Review: “Unexplained”, Richard Maclean Smith

I picked up Unexplained: Supernatural Stories for Uncertain Times while out shopping last week – it was a bit of an impulse buy, admittedly, but I’m really glad it caught my eye. I bought it under the impression that it was a collection of ghost stories (based on the title and cover); however, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Unexplained is an interesting combination of spooky storytelling and sceptical analysis.

The book is based on Maclean Smith’s acclaimed podcast of the same name, which I wasn’t previously aware of. I’m not a great lover of podcasts but I’d certainly give it a go. It sounds as though it takes a similar approach to the book, an approach which I appreciated and found refreshing. He leaves each mystery as open-ended as possible, dealing thoroughly with a range of explanations but never pushing one conclusion over another. While the author is upfront about his atheism, he’s a fantastic storyteller and definitely conveyed his enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The author strikes a great balance between relating the accounts of unexplained encounters while also making the book very personal. He starts with his own grandad’s experience – which I won’t repeat because it’s such a fascinating tale to read, it’s worth buying the book just for that – and the result is an incredibly engaging book that could have become cold and clinical if poorly handled. I appreciated the dedication in the acknowledgements too; Maclean Smith writes that he hopes he has written respectfully about the individuals whose tragic deaths are explored in the book. Too often, paranormal enthusiasts forget the real people behind the mysteries and, knowing that, my heart sank a little when I realised that the Elisa Lam case is examined in this book. Her death at the Cecil Hotel in 2013 took the internet by storm, especially when footage of her in a lift, hours before her death, was made public. I recall how upsetting it was to see all the armchair analysis of her behaviour in the YouTube comments, so I was impressed with how sensitively the section about her death was written. It was lovely to read a paranormal-themed book which was socially conscious.

As for the tales themselves, I already knew of a few (hard not to when you actively seek out spooky sh!t). That said, each was so meticulously researched and presented a clear account. I had heard of the Dybbuk Box, but it has had so many owners that it’s often difficult to keep track of what happened when and to whom if you research it. The author managed to string the various stages and strands of the saga together so well.

The section on Skinwalker Ranch is spectacularly scary. I’m not sure why that chapter in particular frightened me so much, but I thought it was brilliant.

If you’re looking for a straightforward anthology of terrifying tales, you’d certainly still enjoy Unexplained, although I think it’s more suited to those with an interest in the “how” and “why” of extraordinary encounters. If you’re interested in the psychology which may lie behind many paranormal experiences, I’d highly recommend it.

Links

Episodes, Unexplained Podcast

Download links: iTunes, Soundcloud

Twitter / Facebook

Hannah Verdier, Is Unexplained the world’s spookiest podcast? (2017, The Guardian)

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!!!!

Creative Writing: “Wings”

This is the second of the two pieces I’ve saved from my now-deleted WritersCafe account; it’s also the closest to “horror” of the two. I hesitate to call it “horror” because I think it takes a lot of skill to write horror and I’m not sure I have (or ever had) quite the ability. I wrote this in November 2014.

WINGS

The battlefield is silent now.

A pale and eerie mist has descended, encompassing the expanse of grass and dirt like a funerary shroud. Second Lieutenant James Lerwick lies under it, sharing it with his comrades, the damp of the ground beneath him soaking through his uniform.

The quiet is so unnatural that he wonders if he is dead yet.

Tentatively, James spreads the fingers of his left hand. They are numb but functioning, as are those on his right hand, so he tries to struggle into a sitting position. Fiery, sharp pain sears through both his legs and he whimpers. The explosion flung him like a child’s ragdoll. He wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the bones of his legs have shattered; they certainly feel like it. He is stuck.

His eyes are burning with tears. He prays – not an infrequent gesture this year – that someone will find him. Some luckier soul will be blundering through the mist over the battlefield, searching for other survivors, and see him here in the mud. Maybe his prayers are futile, but he has survived so far on faith alone and he isn’t willing to give up now.

“Help!” he shouts into the gloom, “Help me!”

Then he listens, for the splash of boots in the mud or even – though he doesn’t quite dare to hope – a response.

But nothing happens.

His lower lip is trembling and he has to fight the urge to break down and cry. If he is going to die, he might as well go with dignity, the way his mother would have wanted. It is hard not to weep when he thinks of her anticipating his next letter in vain. James clears his throat and calls out again. His heart is pounding, like the rumble of war drums.

The skies overhead are darkening as he waits. James is losing sight of the bodies around him and panic sets in. How will anyone find him now?  He glances at his watch and squints at its grimy face to find that it is nearing 8 o’clock in the evening. He has no idea how long he has been slumped here. He watches the seconds tick by until 8 o’clock passes. His mind is drifting and perfectly blank.

The silence is broken by the harsh croak of a raven. It startles James. He can see the murky shadow of the bird circling overhead, its wings outstretched. The raven swoops down and lands elegantly a few feet away. James has never seen one up close; they are truly massive birds. From its beak to the tips of its tail-feathers, it must measure at least the length of his forearm, if not more. Its feathers are smooth and dark, but its eyes are darker. He has never seen a creature with less emotion in its eyes. It is almost human in its apathy. It looks up into the sky and James follows its gaze.

Two more ravens are approaching. One lands beside the first, but the last raven hurtles to the ground and collides with its fellow birds. The second raven squawks. They squabble noisily, comical in their fury. If he were not in his present situation, James might have laughed.

“Alastor, ‘ave you lost your mind?!” James is elated at the sound of a voice. Finally, someone has found him! He surveys the surrounding area, seeking out the silhouette of his saviour.

He sees no-one. There is no-one emerging from the fog, no-one stumbling over the uneven ground.

Then he realises.

The voice came from the ravens.

He is convinced that he is hallucinating. That is the only possible explanation. In his pain and desperation, he has imagined a voice. It could even be the shock.

“I was distracted!” This voice sounds younger than the first, more uneasy. It reminds him of his own voice when they first handed him his gun. It sounds so real and close that he doubts himself.

Dread in his heart, he turns back to the ravens. They are hopping about, plucking at the uniforms of the dead. He remembers hearing that ravens are scavengers. He has never witnessed them feasting though. The sight of them plunging their beaks into flesh and tearing it away, spraying blood in all directions, makes bile rise in his throat.

One of the ravens lands on his chest. He can feel its talons digging in, even through layers of clothing. He tries to knock it away, tries to scare it off with a yell, but he can’t move. He is paralysed by some unseen and unknown force. The smell of decay, of sickness, rolls off the raven in pungent waves.

“I think we have a live one, boys.” It has a soft, insidious voice, like the silk of a murderess’ gown over floorboards, and James decides this must be the first raven, the imperious one, the one who seemed to know exactly what it was doing.

Oh Christ, he thinks. Whatever you are, please don’t hurt me.

“Been ages since we’ve ‘ad summat fresh,” The second raven mutters. It joins the first, settling on the other side of his ribcage. Its beak is smeared with blood from its meal. The third raven stands behind them both, an eyeball on a string of crimson sinew dangling from its beak. The iris is brown, the pupil still dilated with fear. It tilts its head back and starts to swallow the eye in revolting gulps. If he could move, James would vomit.

“Surely you mean someone fresh?” The first raven says slyly, and the three cackle in unison.

James knows for certain in that moment, with the trio of ravens laughing raucously on his chest, that he is going to die tonight. Not at the hands of the enemy, but under the claws of these birds from Hell.

 

Creative Writing: “Samhain Night”

I recently closed my account on WritersCafe.org, having been inactive there for quite some time, but I did salvage a couple of pieces of short spooky fiction which I’d written.

This was written for a Halloween competition at my school library in October 2014. Of the two I’ve chosen to keep, this is less like true “horror” fiction – I hope it’s still a fun read and as creepy as 15-year-old me thought it was when I wrote it.

SAMHAIN NIGHT

This is the night that, in ancient times, we called Samhain. It was the time when we led the cattle back from their pastures and gathered in the harvest. We lit our bonfires to banish the cold. Even now, the leaves fall like hanged men, carpeting the ground in crisp brown layers. The days become shorter, the nights longer. It marks the descent into the dark half of the year. Relief will come in bright February, on the day we once called Imbolc, but we must always wait.

This is the night when our world and the Otherworld are no longer separate. The line between them is blurred; the veil is lifted. This is the night when spirits pass between them, unencumbered, walking amongst the living but leaving no footprints. They are the spirits of those who came before us. They are wise now, for they have seen into the mist of the beyond, into the other side. On this night, souls can return to their earthly homes for the evening. Those who do are the lucky ones.  They can see the ones they used to love, be within the walls of a house once more. They can silently soothe grief, easing heartache with their numbing touch.

But there are spirits who return with a purpose.

No longer mortal and imbued with the knowledge of the Otherworld, some visit not to comfort but to foreshadow. They know who is destined to join them. The banshee comes as a messenger, her pallid flesh as white as her tattered gown. She wails and keens on Samhain night, her screech so piercing that it shatters glass. She howls the names of those about to die. Some say she weeps for them in sorrow, as a mother would. Some say hers is a siren’s song, luring them to the Otherworld.  In a beautiful maiden’s guise, she beckons them with her bony fingers and they follow willingly. There are tales of spirits who sit at the riverside, washing the blood-stained armour of damned warriors. They sing, like washerwomen at work, as they soak the clothes that each brave knight is doomed to die wearing.

These spirits cannot harm, nor can they change what is predestined to be; they can only forewarn and accompany mortals into the Otherworld.

Some spirits are not so kind. The banshee’s counterpart, the bavanshee, leaves the Otherworld only to hunt. For one night, she pursues human prey. Although her green garb of the finest silk and her ethereal beauty are notorious, more infamous still is the unearthly origin of such splendour. She lurks at the edge of abandoned paths through the woods. She is a patient predator. Should a lonely young traveller lose their way, she sidles out from the shadows. Her smile is beautiful but careful, and it hides her teeth.  What teeth they are – fangs like sacrificial blades. As the trusting traveller approaches, her grin widens and she pounces, feasting on blood until the light of dawn graces the earth.

From the west come the eternally restless slua. Rejected by the earth itself, unwelcome in the Otherworld, they are condemned to wander as penance for their sins. They leave naught but destruction in their wake. Crops fail as they pass; livestock perish in their grazing-fields. If they find a window unlocked on Samhain night, they creep in. They cast scarcely a shadow. They hunger for pure souls, to wear as they would a cloak, so that they might be accepted into the Otherworld. Lingering in a cursed crowd, they appear to some as thick fog or a murder of crows at a crossroads.

The presence of spirits is to be feared on Samhain.  But worse still is the emergence of the ancient one, the darkest deity of the old religion. They call him the crooked god, the king of the burial mound, the death of summer. The Otherworld is his domain, and he rules with an iron fist. His powers are tenfold that of the wandering spirits. On Samhain night, our world is his domain.

His name is Crom Cruach. On Samhain night, he is free.

 

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.

jersey-devil-animal-planet

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.”

220px-Jersey_Devil_Philadelphia_Post_1909

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.

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(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

“The Sarah Jane Adventures” now available on iPlayer!

Great news if you watched CBBC religiously in the early 2000s – The Sarah Jane Adventures is available on BBC iPlayer for the next two months! All 53 episodes of the sci-fi series are free to watch if you’re in the UK and have a TV license.

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For those who missed out the first time around, The Sarah Jane Adventures was a spin-off of Doctor Who, aimed at a younger audience (not to suggest that kids don’t watch Doctor Who; there’s just less pressure on Who to be child-friendly). I loved it as a kid and it’s so nostalgic – it started in 2007 and it looks it, seriously. All the Nokia phones, the televisions covered in stickers, the outfits. It’s everything I remember and more.

Sarah-Jane Smith has been a major influence on me. I definitely wanted to be like her when I was little and still do. I loved SJA for lots of reasons, but a big one for me was that this was the first depiction of a character with divorced parents that I ever saw in a kids’ programme. I never saw a family that was anything like mine and seeing that Maria – one of the main characters – had a similar home life to me was pretty revolutionary. It’s obviously the norm now, but at the time, I was used to only seeing children who lived with both parents on TV so it was hugely significant. I also think it’s lovely that Elisabeth Sladen has left behind this truly brilliant series, part of a wonderful legacy. It seems a fitting tribute to give a new generation the opportunity to watch it.

Now all the BBC have to do is release every episode of Young Dracula and my life will be complete. Do that challenge.

Start with the first episode Invasion of the Bane here.

Lunar Files #4: The Beast of Bray Road

This is the fourth installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

The woods around the city of Elkhorn, like those throughout much of Wisconsin, are dense and teeming with wildlife. But since 1936, eyewitnesses have been reporting something unexpected and inexplicable out there in the rural Midwest. The creature has been spotted sprinting across roads and darting into the forest and most witnesses only get a split-second glance at it before it vanishes.

The story of the Beast of Bray Road became a matter of public interest in the early 1990s. Journalist Linda Godfrey published an article for the local newspaper in Delavan, Wisconsin, on 29th December 1991. She believed it – the tale of an unknown canid kneeling by the side of the road – to be “sort of a throwaway story for a slow news week” and initially thought little of it. Upon releasing the article, she began to receive hundreds of messages, full of strange accounts about wolfmen and canids which stood on two legs. You can see Godfrey’s original sketches here and here (I want to avoid posting them here for copyright purposes – they are Godfrey’s intellectual property, after all). She has gone on to write over 16 books about unexplained encounters and, although the peak of the sightings was between 1990 and 1992, the Beast of Bray Road has remained a prominent part of local culture.

On Godfrey’s blog, she suggests that what she calls “the Manwolf” is most frequently seen between 10:30pm and 5am, with most sightings occurring between August and October. This is when the cornfields are at their highest, allowing almost anything to lurk out there. The creature earned its epithet from the many sightings along Bray Road, a short stretch of rural road outside Elkhorn, although Godfrey and others believe this particular “beast” to be one of many inhabiting the Midwest and possibly the wider United States.

You can get a feel for what Bray Road is like from this video, a 5-minute tour of the route by Donna Fink:

 

Even in daylight, the road seems isolated and eerie, sparsely lined with farmhouses. It’s not hard to see why a creature aiming to stay hidden would select such a spot to settle down. According to the sightings, the Beast of Bray Road appears to live off roadkill, small animals and whatever it can find in people’s backyards. It has never harmed anyone – in fact, the beast does its best to avoid contact with humans – but its size makes it a formidable sight.

Although we are no closer to understanding what kind of beast makes its home near Bray Road, public interest has not died down. Just last month, I saw a Facebook post by the National Cryptid Society about a strange sighting of a wolf walking on its hind legs on Townline Road, Elkhorn: “A wolf that “ran across the street almost like a man.” That’s what Danny Morgan said was the “craziest thing I’ve ever seen” in an e-mail to WTMJ sister station TODAY’S TMJ4.” Wolves may walk on their hind legs if they have sustained significant injuries to their front legs, but the photo included with the article is bizarre. Lon Strickler, a spokesperson for Phantoms and Monsters, elaborated with further details from the witness: “He noticed the wolf in the cornfield… His camera was handy, because he had never seen a wolf in the wild. He slowed… and when the wolf approached the road it stood up on 2 legs and walked quickly across the road. He said it walked just like any human would… [it] didn’t stumble or look awkward. The wolf was also swinging its front legs, like a human walking.” Take a look at the original post here and at a full analysis by the National Cryptid Society here. Hoax or not, the interest in this case demonstrates that Dogman or Wolfman sightings are still a hot topic in the Midwest.

Let me conclude by saying I have no evidence to prove or disprove the existence of the Beast of Bray Road, or, for that matter, the existence of any of the creatures I write about in this series. But it’s a story I’ve casually followed for a few years and I look forward to reading about new sightings and studying the latest pieces of photographic evidence.

No-one ever knows quite what they’ll see when they’re driving along Bray Road at night.

Further reading:

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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