I’m A Feminist And I’m Scared Of Dying

Hooked you in with that title, didn’t I?

Something interesting often comes up in conversations about my hobbies and passions. The fact that I’m a feminist and a leftist is generally accepted with little more than sought-after reassurance that I’m “not one of the preachy ones” (spoiler: I am). People are equally comfortable with my other passions – ghost hunting, tarot and horror films – and are usually quite enthusiastic (or at least happily indifferent) about them. A small minority of the people I’ve met have been ghost hunting and still fewer have ever attempted to learn tarot, so I get to be the “expert” in the room despite being no such thing.

The interesting point that arises is often expressed like this: “For someone so political, it’s odd that you’d be into such illogical things.”

It’s a fair statement to make. I’m very serious about my politics, but conversely I’ve participated in an activity – namely ghost hunting – which is not widely considered to be a “serious” endeavour. Despite this contrast, I find myself feeling self-conscious about both of these passions. I portray them as something they are not when I talk about them, something frivolous and silly. Ghost hunting is my “weird little hobby”; feminism is “just me being a hairy bra-burner, haha”. Neither of those things really represent how I feel, because I take them both very seriously indeed. There’s also plenty of crossover between the two, because the personal is political for me. I think about feminism in the context of my life every day – for example, my love of horror films has led me to analyse them more deeply and ask myself: how are women depicted in these films and why? How do horror films handle feminist themes? I can combine my “serious” interest with my “silly” interest, and that works for me.

But if we properly psychoanalyse me, if we strip my flag-waving, marching politics and my love of anything spooky back to the barest bones, what do we find?

Someone who has a really weird relationship with the concept of death.

I am not consciously scared of dying. I joke about what I want done at my funeral, I love crypts and cemeteries, and I especially love mummies. I don’t find myself squeamish at corpses in particularly nasty crime documentaries.  I’m relatively comfortable at the top end of exposure – at least as much exposure as an average person who doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies in person can possibly have (perhaps I would change my mind in the presence of an actual cadaver).

It is not physical death that scares me. Like anyone else, I would like to go painlessly one day and, on a more personal level, I like the idea that I could greet Death warmly as a friend like a folk hero might. I think it is the death of my drive, if you like, that unsettles me. The idea that I might pop off one day and leave the cause forever. As someone who wants to make a difference, I am deeply afraid of being cut off and leaving nothing behind. What if all the writing and arguing and campaigning just never pay off? What if I can change nothing about the inequality rampant in our society? You might instead describe that as a fear of impotence or inferiority (and, damn, have I got a lot going on where inferiority complexes are concerned) but that’s what is truly frightening for me.

The relationship between ghost hunting and death is more obvious – who doesn’t want to know if our consciousness can remain on this mortal plane? – although I think politics has a lot to do with death as well. Where you stand on politics has a lot to do with what you consider to be “surviving” and what you consider to be “living”. Feminism and socialism are both movements devoted to improving people’s quality of life. Socialists object to a world in which you (and your labour) are exploited until you die. Feminists object to a world in which women are treated as willing bodies rather than human beings. Women and girls are murdered on our TV screens, over the pages of our crime thrillers and all over the world in real life, and I find that far more upsetting and scary than any amount of standing around in dark tunnels and damp caves, calling out to spirits.

As strange as you might find it, I can comfortably sit in the grey area between “serious” politics and “silly” paranormal pursuits.

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How To Tell A Good Scary Story

Did you ever go to sleepovers as a child? Or did you ever go camping away from your parents? If so, then you’ll likely recall that, along with your pyjamas, your toothbrush and an extra pair of undies, the key thing you needed to bring with you was a stonkin’ good scary story. There was always one kid who was the best storyteller, the one who’d seen horror movies they were way too young to watch, the one who had the cousin’s girlfriend’s sister’s friend who was almost killed by a poltergeist. If you were a weird kid like me, that storyteller was probably you. I swear to you, I once nearly made a girl piss herself. That’s not an exaggeration.

The fun doesn’t have to end there. Get your friends over for a horror movie or organise a camping trip, relive those golden days and wow them with the best scary story they’ve ever heard, one which will chill them even now.

Here’s how to do it.

Firstly, the set-up.

The standard is lights off, torches on, which is obviously a classic combination. Holding the torch up under your chin to give yourself that Tales from the Crypt lewk is a must if you go for this option. However, a lot can be achieved by having all the lights off except for a lamp (or two). Throw something over the lamp – a thin t-shirt will do – to make it dimmer and, voila, you’ve got ambient mood lighting.

If you choose to tell your scary story on a camping trip, huddling together with torches around a roaring campfire (although health and safety comes first!) is the way to go.

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Next, the story.

One of the most important things that really sell a scary story is a believable background. You need to open your story well. It’s up to you whether you leave it enigmatic and open-ended – say, by starting your story with something along the lines of “I heard this a few years ago…”/”I read on the internet that…” and going from there, never quite disclosing your source. I’m quite fond of the “vague familial connection” trick (you might have noticed I used it in my introduction) in which the person who experienced the paranormal encounter or freaky incident is linked to you, the storyteller, by mutual friends or relatives: “Apparently, the freakiest thing happened to my older sister’s best friend’s cousin…”

Once you’ve laid out where your story originated, it’s time to find some inspiration. It may be that someone you know has had a scary experience, or you may have even had one yourself. If so, feel free to dress that up and present it. If you’re not lucky enough to have a plethora of personal paranormal adventures at your disposal, never fear! You could retell an urban legend but apply it to an abandoned house or creepy park near where you live, or you could even borrow a generic horror movie plot and use that. No-one will mind if you repurpose an existing legend like the babysitter and the man upstairs, Bloody Mary, the vanishing hitchhiker or Slender ManNobody needs to know as long as you can convincingly embellish it and make it your own.

The very first scary story I ever told was a fairly bog-standard ghost story. The basic plotline was that a girl was babysitting her neighbours’ children. She cooked their tea, watched television with them for an hour or two and then put them to bed. She went back downstairs to relax until the parents came home, but kept hearing noises like footsteps running up and down the stairs and across the upstairs landing. She checked, thinking the children had woken up and were misbehaving, but she found the children were sound asleep in their beds.

I can’t really remember how it ended – I think the gist of it was that the house had been an orphanage or some bullshit, which obviously would never fly as a plot twist in a real horror story – but the plotline rarely matters on occasions such as these. My story was not particularly complicated, but it didn’t need to be to unsettle the room full of prepubescent girls. Instead, it was my performance of it that was of greatest importance. We were sitting in the dark and I deliberately positioned myself next to the wooden coffee table and punctuated the footsteps part of the story by tapping quickly on the table. What can I say, even as a little girl I had a flair for the dramatic.

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Finally, go for the jugular.

If it fits into your story, leave your ending as ambiguous as possible. Leave your audience wondering what the monster really was or whether the protagonist got out alive.

Even better, a skilled storyteller will draw their audience into the story. Let them know that no-one is safe and they could be next. As I said, I can’t remember the ending of my ghost story, but I vividly recall the mother of the girl who was hosting the sleepover opening the living-room door to check on us, just as I mentioned that the orphans still haunted the house which used to be their home. That was just sheer good fortune, but it did the trick. Everyone was in bits.

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Drop your own ideas and your favourite experiences of telling or hearing scary stories in the comments section below! Thanks for reading.

Love Bigfoot, Hate Racism

Author’s notes: I talk quite a bit about racism – specifically anti-black racism – in this article. I am a white person, so naturally I do not have first-hand experiences of discrimination and cultural appropriation. With all that in mind, I still think this is an important topic to discuss and I welcome feedback, both positive and critical.

Furthermore, I use the term “Native American” in this article. Where it’s relevant, I’ve referred to a specific tribe. I know terminology is a sensitive issue but I’m a Brit, so, again, comment if you have more expertise in this area.

There are a few central issues I want to discuss in this post. Firstly, I want to reflect on the racism inherent in the history of cryptozoology. Secondly: for quite some time, I’ve taken issue with how and why we choose to apply the label “cryptid”. The dictionary definition makes it seem simple, but this is deceptive. Then finally, I’d like to broaden out from cryptozoology and look at race issues in paranormal encounters generally.

This is not an easy or fun post to write, but it’s something I’ve considered for a long while and I think it’s a topic worth delving into.

It’s an unfortunate fact that racism dug its ugly claws into the field of cryptozoology early on and it has been hanging on ever since. An important part of cryptozoological investigation is figuring out how and why a cryptid might have evolved. We ask ourselves: where did it come from? Is it related to any known animals? Analysis of this type is crucial, for obvious reasons, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, it played a role in the deeply disturbing rise of so-called “scientific racism”. Scientific racism has been an unfortunate aspect of our society’s advances since the 1600s, with some of history’s best-known thinkers, Voltaire among them, believing that people of different races evolved from separate origins. In the 1920s, this idea of distinct origins, called “polygeny” or “polygenism”, made its way into the academic movement that would later become cryptozoology.

The herald of this worrying development was the De Loys’ Ape, now widely regarded as a hoax. Swiss geologist François de Loys “discovered” (I use this term very loosely) a creature at the Colombia-Venezuela border in 1920. It was larger than the average spider monkey and had no tail. After shooting it, de Loys and co. propped the creature up on a crate, photographed it and skinned it. He told no-one about the encounter until 1929 when his friend, anthropologist George Montandon, found the photograph in his files. Montandon took a great deal of interest in the case, largely because it provided a platform for his theories about polygeny/polygenism: this unknown creature was a suitable origin point for the indigenous people of South America. Loren Coleman, a prominent American cryptozoologist, stated in a 2009 article on Cryptomundo: “George Montandon, who was the first initial force behind de Loys’ ape, was actually a racist and anti-semetic [sic], who also thought that “Whites” derived from Cro-Magnon man, “Blacks” from gorillas, and “Orientals” from orangs and gibbons.”

The modern scientific community has rejected both De Loys’ Ape – generally considered to be a white-bellied spider monkey – and the idea of polygeny. But that underlying racist ideology has never truly gone away. The article I cited earlier from Loren Coleman was written because he had received an email from a man who wanted to posit a “theory” (damn, am I using some terms loosely today!) about Bigfoot: “Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Orangutan man and the Skunk Ape… are half man and half Gorilla and half man and half Orangutan. …The Gorilla has black hair and skin. When those men bred out the hair the Black man’s skin remained black… The creature that Roger Patterson filmed in 1967 was half man and half Gorilla.” Coleman was understandably shocked not only by the racist content of the email but the absolute seriousness with which it had been written. He concluded the article by writing: “Let us look closely at what we do in cryptozoology, and be careful, whether it develops in the talk of Bigfoot being “primitive Indians” or the supposed origin theories regarding Yetis. Let us look deeply at the biases influencing such thoughts and conjectures.”

It’s that final point about looking deeply at our biases which I want to pick up on now. For a while, I’ve been thinking about the relationship we have to the mythology which is indigenous to the land we come from. It doesn’t present much of an issue for me as an English woman (ancient British mythology and our modern folklore are in no way off-limits to me) but it’s a different story for white Americans engaging with Native American folklore, mythology and religion – or religions, to put it more accurately. Whether it’s appropriate or not, they are engaging with those traditions: I’ve seen a lot of paranormal and unexplained encounters online in recent years which focus on malevolent entities from Native American mythology, particularly the Skinwalker (part of the Navajo/Diné belief system) and the Wendigo (from the belief system of several Algonquian tribes). There is nothing wrong with this, but 9 times out of 10 the person who experienced the encounter is white (and occasionally not even a white American – explain to me how some guy in Yorkshire is seeing a creature from Native American folklore in his back garden). There’s even a whole subreddit, r/skinwalkers, devoted to incidents.

That’s not to say this trend is powering on with no criticism whatsoever: Indian Country Today published a report last year covering the widespread critical response of the Navajo/Diné people towards an episode of Ghost Adventures which was filmed at Skinwalker Canyon. The Ghost Adventures crew had come to “investigate” stories about supernatural goings-on at the canyon and claimed to have been invited onto the Navajo Nation. “Misinformed”, “exploitative”, “ridiculous” and “appropriative” were all adjectives applied by Navajo critics to the content of the episode. Ghost Adventures is just one of a slew of paranormal documentaries which have overstepped the line in this field. The series Lost Tapes has not one but two episodes dealing with Native American mythology, one with the Skinwalker and the other with the Wendigo. If you haven’t seen Lost Tapes, the basic format of each episode is a fictional encounter with a supernatural creature, based upon real anecdotes and eyewitness accounts. Who are the people being attacked by these creatures in both Lost Tapes stories? White people. I’m not suggesting we should exclude mythological creatures from cryptozoological investigation; I’m just saying we should do so sensitively and with the consent and approval of the people to whom that mythology belongs. Bigfoot is a cryptid with its roots in a number of First Nations mythologies, including that of the Nlaka’pamux people, the Sts’ailes people and several other tribes in British Columbia. This is something which is rarely acknowledged, so I think a good step would be to start listening to criticism from Native Americans and First Nations people when they take issue with how their tribe and their ancestral knowledge are being represented. Ghost Adventures did not pay attention to criticism and nor did Lost Tapes, which is what made their depictions so insensitive, problematic and, to an extent, offensive.

By coincidence, while I was in the process of writing this article, one of my favourite YouTubers Caitlin Doughty posted a video of her visit to the “Apache Death Cave” in Arizona. She made some really interesting points regarding the concept in American popular culture of Native American “curses”. The history of the Apache Death Cave, being the site of a massacre of Apache villagers, was exploited by white settlers as a tourist attraction from the 1920s until well into the 1970s. Doughty states that the American fixation on “Indian burial grounds” and “Indian curses” is born of “guilt, obsession and avoidance” and this stereotyping is actively harmful to Native Americans. A 2015 article from Atlas Obscura (which you can read here) explains the trope of the “Indian burial ground” thus: “The idea that one could disrespect American Indians, that theirs was a history on which we had trampled, was, embarrassingly but truthfully, sort of new to much of the American public in the 1970s.” From horror movies to real-life paranormal encounters in the US, the historically inaccurate idea of the “Indian burial ground” is pervasive and indicative of mainstream white America’s inability to come to terms with its bloody past.

If we work to eradicate racism from our research (professional and amateur), our fieldwork and our academic community, cryptozoology can be a real force for good. In a 1993 article for The Scientist, Paul McCarthy interviewed a number of cryptozoologists, one of whom was physical anthropologist Frank Poirier: “Poirier has done fieldwork in Africa and Asia and has found reports of animals by indigenous peoples to be of great value in his conventional research. He feels that the dismissal of indigenous reports of undescribed animals “is nothing other than racism–you know, comments like ‘What would this native know?'” He points out that when gorillas were first reported in Africa, Europeans “just totally dismissed those reports.” And this keeps him looking.” I believe we need more of that attitude. Cryptozoology is all about keeping a platform available for these stories and anecdotes, and treating people’s eyewitness testimonies with respect.

Loren Coleman put it succinctly and perfectly in his Cryptomundo article: “There’s no place in cryptozoology, hominology, and Bigfoot studies for racism.”

Further Reading and Information

Loren Coleman, Racism in Cryptozoology (Cryptomundo)

Mark Baard, America Goes Cryptozoology Crazy (Wired) – Loren Coleman argues that mainstream zoology’s dismissal of global cryptid reports as local superstition is “a form of racism”.

Darren Naish, De Loys’ Ape and what to do with it (Scientific American)

Morgan-Is-Mothman, Something that’s been on my mind for a while… (Blog post about racism in the cryptozoology community, Tumblr)

Vincent Schilling, Many Outraged at Ghost Adventures’ Navajo “Skinwalker” Episode (Indian Country Today)

Caitlin Doughty/Ask A Mortician, I Visit the “Apache Death Cave

Dan Nosowitz, Why Every Horror Film of the 1980s Was Built On “Indian Burial Grounds” (Atlas Obscura)

TV Tropes, Indian Burial Ground

Colin Dickey, The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground (New Republic)

 

Urban Legends: The Black-Eyed Kids

In 1998, a journalist named Brian Bethel, of Abilene, Texas submitted a tale to the story archive on Obiwan’s UFO-Free Paranormal Page. In his submission (here), Bethel recounted an experience he had two years prior in the car park of a cinema. Having driven at night to pay his internet bill and utilising the light from the cinema’s marquee, Bethel had parked up to write a cheque. While sitting in his car, he was approached by two adolescent boys who asked if he could give them a lift home. They’d forgotten their money and they wanted to see Mortal Kombat, they said.

Bethel knew something about them was… off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. The longer he spoke to them, the stranger they seemed. They kept trying to reassure him, insisting that they weren’t going to harm him, that they were just two little boys who needed a lift to their mother’s house. Then they began demanding, let us in, Mister.

As the boys became more persistent – and he was being unconsciously persuaded by them, his hand drifting to open the car door –  it dawned on him.

Their eyes.

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Bethel’s story is widely accepted to be the earliest encounter with the Black-Eyed Kids (often abbreviated to BEKs) or Black-Eyed Children, although, according to ThoughtCo, “Reports of BEKs spiked in 2013”. This was the first encounter with the BEKs which I read – at the age of 10 or so – and it has stayed with me. There’s something about the Black-Eyed Kids that resonated with me. I’m finding it uncomfortable to write this post even now; I keep looking over the top of my laptop screen.

The BEKs are, according to whispered legends (and internet forums), an invasive force. Whether it’s into your car or into your home, they want you to let them in. This has led many, questioning their origins, to wonder how much resemblance they bear to the vampire of myth. As it was put in an article on the Creepypasta Wiki, “…[the] encounters frequently emphasize that the children must be voluntarily admitted or invited into the house or car in question, and in this way are reminiscent of some vampire legends. However it is unspecified what happens should you comply with their demands, as no reports of the Bek [sic] have included that happening… ” Although no conclusive evidence of their existence or of a hoax has ever been provided, each story bears some common features. The encounter takes place at night or during a storm. The child (or children) attempts to persuade the victim to let them in – for a lift home, to use the telephone or to wait for help. The victim is consumed by a mounting sense of dread until, finally, the penny drops. Is this the modus operandi of evil entities or an indication of mass hysteria, spreading by word of mouth?

Sightings of BEKs are not limited to the US; the stories come from all over the world. Here in England, we have our own tales of Black-Eyed Children, such as a little girl  sighted on Cannock Chase (you might remember Cannock Chase from a previous article). In 2014, Soul and Spirit Magazine published an article about the experiences of psychic medium Christine Hamlett, who believed she had caught the black-eyed child on camera.

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The Black-Eyed Girl of Cannock Chase. (c) Christine Hamlett.

According to the article, sightings of the child can be traced back to the 1980s. As with many UK examples, this case is generally described as a “ghost” and encounters differ significantly from US reports like Brian Bethel’s, so they are potentially unrelated phenomena.

Whether you believe in the Black-Eyed Kids is entirely up to you. It’s an urban legend, after all. A tale from a friend of a friend – or even some WordPress blogger – shouldn’t be enough to convince you. It didn’t quite convince me, even when I first read Bethel’s account.

Still, when I read the story of the first recorded BEK encounter at the age of 10, I couldn’t help but wonder: what would have happened if Brian Bethel had opened his car door? What if he’d rolled his window down a little too far? What if he had let them in?

What happens to the people who don’t figure out what’s wrong with these children quickly enough?

The answer doesn’t quite bear thinking about.

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For more:

 

Why “Viy” (1967) Is Criminally Underrated

I initially planned to write a straight-up review of Viy, in the same way I wrote my review of the recent It remake, but I thought about it more deeply and realised that I had more opinions about it than I could pack into a review. A lot of my thoughts on it are not strictly related to the quality of the filmmaking or the narrative techniques – they have much more to do with the atmosphere and the film’s cultural value. Thus, instead of a review, this is more of an opinion piece: an analysis of why I found this film (occasionally) scary but mostly rather endearing.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses [like this]. The font colour has been changed, but you can highlight it with your cursor if you would like to read the spoiler.

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Natalya Varley and Leonid Kuravlyov in Viy (1967)

Viy (transliterated from the original Russian Вий) was produced by Mosfilm, a film studio still thriving today which produced more than 3,000 films over the course of the Soviet Union’s existence. Adapted from a short story by Nikolai Gogol, it was officially the first horror film to be released in the former USSR. Despite its cultural significance, hardly anyone in the West – besides hardcore horror fans and academics of Soviet culture & history – seem to have heard of it, let alone seen it. It’s such a shame, because Viy rarely receives recognition for managing to be funny, surreal, philosophical and even genuinely unsettling. The barriers that prevent Viy from claiming its title as a classic are myriad: English-speaking viewers don’t seem to be fans, by and large, of having to read subtitles, the surrealism can be baffling if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief for 80 minutes, the special effects sometimes look dated (although not often) and there’s quite a lot to get your head around culturally. I don’t think you need to be an expert on Russian/Ukrainian folklore or the Eastern Orthodox Church (I’m not) for it to make sense, but you definitely need to pay attention.

So what’s the story? The protagonist is Khoma Brutus, a student at a seminary – a school specifically for theologians and future clergymen – who gets into an altercation with an old witch during his school holidays. Upon fleeing back to school, he discovers he has been summoned to a small Cossack village to preside over the funeral rites of their princess (or princess-equivalent), who asked for him by name on her deathbed. The rites require Khoma to spend three nights alone in the church with her body, reading Scripture to help her pass on to Heaven. As it turns out, she doesn’t plan to go quietly [spoiler alert: the witch he got into a scrap with has taken the form of the pretty young princess and she rises from her coffin each night attempting to violently curse him]. Khoma is forced to use his wits and his faith to protect himself from the demonic forces that begin to encroach upon the church.

Visually, the film is stunning. The special effects are mostly very simple, with lots of practical effects and costumes, which lends the film a timeless quality. I’ve mentioned before that I am exhausted by the saturation of CGI in modern cinema, so Viy is a bit of a treat for a grumpy CGI naysayer like me. The sets, especially the church (I’m obsessed with the church), are beautiful too. In one of the earlier scenes, Khoma and his two friends are looking for somewhere to stay and are wandering over the gloomy fields. There’s a thick mist hovering over the land, reminiscent of the older adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles. That’s the closest equivalent in my own mind – it has that “dark night on the moors” vibe.

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Leonid Kuravlyov as Khoma in Viy (1967)

“But is this Soviet film from 50 years ago actually scary?”, I hear you ask. And my answer is: kind of?

It builds up tension very well, but then it often drags and doesn’t seem to know what to do with the suspense it’s built. I can forgive the people who found it “boring” or gave up on it after about 20 minutes. Furthermore, most of the horror is concentrated in the latter half of the film; Khoma doesn’t actually end up in the church alone with the corpse until almost 40 minutes have passed. There are also some unintentionally hilarious scenes – I don’t think the scene in which Khoma is ambushed by the old hag is supposed to be as funny as it is [although the tone abruptly changes when he starts beating her to death]. I found the humour in the film charming, even if it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether the comedy is intentional or not. I still haven’t decided whether the audience are meant to laugh at Khoma belting a few notes in response to the owls hooting in the distance (but, damn, has the boy got pipes!).

However, there are a couple of scenes which are legitimately chilling. When Khoma’s first night keeping watch over the body begins, there’s no music – all we hear are his own footsteps. It’s eerily quiet and claustrophobic. Khoma is locked in and in the immediate vicinity of a cadaver, so you very much feel that you’re locked in there with him. There are some good jumpscares too; I’m normally anti-jumpscares, but at the time, they were an innovation. [Black cats burst out of nowhere and run across the church floorboards, birds descend from the rafters, a gust of wind blows out the candles he has just lit, and it all adds to the atmosphere.] The resurrected princess is creepy as well. With her long black hair, wide eyes and deathly-pale skin, she’d fit right in with Samara from The Ring and Kayako from The Grudge. There’s a really interesting contrast in that she’s crowned with flowers and is outwardly very pretty, but she’s also screaming curses [and eventually summons a powerful demon to enact her revenge].

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The princess rises from her coffin, Viy (1967)

I think I used the word “endearing” to describe the film earlier and I’m sticking with that description. I found myself feeling quite affectionate towards it by the end. I really like Khoma and Leonid Kuravlyov’s portrayal of him is one of the most charming parts of this film – he’s initially cowardly and quite pathetic, begging not to be forced to conduct the rites, but he pulls himself together. He makes a fine tragic hero. There’s something childish about him and it’s engaging to watch him mature. Most importantly: he’s just an ordinary man. He spends as much time drinking with the local Cossacks as he does fighting demons. He complains about not being able to smoke his pipe in church (he resolves to just use snuff instead). He doesn’t have any supernatural powers and he isn’t on a mission from God; he’s simply a man doing the best he can with the resources he has.

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Khoma sees the body, Viy (1967)

I’m fond of Viy, despite all its flaws – its odd acting choices, its occasional musical outbursts (why does Khoma have to keep singing???), even its glaring tonal shifts. It deserves more hype than it gets. On an academic level, it’s a fascinating peek both into Slavic folklore and into the style of popular films in the USSR in the 1960s. On a personal level, it’s a well-crafted horror film with thoughtful subtext and plenty of philosophy.

Oh, Viy. You’re wonderful, and you deserve better.

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The princess cries blood, Viy (1967)

Haunted Files #2: The Enfield Poltergeist

This is the second installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

While Britain has a long, bloody history of haunted castles and mansions, the Enfield Poltergeist case gripped the nation in the late 1970s because the activity focused on a young girl living in a rented house in Enfield, north London. It remains one of the most famous English hauntings, adapted into numerous films and TV series.

It began in August 1977. Peggy Hodgson, a single mother, fled to the bedroom belonging to her daughters when she heard them screaming. The girls – Janet aged 11 and Margaret aged 14 – claimed that a chest of drawers had moved of its own accord. Peggy phoned the police. When the police arrived, they found no evidence of an intruder, but they were greeted with further strange phenomena when a police constable on the scene witnessed a chair move across the floor without being touched.

The activity continued, growing in intensity as time passed. The poltergeist would allegedly throw rocks and toys, knock on walls and it began to speak with a demonic growl, using Janet as its mouthpiece. The case attracted the attention of the national press; you can see real footage here, shown in 1978 on the BBC, which features the testimonies of the police officers as well as the contrast between Janet’s normal voice and the voice of the so-called demon.

As you can see in the video, the case was closely monitored by paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse. He was joined by author and parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair. Both men were members of the Society for Psychical Research, where they first met. Other researchers in the SPR remained sceptical of the case and, when it became clear that the girls had faked photographs and certain activity, it was widely regarded as a hoax. Janet was caught on film bending spoons and attempting to bend an iron bar, as well as jumping off her bed to pretend to “levitate”. However, Grosse believed that Margaret and Janet had falsified some of the evidence but also that a large proportion of the events were real and inexplicable. In his book This House Is Haunted, published in 1980, Playfair also maintained that the haunting was genuine.

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Janet appears to levitate, (c) Graham Morris, 1977

Margaret suggested in the BBC interview that Janet had spoken in about 10 different voices, but one of the male voices, “Bill”, is perhaps the best-known. “Bill” is the name by which the entity is referred to in the 2015 TV series The Enfield Haunting (you can see examples of how closely the series was adapted from real events here and here) and in the 2016 film The Conjuring 2. “Bill” was recorded on tape saying “I used to live here” and describing how he died: “I went blind and then I had a haemorrhage and I fell asleep and died in the chair in the corner downstairs.” You can hear this at around 2:30 in the video linked above. According to journalist Michael Hellicar, “Bill” was eventually identified as Bill Wilkins by his son, who recognised his voice from the recording. He had lived and died in the Hodgsons’ house, exactly as described by Janet.

The case is still a matter of debate. Some believe the gruff voice in which “Bill” spoke was well beyond the capabilities of an 11-year-old girl and that her natural voice would have been affected if she had been doing it deliberately; others have hypothesised that Janet was simply a talented ventriloquist and possessed false vocal cords above her actual larynx, which enabled her to create a man’s deep voice. It has also been noted that the voices still appeared to retain the vocabulary and vocal patterns (intonation, the pace of speech, etc.) of a child. This is sometimes attributed to the spirit using Janet’s body as a vessel – it could not form the words with its own adult abilities and was limited by a child’s experience – but it is generally accepted as evidence against the case’s veracity. Psychology professor and sceptic Chris French has also expressed doubt based upon the topics the spirit was willing to talk about: “When Janet was supposedly possessed by the spirit of an old man, he took a lot of interest in menstruation. That’s not something you expect an old man to be interested in. But a young girl? Well yes. “

French’s point is an interesting one. In an interview with Janet by The Telegraph, the activity is said to have “peaked” on 15th December 1977 – the day Janet got her first period. Poltergeist cases often focus on adolescent women and girls at a time of great change in their lives, leading some to wonder if there is a connection between high human emotion and poltergeists.

Janet claims only about 2% of the events were faked by she and her siblings, but that this was only because they felt under pressure to deliver constant evidence. She said she felt like “a failure” when she was unable to produce anything during lulls in the activity. Like everything else in this particular case, there are two ways to look at every piece of evidence. The spirit spoke like a child, either because it was using a child or because it was a child’s invention. Janet faked events, either because she wanted to accentuate the other (ostensibly real) evidence or because the entire investigation was a hoax.

We may never fully know.

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For more on the Enfield Poltergeist:

Haunted Files #1: The Bell Witch

This is the first installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

It was during a blistering Tennessee summer in 1817 that John Bell first witnessed the unusual phenomena which would plague his household for the next four years. Outside his home, an apparition of a dog with a rabbit’s head materialised. Bell took his shotgun and fired at the creature, but it disappeared.

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The Bell homestead, Authenticated History of the Bell witch (1894)

So begins the legend of the Bell Witch, a folktale native to the town of Adams in Robertson County, TN. First told in its entirety in the book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894) by Martin Van Buren Ingram, it is the strange tale of how the Bell family fell victim to a powerful entity which invaded their home and farm. It bore many characteristics of a poltergeist – the witch allegedly knocked on walls and pulled sheets off beds, even going so far as to pull hair, scratch skin and stick pins in its human cohabitants. There was particular emphasis on John’s daughter Betsy. The witch taunted her and her fiance so relentlessly that Betsy eventually broke off her engagement. According to some accounts, the entity was especially violent towards her; in others, the witch seemed to be fond of the young woman and wanted to protect her. The witch’s behaviour was at the extreme ends of the spectrum. She could be kind, calling John Bell’s wife Lucy “the most perfect woman to walk the earth”, but she also expressed a desire to kill John, who she referred to as “Old Jack”. In 1820, she succeeded. John Bell passed into a coma, having consumed an unidentified liquid which the family found in a vial beneath his bed. His son fed a little to the cat, which died instantly, and then threw it onto the fire where it burst into bright blue flames. The witch declared that she had given John “a big dose” of it and “fixed him”.

In Ingram’s account, the poltergeist claims to be “Old Kate Batts” and Kate seems to be the title that stuck, as the entity appeared to respond positively to being referred to by that name. According to the Guidebook for Tennessee (1933), Kate Batts was a deceased neighbour of John Bell who felt he had cheated her out of land. The witch would converse articulately and often included details only the person asking would have known. One visitor, John Johnston, asked the ghost to tell him what his Dutch grandmother would say to her slaves if she thought they had done something wrong. The witch replied in his grandmother’s accent: “Hut tut, what has happened here?”, then went on to imitate his mother and father in England. She is also reported to have once recited verbatim a sermon being delivered thirteen miles away.

In 1821, Kate left the Bell homestead, but vowed to return in seven years’ time. As promised, she did resurface briefly in 1828, but, after the family ignored her, she appeared to vanish entirely.

The Bell witch has inspired many adaptations, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not a direct retelling of the legend, The Blair Witch Project features its own fictional myth which was explored in a mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch. Many academics have questioned whether the tale of the Bell witch, as recounted by Ingram, truly reflected the beliefs of Robertson County’s residents in the nineteenth century or whether it too was largely historical fiction. Fiction or not, the legend continues to evoke fear today.

In 1934, Charles Bailey Bell, John’s grandson, published an account of his family’s experiences. He reported a prophecy given by the witch that she would return in 1935. In 1937, the new owner of the Bell farm began to hear something rubbing against the walls of the house and faint music. Speaking in 1977, Bonnie Haneline stated that she used to explore the caves on the property as a child, with the permission of the owners. She recalled one occasion in 1944 when she went down alone with a lantern. The lantern was blown out, so she lit it again. After she crawled further, the lantern was extinguished once more and, terrified, she fled. Police later found two fugitives concealed in the cave, and Haneline credited the witch with saving her life by keeping her away from the criminals.

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The entrance to the cave, (c) The Historic Bell Witch Cave Incorporated, 2010

The strangest tale by far was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, in 1987. The owner of a nearby gas station, H.C. Sanders, ran out of petrol at night, not far from the entrance to the Bell witch cave. As he started walking back to town, he saw a rabbit emerge from the forest. He walked faster, but the rabbit managed to keep pace. After a mile, he sat down on a log and the rabbit seated itself beside him, saying: “Hell of a race we had there, wasn’t it?”

Regardless of the truth behind the unexplained phenomena, the Bell witch legend is widely held to be “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and for good reason.

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For more on the Bell witch:

Top Tips for Ghost Hunting

I’ve been on a couple of ghost hunts organised by a local paranormal company, so I wanted to share some tips for anyone thinking of attending their own ghost hunt!

  • DON’T delete any photographs or footage until you’ve looked at it on a larger scale!

This was something our host told us on the very first ghost hunt I attended. The majority of us were using mobile phones to capture any evidence, although there were a few camcorder/digital camera users too. These devices are great, but you’re unlikely to see everything in a photo properly until you transfer it onto a computer. You might miss something potentially groundbreaking if you delete blurry or dark images before you’ve had an opportunity to enhance them.

  • DO take more than one photograph of a certain spot.

Our host advised us to take at least three photos if we saw something or just wanted a photo of a particular area. That way, if something shows up in one photo, you have a precise timeline.You might get nothing in the first photo, something noticeable in the second, and then it might have disappeared by the third. Most importantly, you have a “normal” photo or two with which to compare the “abnormal” photo.

  • DO look at your photos carefully.

Be mindful that it’s easy to get carried away, and not every shadow or light you see in your photos and footage is necessarily an apparition! On one occasion, I was caught out. Having taken photos which appeared to show orbs, I returned to the spot only to find that there were small shiny panels on the walls of the tunnel designed to reflect vehicle headlights.

  • DO bring snacks and drinks!

The company we went with provided crisps and chocolate, but we took our own flasks of tea. I don’t know how common it is for ghost hunt organisers to arrange food, so it’s a good plan to take your own.

  • DO pay attention to any emails you receive from the organisation you’re using.

Provided you choose to go on a pre-arranged ghost hunt run by a company, you’ll likely get an email from them. Make sure you bring anything they ask you to or anything mentioned on their website.

You’re highly likely to need: a decent torch (most camping/outdoors shops will stock the suitable kind – a keyring/phone torch is a no-go!), a small backpack to keep your snacks in, a watch (or a mobile phone) in order to keep track of the time, sensible footwear (flat shoes/trainers, avoid high heels or flimsy pumps), appropriate clothes. To give you a good example, my first two ghost hunts took place in a decommissioned nuclear bunker, so I spent four hours (6pm – 10pm) in the middle of January in underground tunnels. As you can probably imagine, I went fully equipped with a winter coat, gloves and a hat.

  • DON’T feel self-conscious.

Depending on who is organising your ghost hunt and what their company policies/practices are, you may take part in various “experiments” or styles of investigation. Personally, I’ve used or watched other people use ouija boards, angel boards, table-tipping, maglites (torches with a coloured bulb which respond to movement), EMF meters and K-2 meters. You may also participate in group vigils. During some of these practices, you might be asked to call out to the spirits or introduce yourself, and it’s often expected that you ask the spirit/s to perform specific tasks (e.g. move the planchette, light up the torch, make the EMF meter spike, etc.).

It can feel a bit awkward or even unnerving when you first attempt to call out into the darkness to someone that may or may not be there. But the chances are that at least one person in the group will also be a ghost hunt virgin (as they’re affectionately known), so you won’t be the only one thrown in at the deep end! You’d be surprised how quickly you get used to the methods and mysteries of paranormal investigation.

Finally, happy hunting! Be careful, but, crucially, enjoy!

You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.