities. If you're feeling brainy, you can listen to panelists discuss topics like "The Undying Leaders’: Ultraterrestrial Demonologies, Cthulhoid Conspiracies and the Rise of Lovecraftian Parapolitics." And when your brain tires out, there are games, an art show, the Eldritch Ball, and readings from horror authors. A good spooky time for everyone!

July 12, 2015

More Weird New Haven: Grove Street Cemetery

Here's my second post about some strange and wonderful things I saw a few weeks ago in charming and historic New Haven, Connecticut.

In addition to visiting Midnight Mary's grave at the Evergreen Cemetery, I took a guided tour of the Grove Street Cemetery, which abuts the Yale campus. Grove Street Cemetery is a beautiful neo-classical style burying ground, which means many of the monuments are inspired by the art of ancient Greece and Rome. You won't find many Victorian angels here, but you will find some unusual monuments, like this Roman tumulus (mound) style vault and Grecian sphinx.

New Haven's first settlers buried their dead under and around Center Church on New Haven Green. This practice continued for 160 years until a yellow fever outbreak led the city's leaders to create a newer, more modern burying ground in 1796. The markers from the old burying ground were moved to Grove Street, but not apparently the bodies. Every now and then a corpse pops up from under the Green, as happened recently when a large tree fell in a storm, revealing a skeleton entangled in its roots.

One of the original settlers' graves relocated to Grove Street Cemetery.
New Haven was a prominent mercantile city and has one of America's best universities, so Grove Street is the resting place for many famous people. On our tour we saw the graves of Noah Webster, Eli Whitney and Glenn Miller, to name just a few.

Our tour guide did not tell us any ghost stories, but did address a couple urban legends that surround the cemetery. First, she emphatically denied that any secret tunnels connect the cemetery to the nearby Yale Medical School. Apparently there is a popular legend that in the 19th century enterprising medical students dug tunnels into the cemetery so they could steal cadavers for their experiments. Interestingly, two miles of steam tunnels do lie underneath the Yale campus, and go very close to the Grove Street Cemetery. One of the tunnels is rumored to lead to a basement filled with brains in formaldehyde-filled jars. Again, this is just a rumor, and the steam tunnels are locked and dangerous as they are indeed filled with steam. Don't go trespassing! You will be covered in burns as you are dragged off to jail, which wouldn't be good.

Back to our tour guide. Second, she said she was not able to comment on whether any of Yale's secret student societies conduct rituals in Grove Street Cemetery. She did say, however, that at times she has seen students wearing robes doing something in the graveyard. She left what they were doing to our imaginations, and I in turn will leave it to yours.

I have a good friend who lived in New Haven for many years. He told me that he had heard rumors that someone was leaving sacrificial offerings at the cemetery's dramatic front gate. What did those offerings consist of? He didn't know. I'm sorry I don't have anything more specific to share with you, but sometimes uncertainty makes these urban legends even more interesting.

The entrance to Grove Street is very, very dramatic, and I can see why aspiring young occultists might want to leave some offerings at the foot of those Egyptian-style pillars with their ominous inscription. The gate was not built for any occult purposes, however. Egyptian revival was the architectural vogue when it was constructed in 1845, and it was a style the builders felt was not offensive to any Christian denominations. The inscription "The Dead Shall Be Raised" probably strikes a lot of modern people as a quote from a horror movie, but is actually from Corinthians in the New Testament.

If you are in New Haven definitely visit Grove Street Cemetery. It's beautiful, peaceful and full of history. And if peace and beauty aren't your thing, you can ponder some of those rumors and urban legends instead.

July 05, 2015

Judith Howard's Funeral: A Maine Witch Story

This legend comes from Harpswell, Maine.

Way back in the 1700s, a woman named Judith Howard lived on Sebascodegan, one of the islands that make up the town of Harpswell. Judith made her living as a healer, treating people's wounds and illnesses with various herbal remedies.

This was always a risky trade to practice in the pre-Industrial era. If your cures weren't effective you would lose clients, but if your cures were TOO effective people might think you were a witch. For example, Margaret Jones of Charlestown, Massachusetts was executed as a witch for this very reason in 1648. Talk about being too good at your job!

Judith Howard's cures were very effective, so her neighbors of course muttered that she was in witch. How else could one woman's salves and teas cure so many illnesses? Clearly the Devil must have something to do with it. Luckily Judith lived in the 1700s when people were no longer hanged for witchcraft. She suffered from social ostracization but still lived a long life.

It's often believed that female herbalists were unjustly accused of witchcraft. In many historical cases, like Margaret Jones, that seems to be true. It doesn't quite turn out that way in the legend about Judith Howard.

Most accounts of Judith's life indicate that she was good natured and kind, and didn't demand much from her neighbors. But when she died, all Hell broke loose.

On her deathbed, she had one dying wish. "Please don't bury me next to Old Lambo," she said. Old Lambo was a local Native American buried near Cundy's Harbor. The stories don't say why she didn't want to be buried next to him. Was he a rival healer, a profession many Native Americans followed? Was she a racist? Who knows? Maybe they had an affair that ended poorly. Perhaps he was buried in a pauper's grave or outside of the cemetery walls. The stories just don't say.

After Judith died her neighbors breathed a sigh of relief. They had all benefited from her cures, but they had also been spooked by living so close to someone who was possibly a witch. They put her body in a pine coffin, brought her over to Cundy's Harbor, and buried her right next to Old Lambo.

No one on Harpswell got any sleep that night. Barn doors slammed open and shut all night long. At first some people blamed the wind, but then the doors inside people's homes began slamming open and shut too. Cats ran around in the darkness, howling in agony, and less identifiable but even uncannier noises were also heard.

This went on for several nights, until one morning a group of brave Harpswell citizens went to Cundy's Harbor and dug up Judith's coffin. They carried it two miles across the island and buried her near the main road. Apparently this location was more to her liking, because the hauntings and weird apparitions stopped. Judith and the island had peace.

This is of course a legend, and not a piece of history, and it's not clear if Judith Howard even existed. However, the story does show that people believed witch's powers continued even after they died. (See the story about Hannah Cranna or the witch's grave in York for similar legends). Witches have powerful souls while they live, and their souls continue to exert strange powers even after their bodies die.

This story appears in a few different places, but I found it in Dorothy Simpson's The Maine Islands in Story and Legend (1960).