Synaptic History of Halloween Part 9: The Haunting of New England

It’s October again!  The nights are getting longer and a chill is creeping into the air as we approach the darkest festival of the year – Halloween!  In this series, I will explore the customs, characters, and legends surrounding the holiday and examine the many dimensions of how the symbols of Halloween have come to be.

This is the opening blurb I used in part one of this series three years ago to set the scene for Halloween by evoking the imagery of October; of Autumn chill, early darkness, falling leaves and browning foliage.  In my memories, this imagery is inseparable from hay rides on post-harvest farmlands, bare tree branches hanging over old moss-covered rock walls, watching spooky movies and shows, and, of course, all the trappings that come with the build-up to All Hallow’s Eve.  This is by no means a universal experience of October where geography and climate do much to determine the experience of the holiday.  But in New England where I grew up and currently call home, my Halloween memories are deeply entwined and inextricable from the setting in which I first experienced them.  I suspect that this series would be much different had I grown up in Southern California or in the deserts of Central Texas.  I am fully certain I would not be writing this installment if I was not a child of southeastern Massachusetts.

The long, sometimes troubled history of my native land carries with it the footprints of humanity’s potential for evil, but also our ability to make sense of our own darkness within the depths of our imaginations. Before white Europeans stepped foot on its shores, the Wampanoag and Narragansett Confederations of tribes controlled most of southern New England and they told collective tales of the region that were often laced with terror.  The vast forests with all of their hiding places and dark canopy inspired the native peoples to tell the sorts of stories that are not altogether dissimilar to those the Celts and Germans spread throughout the primordial European woodlands. A knee high race of little people called Nikommo lived among the wild forests of what is today Massachusetts and were generally regarded as benevolent.  But they shared the woods with goblin-like Pukwudgies who, like mythic little people across the globe could be mischievous and sometimes deadly.  They were prone to kidnapping unattended babies and could cast terrible curses upon people just by staring at them. The Abenaki people of northern New England lived in fear of Kee-wakw, humans transformed either by demonic possession or punishment for evil deeds into hybrid animals driven to cannibalize friends and family to feed their voracious appetites.

At night, it was deemed best to stay close to the fire as Hobbomock, the spirit of death haunted the dark woods  For Wampanoags and Narragansett peoples he was the equivalent of the bogeyman or an apparition who was often called Chepi meaning “He who is apart from the living”.  He was a potentially malevolent being who often appeared to people in the form of dangerous enemies or deceased loved ones in order to spread fear or trickery. Sometimes he entered their nightmares in the form of animal predators or undead spirits, a folkloric proto-Freddy Krueger.  As the lord of death, he was certainly the most feared of gods and spirits.  In fact, when Europeans came around and introduced their mythology to the natives, the Wampanoag immediately associated Hobbomock with the Christian devil.  Yet, the pre-Christian understanding of Hobbomock was not that of an purely evil entity.  Daring medicine men would seek to commune with him in order to heal the sick or slay enemies, but this was a Faustian proposition that could cost one his soul.

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“The Kingdom of Darkness”, woodcut 1688. A depiction of European Christians being seduced by native New England demons.

As potentially frightening as the woods could be, they were also places of peace and beauty.  The swamp lands that dot New England are more unambiguously frightening and deadly.  Though they served as a useful staging point for attacking enemies and abundant grounds for hunting and trapping game, they were so populated by strange and hostile forces that they were best avoided.  The Abenaki called the malodorous gases that hung over the swamp water, Chibaiskweda and believed they were ghosts of those who hadn’t received proper burials. Various tribes called the will o’ wisps that illuminated the night time bogs of New England,  Ask-wee-da-eed believing them to be fire spirits that bought terrible curses on those who looked upon their eerie light.

My childhood was steeped in tales told by older kids and friends’ parents of the haunted place called the Hockomock Swamp, a vast wetland stretching nearly seventeen thousand acres and spreading across several towns including the one in which I grew up. The name means “the place where spirits dwell” and to my knowledge it is not related to Hobbomock, (though he certainly would have stalked the darkest corners of the swamp).  English settlers thought so too, naming the place “Devil’s Swamp”. The region was long thought by Wampanoags to be sacred, providing important game and serving as a home to mystical creatures both benign and evil. In the late seventeenth century it was the staging ground for Indian warriors during King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict between the local Wampanoag tribes and English settlers that bred a great number of atrocities committed by both sides. To those who entertain ideas that the restless dead walk the Earth, these horrors undoubtedly left the swamp deeply haunted.  Stories I often heard around campfires on crisp autumn nights suggested that the defeated natives placed a curse on the area meant to bring bad luck to any European who entered its borders, though to my knowledge, I’ve never suffered any ill-effects.

On Halloween night of 1908, decades before UFO sightings became a popular trope in conspiracy circles, several local residents reported that a giant shape resembling a lantern floated over the swamp for nearly an hour.  Strange lights above the swamp were spotted again in 1980 and reported in local newspapers.  In 1970 police combed the swamp for two days after several witnesses reported seeing a hairy seven-foot tall figure resembling a bear or ape walking in the swamp. Like kids all across the United States, I trembled in fear of the mystery man known as “The Hook”; a reclusive guy with a curved spike in place of his lost hand who did not take kindly to those who trespassed on his territory.  The story appears to be one of those ubiquitous urban legends retold in far flung locales. For those of us living in southeastern Massachusetts, it was Hockomock Swamp that the maniacal hermit called home.

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A section of the Hockomock Swamp.

Hockomock Swamp is situated within an area that has come to be called the Bridgewater Triangle.  The area is named for a seemingly inordinate number of strange and inexplicable incidents that have occurred within its geographical bounds.  The name was coined in 1983 by author and folklorist Loren Coleman, whose book,  Mysterious America cataloged all sorts of  seemingly supernatural occurrences across the U.S.  Werewolves, gigantic birds with twelve foot wingspans and mysterious lights in the sky have all been reported by local residents over the last hundred years. Route 44, a long stretch of unlit road in the town of Rehoboth is said to be home to an apparition who has appeared to several people as a bearded hitchhiker only to disappear again.  In case you’re wondering, I’ve never seen him, though it is not not for a lack of trying.  In the neighboring town, a large boulder that has come to be known as Dighton Rock is carved with unintelligible symbols whose origins have been long debated, some insisting that they are of alien origin.

In my teenage years, The Freetown State Forest, a five-thousand acre woodland located within the triangle was rumored to be a hot spot for Satanic cult activity.  The vast swath of woodland has witnessed a number of murders during its history and given rise to reports of ritual altars full of animal bones. The area has also been the site of mutilations of grazing cattle, and a century old corpse that was disinterred from an old cemetery in the forest. In high school, my friends and I liked to drive through the forest roads late at night just to freak ourselves out.  We succeeded in doing so, though we never did come across any outdoor black masses.  I later learned to lump in the rumors I heard of cult activity with the Satanic moral panic that was rampant in the late 80s and early 90s, but it turns out that, in this case, there was some truth behind the gossip.  Between 1979-80 there was as a string of murders that were committed by a crime ring that held satanic rituals in their leader’s apartment.

The topography of the region is built largely by receding glaciers from the end of the last ice age and Christopher Pittman, a paranormal researcher has hypothesized that magnetic deposits have left the area open to strange phenomenon or perhaps they influence our minds to see strange things. I am personally skeptical of any such claims, but what is Halloween time without a little suspension of disbelief?

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Above: Map of the region of Massachusetts known as the Bridgewater Triangle. Below: A Satanic altar in the Freetown State Forest? This structure was photographed in the late 1980s in the Freetown State Forest contained animal bones, burnt candles and other signs of ritual practice often associated with cults.

The English settlers who first migrated to the area brought with them a worldview and religion that was based on quite horrifying ideas.  It is a common historical cliche, especially here in New England that the first European settlers in Massachusetts came seeking religious freedom.  While there is some truth in this claim, it is very much buried in euphemism.  The Pilgrims of Plymouth and their brethren of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston came to establish a theocracy built on a very grim reading of the Bible. They believed in a very black and white world in which most of them were destined to burn in hell for eternity no matter how virtuously they lived.  It was a stark faith that imagined that The Devil lurked behind every tree, stalking in the dark forests of their newly-adopted homeland.  For some Puritan thinkers, the New World was an Eden that had been corrupted by Satan as evinced by the animistic beliefs of the Indians they encountered.  When social problems arose (as they inevitably would when trying to build a community from the ground up) Puritan theology was hardwired to point the finger of blame in the direction of sinister supernatural forests.  And the Prince of Darkness was everywhere in the woods and swamps of New England, constantly whispering in the ears of the faithful, offering them terrible powers if they would bow down and worship him.  In his 1689 book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, popular Puritan minister Cotton Mather sought to warn his fellow colonists about the danger posed by Satan and those lost souls who had pledged themselves to his evil cause and would later write in Wonders of the Invisible World, that the lands of New England, before the arrival of Puritan Europeans “were once the Devil’s territories”.  With the people of God landed on his shores, surely The Devil was intent on mounting a counteroffensive.

The horror of this worldview was fatally realized in the winter of 1692 in the northern Massachusetts town of Salem.  In February of that year, when two young cousins, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (aged nine and eleven) began having strange fits and destructive bouts of rage, the presumption that they were bewitched by someone who’d made a pact with the devil was an easy conclusion to leap to. Several women were initially accused, and eventually (after being tortured) the Parris’ slave Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft.  She claimed to have met with a mysterious dark man in the woods, signed his book of evil and to have attended meetings with other servants of Satan during witches Sabbaths with the goal of destroying the purity of the community.  Arrests, torture, and confessions were carried out through the spring and in June the executions began when Bridget Bishop, an older women who’d been acquitted of witchcraft several decades earlier, was hanged from a tree on what would come to be known as Gallows Hill.  Panic ensued and executions accelerated throughout the summer with a total of twenty people were put to death, mostly on the flimsiest of evidence that even Cotton Mather decried as superstitious zealotry.

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The hanging of Bridget Bishop, June 10, 1692

As a child my family made annual pilgrimages to the town of Salem that has managed to build a tourist industry out of its dark past.  In the secret passages of The House of Seven Gables I imagined myself crawling through the secret bowels of a Gothic castle.  The Salem Witch Museum housed terrifying wax-figure recreations of the terrible tortures delivered upon those accused of sorcery.  I haven’t been for many years, but Salem has became a Halloween tourist destination, hosting a variety of horror-themed attractions that, if I’m generous, only tangentially have anything to do with Salem’s history.  Dracula’s Castle, Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, Voodoo, Vampire, and Ghost Tours, along with recreations of zombie outbreaks live alongside less campy locales that explore the history of the city.  The circus aspect of America’s Halloween city does speak to a modern desire to pull our history and folklore into a unified mythos, especially around our most myth-laden holidays like Halloween.

Much of my visceral response to both the Salem witch trials and the dark chapter of Puritanism in America is informed as much by fiction as by historical scholarship.  No author is more responsible for bringing seventeenth century Salem to life for me as a young reader than native son, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Born in 1804, his Salem was a different place than Cotton Mather’s, but the shadows of the events that occurred little more than a century before he was born greatly affected his worldview.  In Hawthorne’s time New England was becoming less Puritan, both by the liberalization of the old Puritan churches and mass immigration of European Catholics who were changing the cultural landscape of urban New England. Hawthorne’s work was greatly influenced by the Puritan history of his hometown, though he was quite critical of the superstition and insular thinking of his ancestors. His own great-great-grandfather John Hathorne presided over the Salem Witch trials and never repented for his support of the terrible events of 1692. In his early twenties, the author decided to add a “w” to his surname, likely to distinguish himself from the actions of his fanatical ancestors.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, circa 1860. Photo by Matthew Brady

Few novels capture the subtle horror of isolated communities and isolated minds that lead to the sort of witch trials that enveloped seventeenth century Salem than The Scarlet Letter.  The story of Hester Prynn’s life-long burden to bear the mark that announces she’d committed the sin of adultery is hardly a horror story in the traditional sense.  Nonetheless the air of secrecy and judgment, and Hester’s husband’s vow to have revenge build an atmosphere of existential terror for those forced to live under the oppressive Puritan moral code. Hawthorne’s 1851 novel, The House of Seven Gables is set in Hawthorne’s time, but the characters live under the curse of a man unjustly accused and executed for witchcraft by the house’s owner during the Puritan era.

Many of Hawthorn’s other tales relied heavily on strange imagery to impart a sense of dread and sometimes outright horror. “The Minister’s Black Veil“, published in 1846 takes place in a seventeenth century Puritan town where Reverend Hooper has donned a face covering that “makes him ghost-like from head to foot”.  The townspeople to which he ministers react ambiguously, recognizing that his veil is an indictment of humanity’s penchant for sin but also a terrifying visage from which “children fled from his approach”.  Hawthorne is intentionally obscure with the meaning of the veil, letting it serve rather as an unnerving symbol of the horror of Puritanism just as he did a decade earlier with the surreal supernatural tale, “Young Goodman Brown“.  The story follows its protagonist through the dark forest outside of witch-trial era Salem as he journeys through the woods at night only to come upon a mysterious ceremony.  A macabre figure presides over a ritual attended by all of his fellow Puritan townsfolk who appear to all be part of a Satanic coven of witches.  He wakes the next day unsure if he had dreamt the incident or not, but his faith is shaken and he can no longer attend church without remembering the diabolical images he’d seen during his midnight sojourn in the forest.

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Illustration for the short story “The Minister’s Black Veil”. Elenore Plaisted Abbott, 1900

The nineteenth century also saw the birth of inarguably the most important figure in modern horror fiction. Though he was raised in Richmond, Virginia and died in Baltimore (the city that decided to name their football team after his most famous poem), Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1809.  As a young adult, he returned to his native city to work as a newspaper reporter where he published his first work, a book of poetry entitled Tamerlane and Other Poems under the byline, “by a Bostonian”.  As he rose to fame, he managed to alienate himself from the Boston literary community after referring to the city’s literary elites as “frogpondians” and a “knot of rogues and madmen” undoubtedly while in his most favored state of drunkenness.  Towards the end of his life, he returned to New England, visiting Providence, Rhode Island where he courted a poet named Sarah Helen Whitman.  Eventually, the two were engaged on the condition that Poe would take up sobriety.  Unfortunately, his promise only lasted a few days and Whitman reluctantly called off the marriage.  Poe returned to Baltimore to die less than a month after the split.

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Above: Edgar Allan Poe, 1849. Below: Illustration from “The Raven” collection. Gustave Doré, 1884

New England doesn’t play much of a role as a setting in Poe’s fiction.  His lone novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket does open on the Massachusetts island referenced in its title, but it merely the point of departure to a grand supernatural adventure at sea.  It is impossible though, for me to imagine the study that serves as the setting for The Raven occurring anywhere other than in one of the old New England Victorian mansions that dot our region. One of Poe’s most famous stories might have been inspired by a bit of folklore he picked up while living in Boston. “The Cask of Amontillado“, a revenge tale about a man who leads a hated rival into underground Italian catacombs with the promise of a the finest wine only to kill him by sealing him up behind a wall deep under the Earth.  While stationed at Castle Island in Boston Harbor Poe heard his fellow soldiers exchange stories about a duel that had taken place in the fort in 1817 in which a hated lieutenant named Gustavus Drane killed a popular fellow officer.  In retaliation, soldiers in the barracks got Drane drunk and sealed him inside the wall of the barracks.  The tale is apocryphal (Drane died in 1846) but in 1905, a skeleton with scraps of military uniform was found in the walls of Fort Independence giving fuel to the old rumor.

The setting of another of Poe’s tales, “The Fall of the House of Usher“, was likely inspired by events that took place in the Hezekiah Usher House, an old Boston estate that was torn down around 1830.  At the time of its demolition, two skeletons are alleged to have been found embracing in the basement.  Rumor has it they were a sailor and the wife of the home’s owner caught in an affair, killed, and buried in there by the home’s owner.  It is quite possible that Poe had heard the story and imagined the character of Roderick Usher and his sister and their doomed embrace.

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Illustration of Hezekiah Usher’s house by Malcom Fraser, circa 1915

Charlotte Gilman Perkins of Hartford, Connecticut was a nineteenth century feminist whose most famous tale, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in 1892 by New England Magazine.  As the story begins to unfold, the scenery seems as if it is setting up perfectly as a ghost story set in a secluded New England farmhouse.  But as it progresses through the narrator’s descent into madness (or a severe case of postpartum depression), it morphs into one of the finest depictions of psychological terror ever put on the page.  Gilman’s narrator is confined to a bedroom to treat her depressive state (based on the presence of barred windows, one could say she is imprisoned) where she starts to notice strange patterns on the wall. Her seemingly kind, but frustratingly patronizing husband is often out of the house while she tries to free a woman that she believes is trapped  behind the ugly wallpaper. Though the physical setting of New England plays a secondary role – the lonely room that serves as the entire setting of the story could be anywhere on Earth – the stifling culture of the late nineteenth century New England. The psychological setting fits well within the bounds of a nineteenth century New England full of contradictions about its history, progressive in its aspirations, but puritan at its roots.

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Illustration of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Alex E Clark, 2017

New Yorker, Edith Wharton, spent her summers in the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island and eventually settled there after marrying Boston-native Edward Robbins Wharton.  Though most well known for novels like The Age of Innocence that depicted the American aristocracy of the gilded age in its utter absurdity, she took several trips into the macabre with her shorter work.  Many of Wharton’s most famous ghost stories, like “The Eyes“, “Afterward” and “Kerfol” take place in Gothic European settings. Some, however, were inspired by her time living in Rhode Island. Rural New England is the setting for tales like “Bewitched” in which a man finds himself in an adulterous affair with a woman who had died a year earlier.  In the final story she ever wrote, “All Souls” (not to be confused with a poem she wrote with the same title) Wharton seems to pour all of the terror of her own impending death into a tale of an old woman who finds herself bedridden in her home on a cold October when everyone else in the household mysteriously disappears.

Each day I wake up in a town that borders the Taunton River which neighbors the once important industrial city of Fall River, Massachusetts (a city that borders the Freetown State Forest and the Bridgewater Triangle).  One of New England’s most renowned poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who was one of the “frogpondians” Poe wrote very unkindly of) penned a poem entitled “The Skeleton in Armour” about the strange remains of an armored warrior found in Fall River in 1832. The discovery prompted all sorts of speculation as to the origin of the strange corpse.  Longfellow concluded that he was a lost Viking warrior who had washed up on shore and died in the strange foreign land long before Puritans arrived in the seventeenth century.

Fall River’s claim on the weird and creepy though is much better illustrated by the events of late nineteenth century that made the city famous.

Lizzy Borden had an axe                                                                                                                 

Gave her Mother forty wacks                                                                                                         

When she saw what she had done                                                                                             

Gave her father forty-one

I don’t know anyone who grew up in Massachusetts who can’t recite the poem about the August 1892 murders of Abby and Andrew Borden, the nursery rhyme presumes, by Andrew’s youngest daughter Lizzie. The family was well-to-do, living on Second Street in an affluent section of the city. Lizzie was a devout woman, faithfully involved with her church and with various social organizations. She presumably led a happy life, though at the time of the murder family tensions had been high after Andrew had married Abby, a stepmother that Lizzie was not fond of. The killings happened during a terrible heat wave when Lizzie was home alone with Abby and the family maid Bridget who was resting at the time in her room on the third floor.  Despite the words of the nursery rhyme above, Abby Borden was killed around ten in the morning after receiving fifteen or sixteen blows to the head (not forty).  An hour or so later her father came home from a walk when his murderer landed eleven hits (not forty-one) with the same hatchet.  Lizzie was charged with the murders a week later and from the outset, the case was plagued with controversy.

Lizzie’s behavior during the investigation and trial was very strange. She gave contradictory answers to the simplest of questions. Two hatchets were found in the basement, one with its handle removed, though neither could be proved conclusively to be the murder weapon. Lizzie burned a dress a shortly after the murder, claiming it was ruined after she brushed up against some wet paint.  In the end Lizzie was acquitted for the murders and no second suspect was ever tried. The murder and Lizzie’s subsequent trial became America’s first national legal scandal, predating O.J. Simpson’s by a century.  The case brought to light the dark side of America’s upper class, called into question the Victorian idea that women were incapable of such brutality, and drew together the emerging national media with the sort of sensationalism that predicted our modern cult of celebrity.

Hundreds and thousands of words have been written hypothesizing the identity of the murderer: Lizzie, herself, who was the victim of incest, committed the murders in a fugue state; The servant Bridget was angry for being forced to wash windows in the crippling heat; Jose Correa deMello, a man who killed his employer’s twenty-two year old daughter with an axe just five days before Borden’s trial began.  More than a century and a quarter later, we still don’t know what happened,  but the case has lived on the imagination of people inspiring multiple horror movies, including one released last month, novels, operas, a musical, countless documentaries and TV specials, and, of course, the name of a heavy metal band. Angela Carter, the great English fabulist wrote a story called “The Fall River Axe Murders” in which she assumes that Lizzie is the murderer but spends most of the tale painting a vivid picture of the family stresses, oppressive humidity, and Lizzie’s building emotional resentment towards her father and his bride.  The Borden home where the murders occurred is now a bed and breakfast and museum that attracts visitors from across the globe each year.

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Top: Lizzie Borden, circa 1890. Bottom: The bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden, August 1892.

Twenty minutes in the opposite direction from my house is the city of Providence, Rhode Island, a place I once called home.  Providence is an old city boasting lively history of alleged hauntings and a library at Brown University that is home to books bound in the flesh of people who had been deemed unworthy of a consecrated burial by Puritan leaders of their day. While living there I took daily walks that frequently led me to the sprawling and beautiful Swan Point Cemetery.  Located among the rows of ornate tombstones is a humble grave marking the burial place of one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. The early twentieth century writer of weird fiction died broke and unknown outside a small circle of writers, yet he left a legacy that would touch all subsequent horror history. The small stone speaks to the humble status he occupied at the time of his death, but the line carved into the bottom that reads, “I AM PROVIDENCE” screams his love for the land of his birth, a love that shows itself prominently in his fiction.

Lovecraft was a man of turn of the century New England.  He imagined himself a member of the old Anglo-Saxon elite and fiercely opposed the presence of the Catholic immigrants that were then flocking to New England (and thus account for my being born here).  Much of his fiction is marred with his virulent racism and xenophobia and stories like “The Street” and “The Call of Cthulhu” are embedded with Lovecraft’s rabid fear of miscegenation.  A self-described antiquarian, his stories often read as homages to the both the natural beauty and dark history of the region. The larger Lovecraftian mythos that touched most of his stories was cosmic in scope and full of ancient horrific beings that threatened to destroy humanity at any moment.  Lovecraft created mythical realms of the and dreamscapes inspired by the writings of Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood and his contemporary, Clarke Ashton Smith.  Stories like “Celephaïs“, “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” depict worlds beyond our own, sometimes located in the darkest parts of our minds only accessed in our most terrifying nightmares, others in far-flung corners of the cosmos. But no more was he more effective in his storytelling than when he described places he’d walked with his own feet.

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H.P. Lovecraft, 1934

The opening paragraphs of “The Picture in the House” read like a travelogue of the New England countryside, the narrator enjoying a leisurely bike ride until he comes upon an old farm house and meets the aged resident whose penchant for cannibalism has kept him young and vigorous.  In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read – a traveler visits a seaside fishing village near Salem that has come under the spell of an ancient evil aquatic deity.  “The Haunter of the Dark” centers around a tall church steeple in the Federal Hill district of Providence, that beckons the young protagonist to enter and open a gateway to another dimension.  One of my favorite “Christmas” tales, “The Festival”  takes place in Marblehead, Massachusetts, a town Lovecraft imagines sits atop great caverns in which a secret evil Yuletide celebration occurs. In the novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward a young Rhode Island notable’s madness is intimately connected to the history of the state, when he discovers the notebook of a colonial trader who centuries earlier imported diabolical arts to early New England from the darkest corners of the globe.  In all of these stories a cosmic conspiracy of ancient evil underlies the ordinary world and poke through the cracks of normalcy in New England locales Lovecraft knew intimately.

The place where human discovery of this dark mysterious underworld was most focused was in a fictional town Arkham, located just north of Salem, Massachusetts, primarily in the city’s center of higher learning, Miskatonic University.  The university was one of the the few places where an enterprising occultist could find a copy of the legendary book of evil, The Necrinomicon, the guide to awakening the slumbering forces of evil that ruled Lovecraft’s mythos.  The university’s librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage had to fight to protect this copy from Wilbur Wheatley who intended to steal it to open a gateway to summon the dark gods in “The Dunwich Horror“.  It was also home to the experiments of  a young medical student who applied his learning to raising the dead in “Herbert West – Re animator“.  Miskatonic was the institute that sponsored the doomed expedition to Antarctica that revealed an ancient extraterrestrial civilization in the novella At the Mountains of Madness.  Albert Wilmarth, the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” who discovers an alien invasion plot in Vermont is a folklorist at the University.  Another professor, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, is possessed by an entirely different alien race in “The Shadow Out of Time“.  On the west side of the city is a rural area called the blasted heath that has never recovered from a meteor that crashed in 1882.  In “The Colour Out of Space” a Boston surveyor investigates the region in which local crops and livestock are still suffering from madness and death a half century after the meteor crashed.  Miskatonic undergraduate, Walter Gilman is haunted by non-Euclidean geometry and terrible nightmares in “Dreams in the Witch House” when he rents a room in Arkham that was once inhabited by an evil witch who took refuge there after fleeing the 1692 trials in Salem.

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When Lovecraft was not yet two years old, his home state of Rhode Island was the site of one of America’s last supernatural panics.  The history of witch hunts is well known, particularly that of the Salem trials discussed above.  You were probably less likely to read about any of New England’s vampire scares in your History text books.  For nearly two centuries after the last executions of suspected witches, Americans were still taking active measures to protect themselves from the undead. Rhode Island folklorist, Michael Bell has made a career of documenting exhumations of bodies from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that show signs that the bodies had been previously disinterred and “treated” for vampirism, sometimes under the cover of darkness and other times in well-attended public rituals.  Bell and others have examined more than eighty cases of remains that had been beheaded, staked, or otherwise mutilated stretching across the United States but seemingly very prevalent in nineteenth century New England.  To this day, legends abound in some circles that the plots of these slain vampires do not grow grass and lichen will not cover their gravestones as it will neighboring ones.

By 1892, tuberculosis was identified as an infectious disease, but in many rural places such as Exeter, Rhode Island, the news was hardly common knowledge.  When a local farmer named George Brown lost his wife and elder daughter Mary and both his son Edwin and daughter Mercy were suffering from the disease, he was especially vulnerable to the idea that “consumption” (as tuberculosis was commonly known) was not at the root of his family’s problems. When Mercy died, George became desperate.  Whispers in the town suggested that one of the dead family members was returning from the grave and infecting the others. The bodies of all the dead Browns were exhumed and most were found to be predictably decomposed, but Mercy looked fresh and her heart was full of blood.  It didn’t matter to the locals that it was January and Mercy’s body had been well-preserved by the cold winter air.  What concerned them was that Mercy be properly disposed of. Her heart was burnt and the ashes mixed with water and given to Edwin as a healing elixir.  Edwin died shortly thereafter and so did the New England vampire scare.  There is some evidence to suggest that Mercy Brown’s story made its way overseas to a theater manager named Bram Stoker who was inspired by it to write the character of Lucy into his 1897 novel, Dracula.  Lovecraft made reference to the incident in his story, “The Shunned House“.  Rumors still exist among Exeter locals that Mercy Brown haunts a certain town bridge.

mercy Brown newspaper

 

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Top: Newspaper clipping from the Boston Daily Globe reporting on the Mercy Brown incident, 1896.  Bottom: The Brown family crypt where Mercy’s body was discovered fully preserved

I don’t believe in undead blood suckers, but few books scared me as a kid as much as a tale of vampires set in New England.  Salem’s Lot was the second novel published by Bangor, Maine native Stephen King. King has been the face of horror for the past five decades and New England, especially Maine, is well represented in his work.  The locales he uses and the characters who inhabit them are undoubtedly the writer’s greatest strength and when he puts his “regular-guy” protagonists up against apocalyptic plagues, supernatural clowns, and satanic cars, it is not hard for us locals to put ourselves in their shoes.  It is perhaps fitting that King grew up reading Poe and Lovecraft as he we will undoubtedly occupy the same influential place in horror history as the they do. The success of his early novels led to a career that led him to become the preeminent name in modern horror and in so doing brought terrifying stories all over the map of  the Pine Tree State

Salem’s Lot was a follow up to his breakout 1974 novel, Carrie, the book that put him on the map was set in the small coastal town of Chamberlain, Maine, where a teenage girl with telekinetic powers is terrorized by her classmates until she pushes back.  Pet Sematary (1983) is about a Midwestern family who has relocated to Ludlow, Maine and they soon learn that their new home is situated near an ancient burial ground where the dead do not rest in peace. The fictional town of Derry is the setting for his massive 1986 novel, It an ode to the magic of childhood friendship and courage in the face of an unspeakable terror that lurks below the town’s sewers. In Gerald’s Game, Jessie Burlingame and her husband, Gerald travel to a remote cottage in the Lakes Region of Maine in hopes of re-invigorating their marriage. But shortly after Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost in a kinky game of bondage, he drops dead of a heart attack, leaving her trapped and alone surrounded by the dark northern woods.  The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) is a reference to former Boston Red Sox closing pitcher who inspires the protagonist to fight through the darkness while lost alone in the deep forests of Maine.  Chesters Mill, another fictional town is destroyed after having a giant invisible barrier seal it off from the rest of the world in the 2009’s, Under the Dome.

Chesters Mills and Derry are but several of the fictional towns used by King.  Like Lovecraft, King sought to create a locale around which he could set a bulk of his creepy tales.  Castle Rock is a small town in Maine that King named after the fort in William Golding’s masterpiece Lord of the Flies that seems to have a magnetic effect on the dark and sinister.  It first appeared in his 1979 novel The Dead Zone and was thoroughly destroyed a decade later in Needful Things.  In between the town serves as a setting in several novels and stories and as a point of interest in many more. Though not the lightning rod for impending apocalypse like Lovecraft’s Arkham, Castle Rock has seen its share of dark times.  The serial killer known as the Castle Rock Strangler terrorizes the town (The Dead Zone) as does a twisted altar ego of author Thad Beaumont who has come to have a life of his own (The Dark Half) and a rabid Saint Bernard (Cujo). It is home to at least one hole in the space/time continuum (“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut“).  It is a place where boys bond by going on a journey to find the body of a missing classmate (“The Body“). And what town would be complete without a haunted house like the one in “It Grows on You“?  Castle Rock is ultimately undone by the fact that it is the ideal location for The Devil to set up a shop that sells the things customers most desire (Needful Things). This past July, Hulu launched a series set in the town using a story line loosely based on Stephen King’s large body of work.

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Stephen King in front of his home in Bangor, ME. 1982.

King dedicated his 1981 novel Firestarter to a writer who spent a great deal of her life living in Bennington, Vermont and drew inspiration for her deeply disturbing fiction from her time there.  Shirley Jackson’s most famous story, “The Lottery” is one that you’ve undoubtedly read if you went to high school in the United States during the last few decades. The tale takes place in a fictional New England town based on Bennington, and has one of the most shocking endings in the history of short fiction.  The terrible ritual stoning and insular thinking of the townsfolk are reminiscent in many ways of the twisted psychological worldviews of characters inhabiting Hawthorne’s Puritan villages and they speak to Jackson’s own feelings as an outsider in small-town New England.  Her tales depict a stifling horror engendered by parochialism and the dark secrets that lurk below the smiling surface of everyday life. Her life was by all accounts, including her own writing, was one of unhappy acquiescence to a stifling social order in a small college town and in even more stifling marriage and domestic situation that was deeply unsatisfying to her playful but tortured spirit.

Jackson’s horror is often restrained and subtle, mostly eschewing supernatural evil to focus on underlying psychological torment that plagued society, especially those who failed to conform to the dominant order.  The underlying unease and tension in such stories like “The Summer People“. “The Daemon Lover” and “The Tooth” is, in my opinion, simply unmatched by anyone who has ever put words on a page. She was personally interested in the occult and mythic, often claiming publicly to be “a practicing amateur witch” who had put hexes on a number of publishers, though her stories very rarely reflected an interest in the supernatural. One exception is the thriller The Haunting of Hill House a novel that is arguably the one against which all other haunted house stories should be measured. The 1959 novel looks back to the Victorian era ghost tale and forward to the psychological thrillers that would become prevalent in subsequent decades.  Set in a house located outside a rural New England town called Hillsdale, and though most of the novel is focused on the house itself and the mind of its protagonist, Eleanor Vance, Jackson spends much of the first chapter detailing her journey through rural New England to get to the haunted abode, and the picture of foreboding in the early pages of the book is chilling.  In 1962 Jackson published an even more chilling work, also set in rural New England and also about a haunted house of sorts. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is full of elements of horror, murder, madness, a village full of small-minded zealots, but ultimately the horror rests inside the psyche of the narrator, Merricat whose childlike worldview and superstition makes for an unclassifiable, but eerie story.

 

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Above: Lincoln Square in North Bennington, Vermont. This spot was the place where Jackson imagined the final scene of The Lottery.  Photo by Gail Gauthier. Below: Shirley Jackson, 1940.

I’ve mostly neglected the northern New England states that helped to inspire the work of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson and of Connecticut (that to me has always felt more like it belonged to New York than New England).  I admit it, I’m a biased Masshole and much of the material I’ve included here reflects my closeness to Southern New England (except for Connecticut). That said, I have spent a lot of time in the backwoods of the northern New England states and been spooked by sounds that lurked in the trees beyond the reach of my flashlight beam. The history of the area is full of strange lore and local legends of haunted places.  It would be impossible to do a full listing of houses and locales that are reputed by locals to be sites of supernatural phenomena, but I do recommend any who are interested explore the strange history of the region that includes murdered pirates, cursed prisons, and ancient crumbling graveyards alleged to harbor restless spirits. Here is but a tiny sampling of some of the creepy occurrences in the other New England states.

Maine is full of tales of haunted lighthouses, military forts, and opera houses.  Enoch Lincoln, a distant relative of Abraham served as Maine’s governor until his death in 1829.  When the vault that served as his final resting place was opened in 1986, his body had disappeared and has never been found.  The state has long been known for it’s mysterious beast that stalks the woods around the town of Wayne that has been blamed for killing pets.  Recent reports suggest the monster was killed by a car and that it was a dog/wolf hybrid.  Maine also happens to be home to the preeminent museum of cryptozoology the pseudoscience that studies the existence of such mythic creatures as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Neighboring Vermont has also a claim a the mystery monster of it’s own, home as it is to Lake Champlain and the strange Loch Ness-like creature known affectionately as “Champ”.  The strange reptilian sea creature was called Tatoskok by native Abenaki and Iroquois, and more than six hundred sightings have been reported over the last two centuries, most famously when it was allegedly photographed in 1977.  So popular is the legend among locals that the local Single-A baseball team is named the Vermont Lake Monsters.

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Photo taken at Lake Champlain by Sandra Mansi in 1977 while vacationing in Burlington, VT.  The photo is the most cited piece of evidence for the existence of the lake monster known as “Champ”.

New Hampshire’s White Mountains Region is home to hundreds of ghost towns that disappeared over the years and explorers who go off track into the wilderness are likely to stumble upon ancient basements that once rested below homes that have been reclaimed by the woods. One such town, Monson that was abandoned around 1770 has been preserved as a historic site where visitors can take in the eerie atmosphere of the allegedly haunted site.  A fictionalized version of this phenomenon was dramatized in the 2010 film, YellowBrickRoad in which a team seeks to trace the disappearance of one such ghost town only to discover – to their own doom – the cause they were seeking. The Granite State is home to many haunted houses and inns, but perhaps its most notoriously haunted place is a pond in Francestown where a body of water has been called the Haunted Pond.  Several witnesses have reported hearing painful moans and cries, often said to be the ghost of a camper murdered and buried by the pond long ago. New Hampshire can also boast that it is the birthplace of the infamous H.H. Holmes, the notorious serial killer whose story was told in Erik Larson’s bestseller, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Connecticut is not without its share of haunted locales but for my money its contribution to fiction is far more important.  The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin with its evil robot wives living in suburban Connecticut, is a classic of the genre as is the 1975 film adaptation.  Thomas Tryon’s 1971 novel The Other and it’s follow-up Harvest Home (1973) helped create a wave of 70s horror fiction that paved the way for Stephen King’s rise to popularity. Wes Craven’s 1972 breakout film about a brutal abduction and its aftermath, The Last House on the Left was set in rural Connecticut as is Camp Crystal Lake, the original killing grounds for Jason Voorhees and his mom in the Friday the 13th series.  A Haunting in Connecticut is obviously set there too, but we don’t need to talk much about that, besides noting that the events depicted in the film were marketed as true, though subsequent investigation has debunked the claimArsenic and Old Lace, the 1939 play about a family of murderers was, however, based on very real events that took place in Windsor in around the turn of the twentieth century. Amy Archer-Gilligan, a struggling Connecticut widow concocted a plan for easing her financial woes when she opened a rest home in which she promised lifetime care to elderly patients willing to sign over their life insurance to her.  With the help of a little bit of arsenic, she collected on more than two dozen of those policies before her scheme was foiled.

New England continues to be a prominent location for horror fiction. The hit Hulu show, The Handmaid’s Tale is horror fiction at its most potent.  Like the novel it’s adapted from (written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood) it is set in a near future New England town that has reverted to a puritanical insular community a la Nathaniel Hawthorne in which fertile women are enslaved in order to make babies for the barren women who occupy the new fundamentalist working class. John Updike’s 1984 work of witchcraft and devilry in Rhode Island, The Witches of Eastwick also became a critically-acclaimed film starring Jack Nicholson. Boston author Dennis Lehane has published a number of bestsellers set in New England many of which have been adapted into hit films, including the 2003 psychological thriller Shutter Island, a dark mystery set in a mental hospital on an island in Boston Harbor.

Horror films in New England go back to beginning of motion picture history.  Several early adaptations of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works were made during the first decades of the twentieth century that have been lost.  His works have been remade frequently since then.  In the 1960s famed B-movie director Roger Corman began loosely adapting the works of Hawthorne, Poe, and Lovecraft into schlock horror films starting with 1960’s House of Usher. Countless others have taken on Lovecraft themes or adaptations and there are too many to list (and most of them not worthy of listing even if space was available.) Stuart Gordon’s comical 1985 Re-Animator and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) are worth a mention. Likewise there are too many Stephen King adaptations to list, but It, Cujo, and Pet Semetary stick out as being quality films that represent the region well.  The 1960 British film, The City of the Dead starring Christopher Lee was one of many that married the horror genre with the events of seventeenth century Salem.  The theme was revisited most recently with the brilliant 2015 film The Witch.  Though it was set on Long Island, Steven Speilberg’s breakout 1975 hit, Jaws was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard during a grueling summer shoot.  One of my favorite New England horror films is Session 9 set in an abandoned insane asylum in Danvers, Massachusetts.  Horror television has also set up shop here with the second season of American Horror Story, Asylum clearly set in Massachusetts.  You can tell by Jessica Lange’s convincing accent.

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This is hardly an exhaustive tour of the rich history and folklore of my home region or of the scary stories born in the imaginations of those who grew up here.  There is much that I’ve left out because of space considerations and undoubtedly much that I’ve never learned of, especially of tales unknown outside of local contexts.  I would love to hear about more spooky New England folklore and fiction based in or written by authors from the region, so by all means, let me know what I’ve missed here.

Unless you are a local, you probably won’t get a chance to walk upon the crunchy leaves  of my native land this Halloween time and enjoy the old tales that the ancient crumbling graveyards and cobblestone streets may inspire.  You can certainly read the stories of terror written by New England’s native sons and daughters, and frankly, if you haven’t read Poe, Lovecraft, Jackson, King, or the others I’ve discussed above, it’s a practical Halloween imperative that you do so as quickly as possible. I am certain that if you peel back the curtain of your own home town or region or the place you currently call home, there are equally rich histories and folk tales to explore and local storytellers who can spin a yarn to make your skin crawl.  So I urge you to go out and turn over stones under your feet, explore the strange shadows in the corners of your local lore, listen to the old timers tell their tales of the happenings of long ago.

I leave you with a quote from the figure that best exemplifies horror in New England and tidily sums up my words above:

“Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.”

-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Picture in the House” December 12, 1920

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Photo courtesy of Beth Teixeira Kelly, September 2018

Next Thursday I will get a little bit deeper into horror history when I explore the dark side of ocean myth and seagoing folklore and talk about spooky things that lurk underwater.

2 thoughts on “Synaptic History of Halloween Part 9: The Haunting of New England

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