August 28, 2016

Weird New England News: A Giant Snake in Maine, A Witch on Trial, and A Witchy Author

There's been some weird stuff happening in New England recently.

First up: is a giant snake on the loose in Westbrook, Maine? It seems like the answer is "yes."

The story began back in early June, when a woman reported seeing a large snake in Westbrook's Riverbank Park. She told the police it was as big as a truck and had a "head the size of a basketball." Snakes in Maine don't get that large, so no one took her claim seriously.

However, on June 29 a Westbrook police officer reported seeing a ten foot long snake feeding on a beaver in the Presumpscot River. A second officer arrived and the two watched the snake swim across the river to the other side, where they lost sight of it. Game wardens investigated but found no sign of the snake.

The summer passed without any further snake sightings, but on Saturday, August 21 a Westbrook resident found a gigantic snake skin near the river:

Photo courtesy Westbrook Police, via The Portland Press Herald.
The shed skin is estimated to be at least 12 feet long. Snakes shed their skin when they outgrow them, so Wessie (as the creature has been named) is bigger than 12 feet and probably still growing...

The snakeskin has been sent for tests to determine what species it is from. Derek Yorks, a wildlife biologist with the State of Maine, said Wessie is probably not indigenous because the snakes native to Maine don't grow larger than five feet. He also said Wessie would probably not survive the winter if s/he is not a local snake species. I don't know - we've have had some mild winters lately...


An animal of another kind created a frenzy in Salem, Massachusetts, but rather than a giant snake it was a dog locked in a car on a hot day.

On Saturday, August 14, Lorelei Stathopolous was arrested by the Salem police for disturbing the peace. But Stathopolous says the police didn't do enough to help a dog locked inside a car on a hot day.

Stathopolous is a witch and owns Crow Haven Corner, Salem's longest-running witch shop. She is also an animal rights activist. On August 14 Stathopolous received a phone call from the manager of Hex, another witch shop in Salem, who told her that a dog had been locked in a parked car in front of Hex. The temperature was around 90 degrees.

Lorelei Stathopolous

Stathopolous called the police and ran down to the parked car. The police officers on duty didn't think the dog was in any danger because the window was cracked open. Stathopolous thought otherwise and urged the police to summon the fire department to free the dog. They refused. Stathopolous then tried to pour water through the window for the dog over objections from the police. When the owner of the car finally arrived Stathopolous urged the police to arrest him. They refused, but instead arrested Stathopolous for disturbing the peace.

Stathopolous will go on trial October 26. You can see WHDH's coverage of the story here.


Finally, if you'd rather learn about the historic Salem witch trials, head to the Boston Public Library on September 20 to meet Stacey Schiff, author of the recent bestseller The Witches: Salem 1692. The talk is free, and will be hosted by Brenton Simons, CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and author of Witches, Rakes and Rogues

August 22, 2016

Seductive New England Witches, Part Two: The Freetown Forest Witch

Last week I wrote about A.O. Spare, the British art world, and witchcraft. This week I'm bringing the witchcraft back to New England for a particularly creepy story.

It comes from Christopher Balzano's Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest. I highly recommend this book if you like your folklore scary and weird. Balzano interviewed people who live near Massachusetts's Freetown Forest and also researched some uncanny occurrences that happened there. The result is a collection of spooky - and allegedly true - stories like this one.

Dave (no last name given) grew up in a rural area in southern Massachusetts. His backyard abutted the Freetown State Forest, and as a boy he and his friends liked to play in the thick woods. The forest has more than 50 miles of unpaved roads and covers more than 5,000 acres, so there was plenty of space for the boys to play.

There was also plenty of space for strange things to happen. One day when he was six, Dave and a friend were in the woods when they heard someone laughing at them. They thought they could see someone hiding in the trees nearby, but when they tried to get a closer look it seemed as though the light was refracting strangely around the laughing figure, making it hard to see. Both boys were terrified and ran home. They kept their encounter secret.

Dave didn't encounter anything strange again until he was ten, when he had a very vivid dream. He dreamed he was an adult male walking through the woods towards a small house. He carried an axe in one hand. When he entered the small house he saw a middle-aged woman with long gray hair making love to a Native American man. In a jealous rage he killed them both, but as he did the woman glared at him not with fear, but with hatred and evil.

OK. Let me just interject to say that's one freaky dream for a ten-year old to have. But more on that later. Back to David's story ...

The Freetown State Forest.
Things got really weird for Dave and the other boys in the neighborhood over the next few years. One day while the boys were out walking in the woods when they came upon the foundation of an old house. Dave recognized it as the ruins of the house he had seen in his dream. This discovery spurred discussion among the boys, and as they talked they all realized they had recently seen the same gray-haired woman. She often appeared outside their bedroom windows at night, begging to come in, while the boys hovered in the space between wakefulness and sleep. They all thought she might be a witch.

Only one of the boys had invited her to enter his bedroom. The results were disastrous. She forced herself on the boy, which terrified him. His parents had to break down the bedroom door to reach their screaming son, who lay in bed as if someone was holding him down. The family eventually moved away from the Freetown State Forest.

Dave had his own nighttime visit from the witch, which he claims happened while he was awake. He sometimes saw a white figure following him in the woods and heard the eerie laughter he had heard years ago. He also told Balzano that he had seen a large black cat in the area. Black cats aren't that unusual, but this one walked on its rear legs.

The witch definitely was scary, but despite this Dave and some of the boys became obsessed with her. They visited the old foundation repeatedly, and one of Dave's friends would wander through the woods trying to find her.

The witchy phenomena quieted down as Dave got older. He hasn't seen the witch for many years. He moved out of his parents' house, and has a girlfriend and a child. He still gets nervous when he goes to visit his parents at his old house near the woods, though.


I really like this story. Yes, it's spooky, but it reminds me of the stories I'd hear when I was just a kid, sitting on my back porch in the late summer. Plus, I love a good New England witch story.

First off, let's get something out of the way. Is this story true? I have no way to tell. Balzano says the Freetown Historical Society has no record of anyone living in the woods, but the ruins of the house seem to be real. I also don't recall any famous witch cases from that area, but that doesn't mean strange things don't still happen. 

The Freetown State Forest.
Rather than trying to prove or debunk it, I think it's more interesting to look at what's happening in Dave's story,  For example, it's interesting to compare this story with last week's post about Austin Osman Spare and Mrs. Paterson. Both involve older female witches trying to seduce teenage boys. Austin Spare found the experience liberating and enlightening; Dave and his friends were terrified. Can it just be chalked up to Spare's artistic sensibility? Maybe, but perhaps the Freetown boys were just much more aware that even women can be sexual abusers. 

If I were a Freudian analyst, and not just someone who read some Freud in college, I'd probably make a lot out of Dave's dream where he is an adult male killing the witch and her lover. That feels like some heavy-duty Oedipal symbolism to me. That dream also somehow kicks off several years of unpleasantly sexual witch-haunting as the boys work their way through puberty. The haunting seems to have stopped when Dave and friends reached full maturity. It all seems to make symbolic sense.

Finally, what exactly who or what was this mysterious woman? The boys called her a witch because of her appearance, and the black cat seems to support them. She's also a ghost. I've mentioned on this blog before that witches tend to live on after death, so that's not really surprising. She also reminds me of the rapacious succubi, seductive female demons that appear in Medieval folklore. 

Witch? Ghost? Demon? Maybe the forest just shows us what we're looking for. Balzano writes that "the paranormal is often defined by the people who experience it," so it makes sense that teenage boys who lived on the edge of a big New England forest experienced what they did. 

Tony and I have actually been to the Freetown State Forest. We didn't see any ghostly witches, but did find the woods there kind of unsettling. So if you go looking for the witch use caution. Who knows what you might find there yourself?

August 16, 2016

Seductive New England Witches, Part One: Mrs. Paterson

Austin Osman Spare was born in London in December of 1886. From a young age he showed an aptitude for the arts, and by age thirteen he was working in a stained glass factory and taking art classes by night. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art and his father, a London policeman, secretly submitted one of young Austin's drawings to the prestigious Royal Academy. It was accepted and exhibited. Spare was on the road to art world greatness.

But things didn't work out exactly as expected. Spare briefly had a successful art career, but he's more famous for his work as an occultist and practitioner of witchcraft. Spare claimed that a witch named Mrs. Paterson set him on this unusual path.

As a child Spare had been raised Anglican, but in his early adolescence met an elderly fortune teller named Mrs. Paterson. Spare described her as a "colonial woman," and Paterson claimed she was from a venerable line of New England witches who had escaped the Puritan prosecution in the 1600s. Although quite old and not traditionally attractive Spare found himself drawn to her. Paterson seduced him, and for the rest of his life Spare was attracted to older women.

Austin Spare and Witch, 1947, by Austin Osman Spare

Although Paterson was poorly educated and had a limited vocabulary she had a powerful grasp of abstract metaphysical concepts. More impressively, she had strong occult powers. In addition to being an accurate fortune teller she was able to materialize her thoughts into physical manifestation, and often created visions of the future for her clients using this power. Spare claimed she taught him this talent but he could never use it as skillfully she could.

Mrs. Paterson possessed several other unusual talents. Using her ability to externalize her thoughts, she was able to easily transform herself from an elderly woman into a beautiful young one. Spare painted portraits of her in both forms.

Paterson could also travel to the Witches' Sabbat, and took Spare with her several times. Spare claimed the Sabbat occurred in "spaces outside of space" that were indescribable and could not be physically represented. Paterson gave Spare the witch name "Zos" after initiating him into the cult. In return, Spare called her his Witch Mother.

Drawing by Austin Osman Spare

Spare eventually turned his back on the mainstream art world to devote himself to his occult and magical studies, briefly associating with Aleister Crowley before striking out on his own. (An interesting note: Adolf Hitler asked Spare to paint his portrait, but Spare turned him down, rightly thinking he was evil.) He lived in squalid conditions in London's slums where he wrote books with titles like The Book of Pleasure, The Focus of Life, and The Anathema of Zos, and sketched and painted his poverty-stricken neighbors and spirits that he summoned. He died in relative obscurity in 1956, but his work on magical sigils (a way of encoding desires in visual form) was rediscovered by occultists in the 1980s. Today his art work is quite expensive; the largest collection of his work is held by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.

And what of Mrs. Paterson, the New England witch who set him on this path? It's unclear what happened to her, if she really existed at all. Perhaps she is now residing in a space beyond space, but some writers think Spare simply made her up. People who start magical cults or new religions often claim they were taught by divine beings like angels, secret Ascended Masters, or extraterrestrials. After all, the magic has to come from somewhere. Mrs. Paterson fits into this pattern. Then again, if Spare really did have the ability to manifest his desires in the material world, perhaps the elderly witch emerged from his subconscious mind to teach him.

Witches, undated, by Austin Osman Spare
Whatever she really was, I find it interesting that Paterson allegedly came from New England. Britain has plenty of witches in its own history, so why would Spare need one of ours? There is a trend in the occult world to think that more 'primitive' people have the most powerful magic. Although 'primitive' is an ethnocentric and meaningless word when applied to cultures, occultists and New Agers have often thought that groups like American Indian medicine men, swamp-dwelling Voodoo practitioners, or rural Appalachian conjure folk have the secrets to the universe. Primitive people are allegedly closer to nature, and therefore closer to the source of magic. An elderly, uneducated fortune-teller from that wilderness called New England would probably have seemed primitive - and therefore powerful - to a Londoner like Austin Osman Spare.

Mrs. Paterson doesn't fit the mold of most traditional New England witches, who were not usually seductive. Accounts of the Witches' Sabbat from early New England witch trials were quite chaste and lack the descriptions of orgies that are found in European trial documents. There is some underlying sexual tension in tales of New England witchcraft - particularly those where the witch 'rides' her male victim all night long like a horse - but it is usually not explicit. If anything, Mrs. Paterson reminds me of the shape-shifting fairies and enchantresses from Medieval romances like Gawain and the Loathly Lady, where one of King Arthur's knights marries a hideous crone who later transforms into a lovely maiden.

"Dreams in the Witch House" from the Masters of Horror TV series, 2005
Paterson also reminds me of Keziah Mason, the ancient witch in H.P. Lovecraft's short story "Dreams in the Witch House." Like Paterson, Keziah Mason takes that story's male protagonist to the Witches' Sabbat, which lies beyond the boundaries of normal space. Unlike the highly libidinous Spare, Lovecraft was much more repressed, and Keziah Mason is not seductive in his story. (However, Keziah is both seductive and able to transform into an attractive young lady in the 2005 TV version directed by Stuart Gordon.)

Lovecraft and Spare were contemporaries, but I don't think they were aware of each other's work. Perhaps Mrs. Paterson was working behind the scenes? Lovecraft did once receive a letter from a female fan who claimed to be descended from the Salem witches. She offered to share her magical knowledge with him, but he declined her offer. Who knows what might have happened if he had taken her up on it.

August 09, 2016

A Troll in Somerville, Massachusetts?

One great thing about writing this blog is that I get to read lots of musty old books to find strange information. Usually those books are from the 19th century - a golden age of weird New England folklore - but sometimes those old books might only be from the 1980s.

For example, while I was on vacation recently I found a copy of Arthur Myers's book The Ghostly Register, which was published in 1986. That was only thirty years ago, but that's a long time to some people, and The Ghostly Register definitely has some strange information in it.

For example, it contains an account of a house in Somerville, Massachusetts that was haunted by a troll. I have never seen this mentioned anywhere else and thought it was worth sharing. Here are the details.

A young woman named Karen bought a Victorian-era house outside of Somerville's Davis Square in 1983. She liked living there, but there were a few things that seemed a little odd. The basement often flooded, which was annoying, but Karen suspected that something else was going on.

She often felt uncomfortable near the back wall of her house, particularly on the second and third floors. She kept her spare clothing up on the third floor but got such weird vibes that she did not go up there at night. She had tried sleeping in the back bedroom on the second floor, but did so only briefly because she felt uncomfortable there as well. She felt that there was something in the room with her at night:

"I had," she says, "a feeling of a presence at night, of its being almost like an an animal, as though it had claws or wanted to bite me."

A few years after buying the house Karen took a roommate. The roommate slept in the third floor bedroom and experienced many strange occurrences. She set up her bed about six inches away from the back wall, but every morning when she awoke she found that it had been moved flush against the wall. Her clothes and shoes would appear in strange places around the house, and lights would turn themselves on and off.

A still from the movie Troll (1986)

The two women finally realized their house might be haunted and approached a Cambridge psychic for help. But when the psychic came to investigate they were surprised to learn that the problems were being caused not by a ghost, but by a troll. The psychic said:

"Sometimes ... what we think of as ghosts - human beings who have died - are instead what might be called noxious rays, earth energies that are blocked. I felt this troll was stuck there. We did a ritual releasing of him. What came to me was to send him to another plane, where his energies could be transformed into a more positive and fruitful existence."
The troll was apparently connected with an underground spring that ran under the house and that caused the basement flooding. When the house was built on top of the spring the troll became trapped and would send its energy up along the back wall of the house. Karen had always felt its presence in the house, but the troll increased its activity once the roommate moved in and started to sleep near that wall.

The night after the ritual Karen heard a small voice speaking. It was the troll, begging her to let him stay. She also saw an image of her mind of a very small furry creature with claws. She didn't relent and told the troll he needed to leave.

It did. The strange occurrences in the house stopped, as did the basement flooding.

I find this story fascinating. For one thing, Myers gives the names of everyone involved and the address of the troll-haunted house. I have probably walked by the house several times. Here are a few more random thoughts:

1. Somerville is very, very densely settled. It has very little green space, so it's surprising that a nature spirit would show up there. I guess nature is everywhere, though, isn't it?

2. Myers's book was released in 1986. He doesn't say when the troll exorcism happened. In 1986 the horror film Troll was also released, which is about a troll taking over an apartment building. It stars Noah Hathaway as a character called Harry Potter, Jr. and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her pre-Seinfeld days.

3. I find it very interesting that the psychic's diagnosis was a troll-haunting and not a ghost. You don't often read about troll's haunting houses in New England. I guess she was right, though, since her ritual worked. But maybe paranormal phenomena are shaped by our expectation. If you think the weird activity in your house is caused by a ghost, you'll see a ghost. If you think it's caused by a troll, you'll see a troll. If you think it's aliens, you'll see aliens.

4. This doesn't necessarily mean that paranormal phenomena exist just in our heads, though. Some writers (like Jacques Vallee or Patrick Harpur) suggest that there are actually entities out there that take different forms based on our cultural expectations. Maybe they're spirits, maybe they're daimones, or maybe they're extra-dimensional tricksters who just want to have a laugh at our expense. They could also be something lurking deep inside our subconscious, but I don't think that rules out any of the other possibilities. I'm sure there's a troll or two hiding somewhere deep inside my mind!