The Bunyip

Despite its cutesy name, the Bunyip is a beast to be feared. It makes its home primarily in the creeks and swamps of Australia. It is amphibious and has been described in a variety of ways, although the consensus is it has a round head, long neck, and a body that looks something like a cross between an ox and a manatee. A report in the Wagga Advocate in 1872 said ‘it was half as long as a retriever dog... its body was jet black.’ You can tell one is near if you hear "booming or roaring noises" and you should pay heed to these noises, as they are notorious for having a taste for human flesh...especially for women and children.

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Bunyips appear to be nocturnal and does its best work creeping up on animals and humans in the dark. For this reason, Aboriginal tribes were understandably frightened to go near any waterholes, wells, swamps, and waterbeds after dark. 

Long before Europeans ever set foot on Australia, the Aboriginal tribes told tales of the Bunyip. Bill Wannan, a researcher of Australian folkore told the Murray River team, which specializes in tourism, "that old Aborigines told him that the ‘bunyips devoured humans, coming up on them in silence and when least expected."

When Europeans began to land and make contact with Aboriginal tribes they heard tell of the Bunyip. It is believed that Europeans might have, originally, deeply feared the Bunyip. Why? As Folklore Thursday succintly puts it, "Imagine [the First Fleet of British people, half of which were convicts] first reactions to seeing a kangaroo, an echidna or a platypus? No wonder the tales of the Bunyip were accepted by the settlers." After seeing so many strange creature, who were they to take a skeptic route when it came to the Bunyip. 

As noted, eye-witness accounts tend to be spotty regarding a similar description bu they can all agree on one thing...whatever they saw terrified them. 

A newspaper article from 1845 reports, "The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the forelegs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the (natives) say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height."

The 1800s seemed to be the most popular time for reported Bunyip sightings and a “Bunyip skull” was discovered in 1846 and put on display. However, it was later found out to be a hoax and was likely the skull of a deformed horse or cow.

What are some of the more skeptic approaches to the Bunyip? Well, it might be the "rare appearance of fugitive seals far upstream" and the cry itself might be "that of the bittern marsh bird." Others claim the Bunyip may be an old "cultural memory of the diproodon passed down from the times when mega fauna roamed the Australian landscape." Diprotodons resembled giant wombats and was over three meters long. It might also simply be a cautionary tale to avoid midnight jaunts around swamps one could easily fall and drown in. Real or not, I think an Australian swamp is one of the last places I'd like to be. 

 

 

The above image is public domain. 
   
Caption: ABORIGINAL MYTHS. - THE BUNYIP (caption) - photomechanical reproduction : halftone. State Library of Victoria Accession Number: IAN01/10/90/12 Image Number: mp006089 Notes: Print published in the Illustrated Australian news. Title printed below image l.c. Publication:    Melbourne : David Syme & Co., Engraved in image l.l.: J. Macfarlane

Is 50 Berkeley Square the Most Haunted House in London?

This blog is taking us across the pond to jolly old England. Emphasis on "old" and the older a place is, the better chance it has to be mired in mystery, misery, and a haunting presence. Specifically, we'll be discussing some of the myth and mystery behind 50 Berkeley Square in London which has allegedly been haunted for 200+ years.

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Haunted Houses by Charles Harper, published in 1913, writes about Berkeley in his book. Although he recognizes that the house has little scare to it in the early 1900s he notes that there was a time "When number 50 wore an exceedingly uncared for appearance. Soap, paint, and whitewash were unused for years, and grime clung to brickwork and Windows alike. The area was choked with wasted hand-bills, wisps of straw, and all the accumulations that speedily made a derelict London house. The very picture of misery; and every passing stranger stopped the first errand-boy, and asked various questions, to which the answer was, generally, " 'aunted 'ouse,"; or, if the question happened to be "Who lives there?" the obvious reply was "Ghostesses..."

(sidenote: "Ghostesses" is my new favorite word)

50 Berkeley Square stands four-stories tall and was construction began in 1740 and lasted through the early 19th centuries. It was created by architect William Kent and is located in the West End of London. The square itself boasts several impressive tenants like Winston Churchill and Robert Clive. Although we don't quite know the ver first tenants of the home, we do know that it was the home of George Canning in the early 1800s until his death in 1827 whereupon it was leased by Miss Curzon, who would live there until her own death at the age of 90 in 1859. It would later be host to dozens of tenants - ranging from hermits to families.

When Canning as living in the house, it was said that he reported strange noises coming from the uppermost floors but never told anyone anything terrified him, nor did he see the brown horror...something the house would eventually become infamous for.

One of the earliest accounts of the haunted home took place in 1840. When Robert Warboys, a 20-year old student, stayed the night as a bet. You see, the house had already acquired a bit of a neighborhood reputation but nothing beyond gossip had been taken seriously until this day.  Warboys thought it was just town gossip and eagerly agreed to spend a night alone in the second floor bedroom. He persuaded the landlord to let him stay the night. The landlord was hesitant to relinquish the room, but gave it to Warboys on two conditions: 

1. Warboys needed to be armed, preferably with a pistol.

2. At the first sign of anything "unusual", the landlord should be summoned immediately through a cord that hung in the room and linked to a bell n the landlord's room.

Warboys agreed.

Shortly after midnight, Warboys was finally alone in the room and settling into sleep. Not an hour had passed when the landlord heard a frantic ringing. He sprinted upstairs and unlocked the door. At first glance, nothing in the room was amiss. Until the landlord's eyes landed on Warboys. The fearless, strong young man of a few hours ago was now cowering in the corner and wearing an expression of pure terror. A pistol, recently shot, was still smoking. A bullet was embedded in the wall. Warboys did not explain what had happened and left.

30-odd years later in 1872, another brave man stayed the night in the house on a bet. His name was Lord George Lyttelton. He decided to set up a bed in the attic. Although he did not believe the nonsense stories, like Warboys, he did believe just enough to bring with him a shotgun...just for good measure. That night, according to Lyttelton, an apparition appeared in front of him. It was brown, tendrilled, and misty. He took aim at the strange thing...but found nothing when the smoke cleared. Lyttelton would later in life say that 50 Berkeley Square was "supernaturally fatal to body and mind."

In 1879 a new family was due to move in and their maid was cleaning and preparing the rooms. Specifically, she was preparing a guest room in the attic. Soon after she went upstairs desperate screams were heard. When the family ran up to see what was wrong they saw her, on the floor, backed into the corner and whispering "don't let it touch me." We don't know what the maid saw exactly because after her scare she was taken to the hospital where she died the next day. 

Seemingly unperturbed the incident, the man for whom the room was being prepared, Captain Kentfield, said he still planned to spend the night in that very room. In the evening, he headed upstairs with a candle and the household reports they heard him close the door. Roughly 30 minutes later, terrible screams came from the room followed by a gunshot. The household rushed upstairs to help but found him dead on the floor his face twisted in terror.

It is believed that the thing shot by Lyttelton is what was also seen by the maid, Kentfield, and Warboys. It is known today as the "Nameless thing of Berkeley Square." According to Cryptopia, "This unidentifiable monstrosity is said, by some, to be a vile, phantasmagorical killer from beyond the grave… though there is some evidence to suggest that it may be a bizarre, mutant cephalopod, which lurks in the filthy labyrinth of the London sewer system waiting to rise up and kill again."

In fact, it would return in 1943...30 years after Harper had claimed the house was no longer haunted. Two sailors from Portsmouth, Edward Blunden and Robert Martin needed a place to stay the night after drinking...however, they had spent most of their lodging money. They noticed a "To Let" sign on the then-abandoned 50 Berkeley Square and decided to break into the basement and stay the night. However, they soon found the basement uncomfortable, damp, and full of rats so they travelled upstairs to find a better spot. Well, that spot just so happens to be the now-notorious room.  Blunden apparently expressed to Martin that he felt a presence and distinctly unease, however Martin dismissed this. They started a fire, cracked open a window, and soon fell asleep. Shortly after midnight, like so many of the other stories, Blunden awoke to the floor creaking. This is what followed: "Little by little a sliver of dim, grayish light crept across the wooden floor. Too terrified to move, Blunden managed to wake his accomplice.

The two men sat up as they heard a strange, moist, scraping sound slowly approach them. Later, Martin claimed that it sounded as if something were dragging itself across the floor." The two men leapt to their feat and the creature's tendrils undulated beneath them. Unlike in other stories when Blunden went to grab the rifle, the creature fought back...perhaps it had learned its lesson about guns after all these years. According to Blunden, the creature wrapped itself around the young sailor's throat. Martin, still in a panic, ran from the house and screamed for help and found a police officer. The officer followed him back to the house, however when they went upstairs they found no sign of Blunden. They searched the house and finally made their way to the basement and saw something they were not prepared for. Blunden's dismembered corpse lay in the rock-walled cellar in a heap, with his head turned to the side. The young man's eyes, like so many before him, were filled with terror.

From 1937 to 2015, the house was bought by BP and most recently occupied by Maggs Bros, a firm of antique book dealers. The current owner is not listed. However, as early as 2015 the Maggs Bros were not able to use the uppermost floors of the home. Why? "The police have placed a sign, a warning saying that the upper most rooms are not to be used for anything, not even storage."

 

The above image is from flickr user Centophobia and is liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

The 2014-2017 Fairy Census

Apparently some paperwork infiltrates the paranormal world as well as ours...so, cue the Fairy Census. The research presented in 160,000+ words in this report is courtesy of http://www.fairyist.com/survey/. This is an on-going questionnaire about those who "see fairies, when and why." Surprisingly, the goal of the census is not to prove fairies exist. In fact, the researcher, Simon Young, wants to get a better understanding of who sees fairies and under what circumstances these sightings and experiences happen. 

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While this may seem a little strange, the questionnaire and the study itself will actually be published in association with Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook (ed), Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present (Gibson Square 2017), a collection of fairylore essays by
folklorists and historians.

Here is the information gathered from each experience:

  • Gender
  • The time it took place
  • Age of the respondent when the experience took place
  • Location (in particular...near water, on a country road,  building, etc)
  • Company (alone or with others)
  • Time of day of the experience
  • Duration of the experience
  • Mood of the fairy (friendly, angry, etc)
  • Frequent with which the respondent has supernatural expereince 
  • Any special state reported before the expereince (did you just wake up? were you picking blackberries? etc)
  • Any special phenomena connected to the experience (loss of sense of time, profound silence, etc)

After these base questions, several more follow including:

  • ‘If you heard fairy music or sounds how would you describe these?’
  • ‘Do you know if the place of the experience had a reputation for fairies?’ ‘And if
  • so did you know this prior to your experience?’
  • ‘Why do you think your experience was a fairy experience, as opposed to a ghost or an alien or an angel or some other type of anomalous experience?’
  • ‘What in your opinion are fairies?’
  • ‘Do you have any other comments or thoughts?’ 

It is also important to note that not all contributions were published - including "joke" replies, ones with not information, etc. Young also notes that "I am convinced of the sincerity of the vast, vast majority of respondents. Whether you believe in fairies or not these people clearly had extraordinary experiences, experiences that sometimes changed their lives. In four or five cases I suspect that the respondent made up the account for fun, or found themselves bored late at night on the internet with a whisky. After reading hundreds of accounts you get a feel for patterns within impossible experiences and these suspect accounts don’t conform. I have included the 15 suspect accounts, anyway, because I can hardly edit out experiences that smell rotten, to my subjective and possibly flawed judgment. But, reader, beware!"

One thing that I, and Young, found quite interesting was fairy sightings were sometimes seen as glowing orbs of light. We know that orbs are a bit infamous in the AL world...but could fairies be behind these interesting glimpses in our photos?

Here are some of the sightings that specifically references this phenomena. All page numbers are those noted at the top page of each entry:

  • "At first I thought they were lightning bugs, but the lights weren’t the same as what I remembered from when I was a child. The lights seemed to flutter around and around. Not really landing." - pg 24

 

  • "I was sitting in my living room one night and I saw a little ball of light whizz past the window. Then there were several other little orbs of glowing light. They were around the size of tennis balls, and on closer inspection you could see the outline of spindly little bodies glowing." - pg 67

 

  • "I suddenly had this strong urge to play with my camera by the window. It was dark outside and I pressed halfway down on my camera and through the viewfinder, there were about three large blue orbs right by the window pane, as if they were looking in on us from the outside!" - pg 112

 

  • "When I heard my mom and one of our friends talking excitedly. They kept pointing at something up on the dirt road. I looked up. What they were seeing were lights, like glowing orbs the size of a fist. I remember thinking they were fireflies at first, but they were way too big and they didn’t blink on and off." - pg 221

Another intriguing thing the author notes is the focus of fairy stories from the English-speaking world. Is this because this is where fairies live? Was it because the fairy census was not accessible enough to non-English speakers? What do you think?

 

The above image is an illustration by E. Stuart Hardy for "The Book of Gnomes" Fred. E. Weatherly, 1895. It is liscensed under Public Domain.

Dragonfly

The hunt for alien life, as we have covered here before on the blog, hasn't lost any steam. In late 2017, NASA confirmed the two finalist projects that would be part of its "New Frontiers" program. The first will be named CAESAR and will focus on taking and returning with a sample from the nucleus of a comet. However, the second project, Dragonfly, might be of even more interest to AL listeners. Dragonfly aims to use a drone-like rotorcraft to study the prebiotic chemistry and potential of habilitation on Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

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Both will be funded with $4 million to further work on their idea and in 2019 NASA will choose one to build and launch (likely in the mid 20s). However, if Dragonfly is chosen it wouldn't even be able to arrive at Titan until 2034(ish). 

Now, back to Dragonfly. The project is led by Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle who is a planetary scientist with John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Why Titan? According to what scientists have learned about Titan, it has an "Earth-like landscape of rivers and lakes filled with liquid methane." It also featured hydrocarbon seas that "may contain amino acids and other interesting molecules." 

The Dragonfly researchers succinctly sum up the importance of focusing on Titan on their website, writing: "Titan is an ocean world, and the only moon in our Solar System with a dense atmosphere, which supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface to fill lakes and seas.”

The rotorcraft that would be built for Dragonfly would take samples from air and ground armed with a full suite of spectrometers, drills, and cameras for testing and analysis. It would be able to travel up to 100 kilometers between different sites and would also be able to recharge batteries. This would give the machine a relatively long life span. Turtle says the additional time would allow the team to, "evaluate how far prebiotic chemistry has progressed in an environment where we know we have the ingredients for life."

The above image is a natural color of the crescent Titan was taken on April 19, 2015. It is a public domain image. 

 

The Witch of the Pine Barrens

The Pine Barrens are home to more than one mystery. Although you have heard our Jersey Devil series and read the old blog post about time travel in the Pine Barrens...you might not have heard of the Pine Barrens Witch (or, at least one of them): Peggy Clevenger.

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Peggy lived in a now defunct Piney town - Pasadena. She lived with her husband, William (Bill) Clevenger during the 1800s and, at one time, helped operate a stagecoach Inn in the late 1800s.

From "The Pine Barrens by John McPhee" here is a poem about Peggy:

The Pine Barrens once had their own particular witch
Pineys put salt over their doors to discourage visits
From the witch of the Pines, Peggy Clevenger
It was known she could turn herself into a rabbit, 
For a dog was once seen chasing a rabbit
And the rabbit jumped
Through the window of a house, 
And there - in the same instant
In the window - stood Peggy Clevenger

On another occasion, a man saw a lizard
And tried to kill it with a large rock
When the rock hit the lizard, the lizard disappeared
And Peggy Clevenger materialized on the spot
And smacked the man in the face
Clevenger is a Hessian name

Peggy lived in Pasadena
Another of the now vanished towns
Five miles east of Mt. Misery
It was said she had a stocking full of gold
Her remains were found one morning
In the smoking ruins of her cabin, but
There was no trace of the gold.

ver. 2: 

The Witch of the Pines

Pineys put salt over their door to discourage visits
from the witch of the pines - Peggy Clevenger

It was known
she could turn into a rabbit
For a dog
was once seen chasing a rabbit
and the rabbit jumped through the window of a house

There in the same instant in the window
Stood the form of one Peggy Clevenger

Again, a man saw a lizard to kill
Crushing it with a large rock
The rock hit the lizard and the lizard disappeared

There on the spot to smack the man in the face
Stood Peggy, the Hessian Clevenger

In Pasadena, another
Of the now vanished towns
It was said Peggy
Had a stocking full of gold

In the ruins of the cabin there was no trace of the gold
Only the remains of the witch, Peggy Clevenger

 

Peggy clearly has some "classic" with capabilities - like the ability to turn into a hare (you might remember some of the witch/hare lore from our Bell Witch series). Her other likenesses, such as a Lizard, also align with several aspects of witch lore. Not to mention, she allegedly dwelt only a few miles from Mt. Misery, which sounds very fitting for a witch!

Interestingly we enough, we track down Peggy's identity through two articles, from December 1857, about Peggy Clevenger's death. 

The first is entitled "A Terrible Affair" and was published in the New Jersey Mirror 10 December 1857. The article confirms both her location and fiery death saying, " situate on the Old Shore road, about half way between Mount Misery and Cedar Bridge, was destroyed by fire, one night last week, and sad to relate, Mrs. C. perished in the flames."

The article continues on describing her as "Old Mother Clevenger" and also noting her advanced age and the fact that she lived alone. Although her residence was only a one-story cabin, she was "well known to persons in the habit of travelling the road."

The writer also noted an interesting detail about the week preceding her death: "A night or two previous to the fire, her hogs were poisoned and her horses throat was cut." This seems strangely specific and is quite unsettling. 

Despite her rumors to be a witch, the paper did want to see the culprits brought to justice. The guessed reasoning behind the arson was believed to be because she refused to supply "he drunken brutes at the Coalings with liquor." Although, that is just gossip. Furthermore, this article also mentions that it was known she was "in possession of some money" , which the poem also notes.

The following week, the New Jersey Mirror 17 December 1857 was released with a correction to the article from one of the accused party's employer, JW Cox, stating, "I have made as thorough an investigation as I could, and from the facts I gather from her children and others who were present, I am fully satisfied that no one was implicated in the matter—but that the fire originated from the chimney or fire-place. The old lady was in the habit of providing a bountiful supply of fuel, and piling it up near the fire, when about retiring for the night."

Not only does Cox deny that the fire was on purpose, he also discredits Peggy's character saying, "the day previous to the fire, provided herself with a quantity of opium, to the use of which she was much addicted. When under the influence of opium, she was frequently much deranged."

Although we may never know what really happened that night, or how Peggy became known as a witch, it is an interesting story in Piney history.

This image is entitled Pine Barrens 2, Author Jim Lukach. It is licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The Search for Life on Mars Goes Underground

The search for life on Mars seems to have been in the forefront of many civilians, scientists, and government's minds for decades upon decades. We have visualized, recently, it in movies like the Martian...but what ways are we currently searching for life on the red planet?

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For some time, we have been searching for signs of life by investigating portions of Mars where "sediment accumulated long ago, like the ancient lake-bed environment that NASA's curiosity rover discovered inside Mars' 96-mile-wide Gale Crater." The idea behind this is that because, on Earth, habitats like these provided archeologists with rich findings that informed them about the life that was there long ago.

But, this method hasn't turned out to be as fruitful as expected. Why? Well, because Mars is not Earth.

The researchers behind a "Perspectives" piece that was published online Dec. 18 in the journal Nature Geoscience write: "We must recognize that our entire perspective on how life has evolved and how evidence of life is preserved is coloured by the fact that we live on a planet where photosynthesis evolved."

One important thing to keep in mind is how long Mars has been cold. Because of its size relative to Earth, its core cooled much faster than Earth's. In fact, if Mars did ever support life it would have had to have done so a billion years earlier than Earth...which is a little unlikely (but not hopeless).  "Mars may have been cold, arid, oxidizing and generally inhospitable at the surface for much of its history; however, hydrothermal conditions in the near surface or subsurface might have been considerably more clement," said the researchers.

This information will be used to re-tool our approach to the hunt for life on Mars. In 2020, NASA plans to launch a life-hunting Mars rover that will collect rock samples to bring back to Earth. Jack Mustard, a geology professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, said he'd like the 2020 rover to investigate exposed "mineralized fracture zones." He goes on to explain to Space.com that "These would be places where there was fluid flow in the crust, and where you get mixing between different fluids from different sources that have potentially different concentrations of important elements, as well as dissolved hydrogen, for example."

By prioritizing spots like these, where subsurface life may have once been successful, we may be able to find evidence of life on Mars. Space.com also mentions you wouldn't have to dig deep, "NASA's Spirit rover stumbled onto one inside Mars' Gusev Crater back in 2008 when its wonky wheel scraped away some surface dirt."

Although, as previously mentioned, the chance for life on Mars is not guaranteed it is interesting and exciting to see new methods being applied to the search.

 

 

The above image is a picture was taken by the Viking Lander 1 on February 11, 1978 on Sol 556. The large rock just left of the center is about two meters wide. This rock was named "Big Joe" by the Viking scientists. The top of the rock is covered with red soil. Those portions of the rock not covered are similar in color to basaltic rocks on Earth. Therefore, this may be a fragment of a lava flow that was ejected by an impact crater. The part of the Lander that is visible in the lower left is the cover of the nuclear power supply. This image is in the public domain.

Where does the Legend of Friday the 13th Come From?

In American culture, Friday the 13th is a notorious day...but do we know why? Like any legendary day...how the date became infamous is a little hard to track down. 

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First, let's dive a little into 13. Like 666, 13 also seems to be a number mired in bad luck ad mystery. In fact, according to refinery29, 13 has "countless malevolent origins." Ancient Norse Lore holds that " evil and turmoil were first introduced in the world by the appearance of the treacherous and mischievous god Loki at a dinner party in Valhalla. He was the 13th guest, upsetting the balance of the 12 gods already in attendance." Notably, Judas was the 13th guest at the last supper. It should also be noted that 13 only seems to be a concern in the Western world (in places like ancient Egypt, 13 is lucky and other numbers are evil...like 4 in much of Asia). Finally, in the ancient world 12 was considered a "perfect number." This can be seen today - calendars with 12 months, a day is 2 parts of 12 hours, etc. Because 13 follows this perfect number, it is "found lacking and unusual."

Now that we know a little bit about 13...let's dive deeper into the lore surrounding Friday the 13th. We've established 13 isn't a number held in the highest esteem, likewise neither was Friday. In fact, the literature from the middle ages often linked Friday to meager harvests, bad business, and disastrous travel. Even in the perennial Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer made sure to note, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance."  

So, is Friday the 13th simply the marriage of two unlucky/evil/mysterious things? Maybe, but maybe not. The fear of Friday the 13th is so significant it has a name - paraskevidekatriaphobia. You can also see the effects of it in elevators - although not every building skips a "13" button on the elevator, you may notice that several do...especially older buildings.

Others believe it has a religious origin. As mentioned above, there were 13 guests at Jesus' last supper the night before his death on Good Friday. 

Others believe that popular culture is to blame. For example, Thomas W. Lawson's popular novel Friday, the Thirteenth published in 1907. In the book, a man takes advantage of the superstition of Friday the 13th to create a Wall Street panic.

In more recent times, movies like the Friday the 13th have further popularized and, in a way, normalized the unluckiness and noterity of Friday the 13th.

Snopes has several interesting anecdotes and pull quotes from different historical sources that seem to support that Friday the 13th isn't at the luckiest of days. You can read through them by clicking the third "link" at the top of the page!

In 2018, Friday the 13th will fall on April 13 and July 13.

The above image is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
 and is from Flickr user Frédéric BISSON

Skull Shaped Asteroid: Coming 2018

An astroid that resembles the Astonishing Legends logo quite a bit is going to be in view in 2018! Although it is relatively small by solar system standards, it's astonishing resemblance to a humanoid skull makes it a big deal. I'm taking it as a sign that this will be our spookiest year ever...but who knows.

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Not only does it look like a skull (from some angles at, least) it is also an incredibly dark shade of black. It was last strolling past earth on Halloween 2015 (seriously). It is so dark that its "albedo" (the amount of light it reflects) is equivalent to "a lump of coal." You'd think the symbolism would end there....skull-shaped and dark as night seems like enough. BUT it is also likely a "dead" comet. Comets usually have a tail, however this one does not which means it has likely lost all its ice/gases (which produce the tail) and leave just the rocky core. After so many trips around the sun, it has lost "all its volatile compounds."

Why wasn't it discovered before 2015, though? Well - like I said earlier...it's pretty small. This matched with the fact that it spends a lot of its days beyond mars makes it pretty difficult to discover.

Last time it visited it was thisclose to earth - just outside the moon's orbit (roughly 302,000 miles). However, it is estimated it won't be that close for another 500 years. It also doesn't swing by every year...or even on the same day. "Its orbital period is 1,112 days, or just over three years." The 2018 flyby will take place in early November and it will be quite far - roughly 105x the distance between Earth and the moon.

Sciencealert quotes astrophysicist Pablo Santos-Sanz from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia: "The object measures between 625 metres and 700 metres, its shape is a slightly flattened ellipsoid, and its rotation axis was roughly perpendicular to the Earth at the time of its closest proximity."

 

Rotation of Asteroid 2015 TB145 on October 30, 3015
This animated GIF of 2015 TB145 was generated using radar data collected by the National Science Foundation's 1,000-foot (305-meter) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The six radar images used in the animation were taken on Oct. 30, 2015, and the image resolution is 25 feet (7.5 meters) per pixel.

 

 

New York City's House of Death

A beautiful brownstone, 14 West 10th Street, is allegedly haunted by upwards of 20 ghosts. It was built during the 1850s and was home to many of New York's most elite like the founder of the Metropolitan Underground Railroad. Why the high number of ghosts? According to some, it is because the house is cursed and it, in turn, curses those who live there.

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Although the house began as a one-residence home, demand for the lovely area and gorgeous home rose and the building was soon split into apartments. Off-broadway actress Jan Bryant Bartell, documented her experiences of living in the top floor apartment. According to her she almost "immediately began feeling a presence she described as a monstrous moving shadow." From this, a wide array of occurrences took places - such as odors that she described as "rotting miasma." It got so intense that they ended up calling a medium who felt a presence of something dead under the floorboards saying, " three things maybe: a young girl with curly hair, blue eyes and a tiny nose, an aborted child and, of course, a small gray cat." All of Bartell's expereinces were captured in her book, Spindrift: Spray from a Psychic Sea.

One of the most famous ghosts said to haunt the house is that of Samuel Clemens, pen name: Mark Twain. Twain lived there for about a year in the earl 1900s. Although he did not die there, he must have had an affinity for his one-time residence as multiple inhabitants have claimed to see Clemens, in his classic white suit, walking along the hallways and passing through doorways - specifically on the first floor and near staircases. In fact, one encounter with Clemens by a mother and daughter paints quite a scene. The author's ghost was sitting near a window and said to them, "My name is Clemens and I has a problem here I gotta settle." Before the women could make heads or tails of what was happening, he disappeared. This was in the 1930s.

In the 1980s, though, the address suffered an undeniable horrifying moment: Joel Steinberg. Steinberg was a criminal defense attorney. Unfortunately for his wife and child, a call came in the early morning of November 1987 and officers responded to a call about a child not breathing and being in some kind of distress. After they entered the second floor, his wife, Lisa, was unconscious and a baby was covered in filth...tied to a playpen. Although the baby survived Lisa died a few days later.

Throughout the years, the experiences and notoriety of the home grew. It was visited by several paranormal investigators and experiences of some classic haunting stand-bys, like a lady in white, became the norm. Sightings have been documented in the 2000s, and it appears the building is still earning its notorious reputation. For example, a resident on the third floor of the connected building for over 20 years, going only as Dennis is a New York Post article from 2012 about the house, as seen "little clips and visions of women in long gowns going from room to room" and reported some flickering lights.

The house was originally one residence but has since been split up into 10 different apartment and according to the New York Post "at least nine of which [have] names on the buzzers and mailboxes."

Is this the most haunted house in New York City? Probably not - but it is chock full of interesting stories and tidbits. 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is from Flickr User Jordi Carrasco, liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
 

The Nightmarish Remains of a Shipwreck

Earlier this month, on an island off the Western coast of Australia, archaeologists have uncovered a mass grave associated with a shipwreck that is infamously gruesome. Despite being a strong, flagship of the Dutch East India Company, the Batavia sank on its maiden voyage from the Netherland to Java. 

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The ship began its life in Amsterdam in 1828 and was armed with 24 cannons, bronze guns, and swarthy men. It departed October 27th, 1828 and its goal was to obtain spices in the Dutch East Indies. However, two people who had some tension were the most important on the ship: Francisco Pelsaert and Ariaen Jacobsz. Plesaert was the commander and also a fairly successful merchant.  

Tension began because of some drunk comments by Jacobsz. Jacobsz made the mistake of making these disparaging comments in front of other merchants, which then lead Pelsaert to push back in a very serious way and insult him twice as worth. However, this was well before the Batavia took off, and it is unclear if Pelsaert recognized Jacobsz.

With this awkward backstory, Jacobsz had every reason to want to strike back. He aso had an accomplice, Jeronimus Cornelis, who was fleeing the Netherlands in fear of arrest because of his heretical beliefs.  They thought if they were able to take the ship, they could start a new life...thanks to a huge cache of gold and silver on board. So, the plotting of the mutiny against Pelsaert began.

First, the dynamic duo steered the ship off course after leaving the cape of Good Hope to lead it away from the rest of the fleet. After this, they gathered a small group of men and began the inciting issue: assaulting a high-ranking, young female passenger. After this, they hoped that Pelsaert would discipline the crew severely, and that Jacobsz ad Cornelis would be able to turn the men against them by convincing the rest of the crew that Pelsaert was a tyrant. But, the woman identified her attackers, meaning Pelsaert wouldn't have to discipline the entire crew.

Before the next plan for mutiny could be made, the Batavia struc on a reef on June 4th, 1629 near Beacon Island. Many of the people were able to swim to Beacon Island, however 40 men drowned in the initial wreck. Little did the survivors know that those who had died first might be the lucky ones.

After searching the island for food and water and coming up empty-handed, it began sinking in how bad their situation was. Pelsaert, accompanied by Jacobsz and others, decided to try and find fresh water. After 11 days of searching in the long-boat, they found it in an unpleasant spot and were unable to land. Pelsaert decided to carry on further on the longboat to try and get to Batavia (modern day Jakarta).It was a 33-day journey and they were able to reach the mainland, despite the difficult open boat journey. Once they reached, Jacobsz was arrested for negligence while Pelsaert was given command of another ship, the Sardam, to return to rescue the other survivors.

However, almost 2 months had passed and Cornelisz had self-appointed himself in charge of the rest of the survivors. Being paranoid because of his attempted-mutiny, he feared Pelsaert would return and arrest him...so he began a plan to hijack the rescue ship and escape. He took control of the remaining food and supplies, and sent some soldiers who posed a threat to his rule to the West Wallabi Island...where he thought they would die.

As the days since Pelsaert had left grew more and more, so did Cornelisz's paranoia. He began killing and trying to get killed anyone he considered a threat. Although it should be noted that some accounts say he only killed one person himself, all the other killings were just under his command. But what about the women aboard? Unfortunately they were not treated as ladies and were kept in so-called "rape tents." 

His goal was apparently to whittle down the island survivors to 45 in order to maximize food and supplies. Cornelisz and his gang killed over 100 men, women, and children. It is said at first, Cornelisz gave reasons for the murders (they were evil, thieves, etc) but eventually the mutineers began to kill for pleasure and entertainment. 

Let me interrupt the story of debauchery quickly - remember those soldiers he sent to West Wallabi Island in hopes of their death? Well, after a couple of weeks they did manage to find water and food...and they survived. However, they were completely unaware at the carnage back on the other island. They sent smoke signals to alert the others about their success in finding food and water. Some lucky survivors were able to escape and flee to that island, where they informed the soldiers about the horrors happening. So, the soldiers began to prepare to defend their strong hold, and built a small limestone/coral fortress.

Sadly, these well-meaning soldiers were no match for the blood-thirsty insurgents and they lost the battle. However, some still survived. 

Soon after the small battle, the rescue ship could be seen...and so a race between Cornelisz's group ad the soldiers, led by Wiebbe Hayes, began. Luckily, Hayes arrived at the Sardam first and told Pelsaert everything that had transpired in the two months since he had first left on the longboat. A short battle between Cornelisz's group and the Sardam occured, but all the mutineers were quickly captured. They were brought ashore and all the mutineers were punished accordingly.

But, recently, a grave containing five of the passengers of the Batavia were found. The bodies were buried neatly in a row and showed no signs of the violence that the Batavia is now infamous for. It is likely they died soon after the initial wreck from dehydration or another natural causes. 

This is not the first gravesite to be found of Batavia passengers, in fact one skeleton was missing the top of his skull from a sword blow. His body was dragged and not given a nice and neat burial that the newly discovered other passengers were given.

Lisbeth Smits, who is currently working on Batavia victims was able to learn even more about the people who suffered after the shipwreck. You are what you eat takes on a whole new meaning, as Smits was able to measure the skeletons' "precise elemental compositions, which chemically hint at the victims' diets and home countries." This study revealed that passengers came from all over - Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to name some. Smits says that scholarship will be published in the next year, so scientists are working on the case as we speak.

However, some of these skeletons died so gruesomely that it must be hard work, decides the 100+ years that have passed since this horrendous event. Smits says, “I have been doing this work for a very long time, so I’m used to violent deaths...you know exactly what happened to them and how gruesome it was, [so] it does come close, but you always remain objective.”

 

This image is of Beacon Island, liscensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Guy de la Bedoyere

Books Made of Human Flesh

Books bound with human flesh seems to be a macabre old wives' tale, or something of the sort. However, there is a long historical tradition of binding books in human skin that weaves its way into history well into the 19th century. Even more terrifying, the 19th century is when they were the most popular. 

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Seriously, and if you ever want to go visit some of these humans-made-books, you can head over to places like the Mutter Museum and see them in person. In fact, there is even a term for books bound in human skin: "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy" and a book project that has, as of 2016, identified 47 alleged anthroprodermic books in the world's libraries and museums. According to wikipedia, roughly 30 of those are being tested or have been tested and 18 have been confirmed as having human skin bindings. 

In an interview with Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris, a medical historian, Vice asked the most simple question: "Why would anyone ever bind a book in human skin?"

Dr. Fitzharris notes that there are likely three reasons, according to her research an experience:

  1. For Punishment
  2. To Create Collector's Items
  3. Memorialization

Another historian, Heather Cole, of Harvard's Houghton Library notes that, "The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book." Which helps to explain why they were so often used as part of a punishment.

The second reason seems, at least, a little obvious. Books bound in human skin were at least a relatively rare item. And, taking an example from the Victorian age when people collected shrunken heads from newly discovered tribes, or stolen Egyptian artifacts claimed to be cursed proved that there was a significant market for the strange and macabre. Dr. Fitzharris continues: "Sometimes they collected books bound in tattooed skin because they made particularly beautiful covers. And in fact there's a lot of preserved tattoos in anatomical collections, and sometimes they're used for these bound books. "

Finally, we arrive at the third reason: memorialization.  The Highwayman: Narrative of the Life of James Allen alias George Walton, is probably the most notable example of a book bound in human flesh because it was bound with skin from Allen himself. 

Although, I would suggest adding another number to the three reasons that Dr. Fitzharris gives - and that is one of opportunity. Take, for example, the sad story of Mary Lynch's thigh. She was a young  woman in her late 20s whose skin was used to bound three different books. There is a record of her entering the Old Blockley almshouse in Philadelphia in 1868. She likely went to this almshouse for help, or to die away from her family members from tuberculosis. Roughly six months from when she entered the almshouse, she died. Dr.John Stockton Hough carried out the autopsy in which he took the liberty of slicing some of her skin. After this, he took his illicit, stolen goods to tan in the almshouse chamber pot. 20+ years later, he used it for the spines of three books written on women's health. It is unclear his intentions or why he did this.

We have examples dating from the sixteenth-century, and although some "human flesh" books turn out to be sheep or other animals, several have been tested and verified as human. And these books are still being analyzed, tested, and reviewed by people in many different disciplines. 

For example, an article in JAMA Dermatology featured an examination of a book bound in human skin called, "Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Lessons From a Different Sort of Dermatologic Text" by  dermatologist Vinod Nambudiri who says these strange books, "serve as reminders of the versatility of the body’s largest organ—both during life and beyond."

This image comes from Flickr user Diego da Silva and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

The Strange Tale of the Buried Porpoise

Excavating the ruins of a medieval monastic retreat, several archaeologists found something quite...unique. They were on a small island called Chapelle Dom Hue, off the coast of the Channel island of Guernsey, they were digging around the medieval monastic retreat. Unsurprisingly, they came across a graveyard and began exploring the graves. One of the tombs held the remains of a creature decidedly not human.

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The dig was being carried out by archaeologist Philip de Jersey, of Oxford University, and his team. You can actually see a video of the strange burial plot and porpoise bones here. Chapelle Dom Hue is a very small island, only 49 feet long. Researchers who have inspected the island believe that there was once a stone building that may have been used as a religious retreat or a shrine by Christian monks around the 14th century.

The grave itself was first believed to be a grave for a human, as it was deliberately made. It was cut into the hard bedrock of the island which would have taken considerable effort. However, when the excavation began and the bones were discovered they were found to be the skull and bones of a seal mammal - which has been called both a porpoise and a dolphin (we're not quite sure yet, it was originally a porpoise but is leaning towards a small species of dolphin now). 

There appear to be various hints that the creature was not simply disposed of in a simple underground hole and it clearly wasn't an accidental place for it to end up. As mentioned above, the grave was purposefully dug into bedrock. Furthermore, the bones were aligned east-to-west as Christian tradition dictates.  All of this lends credibility to the fact that this grave was purposefully intended as a solemn resting place. de Jersey also makes a compelling point, "That is what puzzles me. If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it?" They were just a few feet from the ocean, so why not throw it back in?

There are a few different theories about why exactly the creature was buried in a human tradition. One idea is that they were saving the meat and salt and packed it into the grave and simply either forgot or decided against using the meat. According to an article by LiveScience, there is some suggestion "that the animal may have been butchered before it was placed in the pit."

Another idea is the place dolphins hold in Christianity, particularly Christian art. Dolphins were once held in high regard in pagan and Greek myth, known as a positive omen for those at sea. Like many pre-Christian beliefs, dolphins also found their way into Christian symbolism. According to Aleteia, "For those who made a living by the sea dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the “safer shores” of heaven." So, perhaps they were honoring it after it washed up on their shores, was used for meat, or interacted postively with someone on a ship.

But, the mystery remains. The dig is now over and the bones were brought back to radiocarbon date, test the soil, and verify what kind of animal it really is.

de Jersey' leaves the mystery on a positive, open note "We will get expert advice when we've got the bones cleaned up, and I hope someone will be able to say exactly what it is."

 

The above image is not of the islet, but of the nearby Guernsey landscape, taken by Magnus Manske. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.    

The Most Common Paranormal Beliefs in the United States

A study by Chapman University, published earlier this year (October 2017) explores, via survey, American Fears. Specifically, they also dug into the paranormal beliefs in America. The study itself was taken by 1,207 random Americans across the United States about their fears.

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The results were:

  • 55% - Ancient advanced civilization, such as Atlantis, once existed 
  • 52% - Places can be haunted by spirits
  • 35% - Aliens have visited Earth in our ancient past
  • 25% - Some people can move objects with their minds
  • 19% - Fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future
  • 16% - Bigfoot is a real creature

These stats can also be seen in lovely graphic form by hitting the first "Link" button above! Additionally, it should be mentioned that these results were gathered from those percent reporting "agree or strongly agree".

I was surprised about two things:

1. That haunting/ghosts weren't #1

and

2. Bigfoot was so low

First, I was shocked that ancient advanced civilization rose above ghosts/hauntings. Part of me wonders if it is in the advent of TV shows like ancient aliens and other docs of a similar tone. Or, perhaps in a more optimistic vein, it is because of new scientific findings. But, if you would have asked me, I would have said ghosts/hauntings would have been #1.

Secondly, Bigfoot being so low - behind telekinesis AND fortune tellers - surprised me. Bigfoot, in my findings, has some of the most fervent and dedicated fans. Heck - it has multiple TV shows and docs, not to mention the Patterson-Gimlin film.

But, those aren't the only stats we get! In fact, they examined how many paranormal beliefs a person held. Surprisingly, only a fourth of Americans do not hold any of the seven beliefs mentioned above...meaning three fourths of Americans DO believe in at least one paranormal phenomena.

  • 25% - No paranormal beliefs
  • 20.8% - 1 paranormal belief
  • 13.8% - 2 paranormal beliefs
  • 12.3% - 3 paranormal beliefs
  • 9.6% - 4 paranormal beliefs
  • 8.4% - 5 paranormal beliefs
  • 4.7% - 6 paranormal beliefs
  • 5% - All 7 paranormal beliefs 

One thing I find interesting about this study is that despite debunking efforts, people still seem to "believe" or, at the very least, want to believe in the paranormal. Although the numbers above look a bit scant because they are split 8 ways, 53.8% of the population surveyed has 2 or more paranormal beliefs. Which, to me, is a knock-your-socks-off stat. In other words, that's a hell of a whole lot of people who don't just believe in a singular thing but that there could potentially be a variety of paranormal entities and occurrences in our world.

What did you find surprising about this survey?

 

The above image is not related to this story and is by _TCPhotography_. It is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Darwin and Aliens

Wondering what aliens may look like has been a question humankind has been imagining for decades. There only seems one thing people can agree on when it comes to conceptualizing aliens: we have no idea what they really look like. But, scientists are working on trying to get closer to a correct conceptualize of lifeforms that may one day visit us.

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One movie immediately springs to mind when I think about aliens: ET.  In the Steven Spielberg movie we have "an alien botanist and explorer who became unwell after being abandoned during an expedition to a forest in North America." In an interesting scholarly investigation into ET, Gregory Scott and Edward Presswood present their findings and analysis of ET. They describe him as, "ET is a bilaterian tetrapod, sharing many of the physical characteristics of primates. Given that ET’s species evolved on a remote planet, the similarities are a striking example of convergent evolution." According to ScienceDaily, convergent evolution "is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches." Although his age is unclear, as his gender (although he seems to be presumed male) we do know he weighs roughly 35 pounds and is about 4ft 6". 

But ET isn't the only movie alien that remains front-of-mind for many people - there is Alien, Mars Attacks, Earth Girls are Easy, District 9, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and Men in Black. In each of these movies aliens are depicted in completely different ways - from little green men to humanoid beings to completely inhuman. 

However, researchers believe they may have a better idea now what aliens look like. Why? Well, we can thanks Charles Darwin for that. Samuel Levin, co-author of a new paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, believes that beings on other planets might look shockingly similar to life on Earth. Why? Because, like on Earth, living beings on other planets would also be subject to some kind of Natural Selection, even if isn't carbon based or has different DNA or, like ET, light-up fingers. 

Levin emphasizes, "Living things are adapted...They appear to be 'trying to do things' like eat, survive, grow, reproduce." And, the only way to adapt is through Natural Selection. 

But what does this have to do with what aliens look like?

Although we would be no closer to confirming aliens are or are not little green men or face eaters or even have similar features like eyes or noses, we can take on a theoretical prediction. For example, if the theory of Natural Selection holds true than "Aliens that have undergone natural selection would be "nested." This means that they would have had to transform in complexity over time and that they would retain the history, of sorts, of their transitions. For further proof, the scientists suggest that the only thing we know that can just arise without natural selection are molecules.  Furthermore, it means that anything "more complicated than a virus" has certain objectives. Even something as small as a bacteria cell still moves and eats. 

Levin continues, "Aliens might not be made of cells as we think of them, but they will be made up of parts that were once free living, and those parts will be too – all the way down to aliens’ hereditary material (whatever it is). Our parts have mechanisms in place that keep all the parts working together to make an organism."

Although aliens might look insanely different, their actual structure on a fundamental level will likely be more similar than their outward appearance suggests. Their bodies, like ours, would have to be constructed by "formerly free-living parts within formerly free-living parts...and they will have undergone a similar evolutionary history' of independent organisms cooperation to form new and even higher level organisms. 

Levin notes that his work does not answer the overarching question of "are we alone?" But, he does say: "but it [their research] does tell us something about our neighbors if we're not alone."

 

The above image is unrelated to the story and was provided by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

The Witching Hour

A few days ago there was an interesting question posted on the Facebook Group about the power of 3 (3 knocks, 3 am is the witching hour, etc) and how it came to be. Although I didn't participate...it immediately piqued my interest and I began my research into why 3am is so widely regarded as the Witching Hour.

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The first thing I'd like to dive into is WHEN exactly the Witching Hour is, because some sources don't even say it is 3am at all. For example, Merriam-Webster has two definitions:

1: the time late at night when the powers of a witch, magician, etc., are believed to be strongest
2 : 12 o'clock at night :midnight We arrived home shortly before the witching hour.

So, it could potentially be any time late at night when the powers of magic are supposed to be strongest...and/or midnight.

Okay, but what do other sources say? 

The Collins English Dictionary seems to say something similar:

the hour at which witches are supposed to appear, usually midnight

What about handy-dandy Wikipedia?

In folklore, the witching hour or devil's hour is a time of night associated with supernatural events. Creatures such as witches, demons, ghosts, and gremlins are thought to appear and to be at their most powerful. Black magic is thought to be most effective at this time. In European tradition, the hour between 3 and 4 a.m. was considered a period of peak supernatural activity, due to the absence of prayers in the canonical hours during this period. Women caught outside without sufficient reason during this time were sometimes executed on suspicion of witchcraft

Okay, I think we're finally getting there! It appears that the Witching Hour can vary slightly but MUST be in the middle of the night, sometime between 12-3am. I like to think of this as the "happy hour" approach. Sure, happy hour implies it is only one hour...but on most bar menus you'll see that happy hour really lasts from 4-6, or from 5-8. 

Now that we've slightly defined when the Witching Hour is, let's dive into the folklore surrounding it. 

One of the biggest reasons the Witching Hour is so vitally in the middle of the night (even though it is technically the beginning of the day) is because the liminality that the time offers. This is why, I think, many people focus on midnight just as much as 3am because midnight is the time between two days and many believe that the veil between the worlds is at a weak point, allowing for a heightened level of communication between our world and another. Because the veil is thinner at this time, too  it is the perfect time to swap ghost stories, try to communicate with spirits, and even whip out a ouija board or perform spells (please note that 'spells' here does not mean contemporary witches or Wiccan spells).

Additionally, even back in the centuries ago, the hours between 12-3am are usually when most people are dead asleep. The cover of darkness and the sleeping world allows for witches and other creatures to convene publicly, but without being seen or otherwise persecuted for meeting.

Another thing about the Witching Hour you'll notice is a lot of people wake up around 3am. Although this is said to be in relation to something wicked, Storypick argues that "Generally, you’d be in your REM sleep cycle during the time bracket. Your heart rate, cardiac pressure, breathing rate and arterial pressure becomes irregular at this time which is why you may feel anxious when you suddenly wake up at those odd hours." While this may be true, it is still incredibly interesting that we are irregular and on alert at those hours naturally. Is it a coincidence, or is it an evolutionary tactic developed to better protect ourselves?

 

The above image is cuisine des sorcières Jacques de Gheyn, from the Staatlich museum, Berlin and is liscensed under public domain. 

UVA is Taking on Parapsychological Research

The paranormal is something that thousands, if not millions, of people hear about on a regular basis. From ghost stories to folklore, from cryptids to UFOs...it seems that countless of hours have been dedicated to creating TV shows, radio programs, movies, think tanks, and more that revolve around trying to get a deeper understanding of the paranormal. The University of Virginia is taking that a step further. How? Well, through their Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS), founded in 1967.

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DOPS was founded by Dr. Ian Stevenson. Dr. Stevenson, appropriately born on Halloween in 1907, studied medicine at St. Andrews University in Scotland from 1937 to 1939, but due to WWII graduated from McGill University and an M.D. following his undergraduate studies. He practiced medicine throughout the 1940s and early 50s. In 1951 he began studying psychoanalysis and took up teaching at UVA in the late 50s, where he developed his work on reincarnation. 

Then, he decided to create what was originally known as the Division of Personality Studies. The goal of this division was “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”

From their website their mission is clear: "Simply put, our goal is to expand the current paradigm, because we believe that recognition of consciousness as something greater than a physically produced phenomenon is both more optimistic and more accurate than the prevailing materialist worldview."

Today, DOPS investigates, as scientifically as possible, a large array of phenomena. According to the Atlantic, these include: ESP, poltergeists, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, “claimed memories of past lives.”

Dr. Jim Tucker is one of the scientists currently at work at DOPS. He remarks, “The main effort is to document as carefully as possible what the child says and determine how well that matches with a deceased person,” he told me. “And in the strongest cases, those similarities can be quite compelling.”

Although, the actual work that DOPS does on a daily basis resembles many other scientific, academic research groups. For example, they input all the findings and patient profiles into an electronic database. Once inputted, analysts can pick out the patterns that might just explain why some individuals are susceptible to, lets say, possessing memories from past lives (which is a major aspect of DOPS, since reincarnation was one of Dr. Stevenson's passions).

Through processing, analyzing, and understanding the paranormal through a scientific lens, DOPS hopes that the study of the paranormal will become more accepted by the mainstream media, thus allowing them to take on new challenges and studies.

If you're interested, you can even read work that DOPS has published multiple books (which you can find here), or you can dig a little deeper into their research here
 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is by CCAC North Library, liscensed via Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

 

Why Do We Find Dolls Creepy?

Dolls, which are usually innocuous can sometimes take on an additional creepy-factor. The fear of dolls it isn't that unheard of. In fact, there is even a name for the fear of dolls: pediophobia. Although, you don't have to have pediophobia to be uneasy around dolls sometimes. 

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There isn't a definitive reason for why we find dolls creepy. However, there are some interesting theories. For example, dolls can inhabit Uncanny Valley territory. Although dolls have been played with for thousands of years the theory of the Uncanny Valley wasn't brought up until the 1970s.  Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, brought up that as robots began to looks more like humans, people would find them more acceptable and appealing...but only to a point. If they were close to a human...but not quite "human" people develop a sense of "unease and discomfort." It is this particular "distinctive dip in the relationship between human-likeness and emotional response that is called the uncanny valley."

So, what does this have to do with dolls? Well, they look human even though we know they are NOT human. The human brain is designed to read faces in order to gauge important information, like emotions and potential threats. So, when we see a face that looks human and isn't, we aren't able to read it and it rattles our instincts. 

But, dolls weren't always creepy. It is only as we entered the 20th century that they became more and more human and lifelike. So, maybe that is why we find them unsettling now.

It is not just the Uncanny Valley at work, here. In fact, popular culture definitely plays a part. Movies like Chucky (and the series it spawned) and Annabelle work to reinforce dolls' creepiness. In fact, the director of Annabelle commented on his use of a doll in the movie. John Leonetti said, "If you think about them, most dolls are emulating a human figure. But they’re missing one big thing, which is emotion. So they’re shells. It’s a natural psychological and justifiable vehicle for demons to take it over. If you look at a doll in its eyes, it just stares. That’s creepy. They’re hollow inside. That space needs to be filled.”

By culture capitalizing on the empty-vessel aspect of dolls and making them the antagonist in horror movies, society's slight fear of dolls is justified and increased.

In Freud's essay "The Uncanny" , which is also a reading of "Der Sandmann" by E.T.A Hoffman, he discusses the doll-like automaton. Freud makes the interesting argument that the anxiety and fear caused may be due to the questioning of "whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might be in fact animate." He also describes the feeling of the "uncanny" as strangely familiar. "Strangely familiar" seems to wholly describe dolls - they look like us...but not. They are lifeless but not dead and can make "eye contact", despite not having real eyes.

What do you think? Do you have another theory as to why we fear dolls?

 

The above image is by Tiffany Terry and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Phantom Hitchhikers

Most people who live in America, or read about American folklore, can likely point out a few major "players" in the scene. One of the most prominent of these tales is that of the Phantom Hitchhiker. Scholar Jan Harold Brunvand writes in his book,  The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, that these are "the most often collected and the most discussed contemporary legend of all."

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If you're not familiar, the phantom hitchhiker, also known as "vanishing" hitchhikers. Can be a variety of different people. At their base all phantom hitchhikers are strange figures usually picked up on lonely roadsides that, before they are dropped of, they vanish without a trace from the interior of the car. In fact, this is quite an old folktale and there are even stories of them disappearing from carriages and horses! Additionally, they are often picked up by (or being driven near) to graveyards, bridges, intersections, tight turns, dangerous hills, and any part of the road where tragedy has stricken before.

But why are these stories so pervasive in American culture? Well, there are a few reasons. One of them being the prevalence of many people mobile and vehicle-related accidents. Almost every town, even small towns, have a dangerous intersection or a too-sharp-turn...so, in turn, every town could have one of these ghostly hitchhikers, forever traveling on the same stretch of road that killed them.

But that isn't the only theory. 

Scientific American's article on this mentions that there are two lessons one could take from these tales:

1. A reminder of the importance of community...that good people will pick up distraught-looking hitchhikers in need of a ride.

2. They also served as a warning for driving too fast because you too could end up haunting your own stretch of highway.

According to the writer, Krystal D'Costa, says "These stories aren't necessarily "spine tingling," but they reflect larger social concerns and are designed to encourage behavior change."

Resurrection Mary is one of the most popular of all of these stories. Although, we don't quite know who Mary was there are several primary theories. One of them is that she was a young woman who spent a wonderful night in Chicago dancing the night away at the O Henry Ballroom on Archer Ave. At one point in the night, she leaves the ballroom and begins making her way along the roadway. Presumably, a vehicle struck her, left the scene, and she died as a result of the accident. How do those that experience Mary know it is the same girl? Well, her unmistakable white dress and dancing shoes are her trademarks. Oh, and her destination is always the same...Resurrection Cemetery.

There have been over 30 "verifiable" sightings of Mary. The first encounter occurred allegedly occurred in 1939. Jerry Palus claimed he danced all night with the ghost girl at a dance hall on 47th Street, and when he went to drop her off at the address she gave...she vanished and he was at Resurrection Cemetery. According to Prarie Ghosts, he was desperate to find out more information about what he had experienced, "Determined to find out what was going on, Palus visited the address the girl had given him on the following day. The woman who answered the door told him that he couldn’t have possibly been with her daughter the night before because she had been dead for several years. However, Palus was able to correctly identify the girl from a family portrait in the other room."

 

photo: This image is from Martin and is liscensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

 

Have YOU Dreamed Lately?

Think about it for a second: when was the last time you dreamed? I mean, really dreamed. Can you remember? Okay, good. When was the last time you dreamed for consecutive nights in a row? Do you think you're dream deprived? The New York Academy of Sciences recently published an article entitled Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM sleep loss, and they think we might be "at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived." 

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Let's start off with something easy before we dig into the dream stuff. Any typical sleep follows a "a cyclical pattern of non-REM and REM sleep: At the beginning of the night, deeper non-REM sleep is prioritized; only later in the night and into the morning does REM sleep increase in duration." During these deep REM sleep spikes are when people have the most dynamic and visceral dreams...the ones you remember. 

Do you have sleep cycles down? Good! Now...let's move onto dreams.

Technically, we aren't entirely sure what dreams are. According to Penelope A. Lewis, the author of the Secret World of Sleep, a dream is "something you are aware of at some level. It may be fragmentary, disconnected, and illogical, but if you aren’t aware of it during sleep then it isn’t a dream." She goes on to clarify that not remembering a dream upon waking doesn't mean you weren't aware of it at the time it was occurring...just that it wasn't really cemented into your memory. She also runs through a brief list of theories of what dreams might be (but, again, we don't really know). For example, Sigmund Freud suggested that dreams express our forbidden desires. Or, even that dreams are a kind of virtual reality simulation in which we are able to rehearse threatening, scary, or nerve-wracking situations. This is based in the fact that a large percentage of dreams have to do with a threatening situation. 

So, we don't really know what dreams are...but they seem important in some way or another. 

The author of the article, Rubin Naiman, argues that not only is a deep REM sleep important, but so are the dreams that go along with it. In fact, they are potentially vital to our health. Naiman argues we need to "assess the role of dreaming itself" as a health consequence of poor sleep. 

But, is the loss of dreams a potential public health crisis? 

Maybe.

REM sleep loss is associated with increased risks of all sorts, like obesity, memory problems, and inflammatory responses. People with sleep apnea and have a complete loss of REM sleep are at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and depression. In fact, as The Science of Us article points out, "When researchers ran experiments depriving subjects of only REM sleep, they found that most of the negative side effects mirrored those of total sleep deprivation." Since dreams usually go hand-in-hand with deep REM sleep, could preserving our dream-states improve our health?

Luckily, Naiman isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, he offers several strategies for improving the Dream/REM cycle.

1) Try to avoid substance use (like alcohol and drugs) in the hour or two before you go to bed.

2) Decrease exposure to nighttime light (cell, computer, TV)

3) Reduce your reliance on your alarm clock! I know it sounds difficult, but Naiman says “Imagine being abruptly ushered out of a movie theater whenever a film was nearing its conclusion.” Instead of naturally finishing out your sleep cycle, you wake up to a shrill noise. Now, clearly we all have places to be...but I'd be interested in what Naiman thinks about a light-based alarm clock or a "slow" alarm clock that wakes you up in a soothing manner and more slowly than a typical alarm clock.

4) Do your best to get those required 7-9 hours a night.

5) Remember that sleep AND dreams enrich our waking life as much as going for a walk or enjoying an amazing salad can. 

6) Get in tune with your dreams - pay attention them, share them with a friend, and be more aware of them. Creating a positive attitudes towards our "dreaming selves" can help create a better atmosphere in which to dream. 

 

 

The above image is from Flickr User Michael Carian and is liscensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Witch of Pungo

Witch lore in the United States is often eclipsed by the infamous Salem Witch Trials. However, there are plenty of interesting stories scattered throughout the United States. One of the most surprising trials took place in Virginia. In 1706, at 10am the townspeople that found her guilty tied Grace Sherwood's thumbs to her big toes, cross-bound, and dropped her into the western branch of the Lynnhaven River near what is now known as Witchduck Point.

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It all began in 1698. This is when the first accusation was laid against young Grace Sherwood. She was accused of bewitching a neighbor's crop to fail. Allegations continued to roll in for almost a decade. According to Harper's Magazine "She was a shy, secretive maid, and her neighbors told envious stories of her." 

Soon, gossip began to fly. And one tale in particular became the inciting event behind the growing fear of the supposed witch. "[Grace] has crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in an egg-shell, had been pleased with the odor of the rosemary growing on its shores and on her return from this voyage in an open boat had brought some plants for which set out around her cottage." It was because of this lovely little tale that explained why Princess Anne, the town in which Grace lived, was covered with Rosemary. While the townspeople agreed that the rosemary was nice, it was decided that her voyage was "uncanny." They decided that it was "plain that Grace Sherwood was a witch, and ought to be punished." 

Despite being a married woman well-liked by the community, she was still accused of witchcraft. The accusations, besides ruining crops, began to mount. For example, John Gisburne claimed she had bewitched his hogs and cotton. She and her husband, James, tried to sue these attackers for slander but lost each time. 

One of the accusations, from the actual court documents, reads: "Luke Hill and wife. Against them in December, 1705, Grace Sherwood had brought action for assault and battery, claiming 50 of damages and receiving twenty shillings. What this affray may have had to do with the charge of witch-craft does not appear." It seems people began piling on accusations to the point where they were barely related to witchcraft at all.

At 10am on July 10th, 1706 Grace Sherwood went to trial at the second Princess Anne County Courthouse. It was deemed that she was guilty and that she would be tested by the traditional trial by water.

Trial by water, also known as ducking, consists of being tied cross-bound and dropped into water above her head. If she sunk, she would drown but be innocent and would even be buried on consecrated ground. However, if she floated it was proof that she was a witch.

Grace, surprisingly, floated and survived the ducking. After this, she was retrieved from the water and put in the local jail.  However, her survival posed a particular quandary. "There was the law, and there was the evidence. The latter proved that Grace sherwood was a witch, and the former directed that witches should be burned. but then to burn women was a thing unknown in Virginia."  

She wasn't released until 1714, at which point she paid the back taxes owed on her property and returned to her farm. She had a fruitful life as a healer, midwife, and friend to all children and animals. She died in the autumn of 1740 at the age of 80, leaving behind three sons.

Today, her memory is honored. 300 years after the incident. Timothy M. Kaine, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia pardoned her. In fact, Grace Sherwood is known today as the only deceased person in Virginia to be exonerated. Additionally, in 2007 a stature of Grace Sherwood was unveiled on the lawn at Bayside Hospital. She is within "two tenths of a mile of the old second Princess Anne Courthouse of 1706, the court that tried Grace." 

 

 

The above image is of Asheville Bridge Creek, known as Muddy Creek when Grace Sherwood lived on its banks. Asheville Bridge Creek on a foggy winter morning.  27 December 2015, Foggy winter morning, by Lago Mar.

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