June 13, 2021

A Vermont Black Cat Death Curse

 Many years ago, a farmer was walking home through the countryside late at night. He felt a little spooked because the road was dark and lonely.

After walking for a while he saw a strange procession walking towards him in the gloom. Nine black cats were carrying a tiny black coffin draped in velvet. It was a funeral procession. 

As the cats walked past him, one turned to the farmer and said, "Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead." The farmer was too shocked to reply and the cats processed off into the darkness.

The farmer was relieved to get home. The fireplace cast a cheery glow, and his wife greeted him with a bowl of warm soup. Their cat lay sleeping by the fire, as it did most nights. Everything seemed normal. 

As he ate his soup, he told his wife what he had seen. "And then," he said, "one of the cats turned and spoke to me. It said, 'Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.' What do you think that means? Who is Tom Tildrum or Tim Toldrum?"

Upon hearing this, the farmer's cat opened its eyes and stood on its hind legs. It seemed to grow in size and importance. The cat said, "Tim Toldrum's dead? Then I'm the King of the Cats!" It howled triumphantly and flew up the chimney, never to be seen again. 


You may have heard that story before. It's an old folk tale called, appropriately enough, the King of the Cats. There are many versions of it, mainly from England, Scotland, and Ireland, but there are some from continental Europe as well. The gist of the stories is usually the same, although the cat names vary: Dildrum and Doldrum, or Madam Momfort and Mally Dixon, or Dan Ratcliffe and Peggy Poison. At the end, though, the humans always discover their humble domestic pet was secretly a special supernatural being. 

A strange New England version of King of the Cats was printed in The Journal of American Folklore in 1908. Author Clara Kern Bayliss noted the following:

WITCHCRAFT - At Shaftsbury, Vermont, eighty years ago, the belief in witches was quite general, and even the children knew the rhyme which brought disaster into the family circle; for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat, and say, - 

"I, Tattaru,  

Tell you

To tell Tatterrier

That sits by the fire

That Tatterags is dead."

And soon after that some of those sitting around the fireplace would sicken and die. (Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 21, No. 82 (Oct - Dec., 1908), p. 363)

The similarities with the King of the Cats story are obvious. The black cat which speaks, the cryptic names and announcement of a death, and even the fireplace - all of these are shared with other versions of the story. But rather than ending in a surprise revelation, the Vermont version ends in death. 

It's kind of strange to see a playful story transformed in this way, but it's totally understandable given New England's history and culture. England, Scotland, and Ireland have lots of lore about fairies and other magical beings. A story whose ending reveals that a common house cat is magical nobility fits in well with fairy lore, and some version of the King of Cats are explicitly about fairies.

When the Puritans colonized New England they did not bring their mother country's fairy lore with them. However, they did bring lore about witches. Lots and lots of it! 

It was believed that witches could transform themselves into animals, and sometimes even speak in animal form. So in the Puritan worldview, a talking cat would not be feline nobility or a fairy, but would instead be a malevolent witch. And what do witches do? Cause misery and death. The core for the story remains, but the ending is quite different and reflects old New England's grim culture. 

One thing I really like about Bayliss's account is this:

...for it often happened that a witch would come down the chimney in the form of a black cat...

I have so many questions about that word "often." Was this a weekly occurrence? Monthly? Life in 19th century Vermont sounds really dangerous. It makes me glad I don't have a fireplace. 

June 06, 2021

The Devil Made Me Do It: Is The New Conjuring Film True?

I'm a big horror movie fan, and enjoyed the first two Conjuring films, The Conjuring (2103) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Both films are based on supposedly true cases examined by Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut paranormal investigators. Played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, in these films the Warrens are portrayed as clean-cut, devout Catholics who are deeply in love with each other. I think their relationship is one of the reasons the Conjuring movies stand out in the crowded horror field. Ed and Lorraine are so wholesome it's almost comical at times. 

The real-life Warrens are now deceased, and a 2017 article in The Hollywood Reporter suggests they may not have been as wholesome as their film counterparts. According to the Reporter, Ed Warren initiated a relationship with a 15-year old girl when he was in his 30s and married to Lorraine. The girl eventually moved in with the Warrens and lived with them for forty years. At one point, the girl became pregnant with Ed's child and Lorraine arranged for her to have an abortion, something clearly at odds with the Warrens' public image as strict Catholics. 

A scene from The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.

So what does it mean when a movie like The Conjuring says it's "Based on a true story?" Very little, I think. It's marketing, and not a legally defensible claim. Take it with a big grain of salt. You certainly won't see Ed Warren having sex with teenage girls in the Conjuring movies, or his wife arranging for an abortion. And I think that's OK, as long as you realize the movies are basically fiction.

The newest Conjuring movie has just been released: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. It's a great title, and once again it's supposedly based on a true case investigated by the Warrens. 

Here are the facts of the case. On February 16, 1981, nineteen-year old Arne Cheyenne Johnson of Brookfield, Connecticut, stabbed his landlord, Alan Bono, several times in the chest with a knife. Johnson's fiancee, Debbie Glatzel, watched as it happened and later testified that Johnson growled like an animal as he did it. 

Johnson was arrested and charged with murder. When asked why he killed Bono, Johnson said, "The Devil made me do it." He claimed he was possessed by a demon. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

It had started the previous summer. On July 3, 1980, Debbie Glatzel's brother, 11-year old David, woke up in a panic. He said he had seen a demon in his sleep, "a man with big black eyes, a thin face with animal features and jagged teeth, pointed ears, horns and hoofs." David continued to see the demon throughout the summer, and a house-blessing by the a local priest did nothing to stop his visions. David sometimes even saw the demon in the daytime, when it appeared as an old man wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. According to People magazine:

In desperation, the Glatzels called on a couple from nearby Monroe, Conn. who are self-styled “demonologists.” Ed and Lorraine Warren, both 54, were professional artists until 1968, when they decided to pursue what was until then an avocation, the occult. Though they accept no fees for conducting demonic investigations, they lecture indefatigably (at up to $1,000 per), and once hosted a weekly local TV show, Ghost Hunting With Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Lorraine, who also claims the gift of clairvoyancy, describes her first encounter with David Glatzel: “While Ed interviewed the boy, I saw a black, misty form next to him, which told me we were dealing with something of a negative nature. Soon the child was complaining that invisible hands were choking him—and there were red marks on him. He said that he had the feeling of being hit.” ("In a Connecticut Murder Trial, Will (Demonic) Possession Prove Nine-Tenths of the Law?", People, October 26, 1981)

The Warrens believed there were 43 demons inside David, and coordinated several exorcisms. They had little effect. At one point, in desperation, Arne Cheyenne Johnson taunted the demons to enter his body instead. Again, it had little effect. David was eventually sent to a private school for "disturbed children."

Johnson seemed changed, though. After his taunt during the exorcism, he too claimed to see the demon that David had seen, and Debbie later testified he fell into trances in the months leading up to Bono's murder. 

On February 16, Johnson and Debbie Glatzel were taken to lunch by Alan Bono, who was Debbie's boss at a kennel and was also their landlord. Johnson's sister Wanda and Glatzel's nine-year old cousin Mary joined them. Bono supposedly drank heavily during lunch, and later that day became agitated and grabbed Mary. Johnson argued with Bono, and stabbed him several times in the chest and stomach. Johnson then walked into the woods, where he was found by the police. It was the first murder in Brookfield's 193-year history. Johnson was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and served five years of a 10 - 20 year prison sentence. 

After the trial ended, an author named Gerald Brittle published a book about the case, The Devil in Connecticut, which was written with help from Lorraine Warren. When the book was republished in 2006, Brittle was sued by David Glatzel and his brother Carl for misrepresenting them in the book. Carl also claimed his brother's possession had been a hoax created by the Warrens to take advantage of David's mental illness. Arne Cheyenne Johnson and Debbie Glatzel, who were by this point married, stood by the Warrens and author Brittle, claiming they accurately presented the situation. 

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

So there you go. Were David Glatzel and Arne Cheyenne Johnson really possessed by demons, or were the Warrens taking advantage of a mentally ill boy? I can't say, but it's interesting that David, the subject of the Warrens' exorcisms, now claims he was not possessed. 

The judge in Johnson's trial didn't accept his claim of demonic possession. As we all learned from the 1692 Salem witch trials, it's impossible to prove the Devil's existence in court.

'Demon' defense rejected in Conn. murder trial.

Danbury, Conn. - A Superior Court judge yesterday refused to allow a much-publicized "demon defense" to be used in the murder trial of a Connecticut man. 

The defense strategy was to try to prove that Arne Cheyenne Johnson was possessed by demons when he allegedly stabbed a neighbor to death eight months ago. 

The jury process had just begun when Judge Robert Callahan said the defense that attorney Martin Minnella planned was "irrelevant and I am not going allow it, period." (Boston Globe, October 29, 1981)

I haven't seen The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It yet, but have seen the trailer. It shows Arne Cheyenne Johnson walking down the road covered in blood, Lorraine Warren being dragged off a cliff by a monstrous arm, a little boy getting pulled into a waterbed, and Lorraine Warren saying, "It's a witch's totem. We think your family was cursed, and that connection is still open." 

It looks like a great horror movie, but is it a true story? Probably not. Horror movies require literal monsters, but the real situation in Brookfield seems complicated and nuanced. 

May 22, 2021

Book Reviews: Folk Magic, Bigfoot, and More Folk Magic

Book, books, books! I have a lot of books about folklore and legends, but somehow alway find room for more. This week I'm reviewing some recent books I really enjoyed. 

First up, let's talk about New World Witchery, by Cory Thomas Hutcheson. This book is a massive, 452-page compendium of magical folklore from across North America. Hutcheson has a PhD in folklore and is the long-time cohost of the New World Witchery podcast, so he really knows his stuff. I was a guest on the podcast several years ago and had a great time. 

Like many of my readers, Hutcheson is also a practicing witch, and New World Witchery is written primarily for an audience eager to get its hands dirty and do some magic. Other people will enjoy the book as well - there's so much information in it! - but he includes exercises and tips for those who want to do more than just read. 

New World Witchery covers a wide range of topics, with chapters on divination, animal magic, counter magic, necromancy, dealing with the Devil, and a whole lot more. The book draws upon the many diverse magical traditions found in North America, including Hoodoo, Southern Conjure, Mountain Magic, Cuaranderismo and Brujeria, Pow-Wow, and Neo-Paganism. Even if you're familiar with a variety of folk magic traditions you'll definitely learn new things. I did. 

For example, in addition to the traditions above, Hutcheson also discusses New England Witchery, which is a favorite topic of mine. I've been studying it for years but I still found new insights in his book. Before reading New World Witchery, I didn't know that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote an article about the hallucinogenic ointments witches allegedly used to fly to their devilish revels. Now I do! 

Another book in a similar vein, but also very different, is Folkloric American Witchcraft and the Multicultural Experience by Via Hedera. The publisher, Moon Books, sent me a copy for review, but I would have purchased this one anyway. 

Hedera is a practicing witch who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and she is also ethnically multi-racial, which shapes the tone of Folkloric American Witchcraft

Every one of my grandparents were a different ethnicity from the other; my siblings, their siblings and I all have different fathers and thus have different genetic backgrounds. My mother was adopted so I spent a good deal of my life immersed in cultures that I am not ethnically related to but very familiar with. It's an old story, an American one, a magical one... (Via Hedera, Folkloric American Witchcraft, p.21)

While New World Witchery provides you with maximum magical information, Folkloric American Witchcraft gives you the inspiration to use it. Hedera does include spells and charms that you can use, but she is more concerned with finding the motivation to practice folk magic in America's weird, messy, and often violent history. 

American folk magic and witchcraft is a crossroads of clashing cultures. Brought together by adversity, theft, enslavement, expansion, love, war and liberty, our culture as Americans is defined by our diversity, and our traditions of magic were birthed first by a synthesis of European, African, and Indigenous spiritual beliefs and superstitions, and then later by all the many parts of the world (Via Hedera, Folkloric American Witchcraft, p. 64)

After reading Folkloric American Witchcraft you'll want to get off the couch and start casting spells. I know money is tight these days for many people, but if you can afford it I would recommend both New World Witchery and Folkloric American Witchcraft. They work together well as companion books. 

Finally, and on a totally different topic, there's Mike Dupler's On the Trail of Bigfoot: Tracking the Enigmatic Giants of the Forest, which was sent to me by New Page Books. I am a Bigfoot fan, and really enjoyed On the Trail of Bigfoot. There are a lot of Bigfoot books out there, and I liked Dupler's book because it provides a nice overview of current thinking about Bigfoot. 

Dupler addresses questions like the following: Does Bigfoot make structures in the woods? How does Bigfoot communicate? If those topics sound dry (and they aren't), you might enjoy the chapter titled, "Is Sasquatch Interdimensional?" Dupler believes Bigfoot is a physical animal, but does speculate about other dimensions. Here's a description of something seen at the famous Skinwalker Ranch in Utah:

While watching from a bluff one evening, team members saw a strange yellow light appear. This glowing anomaly grew and morphed into a tunnel. One of the crew watched the spectacle through binoculars and, to his amazement, a large faceless black humanoid exited the tunnel and lumbered away. The creature seemed reminiscent of a Sasquatch. The tunnel then dissipated as if it had never been there, leaving the creature in the night with the shaken investigators (Mike Dupler, On the Trail of Bigfoot, p. 117)

I love a strange Sasquatch story, and Dupler includes many in his book, including classics from the 19th and early 20th century with titles like "The Salmon River Devil" and "The Beast of Mica Mountain." Trappers and hunters sure seemed to encounter lots of weird, hairy humanoids back then. 

There you have it: books about folk magic, folk magic, and Bigfoot. Perfect beach reading as summer begins!

May 08, 2021

Chloe Russell: "The Old Witch or Black Interpreter" and Her Dream Book

Chloe Russell was born in 1745, about three hundred miles southwest of Sierra Leone. At the age of nine she captured by slave traders, brought across the Atlantic, and sold to a Virginia plantation owner named George Russel. When Russel died his cruel and violent son inherited the plantation. He was incredibly abusive towards Chloe, and she contemplated suicide:

Such a cruel treatment at length drove me to the resolution of destroying myself!... But the night previous, I dreamed that I saw my father, who told me that he had just come from the world of spirits, where there was nothing but joy and happiness. He informed me that he was killed by the fire of the Baccaranas (white slavers) twenty moons after I was captured by them, in attempting to rescue my mother, whom they had taken. 

He said that he had been made acquainted with my resolve to destroy myself, and had come to persuade me not to do it, as it would soon be well with me, and I should be free from my master. This singular dream made such a deep impression upon my mind, as to deter me from committing suicide the succeeding day... (Chloe Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, 1827)

Things didn't improve for Chloe though, so she once again contemplated suicide. Her father appeared to her again in a dream, this time accompanied by a spirit clad in purple who gave Chloe the ability to foretell the future:

Young woman, stay thy hand and raise it not against thy own life, for thy afflictions shall shortly cease. Thy unjust punishments have enkindled the the wrath of the Most High, who has commissioned me to unrivet thy chains, and to vest thee with power to foretell remarkable events, and prophecy things that that shall surely come to pass, whereby thou shalt gain thy freedom, and be ranked among the most extraordinary of thy fellow-creatures... (Russell, The Complete Fortune Teller, 1827)

When she awoke from the dream, Chloe Russell had the power to predict future events. She supposedly foretold the American Revolution and many other major occurrences. Her reputation spread through Virginia, and eventually a neighboring plantation owner asked for her help. His uncle had died after hiding a fortune worth $60,000 and hadn't told anyone where it was. Using her powers, Chloe told the plantation owner it was hidden inside a wall in the uncle's house. He found the hidden money, and used part of it to purchase Chloe's freedom. He also paid her $500, with which she purchased a house and started working as a professional fortune teller. She was quite successful, and eventually spent $3,000 purchasing the freedom of other slaves from her violent former master. 

That story appears in the 1827 edition of a small book called The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, whose author was "Chloe Russell, a woman of colour in the state Massachusetts, commonly termed the Old Witch or Black Interpreter." The book was first published in Boston around 1798. There were several other editions, but Chloe Russell's biography only appears in the 1827 edition, which seems to have been the last. 

Her biography seems almost unbelievable, and there are some aspects of it that are clearly not true. She mentions that tigers live in Africa (they don't), and says she spent her childhood 300 miles southwest of Sierra Leone (which would be in the middle of the ocean). On the other hand, she was sold into slavery at the age of nine, so her memory of her childhood home may understandably have been faint. However, many readers may also be skeptical of her claims to psychic powers, and recall that other well-known fortune-tellers, like Lynn's Moll Pitcher, also supposedly predicted the American Revolution. 

On the other hand, records indicate that a free Black woman named Chloe Russell did indeed live in Boston in the early 19th century. Censuses from 1820 - 1833 indicate that she lived on Belknap Street, which was in Beacon Hill's historic Black neighborhood. Her occupation is described either as a washerwoman or a cook. She also owned a building which she may have operated as a rooming house.

It seems very likely that Chloe Russell also worked as a fortune teller. As I mentioned in my recent post about treasure digging, after the Puritan era many people worked as dream interpreters, fortune-tellers, and magical consultants. These people often came from the society's lower echelons, and it was a good way to earn some extra income if you had the talent.

The contents of The Complete Fortune Teller vary by edition. Some contain lists of dream interpretations. For example:

Cards - If you dream you are playing at cards, it denotes you will soon be married.

Cattle - To dream of driving cattle, is a sign you that you will be prosperous through life. 

Cat - Should you dream of a cat, you must expect trouble. 

I don't know much about cards or cattle, but I do know that cats are trouble, so maybe there is validity to these interpretations! Some editions contain instructions on palm reading, and on how to determine a person's character by the moles on their body.  

Love spells are included as well. For a man who is romantically interested in a woman, Russell counsels him to soak flowers in musk and cinnamon oil and wear them on his body for three days, bathing them each day with the aforementioned fragrances. After three days, he should send half the flowers to the woman in a small packet with a note, and keep the other half of the flowers on his person. True love will result. 

Scholars question who actually wrote The Complete Fortune Teller. Its contents are very similar to other popular fortune-telling books of the time, and it seems likely that an enterprising publisher simply repackaged older material under a new title. Little is known about Chloe Russell's life beyond the book, but I suspect the publisher attached her name to The Complete Fortune Teller in order to capitalize on her reputation. Hopefully Russell got a portion of the profits. 

There are lots of questions. When and how did Russell get from Virginia to Boston? Did Russell write her own biography, and how much of it is true? Nicole Aljoe, the director of Northeastern University's Africana Studies program, is working with her students to find out more about Russell's life. You can see a presentation by Professor Aljoe on the topic here. Hopefully she'll publish a book or article on the topic.

Other than Professor Aljoe's presentation, I got most of my information from Eric Gardner's article, "The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book: An Antebellum Text by "Chloe Russel, A Woman of Color," The New England Quarterly, June 2005, Vol. 78, No. 2 (June 2005), pp. 259 - 288. 

One last note: if you're into Tarot cards, Chloe Russell is represented on a card in the Hoodoo Tarot Deck.

April 29, 2021

Old New England Cemetery Lore: Watch Your Step

This past Saturday was warm and sunny, and although I'm always happy to stay home with a pile of obscure books I decided to go for a walk. I went to one of my favorite places, Brookline's Old Burying Ground. 

It's a really charming cemetery, well-cared for with just the right amount of decay. Although it's only a few miles from downtown Boston it feels like a rural environment. A few notable folks are buried there, including Zabdiel Boylston, a local physician who inoculated people against smallpox in 1721. It was the first inoculation campaign in North America, and Boylston got the idea from Onesimus, a slave in the household of Cotton Mather, the (in)famous minister associated with the Salem witch trials.

Cotton Mather's stepmother, Anna Mather, is also buried in Old Burying Ground. Her husband Increase Mather (also associated with the Salem trials) is buried at Copp's Hill in Boston, but she outlived him by several years and was buried in Brookline in 1737. Her grave is marked by a beautiful and well-preserved stone. 

As I wandered through Old Burying Ground I thought about some old New England cemetery folklore I've been reading recently. Some of it is probably familiar. For example, if you feel a cold chill for no reason it's probably because someone has walked over the site of your future grave. I think that one is well-known. 

A related piece of lore says that you should never step on anyone's grave when you're in a cemetery. That makes sense to me. If the living get a chill from someone just walking over their future grave, think how annoyed the dead must be when you step on their actual grave. Unfortunately, sometimes this advice is hard to follow, particularly in old cemeteries. The graves are placed really closely together at Brookline's Old Burying Ground, and it is hard not to step on one. There are also lots of unmarked graves, so you're probably unintentionally walking on someone. I think the intent behind this piece of lore is what's really important: treat the dead with respect. 

Many years ago when I was a kid I went for a bike ride with my friend Bobby in a neighborhood cemetery. We were riding pretty fast and goofing around, and I started to worry that we weren't being respectful. I said, perhaps half-jokingly, that we shouldn't be too loud or we'd disturb the dead. 

Bobby laughed and said, "I'm not afraid of any dead people!"

As soon as he said that he skidded, fell off his bike, and scraped his knee up really badly. His pants were torn and there was a lot of blood. We both left the cemetery immediately and went home. We kind of laughed but were also a bit spooked. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I've never forgotten it. 

Speaking of forgetting, according to another piece of old lore you shouldn't spend too much time reading gravestone inscriptions. This is bad news for me, since I really like to read old inscriptions. I'm not sure what constitutes too much time and hopefully I am under the limit. I can understand the sentiment, though, because when I read too many gravestones I do feel a little lightheaded from all the dates and names. It's like when I spend too much time on Instagram!

One final piece of advice: you shouldn't walk through a cemetery on your way to see friends. You run the risk of carrying death to their house if you do. Happily, I just went back home after visiting Old Burying Ground. It was a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon. 

I got this cemetery lore from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896) and Fanny Bergen's Current Superstitions (1896).

April 18, 2021

Rats, Cats, and Death: Horror on Haskell Island

Haskell Island is located off the coast of Harpswell, Maine. It's a small island, and apparently has no full time residents these days, just vacation homes. It looks quite idyllic, but like many quaint New England locales Haskell Island has a strange past. 

According to legend, the island was first colonized by the two Haskell brothers, way back in the 1600s. The Hakells were very industrious and transformed the island into an agricultural paradise. They planted an orchard, plowed the land into fertile fields, and fished in Casco Bay. The brothers prospered in their little Eden. 

Unfortunately, one day they accidentally brought some rats to the island in their boat while transporting supplies. Haskell Island had everything the rats could want: food, water, places to nest, and no predators. The rats multiplied rapidly and soon threatened the brothers' livelihood.

Antique Haskell Island postcard from Amazon. "A pretty place which I visited yesterday..."

To stop the rats, the Haskell brothers brought a couple of cats to their island. The brothers didn't provide any food for the cats and expected them to survive by killing rats. The cats met their expectations. They ate rats, and there were so many rats that the cats thrived and multiplied. Soon there were more cats than rats, and eventually there were no rats left at all, just an island full of hungry cats. 

The cats roved the island, howling with hunger. They climbed the apple trees, roamed the fields, and paced the shore, looking for something to kill and eat. 

The Haskell brothers had to do something about the ravenous felines, but something happened before they could devise a plan: one of them became sick. He fell seriously ill, so his brother took the boat and went to the mainland to get a physician. "Hurry back," the sick brother said weakly as he lay in bed. 

Can you see where this is going? An island full of hungry cats, an incapacitated man lying weak and helpless in bed? When the healthy brother returned to the island, he and the physician were horrified by what they found inside the Haskells' house. The sick brother had been ripped to shreds, and the cats were tearing the last morsels of flesh from his body. At last their hunger was sated. 


It's a simple little story, but really resonates with me. It appears in Horace Beck's 1957 book The Folklore of Maine. The Maine Encyclopedia says Haskell Island was named for a Captain Haskell who purchased, but never lived on, the island, so I don't think the man-eating cat story is true. Still, it has the power of a good horror movie, and reads like an environmentalist fable. The brothers try to master the island, but end up doomed by their own actions and the invasive species they brought to the island. 

It reminds me of "Bart the Mother," a 1998 episode of The Simpsons where Springfield is overrun by ravenous lizards. At first people are happy because the lizards eat all the pigeons, but then realize they'll need to import snakes to eat the lizards, and then gorillas to eat the snakes...

Horace Beck notes that there is a coda to the story. According to some people, the sick brother was not killed by cats, but by pirates. He had seen the pirates burying their treasure on Haskell Island, and they killed him to keep their secret safe. Then they made it look like the cats had done it to deflect attention. I don't find that explanation quite as compelling, though. The story is structured like a version of "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Spider," and randomly introducing pirates just doesn't make sense. 

April 11, 2021

Mountain Ash, or the Witch-Wood Tree

Although it's now socially acceptable to be a witch, that wasn't always the case, particularly here in New England. Many people today identify as witches, which usually means they are interested in the occult, folk magic, and possibly paganism. These are all good things, and most modern witches are lovely people who just want to be left alone with their candles and dried herbs. 

In the past, though, no one wanted to be called a witch. The activities we associate with modern witches today - fortune telling, herbal magic, protection magic - were widely practiced across New England, sometimes by specialists called cunning folk, conjurers or seers, but more often just by average people. Curious to know if you were going to marry the boy next door? Grandma would break out the Bible, bind a key inside it, and start asking questions. Troubled by bad dreams? The farmer next door would tell you to place a knife under the bed. Everyone knew a charm or two, but no one called themself a witch.

This is because people believed witches used magic for evil: ruining crops, killing farm animals, making children sick, and causing death. Sometimes witches were motivated by jealousy, sometimes revenge, and sometimes they were working for the Devil himself. No one wanted to be a witch. Calling yourself a witch in the past would be like saying, "Hi! I'm a serial killer" today. 

Image from the Arbor Day Foundation. 

A community might accuse its most unpopular members of being witches, but these accusations were always false and motivated by the need to blame someone for life's misfortunes. Crops failed? Blame the mean old widow down the road and call her a witch. Child sick? Blame the crotchety guy who swears at everyone - he must be a witch. 

These people weren't really witches, but there was plenty of magic for protecting one's home and family from the imaginary threat. A horseshoe placed above the front door was the most popular method, but there were others, including this one I found in Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896):

It is well to have a piece of a branch cut from a mountain ash in the house. It is as good to keep to witches as a horseshoe nailed over the door. 

The practice seems to have been relatively widespread. John McNab Currier was a physician and folklorist who lived in New Hampshire in the 19th century. Currier knew a woman who blamed witches for all the misfortunes in her life and wore a necklace of mountain ash beads to deflect their evil influence:

They were cut about three eighths of an inch in length, the bark being left on, and strung on string running through the pith. She was careful to keep them concealed, but sometimes they would work up above her collar and be conspicuous. This species of tree was once quite popular among New England witch-believers as a charm against witches... (“Contributions to New England Folk-Lore,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 4, No. 14 (Jul – Sep. 1891)

Folklorist Fanny Bergen also notes that many people carried pieces of mountain ash wood in their pockets and the tree was sometimes called the "witch-wood" tree (“Some Bits of Plant-Lore”, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol 5, No. 16 (Jan – Mar, 1892).

Image from the Arbor Day Foundation

Although many folks still hang lucky horseshoes over their doorways, I haven't encountered anyone who carries around pieces of mountain ash, let alone wears a necklace made of it. Partly it's because we don't practice as much folk magic as our ancestors did, and even when we do the meaning has changed. People who hang horseshoes today usually do so to bring luck, not to keep out witches. We just aren't as afraid of witches as we once were, which is a good thing.

I also think New Englanders, and Americans in general, are less familiar with trees and plants than we were were a century ago. Very few of us work in agriculture or even outdoors, so we don't need to be well-acquainted with what's growing around us. Industrial and scientific progress has made us less superstitious (and less likely to hang our neighbors as witches), but it's also disconnected us from our immediate environment. 

Even if I wanted to make a mountain ash necklace, I probably couldn't identify the tree. They tend to grow in higher elevations, and I've lived most of my life in the coastal regions. The mountain ash (sorbus americana) is a small tree that bears orangey red berries. Sorbus Americana is very similar to the European rowan tree, which has a lot of magical lore attached to it, and I assume that's why magical powers are ascribed to the mountain ash. 

There's a mountain ash tree nearby me in Arnold Arboretum. I've been meaning to visit if for years. Maybe this spring I'll finally do it!

March 28, 2021

Treasure Digging, Terror and the Devil in Northfield, Massachusetts

Last week, I wrote about small cavemen on the Connecticut River. This week, more weird shenanigans on the same river!

In the 19th century, residents of Northfield, Massachusetts believed the notorious pirate Captain Kidd had buried his treasure on an island in the Connecticut River. This island, called Clarke's Island, was not particularly large, and no one could explain why Kidd would choose this location to bury his ill-gotten booty. 

Abner Field lived in Northfield at the time and was determined to unearth the treasure. He consulted with a "noted conjurer" who told him where to dig, and also told him the precautions he had to take. Because, you see, Captain Kidd had murdered one of his crew and buried his body next to the treasure. The dead man's ghost watched over the treasure and would defend it from anyone who dared disturb it. This was the reason no one in Northfield had tried to find the treasure before. 

The conjurer told Abner to take the following precautions:

1. He had to dig at midnight when the full moon was high overhead.

2. Abner couldn't dig alone. He needed two companions, because three is a magic number and three men were needed to find the treasure. 

3. The men needed to form a triangle as they dug. 

4. Abner and his companions couldn't speak until they opened the treasure chest and had the gold in their hands. Breaking this magical rule of silence would lead to disaster. Disaster!

On the next full moon, Abner and two friends rowed out to Clarke's Island and began to dig. It was hot work, but despite working up a good sweat the three men didn't speak. They were determined to get their hands on Captain Kidd's treasure. 

Finally, after digging for what seemed like hours, they heard their shovels hit something solid. They had found the hidden treasure chest. 

John Quidor, The Money Diggers (1832), Brooklyn Museum

In excitement, one of the men blurted out, "You've hit it!" He had broken the rule of silence, and the treasure chest immediately sank deeper down into the ground. A ghostly pirate suddenly appeared and flew at the men, terrifying them with its hideous undead countenance. Abner and his friends ran back to their rowboat. 

This was bad, but things got even worse. They heard a roar from the island, and saw the Devil himself running towards them at tremendous speed, cutting clear though a haystack in his eagerness to attack the interlopers. The Devil splashed into the river but Abner and his friends reached the other shore safely and ran off in fear. They had lost the treasure, but counted themselves lucky to keep their lives and their souls. 

For many years after, Abner would tell anyone who'd listen about how close he'd come to finding the buried treasure. Many people in town believed his story, but others said a local man named Oliver Smith and one of his friends had learned about Abner's midnight expedition and disguised themselves as the ghost and the Devil to prank the treasure diggers. 

Treasure digging was a very common activity in New England (and the the Northeast in general) in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was generally practiced in small, rural towns where people had few economic prospects. A Maine treasure digger told traveler Edward Augustus Kendall the following:

"We go on toiling like fools; digging the ground for the sake of a few potatoes, and neglecting the treasures that have been left behind by the those that have been before us! For myself, I confess it, to my mortification, that I have have been toiling all my life, to make a paltry living, and neglecting all the while, the means that have been long in my hands of making a sudden and boundless fortune." (Quoted in Alan Taylor, "The Early Republic's Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780 - 1830," American Quarterly, Spring 1986, Vol. 38, No.1)

Sadly, very few people ever found anything. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, allegedly found golden tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon, but certainly no one ever found a vast horde of pirate gold. 

Treasure digging (also called money digging or treasure seeking) was a common activity, and it was also a magical one. Many people learned where to dig through their dreams, and others used dowsing rods or looked into stones to locate the treasure. Treasure diggers would also consult magical specialists (often called seers or conjurers) who told tell them where to dig and what precautions to take. As historian Alan Taylor notes, the seers were often female, Black, or adolescent. In short, they were the marginalized members of early American society and therefore easily associated with a marginalized occult activity. 

Buried treasure was always said to be guarded by a spirit, usually the soul of a murdered pirate, but the guardian could appear in many different forms: a hideous ghost, a giant, soldiers on horseback, black cats. People also believed the buried treasure could move away from anyone trying to unearth it, and they tried to prevent his from happening by drawing magic circles or triangles on the ground around it. In the Northfield story, the three men need to stand in a triangular formation. Magic circles and triangles have deep roots in European ceremonial magic where they are used to contain dangerous spirits. 

Treasure diggers were almost always told to remain silent as they dug. The surest way to lose the treasure was to speak. Part of me wonders if people thought the guardian spirits couldn't hear them if they remained silent, but the rule of silence appears other places in New England folklore. For example, a spell cast with a magic bridle could be broken by speaking, and Vermonters remained silent as they gathered bittersweet root as protection against witches. 

I think treasure digging sounds like fun. I'd want to hang out in the woods with my friends doing something vaguely spooky at midnight! Unfortunately, I think a lot of people were motivated by bone crushing poverty, not a need for entrainment.  

One last thought on this story: it has what I call a "Scooby Doo" ending, where the supernatural occurrence is explained away as being caused by humans. It feels tacked on to me. Almost every treasure digging story ends in the same way: someone speaks, hideous apparitions appear, and everyone runs away. Most of them aren't explained away as a prank because the people who dug for treasure believed that ghosts, demons, and the Devil were quite real. It's easy for you and me to be skeptical, but if we were out on some island silently digging at midnight we might more easily become believers. 

Other than the Alan Taylor article, my main source was A History of the Town of Northfield, Massachusetts (1875) by J.H. Temple and George Sheldon. Also, special thanks to Mark E. for emailing me about treasure diggers and inspiring me to write this post. 

Special bonus fun fact: there is an area in Northfield called Satan's Kingdom. Extra bonus fun fact: there's also a park in Westwood with the same name. Massachusetts is great!

March 19, 2021

Tiny Cavemen, A UFO Abductee, and Fairy Folklore in Massachusetts

Did tiny cavemen live on an island in the Connecticut River in the 1970s? Let's face it, that's a bizarre question to ask. Obviously, the answer is no. And yet that claim was made by Betty Hill in 1998.

Her name may be familiar. Betty and her husband Barney claimed they were abducted by a UFO in New Hampshire on September 19, 1961, and their experiences were made into a book (The Interrupted Journey) and a movie (The UFO Incident). The Hills' story was one of the first UFO abduction narratives in America and helped popularize the concept of alien abduction.

The Hills were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but are now best remembered for their UFO encounter. Barney Hill died in 1969 at the young age of 46, but Betty lived until 2005, when she died at age 85. She continued to see UFOs throughout her life, and became a beloved figure in the UFO/paranormal community. Many people came to Betty with their own stories of unexplained phenomena.

Image from Pinterest

In 1998, she contributed several of these stories, all focused on Bigfoot and set in New England, to a book titled The Psychic Sasquatch and Their UFO Connection by Jack Kewaunee Lapersitis. (The Psychic Sasquatch is one of those weird and amazing books that everyone should read.) Betty Hill claimed the following happened near Springfield, Massachusetts:

My informant said that at one spot in the middle of the Connecticut River there was a good-sized island that was uninhabited. Then one day it was inhabited by small, prehistoric-appearing people. They don't know how many of them there were, maybe 50. They lived on the island for three years. No one ever succeeded in getting near them. The police had gone out to the island on boats and had gone onto the island. These small, primitive people could outrun anyone. They would take off running and then could not be found... It is not known how they lived or what they did for food. No fires were ever seen on the island, but they lived there year-round for approximately three years. Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared.

... Planes and helicopters had flown over the area, hoping to get pictures, but these little people - they're not really tiny people, but maybe four feet tall or so - would take off running at such speeds that no one could even get pictures of them. These prehistoric looking people would be there one instant, then would start running and in the next instant they would just disappear. 

Hill claimed she was given this information by a local police chief, who also told her the little people were naked and covered with "sparse hair."

There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, the only source for this story is Betty Hill and The Psychic Sasquatch. I don't doubt the sincerity of Betty Hill or Jack Lapersitis, but if small cavemen had really been living on an island in Massachusetts for three years I think more people would know about it. Hill claims anthropologists went to the island, and that local residents would stand on the riverbank trying to see the speedy little cavemen. I think someone would have alerted the press if this had happened.

On the other hand, these speedy miniature cave folk reminded me of New England's most famous magical little people, the pukwudgies. When I say "magical little people," I mean fairies. Like these cavemen, the pukwudgies are generally described as being small and hairy. The word pukwudgie originally comes from the Ojibwa, a Native American group in the midwest, and made its way into New England folklore via local 19th century poets like Henry Longfellow, town historians, and Wampanoag storytellers on Cape Cod. Puwudgie is generally said to simply mean "little people," but poet and folklorist John Greenleaf Whittier thought it meant "little vanisher," which certainly is descriptive of the cavemen Betty Hill discusses. 

Vintage brownie illustration found here

People who encounter fairies across Europe and North America often say they wear archaic or old-fashioned clothing. It is rare to meet a fairy wearing yoga pants and a hoodie. This may be because fairies represent the past, whether that's an older way of life, a culture that has vanished, or because they are actually spirits of the dead who remain nearby. The tiny naked cavefolk could easily fit into all these categories. 

Some fairies also appear naked. For example, in Scotland the fairies called brownies generally appear as small, naked, hairy beings. Brownies were said to perform chores for the humans whose homes they inhabited, but would disappear if given a gift of clothing. 

I'm not necessarily saying the tiny cavefolk on the Connecticut river were fairies or brownies, but just that the story about them has themes similar to fairy and pukwudgie stories. If there are fairies in New England, and many people believe there are, I can certainly see why they'd appear as small hairy humanoids. It just feels like the right fit for our stony, woodsy biome and occasionally inclement climate. Flowing gowns and diaphanous wings would not fare well here.  

If anyone has more information on this story please let me know in the comments or by email. I would love to know more about this topic.  

March 06, 2021

Vermont Witchcraft: Wax Images, Thornapple, and the Bible

I've been on a monster kick for the last few weeks here, so I thought I'd add a little variety and write about witchcraft. Here's a witch story from the small town of Newbury, Vermont. 

Many years ago, in the early 19th century, a Newbury farmer believed he was being harassed by a witch. He had seen strange phantom shapes dancing in his fireplace at night, and his cattle suffered from strange ailments. He suspected a woman who lived nearby was the witch causing these mishaps. 

Candles by artists Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz.

Remembering the adage to "fight fire with fire," the farmer decided to use magic against the alleged witch:

With a mixture of tallow and beeswax he moulded what he considered to be an image of the offending woman, which he hung up before the fireplace. As the effigy slowly melted, he stuck it full of thorns from the thornapple, and at the same hour the woman who had cast an evil spell upon his cattle fell down stairs and broke her arm. (Frederic Palmer Wells, History of Newbury Vermont, 1902.)

There were lots of stories in the 19th century about how to defeat witches; this is one of them. The protagonists in these stories usually employ witch bottles, horseshoes, or cruelty to animals to defeat a witch. I haven't seen many that involve poppets (a.k.a. small human images), like this one does. In 17th century New England, it was believed that witches often used poppets to harm their victims, but their victims didn't usually fight back with another poppet. I also haven't read many stories that involve melting a wax image. So this story is kind of unusual. 

The reference to the "thornapple" in New England witch stories is also new to me. There are two plants called thornapple in North America. One of them is more commonly known as jimsonweed (datura stramonium in Latin), a hearty nightshade that grows across most of the continent. Jimsonweed, a.k.a. devil's weed or the devil's cucumber, produces small fruits that have spiky shells. Jimsonweed is a dangerous hallucinogen, and probably got the name "jimsonweed" after several soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia ate the plant and hallucinated for eleven days in the 17th century. The term "Jamestown weed" slowly evolved into the modern word "jimsonweed." And yes, you read that right. The soldiers hallucinated for eleven days. Do not mess with this plant. 

I don't think the Newbury farmer stabbed his wax effigy with jimsonweed. I suspect he used the other thornapple, which is the hawthorn tree (crataegus in Latin). There is a lot of European folklore connected to this tree - it is planted near holy wells, it is associated with fairies, its wood is used to kill vampires, etc. That heritage alone makes it a strong candidate, and its branches are also thorny, which makes it even more likely the farmer used the hawthorn tree. It's easier to stab melting wax with a branch than with a small spiny fruit. 

Hawthorn branches from Etsy.

This particular farmer remained concerned about witches until he died. When he grew old he became quite ill and bedridden. He put the family Bible under his pillow to protect himself from witches. The local doctor, one Dr. Carter, thought this was nonsense and tried to secretly replace the Bible with a pile of old almanacs. The farmer discovered the substitution and became livid and agitated. Fearing he would die from agitation, Dr. Carter replaced the Bible. It remained under the old farmer's pillow until he died several weeks later. 

February 21, 2021

Bigfoot Stole My Laundry: High Strangeness in Connecticut

Here's an interesting and very brief story that appears in Phillip Imbrogno's 2010 book Files from the Edge: A Paranormal Investigator's Explorations into High Strangeness. Imbrogno writes:

Although most Bigfoot sightings come from credible sources, some seem really questionable. For example, in 1992 I received a call from a Connecticut woman who said that a black helicopter landed in her yard and a Bigfoot jumped out, messed up the yard, and stole her clothes hanging on the line too dry. The creature then quickly climbed back into the helicopter and took off. As strange as it sounds, I've heard even weirder reports. Such tales are not this book's focus, but they do exist!

First of all, I have to say this story is amazing. I love the idea of Bigfoot jumping out of a mysterious black helicopter just to act like a bad teenager, messing up someone's yard and stealing their laundry. Amazing! Was Bigfoot piloting the helicopter, or was someone else? Maybe there were two Bigfoots on board, one acting as pilot and one as laundry thief. I want more details.

Getty Images.

I'm not really familiar with Phillip Imbrogno, but some people in the paranormal community claim he has faked his academic credentials. You can look up the details online if you're curious. You may want to take his writings with a grain of salt, and even he says the story about Bigfoot and the helicopter is pretty questionable. 

There is a certain "mix and match" aspect to some contemporary paranormal stories that make them seem even stranger than they normally would. A Bigfoot or UFO story is anomalous by its very nature, but some of these stories are strange hybrids of multiple paranormal ideas. For example, last week's story about ZoZo was "reptoid entity + Ouija board = demon," or possibly "reptoid entity + Ouija board = alien being," depending on when it was told. 

This week's story is the same. Black helicopters have been a feature of UFO and paranormal accounts for decades, and they are often implied to be part of some unnamed government conspiracy. And of course, Bigfoot has been a staple of paranormal stories for decades. When they're mashed together they provide surprisingly entertaining results: "Bigfoot + black helicopter = missing laundry." 

I like old folklore as well as new paranormal stories, but the older folklore was much more standardized. For example, classic witch tales from across New England were all pretty similar, reflecting the shared belief system of our cultural ancestors. Ghost stories were pretty much the same as well. People are much more creative now with their stories of strange encounters. I think there's just a wider range of beliefs these days. Some people think Bigfoot is a reclusive animal, some think he's an alien, others that he's from another dimension. Apparently someone thinks he flies around in a black helicopter pulling pranks. There's a lot of variety. 

A cynic might say this is all caused by capitalism and our ever-expanding range of media outlets. Readers and viewers crave novelty, so authors and TV producers always need to find new stories to tell (and sell). People online need to post weirder and wilder stories in order to get views and likes. You saw a UFO last night or a mysterious large footprint in the snow? Old news! Tell me about black-eyed children who came out of a UFO after you bought a haunted house. Then maybe I'll read your post. Maybe. 

That's the skeptical perspective. On the other hand, humans have been experiencing strange phenomena for thousands of years, and probably will for thousands more. These experiences have always been filtered through our cultural perspectives. The ancient Greeks saw nymphs and satyrs, the Puritans saw witches and ghosts, people in the late 20th century saw UFOs and Bigfoot. As we move into the 21st century American culture is comprised of more viewpoints, and more diverse viewpoints, than ever before. We just have a larger set of cultural filters than people had in the past, so let's enjoy the weirdness that results. And of course, keep an eye on your laundry.

February 17, 2021

ZoZo the Demon in Massachusetts: Ouija Boards, UFOs, and Led Zeppelin

On September 1, 1994, Mona Kempka woke up in her bedroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was 3:15 a.m. She had been sound asleep but felt someone pressing on her hands. Kempka was quite surprised when she opened her eyes. 

A reptilian entity was materializing in her bedroom. It was large and covered in scales. And did I mention it was large?

Its torso put the most proficient bodybuilder to shame, its legs were like giant frog's legs only more developed muscularly, there was mist covering its face so she could not see it...

The creature had large claws on its hands. As it appeared the entire room was lit with a strange pinkish light, and the creature told Kempka repeatedly its name was "ZoZo." It didn't speak but communicated with her telepathically. And then the creature disappeared.

From the 1977 movie SPECTRE.

This terrifying encounter was not the first time Kempka had heard the name "ZoZo." She had been using a Ouija board earlier and contacted an entity that said its name was ZoZo. She had also encountered a gray alien around this time as well.

I found this story in Albert Rosales's book Humanoid Encounters: 1990 - 1994, The Others Among Us. The Humanoid Encounters series is a great source of strange stories and I highly recommend them. Rosales doesn't give a lot of context, though, so I did a little digging to learn more about ZoZo. Some of you may already know about him but he was a relatively new demon to me. 

ZoZo seems to have entered America's cultural consciousness around 2009, when an Oklahoma man named Darren Evans posted about his Ouija board experiences in an online forum called True Ghost Tales. Evans said he had contacted a demonic being named ZoZo, who liked to swear at him through the Ouija board and threatened to take Evans's girlfriends off to Hell. Evans thought it was all talk, until one night his young daughter nearly drowned in the bathtub after ZoZo threatened her during a Ouija session. She also suffered from a nearly fatal infection shortly afterwards.

From that point on, Evans's house was plagued with strange phenomena. Objects moved on their own, voices were heard in empty rooms, and lights turned themselves on and off. Evans eventually moved to Michigan, but the weird occurrences started in his new home as soon as he started to use a Ouija board again. And the board spelled out ZoZo...

In 2016, Evans wrote The Zozo Phenomena with Rosemary Ellen Guiley, and has also appeared on Ghost Adventures and other paranormal TV shows. The book's name is accurate: ZoZo did become a phenomena, and there are now thousands of videos on YouTube of people trying to contact the demon. There have also been several horror films made about him as well. Many other people on the True Ghost Tales forum have confirmed Evans's experiences and said they too have encountered ZoZo.

I am a little late to the ZoZo party, but as soon as I saw the name I immediately thought of Led Zeppelin. I grew up in the 1970s, when Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest bands in the world. They had a reputation for dabbling in the occult, and children were warned that demonic messages would be revealed if they played Led Zeppelin albums backwards. The band's fourth album, Led Zeppelin IV, featured four occult symbols on the record sleeve, one for each band member. 

Guitarist Jimmy Page's symbol was the following:

There is some truth behind the band's occult reputation. Jimmy Page became fascinated by the occult after reading Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice when he was a teen, and he later bought Crowley's former home Boleskine House (located on the shores of Loch Ness!) with part of his Led Zeppelin fortune. He also briefly owned an occult bookstore and publishing company in London. 

Led Zeppelin fans have argued for years about the meaning of the Zoso symbol. It seems it originated in an Italian Renaissance alchemical grimoire, and probably refers to Saturn, the planetary ruler of Capricorn, Page's zodiac birth sign. It doesn't refer to a demon, and probably isn't even meant to be pronounced at all. It's simply a symbol.

Darren Evans is aware of the Led Zeppelin symbol, but he claims ZoZo has much older roots. For example, a demon named ZoZo is mentioned in 1818 French book called Le Dictionaire Infernal, and was mentioned in some other French texts in the 19th century. But some scholars claim that ZoZo is described as part of a fake possession case in Le Ditcionnaire Infernal and is not meant to be taken seriously. The name ZoZo has appeared in a few other places, including John Waters's 2000 movie Cecil B. Demented, where a character played by Maggie Gyllenhall says her father is "Zo-Zo, the three headed guard dog at the gate to hell."

The Ouija board has its origins in the 19th century, when spiritualism was sweeping across the country and Americans were eager to contact their dead loved ones, particularly those who died in the Civil War. For many years Ouija boards (also called spirit boards or talking boards) were mostly seen as a form of wholesome entertainment and a party game. For example, the couple in this Norman Rockwell painting don't seem too concerned about demons as they play with their board:

Ouija boards got a more sinister reputation in 1973, when the movie The Exorcist was released. In it, a young girl contacts a spirit named Captain Howdy using a spirit board. Although at first he seems harmless, it soon turns out that Captain Howdy is actually a Babylonian demon named Pazuzu. Oops! Ouija boards became a horror movie staple after that, and as the Satanic panic swept the country in the 1980s concerned parents warned their children against using them. This of course only made kids want them even more, and today Ouija boards are more popular than ever.

ZoZo. Zoso. Pazuzu. Led Zeppelin. The Satanic Panic. Linda Blair and Ouija boards. It's a potent mix of pop culture, the occult, and forgotten religious tidbits. You can see how the idea of a Ouija demon named ZoZo would take shape from all these different pieces, and why it would resonate. I'm not going to judge the truth or falsehood of Evans's claims, and I do think we can have powerful spiritual experiences even of things that have fairly recent origins. 

Now, back to Mona Kempka and her ZoZo sighting in Framingham, Massachusetts. Kempka said she saw the reptilian creature in 1994, years before Darren Evans had his experiences with ZoZo. Kempka discussed her sighting on a 2005 episode of World's Strangest UFO Stories, which was also several years before Evans shared his experiences. 

However, you've probably noticed she appeared on a UFO show, not a show about demons. I watched the episode, and she doesn't say the reptilian creature was a demon or that it was named ZoZo. She simply says it appeared and then disappeared, and that David Icke's theory that reptoid aliens are taking over the planet may be right. (I don't share her opinion on that.) The creature was only in her room for six seconds. She seems like a UFO believer, not someone involved in the occult. 

My guess is that Kempka's story probably changed a little over time. Rosales's Humanoid Encounters: 1990 - 1994 was not published until 2016, many years after Kempka's initial encounter with the creature and more than 10 years after she appeared on TV. She probably reevaluated her experience in light of new information, including the stories about ZoZo. I don't think she identified the musclebound reptoid as ZoZo until after Darren Evans' book came out. Does this mean she lied? 

Not necessarily. People around the world have experienced strange nighttime phenomena for millennia. If Mona Kempka lived in 17th century Massachusetts, she probably would have blamed this strange visitation on a witch. Explaining the creature as an alien visitor made sense in the late 20th century, but with our culture's current occult resurgence maybe a demonic explanation came to seem more meaningful. Maybe the concept of ZoZo made more sense to her than the concept of aliens. A skeptic might say she was just experiencing sleep paralysis or night terrors. Explanations come and go, but the experiences remain the same. 

One final note. Sadly, Mona Kempka passed away in 2015, so we'll never know more about her encounter that night in 1994. I'm glad she shared her stories. 

February 06, 2021

Bigfoot Hunters and A Glowing Light in Maine

You may have heard that an Oklahoma lawmaker wants to create a Bigfoot hunting season in his state. Justin Humphrey is the state representative for a district in Southeastern Oklahoma, an area where many people have seen the mysterious hairy hominid. 

Southeastern Oklahoma is already home to Gasquatch, a giant Sasquatch that stands outside a gas station/convenience store in the town of Idabel. In fact, the business is actually called Gasquatch. And the small town of Honobia has an annual Bigfoot festival every year which features music, food, and lectures by cryptozoologists. Honobia is surrounded by dense forests (logging is the main industry) and a local family reportedly encountered a group of Sasquatch in January of 2000. The Sasquatch stole deer carcasses from an outdoor refrigerator in an encounter called the Siege of Honobia

Photo of Gasquatch from this site

Humphrey's office was flooded with angry calls and emails after he announced his intention to create a hunting season. Bigfoot fans were outraged and assumed he was encouraging people to kill the creature. He was quick to clarify the bill's intent:

"Our goal is not to kill Bigfoot. We will make that everyone understands what we want to do is trap Bigfoot," he said. 

The bill would also create a $25,000 reward for anyone who captures the creature. 

"I have been in the woods all my life and I have not ever seen any sign of Bigfoot," Humphrey said. "I have never heard Bigfoot, but I have some people that I know that are good, solid people who I will guarantee you 100 percent have said they have had experience with Bigfoot. So, I know there are people out there that you will not convince that Bigfoot doesn't exist." (from TheHill.com)

Humphrey's main goal is to promote tourism in his part of the state. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think anyone is going to capture or kill Bigfoot, because Bigfoot probably isn't a physical creature. It's quite possible he's just a creature of legend or folklore, like the Easter Bunny. It's also possible he's something more ontologically tricky. 

Maybe he's a spirit of some kind, or an extradimensional being. Maybe those are just two ways of saying the same thing? The ancient Greeks might have said he was a daimon, an intermediary being between gods and men. The ancient Romans might have called him a genius loci, a spirit of a particular place like a forest. Whatever they called him, they wouldn't have tried to trap and kill him. If anything, they would have made an altar and left offerings for him. 

Bigfoot stories have always contained hints this hairy monster is more than just an animal. Witnesses report Sasquatches disappearing into thin air, tracks stopping in the middle of nowhere, and even receiving telepathic communications from the creatures. Bigfoot sightings are also associated with strange lights in the sky or UFOs, as this story from New Gloucester, Maine shows:

The main witness along with two other individuals was exploring a 60 acre sand pit when they saw an extremely bright light. They were terrified at first but decided that they would investigate. They continued walking toward the light until it led them to a section of the pit enclosed by thick trees with a small opening in the middle. At this point they saw a large upright being approximately 8 feet tall, covered with hair and piercing ice blue eyes. Frozen with fear they stood as still as possible until the creature noticed them and bolted into the trees. The witnesses then left the area. (Albert Rosales, Humanoid Encounters: 2008 - 2009: The Others Amongst Us)

This sighting supposedly occurred on October 25, 2008 at 1:27 a.m. A few take aways from this story. First, I do not recommend wandering around sand pits after dark. Monsters or not, that's a recipe for trouble. Second, normal animals are not accompanied by mysterious bright lights! I see lots of animals in my neighborhood - rabbits, raccoons, turkeys, and even coyotes. Their appearance is not heralded by unexplained lights. But here are some things whose appearance is accompanied by bright lights: ghosts, demons, divine beings, extraterrestrials, and even angels. 

Image from Amazon.

The witness and their friends were terrified when they saw the bright light, and I was reminded that angels in the Bible often say "Fear not" when they appear. I'm not saying Bigfoot is an angel, just that radiant supernatural incursions into the human world are often frightening. We've all seen bright lights before and not been afraid. But most of us haven't seen a bright light in a sandpit after midnight that leads us to a huge hairy creature. Oh, and it all happened the week before Halloween.

If this story's true, I don't think any hunters would be able to capture that Bigfoot. Even if it's not true, it still reflects what a lot of people think about Bigfoot. He's not an animal, and can't be shot or trapped. It's fine that Justin Humphrey wants to create a Bigfoot hunting season but I think there might be some disappointed hunters out there.

One last note. The day I started writing this post I got an email about some UFO sightings in Maine. One of them - a UFO abduction - supposedly happened in New Gloucester in 1973. The abduction occurred just north of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. This is very close to New Gloucester's sand pit, the Shaker Pit on Route 26, which presumably is where Bigfoot was seen in 2008. This might all be a coincidence, but I'm definitely not visiting that sandpit after midnight.