Mythical Monday: The Montauk Monster by Mae Clair

If you have even a passing interest in cryptozoology—the pseudo-science devoted to the study of animals that may exist but haven’t been proven to exist—you know that cryptids come in many varieties. From the aquatic Loch Ness Monster to the forest-loving Bigfoot and beings such as the Mothman that lurk around abandoned sites, cryptids haunt different terrains and habitats. Their knack for elusiveness is extraordinary, a testament as to why we only have grainy images, breathless onlooker accounts, and/or occasional snippets of sound to suggest they exist.

But what if a clear photo materialized to support eyewitness testimony? Hoax or legitimate proof?

Take the case of the Montauk Monster, an unidentified creature that washed ashore on a beach in Montauk, New York in July of 2008. Most people know that when a body (or animal carcass) is submerged in water for a prolonged period of time, it alters the subject’s physical form, sometimes bloating and distorting it beyond recognition.

Is that what happened to Montauk’s celebrated find?

Driftwood on a beachThe story begins on July 12, 2008, when Jenna Hewitt, a Montauk resident, and three of her friends were strolling along Ditch Plains Beach, a popular surfing spot, in search of a place to sit. Noticing a large crowd gathered around something lying on the sand, they took a closer look.

What they found was a creature that defied description, a pale, bloated dog-like thing with a hooked beak. The animal was so bizarre looking that Hewitt later joked it might have been something that escaped from Plum Island—a nearby center, specializing in animal disease.

She snapped a picture of the creature, an image that eventually ended up in several newspapers and found its way onto the internet where it exploded and became an overnight sensation.

Interestingly, the carcass of the creature disappeared, spirited away by a man who remains unidentified. As images circulated and weblogs surfaced, zoologists and other wildlife experts waded into the ring. Several speculated the creature could be a raccoon, its ghastly appearance the result of being submerged in the water for an extended period of time. Others suggested a turtle, and still others a dog or sheep. In all circumstances, there were those who refuted the claims—the legs were too long for a raccoon, sea turtles lack fur and teeth, and so on.

So, what exactly is the Mantauck Monster? To this day, its true identity remains a mystery shrouded in a cloud of speculation. Why not weigh in with your own opinion? You’ve likely seen this photograph before, but perhaps didn’t connect it with the story of the Mantauck Monster. Take a look now, then hop back here to share your thoughts about this potentially new cryptid. You can see multiple images here.

Freaky, wouldn’t you say?

Mythical Monday: Corpse Roads by Mae Clair

Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.

These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road. This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale. Photo courtey Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.

Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.

In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.

There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.

Coffin Stone at Town End This stone is beside a 'corpse road' along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald's Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.

Coffin Stone at Town End. This stone is beside a ‘corpse road’ along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend tells of a funeral procession which bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. The procession paused to rest, setting the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket is struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determines God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent it.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken back to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?

Mythical Monday: The Van Meter Visitor by Mae Clair

During autumn of 1903, the sleepy village of Van Meter, Iowa experienced three nights of strange visitations from a creature they believed had crept from an abandoned mine shaft. The bizarre occurrences began on September 29th when Ulysses Griffith, a traveling salesman was heading home after a business trip. Around 1AM, Mr. Griffith spied an odd light that appeared to “hop” from rooftop to rooftop. Intrigued, he was nonetheless tired after a long day of travel, and promptly headed home to bed.

The next night, September 30th at approximately the same hour, Dr. Alcott, the town physician, was drawn awake by a shaft of bright light streaming into his bedroom. Thinking a burglar lurked outside, he grabbed a firearm and headed outdoors to investigate. What he found was a gargoyle-like creature endowed with large bat wings and a blunt horn on its forehead from which light poured. Horrified, Dr. Alcott shot the beast five times, but the bullets had no effect.

The third resident to spot the creature was local banker, Clarence Dunn. On the night of October 1st at approximately 1AM, Mr. Dunn was camped out at his bank when a bright light suddenly flowed through the front window. He heard a strange wheezing and spied a shadowy figure skulking outside. Like Dr. Alcott, he shot the creature, firing directly through the window. But when he went outside to investigate, the beast had vanished, leaving a three-toed print behind in the dirt. Mr. Dunn later made a cast from the footprint as proof of the visitation.

On the same night, O.V. White spied the creature perched on a telephone pole. He fired, but the beast merely shone its light on him, then used its large hooked beak to clamber down the pole. There it encountered another resident, who estimated its height near eight feet. The creature hopped off like a kangaroo, flapping its wings as if attempting to take flight.

Finally, that same night, a group of men working a late-night shift heard strange sounds coming from an old mine shaft. When they investigated, two of the creatures abruptly appeared, one smaller than the other, and promptly winged off into the night. Determined to destroy the beasts and remove the threat to Van Meter, the men returned to town and organized a posse. Armed with rifles, the group trekked back to the mine and waited for the gargoyles to return.

The pair flew back to their lair just before sunrise where they were greeted by a deadly hail of bullets. The barrage “would have sunk the Spanish fleet” but it had no effect on them. The men found themselves engulfed by a putrid odor—perhaps the creature’s only defense?—before the winged beasts vanished into the mine shaft, never to be seen again.

There are plenty of tales about cryptids, but what gives this legend particular credence is the reputation of the men who reported seeing the monster. Most were prominent professionals and businessmen who couldn’t afford to be viewed as crackpots, yet they willingly attached their names to reports of sightings.  It has prompted many to believe this particular legend carries merit.

the-van-meter-visitor-bookAuthors Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Nelson have penned their own account of those three days in autumn of 1903, thoroughly investigating the circumstances surrounding the sightings. Their book, The Van Meter Visitor is available for purchase from Amazon or direct (autographed copy) from the authors’ website. This one has been on my reading list for some time and I hope to indulge in it shortly.

I find it curious that although the creature was no doubt terrifying in appearance, not once did it act in a threatening manner. Repeatedly shot at, chased, and generally sought for slaughter, it never defended itself. Only when the smaller creature was with it at the mine—perhaps a mate or offspring?—did it respond defensively. Even then it was only to release a “putrid odor” rather than attack. Surely a beast of that size with a long hooked beak, horn, and enormous wings could have inflicted damage if it chose.

It makes me think that the Van Meter Visitor may have been a peaceful creature. What’s your take?

Mythical Monday: The Brown Mountain Lights by Mae Clair

Brown Mountain is a low lying ridge tucked into the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For hundreds of years (some say longer) a phenomenon known as the Brown Mountain Lights has been observed by countless witnesses. The illumination, which appears as multi-colored balls floating above the mountain, has even resulted in two surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Society–one in 1913, the other in 1922. Many believe the Cherokee Indians observed the lights as far back as the 13th Century.

According to eye witnesses, the lights usually begin as a red ball which transitions to white before vanishing altogether. Sometimes a single orb will divide into several before reforming. Witnesses have also reported seeing blue, green, yellow and orange orbs, most lasting only a handful of seconds before fading or winking from sight.

A stony overlook extending into a treed gorge in

Overlook at Wiseman’s View in Linville Gorge, NC, one of the best vantage points for viewing the Brown Mountain Lights.
Photo of Wisemen’s View by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The phenomenon is so consistent there are specific mile markers within the Blue Ridge Parkway overlook designating from where they are best viewed.

Usually “spooklights” of this sort occur in swampy areas where decaying plant matter produces methane gas. This in turn spontaneously ignites, causing mysterious light manifestations. There are, however, no swampy areas where the Brown Mountain lights materialize, and unlike gaseous orbs, those of Brown Mountain appear concentrated with the ability to maneuver about the mountain.

Naturally, theories have developed. Many involve ghosts, energy beings, UFOs and even aliens. Older folklore relies on stories passed through generations. One tale dates back to the year 1200, when a bloody clash took place on the ridge. According to that legend, a fierce battle between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians claimed the lives of many braves. That night, grieving for their fallen warriors, Indian maidens scoured the mountain by torchlight, searching for bodies. To this day, that eerie torchlight can still be seen flickering on the ridge as they continue their endless hunt for the fallen.

Another tale speaks of a cruel man who butchered his wife and child then buried the bodies on Brown Mountain where he thought no one would find them. Not long after he completed the grisly deed, lights began to appear and hover over the graves. The mysterious illumination drew others to the site, enabling them to discover the murder victims. The killer fled before he could be punished for his crime, and was never seen again. Perhaps the forest enacted its own fatal justice.

Whatever the source of the Brown Mountain Lights, they have been captured on film and video and witnessed from miles away.  As for the surveys conducted by the US Geological Society, investigators concluded witnesses mistakenly reported the oncoming headlights from trains and autos as something more mystifying.

In direct counterpoint, locals reported seeing the lights before autos and trains descended on the area. Additionally, in 1916, a flood wiped out area transportation routes for a full week. During that time the lights were still active and observed.

Fast forward to 1982, when a man named Tommy Hunter claimed to have touched one of the lights. Supposedly it bobbed up to the ridge where he was standing and hovered several feet off the ground. A few times larger than a basketball, it appeared yellowish in color, and gave him an electrical shock when he extended his hand. The light dimmed slightly at the contact, then floated off into the woods.

If you would like to know more about this puzzling phenomenon, check out Joshua P. Warren’s free booklet, The Brown Mountain Lights:Viewing Guide available for download in PDF.  As someone who has always been fascinated by spooklights, I found it mesmerizing reading!

Mythical Monday: Jellyfish of the Air? by Mae Clair

There are many strange things that exist or are rumored to exist in our world, plus a plethora of oddities that defy explanation. Many people believe multiple dimensions flow through alternative timelines and places, others that they coexist within the same time and space as us, but aren’t visible to the naked eye.

Wilhelm Reich, a controversial psychoanalyst born in the late nineteenth century, was so convinced of this fact he set out to capture evidence on film.

Intense northern lights (Aurora borealis) over Lake Laberge, Yukon Territory, Canada, with silhouettes of willows on lake shore.Reich’s theory was built around the concept of something called “orgone,” a life force or cosmic energy omnipresent in the ground and sky. As proof such energy existed, Reich offered the Northern lights and St. Elmo’s fire as examples. He was so enraptured of the idea, he built “orgone accumulators”—life size boxes in which he hoped to harness the energy and use it to cure his patients of diseases such as cancer.

The problem with that: Wilhelm Reich was not a licensed medical practitioner, and this procedure along with his highly dubious mental state and other questionable treatment theories, eventually landed him in hot water with the authorities of his day. Details of Reich’s life can be found on Wikipedia for anyone interested in learning more about his bizarre behavior and therapy concepts.

What interests me is an experiment he supposedly conducted in 1953 with the help of photographer Norman Leistig. Reich had Leistig’s assistant raise an “orgone-charged” rod into the air in the hopes of attracting one of the invisible beings he believed existed. Within five seconds a huge jellyfish-like creature attached itself to the rod, becoming visible long enough for Leistig to capture it in a photograph. But the terrified screams of Leistig’s assistant so repulsed the manifestation it faded from sight.

Supposedly, twelve additional people witnessed the spectacle. Reich and Leistig were so unnerved by the experiment they refused to discuss it (although it’s rumored Leistig referred to Reich as “the Devil himself” much later in life).

Interestingly, I couldn’t find a single mention of this experiment among the numerous sites I visited related to Reich or Leistig, and I checked many. Even Google images came up blank. That makes me question whether it even took place, but like anything in a “cabinet of curiosities” I’m drawn to the idea. I originally stumbled across the story and a pin of the photo on Pinterest.

The original link connects to a photo blog for the Caledonian Mining Expedition Company. Check out the second photo from the top, then come back and let me know what you think. Hoax or not you’ve got to admit that is one seriously cool photo…although I certainly wouldn’t want to get stung by that thing. No wonder Leistig’s assistant screamed his head off!

Mythical Monday: The Snow Maiden by Mae Clair

I’m cheating today by reblogging a Mythical Monday post I ran in December of 2012, although I think this will be new to most of my readers. Given the craziness of the holidays and the writing projects I’ve been juggling (final edits for my publisher on MYTH AND MAGIC (releasing June of 2015) and trying to wrap up my Mothman mystery so I can submit it), I neglected to come up with a Mythical Monday post today. I hope you don’t mind this trip down memory lane . . .

~ooOOoo~

As much as I love warm weather (and wouldn’t mind living somewhere tropical year round), I’ve always held a fascination for stories set in cold climates. A few of my all-time favorite novels have earned that distinction because the author employed a winter backdrop. Snow settings can be beautiful and magical, but also claustrophobic. THE RINGED CASTLE by Dorothy Dunnett (book 5 of the Lymond Chronicles) is an amazing read set in 16th Century Russia that conjures all three of those feelings.

Beautiful young woman in dressed in old fashioned winter furs and pearlsRussian folklore is also where I found the legend of The Snow Maiden, a short poignant fairy tale.  There are several variations but all agree on the basics—a woodcutter and his wife, lonely and childless, decide to amuse themselves one day by fashioning a snegurochka, a maiden from snow. Taken with their creation, they fervently wish her to be a daughter they can love and cherish. Their desire is so strong it weaves an enchantment that brings the snow maiden to life. She appears in a robe and cap of pale ivory that is embellished by pearls and trimmed in white fur. Overjoyed, they take her into their home as their own child.

All is well until the first sign of spring when the snow maiden tells them she must head north to lands where winter still reigns. Upset at the thought of losing her, the woodcutter barricades the door as his wife wraps the girl in her arms to prevent her from fleeing. As she holds her, the snow maiden slowly melts into nothingness. Overcome by grief, the couple mourns throughout the year. The next winter their daughter returns and their sadness becomes joy. The snow maiden promises to stay the season and return each year after that.

Young women standing in forest as sun breaks through the treesIn another version of the tale, the snow maiden falls in love with a young man from the village. One day they wander into a birch wood where the last vestiges of winter are fading and green shoots struggle to push up from the ground. The snow maiden turns her face to the sun, and with its touch, dwindles into an icy mist that is whisked away by the wind. And so winter must always yield to light and life as winter yields to spring.

I love these old fairy tales. What about you? Are there any special ones that come to mind? Any favorites from childhood that still resonate with you the way snow and winter resonate with magic?

Mythical Monday: The Wampus Cat by Mae Clair

I’ve been a fan of werewolves since I was a kid, and readily admit to having OCD (Obsessive Cat Disorder), so it should come as no surprise that I was instantly intrigued by the myth of the Wampus Cat.

A legend steeped in Appalachian folklore and Native American culture, the Wampus has been sighted mostly in the south. From Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and even West Virginia, this half-human, half-animal creature inspires rumors often shared in hushed whispers. Standing upright with a long tail and glowing eyes, the Wampus is described as a cross between a human woman and a mountain lion or a lynx. It is said to exude an odor so repugnant—an atrocious mix of skunk and wet dog—that those who encounter it are instantly overcome with nausea.

Preying mostly on livestock, this foul-smelling cryptid isn’t above dining on human flesh when the urge arises, particularly should it come across a lone traveler out at night, or a lost child.

Attractive woman with native Indian Cherokee makeup and feathers in her hairThere are several different variations on how the Wampus Cat came into being, but the most common involves a young Cherokee woman who decided to spy on her husband. In one version of the tale, she is a jealous wife who follows his hunting party from a distance. Cloaked in the fur of a mountain lion, she creeps into the men’s encampment at night to listen as they share stories around the fire even though she knows women are forbidden. It is only a matter of time before she is discovered and brought before the village Shaman for justice. He curses her to wear the skin of the lion forever, changing her into a creature that is half cat and half woman.

In another, similar, version of the tale, she follows the men because she desires to learn the secrets of magic, listening to the sacred rites they share around the fire. Her fate is the same in this account—she is discovered and transformed into the Wampus cat by an unforgiving Shaman for her brazen foolishness.

Yet a third tale, set in West Virginia, describes the woman as an aged witch who lives alone. In the dark of night she slips from her home stealing and killing livestock. Suspecting her of witchcraft, the townspeople set a trap for her.

One night as she creeps stealthily through the dark, several follow her to the homestead of a local farmer. There, she transforms into a cat and slips inside the man’s house where she places a spell on the occupants so they sleep throughout the night. Afterward, she heads to the barn, intent on her nefarious business. As she begins the transformation back to human form, the townspeople catch her, interrupting the change. From that moment on, she remains forever trapped between the two forms—human and cat—vanishing into the woods where she remains to this day.

It is said the Wampus cat possess a chilling hiss and an ungodly scream so the next time you go traipsing through the woods don’t dismiss any frightening sounds. Werewolves and vampires aren’t the only creatures who favor the dark!