June 25, 2021

Bigfoot At the Cemetery Gates

I love Bigfoot stories, and the weirder they are the more I like them. Here is a particularly spooky one from Rehoboth, Massachusetts. I first heard it on the Unsolved Mysteries podcast episode "The Creatures of Hockomock Swamp," but it appeared in the local news before that. 


In the spring of 2019, thirty-seven year-old Tracy Manzella was visiting her parents at their Rehoboth home. Tracy and her siblings had grown up in the house, which is situated on a very woodsy road. As a child, Tracy had always felt like something in the woods was watching her whenever she was outside, but she never saw anything strange. 

Rehoboth sits within the fabled Bridgewater Triangle, and although Tracy was aware of the legends and paranormal sightings associated with the Triangle she had never seen anything strange herself. Members of her family had seen strange lights in the sky or near their house, but not Tracy. Not until that cold, drizzly, spring day in 2019

Tracy had gone for a run on the country roads near her parents' house. As she made her way back, she passed by an old cemetery that sits nestled in the woods about fifty feet from the road. She had gone by it countless times before, but this time as she ran by she saw something very strange. An enormous creature stood in front of the cemetery gates.

Image from the film Abominable (2006)

The creature was humanoid, and covered in stringy red hair. It was massively built, with broad shoulders and a broad chest. It was also really, really tall. Tracy estimated it must have stood fifteen feet high. It reminded her of an ogre or a troll.

What stood out most about this fantastic creature, though, was its face. Although it was not close to the road, Tracy could see fangs, and its gray-skinned face was demonic-looking. She sensed that the creature was evil. 

Tracy was terrified. She was afraid the creature would notice her and chase after her. Luckily it didn't. Tracy ran back to her parents' house, where she drew a picture for her mother of what she had seen. 

She has not seen anything strange since then. In October, 2020, Tracy Manzella told a Taunton Gazette reporter the following:

"It's the last experience in the Bridgewater Triangle that I would have personally wanted to have. Not because of how scary it was, or unsettling, but simply because of all of the legends of the Bridgewater Triangle that I have read about over the years or learned about. To me, the Bigfoot sightings always seemed like the most ridiculous and far-fetched of all of the things that people have seen," she said. "...I just feel like this particular experience is so outlandish that it's hard to believe if someone tells you that this is what they've seen." ("Exploring the Bridgewater Triangle: Our reporter and photographer head out when the lights go down and the legends come out," The Enterprise, October 27, 2020).

In some ways, her encounter seems like a typical Bigfoot sighting: a large hairy humanoid was briefly seen in the woods. On the other hand, the creature was really big, even for Bigfoot. Fifteen feet tall is enormous! The fangs, demonic face, and overall evil vibe are also atypical for Bigfoot sightings. 

Local paranormal investigator Christopher Pittman was quoted in the podcast, saying that almost everyone who reports seeing a Bigfoot in the Bridgewater Triangle describes something slightly different. Witnesses describe creatures of different heights, with different colored fur, and a variety of faces. None of them are the same. So perhaps there isn't a typical Bigfoot encounter, even in relatively small area like the Bridgewater Triangle. 

I don't think that Bigfoot is a physical animal, although many people would disagree with me. I think people who encounter Bigfoot are probably having a mystical experience of some kind, and that Bigfoot is a land spirit or genius loci, as the Romans would call it. The Romans and Greeks believed the wilderness was haunted by satyrs, centaurs, and nymphs. In America, we believe it's haunted by a large hairy humanoid. 

The fact that Tracy saw the giant creature near a cemetery also seems significant somehow, as does its menacing appearance. Cemeteries are of course believed to host to a variety of supernatural beings, including ghosts, vampires, and occasionally demons, but the way this creature blocked the cemetery gate immediately made me think it was some type of guardian.

In several European cultures, people believe that a cemetery is guarded by the spirit of the first being buried there. In many cases the guardian will be a human spirit, but sometimes it might be the spirit of an animal that was killed and buried explicitly for this purpose. For example, in England cemeteries are often guarded by spectral black dogs (called church grims) which are believed to be the ghosts of dogs killed and buried there. Cemetery guardians need not be so specific, either. A local friend of mine will pour out water or leave a coin for the guardian when he visits a cemetery, but I think he just considers the guardian the spirit of the place, not the soul of the first creature buried there. 

So did Tracy Manzella see the cemetery's guardian spirit? I really don't know, and it's not something that can be proven, but the creature's size, position and terrifying visage certainly would prevent anyone from entering that graveyard. It's just speculation on my part, and I certainly don't think the first being buried in the cemetery was a fifteen-foot demonic creature. She may have experienced something else entirely, but I enjoy tying these modern paranormal encounters with older streams of myth and folklore.   

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.