Top Ten Tuesday: creepy stories and urban myths

Text only: top ten TUESDAY

Top Ten Tuesday is was created by The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. It’s all about books, lists and sharing the love we have of both with our bookish friends. As it’s nearly Hallowe’en, we’re celebrating all things spooky and I’m diverting from books this week to recall other sorts of scary, unexplained or just downright weird tales…

One of my favourite books on the shelf at my grandparents’ house was called Mysteries of the Universe. It was published by Marks & Sparks (random!) and had 1-2 glossy-paged spreads covering an array of little-understood (pre)historic monuments, paranormal phenomena and all-out ghost stories. I was hooked.

I’ve had a lifelong fascination with weird (and wyrd) and wonderful stories ever since, so as it’s nearly Hallowe’en… grab a cuppa, lean in by the fire, and let me tell you some of my favourite weird stories.

CONTENT WARNINGS: ghosts, disappearances at sea, poltergeists, mass hysteria, body parts, spontaneous human combustion. General nightmare fodder, in fact.

I mean, I’m checking the doors are locked and turning the lights on because by the end I’m really going to wish I weren’t writing this in a strange house on a hill with the wind howling and leaves swirling against the patio doors. Is there someonething out there?

1. Sail away

There’s no mystery like a mystery of the sea. Even with the world fully mapped and GPS keeping us located, the sea can be a strange place – imagine how much eerier it was when you calculated your position, sails creaking, knowing it was weeks until landfall. No wonder there are so many weird stories at sea. My favourites are those of the Mary Celeste and the Ellen Austin.

Originally the Amazon, the Mary Celeste had a run of bad luck from her maiden voyage onwards (it’s so easy to say OOOH LOOK CURSED, but her mishaps are probably a case of Bad Things Happen At Sea in microcosm). Eventually written off as a wreck in the West Indies, she was rescued, refitted and renamed – and on her very first voyage as the Mary Celeste sailed into legend.

The Mary Celeste set out to cross the Atlantic, but was found adrift off the Azores. The ship was in disarray but seaworthy – yet the entire crew was missing, having apparently boarded the ship’s lifeboat at some point in the previous 9 days in some panic. There were odd gashes in her hull as if someone had taken an axe to it; investigators thought they found traces of human blood on the captain’s sword. None of the crew were ever heard from again. Despite many theories – and a fierce court case over salvage – her abandonment has never been explained. No ghosts, nothing supernatural, almost certainly bad behaviour or bad luck at sea: but the Mary Celeste towers in the imagination, drifting endlessly in the open sea.

The Ellen Austin encountered another abandoned ship in the Sargasso Sea some 13 years later. Her log and name plates were missing, suggesting this ship had also been abandoned by a panicky crew; like the Mary Celeste, she was still perfectly seaworthy. A prize crew was put aboard to bring her home for salvage – but when a storm blew through, the ships were separated. When the Ellen Austin spotted the nameless ship, she was once again adrift – with no sign of the prize crew aboard. According to some accounts, a second prize crew was persuaded to board her, only for the mystery ship to suddenly pull ahead in a fog and never be seen again. WHAAAT.

This probably never happened. At least, the Ellen Austin reported no casualties when she arrived in New York. It’s likely a fabrication inspired by the Mary Celeste and later embellished – but it’s a properly spooky sea story, and I love it.

2. Now you see me…

Whether it’s Bigfoot in the US, Yeti in the Himalayas or the smaller Beasts of the UK, I do love a tale about a cryptid. I used to stare out the car window watching for the Beast of Bodmin Moor and the Exmoor Beast. But – like so many visitors to the Highlands – the ones I’m really entranced by are the rumours of creatures living in the deep lochs of Scotland. The Loch Ness Monster (Nessie) is the most famous and the one most often sighted (even Apple Maps has a claim); but I’m fond of Morag (of Loch Morar) too, who allegedly once attacked a fishing boat. The lochs are big and deep and beautiful – frankly, I just love the idea there’s something unexpected down there, no matter how easy it seems to be to explain away any new sighting.

3. …now you don’t

Returning to disappearances at sea, the Eilean Mor lighthouse is another favourite. A passing ship noted on December 15th, 1900 that the new light (only a year old!) was not operational. A relief ship bringing a replacement lighthouse keeper on December 26th found the lighthouse deserted. The distress flag was missing, along with 2 out of 3 oilskins missing. The beds were unmade, the clocks stopped, a chair overturned – and a tangle of ropes were found on the landing platform, apparently toppled from their storage place 70 feet above.

The log recorded high winds causing havoc on the island and distress amongst the keepers. These hardbitten, experienced men had prayed for their lives; then been relieved when the 15th dawned calm. But every other record shows that the weather on 12-14 December was calm. The terrible storms that ripped the metal ladder from the cliffs and turf from the cliff tops (and probably put the ropes in disarray) started on the 17th.

The story also goes that a half-eaten meal was found on the table. This is entirely untrue; a later addition for extra DRAMA. What is true is that regulations forbade all 3 keepers to leave the lighthouse at once; one man must always remain to tend the light. Still, this appears to have been what happened, the most junior man racing out to perhaps help his fellows in distress. His hurry was so great as to knock over his chair and leave behind his oilskins – yet he took the time to close the door and the main compound gates.

The official version records that all three were washed out to sea by a freak wave. Their bodies were never recovered. This didn’t stop replacement lighthouse keepers moving in; Eilean Mor was manned until 1971. Needless to say, they have wild tales of voices in the wind! But no more disappeared… although the logbook has.

4. What’s that noise?

Every now and again, we hear things that it takes us a while to explain (assuming you buy into these oh so rational explanations). My favourite because LOOKIT THAT NAME OF COURSE IT IS is the Bloop: an ultra-low frequency sound detected underwater  by NOAA in the late 90s. It was pinpointed to the Pacific Ocean, west of the southern tip of South America – and detected up to 5000km away. Sound freaky? Apparently it’s an iceberg calving, or maybe ice carving a groove in the sea bed.

In February 2016, it was the Oregon forest: a high-pitched noise like a mechanical scream ripped through the night – lasting from a few seconds to several minutes. Think squealing breaks, whistling kettles, or (thank you NBC) a really bad violin solo with a lot of feedback. Ow. Night after night, calls came in – mapping them failed to pinpoint a source; and after February 27th it simply stopped. The police closed the investigation, having announced it posed no safety hazard (ye gods, what about residents mental health? AAAAAH). It has never been explained – or heard again. A faulty fan? A dodgy heat pump? A local inventor running weird experiments? Who knows…

5. Baby you so hot

Every now again, some people just catch fire. Apparently. Dr John Irving Bentley (1966) and Mary Reeser (1951) are the two best-known examples, if not the most recent; in each case, all that was left was a foot and a bit of leg. Shuddering yet? I’m not going to go into the grisly details because frankly I don’t fancy the nightmares, but it’s an unpleasant affair.

The oddity is that while you need a lot of heat to set fire to a human body, the victim’s apartments weren’t gutted (although Dr Bentley did burn a hole through his floor). Typically, the fires are very, very localised. However, it all starts to look a bit less paranormal when you note that most victims were smoking at the time they caught fire – and were usually sitting on highly-flammable materials (in fact, have an excellent debunking article. Trust me, you’ll feel better).

So a note of advice: we may not catch fire easily, but we burn well. A little bit of common sense should keep you safe from this horrific ‘phenomenon’.

6. Where’d everybody go?

No, I’m not talking lighthouses again – this one is much, much bigger. Up near the constellation of Boötes, the sky is empty. Literally. Stretching 330 million light years across, this patch of sky simply has practically nothing in it (it’s not obvious by staring up at the stars, but trust the astronomers on this one, okay?). Looked at from the right angle, the lights are out in a bit of space so big it accounts for 0.27% of the known universe – we’d expect to find 2000 galaxies up there; instead, we can see 60.

Okay, I admit it: hearing that a bit of space is very empty indeed isn’t particularly creepy on the face of it (however unexpected), but I’ve read The Expanse. WHERE ARE THE RING STATIONS? WHAT’S IN THE VOID? IS IT STILL THERE?

Luckily, void is well over 500 million light years away from our cosy Milky Way neighbourhood. But let’s not talk about protomolecules.

7. Dance, magic, dance

Want crowded and really very weird? Fine, let’s talk social epidemics. Yes, giggling can be contagious between friends – and The Little Stranger was happy to make cracks about girls fainting in gaggles; but these things can happen on a much, much bigger scale.

One day in July 1518, a woman started dancing in the streets of Strasbourg – and kept on dancing for over 4 days. Over 30 people joined in during that first week, but within a month over 400 people were dancing – and in some cases didn’t stop until they dropped. Dead. Literally. Reports suggest that at one point, 15 people per day were dying of dancing (or dance-induced heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion).

This wasn’t the first time it had happened, either. A similar ‘plague’ had hit Aachen in 1374. The earliest known outbreak was in the 7th century. It may even have been the story behind the original Pied Piper of Hamelin – there’s a tale of a group of children leaping and dancing the 20km from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237; in 1278, 200 people danced on a bridge over the Meuse until the bridge collapsed.

This is thought to have been a form of stress-induced mass hysteria. But don’t go feeling too smug about those odd mediaeval peasants: in 1962, there was a 6-month laughing epidemic in Tanzania; and in 1983 there was a fainting epidemic in the West Bank that hospitalised 943 people! 2018 has been a heck of a year. Who knows what we’ll be doing by Christmas.

8. Dude, where’s my foot?

The Georgian streets of Bath are famous for their beauty, Jane Austen, Romans …and the discovery of three human feet between February and August 2016. The case has been quietly closed, the police saying they can find no evidence of a crime (erm…) and that they are confident the limbs came from a medical or educational exhibit – or possibly a gruesome private collection (“wanna come back to my place and see my foot collection?” is now the worst pick-up line in Bath) – which has been disturbed by animals (…you would think the owner of the collection would notice, but maybe they’ve got so many damn feet it’s passed them by).

To date, no further feet have shown up …in Bath. They keep floating ashore in the Pacific Northwest: over a dozen in the past few years on the Canadian side of the border alone (it’s not a Canadian phenomenon – Washington State gets its share too).

8 feet have been matched back to 6 known missing person cases; the others are just… feet. Mostly in sneakers. Once again, the police are confident there’s no crime being committed. Apparently it’s meant to be reassuring to note that there’s likely hundreds of bodies floating around offshore – it’s the feet that come home because modern running shoes float.

Don’t think about it too hard. But if you want to get away with murder, don’t worry about the feet, apparently.

9. Things that go bump in the night

Why yes, I waited until morning to write about this one. 30, East Drive in Pontefract is one of various buildings dubbed the most haunted place in Britain, and perhaps the most unusual. It’s not ancient, it’s not spooky (wait, it will be) – it’s a modern, brick-built house.

If you don’t believe in poltergeists, don’t look it up – the sheer range and quantity of weird happenings at 30 East Drive baffles even my rational brain. Mysterious puddles; falling chalk; taps foaming green (with the tap turned off); lights turning on and off; plants ‘leaping’ out of their plant pots; people feeling slaps or being pushed down stairs; voices and bangs; cold spots; cupboards shaking; paintings being slashed; levitations and thrown objects – it’s got them all. At its height, Diane Pritchard was throttled by invisible hands and dragged upstairs by her hair, visibly stood on end and exerting an irresistible force.

Yet the Pritchards refused to be driven out for years, calling their poltergeist ‘Fred’ (good normalisation, folks, I like it). They did eventually go, but the house remains a hot spot of inexplicable activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the current owner ‘picked it up cheap’ – and is a film producer…

10. Death is only the beginning

Let’s finish with something almost comforting after all that. One of the most unusual phenomena I’ve come across is that some bodies don’t decompose after death. The Church calls it incorruptibility and considers it a test of sainthood (you don’t have to be incorruptible to be beatified, but if you are, you’ve got a good chance). It only counts if you aren’t mummified or embalmed or otherwise stored in a way to prevent you, erm, going off.

In some cases, bodies seem to just dry out. In others, the Church reports a lovely floral scent (you got it – holiness is sweet). In some cases, some bits will last better than others. Given that we normally begin decomposing immediately after death and its obvious within days (hey, we’ve created Body Farms to study the process), the fact that some people are in good shape a few years later is frankly impressive. Saint Alexander of Svir has apparently remained in tip-top form for 500 years – having been checked most recently in the late 90s.

So, y’know: goals, right?


What weird stories do you have to share with me?

All this, and I didn’t cover actual hauntings – guess what I’m saving up for next year…