August 23, 2015

Melonheads Part II: Why So Many Big Heads?

This is the second of two posts about the Melonheads. Read part one here!

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.

Gray aliens.
A monster was seen in Dover, Massachusetts who also had the same physical appearance. This was the infamous Dover Demon, who terrorized several teenagers in 1977. Like the Melonheads and the gray aliens, the Demon had a disproportionately large head and a very small body. Its eyes also glowed orange when lights shone on them. In Connecticut, some people have said the Melonheads' eyes glow orange as well.

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.


Wade Tarzia said...

So much can be hung on a legend like this -- critique of institutions (asylums are institutions from Hell, of course), the need for abnormality to be cordoned off from "normalcy" and the fear of its obverse, distrust of the "Other" in the exaggerated form of the ultimately odd ethnic group and the sub-theme of their dwelling in a liminal zone (the forest), the usual evil-scientist (thus unethical science) motif, and etc.

You are quite right in making the interesting connection between the large-head space-alien motif. I cannot remember where I read an interesting explanation for this motif in psychology. Damn my memory!

Peter Muise said...

The Melonheads speak to us on many levels, I guess!

If you do find the explanation for the big-headed monster motif please let me know. I have read that neoteny (childlike features and proportions) makes organisms cuter, but these monsters seem to prove the opposite of that somehow.

Unknown said...

I suspect the tradition of Melon Heads in Northeast Ohio might be related to the fact that this part of the state was settled initially by Connecticuters? This part of the state was Connecticut's Western Reserve, after all.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Bret! Thanks for the comment. I agree there are a lot of historic/cultural connections between New England and the Midwest. I wish I knew how to trace the diffusion of this particular legend!

Unknown said...

Peter, being that it's Halloween season and my mind turns invariably to slasher flicks, I wonder if Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th can be viewed as a more modern manifestation of the Melonhead motif in pop culture/folklore. He was depicted as a developmentally-disabled (down syndrome), hydrocephalic child in the first film and the supernatural watchman of a cursed forest in the subsequent sequels, punishing teenagers who intrude and transgress against traditional morality (i.e., engaging in drug use and premarital sex) - a recurring theme in a ridiculous amount of 20th century folk tales (urban legends).

I've read before that Friday the 13th was heavily inspired by the Cropsey campfire story popularized in the sleepaway camps of upstate New York, a story also plundered for the contemporaneous film The Burning. But could the Melonheads of Dracula Drive also be an influence? It is worth noting that when New Line acquired the franchise for Jason Goes To Hell, the plot of that film explicitly set Crystal Lake in Connecticut. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Charles! I really like the connection you've made. You're right that horror movies and modern folklore/urban legends do tend to share a lot of similar motifs - homicidal maniacs, vengeful ghosts, misbehaving teenagers, etc. Older folklore tends to focus on witches, the Devil, buried treasure, and ghosts - all that good old fashioned pre-industrial stuff. Evil scientists, crazed psychopaths and mutants tend to be newer.

My hunch is that there is a lot of give and take between movies and folklore. Hollywood writers probably incorporate motifs from the legends they heard when young, which in turn were probably influenced by movies. Or maybe they are both similar reactions to the same social and psychological concerns?

I have seen almost all of the Friday the 13th movies. Do you recall where JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is set (other than Manhattan)? In that one, a group of high school kids take a cruise ship from Crystal Lake to New York. Maybe Crystal Lake was in Connecticut in that one too?

Unknown said...

Hey Peter! It wasn't established where Crystal Lake was, exactly, until Jason Goes to Hell. The first movie was filmed in New Jersey and the second was filmed in upstate New York. The majority of the sequels were filmed mostly in California, with Jason Takes Manhattan being filmed almost entirely in British Columbia (Vancouver standing in for Manhattan). However, geographically, for Jason to wind up in NYC in that movie, it would make sense for Crystal Lake to be somewhere in the tri-state area.