January 26, 2014

The Only Thing Worse Than A Witch Hunt... A New Show About Salem Witches

I recently learned that a new show about witchcraft in Salem will be airing this spring. It's simply called "Salem", and will start on Sunday, April 20. Here's the trailer. Watch it in full-screen mode if you can, because the lighting is very dark.

I'll have to reserve my judgement until the show actually premieres, but the trailer gives me some mixed feelings.

First, the good feelings. I'm a horror fan, and the trailer is definitely creepy. Black magic? Pig monsters in the woods? Sign me up. More importantly, though, I'm excited to have a show about witchcraft in New England, and whether this show is good or bad I'll watch it. This area of the country has a rich folkloric heritage of magic and witchcraft, and I'm glad someone's drawing upon it for a TV show.

It also looks like they've tried to create some kind of authentic atmosphere, which I appreciate. So many films and TV shows about Salem witches are quite obviously not filmed in Massachusetts, but the brief glimpse of the town in the trailer gives me some hope the producers are trying to accurately recreate 17th century New England.

But obviously this show is not striving for complete historic accuracy, which is where I have mixed feelings. It looks like Ashley Madekwe plays a young, sexy Tituba, and all the actors have have good teeth and look really clean. When I watched the trailer again just now I was struck by how many people flash their pearly whites, but flouride, floss, and orthodontists just weren't available back then. I suppose Tituba may have been young and sexy, but it's not something the records indicate, and the people in 17th century Salem were probably dirty and pockmarked from various diseases. They were not the type of people a modern audience would want to watch in a show that promises "sensuality" and sexy witches. Well, at least most people wouldn't want to watch it.

"Salem" is made to entertain, so I can give the historical inaccuracy a pass, but the thing that makes me uncomfortable about this show is that in reality there were no witches in Salem. And this is where I have bad feelings. The tag line in the trailer is "The only thing worse than a witch hunt is a witch," which sound clever but just isn't true. Twenty-five people died as a result of the Salem witch hunt; zero people died because of witches. A witch hunt is much, much worse than a witch.

There are witches out there in the world. Some of them exist in folklore and fairy tales, some of them lurk in the deep archetypal recesses of our minds, and some of them are polytheistic nature worshipers who own herb shops in Salem. But none these witches can cast spells to make you sick, possess your children, or steal your spouse. They can't defy the physical laws of nature any more than you or I can.

Three hundred years ago the people in Salem didn't know this, or if they did they were too afraid to speak the truth. But we know this now and we shouldn't forget it, even when we get caught up watching a show with seductive witches and hideous monsters. So I'll watch "Salem", but I'll try to remember that history, with it's pogroms and massacres and witch hunts, is scarier than anything I'll see on TV.

January 19, 2014

Turn Your Cloak for the Fairy Folk

There's an old saying from England that goes something like this:

Turn your cloak
For fairy folks
Live in old oaks

It's an instruction and a warning. Fairies are mischievous, if not sometimes maevolent, and often inhabit large, old oak trees. Turning your cloak inside out will prevent them from enchanting you as you pass by their home. I'm not 100%  sure why wearing something inside out will protect you, but I think the belief is that the fairies are just so puzzled by this weird behavior that they don't know what to do.

Not a lot of European fairy lore made it to New England, so I was surprised to read the following in Caroline Howard King's When I Lived in Salem 1822 - 1866:

Judge Story used to tell with great delight, that when he was a boy living in Marblehead, his mother always warned him, when he went to the pasture, to drive home the cows, to turn his jacket inside out for fear of the pixies.

It seems likely that King is talking about Joseph Story, a famous North Shore lawyer who became a Supreme Court Justice. Justice Story was a child in Marblehead during the Revolutionary War and left in 1795 to attend Harvard. The warning against pixies would have been delivered to him by his mother Mehitable Story (maiden name Pedrick).

Joseph Story, 1779 - 1845
Why don't we have more European fairy beliefs in New England? In his new book America Bewitched: Witchcraft After Salem, historian Owen Davies proposes at least one answer. In Great Britain fairies are often associated with certain features of the landscape like ancient burial mounds, streams, or large trees. When the English settlers left their old homes for New England they left behind not only these locations but also their magical inhabitants.

The New World landscape certainly had an abundance of interesting features, but without the weight of oral tradition the fairies didn't become associated with them. Fairies didn't just live in any old tree, but specific trees back in England that had been left behind. In New England, mothers didn't tell their children about fairies living in the oak behind their house here and so the traditions mostly faded away.

New England does have a lot of natural features associated with the Devil, and I wonder if the Devil took the place of the fairies in local folklore. After all, he's not limited to one particular hill or tree, so it was easier for beliefs about the Devil to travel to North America. The various rocks, ponds, etc. named after the Devil aren't so much his home, but have instead been altered by him as he traveled across the region.

The belief about wearing things inside out did persist into the nineteenth century in New England, but without any fairies being associated with it. You were supposed to wear a dress or shirt inside out simply to bring good luck, not to avoid being enchanted by pixies. The practice survived but the fairy association disappeared.

January 11, 2014

Encountering a Goatman in Maine

As I've mentioned before, the United States is blessed with an abundance of half-human, half-animal monsters. If you travel to the Midwest you'll encounter dogmen, the Lizard Man lurks in South Carolina, and the Bunny Man haunts parts of Virginia.

Here in New England we of course have the Pigman of Northfield, Vermont, but I recently read about a goat man who was seen in Cherryfield, Maine. Very exciting!

The story goes something like this. Back in the 1950s a Cherryfield man was driving his truck through the woods outside town. He was a local and had spent most of his time hunting, fishing, and logging in the forests of Maine. Those decades of experience didn't prepare him for what he encountered that day.

He had filled up his gas tank before he left home that day, so he was very surprised when his truck came to a gradual stop on a lonely road. His gas gauge read empty.

He got out and checked the tank. It indeed was empty. He checked the bottom of the truck but couldn't see a leak, and he didn't see any sign of gas dripping on the road. He was annoyed and puzzled, but when he got out from beneath those truck those emotions turned to surprise - and maybe a little terror.

Standing in the middle of the road was a man who was half-human and half-goat. His lower body and legs were naked, hairy and shaped like a goat's, while his torso was human-shaped and covered in a flannel shirt. Goat horns grew out of his head and his ears were pointed like an animal's. Other than the flannel shirt, the goatman looked like a mythological satyr or the Greek god Pan.

The half-naked goatman smiled at the Cherryfield man, and then slowly sauntered into the woods. The man got back into his truck and locked the door. He tried to start the truck, hoping desperately that he could drive home just on fumes, and to his surprise the engine started. His gas gauge now read full. He drove home without incident and never saw the goatman again.

There are a lot of interesting things about this story. First, I'm excited to have a goatman seen in New England. Goatmen have been seen in other parts of the nation, including Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas. Apparently a goatman has also been seen in Williamstown, MA but I don't have any more information on those sightings.

Second, I think the empty gas tank is pretty interesting. I was reminded of a lot of alien abduction and UFO sighting stories I've read. Someone is driving down an isolated road, their car mysteriously stops, they see a strange light or strange creatures, and then their car works again and they drive home. This story follows a similar pattern. In all these stories the forces from the other world disrupt our technology (and maybe our technological worldview) in order to make themselves known to us.

Finally, I think the flannel shirt is interesting. Obviously the story happened in chilly Maine and not the sunny Mediterranean so of course the goatman would be wearing a shirt. It's cold up in those woods! However, there have also been sightings around the country of Bigfoot wearing a flannel shirt.

Again, like the goatman, these shirt-wearing Bigfoots are naked from the waist down, but why are they even wearing shirts at all? A Bigfoot is hairy all over. There's something unnerving about the idea of a large male monster roaming around the woods just wearing a shirt. Or maybe it's appealing, depending on what you're into. The shirts Bigfoot wears are usually described as plaid or flannel, which in the US are symbolic of rural masculinity. Bigfoot and the goatman aren't wearing Brooks Brothers oxfords because they inhabit the wild side of the world. Interestingly, the red-headed hitchhiker of Route 44 also wears a plaid shirt.

I found this story in T.M. Gray's New England Graveside Tales. Gray, who is a Mainer, notes that once when she was hiking in the woods alone she heard strange flute music. She called out to the unseen musician, and the music stopped. Then it started again. She tried to follow the music, but as she did she realized it kept coming from different directions. Creeped out, she headed back to her car as fast as she could. As she notes, Pan and his satyrs were famous for playing the flute, so who knows what strange encounter she avoided.

January 05, 2014

The Curse of Chocorua, and Its History

When Tony and I were up in the White Mountains in November I had hoped we'd be able to stop by Mt. Chocorua. Unlike most other mountains in New Hampshire, no trees or plants grow on the mountain's higher slopes. Why is it the lone stark, barren peak among its neighboring mountains?

The answer is that the mountain suffers from a curse placed on it by an angry Native American. I thought this would make a great blog post. Due to our schedule we unfortunately didn't get to Chocorua, but here's the blog post anyway.

The legend goes something like this. Chocorua was a Native American who lived with his young son in the area that is now Tamworth, NH. Unlike some other Indians in the area Chocorua was willing to trust the English settlers who were slowly populating the mountains. Even though his fellow tribesmen told him about the massacres and wars that had happened in southern New England, Chocorua still thought the newcomers should be given a chance.

Chocorua was particularly friendly with a settler named Cornelius Campbell and his family. One day Chocorua was called away for tribal business and asked if Cornelius could watch his young son while he was gone. Being a friendly neighbor, Cornelius said yes.

Thomas Cole, Mt. Chocorua, 1827. Thanks Wikipedia!

And here's where things go horribly wrong.

Cornelius and his family went out to work in the fields, leaving Chocorua's son alone in the house. Looking for something to drink, the little boy uncorked a bottle of fox poison and swallowed it down. By the time the Campbells returned home the child was stone-cold dead.

When Chocorua learned his son had died he was driven mad by grief. The Campbells tried to tell him it was an accident but he didn't believe them. "The other Indians were right! You Englishmen are murderers out to seize our land!" he cried before running off into the night. 

In revenge, the next day Chocorua murdered Cornelius's wife and children with a hatchet. Cornelius gathered together the other English settlers and they chased Chocorua through the forest up to the peak of a mountain. Realizing that he was trapped Chocorua turned to face his pursuers and delivered the following curse:

"A curse upon you, white men! May the great spirit curse you when he speaks in the clouds, and his words are fire! Chocorua had a son and you killed him while the sky looked bright. Lightning blast your crops! Winds and fire destroy your dwellings! The Evil One breathe death upon your cattle! Your graves lie in the war-path of the Indian! Panthers howl and wolves fatten over your bones! Chocorua goes to the Great Spirit. His curse stays with the white man."

Campbell fired his rifle, and Chocorua fell to his death from the mountain peak. His curse was swiftly fulfilled. The mountain where he died became barren. No crops would grow on its slopes, the trees on its summit died, and even the animals abandoned it. Any cattle who drank water near Chocorua died. The English settlers avoided the mountain, and its peak remains lifeless and barren even today.

I like this story, despite its grim ending. The cross-cultural misunderstanding and mistrust at the heart of it seem very realistic to me. I don't think we'll ever know the exact truth of the story, but it appears to be quite old.

A mountain named "Corua" is mentioned in Jeremy Belkap's 1784 Journal of a Tour of the White Mountains, and it is labelled "Chocorua" on a 1791 map. A few years later Henry Wadsworth Longellow wrote a poem called "Jeckoyva" about a mountain where an Indian chief was found dead at the base of a cliff.

The full story of the curse was first written down in October of 1828 by the painter Thomas Cole, who heard it while he was touring the White Mountains. Cole wrote in his journal:

We came out at length, to a lonely and deserted clearing, just at the foot of the mountain. The cause of this abandonment is, they say, the poisonous effects of the water upon the cattle; the result, according to tradition, of the curse of Chocorua, an Indian, from whom the peak, upon which he was killed by the whites, takes its name.

The brief legend that Cole wrote down was expanded by Lydia Marie Child in 1829 for a book called The Token: A Christmas and New Year's Present, which also contained an engraving by Cole showing Chocorua's death. Child's version became quite popular, and inspired multiple other variations, including the one I recounted above, which is from Charles Skinner's Myths and Legends of Our Own Lands (1896). (I found the history of the legend in an article by Lawrence Shaw Mayo in the September 1946 issue of the New England Quarterly.)

I do think there is a nugget of truth at the core of this legend, but I think the original details are probably lost in the early unrecorded years of the White Mountains.