January 26, 2021

The Flesher Witch: Menace in the Maine Woods

I'm always excited when I learn about a new weird legend, so I was pretty happy recently when I learned about the Flesher Witch of Haynesville, Maine. Thank you Jeremy for pointing this one out! The Flesher Witch legend is creepy, unique, and blends old and new folklore motifs into one gruesome package.

Still from The Incredible Melting Man (1977)


Haynesville is located up in Aroostook County, and it's quite small. Like really small. The last census counted fewer than 200 people living there. Haynesville may be tiny, but it's rich in spooky folklore. A lot of it focuses on Route 2A. The stretch of 2A that passes through the Haynesville Woods is notoriously winding and treacherous, particularly in the winter, and has been the site of many fatal car and truck accidents. 

All of those accidents have earned this part of Route 2A a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads in America. Country singer Dick Curless even had a hit in 1965 with "A Tombstone Every Mile," which was a country song about the dangers of trucking on Route 2A:

All you big and burly men who roll the trucks along

Better listen you'll be thankful when you hear my song

You have really got it made if you're haulin' goods

Anyplace on earth but those Haynesville Woods

It's a stretch of road up north in Maine

That's never ever ever seen a smile

If they'd buried all them truckers lost in them woods

There'd be a tombstone every mile

Count 'em off there'd be a tombstone every mile...

Curless was born in Aroostook County and lived much of his life in Maine, so he knew what he was writing about. The song's bouncy and catchy, but there's nothing fun about driving on Route 2A during the winter. Because of all the fatal accidents it's said to be one of the most haunted roads in New England. Many forlorn lost souls have been seen wandering along Route 2A, including a hitchhiking woman in white who disappears once a driver stops to pick her up. She's a classic "vanishing hitchhiker" type of ghost. 

I'm not here to really talk about ghosts, though. There's more happening in Haynesville than just ghosts. I'm here to talk about the Flesher Witch, a terrifying being who supposedly lurks in the Haynesville Woods. 

According to a local story, in the 1800s a young girl named Annie Wilcox moved with her parents and brothers to Haynesville. Shortly after they moved in, Annie began to complain of strange things happening at night. She said he heard a scratching noise at her window, as if something were trying to get in. Her parents ignored her - young children have active imaginations - but the phenomena got stranger as time went on. Annie said something unseen pulled off the blankets while she slept, and she sometimes felt something (or someone?) biting her skin late at night. She also heard a voice softly whispering indistinguishable words in the darkness. 

Her parents thought she was just trying to get attention, but they changed their minds one night when Annie ran into their bedroom in tears. Her face was covered in bloody scratches. She said an old woman with a face like melting wax had attacked her. When they searched her room it was empty. They let Annie sleep with them that night. 

The weird phenomena in their house stopped after this, but it wasn't the end of Annie's ordeal. One day about a month later, the Wilcox family was walking through the woods. The parents realized that Annie, who had been bringing up the rear, was no longer visible. They heard a terrifying scream ring out, but despite searching for hours her family was unable to find her. She had vanished.

Some hunters made a gruesome discovery several weeks later. They found Annie's dead body in a clearing in the woods. Her face was missing. Lying next to her on the ground was the corpse of an old woman whose face looked like melting wax.  

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Annie's death devastated her family. Her mother hanged herself, and her two brothers drowned while swimming. Mr. Wilcox was the sole survivor, and he slowly lost his sanity, scratching endlessly at his face as if he wanted to remove it. He wandered off into Haynesville Woods one day and was never seen again.

People say the Flesher Witch still lurks in the Haynesville Woods, even today. An old woman with a melting face is sometimes seen walking among the trees, and whenever animals or children go missing she is blamed. No one know who she is, and no one wants to get close enough to find out. 

So there's the legend of the Flesher Witch. I like it. Some parts of it draw on classic New England legends. Witches are one of the most common topics in pre-20th century New England folklore, and the nighttime attacks on Annie are every similar to witchcraft stories from the 1600s. In older stories the witch is usually a curmudgeonly neighbor, but the Flesher Witch seems to be a purely supernatural being. She's not just some mean old lady down the road. I think this is an improvement because it means no one's going to get hanged for being a witch up in Haynesville. 

Other parts of this legend seem more modern to me. The melting face seems modern and possibly inspired by horror movies, as does the witch trying to steal someone's face. That's not something you'd hear in a legend before the mid-20th century. And that's OK. Folklore changes over time. People in the 21st century are scared by different things than our ancestors were. 

In some ways this story reminds me of the Freetown State Forest witch who is described in Christopher Balzano's 2007 book Dark Woods: Cults, Crime and the Paranormal in the Freetown State Forest. Like the Flesher Witch, the Freetown Forest witch menaces young people and also seems to be a purely supernatural being. Are these witches really ghosts? Demons? Particularly gruesome land spirits? Or maybe just the manifestation of how people feel about the place they live? The woods can be pretty scary.

These stories are fascinating. If you know about any other strange modern witch legends please let me know, either in the comments or by emailing me. And of course, be careful when you go wandering out in the woods. 

January 13, 2021

Let's Scare Jessica to Death: Folk Horror in 1970s Connecticut

It's a classic urbanite fantasy. You'll escape all the stresses of big city life by moving to the country, where you'll live in a big farmhouse, grow crops, and make your own strawberry preserves. Maybe you'll raise some goats and sell artisanal cheese. Your life will be like a never-ending Martha Stewart photo shoot.

It's definitely something I've fantasized about, but I realize I'm probably not suited for country life. I haven't lived less than a ten-minute walk from a subway stop in the last thirty years - how am I going to shear sheep? And who knows what lurks out there in the countryside? After all, that same escapist fantasy is also the premise of many horror films. 

Last night we watched one of those films. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) tells the story of Jessica (Zohra Lampert) and Duncan (Barton Heyman), a married couple who move from New York City to rural Connecticut. Jessica is recovering from some type of nervous breakdown, and Duncan thinks quiet country living will help the recovery process. Their friend Woody (Kevin O'Connor) comes with them to help manage the apple orchard at the old farm they've bought. 

Their move to Connecticut isn't quite the idyll they hoped for. On their way to the farm the trio stops at a historic cemetery for some sightseeing and Jessica sees a feral-looking woman in a white gown. In their new hometown they encounter a group of surly and disapproving old men, all strangely bandaged and wounded, at the general store. And at their farmhouse they discover an attractive bohemian young squatter named Emily (Mariclare Costello) who disrupts the group's equilibrium.

I first saw Let's Scare Jessica to Death on TV when I was a kid, and rewatched because I'm in the mood for some New England atmosphere. The movie was actually filmed on location in Connecticut in the autumn of 1970 and it makes the most of the setting. There are shots of an old 19th century farmhouse shrouded in fog - real fog, not smoke machine fog. Jessica traipses through a field of blooming goldenrod and an orchard whose trees are covered in red apples. When someone drives down the road I saw a maple tree that had just lost all its leaves in the background. The characters visit an antique store in a barn, a common sight across the area.

Seeing these scenes is like comfort food for me, particularly now, but it's a horror movie, not a video promoting tourism. The antiques dealer tells them the house they bought might be haunted. A young woman named Abigail Bishop drowned on the property, he says, but her body was never found. Local folks say she now roams the countryside as a vampire, eternally frustrated because she never got to marry and wear her wedding gown. Needless to say, the legend of Abigail Bishop doesn't sit too well with the still fragile Jessica.

Image from this excellent review

Abigail Bishop's vampiric ghost is at the heart of Let's Scare Jessica to Death and is open to many interpretations. Maybe she's just a figment of Jessica's imagination, something the movie hints at repeatedly. Abigail might also be symbolic of the characters' unspoken sexual needs and fears, particularly as they explore the new social norms of the late 1960s.

The movie was made when America's hippie counterculture was still strong, and although the main characters are too old to be true hippies they are clearly toying with the hippie lifestyle. Instead of a traditional car they drive an old hearse with a peace sign painted on the door, and their move "back-to-nature" is straight from the 1960s counterculture playbook. Abigail's ghost is the dark side of that counterculture, the footloose Manson girl who'll party with you and then quite literally drink your blood. 

Image from this great review.

She might also represent the spirit of the land itself, a grim genius loci who doesn't really approve of outsiders. Abigail Bishop is rooted in the town's history, in its lakes and coves, its orchards and old cemeteries. Her ghost is often shown in beautiful natural settings. The local old-timers have learned to live in harmony with their town's rapacious spirit, but the newcomers find out there's more to country life than sing-a-longs and antiquing. 

There really were cases of alleged vampirism in Connecticut. Folklorist Michael Bell discusses three of them in his excellent book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires (2001). They weren't the seductive sexual predators we see in movies, but rather were victims of tuberculosis who died. When their relatives also became sick they thought the recently deceased person was feeding on them after death. The only way to stop the "vampire" from feeding was to unearth the corpse and burn its heart. It sounds unbelievable, but Bell has evidence that the practice continued up until the 1890s. This type of vampirism is very different from what's portrayed in Let's Scare Jessica to Death but it serves as a reminder that beautiful rural landscapes often have unpleasant histories. 

Venture Smith's gravestone rubbing. Screen cap from here

The movie alludes directly to one of those histories early on, when Jessica visits a cemetery to make some gravestone rubbings. The scene was filmed in East Haddam's First Church Cemetery, and Jessica makes a rubbing from a real gravestone, that of Venture Smith, a former slave who died in 1805. In 1798, Smith wrote a narrative of his life and as you might imagine it is full of violence and abuse. In the movie, Jessica decorates the bedroom of their new home with graverubbings, and Venture Smith's is taped right above the bed she shares with her husband. To her Smith's life is a charming relic, an attitude showing she and her friends are unfortunately clueless about the real history of their new home. 

Let's Scare Jessica to Death has a minor cult following, and several people have tracked down the various locations where it was filmed. The farmhouse in Old Saybrook where many of the exterior scenes were shot is now a decaying ruin. The house was surrounded by wide open fields when the movie was made in 1970. Now, fifty years later, the woods have reclaimed the land and will probably reclaim the house soon too. 

The house today. From DreadCentral

Let's Scare Jessica to Death isn't a perfect movie, but it's an interesting one, and definitely worth watching if you want to experience some unsettling New England folk horror vibes.

January 04, 2021

Easing into the New Year with Weather Magic

I'm one of those people who really love holidays, particularly holidays where we get to do something special. Foods only eaten on special days? Decorations? Costumes? Count me in. This might be one of the reasons October, November and December are my favorite months of the year.
Often in the past I have been a little depressed when New Year's ends. It's the last of the major holidays, and once it's done it's time to take down the tree and the lights and stop eating so much gingerbread. It's also time to stop engaging in all the holiday socializing we usually do and get back to work. But this year I'm not feeling quite as depressed about the end of the holidays. Partly that's because we just didn't do any holiday socializing, except on Zoom. There's nothing to miss! I also don't miss some of our other usual holiday activities, like going to the movies or trying new restaurants, because we didn't do any of that either.

However, my New Year's attitude might also be better because I'm engaging in a little piece of folk magic: paying attention to the weather. There's an old piece of New England folklore that says the weather on the twelve days of Christmas predicts the weather for the next twelve months of the year. So I've been writing down a weather report every day since Christmas.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how this is supposed to work. The tradition that Christmas has twelve days dates back to 567 AD, when a council of bishops declared it a special festive season. I think there's still some confusion, though, whether the twelve days include Christmas and end on January 5, or if they start the day after Christmas and end on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany. Different churches and different regions have different rules. 
Personally, I started keeping track of the weather on Christmas Day. The weather was warm, wet and windy. Gusty winds knocked down power lines, but the temperatures were above average and most of the snow melted. So does this mean that January will be warmer than normal with heavy winds? According to the folklore it does. 
I'm not entirely convinced this is an accurate way to forecast the weather, but writing down my observations about the weather at least helps me feel more grounded. I've also been taking notes about birds and animals. They aren't technically weather, but I'm hoping they can offer some insight into what's going to happen in the coming year. For instance, I saw a black squirrel outside my house on December 25, 26 and 28. I dubbed him the Black Squirrel of Winter. Who knows what he foretells for January, February and April? Hopefully good things...
I hope 2021 has good things in store for all of us. Happy New Year!