The Bitten Files #2: Mercy Brown and the Vampire Panic

The World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a report on tuberculosis every year. Currently, about one-third of the world’s population is infected with TB. It is also the infectious disease with the highest mortality rate, with 5,000 people dying of the disease every day. Although the term “tuberculosis” didn’t come into use until 1839, TB has been with us since ancient times. Our medical knowledge has, of course, improved exponentially since the Industrial Revolution and treatment in the modern world is often inhibited purely by stigma rather than by lack of resources.

Why all this talk about tuberculosis, you might be wondering. When is she going to get onto the vampire stuff?

Fear not, dear reader. I think we’re there.

In the latter half of the 19th century, rural New England was plagued by tuberculosis. Known at the time as consumption, due to the rapid weight loss experienced by those who contracted it, it struck fear into the hearts of communities. It’s easy to see why: it was so infectious that it wiped out whole households. At the time, tuberculosis hadn’t been identified as a bacterial disease so the source of the infection was unknown. The disease induces symptoms which – especially if unexplained and poorly understood as they were then – are undoubtedly terrifying. A raging fever and night sweats plagued the “consumptive” person as they grew ever paler and weaker, coughing up blood.

800px-MercyBrownGravestone

Mercy Brown’s grave marker, Chestnut Hill Baptist Church in Exeter, RI

This tragic epidemic led residents of the northeastern United States to suspect a supernatural culprit. They believed that the dying were having the life drained out of them by none other than their own deceased relatives. In accordance with local superstitions, they started to exhume the bodies of the recently deceased in order to confirm that these wandering spirits were causing havoc from household to household.

The earliest (recorded) case came from Bennington County, Vermont. It was that of Hulda Burton, the wife of Captain Isaac Burton. Hulda was dying of tuberculosis and, in an effort to save her, the captain had his first wife Rachel (c. 1770 – 1790) exhumed. Believing Rachel to be the entity draining his new spouse of her life force, Burton agreed to have his late wife’s liver, heart and lungs burned and obviously hoped that Hulda would be cured; sadly, this was not to be and Hulda died in 1793. Vermont was also the site of one of the most notorious incidents in the so-called “vampire panic”. On 14th February 1817, Frederick Ransom, aged 20, passed away. Fearing his son would return to plague their family, his father had Frederick’s heart cut out and burned on the blacksmith’s forge.

But by far the most infamous case was the story of Mercy Brown. Born in 1873 in Exeter, Rhode Island, she was only 19 when she died in 1892. Her mother and older sister had already passed away, and her younger brother Edwin suffered alongside her but did outlive her. After her death, Edwin’s condition worsened and the family believed his illness to be the foul work of the undead. They persuaded George Brown, Mercy’s father, to exhume the bodies of his wife and daughters. George was justifiably reluctant, but he gave in due to the pressure of those around him The cadavers of Mary Eliza, his wife, and Mary Olive, his eldest daughter, had decomposed at the expected rate. When her body was examined, Mercy’s heart was discovered to be full of blood and she did not appear to have decomposed much at all, despite the exhumation taking place two months after her burial.

We know now that the environment can have a significant impact on what happens to the body post-mortem, and Mercy’s corpse had been stored in a cold crypt above ground, decelerating decomposition. However, to the 19th century New Englander mind, this was proof that Mercy was the fiend who had returned from the grave to harm her brother. Her heart and liver were burned and the ashes were mixed into a tincture for Edwin to drink. Unsurprisingly, Edwin himself succumbed to the disease two months later.

The phrase “vampire panic” is a bit of a misnomer. Although the newspapers of the period made reference to beliefs in “vampirism” – and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between these practices and the vampire found in European folklore – there’s no evidence that the people of New England used that sort of terminology themselves. It’s unlikely that the word “vampire” was in common usage. “Panic” is also perhaps too strong a word. It implies that this was a one-off when a belief that the dead could do harm to the living was prevalent in various cultures and for an extended period of time.

Edvard_Munch_-_Vampire_(1895)_-_Google_Art_Project

“The Vampire”, Edvard Munch (1895)

It also implies that this was a spree of connected traumatic events, whereas the truth is more complex. There is a century between the first and last notable incidents, so it is possibly better described as a “superstition” or an ongoing practice to which the inhabitants of New England resorted when they could not rationalise what was happening to their communities. Ritual is a very important thing across all human cultures and, macabre as it may seem, the ritualistic burning of undead hearts assuaged the community’s fears – and even if it didn’t, they were perhaps comforted by the thought that they were doing something in the face of an unknown, faceless enemy.

Further reading

The Great New England Vampire Panic, Abigail Tucker (Smithsonian Magazine)

New England’s Vampire History, Joe Bills (New England Today)

When Rhode Island Was “The Vampire Capital of America”, Charles T Robinson (New England Today)

Vampire Island, Timeline (documentary) – a bit sensationalist, but is at its core a decent examination of early modern beliefs about vampires

Spooky Women You Should Support

I wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day on this blog but I’ve struggled to come up with an idea for how to do so in a way which fits the ethos and theme of Jude And The Obscure. Finally, inspiration struck. This blog post is a tribute to women whose blogs, YouTube channels and published works I follow and who have inspired me to embrace my weird interests. Of course, I can’t list every woman who ticks those boxes – there are so many fantastic female activists, writers and content creators out there –  but this is a selection of those who have really changed the way I think.

Caitlin Doughty

Owner of Undertaking LA, Founder of The Order of the Good Death, Death-Positive Activist and Author

I’ve mentioned Caitlin’s work multiple times on this blog (specifically here and here). Her YouTube videos on the Ask A Mortician channel deal with death from all angles, and it’s never insensitive but always fun. She examines the relationships between death and race, gender and class in a way I find necessary and relevant.

She’s seriously had an enormous impact on the way I feel about death and mortality. Watching Caitlin’s videos and reading her fabulous debut book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes helped me realise that grief is a process rather than a singular emotion; she taught me that bereavement is not something you “should just get over”. It’s not morbid to engage with our death and mourning traditions – if anything, it’s deeply cathartic and healthy. I love Death Mom and you should too.

Her Instagram is here.

caitlin doughty

Lucia Peters

Writer and Editor

Lucia Peters is the brains behind my favourite blog of all time, The Ghost In My Machine. TGIMM is a hub for spooky stories and creepy cases from history; I’m especially fond of her Most Dangerous Games series. I’ve never done any research into this, but it often seems like online communities which focus on the paranormal or on topics we perceive as “spooky”/”creepy” are dominated by men. All the popular storytellers on YouTube (the likes of Lazy Masquerade and Mr Nightmare) are men. It’s incredibly cool to see a woman find success in this field and, as with all the women on this list, I’d urge you to support her work.

lucia peters

Sarah Chavez

Director of The Order of the Good Death, Founder of Death & The Maiden and Blogger at Nourishing Death

Through engaging with Caitlin Doughty’s work, I discovered Sarah Chavez’s fantastic blog posts which are available across multiple platforms. I particularly admire her work around the decolonisation of death – she posts such interesting and beautiful photos on her Instagram (@sarah_calavera) which provide insight into ancient and contemporary Mexican funerary traditions. I really liked this post she wrote about the Disney film Coco (Oscar-winning Disney film, might I add!). Much of her writing deals with the “reclaiming” of death and, by extension, our own bodies. Whenever I read something of hers, I always find it thought-provoking.

sarah chavez

Amber Carvaly

Director at Undertaking LA, Death-Positive Activist and Artist

Amber is part of the all-female team at Undertaking LA, alongside Caitlin Doughty and funeral arranger Susana Alba. Like Caitlin, she advocates for more open discussions about death and greater involvement of families in the preparation of their deceased loved ones for burial or cremation. I particularly enjoyed this piece she wrote for Dead Maidens in 2016 about planning ahead for funerals – plenty of food for thought!

You can find Amber on Instagram as @yoshimidreams.

amber carvaly

Kelly-Ann Maddox

Spiritual Counsellor and YouTube Content Creator

I mentioned Kelly-Ann briefly in my post about tarot – I discovered her while trying to find YouTube videos with tarot tips – but I’ve come to appreciate her for much more than that. She’s a witchy heroine of mine. I said that she “exudes warmth” in that blog post and I think that’s largely why I subscribed to her channel; she’s laidback and candid in a style many other pagan channels seem to shy away from. She’s completely changed my view of how my spiritual practice is “supposed” to be. I spent a long time convinced I was doing it wrong: I didn’t understand all the New Age terminology and felt stupid, and the witchy Instagram craze made me feel fake because I don’t dress or decorate in a particularly spooky way. Kelly-Ann’s work has taught me to own all of it and just set out on a voyage of discovery without worrying what other people think.

kelly ann maddox

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!!

Why Do Women Love Witches?

[Feminism] encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. – Pat Robertson in an Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment, 1992

Witches or an equivalent figure can be found in folklore all over the world. To some, the witch is and has always been a benevolent figure: she is a healer, a wise or “cunning” woman with secret knowledge of tinctures and poultices. In many cultures, it is difficult to draw a distinction between witchcraft practices and natural medicine. To others, the witch is symbolic of Earth’s greatest evils. The witch serves the Devil; she turns from God and claims metaphysical power – both miracle-working and devastatingly destructive – on her own terms. Furthermore, to many people in contemporary society, the witch is symbolic simply of personal power, of a force outside the norm. The word “witch” has numerous connotations and, although the idea of witches is ancient and common to cultures worldwide, the term itself means something different to everyone. The image you visualise when someone says the word “witch” is informed by the media and the traditions you have been exposed to, whether this is with regard to literature, cinema, art, religion or folklore and folk traditions.

I think you can tell a lot about a culture from the way it perceives and depicts its witches – thematically, it’s often an extension of that culture’s views regarding women and power –  so I want to delve into the evolution of the witch in popular thought. Why are so many women, myself included, claiming the label? What does it mean to be a witch in the modern world?

First and foremost, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “witchy” aesthetic and the actual practice of witchcraft. Of course there are women who engage with both, but just because someone has crafted a particularly spooky Instagram feed, it doesn’t necessarily mean she practises witchcraft. However, I do feel that the two are linked and have their roots in the same central issue: the subversion of our expectations about women. Witches are associated with darkness and with the macabre but, on a more general level, with all the things that make us uncomfortable. Utilising witchcraft and the symbolism of the witch as part of an aesthetic or style grants a certain power. A witchy woman can be intimidating; even if she does not participate in witchcraft practices, she can cultivate an untouchable persona in a society which seeks to make her vulnerable, to convince her that she is flawed and to prey upon her self-doubt.

I wanted to address that stylistic aspect before digging into the juicy historical and spiritual stuff (which are the areas in which I’m most interested).

In an article for The Guardian this April, the author Madeline Miller explored the relationship between witchcraft and perceptions of women: “In the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman “of superior knowledge”. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, run hand in hand.” According to Miller, Gage was onto something. She argues that words used to describe male practitioners of magic, such as “warlock”, “wizard” or “magus”, don’t carry the same negative connotations we associate with the term “witch”. The cultural context of witchcraft is inherently gendered.

The word “witch” is still used to describe women in the public sphere who are disliked; Miller gives the example of Hillary Clinton’s portrayal by her detractors during the 2016 presidential election, demonstrating that “witch” has often been a stick with which to beat women, especially vulnerable women and social outcasts. A witch is unnatural and dangerous, posing a threat to the most fundamental unit of our society: the family. Able to blight crops, cause friction in the family and burden a home with illness, the witch is a direct threat to the integrity of the household. I find this particularly interesting because, throughout much of feminist theory, the household is also the frontline of misogynist oppression. We measure a lot of feminist progress by how women live within their own homes: for example, how evenly housework is shared between couples, how much husbands and male partners contribute to childcare, how women are treated and whether their personal autonomy is respected. We have been (rightly) preoccupied with how accessible it is for women to leave the domestic sphere, if this is what they want. The implication of calling a powerful woman in politics – like Hillary Clinton –  a “witch” is that she represents an erasure of the values people want to impose upon their households, families and on society in general. During the US election of 2016, there was much emphasis on patriotism and a very prominent pushback against anything perceived to be “unAmerican” or “anti-American”, of which “traditional family values” forms a significant part.

tito mouraz

(c) Tito Mouraz (2016)

Witchcraft and magick have been perceived solely as the domain of women in many cultures. In Norse society in the Late Iron Age, a female shaman was known as a völva and these women practised a type of ritual magic called seiðr. Although men practised it too, it was considered “unmanly” for them to do so, bringing a specific dishonour called ergi (roughly translated as “effeminacy”). Ergi and its adjectival form argr are also associated with Viking taboos around homosexuality, about which you can read more here. With women’s history and the history of witchcraft so intimately bound together, it’s no wonder that women have sought to reclaim the word “witch”. Our fascination with the world of the witch is certainly a product of our collective feelings about powerful women and the way we talk about them. However, I think there’s something deeper, something in the subconscious, which draws women to witchcraft long before we’re able to comprehend this socio-historical link.

Anne Theriault, writing for The Establishment in 2016, described her childhood brushes with magic. Having spoken to other women who recall performing rituals at sleepovers – all in the spirit of fun, of course – she considers these attempts at witchcraft as almost “… like a girlhood rite of passage…” and I would agree with her. I had those experiences too. I was an odd child anyway – I saw a ghost when I was about six years old and, since then, have been invested in anything paranormal. When I was in primary school, I and one of my friends would say we had magical powers. We were only pretending, but we would sit together and “practise” our magic. This intensified as I got older. In secondary school, we played games like light as a feather, stiff as a board and talked for hours about the mysteries of the universe at sleepovers. I can remember one incident in particular when I was about 13. A group of us were at one girl’s house watching Eurovision (ha!) and went out into the garden while the boring voting bit was happening. We sat in a circle with a stick of incense poked into the ground and a friend suggested we “try something”. Each of us cupped our hands together and, one by one, she went round the circle, rubbed her hands together and held her hands above ours for a minute or two. Then we looked into our hands and could “see” a ball of coloured light. (Mine was blue, by the way.)

Having done more research into New Age and witchcraft practices, I realise now that my friend was probably inspired by the idea of auras, an energy field which surrounds a person and appears a certain colour, indicating something about the health or the traits of that person. The colours we saw were likely perceptual distortions; however, it was harmless fun at the time. This was by no means a sophisticated ritual, but it straddled the line between being scary and exciting.

coven

(c) unknown

I have a great love of witches in folklore and in fiction; for me, they symbolise something very profound and complex about the role of women in society.

Note: there are, of course, plenty of men who call themselves “witches” and there is certainly a good article to be written about them. I just don’t think I’m the one to write it; I happen to be most interested in witchcraft within the lives of women.

Further reading

Goddess Remembered: The Burning Times (1990) (documentary, National Film Board of Canada)

Lisa Bonos, Vulnerable women used to be suspected of witchcraft. Now witchiness is a sign of strength. (Washington Post)

Matilda Hill-Jenkins, Meet The Women In Modern Covens (The Debrief)

Stevie Martin, Are More 20 Something Women Turning To Witchcraft? We Asked An Expert (The Debrief)

Madeline Miller, From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches
(The Guardian)

Ania Rybak, How Did Witchcraft Empower Women In 2017? (Mookychick)

Anne Theriault, The Real Reason Women Love Witches (The Establishment)

 

 

Leave Anubis Alone: Ancient Egypt and the Horror Genre

It occurred to me recently – as these things often do – that there aren’t many horror films which use the ancient world as a setting or plot device. Of those which do, the vast majority are based on the mythology of ancient Egypt (or, at least, our modern assumptions about ancient Egypt – we’ll chat more about that later). It struck me as interesting that, although I could name quite a number of Egyptian-themed horror films off the top of my head, I could count the horror films (that I knew of) inspired by ancient Rome and Greece on one hand. We seem comfortable with a good sword-and-sandals epic, but a horror film? By Jove, no.

In this post, I want to examine why ancient Egypt is such prime fodder for the horror genre. Where does the perception of Egypt as “spooky” come from? Why don’t we feel the same about any other culture from antiquity? And, finally, just what is our problem with Anubis?

the mummy 2

In order to find the root of the squeamish fascination we feel for ancient Egypt, we need to look back at Western culture’s first foray into the land of the pharaohs. Although explorers from Europe – along with those from the Middle East – were travelling to Egypt from as early as the 13th century, the birth of modern Egyptology came with the French invasion of Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, artefacts were uncovered and writings were translated, and it was easier than ever before for Europeans to engage with the mysteries of Egypt.

That said, Egypt was still a land of mystery and, in the popular imagination, of threat. In 1892, 30 years before Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale of terror Lot No. 249 was published. In it, an Oxford student reanimates a mummy he has bought at an auction and uses the undead fiend to attack his enemies. This marks the first example in literature of a malevolent, resurrected mummy and the story has had a significant influence both on later horror fiction and film. Doyle had previously employed a mummy as a plot device in the short story The Ring of Thoth (1890) in which a young Egyptologist meets an Egyptian man who discovered the secret to eternal life over 3000 years ago. The love of his life died before he could administer the elixir to her, and he has been searching for her sarcophagus and the ring of Thoth – which contains the antidote which will allow him to join her in the afterlife – ever since.

By the time Carter cracked open Tut’s tomb to reveal the treasures within, the public were all too ready to accept the possibility that a curse might strike those who dared enter the tomb. There were eleven deaths in the decade following the tomb’s opening which were popularly attributed to the so-called “curse of the pharaohs”; the most famous of these was undoubtedly that of Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the trip. The burial chamber was opened on 16th February 1923 and Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite, sustained while in Egypt, on 5th April. Despite the mania in the press over the curse, Howard Carter never believed in it.

The mummy had all the makings of a movie monster and, in 1932, Universal Studios’ The Mummy was a smash hit. The rest is movie history, enabling the success of the rebooted Mummy franchise in 1999 as well as spawning shelves upon shelves of low-budget offerings.

The curses, resurrected corpses and strange rituals are all part of a narrative which casts ancient Egypt as completely foreign. There’s certainly an element of racism there – we see Greece and Rome as “more like us” and Egypt as distinctly “other”. However, I think an important factor in the continued popularity of Egypt as a setting or plot device in the horror genre is the Egyptian attitude to death. I don’t believe the “hands-on” approach that the Egyptians took to caring for their dead is a concept we’ve ever quite got over and it has potentially become even more alien to us as we’ve dissociated ourselves from death and the handling of our dead. With our aversion to corpses and all that is associated with them, mummification is an invasive, morbid idea to us. Even an ordinary Egyptian person who couldn’t afford to be mummified upon their death would be wrapped in cloth and buried in the desert with food and useful everyday items by their relatives. We pay people to do that on our behalf.

the mummy

The Romans buried their dead outside the city walls and the Greeks seemed to define the separation between the living and the dead very clearly. The Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles, written circa 441BCE, concerns this separation. Polyneices, considered a traitor by his city, is refused burial – thereby disrupting the natural order and keeping the dead among the living (i.e. above ground). His sister Antigone defies the ruling and buries him herself, and she is sentenced to be buried alive. Again, this disrupts the natural order; a living girl is given the treatment of the dead. My point here is not to say that the people of ancient Greece and Rome were averse to seeing the dead or that they did not have their own set of complex funerary rites, but we seem to fixate less on these than we do on mummification and the beliefs the Egyptians held about what happened to the soul after death.

Speaking of ancient Greece and Rome, I did some digging of my own for horror films set in either. I had seen two flicks which fitted the bill: the first being Minotaur (2006) and the other, Cyclops (2008). Cyclops is the only Roman-themed horror film I could find. Set during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14ACE to 37ACE), Cyclops is the story of the last surviving cyclops, which is captured and displayed at the Circus Maximus. It’s a TV movie and truly looks like one; the cyclops is possibly the biggest waste of CGI I’ve ever witnessed. Minotaur has been described as “highly forgettable”, which is unfair – I’m sure Tom Hardy, a far more talented actor than this film deserves, wishes he could erase it from his memory. It’s a film marred by racism – it’s very Xerxes in 300 – and none of it really makes any sense. Despite being set in Crete, nearly everybody has an ambiguously Celtic, or otherwise non-Cretan, name. It’s one of only two horror films set in ancient Greece that I was able to find, both of which deal with the myth of the Minotaur. The second is Land of the Minotaur (1976). Like the other two films mentioned, it’s not brilliant, but it does have Peter Cushing which is always an advantage.

I noted that, when it comes to horror films set in or inspired by ancient Greece or Rome, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to stick to what they know and make a straight-up creature feature. The Minotaur just happens to be the closest thing to a classic movie monster – in the vein of Frankenstein, Dracula or, indeed, the Mummy – that Greek mythology has to offer.

It could be argued that the mythological figures and deities of ancient Egypt simply lend themselves to the horror genre, although I believe it has more to do with our modern misinterpretations. Finally, ladies and gents, it’s time to talk about Anubis.

Anubis – or Anpu, Anubis is the Greek rendering of the name – was associated with mummification and embalming. He acted as a psychopomp, guiding souls into the afterlife, and presided over a ceremony called the Weighing of the Heart in which the heart of the deceased would be weighed against Ma’at (the physical representation of truth, symbolised by an ostrich feather). If the heart was lighter, the dead person could continue on their journey into the afterlife. If heavier, the heart would be eaten by the demon Ammut.

BD_Hunefer_cropped_1

The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Hunefer (c) Jon Bodsworth.

Anubis wasn’t an evil or malevolent figure in the mythology, so there’s no real basis for his portrayal in many films as a monstrous entity – I think it’s the jackal head thing that freaks modern moviegoers out a bit. Yes, he took part in the judgement of the dead and might seem unsympathetic to us, but he was an important deity. A post on WritingRaider described him thus: “[In Hollywood films, Anubis] has been the main antagonist, killing and sending curses to the heroes… manipulating battles like some evil Bond villain… In truth, the Egyptians didn’t think so.  He was a protector and a caretaker… It is easy to interpret Anubis as evil in today’s culture because of his connection to the dead in Egyptian religion.  But we must keep in mind, that today’s view of the dead is very different from the ancient Egyptian view.  The Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife and there were trials to get to paradise, but once you had proved yourself worthy… there was nothing but peace and happiness.”

My concerns are twofold. As somebody who studied Classics and is a massive horror fan, it makes me rather sad that nobody seems to have thought to tap into the sheer wealth of weird in Greek and Roman mythology. We seem to live in a time of sequels and reboots, and this is just something different I’d love to see. My other issue likewise stems from my appreciation for the rich history and mythology of ancient Egypt, which has fascinated me since I was a little girl. As much as I love The Mummy (1999), I can’t help but feel put off by the portrayal of Egypt as a strange and scary society.

Further Reading

Miscellaneous

Richard Cavendish (editor) (1992) Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World. Little, Brown and Company. (An excellent guide to the basics. Useful for comparing key myths and traditions from various religions.)

Egyptian Religion

dollingch (2014) Egyptian Culture – Anubis In Egyptian Religion. WritingRaider.

Lucia Gahlin (2001) Egypt: Gods, Myths and Religion. Anness Publishing. (A book I read and re-read like a child possessed. It’s a brilliant, comprehensive look at religion in Egypt, from the mythology to the priesthood to worship by ordinary people.)

Peter Piccione (1997) What Life Was Like On The Banks Of The Nile. Time Life UK. (Another one I read obsessively as a child.)

Ancient Egypt in Popular Culture

Christian-Georges Schwentzel (2017) Why we love (and fear) mummies. The Conversation.

Films mentioned

The Mummy (1932)

Land of the Minotaur (1976)

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy Returns (2001)

Minotaur (2006)

300 (2006)

Cyclops (2008)

The Bitten Files #1: Sava Savanović

This is the first installment of The Bitten Files, a series of blog posts exploring vampire legends.

In the small village of Zarožje, Serbia, an old watermill once stood in the valley of the Rogačica river. According to legend, the villagers risked their lives whenever they went to mill their grain, for inside the gloomy structure resided a terrifying creature: the vampire, Sava Savanović.

Sava Savanović is part of a long tradition of vampire folklore in Eastern Europe: “In the Balkans, where a vampire cult flourished in the late Middle Ages, a vampire was suspected of infesting a graveyard when people reported seeing apparitions of the dead that pestered them and bit them, or sat on their chests and suffocated them at night… Vampires also were blamed for plagues, invisible terrors that bothered people at night and wasting diseases that brought death.” (Guiley, 1992: 344) There were efforts to preserve the watermill as a tourist attraction, although, as one of the mill’s owners was quick to assert in an interview with ABC News, no-one was ever permitted to sleep there overnight. Renovations to make the mill a proper (read: safe) site for tourists began in early 2010,  but this was not to come to fruition. At the time of its collapse in 2012, the mill – owned by the Jagodić family – hadn’t been in operation since the 1950s, but the vampire who was said to have made his home there remained a significant figure in the collective consciousness of the surrounding villages. The village council even issued a warning to the public upon the mill’s collapse. Sava was now homeless, they declared, and would be on the lookout for somewhere new to rest in peace (or not, as it goes).

How seriously the villagers took the warning varies depending on which news outlet you’re looking at. However, Sava’s legacy is serious business indeed. The people of Zarožje made an official complaint to the local police that the city of Valjevo, on the other side of the valley, had stolen Savanović from them when the city made him their mascot in 2010. He was also the subject of an 1880 novella, Posle devedeset godina (After Ninety Years), by Milovan Glišić and the 1973 horror film Leptirica which was inspired by the story. It’s interesting to note that Leptirica is widely considered to have been the first Serbian horror film. Whether it’s any good is another matter entirely…

 

Although widespread belief in vampires has died out across most of Europe, Serbia’s best-known vampire remains an important aspect of the country’s cultural history and its cinematic and literary canon. His peasant-purging days might be over, but – like a true creature of the night – Sava Savanović lives on.

Further reading

Dragona Jovanovic (2012) Vampire Threat Terrorizes Serbian Village (ABC News)

Sasha Ingber (2012) The Bloody Truth About Serbia’s Vampire (National Geographic)

Tyler Tichelaar (2017) After Ninety Years: A Newly Translated 1880 Serbian Vampire Novella (Gothic Wanderer, WordPress)

Rosemary Guiley (1992) The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (pp 344)

Note: there are a number of Serbian sources, two of which are available here and here. I can’t read or speak Serbian (although I’m taking a module of Serbian-Croatian next year at uni) but you’re welcome to comment if you do and you find something in the Serbian articles which you think ought to be included here.

 

Magic and Misunderstandings: Why Tarot Isn’t What You Think

Tarot.

An ancient tradition shrouded in mystery, passed down through time from the court of the pharaoh to the occultists of the Victorian era. The darkest of arts, a sinister outlet for communing with malevolent spirits…

Hold up. Nope.

Firstly, the earliest recorded tarot cards were produced in Italy in the 15th century. It was originally a style of playing cards, developing into a type of divination in the 18th century. Secondly, modern tarot is not the same as fortune-telling or predicting the future. Instead, it is a way of helping the querent (the person asking questions) – although sometimes a tarot reader may read for themselves – think more deeply about their life and their choices.

The image of the “average” tarot reader that you have in your mind is likely influenced by the (largely sensationalised) books and films which deal with this practice. In the popular imagination, tarot readings are carried out by wizened crones in velvet tents, travelling up and down the country to have their palm crossed with silver. Alternatively, maybe you’re picturing a New Age woman with dreadlocks down to her hips and a tie-dye tunic. Or you’re picturing Miss Cleo. One of those three.

In fact, tarot readers come in all shapes and sizes. Some tarot readers are young students (like me); some have 30 years or more of tarot reading expertise under their belt. Tarot does not belong to any particular faith either: some readers are Neopagan or Wiccan, some are Christian and some are atheist. I know people who casually read for their friends, people who read professionally and people who read from an academic, analytical viewpoint. There really is no “stereotypical” tarot reader. We’re all doing it for different reasons.

I think this is due to tarot’s wide appeal. You don’t need special qualifications and you can quite comfortably teach yourself. Of course there are people drawn to it purely because of its (somewhat sinister) reputation, but those aren’t the people who end up fully committing to it. Learning the tarot is not something you can accomplish in an evening. Some readers are intuitive – rather than learning the individual meanings of the cards from the traditional tarot system, they glean the message from the images on the cards. But even for intuitive readers, their craft takes a long time to perfect.

So why was I drawn to tarot?

You’ve probably gathered from this blog that I like spooky stuff, I surround myself with spooky stuff, I wallow in spooky stuff. Initially, tarot was something I was fascinated by – for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think it would ever be something I could do myself because it was so mysterious and so mystical. But, over the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the reconstruction of ancient witchcraft practices, as well as in modern Neopaganism and in Wicca. As I started reading and watching material from Pagan creators – many of whom used tarot as part of their spiritual practice – I began to understand that it wasn’t sinister or strange. It could be a really important part of someone’s faith, or it could even be a kind of self-help tool. I’ve come across plenty of YouTube pagans and witches who focus on tarot card images during meditation or place specific tarot cards on their altars to draw in a certain vibe, especially if they’re involved in shadow work and want to hone in on a particular problem in their life.

As far as I’m concerned, tarot is a crucial aspect of my spiritual practice and my feminism. It’s incredible how many powerful women are creating content about tarot – it’s beautiful to see that and profound to learn from them.

Let’s close with a classic from Miss Cleo:

Recommended reading

Kelly-Ann Maddox (YouTube, website) – my favourite witchy creator. Kelly-Ann just exudes warmth and I’m so glad I discovered her YouTube channel.

Jack of Wands (WordPress blog)

Harmony Nice (YouTube) – only problem I have with Harmony’s video on tarot is that she implies that you can only connect with one tarot deck. Most tarot readers and enthusiasts I know will have more than one deck and may use multiple decks in one reading. Obviously that’s Harmony’s personal opinion and she’s entitled to it, but I just thought I’d clarify that for any potential tarot readers who might be confused.

Biddy Tarot (website)

New Age Hipster (YouTube, website)

Veronica Varlow (Instagram, website)

 

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)

 

The Hidden Files #4: The Jersey Devil

This is the fourth installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

One stormy night in 1735, a New Jersey woman named Mother Leeds went into labour. Her husband was an alcoholic and Mrs Leeds had been forced to provide for her twelve other children alone – naturally, it had not been an easy pregnancy. So the legend goes, upon discovering she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, Mrs Leeds had exclaimed: “Let this one be a devil!”

All seemed to be going well as the midwives assisted Mrs Leeds with the delivery of a healthy baby boy. However, before the eyes of the shocked women, the newborn began to metamorphose into something unspeakable. It grew in size, sprouted enormous draconic wings and a forked tail, and its head became that of a goat. The creature roared, slit the throats of all the assembled midwives with one great sweep of its claws (in some versions, it kills Mrs Leeds too), and then vanished up the chimney and flew away into the night. Mother Leeds never saw her child – or whatever foul beast she had given birth to – again.

The eerie tale of the Jersey Devil, sometimes called the “Leeds Devil”, is one heck of a legend. But is it just that – a legend? Those who still call the Pine Barrens home think not.

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The Jersey Devil, as depicted in Animal Planet’s Lost Tapes (2009)

Throughout the 19th century, many claimed to have spotted the Jersey Devil lurking in the forests of New Jersey. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph believed he had seen the creature while out hunting in the grounds of his Bordentown estate in 1820. The Jersey Devil was also blamed for a number of livestock killings in the 1840s, but sightings truly peaked in January 1909. Between 16th and 23rd January, hundreds of reports were published in newspapers across New Jersey, each containing a strange encounter with the state’s most famous monster. The hysteria spread from NJ to Delaware and even Maryland, with schools closing, workers refusing to leave their homes and vigilantes roaming the woods in search of the beast.

As is often the case with these things, no evidence was ever found and no-one could prove anything. That said, reports from rural townspeople and farmers kept on stacking up until well into the late 20th century. The odd sighting is even recorded today.

Of course, we all love an occult mystery like this, but it’s the historical context that surrounds the legend which interests me most. Brian Regal, a professor of the history of science at Kean University, wrote an article for Skeptical Inquirer in 2013 which delved into the story’s bizarre links with 17th-century Quakers. Daniel Leeds arrived in NJ in 1677 and began publishing an almanac (a type of reference book for weather forecasts and calendars). But Leeds’ almanac contained material related to astrology and symbolism which his fellow Quakers frowned upon as “pagan”. The Quaker community accused Leeds of working for the Devil; Regal points out that the use of astrology in Daniel Leeds’ publications indicates he was likely a Christian occultist rather than a devil worshipper. He eventually converted to Anglicanism and continued publishing his almanac – and arguing with the local Quakers while doing so – until 1716, when his son Titan took over the family business. Regal writes: “Titan redesigned the masthead [the heading at the top of the almanac’s front page] to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as Wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.” Titan Leeds entered into a feud with Benjamin Franklin (yes, that Benjamin Franklin) which lasted six years until Leed’s death in 1738. Franklin had “predicted” Titan would die on 18th October 1733 (mocking the Leeds family’s interest in astrology) and, when Titan plainly didn’t, he continued to joke that Leeds’ ghost was the one attacking him in the press. According to Regal, “Largely out of fun, Benjamin Franklin had publically cast his rival almanac publisher as a ghost, brought back from the great beyond to haunt his enemies. It is interesting to note that the traditionally believed period of the “birth” of the Jersey Devil (the mid-1730s) coincides with the death of Titan Leeds.”

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Philadelphia Post, 1909

The Jersey Devil is perhaps not the cursed child in which we are led to believe. I think it’s much more likely that the legendary beast is the result of a number of historical and cultural forces. Brian Regal summed it up thus: “The elements that led to the creation of the Jersey Devil are by and large un­known to even monster aficionados. The Quaker rivalries, the almanac wars, Daniel Leeds and his son Titan, as well as their monstrous family crest drifted into the mists of time, leaving only the vague notion of a frightening denizen of the Pine Barrens.” The Leeds family gave their name to Leeds Point, an area in the Pine Barrens which features heavily in the myth of the Jersey Devil, and many local people are still able to trace their heritage back to this bunch of rebellious Quakers and almanac-makers. When interviewed for Vice, Bill Sprouse – a direct descendant of the Leeds family – remarked: “”I think suburban New Jerseyans want the same things suburban kids anywhere want: a sense of belonging to a place, a sense of history, a sense of local identity… and the Jersey Devil story helps fill that vacuum to an extent.” The people of the Pine Barrens, known as “pineys”, encourage the legend and you can understand why they would. It’s good for tourism, it provides a link with their state’s history and it’s a fantastically scary story.

I try to keep an open mind while writing this series of blog posts and usually I’m successful, yet I find the tale of the Jersey Devil just a little too hard to believe.

Having said that, would I want to find myself in the Pine Barrens, alone on a dark and stormy night? Definitely not.

Further Reading

The Hidden Files #3: Mothman

This is the third installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Author’s note: in this article, I alternated between referring to the creature as “Mothman” or “the Mothman”. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding the name among cryptozoologists, so I used both.

“Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something”

That was the headline chosen by the Point Pleasant Register for their report on a sighting of Mothman. The story was first printed on 16th November 1966, and it detailed the experiences of two young couples who had spotted something otherworldly standing in the middle of the road when they were driving outside of town.

They described the creature as being grey in colour, with glowing red eyes and a ten-foot wingspan. It followed them for some time, flying overhead as they drove.

Oddly, this matched a sighting from a few days prior, in which five gravediggers in Clendenin, West Virginia, claimed to have seen a humanoid figure fly out from the trees and over their heads. Over the coming weeks and months, more and more reports piled in of a strange creature sighted overhead around Point Pleasant.

There are lots of theories regarding what witnesses were seeing (or believed they were seeing) in the late 1960s in West Virginia, ranging from demons to aliens. The most common is that it was a case of mistaken identity. Sandhill cranes may have wandered outside of their usual migration route. Similar to witnesses’ descriptions, they can have a wingspan of seven feet and have red markings around their eyes. Sandhill cranes aren’t native to West Virginia, which would explain why the witnesses were unable to recognise them. Other likely culprits include large owls or herons. There are still Mothman sightings being reported today – the most recent incidents I could find happened in Chicago between 15th and 16th April 2017 and were recorded by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) in this article. In November 2016, a man driving along Route 2 in Point Pleasant even managed to capture a photograph of a creature he believed to be the Mothman.

mothman - wchs pic

(c) WCHS, viewer-submitted photo (2016)

You might be tempted to dismiss the Mothman as just another big bird mistakenly identified, but, for those who believe, the plot only thickened in 1967. On 15th December, the Silver Bridge – crossing the Ohio River and connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, Ohio – collapsed, resulting in the tragic deaths of 46 people. The bridge collapsed due to a tiny crack in a single link (called an eye-bar). In a suspension bridge, all the weight is equally distributed and just one minor break can cause an immediate collapse of the entire structure. It took no longer than a minute for the bridge to fall.

Journalist and UFOlogist John Keel posited in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies that the Mothman makes portentous appearances before major disasters. The book deals with his investigation of the Mothman sightings, reports of animal mutilations and strange phone-calls he received, with these unusual events culminating in the collapse of the Silver Bridge. According to a Portalist article, creatures similar to Mothman have been spotted prior to some of the worst tragedies of the modern era. Before the 1986 disaster at Reactor 4, Chernobyl, the article states: “… a bizarre winged creature was seen flying over the town [Pripyat] on numerous occasions. A few workers at Chernobyl also allegedly saw the same creature hovering over the plant… Many claimed the creature resembled a man-like bird with red eyes, and some came to refer to it as “the Black Bird of Chernobyl.” Was the Black Bird of Chernobyl the same creature as the one seen prior to the Silver Bridge disaster?” In 2007, another bridge – this time, Interstate 35 in Minneapolis – collapsed, killing thirteen people and injuring 145. Again, reports “trickled in that a Mothman-like figure started appearing near the bridge about a month prior to its collapse.”

There isn’t a contemporary event which receives more press from conspiracy theorists than 9/11 (jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, anyone?) and Mothman has made its way into the witness reports there too. The Portalist article notes that reports emerged that a strange crane-like creature had been spotted near the World Trade Centre in the days before the terrorist attack. This article from Ranker also describes the creature seen around the Twin Towers as “a black winged creature” and refers to another creature, sighted by an American tourist not long before the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, which was “large and black” and appeared with “a loud whooshing sound and a terrible screeching”. Whether you believe all these catastrophes to be connected or not, it’s undeniably an unsettling hypothesis. Does Mothman appear simply as an omen of disaster? Or is the creature more deeply involved?

Although we may never have all the answers, Mothman is evidently still at the forefront of the popular imagination. Since 2002, the town of Point Pleasant has hosted their annual Mothman Festival and in 2003 a 12-foot tall metal sculpture of Mothman was erected. 2005 saw the opening of the Mothman Museum and Research Centre. John Keel’s book was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Richard Gere, which was released in 2002.

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Mothman statue, created by local artist Bob Roach

I find the Mothman case fascinating. I doubt we’ll ever know the truth, but I appreciate that the good folks at the Mothman Museum and Research Centre in Point Pleasant are keeping the story alive and continue to investigate.

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Further Reading

What Is “Ravenous” (1999) Actually About?

Warning: spoilers for the film Ravenous. You don’t need to have seen Ravenous to read this review, but I’d recommend it and I think you should watch it anyway (I’m biased, but whatever).

I suppose you could consider this a spiritual successor to an article I wrote last year entitled “Why Viy (1967) Is Criminally Underrated”. Viy doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, nor does Ravenous. This is just about the only quality they share, which is why this blog post is only tangentially related to that one. After all, one is the very first Soviet horror film ever made, based on Eastern Europe’s rich oral traditions and folklore; the other is about, well, cannibalism. Neither that article nor this one are, in actual fact, reviews. Instead, they’re both think-pieces of a kind. I just fancied having a chat about Ravenous.

ravenous gif 4

You might not expect interesting philosophical analysis from a late 90s horror film, but, with this particular film, that’s what you get. Call me deluded – I’m sniffing Jinkx Monsoon’s perfume, clearly – but I remain absolutely convinced that Ravenous is an incredibly clever film disguised as a stupid slasher flick.

On paper, it sounds ridiculous. During the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is shipped off to serve at an outpost in California called Fort Spencer and, whilst there, he meets a motley crew of characters. They encounter Mr Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who tells them the strange tale of how his party became stranded in the Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism. It transpires that Colqhoun is the real danger, having killed and eaten his fellow travellers, and he does the same to most of the soldiers by luring them out to his former hunting ground. In the world of Ravenous, eating human flesh or drinking human blood causes you to become a Wendigo (a real creature from Algonquian myth, if you’re wondering) and imbues the cannibal with renewed strength. This sets the scene for the central moral dilemma of the film: is it alright to eat people if it saves you from dying? (Again, if you’re wondering, the answer is a resounding “NO”.)

Of course, this is only the “central moral dilemma”, to quote myself, on the surface. Cannibalism being wrong is a blindingly obvious moral to have at the centre of your film and I wouldn’t blame you if that was the main thing you took away from it, but, if one takes the time to pick away the bland Hollywood veneer, there’s a frankly astonishing amount going on. So let’s start with the cannibalism – what does it actually mean?

The way I see it, cannibalism in Ravenous is a vehicle, of sorts, for two main ideas. The first has to do with colonialism; to put it simply, both cannibalism and colonialism are about consumption. One is personal and one is political, but at their core they are both about stripping the resources out of another entity, be it a person or an entire population. In the latter third of the film, Colqhoun makes a little speech to Boyd in an attempt to persuade him to give in to his cannibalistic desires. It’s a fascinating monologue to dissect. He sees the westward journeys of “thousands of gold-hungry Americans” into California as a prime opportunity to satisfy his appetite. While discussing his not-so-secret cannibal plans, Colqhoun mentions “manifest destiny” – a philosophy, popular in the 19th century, which dictated that Americans had a duty to conquer and expand territory. The film’s events take place in 1847, a pivotal moment in American history: the following year would see the loss of Mexican territory and the absorption of Texas into the US. Although Colqhoun never sees his scheme realised, American expansion in the late 1840s was a significant concern for the nations of Latin America and especially for the people already living on American soil before the white settlers got there. If I wanted to be really blunt, the insatiable appetite which characterises the Wendigo – punishment for transgressing social norms – is the most visceral, exaggerated depiction possible of the white man’s greed.

ravenous pic 2

The second theme that the film’s cannibalism helps to convey is homosexuality, specifically repressed homosexuality. This repression is obviously period-typical (no gay pride in 1840s California, unfortunately) but it lends such an interesting dimension to the film. Nobody is ever described as homosexual and no overt homosexual acts occur, yet the unresolved sexual tension is simmering away throughout. During the “manifest destiny” monologue, Colqhoun attempts to persuade Boyd to “just give in”. There’s plenty of talk about “acquiescence” and, truth be told, it all comes off as rather seductive. If you look at this scene in context, there are quite plainly layers to it – at this point in the film, these two men have had multiple conversations about the “certain virility” which comes with the consumption of human flesh, and Colqhoun has licked Boyd’s blood off his fingers and had what I can only describe as a literal orgasm. Robert Carlyle has openly acknowledged the homoeroticism.* Floating round YouTube, there are some great bits of commentary from him and, at 9:52 in this video, he even says: “Go on, kiss him!” when Boyd is gazing down at Colqhoun in the final scene. He talked about it in more depth in this interview from 4:48 onwards and put it absolutely perfectly: “[Colqhoun] doesn’t just want to eat Guy Pearce, he’s going to have Guy Pearce at the same time.” Taboo as it may be, cannibalism is perhaps the most intimate act we can imagine, so it’s no surprise that a film with a single female character (incidentally the only main character to escape unscathed – you go, Martha!) and otherwise populated by men trying to eat each other is more than a little homoerotic.

This could probably be an article in and of itself, but isn’t it weird that all the greatest fiction involving cannibals is wildly homoerotic? Watch NBC’s Hannibal (2013 – 2015) for an obvious example or even Red Dragon (2002), which is still homoerotic AF. Regardless of what the straight boys say, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham have got a lot going on in every single adaptation.

ravenous gif 1

But back to Ravenous. Spirituality and religion crop up enough in this film that the issue warrants mentioning. Although it isn’t explored to its fullest potential, there’s a scene early on in the film which delves into cultural relativity, especially where religion and mythology are concerned. The soldiers prepare to go and assist Colqhoun’s party, who are stranded in the mountains, but before they leave, George (Joseph Running Fox) shows Boyd and Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) a painting of the Wendigo and describes the myth – how the Wendigo steals the strength of others by eating them. Hart remarks that “people don’t still do that”, to which George replies: “The white man eats the body of Christ every Sunday.” Not only is that a pretty chilling line, there’s something damning about it. It’s a brief but smart comment on our perceptions of primitivism and “savagery”; what we consider to be macabre is relative and subjective.

One of the soldiers, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), is described by commanding officer Colonel Hart as being Fort Spencer’s “personal emissary from the Lord”. Although God is invoked at various points throughout the movie and we see crucifixes up on the walls, Toffler is the only character who is explicitly shown to be religious. And, boy, is it hammered home how pious he is. The first thing we see Toffler do on screen is erect a large wooden cross on the roof of a building. Later, he is called upon to say grace at dinner and pray for Colqhoun’s recovery after the soldiers find him near-comatose in the snow. Toffler is really only a minor character, but he plays a crucial role in the portrayal of spirituality here. It wasn’t until I watched the film again that I realised quite how insidious and deceptive Colqhoun manages to be before the big reveal. During the montage of the soldiers making their way through the mountains to rescue Colqhoun’s party, there’s a short scene between Toffler and Colqhoun. Toffler is working on a hymn one night and is struggling to find a rhyme for “servant”. Colqhoun is shown to be listening and he supplies a word, “fervent”. It’s heartbreaking to watch the second time around, seeing how pleased Toffler is and knowing what happens to him. Within the first half of the film, Toffler is murdered (in fact, pretty efficiently eviscerated) by Colqhoun.

Religion’s tangible presence in the plot and in the visuals dies with Toffler, but morality is a near-constant topic of discussion. Colqhoun calls it “the last bastion of the coward” – it becomes clear very quickly that he sees Boyd’s resistance to cannibalism as a mark of inferiority. That’s an interesting little twist which isn’t particularly common. If I’m being honest, I can’t think of another cannibal-themed film in which the cannibal perceives those who don’t partake to be “less than” and is actively encouraging others to join in rather than hunting them down. We could take the Hannibal Lecter franchise, for example. Hannibal deceives people into consuming human flesh, but there’s never a sense in any of his incarnations that he’s trying to indoctrinate them; it just amuses him to trick people. It’s a rare thing that the horror in a cannibal film comes not from the cannibal attempting to kill and eat the protagonist, but from the cannibal attempting to make the protagonist a cannibal too. It’s a very specific kind of horror, a kind which deals with threats to moral integrity moreso than physical safety.

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The last thing I want to discuss is not the film’s plot or its message but its tone. There are some glaring discrepancies between the marketing and the finished product. The trailer seems like it was intended for a different film, conveying the film’s violence but not its wit and philosophy. What’s being sold is something in the style of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe The Hills Have Eyes, when Ravenous is instead a far more intellectual piece. It reminds me a lot of The Grey (2012), another film woefully misrepresented by its marketing. What we were told to expect was an action-packed movie full of manly men doing manly things and Liam Neeson punching a wolf , yet The Grey is a quiet, thoughtful film about bereavement, masculinity and the natural order.

Ravenous was a bit of a car crash behind the scenes, from what I’ve read, changing directors mid-shoot** (twice, actually) and suffering due to some wacky budgeting and scheduling. Antonia Bird, the final director hired and ultimately the one who would see the project through to the end, stated that several elements were introduced to the film without her consent during post-production, such as the quotes which appear on screen at the start of the film. In a 1999 interview for The Independent, Bird said: “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” I agree with her regarding the quotes; they cheapen the message as a whole and it’s probably the only part of the film I have any real problem with. Bird was interested in recutting the film and I think that was a good shout too. The film would have benefited from a re-edit, although I don’t think that should happen now. No-one should touch it except for Antonia Bird and she sadly passed away in 2013. She also made the comment that Americans didn’t “get” the film, struggling to parse its odd blend of horror and humour. I like that it veers back and forth between high camp, gallows humour and balls-to-the-wall gore. It does a bit of everything and I really enjoy that.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me for the duration of this article. You can probably tell how passionate I am about this film from the fact that I’ve written over 2,000 words about it. I’ve been working on this since 28th January of this year, gradually editing it. In the interim, I’ve watched Ravenous multiple times and, after each viewing, I’ve come back to this article and added or changed something. That’s the magic of this film. I could watch it a thousand times and always feel that I was watching something innovative and, in my opinion, beautiful.

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*It brings me so much joy that Robert Carlyle is 100% on board the “Ravenous is homoerotica with cannibalism” train. He gets it.

**They were going to hire the guy who directed such masterpieces as Home Alone 3, Big Momma’s House and Scooby-Doo. No, really, they were. I’m not kidding. The actors went on strike and Robert Carlyle gave Antonia Bird a call, thank Goddess.

I have no doubt that I’ll write more about Ravenous in the future, because there’s so much to unpack. But this will do as a starting point.