The Cultural Vortex – American Ghosts by M J Steel Collins

As someone who writes a lot on Scottish ghosts, one of the things that interest me is how they are viewed by people from other countries. One group in particular that seems to be fascinated by hauntings in Scotland are the Americans, judging from the number of US documentaries made on the subject and the awe in which US ghost enthusiasts have for Scotland’s ghosts.

But to turn things around, one thing which fascinates me is the American ghost story. There are a number of factors that make US ghosts stand out. First, historically, America is almost like a teenager in comparison to Scotland. There are some ghosts in Scotland that were already creaking with the centuries by time the USA came into existence as a country in its own right. The way in which the States is crawling with ghosts, boasting in some cases, ‘the most haunted house in the world’ – Villisca Axe Murder House, kind of creepy, but I raise you Glamis Castle, my friends – is rather intriguing in such a young country.

I wonder if American sense of history comes into it. I admire the way in which Stateside buildings newer than my tenement block are granted historical protection, are cared for and loved, whilst over here it seems de rigueur to demolish what are frankly, brilliant 300 year old buildings for the sake of another bloody car park or office block that is probably going to lie empty. Ghosts seem to play a huge factor in this. Quite a few of America’s old haunted places boast ghosts, which seem to be the centre piece – take The Whaley House in San Diego for example. Then there are the numerous prisons and asylums, such as Moundsville Penitentiary and Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which are lovingly preserved and restored, whilst over here in Glasgow, the asylum section of the old Govan Poorhouse, now the Southern General, has been demolished in the name of development. We Scots could probably learn a thing or two from the States on protecting our built heritage.

But the thing that stands out the most when it comes to America’s spooky stories is the way in which they have been influenced by the cultures of those who have emigrated there and the indigenous cultures. For instance, Chris Woodyard, in his book The Ghost Wore Black describes the tale of a banshee heralding a death in Indiana, whilst Michael Norman in his ‘Haunted America’ series features the odd tale of a Wendigo, of First Nation folklore. Then there are the ways in which African cultures have permeated that of America; in terms of the supernatural, just take one look at the development of Voodoo in Louisiana.

At the same time, there are ghost stories which can probably be classed as pure American, with little to do with imported memes from different cultures, other than the fact that a ghost is something that gets around. Take, for example, the stories of miners killed in hideous accidents, of which there are many throughout the States, ghosts of the Civil War, and rather glamorously, ghosts of famous Hollywood actors and actresses, such as Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Presidents aren’t shy about getting in on the act. Abraham Lincoln famously haunts the White House, while more recently, the ghost of Ronald Reagan is reportedly haunting his old ranch in California (or perhaps it was just Obama he was haunting in the 2012 Presidential Election campaign!).

Still, the cultural syncretism of American ghost stories is worthy of note, yet it doesn’t seem to get much mention in collections. Troy Taylor and Jeff Belanger don’t appear to consider it; Michael Norman pays little heed to it, being more interested in just telling the tale. Chris Woodyard is the only person I have seen really comment on it. In The Ghost That Wore Black, he goes into great detail of where in the world the ghostly influence of the story at hand comes from. He mentions the Black Shuck, banshees of course (Irish, not Scots), Springheel Jack, and Native American entities to name a few. American paranormal writers would do well to take heed. One of the things I think is important in recounting Scottish ghost stories is to look at where it comes from, be it a folkloric entity, such as a fairy, or some nasty character from the past, like ‘Bluidy’ George Mackenzie. Given the cultural tapestry that makes up the country, I’d say this is vital in America. Then we can see where a ghost may have come from, rather than just accepting its existence (or not) at face value. There is probably far too much emphasis on gaining scientific evidence to prove a haunting, whilst the cultural origins that have led to the development of the story are equally as fascinating.


A Dark Calling – The Story of Ed and Lorraine Warren by Amy Van De Casteele

In August of this year, while my family were visiting for the summer from their current home in the Far East, I decided I wanted to go to the cinema one afternoon with my brother and father to watch one of the latest blockbuster releases. The original plan was to catch a screening of The Lone Ranger. But, being discouraged by the poor reviews for that film, I opted instead to see new horror offering The Conjuring, about which I had read nothing but good things. I was familiar with the general plot of the film and knew that it related the experiences of two real-life paranormal investigators. What I didn’t realize was how harrowing their experiences were, nor how fascinating I would grow to find this couple as the film wore on. The paranormal researchers in question were Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with subtlety and quiet genius by the ethereally beautiful Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson.

It may sound odd, especially as I have a reputation among family and friends for being fascinated with the paranormal, but up until that day I had never heard of the Warrens – nor did I know anything about their terrifying Occult Museum, their lectures or the New England Society for Psychic Research which the couple founded in 1952. Originally developed as a means of studying ghostly occurrences the Society’s scope and purpose deepened from 1965 onwards and it became a platform for helping people struggling with such paranormal experiences as possessions and hauntings. Using a blend of scientific and religious knowledge the Warrens would travel across the country to afflicted homes where they would offer their services not only to the living people inside the house but also the trapped souls that lingered there.

Ed and Lorraine Warren – a demonologist and a trance medium respectively – undoubtedly had a fascinating profession, but they were intriguing characters in their own right. They met when they were 16 and Ed was working at The Colonial Theatre in Bridgeport, Connecticut and married a year later when Ed, then a Navy recruit, had 30 days survivor’s leave after his ship sank in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Ed served in World War II and then left the Navy to become an artist, studying for a time at the Perry Art School before leaving school to travel around the new tourist hotspots of Vermont and New Hampshire where he could earn decent money selling his paintings.

It was during these trips that the couple first began to develop their fascination with the paranormal. Ed had always been interested in ghosts, having grown up in a haunted house when he was a boy, and now he dragged his young wife to every haunted location they stumbled across. Back then the pair probably never imagined they would go on to become America’s leading paranormal investigators, founders of their own society, noted authors, trainers of demonologists and founders of their own private occult museum.

It is the museum that arguably holds me most enthralled. Recreated in The Conjuring, it is a small, highly atmospheric and terrifying showcase of haunted and obscure items from around the world. Packed with everything from possessed animal figurines to a haunted organ, shrunken head and vampire coffin, the museum’s most notorious inmate is the Annabelle doll which was also featured in The Conjuring. A Raggedy Ann doll haunted by a vicious entity named Annabelle, the toy has been responsible for all manner of petrifying paranormal activity. Bought as a gift for a nursing student, Donna, back in 1970 the doll soon began to exhibit unnatural qualities – namely the ability to seemingly move itself into different positions and leave eerie pencilled messages on scraps of paper lying around the apartment.

Understandably Donna and her roommate were rather disturbed by these strange happenings – but when Donna came home one night to find what looked like bloodstains on the antique doll her concern turned to fear and a medium was called in to conduct a séance. Supposedly the toy was being haunted by the spirit of a 7-year old girl named Annabelle Higgins who had died on the land that Donna’s apartment complex was built on. The spirit asked to remain inside the doll as she felt comfortable and safe ‘living’ in the apartment with the two girls. Donna and her roommate agreed – a decision which would turn out to be an awful mistake and lead to dreadful consequences for the young women and those who sought to help them.

To cut a long and gruesome story short, Donna’s decision to keep the doll resulted in the injury of her friend Lou, who had always been suspicious of the toy and warned her that it was evil. Lou ended up with vicious scratches across his body and was almost suffocated one night by the wicked entity controlling the doll. It was after these incidents that the two women sought help from the church and at the same time the Warrens decided to take on the case. Working together with Episcopal priest Father Cooke they came up with an exorcism ceremony to cleanse Donna’s home and it was agreed that the Warrens would take the doll away with them when they left.

This could have been the end of the troubles but the spirit animating the doll had other ideas. During the drive to the Warrens’ house it caused their car’s steering and brakes to fail perilously and once in residence in the Warrens’ home it resumed its eerie movements around the house, showing up in different rooms unexpectedly, particularly Ed’s study and favourite chair. It also nearly caused the death of a visiting exorcist, who spoke in contemptuous tones to the doll before tossing it down onto Ed’s easy chair where it was once again mysteriously seated. Just hours later the brakes in the priest’s car failed, resulting in a collision which could easily have killed him.

After this the Warrens made a special glass case for Annabelle and there she remains even now, though being locked away has not prevented her from killing and injuring again.

As well as the Annabelle case the Warrens were also directly involved in the infamous Amityville Horror, entering the house with a team of other researchers to try and determine the cause of the terrible happenings which had been plaguing the Lutz family, who were living there but had now fled in fear of their lives. Both Ed and Lorraine experienced physical attacks and Lorraine felt a demonic presence inhabiting the building as well as being troubled by psychic visions of the family who had been murdered in the building before the Lutz family took it on. Sadly the Warrens could do no real good in this case as the negative energies inside the building were too powerful but they did help to retrieve some of the Lutz’s property so that the house could then be sold.

Ed Warren sadly passed away in 2006 but his legacy remains a powerful one and his wife Lorraine still dedicates herself to their paranormal work, conducting investigations and continuing to run their Occult Museum in Connecticut. Whether you agree with their statements about the supernatural world or not, there is no doubt that this devoted couple were fascinating people and led incredible lives, standing firmly on the frontline between this world and a darker one we tend to prefer not to think too much about…

If you share my fascination with this intriguing couple, why not check out their website to learn more about their work and, if you are brave enough, arrange a museum tour where you can come face to face with Annabelle herself.

“Diabolical forces are formidable. These forces are eternal, and they exist today. The fairy tale is true. The devil exists. God exists. And for us, as people, our very destiny hinges upon which one we elect to follow.” – Ed Warren


The Mothman of West Virginia by Amy Van De Casteele

From 12 November 1966 to 15 December 1967 the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant and the surrounding area was plagued by terrifying supernatural phenomenon – mainly centred around the appearance of a large, winged creature with blazing red eyes which came to be known as “Mothman”.

First sighted by five grave-diggers working in a cemetery near the town of Clendenin, the creature appeared as a black man-sized shape skimming above the trees. Days later, on 16 November, the headline in the Point Pleasant Register ran: “Couples See Man-sized Bird…Creature…Something”. The article recounted how, at around midnight of the previous night, Steve Mallette, Roger Scarberry and their partners (Mary and Linda respectively) had been driving away from the “TNT area” – a decommissioned WWII explosives factory – when they encountered a terrifying being. Standing six or seven feet tall, it resembled “a man with wings” and had bright red eyes that shone eerily in the darkness. It glided over their car, following them as they drove away but seeming to shun the headlights of the vehicle, averse to the bright light.

The frightening being followed them as they drove back towards town but eventually disappeared. Shocked but intrigued they turned the car around and headed back to the TNT area, only to find the creature seemingly waiting for them.

The day after their encounter the couples were ashen-faced and weary, but fascinated by their experiences. They surmised that the creature must be living in one of the empty munitions factory’s massive boilers, Steve Mallette commenting that no pigeons roosted in the building where they believed it to live. He went on to say that the creature “doesn’t have an explanation to it” and that it was “like nothing I’ve ever seen before”. He also vowed that he would go out to look for it again.

Hauntingly, they were not the only people to see the creature that night. At 10:30 on the night of the 15th, a building contractor in Salem called Newell Partridge was quietly watching television when the screen suddenly went black and an unnatural whining noise started up outside. His German Shepherd dog Bandit was on the front porch and began howling, prompting Partridge to hurry outside and see what was happening. When he emerged from his front door he saw Bandit staring towards the hay barn and aimed the beam of his torch in that direction. Two red eyes glowed in the bright light and at the same moment Bandit launched himself towards the hay barn, unheeding of Partridge’s voice as he tried vainly to call him back.

Bandit was never seen again and the next morning Partridge read about the sighting of the Mothman by the two couples, and how during their encounter they had seen the body of a dog lying beside the road towards town…When they returned minutes later it was gone. No one knows what happened to Bandit; his disappearance is just one of many mysteries surrounding the Mothman.

The greatest mystery is, of course, that of the Mothman’s identity. What was this strange winged creature that the Mallettes and the Scarberrys saw, which flew through the air at 100 mph and stood as tall as a man? We may never really know but one thing is certain – its unsettling legacy will not be forgotten anytime soon. That eerie creature which emerged from the TNT area would go on to become a local phenomenon, appearing a number of times over the coming months and sparking a West Virginia legend which would become immortalized in its own Museum, statue and movie – 2002’s ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, starring Richard Gere.

Renowned sceptic Joe Nickell said that he believed the Mothman to be nothing more than sightings of a large bird and a series of pranks and hoaxes; this statement was backed up by Dr. Robert L. Smith, a wildlife biologist at West Virginia University, who believed the creature to be the Sandhill crane – a tall bird which has a 7-foot wingspan and red markings around the eyes.

John Keel, a prominent Ufologist who penned the New York Times bestselling book ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ had his own beliefs about the creature. In the book he recounts a number of stories about these flying entities, tales which hail not only from the US but from far flung countries such as England and Vietnam. For example, in 1961 a New York pilot saw a massive flying creature “bigger than an eagle” as he flew over the Hudson River Valley. Two years later, on November 16 1963, four Kentish teens witnessed a “tall, dark figure” with “big bat wings”, while a woman driving with her father near Chief Cornstalk Hunting Grounds in Mason County, West Virginia witnessed “a big gray figure” with wings which took off straight into the air and vanished from sight.

Keel states that “these great Garudas” {a mythical bird from Hindu and Buddhist mythology} “and winged beings are closely associated with luminous phenomena. They tend to appear in areas where UFOs have been active and, like UFOs, they tend to linger for days or even weeks in the same specific area”. Keel goes on to call 1966 “The Year of the Garuda”, but it wasn’t only the Mothman that was troubling West Virginia that year. UFOs were witnessed by a number of people in the state while others were harassed by unnatural men in black and strange lights were seen in the sky. On November 17 a music teacher named Mrs Grose was roused at quarter to five in the morning by the frantic barking of her little dog. Looking out the window she saw a large circular UFO hovering over a field on the other side of the road. As she looked on in astonishment it “made a zig-zag motion” and vanished from view.

The next day, in the TNT area, Mothman was seen again, this time by two firemen. They stated that it was a bird but “was huge” and added that they’d “never seen anything like it”. Two days after that five teenagers encountered the creature in the woods around Campbells Creek and an elderly Point Pleasant resident found Mothman standing brazenly on his front lawn. The sight of the looming grey figure with its burning red eyes was so terrifying that when the creature suddenly flew off and he staggered back into his home he looked so pale and stricken that his wife thought he was having a heart attack.

More than 100 people saw Mothman, during that year 1966-67 but a young woman named Connie Carpenter was particularly traumatized by her experiences. As well as encountering the creature on a number of occasions, she was also plagued by unexplained beeping noises coming from outside her bedroom window and was once almost abducted on her way to school by a strange young man with thick black hair. She managed to free herself but the next day a note was pushed under her front door; it read: “Be careful, girl. I can get you yet”.

Was this intimidating young man just a passing lunatic – or one of the strange men in black that had begun to appear around the same time as the Mothman? Was there a connection between Connie’s experiences with the Mothman and her near-abduction?

Recommended reading:

The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel

Mothman and Other Curious Encounters by L. Coleman

The Silver Bridge: The Classic Mothman Tale by Gray Barker

America, Haiti

Voodoo:The Truth Behind the Myth by M J Steel Collins

Voodoo is a very disquieting topic for some, conjuring up images of zombies, hexes and other types of nasties. However, there is quite a sizable gulf between the myth and reality. The fact is Voodoo is very much far removed from the notion of something that involves “sticking pins in dolls and killing people”. Much of what is ‘known’ about Voodoo comes from the stories pedalled by Hollywood and other purveyors of mass popular culture in the West. In many ways, Voodoo is the ultimate Exotic Other. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the reality of this religion is the racism that started its negative connotations, which continue to be perpetuated. The aim of this article is to get behind the negative image and explore the truths of Voodoo; hold on to your belief systems – it might be a bumpy ride.
To begin, we need to clear up some terminology. Voodoo is probably the most popular term, but it can change depending on the area. In Louisiana, Voodoo appears to be the norm, whilst in Haiti, the term Vodou is used. Vodun is the name of the African religion from which Voodoo/Vodou developed. Other terms include Voudon, Vudun, and Voudou. The complexities of the correct name are probably the simplest of all the details relating to Voodoo to get your head around. For the sake of ease, I’ll use Voodoo throughout, unless discussing Haitian Vodou. To clarify another linked term, Hoodoo is the folk belief system that arose out of Louisiana Voodoo, and seems to be another matter altogether.
Where did the misrepresentation of Voodoo come from in the first instance? There are a variety of causes, all of which have their roots in ignorance and prejudice. Historically, Voodoo has been portrayed as opposing the ‘true religion’, Christianity, which has a certain irony given that many followers of Voodoo are Christian. Karen McCarthy Brown, author of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklynstates, “The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films and television, where images of sorcerers, zombi, snakes, blood and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil.” She adds that the racism used towards Voodoo wouldn’t be acceptable with regard to other religions.
An example of the origins of this can be seen in the reactions of other countries towards Haiti following the slave revolt of 1791 – 1803, after which Haiti declared a republic. But leaders in Europe and the US refused to recognise Haiti as a nation in its own right because of what they saw as the ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’ religion practiced by Haitian people – voodoo. As a result, Haiti was left politically isolated for several decades, which also had an interesting impact on the development of Haitian Vodou, which will be discussed in detail shortly. Some progress in theological terms appeared to be made in 1967 by Pope Paul VI in his document Africae Terrarum, which validated tradition African religion.
As for the origins of Voodoo, they can be traced back to the 1700s and that unpleasant historical artefact known as The Slave Trade. Many slaves being brought over were taken from their homes in modern day Togo and Benin. The religion of those areas (Vodun) was influenced by the Fun, Ewe and Yoruba ethnic groups.  The same religion is still practiced in Benin. Newly arrived slaves held on to their traditional beliefs, which they began to adapt to fit their perilous situation. At the same time, slave owners banned their slaves from practicing African religion, instead forcing them to convert to Christianity. In Louisiana and Haiti, the dominant form of Christianity was Catholicism. However, the slaves weren’t willing to give up on their own religious faith, and so continued to practice it under the guise of Catholicism. As time went on, the syncretic process occurred, wherein certain dominant facets of different religions combine into a new belief system, and Voodoo/Vodou came into being.
Voodoo is quite a fluid belief system. Nothing is set in stone. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that people interact with Voodoo in their own way. There are also other religions, Candomblé and Santeria, which at first glance appear to be other forms of Voodoo. But the similarity lies in the fact that they also have links in tradition African religions.  The variations in its practice in different parts of the world are notable, as can be seen in differences between Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo.
Haitian Vodou is regarded as being the closest to its Haitian roots. This is due to the isolation of the fledgling republic in its early years. It is a religion shaped by the oppression and poverty that have been a constant in Haitian life for the last two centuries. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, its history a harsh tale of military and political corruption. Vodou is a way for the average Haitian to get through life. This is emphasised frequently by Karen McCarthy Brown in Mama Lola, which is an ethnographic account of the life of a Haitian immigrant vodou priestess Alourdes, the eponymous Mama Lola. It is an intriguing and beguiling book, weaving the standard anthropological explanation of Vodou with Alourdes’ family legends. Sadly, in recent years both Alourdes and Karen McCarthy Brown have fallen into poor health, but their book has come to be very highly regarded.
The inconsistent nature of Voodoo as a whole means it’s probably next to impossible to get a definitive account of any of its forms: Jerry Gandolfino of the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans stated in an email that a book on the subject will only be able to provide “a snapshot” of Voodoo in a certain place and time, as any changes will also change Voodoo. Certainly, you can see this in Mama Lola when Alourdes absorbs a belief associated with another religion into her personal practice of Vodou. Alourdes makes it less obvious that she is priestess over the years that Karen knows her because of the aloof attitudes she encounters, switching to keeping her altars hidden away in cabinets, whereas before, they were laid out on tables.
Nevertheless, Mama Lola gives an excellent break down of how Haitian Vodou operates in general. There is a strong emphasis on family and community ties. These can be difficult for Haitian immigrants to maintain in the United States, as they lack the network they had back in Haiti. Alourdes comments that in Port-Au-Prince, she would have no problem getting a big gathering together for a ritual or birthday party for one of the spirits. In Brooklyn, she scrabbles around a small group of relatives and friends, bringing in new people such as Karen who become a surrogate family. There is a marked difference between the rituals held in Haiti, where temples have earthen floors that can have offerings of wine, rum and blood poured directly on them. In New York, offerings are poured into them. Clapping at Alourdes’ ceremonies is quiet enough not to disturb the neighbours. In Haiti she would have used drums. Gathering food and other items to honour the spirits is a more difficult and expensive endeavour. One issue is the use of live fowl such as chickens as sacrifices results in a long drive across town in New York. In Haiti, it’s just a case of going to the market. Vodou priests and priestesses carry a lot of respect; priests are known as Ougan, and tend to be more powerful than the priestess, known as Manbo.
In Haitian Vodou, God, known as Bondye, is unlike the Christian counterpart in that He doesn’t get involved in human life. Instead there is a pantheon of spirits, known as Iwa or Loa, who interact on Bondye’s behalf. The Loa, of which there is a sizeable group, are associated with Saints. Unlike Saints, they aren’t exemplars of virtuosity. They can be fickle, caring, angry and loving, their actions at ceremonies showing the various outcomes of a given situation in life as an example to their faithful. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that vodou is tied up in the dramas of life, and are acted out during rituals, where the spirits are asked to intervene in a given situation. Serving the Loa has a considerable impact on the life of Vodou practitioners. Much of Vodou is about healing.
When interacting with the Loa, Legba, has to be honoured first as he is the gatekeeper of the links between the spirit and human worlds. His saintly counterpart is St Peter. Damballah, associated with Saint Patrick, is the ‘snake god’, and father of all the Loa. The Ezilli Loa, ranging in several from Freda to Dante, relates to affairs of the heart and are female spirits. They are tied to the Virgin Mary. Gede or Mr Bones – to name just a few of his titles – rules the cemetery, and is associated with St Gerard. The Ogou spirits represent various forms of power and react to it in a number of ways. Ogou in his original form is an African spirit. In Vodou, he carries such responsibility; he has broken into a number of different spirits. Generally, they are warriors or soldiers, linked with St James. Reflecting the way in which Vodou and Haitian life intertwine, Ogou has close associations with Haiti’s turbulent military history.
Each person has their own personal grouping of spirits whom they consult and honour the most. The main spirit, who manages a person, is called the met tet. A manbo or ougan can see who is a person’s met tet – for instance, Alourdes notices that she and Karen share the same met tet, Ogou Badgari. Individuals share similar personality traits with their met tet. This may predispose them to a certain way of acting, but the presence of the other spirits balances this out. To form a closer bond with personal spirits, people can marry certain Loa, as Alourdes did with some of hers. Whilst all the spirits are honoured on special days and in ceremony, birthday parties are held especially for personal spirits. Alourdes during the time covered in Mama Lola, held six annually for her favoured spirits.
During rituals, offerings are laid out to honour the Loa. Dance, singing and clapping or drumming are used to draw the Loa forward. The Loa possess the manbo or priestess (or indeed certain of the others present). In Vodou, this is called being ridden by the spirits as the spirit mounts and rides an individual much in the same way a person can mount and ride a horse. Generally, the person being ridden has no memory of what happens. The spirit takes over their body to conduct business, give out food and interact with the practioners. They also require the person they are riding to wear the associated clothing of the spirit; in the case of Ogou, this may be a military style jacket and he also requires his sword. During the rituals, those present can ask the spirit to help them out with any problem in their life. Alourdes and her family consult the spirits on just about every aspect of their lives. Family spirits also play an important part for Alourdes, her family legends bearing particular significance. Alourdes often uses the words of her great grandfather and grandfather in her rituals.
In Louisiana Voodoo, many things, such as serving the Loa, are similar to Haitian Vodou. The main differences are that in Louisiana Voodoo, there are Voodoo Queens, the utilisation of Hoodoo material and gris gris. There is also a stronger emphasis on the worship of the snake deity, Li Grande Zombi. Unlike in Christianity, where the serpent is equated to Satan, the snake is a positive thing in Louisiana Voodoo, having a key role in rituals. During the 18th century, when slaves were brought into Louisiana, African based culture gained a strong foothold owing to the unstable nature of the new Louisiana society. The number of slave owners was relatively small, allowing the diffusion of African cultural traits; also there was a strong bond amongst slaves as they had a high mortality rate. This was a fertile ground for a syncretic religion like Voodoo to develop and take hold. The use of amulets and charms in these early days, either for protection or to curse others was essential for survival. The African trait of ancestor worship also resulted in the emphasis on respect for elders, which meant old slaves were well looked after.
Voodoo thrived and developed the most in the era of the 1830s and 1930s; it saw the emergence of the Voodoo Queen, the growing use of gris gris, and the introduction of African language to Creole culture. Voodoo grew, fusing with the Catholic saints and developing the sounds and rhythms that eventually developed Jazz. The Mardi Gras also became associated with Voodoo and ritual moved into the processional. The 19th century also saw the reign of Marie Laveau, famous as the most powerful Voodoo Queen in all of New Orleans. Her powers were formidable and respected. She held rituals at her home, also carrying out healing and helping the poor. She was also a devout Catholic and encouraged her followers to do the same.  From the 1930s, Voodoo became commercialised thanks to Hollywood, but the negative portrayal of the religion sent its traditional practitioners into obscurity. Voodoo became a tourist attraction to visitors in New Orleans, who were rebuffed by priests and priestesses for requesting favours. As traditional practioners fell into the shadows, people spotting a quick buck soon set themselves up in business selling gris gris and related material to the tourists. Traditionally, Voodoo practioners didn’t charge for this. The result was that a set of folk beliefs known as Hoodoo grew up, servicing the tourist market.

Today, Voodoo still thrives in Louisiana, but is carried out away from the prying eyes of the eager tourist. Rituals are carried out privately, as doing them in public is disrespectful to the spirits. Witch doctors, who probably have more in common with the negative stereotype of Voodoo, are shunned in New Orleans. Voodoo is a force for good. Queens and gris gris are also to be found. With gris gris, it’s the intent of the magic that counts. The word gris gris is an African term, originating in Senegal and Mali. Gris gris  is used for a number of things, from love and power to luck and breaking hexes. As for Voodoo dolls, their purpose is not to kill or curse, but also to heal – sticking a pin in the doll represents releasing a positive force into a person’s life. Modern Voodoo has a strong emphasis on helping and healing. It is used to treat a number of things including anxiety and addiction. The spirits still play a prominent role. Marie Laveau is seen as an important ancestor spirit. Both Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners petition her to interact on their behalf. Her grave in St Louis Cemetery receives more visitors than Elvis Presley’s tomb in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.

Other Sources of information:

Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

The Voodoo Museum, New Orleans


The Ballad of Resurrection Mary by M J Steel Collins

When he asked a beautiful blonde girl in a white dress to dance with him at a Chicago area ballroom one night in 1939, Jerry Pallas didn’t realise he was about to have an experience that would stay with him for good. The pair danced all night, but the girl was somewhat reticent when Jerry spoke to her. All she was willing to tell him was that her name was Mary, and that she lived near Archer Avenue. The other strange thing was her hands being extremely cold to the touch.  When the evening ended, Mary accepted Jerry’s offer of a ride home. They had driven a few miles up Archer Avenue, when Mary told him to stop suddenly at the gates of Resurrection Cemetery. Getting out the car, Mary informed a confused Jerry that he couldn’t follow her. He watched as she walked towards the cemetery gates, evaporating into thin air without warning.
And so began what is probably the most famous ghost story to come out of the United States, the tale of Resurrection Mary. To quote one supernatural fiction writer, “It’s so famous; it’s almost in the big book of ghost clichés.” The experience of Jerry Pallas is perhaps the most famous encounter with the mysterious Mary, and one Jerry attested to until his death in 1992. But his is just one of many reported over several decades from Justice, Illinois, a few miles from Chicago, where Mary roams.
The basic gist of the story goes like this. During the early 1930s, Mary and her boyfriend had gone out to a dance at the O’Henry ballroom, but the pair had a row. Irate, Mary left the O’Henry to get away from her lad, walking home alone along Archer Avenue. At some point along the way, she was killed by a hit and run driver, whose identity was never discovered. Her grieving parents had her interred at the Resurrection Cemetery, which lies on the same road she where she died. She was buried in the dancing dress and shoes she was wearing that fateful night. A few short years later, her spirit began appearing at the O’Henry ballroom (though Pallas himself was actually at the Liberty Grove and Hall in Chicago), dancing the night away with happy young men, who only realised why she was cold to the touch after she mysteriously vanished from their cars when they drove her home.
This was one of Mary’s favourite things to do in her earlier haunting days. Later on, she would follow the classic phantom hitchhiker motif of being picked up by drivers taking pity on her standing at the roadside, then vanishing as they drove by or stopped at Resurrection Cemetery. One famous incident occurred in 1976 at midnight one snowy evening.  A taxi driver was driving along Archer Avenue after dropping off a fare and saw her standing near a shopping mall. Given she was wearing only a ball gown and dancing shoes to protect her from the weather, he assumed she was a young woman experiencing car trouble and stopped to give her a ride home. He found she was vague in her directions, and was surprised when she asked him to stop outside the cemetery gates. He looked out to where she pointed, but could only see a shack. When he looked back, she had disappeared. The car door hadn’t even been opened.
A rather more dangerous trick Mary has gotten up to is running out into the path of oncoming cars. The drivers would brake, anticipating the accident. Some would feel their cars hit something, and would get out to look for her body, only to find the road empty, or Mary would vanish a split second before impact. In the 1930s, around about when Jerry Pallas encountered her, drivers would complain, not only of this, but also of a young woman trying to jump on the running board of their cars as they drove by the cemetery. Resurrection Mary was creating quite a stir.
In the 1960s, Chet’s Melody Lounge opened in the old tavern building directly across the road from the Resurrection Cemetery gates. The bar seems to have played host to Mary in a roundabout way. Several times, angry taxi drivers have stormed in, demanding to know where the young blonde girl who had skipped out on her fare on arrival outside the bar was hiding. One minute they would be driving along with her in the seat, the next, she would be gone. On other occasions, upset drivers would run in to ask bar staff to call the emergency services, believing they had hit someone, when it was Mary running in front of their cars. These days, bar now holds Resurrection Mary events and sells T-Shirts devoted to her.
Reports of sightings and encounters of Mary escalated during the 1970s, when many people would see her walking by the roadside, or have her jump out in front of their cars. Troy Taylor, the Illinois ghostlorist, stated in an interview with the Travel Channel, that during the 1970s, the ‘term’ graves of Resurrection Cemetery had been dug up and moved elsewhere. Term graves are temporary plots rented out to families to lay their loved ones at rest, until they were able to buy a gravesite. Taylor reckoned that Mary’s body had been in one of the removed term graves. The re-siting had confused her, causing her ghost to be more active as it couldn’t find its resting place. She also reverted back to dropping in on local nightspots in 1973, when she was seen in Harlow’s nightclub on Cicero St in Chicago.
In 1976, a motorist driving past Resurrection Cemetery late one night saw a young woman standing behind the locked cemetery gates, looking out as she held on to the bars. Thinking someone had been locked in by accident, the motorist stopped in at the local police station to raise the alarm. An officer was dispatched to check it out, but saw no one there. What he did see, however, in the beam of his torch, was that two bars on the cemetery gates had been bent back, complete with scorch marks, which also had two small hand prints in the middle.  This brought a lot of curious visitors to the cemetery gates. The cemetery operators had the offending bars removed to discourage sightseers. This led to questions of what they had to hide, embarrassing the city council, who ordered the bars be returned. The story told by the council was that sewage maintenance workers had backed their truck into the gates by accident, whilst carrying out repairs in the area. The scorch marks were the result of the workers using a blowtorch to bend the bars back into shape. Not many were convinced. The gates were repainted, but the paint didn’t cover the offending marks for long. Also, people were still seeing the imprint of hands in the centre of the marks. The offending bars were on the gates until recently, when they were removed for good.
Mary kept quite active during the 1980s. In 1980, Claire Lopez-Rudnicki, her husband and two friends were driving along Archer Avenue, when they saw Mary walking by the side of the road very slowly, her hair and dress luminous in the dark. Claire remembered the old tales of Resurrection Mary and was terrified. Her husband, Mark, noticed that when he looked, there was a dark space where Mary’s face should have been. On turning back for another look, the figure was gone. At the end of the decade, in 1989, Janet Kalal and a friend decided to go for a drive one night. They were passing Resurrection Cemetery, when they saw a young girl racing out the cemetery gates and into the path of the car. There was no impact. Janet’s friend knew exactly what was going on, having been told the story of Resurrection Mary by her father, who had read newspaper reports of the ghost in 1939.
From the 1990s onwards, Mary became less active, though motorists still reported the odd encounter. She is still around, however, surprising people when they least expect it. One incident during the 1990s was definitely not the ghost. Cook County Sheriff Department officers caught a man wearing a blonde wig and dress covered in glowing liquid in some trees by the side of Archer Avenue. He was in the company of friends, one of whom was carrying a camcorder. It turned out that unlikely group had been walking down Archer for almost ten years every Hallowe’en, one of them dressed as Mary in order to scare motorists. Seeing the funny side, the officers let the gang off with a warning not to do it again. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen, and one of their number, dragged up as Mary was arrested. He was handcuffed and shown into a cruiser, replete with blonde wig and glowing dress…
The complexities of Resurrection Mary’s tale highlight a ghost story that has really been taken into the heart of the public. She has also made quite the impact on popular culture. Three songs have been written about her, The Ballad of Resurrection Mary, which can be heard on the jukebox in Chet’s Melody Lounge, Blackmore Nights I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Ian Hunter’s Resurrection Mary, both of which can be found on YouTube. She is also the subject of a 2005 horror film Resurrection Mary, which has the questionable plot of her being a murderous ghost. Seeing the trailer was enough for me!
She is quite a popular target for ghost enthusiasts, who regularly visit the cemetery, Chet’s Melody Lounge and the O’Henry ballroom, now renamed the Willowbrook. Several people, notably Ursula Bielski, have carried out extensive research in an attempt to identify who Mary was in real life. There were three candidates, all successfully discounted. The first is Mary Bregovy, who died in a car accident in 1927. She was perhaps taken to be Mary thanks to one John Satala mentioning in an interview that he had spoken to a cemetery caretaker who had seen Resurrection Mary a few times, believing her to be Mary Bregovy. However, Mary Bregovy died in Wacker Drive, Chicago, when the car she was in struck a raised railway support, Mary flying through the windshield. This particular Mary was a brunette and was buried in an orchid coloured gown. The ghost in question is blond and wears a white gown, and reputedly died in Archer Avenue.
Anna ‘Mary’ Norkus is another name given for the ghost. She supposedly died in a car accident on Archer driving home after an evening at the O’Henry, which her father treated her to for her 12th birthday in 1934.  The age of Anna at her death rules her out rather quickly, as well as records telling a different story to her tragic end, which actually occurred in 1927. The ghost appears to be much older than 12. There are also a number of other myths surrounding Anna as Resurrection Mary, but I feel its best not to retell them. A third candidate is Mary Miskowsky or Miskowski. Family of this Mary have claimed that she died around 1930 after a car accident when she was crossing the road to go to a fancy dress party. Another dig through the records by Chicago enthusiast have put the skibosh on that, as it seems Mary Miskowsky either didn’t exist or was a misspelling of another name.
It all shows how mythology can build up around a popular ghost story. Facts are separated from the truth and absorbed into the spooky grapevine. The retelling of a story also adds some interesting extras. Resurrection Mary is the classic phantom hitchhiker tale turned up to eleven and given extra fancy parts. For instance, some later versions of Jerry Pallas’ night with the mysterious girl end with Jerry going to the address she gave him on the ride home. An old woman answered the door, but denied that a young woman fitting that description lived there. However, as leaves, Jerry catches sight of a photo of Mary, only to be told that the girl in the picture was the elderly lady’s daughter, who had died in a crash five years earlier. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any need to go trawling through Chicago’s death records to find out more about Mary Bregovy and company.

Joints of The Damned: America’s Haunted Prisons by Amy Van De Casteele and MJ Steel Collins

Cells at Moundsville Photo Courtesy of Eric Glosser

Prisons in modern-day America are quite comfortable places these days compared to bygone years, containing relatively spacious cells supplied with adequate light, heating and running water. Capital punishment is a thing of the past in most places, and torture of prisoners is no longer sanctioned (although unfortunately it is not eradicated). In previous centuries, by contrast, prisons were places of horror, with cramped reeking cells and reputations of brutality among both staff and inmates. Many prisoners died horrible deaths and the imprint of their misery has been left on the buildings, which housed them in their final days. When you became a prison inmate you faced the threat of abuse meted out by your fellow convicts or the guards, and prisoners developed a ‘code of conduct’ which included: minding your own business, not being a snitch, and not attracting attention. Unfortunately, this code of conduct didn’t say much about beating, raping or even murdering fellow inmates

Johnny Cash attempted to get beyond any notions that those incarcerated in America’s prisons should be left there to rot. Folsom Prison was one that had a marked effect on him. He first became aware of Folsom whilst still in the US Air Force, when he saw a film about conditions in the jail. Following his stint in the Air Force, Cash embarked on his music career, his first big hit being “Folsom Prison Blues”. It was shortly after this release he began playing in prisons on a regular basis, which culminated in his acclaimed albums, At Folsom and At San Quentin in the late 1960s. Playing these shows brought home to Cash the human side of prison life. He was aware that the prisoners were there for a reason, but part of him that ached for hopelessness of the inmate’s lot. Cash was known for his activism on prisoner’s rights; in 1973, he gave evidence to the US Senate’s Subcommittee on Prison Reform. He successfully campaigned for the release of Folsom Prisoner Glen Sherley, a talented musician, on Parole in 1971. Cash took responsibility for Sherley, giving him a job on the Johnny Cash Show. However, it was a tough call. By the late 1970s, Cash had given up his prison shows as he found it too hard to bear. Glen Sherley was fired from the Johnny Cash Show due to erratic and threatening behaviour. Sherley eventually killed himself in 1978. Johnny Cash paid for his funeral.

Unsurprisingly, prisons have always been rife with mental illness. Recent reports have shown that 20% of US inmates suffer from a serious mental illness – most commonly manifested as psychosis – and the same would have been true years ago. Some prisoners were also driven mad by the cruel torments doled out to them by their guards. With such a culture of brutality and unhappiness, it is not difficult to imagine that many tormented spirits must still roam the corridors of America’s prisons, unable or unwilling to leave the housing of their injustice.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison is an imposing grey-stone building with twin turrets located on West Walnut Street in the remote town of Rawlins. This state penitentiary-turned-museum boasts a colourful history, “as elaborate as the plot of a classic western movie” according to its official website. Although its first cornerstone was laid down in 1888, the Frontier Prison was opened in December 1901 with only 104 cells and no running water or electricity. The cells were frequently overcrowded and poorly heated, until the construction of Cell Block B in 1950 helped to ease the problem. As in many other prisons around the world punishment was a key part of penitentiary life and the prison was well equipped to mete out its fair share of ‘discipline’, with its own dungeon and ‘punishment pole’ where men would be restrained and beaten.

Fourteen executions took place in the prison, using the gallows or a gas chamber, and other prisoners died trying to escape or took their own lives. One man was lynched by his fellow prisoners and two others died from hypothermia because of the lack of heat in their cells. Several guards also lost their lives, murdered by the prisoners they were in charge of. With such a gruesome history, it is unsurprising then that Frontier Prison has developed a reputation as being a haunted location, so much, so that paranormal tours are now held there and the building has even been visited by the ever enthusiastic Ghost Adventures crew. Some of the documented paranormal activity in the penitentiary includes disembodied voices, apparitions glimpsed out of the corner of an eye and experiences of a malevolent presence, which haunts the Dungeon. A number of chilling EVP’s have also been recorded inside the prison, including the voice of a little girl wailing. Ghost enthusiasts can participate in regular hunts run at the prison, which now operates as a museum.

In West Virginia, the Moundsville Penitentiary was established in 1876, operating for 119 years, until its closure in 1995. During the time of the of the prison’s operation, the small town of Moundsville grew up around it, sitting on the Ohio River. In that same time, the prison got notorious as one of the nastiest in the United States, making it into the top ten of Department of Justice’s list of the most violent institutions. The harshness of life in Moundsville Pen was established almost from the get go; in the 1880s, it emerged that prisoners were subjected to brutality and torture. Between 1899 and 1959, 94 inmates were executed. The majority of this was by hanging, which the public were free to come and watch until June 19 1931, when the botched hanging of Frank Hyer, a convicted murder, resulted in his head ripped off by the noose. As well as the executions, there were also numerous suicides and murders amongst the inmates. Around 998 in total died serving time in here. In later years, there were riots and escapes, which also resulted in the deaths of prisoners, staff and law enforcement officers. The murder of prisoner R.D Wall in 1929 seems to have given rise to the first stories to emerge from Moundsville Penitentiary. Wall was assigned a job in maintenance, looking after the boiler room. Unpopular with the general prison populace, many suspected him to be a ‘ratter’ who informed the prison authorities of what other inmates were up to. Wall was sitting on the boiler room’s latrine when a group of prisoners attacked him with handmade weapons. It was an unpleasant end. Three of Wall’s fingers and the top of his head were cut off while he was still alive. Guards found his headless body in the toilet stall.

Shortly after this, in the 1930s, s monitoring the prison grounds for escaping prisoners began seeing a strange figure outside. Every time the alarm was sounded and investigations carried out, but there was no escapee. Soon stories of ghosts abounded. Wall’s spirit still roams the boiler room, seen by visitors on regular occasions. In the area where he died, there have been reports of the apparition of a face, as well as reports of disembodied voices. His is the most famous ghost in a prison full of them. It’s difficult to catalogue every ghost that roams Moundsville Penitentiary. As one ex- put it, “They died inside these walls; that’s where their souls stay.” The Sugar Shack, a huge recreational area in the prison’s basement is a hot bed of uncanny experiences. Prisoners would go in here when the weather prevented them from using the outside yard, and officers didn’t exactly supervise it. Unpleasant things happened there, including murder. There are cold spots and disembodied voices, whispering and arguing, often heard. Other apparitions have been reported. The Shadow Man is another famous ghost. No one is sure who it is. It lurks in the dark corners of the cells and hallways, disconcerting anyone who encounters it. No distinguishing facial features can be discerned; it is just a big outline of darkness, which has been photographed on several occasions. There is a legend that the prison was built on an ancient Native American burial ground, causing the prison to be cursed.

Across the country in South Carolina, the Old Charleston Jail also boasts its fair share of ghostly happenings and gruesome tales. Between 1802 and 1939 this historic building housed the area’s most notorious criminals – among them the country’s first female serial killer Lavinia Fisher, whose famous last words were “If anyone has a message for the Devil, give it to me and I’ll deliver it, for I will be seeing him in a moment”. Also executed in the jail were freed slave Denmark Vesey and poor Daniel Duncan who was hanged for murdering a businessman, even though evidence later came to light which proved his innocence. As if an undeserved conviction wasn’t enough, Duncan’s execution was botched and it took 39 minutes for him to slowly strangle to death on the end of the rope – an awful end to an innocent life.

With such a brutal history and having played host to so many troubled souls, it takes no great leap of the imagination to think that the Old Charleston Jail must be haunted. Bulldog Tours, a company that runs a number of historic and paranormal tours through Charleston, have had their fair share of run-ins with the Jail’s tormented spirits. One female tour guide and a member of her tour group both witnessed a skull with red glowing eyes that peered out of its cell at her and then disappeared back inside the gloomy room. If this wasn’t spooky enough other creepy experiences documented inside the jail include cell doors slamming for no reason, women being touched inappropriately by a perverted male spirit and the appearance of a female apparition dressed in a white wedding gown walking up a prison stairway.

Over in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania, Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, as a new kind of prison. Instead of punishment, its aim was rehabilitation. Prisoners lived in permanent solitary confinement. The metal grate door of each cell was covered by a wooden one to prevent prisoners from talking to one another. Inmates moving from their cells had to wear masks over their faces to hide them from other prisoners. The idea was that solitary confinement would make prisoners reflect and eventually turn to God. However, it didn’t work out that way. The disconnection from other people drove many prisoners mad. By 1913, experts recognised that continuous isolation caused mental illness and the prison was overhauled and extended. The prison population expanded to 1700. Despite it being originally designed for rehabilitation, torture was frequent. Prisoners who broke the no communication policy were punished with an iron gag clamp. Some would be strapped to the Mad Chair for days and denied food. They normally went insane . Murder was not uncommon. Wire mesh was put up under the railings of upstairs cellblocks, as prisoners were able to reach through the grate doors of their cells and push guards over the rail. In 1830, a guard was brutally murdered by inmate Joseph Taylor, who beat his victim to death with a piece of weaving machinery in the exercise yard before going back to his cell and falling asleep. For all its horror, the prison was in fact world famous in the 19th century, and many prisons around the world were based on its design. Charles Dickens visited in the 1840s and found the conditions deplorable.

Ghostly activity was first reported during the 1940s, with night staff reporting hearing strange voices. However, strange things were reported earlier than that when Al Capone was held in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1929 and 1930. Capone believed he was haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Clark, a victim of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and could be heard by guards yelling at something to leave him alone. After the prison closed in 1970, reports of paranormal phenomenon increased. Visitors to the abandoned edifice heard the shuffle of feet in cells, and sobs of long gone inmates. Strange shadows and noises are encountered all over the prison, now opened as a tourist attraction. Cellblock 12 is famous for eerie laughter, whilst a shadowy figure still stands watching from one of the towers. One famous encounter occurred when a locksmith was working on picking open a 140-year-old lock on a cell in Block 4. Suddenly, he froze on the spot and saw hundreds of anguished faces on the cell walls. Strange figures wafted about the entire block, whilst another, dark figure beckoned to him. Some say when the locksmith unlocked the cell, he unleashed all the tortured souls trapped inside, who were delighted to get out…

Arguably, the most haunted prison in America must be Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. In operation for nearly 30 years, this maximum-security jail housed some of America’s most notorious inmates, including the aforementioned Al Capone, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Robert Franklin Stroud (also known as the Birdman of Alcatraz). The question is, did Jimmy Clark follow Capone? The prison was proud of its claim that no prisoner had ever escaped, even though many attempts had been made. Thirteen prisoners are believed to have died trying to free themselves from the island prison, although five of their bodies were unaccounted for. Other prisoners were executed in Alcatraz by electric chair or by hanging, and one person died in the Punishment cell – a lightless room where prisoners who had ‘misbehaved’ were locked for up to two weeks. The prisoners who suffered this awful treatment reported that something had been in the room with them, and when the unfortunate man died, it was believed that one of the ghosts of Alcatraz was responsible.

There have been many reports of ghostly activity inside the jail. One story associated with Al Capone involves unexplained banjo music being heard from the prison showers, where he used to practise his music because he was too afraid to go out into the prison yard. However, paranormal manifestations surrounded the Mafioso even before his death. As well as the ghost of Jimmy Clark, supposedly, Capone was also tormented by the spirit of Myles O’ Bannion and it is thought that this is what eventually drove him mad. To this day people can still hear O’ Bannion’s ghostly laughter ringing out through the prison. There have also been reports of cold spots in various places around the prison, and unexplained clanging and crying has been heard. The distinctive smell of smoke has also been detected even though there was no fire anywhere in the penitentiary at the time. Warden Johnston himself once heard unexplained crying and encountered a simultaneous blast of cold air, which he simply could not explain.

We end our tour at Mansfield, Ohio, home to the Mansfield Reformatory, also known as Ohio State Reformatory. In 1861, the ground on which the Reformatory now sits was a training camp for troops in the Civil War. By 1867, the site was mooted as a potential spot for a new Intermediate Reformatory, specifically for first time offenders between the ages of 16 and 21, who might still change. The institution took years to complete; though it opened in 1896, it was only fully built in 1910. In its early years, it was indeed a reformatory rather than a prison. The thinking behind the grandiose architecture was that it would improve the morality of inmates, who were also provided with a high school education and taught a trade. However, reformatory became a maximum-security prison, bringing all the associated problems. Life was tough and violence amongst prisoners rife. Discipline was also harsh – solitary confinement was the dreaded punishment, though there were also tales of abuse by prison staff. The solitary area of Mansfield was called The Hole. The temperature was deliberately kept high. Prisoners wore cotton jump suits, and were locked in cramped cells with no lights. The typical duration in The Hole was three days. Some went mad during that time. The Hole was the scene of some gory murders. In 1938, an inmate broke a piece of piping from the inside of his cell, opened the lock on the cell door, and bludgeoned a passing guard to death with the piping. Another occasion, two inmates were locked in a single occupancy cell. In the morning, only one man was alive, having murdered the other and stuffed his body under the cell bunk. A riot broke out in 1957, and the resulting punishment saw 120 inmates being kept in the tiny 20 cells of The Hole for a 30-day stint. The prison, regarded as an affront by Civil Rights activists, finally closed in 1990. In 1995, it was taken over by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, which now runs it as a museum and protects the structure against further deterioration.

Today, Ohio State Reformatory is seen as spine-chilling place. It’s so notorious for haunting that the Preservation Society runs regular ghost hunts. Not surprisingly, The Hole is a hot bed of activity. Visitors report glowing eyes peering at them from shadowy corners, if they’re not being poked and slapped. On one occasion, an old man was knocked to the floor by something unseen. Women are also a favourite target for slaps and hair pulling. Show fear in that place, and you’re fresh meat. The author of Haunted Ohio, Chris Woodyard, is scared to visit the prison. In a video short for Our Ohio, she describes not touching the walls, which she describes as being soaked in despair, for fear of taking ‘something’ away with her. The basement is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a 14-year-old boy who was beaten to death and an ex-employee called George. Something lurks in the graveyard, whilst the ghost of a woman has been reported in the prison library, either the spirit of a nurse murdered by an inmate or Helen Glattke, a former Warden’s wife. Helen died in 1950 after accidentally shooting herself when she knocked a gun from a shelf in the Warden’s quarters. Her husband died in 1959 from a heart attack whilst hard at work in his office. These days, visitors report strange things happening in the Administration building, particularly around the Warden’s lodgings. Warden Glattke and his wife have been heard in conversation, and the light smell of perfume occasionally wafts from the Warden’s private toilet. Echoes of the past? Who knows.

America, England, Serbia

Tales of the Blood Drinkers by Amy Van De Casteele


Of all the mythological creatures that stalk the pathways of our subconscious and haunt our folk tales and legends, vampires are perhaps the ones that charm, seduce and frighten us the most. Wicked creatures which prey upon humans – both the dead and the living – and drink their blood, vampires in one form or another have shadowed our footsteps for thousands of years, perhaps even since prehistoric times. Belief in vampires can be found throughout the world, from America to Romania, Greece, Persia and even China.
The belief in these blood drinkers has been so prevalent and so powerful that each culture has developed differing ways of knowing – and slaying – a vampire; there are also many different apotropaics (wards) to fend off vampires. Garlic is the most famous one, but some of the others which have been used throughout the centuries include aloe vera, mustard seeds, hawthorn, mirrors and holy water. People also developed special practises to protect themselves, such as placing a bag of grain or seeds over the grave of a suspected vampire corpse; supposedly vampires are rather obsessive and will spend their time counting every single grain or seed. This would keep it busy all night long and prevent it from going off in search of human prey.
In Eastern European folklore, a vampire was thought to be a ghost or animated corpse come back to plague the living; it might also be a witch, or a demon which had taken possession of a corpse. They were said to be recognizable by their bloated appearance and often leaked blood from the mouth or nose. The body of a dead person would be suspected of being a vampire if it had an unnaturally ‘healthy’ appearance, was bloated and had blood oozing from the face. Panic would ensue and these corpses would be staked, or have their heads cut off and buried between their feet. Only recently, in the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, skeletons thought to be more than 8oo years old were found with iron rods embedded in their chest cavities to stop them from rising up over the grave. And these are not the first – many such graves have been unearthed throughout Bulgaria.
But metal rods were not the only means of destroying would-be vampires. In Venice, on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, a medieval female skeleton has been discovered with a brick thrust between her teeth, and a male skeleton dug up in the English town of Southwell had been pierced with metal spikes through his chest, his shoulders and his ankles. This was one of England’s few documented ‘vampire’ burials, and serves to impress on us the depth of fear and distrust which people felt in those times towards these mythological beings.
One of the most famous of these ‘real’ vampires was Arnold Paole. Arnold was an 18thcentury Serbian who served in the Austrian Army before returning to his home town of Meduegna. There he related how he had suffered a troubling encounter with a vampire during his military service and had taken the preventative measure of eating soil from the vampire’s grave site and daubing its blood all over him. However, after his death in 1752, he apparently resurrected himself and began to plague the people of his village. Four people died, and ten days later Arnold’s grave was opened up. The villagers were shocked to discover that his corpse had not begun to decompose and blood streamed from his eyes, nose, ears and mouth. His nails had also fallen out and new ones had grown in their place. Convinced that he must be a vampire, the villagers drove a stake through his heart and burned him. They repeated this procedure with the bodies of the four victims who had died days before.
However this was not the end of the vampire attacks, as several years later there was a new rash of deaths. Before her death one of the victims confessed to having eaten sheep slaughtered by vampires, and another had covered herself with vampire blood in order to protect herself from such things, after the fashion of the Ottomans. In her Serbian homeland, however, this meant that she would surely become a vampire.
Eventually so many people died from apparent vampire attacks that a medical professional was brought in to assess the situation. He concluded that the deaths were caused by malnutrition and the strictness of their religious fasting. When some of the dead were exhumed, however, he was stunned to find that many of the corpses had not yet begun to decompose, and were oozing blood. Other professionals were sent to re-assess the bodies and related the same findings, in more detail. The bodies that had not decomposed were duly decapitated and burned as vampires, and their ashes were cast into the water of the river.
Another famous vampire story is that of Mercy Brown, a 19th century girl who lived in Exeter, New England. Several of Mercy’s family members contracted tuberculosis – her mother first and then her older sister. Both women died, and Mercy’s brother Edwin became very ill with the disease, as did Mercy herself. Mercy was the third to die, passing away on January 17 1892. However she was not left to rest in peace. Because superstitions at that time stated that the cause for several members of one family dying was paranormal activity, it was said that one of the family must have been a vampire. The bodies of the three women were exhumed and Mercy’s body was found to be hardly decomposed and there was blood inside her heart. This duly pointed her out as a vampire and the cause of the deaths; her heart was taken out and burnt, and the ashes were mixed with water which Edwin was made to drink. It did not save him, however, and he died two months afterwards.
To modern minds, these stories might seem amazing and even a little hard to believe. But belief in vampires is still prevalent today. More recent news stories prove this. In Louisiana in 1996 a ‘vampire clan’ of youths were arrested for the double murder of one of the teenager’s parents. These modern ‘vampires’ indulged in graveyard rituals and drank blood from each other’s arms and from small animals in an attempt to give themselves more power and strength.
Meanwhile, a woman from Colorado told police that she had crashed her SUV because she was startled by a vampire who appeared in the road before her and, more famously, there have even been reports that a vampire lurks in London’s Highgate Cemetery.  There have also been several outbreaks of vampirism in parts of Africa in recent times. A few years ago in Malawi, vampire hysteria broke out after a number of villagers reported being attacked by blood-suckers, and one man who was thought to be in league with the vampires was stoned to death. The rumours of vampires, however, were dismissed by the president who said that they had been spread by members of the opposition.
In America ‘real-life’ vampires aren’t viewed with such hysterical fear anymore – but with deep-set suspicion and, often, disgust. But the vampire culture is alive and growing; these days, among some circles of society, it’s considered cool to be a pale, be-fanged blood-drinker – if a bit weird. People trying to live the vampire lifestyle file their teeth and drink human blood, or engage in ‘psychic’ feeding if they are a so-called ‘psi’ vampire. Depending on their preference they might wear elaborate costumes – usually black – and shun the sunlight, holding down night-time jobs. Because of the popularity of the vampire ‘image’ more people are choosing to ‘become’ vampires; some even believe they were born like it. So the next time you walk down the street, look around you with an open mind – there could be a vampire walking past you or sitting at a pavement café, in dark glasses and a black trench coat. The vampire of myth and legend may be undead; but vampires nowadays are still alive and well.