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.

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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.

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“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

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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)

Why “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) Is Powerful

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers regarding The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve done my best to talk about the film in general and avoid discussing specific plot points, but some may have slipped through the net.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is the greatest film ever made. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it’s the only Best Picture winner, as of 2018, considered a horror film). It’s also one of the most iconic films of Western culture, quoted and parodied so often that many people recognise its dialogue instantly without having watched it themselves.

Loving it as I do, I can’t help but question: just why did it resonate so strongly with me? Why has it endured? And has it really aged as well as we might like to believe?

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I believe Silence is still as chilling today as it was 27 years ago. Much of this is owed to the cinematography: it is, above all else, a highly intelligent piece of film-making. More than that, it’s a very empathetic film which is a difficult thing to achieve with a crime thriller. There’s the potential for lurid fetishisation of femicide and, while I’m not suggesting Silence doesn’t occasionally fall into that trap, it’s a much more sensitive film than you might expect. If you’ve seen Silence before, I challenge you to watch it again and take note of every close-up on Clarice’s face throughout the film. You might be surprised by how often it occurs if you keep a tally. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend watching it and trying the same exercise. Really look at her expression and think about how it makes you feel. Something else to watch out for is the focus on how male characters treat Clarice. Another active-watching exercise to try is to make a note of every time a male character flirts with, harasses, dismisses or ogles Clarice. The film makes it clear that the manner in which “ordinary” “good” men talk about and treat women directly enables acts of violence against women, linking them thematically. All the men in the film – even the “good” men like Jack Crawford – reinforce sexist stereotypes in some way and they have ulterior (often sexual) motives. One of the things I love about this film is that we are encouraged, if not forced, to engage with misogyny and the objectification of women. You’re never allowed to see the murdered women as simply bodies; you’re never allowed to see Clarice or any other women as eye-candy. Every time you slip, Silence reminds you. This is what you’re enabling. This is the progression of your attitudes about women. I think it’s ingenious that the film-makers managed to weave this analysis of the male gaze – first posited by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s – into the narrative and makes us aware of the voyeurism inherent across cinema.

Although Lecter is superficially the star of the show – and I don’t wish to take away from Anthony Hopkins’ performance here, because it is stellar on every level – it’s Clarice who is the more interesting character. For all that Lecter is hyped up, a creature of monstrous intellect and appetites, he has the same base sexual motivations as every other man in the film. Writing for BBC Culture in 2017, Nicholas Barber argued that “… Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy… He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.” The film doesn’t present Lecter’s harassment of Agent Starling as titillating; she’s evidently disgusted but she doesn’t let it faze her. Silence manages to trick the audience effectively. It’s not just a crime thriller revolving around the mind of a genius psychopath and using women as sexy, lifeless props. It deals with what it’s like to be the sexy, lifeless prop. It’s a reflection on what it’s like to be stared at, every day of your life, from the moment you start maturing into a woman.

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Despite being a triumphant work of cinema in terms of its representation of women, the film was not without its detractors upon release. Much of the controversy hinges on the film’s portrayal of its antagonist, Jame Gumb, a serial killer known by the moniker Buffalo Bill. Some have argued that Buffalo Bill is a homophobic caricature, although I don’t think this was deliberate and, as with anything, gay men will have their personal opinion on whether it’s offensive or not. It’s worth noting, though, that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993) which deals with the AIDS crisis and homophobia. He took the criticism of the film by organisations like ACT-UP and Queer Nation personally and very seriously: “At first, Demme was defiant of the protests. In 1991, he told Film Comment, “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” He described the killer as “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism[…]” To be fair, Demme is correct—in the movie, Hannibal Lecter posits that Gumb apes qu**r and trans people because they’re the most outré, far-off identities he can imagine—the ultimate escape.” (Bloomer, Slate: 2017) One could argue the film makes use of homophobic stereotypes and tropes, but only insofar that Bill is making use of those cliches in order to cultivate this “other” identity. Dennis Stone wrote an interesting article for New Millenial Gay Experience and I thought this was a particularly incisive quote: “I did not see a gay character. Rather, I saw a psychopath, someone whose entire being was warped by his past, someone who was so outside the realm of decency and “humanity” that every action and attribute were beyond conventional interpretation. Even in 1991 I was aware of fluidity and context in relation to sexuality. Bill may have had one or more male lovers, but for me that did not make him gay in any meaningful sense.

Many modern analyses of the film criticise its “dated” perspective on trans issues, something I’ve always found a bit baffling. It is established during a conversation between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter that Bill is not a “transsexual” (this was the 90s, remember) but only believes he is. Instead, he has been pathologised to hate himself and is uncomfortable with his own identity, whatever that may truly be. I’ve always interpreted the idea of Buffalo Bill being trans as something of a red herring when, in fact, the issue at hand is male violence and male entitlement to the use of women’s bodies. I see Bill’s skinning of women as an extension of other men’s sexist attitudes in the film, taken right to the extreme – not just using women’s bodies for sex or for visual pleasure but physically making use of their body parts. Bill doesn’t see women as fully human – he’s not cutting up men in order to try on their skins and be someone different – and nor do men in general. If anything, I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the film as a whole if you consider Buffalo Bill to be a comment on or a reflection of gay men or the trans community. I find the accusations of transphobia especially bizarre when it’s explicitly stated that Gumb isn’t transgender. Stone went on to argue in his review that we are only concerned about how gay and trans people are represented in the film because we have not progressed into full acceptance of LGBT people: We are still too sensitive and too insecure and too reactive for what I would consider a “correct” understanding of the movie.I don’t think we should let our own knee-jerk reactions to a film made almost 30 years ago get in the way of its important message about sex-based oppression.

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Despite the emphasis on the impact of misogyny on women, Clarice Starling has so much agency in Silence and that’s what makes it brilliant. She’s no rebel, sticking to the protocol she’s been taught, but she speaks up and she fights back in every way she can. In “The Silence of the Lambs” and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme, Willow McClay states: “The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.” (McClay, The Film Stage: 2017) Clarice is a feminist heroine, an ordinary working-class woman who battles her way into a man’s world and yet never loses her compassion. In an environment in which she’s treated like shit for being female, Clarice’s existence as a woman is her greatest strength. And that’s what thrilled me most about The Silence of the Lambs.

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Further reading

Controversial Opinions: Round 1 of ???

Oh, you already know this is gonna be a good one. Get ready to nod your head or throw your laptop/mobile phone/iPad/other technological device pushed on you by capitalist brainwashing out of the window. You’re either going to love me or hate me by the end of this.

Unsolved Mysteries

  1. A number of conspiracy theories – especially those to do with the Illuminati and the New World Order – are just an excuse for racism and especially for anti-Semitism. Think a powerful global force is conspiring to enslave you? According to an unfortunately large proportion of conspiracy theorists, it’s probably the Jews.

This is, of course, utter nonsense, but the Jewish diaspora have been a convenient scapegoat for hundreds of years. Jewish communities have been marginalised and segregated, they have been exiled and persecuted, and now purported “truth-seekers” are wheeling out the same old tired stereotypes to justify their ill-founded theories. The stereotype that Jewish people are money-grabbing Shylocks is sadly still prevalent. There is a historical basis for the association between Jewish communities and finance: “Jews have long been well-represented in the fields of finance and business. This is commonly attributed to the fact that for centuries, Jews were excluded from professional guilds and denied the right to own land, forcing them to work as merchants and financiers. However some academics contend that the historical evidence does not support this thesis and that Jewish financial success is instead due to the community’s high literacy rates.” (My Jewish Learning) However, it is the idea of some modern corporate entity which we can handily label “The Jews” (capital letters intentional) controlling the planet’s economy that is so bigoted and unpleasant. The Jewish population is not manipulating your bank account, dumbo, and they aren’t conspiring to take over the world.

2. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. I know, I know – it’s a cardinal sin not to parrot that timeless adage: “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” But I’ve never felt the need to assert that the 2001 tragedy was a controlled demolition, a warmongering tactic by the American government or actually done by the Israelis (it was not). Is the US government corrupt and withholding information from the public? Yes in all likelihood, as are most other governments on the face of the planet, including my own. 9/11 is a terrifying piece of collective trauma as it is.

Dick Cheney definitely made money off the Iraq War, though. (NY Times, 2004)

3. The cryptozoology community on Tumblr isn’t an inherently negative thing. Yes, Tumblr is full of cringey, pretentious teenagers with made-up genders and bad haircuts, but I was one of those teenagers once upon a time. Believe it or not, if you wade through the shitposting, there are some wonderful young cryptozoologists active on there who I admire very much, like cryptid-wendigo and cryptozoologygirls. They work hard and they seem like lovely people.

And even the shitposting serves a purpose. I’m part of a whole new generation of people invested in the field of cryptozoology and fascinated by what could be out there. Isn’t that beautiful?

4. I’ll call out racism in this community till the day I die (see this article), but I don’t think the ancient astronaut/ancient alien theory is racist. I’ve seen a fair bit of criticism recently – although it’s been going on for years – arguing that ancient astronaut theorists are racist for positing that our ancestors might have made contact and received help from extra-terrestrials. Whether you wholeheartedly believe in the AA theory or think it’s a crock of shit, I think it’s ludicrous to imply it is inherently prejudiced. AA theorists don’t believe that extra-terrestrials might have built the Giza pyramid complex because Egyptians weren’t white, but because the pyramids were built nearly 5,000 years ago and yet they align with the stars perfectly. Another oft-cited example is the prehistoric structure of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. It is clearly a matter of age and technology, not race and technology.

Horror

  1. I don’t like torture porn or excessive gore in horror films. It’s why I never “got” the Saw franchise or The Human Centipede sequence. I know people bang on and on about how “crazy” and “revolutionary” they are, but films of that type are rarely saying anything intelligent, in my humble opinion. That’s not to say I’m opposed to violence in the horror genre; I just think it needs to serve a purpose.

It’s why I object less to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) than I do to A Serbian Film (2010). Salò is transgressive and never loses sight of its message. It is a pessimistic reaction to the sexual revolution, depicted through its setting in fascist Italy: “[Pasolini] was especially contemptuous of the sexual liberation movement undertaken by late-60s international youth, viewing that aspiration as a bourgeois indulgence already compromised by capitalism…” (Sharrett, 2013) It is cruel and you should feel uncomfortable watching it, but it is a well-made, thoughtful piece of cinema. A Serbian Film is just nasty, with a bit of political commentary about post-Milošević Serbia tacked on the end for good measure.

I’d love to say nothing is off-limits in horror – I wish I was one of those people, but I simply am not. I have to draw a line.

2. The horror genre has a massive sexism problem. I’m going to get shit for saying this, because horror fans are some of the most zealous in the world and we can’t cope with criticism. Women’s bodies are still used like sexy props in horror films. We see women die in the most brutal of ways – as do men – but men’s deaths are rarely, if ever, sexualised to the same extent as women’s.

This is not to say female characters should never die on-screen. However, I would like to see some acknowledgement that women are murdered in their thousands in real life. Around 66,000 women are killed every year globally (Small Arms Survey on Femicide, 2017) and four women die every single day in the US, simply for being female. The lurid portrayal of femicide in horror films trivialises and fetishises this.

Truly great horror films have strong messages and speak to our deepest fears, and I think a talented horror filmmaker should be able to do this without commodifying women’s bodies. There have been some fantastic films over the course of the genre’s history which have utilised aspects of the female experience to create horror and have done so in a sensitive, smart way. We need more of that.

 

So there we go! I’m going to go and hide in the bunker until everything blows over. Feel free to boo and hiss in the comments.

 

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Scooby-Doo Direct-to-Video Movies (1998 – 2008), Definitively Ranked

I’ve compiled a playlist of bangin’ Scooby-Doo tunes to listen to while you read (here).

I love the Scooby-Doo movies and I’m not ashamed of it. The direct-to-video movies almost singlehandedly resurrected the franchise. Sounds dramatic? Time for a history lesson, then.

By the mid-1990s, Scooby-Doo had changed hands several times. Turner Entertainment bought Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1991 and Hanna-Barbera became a subsidiary of Warner Bros. after Time Warner and Turner Entertainment merged in 1996. When the TV series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo ended in 1991, a TV movie, Scooby-Doo in: Arabian Nights, followed in 1994, but no new Scooby-Doo episodes were being produced. Instead, the franchise’s popularity (and profits) relied upon reruns on Cartoon Network and Boomerang.

Enter the first direct-to-video movie.

Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. teamed up, aiming to create one new Scooby-Doo movie every year. Their strategy was simple: advertise on other VHS tapes and get the kids excited, keep costs low by releasing the film straight onto video and, crucially, reinvent the gang without losing its nostalgic value.

It worked. 29 direct-to-video movies have been made so far, with a 30th addition to the canon due for release this year. These films were an integral part of my childhood, to the extent that I partially credit them with my passion for the paranormal.

In tribute, today I’m ranking the first 12 direct-to-video movies. I may one day rank all 30, but these are the 12 films which I vividly remember watching as a child.

Spoilers are in yellow parentheses like [this]. Highlight it with your cursor to read the spoiler.

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12) Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! (2007)

While certainly not the worst of the series, Chill Out somewhat spelled the end of the “classic” era for me. They clawed it back a bit with Goblin King (which we’ll discuss in a few entries’ time); however, Chill Out just wasn’t quite as strong as the earlier films.

It works just fine as a kids’ movie and it’s entertaining enough, but the humour is a bit more inane and it doesn’t transcend the label of “kids’ movie” in the same way as some of the others on this list. I didn’t personally care for it that much, even when I was younger.

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11) Aloha, Scooby-Doo! (2005)

Aloha is another one that never really appealed to me. I liked it well enough the first time I saw it, but it didn’t draw me in like some of the others. I’d watch it if it was on TV, yet I never found myself desperate to see it again. It’s an interesting choice of setting and the plot is a bit different, which is always welcome. Even the monster design is distinct and spooky, although it never scared me as a kid.

10) Scooby-Doo and the Monster of Mexico (2003)

I had a real internal debate about whether to put Monster of Mexico or Goblin King in tenth place. In the end, Goblin King is a better film on a technical level, even if Monster of Mexico is my favourite out of the two. I have to at least appear to be objective.

Massive pro of this film: the music is really good. And even if el Chupacabra isn’t quite depicted the way it is in Latin American folklore, there’s an attempt to be culturally accurate and capture a sense of setting. You can’t really expect culturally sensitive analysis of mythology from a Scooby-Doo movie, but nothing in Monster of Mexico is outrageously offensive. It’s a lot of fun.

9) Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King (2008)

Goblin King surprised me. After seven films which utilised the age-old formula of the bad guy in a mask, Goblin King incorporated supernatural elements and there’s real threat throughout, which I didn’t expect from it. Tim Curry portrays the eponymous foe and he’s always amazing, so that completely elevates the film.

It also reminds me a lot of the TV movies from the 1980s, like Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf  (1988) or Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School (also 1988). Scooby and Shaggy kind of do their own thing in those TV specials; you don’t see the rest of the gang. Fred, Daphne and Velma are in Goblin King, but the focus is very much on Scooby and Shaggy. I think that can be quite refreshing; it scales things down a bit.

8) Scooby-Doo in: Where’s My Mummy? (2005)

Where’s My Mummy? essentially borrows its entire plot from the 1999 film The Mummy, to the point that one of the minor characters is voiced by Oded Fehr, who played the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. I adore The Mummy, so I was never mad about it. We also get some cool scenes of Velma doing… archaeology, I guess? She’s helping reconstruct the Sphinx and wearing ancient jewellery round the camp, which I don’t believe is considered to be best practice among historians. Anyway, what do I know? It’s pointless trying to critique this film for playing fast and loose with history.

It’s a legitimately exciting film though, which is why I ranked it eighth. I feel like I’ve mentioned the soundtracks to these movies a lot, but this is another one with a fabulous score. The key chase scene is accompanied by this bizarre jazz song called Mummy’s Rags and Riches. It’s kooky and I love it.

7) Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster (2004)

Oh boy, Loch Ness Monster is one hell of a Scooby-Doo flick. It captures all sides of the cryptozoology debate, in that the gang are investigating the case, but so are an amateur cryptozoologist and a professor of natural history.

It’s painfully Scottish (or, at least, Scottish as seen from an American perspective). It’s set during a Highland games event, for goodness’ sake, and the main chase scene is accompanied by a lively tune that features some prominent fiddle-playing. There’s plenty of bagpipe interludes too. We also get to meet Daphne’s Scottish cousin who, for whatever reason, bears the distinctly Irish name Shannon. Couldn’t they find anything more obviously Scottish? Mhairi, maybe? Iona?

Despite its cringeworthy Scottish cultural references, the plot is better than many of the films previous mentioned on this list. It also has a really fun ending [– Velma notes that she’s glad they never proved or disproved the monster’s existence, because “Some mysteries are better left unsolved.” The film ends with Scooby spotting what could just be the Loch Ness Monster swimming past them.]

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6) Scooby-Doo: Pirates Ahoy! (2006)

Pirates Ahoy! is another one that surprised me. I saw it again more recently and I was shocked by how enjoyable and “watchable” it was. Ron Perlman and Dan Castellaneta are in this one, something I never noticed as a child but was delighted to realise upon rewatching.

It takes place in the Bermuda Triangle; the gang are on a mystery cruise with Fred’s parents. An eerie fog engulfs the ship and the gang are kidnapped by ghost pirates, who are seeking a golden meteor which fell into the ocean years ago. It all culminates in an enormous maelstrom, so it’s sort of like a low-budget, animated Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Yes, it’s a bit silly, but aren’t all of the films on this list kind of daft? I look pretty ridiculous reviewing these as an adult woman.

5) Scooby-Doo and the Legend of the Vampire (2003)

This was the first of the direct-to-video movies to return to the franchise’s original format: the villain is a crook in a suit rather than a supernatural foe. Despite this, Legend of the Vampire scared me the most as a child (I had a real phobia of vampires as a kid – it took a while for me to get to the stage where I understood that they’re not real). This isn’t an excuse, but the character designs for the vampires in this film are legitimately quite a lot to handle for a kid, particularly the “head” vampire, the Yowie-Yahoo (allegedly an ancient Aboriginal myth…).

This was the second outing for The Hex Girls – we’ll chat more about them later – and the music in this film is fantastic. It’s super catchy; be warned that you won’t be able to get Woah, Get Away, Yeah! out of your head once you see the chase scene. Props to Holland Greco for that song. It was a perfect choice, even though I couldn’t watch that chase scene as a kid without my hands over my face.

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4) Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001)

It’s entertaining to watch this now, knowing how much of a crazy notion it was at the time that you could transport yourself into a video game. As a kid who only used the computer to play literacy puzzles on a CD-ROM (imagine that) and never dreamed that I might one day own a computer that could fit in my hand, it blew me away. In a modern world where you only need to slip on a pair of goggles to venture into virtual reality, Cyber Chase seems so quaint and nostalgic, but I think it has retained its magic.

Out of all the Scooby-Doo movies, Cyber Chase is the one which was most obviously influenced by pop culture. There’s a touch of Jumanji in there, a dash of The Matrix, more than a hint of Tron. It’s a really great adventure movie. I don’t think it was ever the best of these direct-to-video movies, but there are a lot of good things about it. The plot makes sense (mostly), the soundtrack is cool and we get loads of references to past eras of Scooby-Doo – the video game that the gang are sucked into is based on all their adventures, after all. Cyber Chase is the film that most expertly handles the fickle friend that is nostalgia.

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3) Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost (1999)

Most folks look fondly upon Witch’s Ghost and I’m one of them. It introduced the musical phenomenon we mortals call The Hex Girls, who “play” some incredible songs throughout the movie. I’m still a bit peeved that no marketing team ever thought to produce a Hex Girls CD, because you can bet your butt I’d have had that on my Christmas list. I think The Hex Girls probably inspired my interest in Wicca and witchcraft. Thorn, the lead singer, is “part Wiccan” and has “Wiccan blood” (although that doesn’t make any sense because Wicca isn’t an ethnicity). By and large, it isn’t a bad portrayal of Wiccans or witches, just a flawed and cliched one.

Witch’s Ghost also features the majestic Tim Curry (his first outing in a Scooby-Doo movie) as Ben Ravencroft, the descendant of the falsely-accused witch Sarah [spoiler: she wasn’t actually falsely accused]. That’s another thing that I’m always surprised to recall about these movies – they starred actual big-name actors. Then again, Tim was in that Worst Witch adaptation from the 80s that looked like it had a budget of roughly £10, so maybe this isn’t saying a lot.

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2) Scooby-Doo and the Alien Invaders (2000)

I know, I know – ranking Alien Invaders above Witch’s Ghost is a controversial move, but I feel it’s one I have to make. Alien Invaders is silly and fun, yet there’s a beautiful sentiment about friendship and solidarity at the heart of it which I don’t think Witch’s Ghost quite captures. Shaggy falls in love with Crystal, who shares his hippy outlook on life, but at the end of the movie, they are forced to part ways [spoiler alert: Crystal is revealed to be the real alien of the film and must go home]. Instead of being a dick about it, Shaggy realises he was lucky to spend time with her and they’ve cultivated a beautiful friendship, and he accepts that she has to leave. Damn, wouldn’t it be nice if all men were like that. Alien Invaders even manages to have a genuinely surprising twist [: initially, the aliens are proved to be a hoax. But the film concludes with the revelation that Shaggy and Scooby’s love interests, Crystal and Amber, were the real aliens all along].

It’s snarky in a really fun way too. For example, in one scene, one of the main antagonists (Steve, voiced by Mark Hamill) tells the gang: “It’s nothing personal, you just know too much.”

Fred responds: “Yeah, that’s always our problem.” If that exchange doesn’t sum up everything that’s good about the Scooby-Doo franchise, I don’t know what does.

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And the best direct-to-video Scooby-Doo movie is…

Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998)

God, what can I say about Zombie Island? It’s not just the best Scooby-Doo film; it’s a great film in its own right. If it wasn’t an animated film and the humour was pitched to a slightly older audience, it could pass for a solid horror movie. That’s not to say it’s inappropriate for kids, because I know for a fact that I loved this film when I was a child. It’s just a little more mature in its themes and its plot than the Scooby-Doo series of the 1970s and 1980s.

It was also the first of the direct-to-video films to be made. It introduced a relatively new twist to the franchise: the idea that, this time, the monsters are real. It’s cynical – at the start, the gang have given up solving mysteries and they all have jobs – but not so cynical that you feel uncomfortable. It’s still a nostalgic riot that treats the original series with affection. Without Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, I don’t think What’s New, Scooby-Doo? (the 2002 – 2006 updated TV series) could have ever existed. Zombie Island was successful enough that it kicked off the movie canon and it made a new TV series commercially viable. It also opened the door for darker interpretations of the franchise, like Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013). There was even a Scooby-Doo parody of The Blair Witch Project, which aired on Cartoon Network in 1999 and has never been broadcast on the channel since. No, that isn’t a joke; you can watch it right here.

I especially appreciate it (speaking as a feminist) for its wonderful portrayal of Daphne. She was always a little bit ditzy in the original series, often fulfilling the “damsel in distress” role, but Zombie Island gave us a career woman Daphne who is still her fun, fashionable self. It was practically inspirational for a weird child like me to see a popular female character who travels around the country for her ghost-hunting TV show. That has been lost in the more recent films – I watched Scooby-Doo: Wrestlemania Mystery (2014) and Scooby-Doo and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery (2015) a little while ago in preparation for this article and it was disappointing to see Daphne depicted as boy-mad, tactless and superfluous to the investigation. Her portrayal seems to have regressed rather than progressed, which is a real shame.

So there you have it! All 12 of the Scooby-Doo movies released between 1998 and 2008, ranked for your entertainment.

Please like and share if you enjoyed this, and feel free to argue with me in the comments if you think a different film deserved first place.

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: