Spooktastic Reads: damn you

Spooktastic Reads: a Wyrd and Wonder mini-event happening 19-31 October

What? Oh! No, not – not you. You’re lovely. But one of my (admittedly intermittent) Spooktastic traditions is to divert from the strictly fictional into the fantastic realms of myth, (urban) legend and superstition. In past years I’ve talked about weird phenomena and haunts; this year I want to talk about curses. 

Curses make for excellent drama. They set up expectations. They invite us to think the worst. They’re brilliant storytelling devices – maybe next year I’ll look at favourite fictional curses – but in the real world they often look a lot like spooky coincidences. Plausible deniability is alive and well at my desk – I’d also remind you that correlation is not causation, but you already know that. There’s a rational explanation or a media misrepresentation behind all of these, I’m sure…

Let’s start with one of the most famous:

Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King

No, it’s not a quote from The Mummy – it was allegedly inscribed on the door of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb. You bet I’d think twice about storming into a tomb with that warning above the door (plausible deniability itself be damned – that, folks, is why I make a terrible archaeologist). However, Carter and Carnarvon didn’t flinch and so the legends began: that the excavation was cursed, resulting in numerous untimely deaths and the lights of Cairo flickering out as the curse claimed Lord Carnarvon (along with – rather cruelly – his dog).

Sure, people died. Most people do, after all. Other than Carnarvon, few of them had more than a tenuous link to the excavation. Howard Carter himself? Lived another 17 years, world-famous and perhaps just a tad haunted.

Best Served Cold

As archaeological misadventure goes, Ötzi the murdered Iceman has a lot to offer: he had no tomb with snazzy threats, but he’s said to be hunting down those who disturbed his millennia of Alpine rest. 3 of the (ahem, hundreds of) people involved in exhuming and studying him have subsequently died in accidents – specifically, the man who discovered the body (although his wife is fine), the one who led researchers to the site to exhume him, and the one who first examined it. None of which I can possibly comment on the likelihood of, being awfully accident-prone myself.

Murder cars

Speaking of accidents, cursed cars are a recurring – if not remotely verifiable – theme.

Like JFK, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in a motorcade. Unlike JFK’s limo (which attracts reports of ghostly figures, but otherwise sits quietly in a museum), the Double Phaeton was sold on and involved in 13 more deaths. The governor of Yugoslavia wisely sold it after surviving 4 separate accidents in it and losing an arm; his friend bought it on a dare and was crushed when the vehicle flipped. Another owner crashed into a tree trying to avoid two pedestrians (having owned the car for only 9 days). Its final owner – before it too retired to a museum – was driving friends to a wedding when he lost control and crashed, killing 5. Sure, other than Ferdinand (who was shot by an opportunistic assassin when it stalled in an alley) there’s a common theme here that suggests the car was a monster to drive, but so were other cars of the period with rather lower body counts…

The Porsche Spyder James Dean was driving when he died (which he nicknamed the Little Bastard) is another cursed contender. After Dean’s death, it was sold for parts. When the Little Bastard was delivered to the yard that would break it up, it rolled off the truck and broke a mechanic’s legs. But it wasn’t done: the engine went into another Porsche, which crashed – killing its driver – the first time it went racing. The transmission went into another vehicle… which crashed, seriously injuring the driver. The tires? Same story. The bodywork? Was on its way to a road safety exhibition on the back of a truck, when the truck skidded and crashed, killing the driver Maybe they should have let the Little Bastard rest.

Sporting woes

Sportsfolk – like sailors – are notoriously superstitious, with curses ranging from ’don’t be the poster guy for that video game, it’ll wreck your career’ to ’don’t be sponsored by Gillette, it’ll wreck your life’. My personal favourite is that the Chicago Cubs couldn’t win the World Series because a disgruntled fan cursed them in 1945 after he was ejected from Wrigley Field for bringing along his pet goat. The Cubs finally reclaimed the title in 2016, so maybe all has been forgiven… except by Cubs fans. Don’t mess with goats, folks.

Dead Presidents

Also known as Tecumseh’s Curse – because his brother Tenskwatawa is said to have cursed William Henry Harrison after Tecumseh died at Tippecanoe – this curse holds that American Presidents elected every 20 years (starting from 1840 with William Henry Harrison himself) will die in office.

Weirdly, they did – until Reagan (elected 1980) and George W Bush (elected 2000) survived assassination attempts and medical procedures to ride it out. Is the curse broken?

A better question might be ‘what curse?’ – the curse was discussed by newspapers for literally decades before a journalist with an eye for myth-making tied it to Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. Still, seven of eight Presidents who died in office did die on that 20 year election cycle – so you could forgive anyone running in a round numbered year if they’re slightly anxious about it.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

Other curses are even less convincing. It seems there’s nothing like a good tale to promote a big sparkly rock to people overburdened with wealth. The Hope Diamond – cut from an even larger stone that once belonged to Louis XIV – had a string of utterly unfounded horror stories cooked up about it, because that’s how you drive up prices (there’s nothing like the threat of disaster to push us into bidding high at auction, apparently).

But sometimes it’s all about the nuance. The Koh-i-noor – now held at the Tower of London as part of the British Crown Jewels – is said to only bring bad luck to men who wear it. Certainly lots of its (male) owners died over the centuries before it was signed over to the British in a peace treaty (although the wars and coups they got involved in seem rather more relevant to their untimely demises than their jewellery); regardless, since arriving in Britain, it has only ever been worn – if at time reluctantly – by Queens.

Curse tablets

Let’s close out with jewellery that brings us back to the realms of fantasy. Romans loved a good curse tablet wishing ill on those who wronged them. Many were aimed at thieves, and also tried to bribe a god to return their property. So when a man called Silvianus lost his favourite gold ring, he had a curse tablet inscribed wishing ill health on all named Senicianus (which begs so many questions. How did he know? How didn’t he know which Senicianus?) – and offering half the ring’s worth to the god Nodens for its return.

That’s where the story ended, until Sir Mortimer Wheeler – re-excavating the curse tablet site in the late 20s – connected it with a gold ring found 80 miles away: a heavy ring, larger than most, inscribed with the name Senicianus. We’ll never be sure this was Silvianus’s lost ring, but we do know Wheeler consulted a specialist about the wording of the curse: an Oxford academic called JRR Tolkien, who would go on to write a little book about the difficulty of disposing of cursed gold rings… So, err, thanks Silvianus. You did us all a favour, even if you never got that ring back.

Do you have any favourite curses?