One of my favorite Campfire stories EVER about a weird dream, living in a haunted house, a UFO sighting and much more on this edition of the Campfire!
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When I was twelve years old, my father brought me to my first magic show. I’d never really paid attention to the act of magic, save a few amateur shows at birthday parties growing up. Suffice to say, I was not entirely impressed. But as I entered the Landmark Theater in my hometown of Syracuse, NY that night, my impression of magic took on a whole new light. I watched as famed magician, David Copperfield, performed feats of the impossible that stunned and astounded. His final illusion of the night included not only levitation, but flying across the proscenium stage and out into the audience. While even a young version of myself was more than skeptical of this seemingly “no stings attached” illusion, it didn’t stop my mouth from gaping wide and my eyes remaining fixated on the flying man above me. And as he seamlessly seemed to soar hundreds and hundreds of feet above, I wondered what would happen, if by some horrible accident, he suddenly fell to the ground. Not only would it most likely be the end of his career, but perhaps even the end of his life. And as my fascination for magicians grew, their death-defying illusions continued to both excite and terrify me, even up until today. This eventually led me to finally face the horrifying aspect that sometimes these illusions didn’t go according to plan. And the illusionists below unfortunately didn’t live to tell the tale.
Karr vs. Car
Charles Rowen was a South African magician known for extremely dangerous stunts. Most notably were his escapes from straight jackets and diving in to piles of broken glass. But it was one single escape that would leave Rowen, better known as Karr the Mysterious, bracing for impact with the last escape of his life.
It was in 1930 when Rowen performed for a large crowd in Springfontein, Orange Free State, in South Africa. In front of stunned spectators, including many young children, Rowen explained to the audience that a car would be traveling towards him from about two hundred yards away at forty miles per hour. Rowen, strapped tightly into a straight jacket, then explained that he would escape from the jacket in time to dodge the oncoming car. Given the distance and speed of the car, he would have as little as fifteen seconds to complete the escape.
The audience looked on as Rowen desperately tried to escape the jacket. The car picked up speed, barreling towards him. And it soon became clear that Rowen was too slow to get the jacket off. He wasn’t able to dodge the car, and it hit him at full impact, completely severing his leg. The head-on collision led to his death. But before he seemingly met his maker, Rowen made it clear that this was his own wrongdoing, and completely exonerated the driver of the car from any responsibility. Karr the Mysterious was now gone. But his legacy, for those who witnessed his demise that day, lived on in grisly detail.
Buried Alive, Exhumed Dead
“I consider myself a master of illusion and escape artist. I believe I’m the next Houdini and greater.” These were the words of Joseph Burrus, or better known by his stage name, Amazing Joe. And as he pronounced these ambitious words to the crowd that night, Burrus had no idea how eerily right he actually was. But it was the last comparison to Houdini that he could possibly have wanted.
It was Halloween night of 1992 in Fresno, California. Burrus was performing at a local amusement park where hundreds of witnesses, including news cameras, watched as he explained his grandiose escape. He was to be buried in a plastic and glass coffin about seven feet down, and then several tons of cement and dirt were to be poured on top of him. Handcuffed, he would have to escape both his restraints, the coffin, and then make way to the surface. Many believed this feet to be impossible. One reporter even mentioned that the cement on the bottom would dry fast, leaving no way for him to break through. With no illusion to be had, Burrus legitimately believed he could survive this great escape unscathed. But logic, physics, and carelessness got the best of him.
After the dirt and cement were poured on, a loud crack and the shattering echoes of glass were heard. It was soon clear that the coffin had caved in, literally burying Burrus alive. By the time rescuers could dig up the dirt and cement, it was already too late. The weight of the cement and dirt had crushed him, leaving no chance of revival. It was on that fateful Halloween night that Burrus had perished, dying on the same night as Harry Houdini almost seventy years prior.
Six Feet Under(water)
It was on July 7th, 1984. Jeff Rayburn Hooper was practicing an escape stunt outside Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the deep waters of Lake Winona. The stunt involved Hooper being handcuffed and submerged into the water. He would then have to escape the restraints and swim to safety. The stunt was to be officially performed at the Winona Lake Bible Conference later that day. But Hooper wanted to attempt a rehearsal by himself to get it right. Unfortunately, the rehearsal would prove deadly, and Hooper would’t make it to the actual performance.
Anxious earlier in the day to get the escape right, Hooper handcuffed himself, jumped into the water, and swam about a hundred yards out, soon sinking to the bottom. Completely submerged, he struggled to get his wrists free of the restraints. Soon, he was able to successfully do so and swim to the surface. He began to yell to his assistant back on land, but the harsh winds muffled his shouts for help. The wind also made it impossible for Hooper to swim to shore. Rescuers weren’t able to make it to Hooper in time, and he drowned about six feet underwater, proving yet again, that sometimes, practice doesn’t always make perfect.
One More Bullet for the Road
The “Bullet Catch” has always been a favorite amongst magicians and audiences alike. The danger and split second anticipation of a human being stopping a bullet after being fired comes with great risk, no matter how prepared the shooter and receiver may be. And for one magician, that risk backfired in the most tragic of ways.
William Elmsworth Robinson, a Brooklyn-based magician, had assumed the identity of an ancient Chinese illusionist, never speaking English during his performances. Known as Chung Ling Soo, he’d cover his face in yellow paint and would speak completely in false Mandarin. He’d have an interpreter “translate” everything to is adoring fans, never once speaking English in front of a crowd. At the peak of his career, being one the most famous magicians in the world at the time, Robinson would perform one of his most enticing illusions on March 23rd, 1918. At Woodgreen Empire, in London, England, he began his version of the bullet catch, in which a blank shot would be fired, and he would “catch the bullet.” However, the gun, having not been properly cleaned from the last performance of the illusion, caused a build-up of gunpowder in the chamber, and the spark of the blank actually ignited the live bullet, and the bullet was actually fired. It hit Robinson straight in the chest, piercing his lung.
In the heat of the moment, and knowing something had gone wrong, Robinson broke character for the very first time, yelling to his assistant, “Oh my God, bring down the curtain. Something has happened.” Robinson was rushed to the hospital, but was unable to be saved. He died early the next day. Many believe that Robinson had this coming, as many who knew he was American found his racist act deplorable. Others believe he was lazy and cheap by leaving one live bullet in the chamber of the gun because he never wanted to replace it with a new one. Either way, Robinson had caught the bullet indeed, but it cost him his life.
A Hard Trick to Swallow
If anyone should know not to stick things in their mouth that isn’t food, it should be a practitioner of dentistry. But this clearly wasn’t the case for Dr. Vivian Hensley, an oral surgeon out of Brisbane, Australia. Little did he know that as he tried to impress his young son one evening, he would be leaving that very son fatherless in doing so.
It was July 6th, 1938. Hensley, an amateur magician, wanted to perform a rather disturbing slight-of-hand trick for his young son. He called it, “Swallowing the Rusty Razor Blade”. The plan was to slyly slip the razor blade into the sleeve of his coat while miming that it went into his mouth. But perhaps moving too quickly, Hensley actually dropped it into his mouth and indeed swallowed the razor blade.
Hensley’s wife, terrified, forced Hensley to swallow cotton balls as they rushed to the hospital. One can only assume she was hoping the cotton would cover the blade, protecting him from any internal lacerations. Despite her quick-thinking, many x-rays, and two surgeries, the doctors were unable to locate the razor blade. And four days later, Hensley died of internal injuries. While scarred from the inside, it was clear that Hensley’s family would also be scarred in the most emotional of ways.
It has been said by many escape artists, magicians, and illusionists throughout time that to “die” on stage is the fullest expression of failure; but to “kill” during a performance is the highest achievement. As we have seen through the lens of these tragic figures, sometimes the ends don’t always justify the means, and when it comes to the art of magic, the figurative death becomes startlingly literal. And although we may be filled with wonder and awe as a spectator, the fear of death also lingers dark in the corner of our minds. And with the cautionary tales above, I’m sure it lingers just as bleak for the magician on stage as well.
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Ryan Sprague is a professional playwright & screenwriter in New York City. He is also an investigative journalist, focusing on the topic of UFOs. He is the author of the upcoming book, “Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon”, published by Richard Dolan Press. He co-hosts the podcasts, Into the Fray and UFOmodPod, both available on iTunes. His other work can be found at: www.somewhereintheskies.com
We talk to Marie-Ange Faugerolas all about angels on this edition of The Paranormal Podcast.
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University of California at Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer noted at the time that, “most American adults in the 21st Century say that they believe in life after death and in the devil,” while more than one-third believed in similar things like haunted houses.
The numbers of those who count themselves among “believers” remains in the distinct minority, as one might expect with the passing of time, and furtherance of scientific thought, rather than attitudes that are purely faith-based in their leanings. The application of methodical, scientific approaches to understanding nature and its various phenomena have cast light into the darkness of the once-unknown; with the recessing shadows, more about our universe is revealed, and little space seems to have remained for those things once deemed “supernatural” to hide.
The idea of a “ghost” has always remained conjoined to themes that include death and the afterlife, and for what would appear to be good reason: a ghost, after all, has always been taken to represent some apparitional form that exists apart from the physical body of an individual. More specifically, the ghost represents the soul or spirit of an individual, and logic would imply here that only in bodily death might the natural separation of a spirit from one’s physical form occur. More mysterious, however, is the presumed process by which this soul, upon separation from the body, becomes capable of manifesting visibly (and/or audibly, in some instances). It is this manifestation that forms the distinction between the mere concept of the soul, and the apparitional form which we call a “ghost.”
Amidst these general preconceptions about what a ghost actually represents, scientific study of the subject has been relegated mostly to anthropological circles, in which the ghost is equivalent, again, to the broader concept of the soul, and the soul being represented as some essence of an individual which is carried through life within the body, as a sort of “spirit vessel.” Further, the religious concepts of body, soul, and the afterlife generally hold that the spirit is actually the true self, and that the body or vessel is merely a physical representation of this disembodied, everlasting “soul-self” during our time on Earth. Within this mechanism of beliefs surrounding the idea of a soul, the anthropologist aspires to understand “ghosts” as being an extension of superstitions and ritual beliefs, which stem from the broader soul concept. Additionally, the “ghost” is found here to have further ties to traditions involving ancestral worship, and other religious beliefs that incorporate themes where the soul may exist apart from the body.
When addressing the subject of ghosts, seldom is the interpretation of any purported apparition removed from this religious and anthropological context, in which a “ghost” is almost exclusively taken to be the disembodied form of a deceased individual. Thus, few instances exist where we seek to explain the purported ghostly manifestation as some natural phenomenon, resulting from physical forces and in accordance with the universal laws observed by modern science.
Arguably, if no hard scientific proof of ghosts exists, this is for one of two reasons: either no such phenomenon exists, or our approach to studying it is inherently flawed. Hence, the simplest conclusion offered by science is that the likelihood that no phenomenon exists outweighs the likelihood that some existent phenomenon has been poorly studied.
However, let us assume, for a moment, that the less likely scenario were actually correct—that some phenomenon might exist after all, but we have simply failed in our efforts toward studying it. If this were the case, then why might we have failed? Or what element, in our present attitudes pertaining to this subject, might have actually helped it to elude us?
The first, and perhaps most obvious assumption attributed to ghosts is the notion that they are remnants of the soul, which linger after the bodily death of an individual. Before trying to “prove” that ghosts exist, I would ask here, what evidence can we first present for the presence of the soul?
It is true that the soul itself, like a ghost, is primarily identified as a concept, rather than a measurable quantity. Thus, its existence is recognized, even to the open-minded, largely based on cultural traditions and religious beliefs that have helped established an approximation, and nothing more: our belief in ghosts relies purely on our best guesses as to what a ghost might be.
It could be argued, therefore, that trying to explain a concept like a “ghost” as an extension of an equally unexplainable and scientifically unprovable concept (here, we mean the soul) does us few favors, at least in terms of trying to understand whether any physical phenomena is indeed present when one claims they have seen a “ghost”. In other words, if we wish to look at ghosts as being possible evidence of some physical, as-yet unexplained phenomenon, we cannot attribute their mode of appearance to a concept that is equally relegated to the realm of the supernatural.
Our aim here is not to disprove or doubt altogether the existence of a soul; it is merely to assert that a soul can no more easily be qualified, in a physical sense, than a ghost can; and hence, one uncertainty cannot be better understood merely by pairing it with another uncertainty of equal measure.
This illustration begs a further question: how can we understand the concept of a ghostly apparition, if not based on our archaic preconceptions that ghosts are simply spirits of the dead? The fact is, ghosts very well may be souls of the departed, for all we know. However, that presumption has done little to further our knowledge of apparitions, and their pervasive presence in mythologies around the world.
One clue as to the possible nature of what a “ghost” really could be does emerge from within the archetypal elements present during the classic ghostly encounter. This has to do with the fact that a ghost, by definition, seems to represent the appearance of an individual, or at very least, their quasi-physical likeness, in a past-state of existence (note here that I refrain from using the term “deceased individual”, for reasons which I will clarify in a moment). These apparitional forms nearly always represent a being as they once appeared, rather than how they might appear in the present, or future, for that matter. Of great importance is the fact that the ghost is presumed to appear only after death of that individual has occurred, which is a hallmark of the mythos surrounding ghostly encounters.
It is true that this is most often the case in alleged observations of ghosts: that a person must be deceased for their apparitional form to appear. However, this is not always the case; and since most of the data constituting “evidence” of ghosts is based on anecdotal observation, it won’t hurt here to offer discussion of a separate, though similar phenomenon, and one similarly relegated to the realm of conjecture.
In his later years, William Thomas Stead, the nineteenth century newspaper editor and renowned investigative journalist, took an interest in spiritualism. Stead was known to have held court with the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle (with whom he had, on occasion, also been duped by fraudulent mediums), and had even predicted that his own demise would occur either by hanging, or by drowning; Stead was, in fact, one among the many passengers who went down with the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Following his death, Stead’s daughter Estelle published a few written works dealing with her father, throughout which she included a number of Stead’s observations about the spirit world. Among them, she quoted an account Stead had written years earlier, in which he discussed a friend of his who possessed the unique ability of “projecting her phantasmal double, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes without any conscious exercise of volition.”
“It is by the aid of the double,” Stead had written, “and by automatic handwriting with living persons, that there seems to me the best chance of solving the abysmal mystery of personality.”
More of interest to our present discussion of ghosts, what Stead discussed of his friend in this instance appears to bear similarity to what, today, might be called bilocation, or the apparent ability of an object or individual to appear simultaneously in two separate locations.
Stead went on to discuss the importance of bilocation in relation to the study of ghosts as follows:
“Ghosts of the dead are important, no doubt, but they are from the Other Side, and often seem to experience great difficulty in translating their thoughts into the language of earth, and not less difficulty in adjusting their fitful apparitions to the necessities of the psychical researcher.
“But with the double it is different, for there is no chasm to be bridged in its case between the living and the dead, and with automatic communications from the living, when all allowance has been made for disturbing influences, cross currents, and the intruding influence of the medium’s consciousness, it affords by far the best clue to the mysterious, subconscious region in which most of the phenomena of the Borderland either arise or come into our knowledge.”
The conjecture here proves little more than mere claims of ghostly manifestations would offer “proof” of the afterlife; proof, at least, that would satisfy a physicist, chemist, or biologist. What it does achieve, however, is that it offers us a new conjecture about a phenomenon similar to ghostly manifestations, though without the apparition being recognized as a deceased individual.
One could make the argument that these two phenomena—ghosts and bilocation—are entirely unrelated, as Stead himself assumed in the passage above. However, with Stead’s assessment, the reason for this distinction is clear: it was based upon the presumption that a ghost is the apparition of a dead person, and only a dead person, whereas a “double” is, in essence, the apparition of a living individual… but is this distinction truly a necessity?
Probably not, if we observe again that the origins of the cultural notion of a “ghost” stem from religious beliefs, which are appended to deeper concepts of soul and spirit. We must admit to ourselves that such suppositions have been with us for so long, that they may indeed present fallacies that have been nearly impossible to overlook. Here, if we are to truly understand what a ghost may be (in the event that they exist at all), we must challenge ourselves to look at the phenomenon differently, as well.
If we were to consider that each phenomenon discussed here are constituent parts of a broader observation to be made about nature, then perhaps we could also consider the following: the notion that ghosts must represent the presence of a deceased person may be a logical fallacy, since anecdotal data also exists that describes similar phenomenon like bilocation, where the individuals or “apparitions” observed are people that were alive and well at the time of the observation.
Having suspended our disbelief for long enough to take such things as ghosts—whatever one may interpret them to be—as well as their similarity to alleged phenomena like bilocation, we must face the glaring problem with each of these: there is no physical proof of either phenomenon, nor is there any apparent way to account for them by means of physical experiments. Our very best data to support the existence of either of these things is the anecdotal information we have about them, expressed through the testimony of experiencers. That, while certainly worth something, still fails to satisfy the experimental sorts of requirements in order to qualify for being good science.
So where does all of that leave us when it comes to “ghosts”, what they may be, what we can learn about them, and whether the subject is indeed worthy of scientific attention? At present, the field would seem to be extremely divided on the subject, although the vast majority of serious scientists wouldn’t stop to consider serious research into ghosts, since our general attitudes and beliefs about what a “ghost” is supposed to be, as outlined in this essay, contradict observable laws of our universe. In other words, for a “ghost” to represent some energetic expression of any kind, let alone a deceased individual, they would have to disobey the laws of thermodynamics in doing so, something that has not occurred in our observations of the physical universe since the beginning of scientific inquiry. It seems a pretty fair estimate, then, that a “ghost” certainly isn’t anything akin to what they have long been supposed to be; the modern physicist would take this one step further, and say that since they appear to be impossible, they don’t exist at all.
I do wonder, in conclusion, if outright dismissal is the best line of thought to be applied here. We have cultural traditions from all over the world that involve the concept of “ghosts” having existed for centuries, as well as modern reports from witnesses that describe remarkably similar phenomena that may occur today. Perhaps we shouldn’t close the book on ghosts entirely; but there seems to be little merit in attempting to address the subject through the lens of our old attitudes and beliefs.
In this case, as with every institution of a “good” scientific theory, we need one that predicts a number of observations accurately—based on data, rather than faith or belief—using a basic model consisting of arbitrary elements to help guide these observations. Our theory must also correctly, and definitely, predict future observations of the phenomenon in question.
So the question at the end of the day, rather than being “do ghosts exist”, should instead be this: “If ghosts represent any valid, tangible phenomenon, what might account for their existence, and can this—whatever it may be—occur in keeping with a good scientific theory?”
At present, it seems we are still searching for our “good ghost theory”.
Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests include history, science, current events, cultural studies, technology, business, philosophy, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. With his writing, he has covered topics that include controversial themes such as artificial intelligence, government surveillance, unconventional aviation technologies, and the broadening of human knowledge through the reach of the Internet. Micah lives in the heart of Appalachia near Asheville, North Carolina, where he makes a living as a writer and musician. You can find his podcasts at GralienReport.com and his books at Amazon.com
Psychic Elizabeth Joyce joins us to talk about what she sees in 2016 plus we discuss chakras.
You can find her new book at Amazon.com: The NEW Spiritual Chakras: and How To Work With Them
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Astrologer Maria DeSimone returns for her annual visit. She shares what she sees in the stars for 2016 and takes listener calls!
You can find Maria’s site at insightfulastrology.com
Happy New Year everyone!
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In celebration of the season, we revisit a combination of two of my favorite Christmas-oriented programs we’ve done over the years. Enjoy!
When we think of Christmas, ghosts are usually not top of mind…but perhaps they should be according to our guest Mary Beth Crain. In part one, we talk to her about her book on the subject.
You can find the book at Amazon.com: Haunted Christmas: Yuletide Ghosts and Other Spooky Holiday Happenings
In part two, Rosemary Ellen Guiley joins us to talk about angels who make themselves known at Christmastime.
You can find her Kindle book on the subject at Amazon.com:
Thanks Mary Beth & Rosemary! Merry Christmas everyone.
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As children lay snug in their beds, dreaming of sugarplums, or more likely, Xbox One and the newest Star Wars merchandise, Santa Claus prepares to make his way down the chimney and leave toys wrapped in bright paper under the tree. At least that’s what part of the world believes, for when it comes to Christmas, there are all kinds of traditions and legends, many of which take on a much darker tone than a jolly fat guy in a red and white velvet suit who works only one night a year and loves kids.
Legends are often based upon actual people who existed long ago. Their stories over time are embellished and altered according to whomever is telling the story, which makes it hard to discern fact from fiction. Often in the case of pagan traditions, newer religions tack on their own traditions or obliterate the original pagan symbols, creating a mash-up character such as Santa Claus. We all learned his story in school, but did you know there also exists an “anti-Santa?”
Bum bum BUUUUUUUM!!!
So, many of you may be familiar with Krampus. He’s even got his own Facebook memes, which in this day and age is the hallmark of fame. This German/Alpine legendary figure was said to be an actual companion to St. Nicholas, the gift-giving Greek Saint and Bishop of Myra, who later morphed into Santa Claus with a few modern add-ons (think Rudolph, ho-ho-ho and elves!), and has a distinct pre-Christian origin. This somewhat humanlike creature has a pagan bent, and is more associated with punishing children who don’t behave, than rewarding children who do (even though tradition states he did reward kids as well!). Krampus, which might be an offshoot of the pagan Horned God of the witches, or even a masked devil figure (which later became the Christian devil) is portrayed as hideous and frightening. He sometimes has brown hair, sometimes black, with cloven hooves and goat horns, and a long tongue. Sounds devilish, right? He carries chains, too, which he thrashes about, along with ruten, or bundles of birch branches he swats kids with. Other versions show him carrying a sack or tub that he uses to carry bad children in, and even drown and eat them in. Nice guy for a Saint to be hanging out with, am I right?
Parents would threaten to take bad children in a sack to be dropped off with Krampus (Good Lord, no wonder so many kids end up in therapy!). He even has his own celebratory night, December 5th, one night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas, when he would appear to the public as a hairy devilish creature, sometimes alone, sometimes with his pal, St. Nicholas, visiting homes and businesses. He appeared on Christmas cards in the 1800s and spawned a number of regional celebrations in his honor, featuring pre-Christian rituals and symbols.
Funnily, or maybe not so funnily, the Austrian government actually prohibited Krampus traditions after the Civil War in 1934, and in the 1950s, went so far as to hand out pamphlets stating poor Krampus was an “Evil Man.” It may have suppressed Krampus activities then, but today, Krampus celebrations are once again popular in many European countries, and now in the United States as well. Just this year in 2015, he even got his own movie!
Another German Christmas legend, because Germany cannot have too many twisted traditions, is the story of Belsnickel, a creepy figure in rags and old furs who carries a switch and threatens little children with a whoopin’ if they don’t behave. Belsnickel roams from house to house for weeks before Christmas. If he doesn’t show up at your door, be on the lookout for another crafty German creep named Knecht Ruprecht, which translates to “farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert,” who wears a long beard, brown cloak and holds a staff. He goes around asking little children if they pray. If they do, they get a goodie like some yummy gingerbread. If they don’t pray, well, they can get a punishment in the form of junk, which, if the children refuse, then leads to a beating with a bag of ashes. Tip to the children of Germany – behave and no matter what, say you pray!!!
A similar tradition exists in Sweden and Finland, also involving a goat-like character that visits homes and demands food and alcohol. No, we’re not talking about your ugly drunk Uncle Peter. We’re talking about Nuuttipukki, who wears a leather or birch mask, horns and fur. The tradition has its origins in the life of Canute Lavard, a Danish Duke who was sainted after his death and given January 7th as a holiday. “Knut’s Day” is still celebrated today, albeit with a more positive slant. Apparently, the Swedes and Finns didn’t like anyone taking their food and booze!
In the upper German region of the Alps exists another tradition of a pagan goddess of both good and bad, darkness and light, bodacious beauty and butt-ugly! Her name is Perchta (also known as Berchta) and is often identified with other goddesses such as Holda, Frija, Diana, and Herodias. Perchta appears in two forms, either beautiful and snow white, or as an old hag. Perhaps this is where the Snow White story originated from, for Perchta was indeed a lovely goddess of spinning and weaving, adorned in a white robe, pure as snow. Yet she also led the wild hunt, had one foot bigger than the other, and could shape shift into animals.
Perchta roamed the countryside, going from house to house (a lot of these legendary figures sound like Jehovah’s Witnesses!), leaving a coin in the shoes of good little children who were well behaved. If they weren’t well behaved or hadn’t completed their chores, then she took a whole different tactic. She would gut the children by slitting their stomachs open and take out their guts, replacing them with straw and rocks. She would even do this if someone missed her feast day or ate something she didn’t approve of. Not a very nice lady, which makes you wonder why anyone opened their door to her in the first place!
She was accompanied by an entourage of Perchten, usually men wearing ghoulish animal masks, some of which were beautiful and for good luck, and others, hideous, with horns and fangs. Of interest to the paranormal crowd, men dressed as the ugly Perchten in the 16th century would go from home to home to drive out demons and spirits. Were they the original exorcists, or just celebrants of this highly symbolic goddess of duality?
Don’t just blame Germany for all the angst in children; Iceland has its own country legend, a terrifying lady ogre named Gryla who feeds on naughty little kids. She has three heads, three eyes per head, ice blue eyes at the back of her head, long fingernails like talons, and goat horns. (There’s that goat symbolism again). She also sports a chin beard. Gryla is said to have trolls called Yule Lads that help her find children to cook and eat. She had as many as three husbands and 70+ kids, some of which were murderous little buggers. Iceland had the good sense in 1746 to prohibit talk of Gryla because it scared children too much. Let’s hope the United States does something similar with Common Core math!
Another Iceland myth involves a cat, Jolakotturinn, or the Yule Cat. The Yule Cat was an evil kitty that ate lazy children, or at least that’s what parents used to tell their children to get them to finish their chores. I’ll take Grumpy Cat any day over this crazy feline.
Italy celebrates the legend of the witch known as La Befana, who flies on her broomstick during the night of January 5 and fills stockings with toys and sweets for good children and lumps of coal for bad ones. According to the legend, the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger where Christ was born, they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions (men asking for directions? Surely this is a legend and not real?). They invited her to accompany them on their journey, but she was too busy and refused. A shepherd came along and asked her to join him, but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a bright star in the sky and was moved to join the Wise Men and the shepherd, bringing gifts that had belonged to her dead child to offer to the Christ infant.
Two of the more, well, interesting legends come to us from around Spain; the Catatonia legend of The Caganer, and the Spanish Tio de Nadal. Both involve something not usually associated with the holidays, unless you’re talking about Santa’s reindeer and a high fiber intake.
Poop. Yes, you read that right. Poop.
The Caganer is a legend from Catalonia, Portugal and Southern France, involving a rather ancient character, a peasant in a red had and trousers pulled down to his knees, who apparently, as legend has it, had to do a “number two” while the Christ child was being born. He is depicted as being evil, but maybe he just ate too much bran that day. Can you give a guy a break? Rumor has it when the Spanish city of Barcelona tried to ban the festival in his honor, there was enough of an outcry to restore the festival. I cannot even BEGIN to imagine what kind of festival it is, and what people do there. Use your imagination.
Some scholars note that this story is highly symbolic of the act of fertilizing the earth to bring about new life. I can buy that, especially with the belief that the Winter Solstice was symbolic of death and the return to light and the coming of spring. A little fertilizer goes a long way to ensuring new growth! Just ask anyone who lives on a golf course.
Tio de Nadal is actually not a person…but a log. A log that poops out goodies such as nuts and fruits. And if you sing to it and burn it in the fireplace, you might even get better gifts than trail mix. The English translation of part of the song goes as follows:
“Poop Log, poop turron,
Hazelnuts and cottage cheese.
If you don’t poop well,
I’ll hit you with with a stick, Poop Log.”
Look, I don’t make this stuff up, I just write about it.
Here in the United States, we have a much less sinister legend in the making, involving a cute little elf that sits on a shelf. “The Elf on the Shelf” started out as nothing more than a book written by a mother and daughter. They got the idea over a cup of tea and self published the book in 2004, which quickly became a sensation, spawning more holiday memes than Charlie Brown or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The book is about Santa’s team of scout elves who visit homes before Christmas to watch over people’s behaviors before reporting back to the North Pole. Scout elves hide all over the house and it’s up to the family to find them, and name them. Oh, it’s all good fun and games, except for some critics who responded by labeling the elves bullies who spy on kids and invade people’s privacy.
Maybe they work for the NSA?
Perhaps we don’t have as many holiday legends as Europe does, but we do like our Christmas ghosts. The holidays serve as a time when the sun shines less, there is more dark than light, and we often turn our thoughts to those we no longer have around, loved ones who have passed on. Perhaps this in part helps to explain our obsession with one of the most famous ghost stories ever written, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” If you haven’t seen any of the numerous versions on television, in the movies or in book form, well, you are living under a rock. The famous Dickens tale is a part of accepted Christmas tradition for millions, maybe because it tells a story we can all relate to.
English writer Charles John Huffman Dickens first published his novella, or short novel, “A Christmas Carol” under the shortened name Charles Dickens back in December of 1843. It has since become a true classic ghost story that is both parable and morality tale. It tells the story of one grinchy, grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, a businessman in London whose partner Jacob Marley had died exactly seven years ago. Marley turns up one cold Christmas eve moaning and dragging chains, as many ghosts do, to tell Scrooge he will be visited by three ghosts that night. The ghosts represent Christmases past, present and future, and all are attempts to teach the selfish grump some humility and charity before it’s too late.
Over the course of the visits, Scrooge looks back at the error of his ways and begins to repent. On Christmas morning, when he awakens, he is a new man with a big heart, ready to make amends for the sins of his past.
But this tale is more than just a cool ghost story. It’s a story that reminds us of the importance of humility, love, caring and sharing. And it is certainly not the only old ghost story that sports a holiday setting. No doubt, the legends written about earlier became ghost stories of today that many a German or Nordic child hears at holiday time.
During the Victorian and Elizabethan eras, it was normal to sit around all those dark nights by the fire and spin a ghost tale or two, just as we would do today if we weren’t buried in technology or football games. Other authors such as MR James, Henry James, Washington Irving, William Makepeace Thackeray, and even the likes of HP Lovecraft have all written spooky stories set at Yule time. In his wonderful December 2011 article, “Christmas Spirits: The Origins of Ghost Stories at Christmas,” for Hypnogoria.com, author Jim Moon sums up the proliferation of ghost stories related to the holidays rather succinctly:
“In the long, cold evenings, when the soil had been tilled to the extent that climactic conditions permitted, the still predominantly agricultural community of early modern England would sit and while away the hours of darkness with fireside pastimes, among them old wives’ tales designed to enthrall young and old alike.”
Even Shakespeare understood the connection between the dark nights of winter and a good ghost story. “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one of Sprits and Goblins.”
For just as we love telling ghost stories over campfires at night, or huddled as children under blanket forts, our ancestors loved a good ghost story during the cold, dark winter nights that went on forever. What better way to pass the time than scaring the living daylights out of one another?
At least until television came along.
So while there may be a lot of ghost stories set during Christmas, and even told during Christmas, it most likely has much more to do with the symbolism of December 21st and the Winter Solstice as the darkest day of the year, than the idea that ghosts exist more abundantly over the holidays. Halloween probably holds that claim to fame.
The stories and legends of Christmas remind us of the past and those we left behind, but also of more ancient, even primitive times, when humans were more focused on nature than technology; when oral and written traditions were handed down from elders to youngsters; and when pagan beliefs were morphing into the Christian holidays we celebrate today.
It is in that “in-between” state, betwixt the old and the new, where spooky stories, like the mighty Evergreen, take root and spread.
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.