Category Archives: Folklore

The Official Christmas Retro Recap and Review: Supernatural 3.08: A Very Supernatural Christmas [AUGMENTED]

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Tagline: The Brothers investigate a series of mysterious Christmastime disappearances where the victims appear to have been kidnapped from their beds and dragged up the chimney. Could it be…Santa?

Recap: No Then recap. None whatsoever. Nada. Instead, we get that spinning, multicoloured “Special” Presentation CBS intro from waaaaayyy back. Then we cut to an instrumental version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and a grandfather arriving at a house in Seattle, Washington a year ago. His beloved grandson asks Grandpa if he brought any presents and Grandpa says maybe Santa will bring some.

Later, Grandpa dresses up as Santa and mimes pulling presents out of a sack for his wide-eyed grandson, who is hiding on the stairs. But things go a bit awry when he hears something on the roof that starts to come down the chimney. The kid innocently thinks it’s Santa’s reindeer. When Grandpa goes to investigate, he is brutally yanked up the chimney and killed, right in front of his horrified grandson. As the boy says hesitantly, “Santa?” a bloody boot drops down the chimney.

Cue an exploding red-orange Christmas ornament and demon hands into some cool title cards that say, “A Very SUPERNATURAL Christmas” with the first two and last words in red, the “Supernatural” in blue, and a little red Santa hat on the first “A”, all with a frosty frame and a black background with falling snow. Not to mention the jingling bells in the background as the “Very” blinks and goes out.

Cut to Ypsilante, Michigan, present day. Dean, dressed in a suit and posing as an FBI agent, is interviewing a woman whose husband, Mike, is missing. Her pre-teen daughter stands, looking shocky, perfectly framed behind glass in the doorway. On the porch hangs a Nutcracker figure and a wreath with pinecones, a white bow and pretty white flowers. The mom says she and her daughter were asleep upstairs, while her husband was downstairs, getting presents ready. She heard a thump and scream from her husband, but then he just disappeared.

Sam comes out of the house, also in a suit, and thanks her for letting him use the facilities. Giving us a start to the episode’s timeline (that it’s now two days before Christmas), the woman asks Dean what he thinks is going on and whether her husband is still alive. Dean has no answers for her. Even grimmer, Sam just tells her, “We’re very sorry.”

As the Boys leave, Sam shows Dean what he found: a bloody tooth in the chimney. Dean points out that full-grown men can’t go up chimneys and Sam replies, “Not in one piece.” In other words, Mike is probably dead.

My God, those two look young. And poor. I first did this recap and review in 2009, but “A Very Supernatural Christmas” is even more relevant now in “Hard Candy Christmas” 2020.

Back at the motel, Sam is looking at illustrations of medieval demons with black faces and red, lolling tongues on his computer. Dean comes in from a food run and asks him how they’re doing. Dean mentions his theory about a “serial-killing chimney sweep” and Sam references Dick Van Dyke. Dean pretends to have no idea who Dick Van Dyke is. Clearly, he’s teasing Sam about Sam’s alleged Disney fetish. Dick Van Dyke about single-handedly introduced generations of children to the concept of Victorian and Edwardian era chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins (1964). There’s no way Dean wouldn’t know about him.

My mom took me to see Mary Poppins when I was very little (maybe three or four) during a revival when Disney put it back out in theaters. I liked it. My mom, not so much. Still not sure why, but the negative portrayal of the suffragette mom in the film might have had a hand in it (My mom was hugely into feminism from before I was born). Then, when I was seven, my dad took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the theater, with his mistress-of-the-hour, not long before Christmas. Yeah, my childhood relationship to Disney is a little, uh, different.

Anyhoo, Dean (backed by a lovely sepia-toned mural of a winter landscape while taking off John’s jacket) has done some interviewing around town. It turns out that the missing person they were just investigating (last name “Walsh”) was the second to disappear out of his house that month. No one saw him go up the chimney, but they did “hear a thump on the roof.”

Sam says he has a theory, but Dean may think it’s crazy – he thinks it’s “Evil Santa.” Dean allows that this sounds crazy. Sam says that there’s “some version of “Anti-Claus in every culture” and that this might be “Santa’s shady brother.” (No, there is no legend I’ve found about Santa’s evil brother, but there are definitely legends about Bad Santas, albeit only in cultures with a strong Christian base.) He references Belsnickel, Krampus and Black Peter as figures who “went rogue” (They’re actually working for St. Nick, not against him) and showed up to “punish the wicked” instead of leaving presents. Dean points out that this theory can’t be true because there is no Santa Claus and Sam retorts that he knows – Dean was the one who told him.

This is said with a bit of a whine (Sam blaming Dean for John’s terrible parenting for the millionth time), but then Sam admits he could be wrong (spoiler alert: He is). Dean says, “Maybe not.” He did some research of his own on the victims. It turns out that they went to the same place right before they disappeared.

Cut to a dispirited guy dressed in a furry reindeer costume as he heads out (presumably on break) under a battered Santa sign past a mom and some enthusiastic kids running in, the Brothers Winchester, and some wooden stand-ups of three Wise Men and a sheep. He says hi to the other teen dressed as an equally shabby elf, who’s manning the entrance. “All Because of Mr. Santa Claus” by Hal David and John Cacavas, from the rockin’ album In the Christmas Swing, blares on the loudspeaker throughout the scene. There is no snow anywhere, which makes the place look much worse.

The Brothers are going to one of those ugly and depressing Christmas Villages, arguing on the way whether they should celebrate Christmas or not. They don’t notice (and I don’t think they care, either) that Elf Kid is staring after them and having a discussion (presumably about two grown men walking around a place for kids) about them. Dean wants to do it up right this year (with Boston Market, no less) because it’s his last Christmas before his deal comes due and he goes to Hell. Sam doesn’t want to do it because he’s depressed for the same reason – next year, Dean won’t be there.

Also, Sam remembers that they had horrible Christmases during their childhood and doesn’t want to repeat the experience. Annoyed and perhaps a bit hurt, Dean calls him a Grinch and walks away. Sam stares at a cross-eyed plastic reindeer and we’re cued into a flashback of the Boys as kids in a truly nasty motel, alone, in Broken Bow, NB in 1991 on Christmas Eve. They’re watching the end of The Year without a Santa Claus, and “Jingle Bells” is on the soundtrack (though on the original soundtrack, it was “Here Comes Santa Claus”).

Young Sam is wrapping a present. When Dean asks him who it’s for and where he got the money (“Did you steal it?”), Sam says it’s something “special” that he got from Bobby for their father, John. Dean shrugs and throws himself down on the couch next to Sam, pulling out a Hot Rod magazine that he briefly reads before tossing it aside. He’s clearly restless.

Every wonder what kind of hunt would have John neglecting his kids on Christmas?

After Dean reassures him that John will be home from “business” (Dean claims he’s a traveling salesman) in time for Christmas, Sam keeps asking Dean questions about why they have to move around all the time, what their father John does for a living, whether John will be home for Christmas, how their mom died. Dean loses his temper and yells at Sam never to mention their mother again. Then he goes out for a while to cool down.

When Dean comes back, he’s brought Sam dinner (junk food and soda). Sam prods him some more about John, noting that Dean sleeps with a gun under his pillow (Keep in mind that Dean is all of 12 in this flashback). Dean gets mad about Sam snooping through his things, but he really gets upset when Sam (all pissy and self-righteous) pulls out John’s journal, which he managed to steal from his father. Dean (rightly) points out that John is not going to be pleased when he finds out.

Sam demands to get The Talk, so, after some reluctance and a clumsy, failed attempt at gaslighting, Dean gives it to him straight (while threatening to “end you” if Sam ever tells John Dean told him). He tries to explain to Sam about monsters and that John is a “superhero” and so on. Santa isn’t real, but most everything else is.

This only depresses Sam even more because he disappears up his own backside “that they could get us. They could get me!” He becomes convinced that the monsters will get John the way he read they got their mother Mary. Despite Dean’s reassurances, Sam goes to bed in tears (Well, kid, you did insist). Dean mournfully assures him that everything will be better when he wakes up.

Back in the present, Dean yanks Sam out of his reverie by complaining that it cost them $10 to get into the place. He then asks Sam again what they’re looking for (Obvious infodump dialogue is obvious, Show). Sam says that “the lore says” their target “will walk with a limp and smell like sweets.” Calling this “Pimp Santa,” Dean asks why and Sam says it’s to attract the kids. That really grosses Dean out (and probably half the audience).

The Boys spot a guy who seems to fit the criteria. He’s the Santa at the Christmas Village, he’s clearly an old lecher, he “smells like sweets” (though Sam thinks it’s Ripple wine), and he limps. We see a young boy on his lap who looks pretty weirded out until his mom rescues him.

A young woman dressed as an elf welcomes the Brothers “to Santa’s Court” and asks them about escorting their “child to Santa.” After Dean says that it’s been Sam’s “lifelong dream” to sit on Santa’s lap, she, very disconcerted, says that the age limit is 12 and under. Sam makes the mistake of saying “We’re just here to watch” and when the elf girl backs away, looking extremely creeped out, an amused Dean throws him under the bus by playing along with her image of Sam as a pedophile, to Sam’s discomfort.

The Brothers snap right to business, though, when Santa goes on break. As he limps past them, they argue over whether he smells like “sweets” or cheap booze, but Dean points out, “Are you willing to take that chance?” (There’s a really funny bit on the Season 3 blooper reel from this exchange.)

Later that night, they stake out his trailer, which has MERRY CHRISTMAS in huge letters on top, a sad string of lights along the edge of the roof, and three wooden stand-ups of singing polar bears out front. Dean asks Sam why he’s “the Boy Who Hates Christmas.” After citing their lousy childhood again (Dean allows they “had a few bumpy holidays”), Sam grumps that he doesn’t care if Dean has Christmas by himself. Dean grumps that it’s hardly Christmas if he’s “making cranberry molds” alone.

Long after the Brothers’ coffee runs out, Santa (dubbed “St. Nicotine” by Dean) furtively peers out and pulls the curtains. Then they hear a woman scream enthusiastically, “OH, MY GOOOOD!” That’s the Boys’ cue to sneak up to the door. Sam makes a crack that Dean may have to waste Santa, which Dean doesn’t appreciate, then they bust in.

It’s not what they think. The guy has a fifth of booze and an enormous bong, as well as a Christmas-themed porno on the TV; he’s not up to anything remotely supernatural. Caught flat-footed, the Boys don’t know what to do until Dean starts awkwardly to sing “Silent Night” and get Sam to join in. Dean’s a pretty terrible singer; Sam’s even worse (According to Jensen Ackles, Kripke actually wrote him a note reminding him that Dean was a bad singer). And neither of them knows the words past the first couple of lines. Fortunately, the guy is stoned enough to think it’s funny and they make a hasty exit.

Cut to a house later that night, where a kid is waiting for Santa while an angelic boy’s choir sings “Silent Night” on the sountrack (Man, that tree is huge). When the blonde, curly-haired tot hears thumping on the roof, he naturally thinks it’s reindeer, but what comes growling down the chimney is huge, dressed in bloody, red leather (human skin?), and terrifying.

It goes upstairs, knocks out the kid’s mother when she screams, and drags his father down in a sack. When the father struggles too much, “Santa” kills him with one crunching blow. It then pressed the terrified child back … but all it wants is a cookie from the plate set out for Santa.

The next day, Sam and Dean are doing the FBI rounds again at the victim’s house and get the kid’s story from the shellshocked mom. Sam notices a strange wreath that looks like one that was at the other victim’s house, with pine cones, a white bow, and white flowers. Both Dean (who has been expressing sympathy toward her) and the mom are nonplussed, and a tad offended when he asks where she got it. Sam explains it afterward as if Dean is stupid (that both houses has the same wreath). Dean claims to have just been “testing” him.

Some more research (and a call to Bobby) establishes that A. Bobby thinks they’re morons and B. they aren’t dealing with the Anti-Claus. Instead, they’re dealing with pagan gods – hence, why the weather has been so mild and lacking in snow, in Michigan, in December. Sam believes the god involved is “Hold Nickar,” a Teutonic sea god (which naturally would explain why he’s looking at Celtic images of the Green Man in this scene [rolls eyes]), which Sam identifies as the “God of the Winter Solstice.”

The wreath that Sam noted in one of the victims’ houses was made of meadowsweet, which is supposedly ultrapagan (no more so than holly, ivy, and mistletoe, the latter given to some of the bog people before they were killed, but whatever) and rare (also nope). Sam says it has a pleasant odor that is “like chum for their gods” in Germanic pagan lore. Anywhere you set it up, it will attract these carnivorous gods, who will then eat any human in the vicinity.

Dean logically wonders why anyone would make a wreath from such a thing. Sam pedantically goes off on a tangent that most (almost all, really) Christmas lore is originally pagan. Dean comments that “Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.” Sam “corrects” him, saying that Jesus was more likely born in fall and Christmas is the Winter Solstice festival.

Neither is true. We don’t really know what month (or even year) Jesus was born. Some biblical scholars speculate that Jesus was born in the spring (because that was when shepherds would be out with their flocks at night, guarding the newborn lambs). The Roman Winter Solstice festival is different from Christmas (and celebrated on December 21 as Brumalia (“bruma” meaning “short day”), when the Solstice actually occurs). Part of the confusion derives from Julius Caesar’s calendar “moving” the Solstice date to December 25 when it reorganized the Roman year.

Christmas was coopted from the Roman festival of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), which was on December 25 and marked the birth date of at least two Eastern-influenced Roman solar gods, Sol Invictus and the Persian soldier god Mithras, as well as the Greek Dionysius, Demeter, and Cronus (who probably influenced the idea of the old year being portrayed on New Year’s Eve as an old man). The Greeks and Romans were wont to create different versions of their major deities to reflect their different place origins or functions, by giving them a follow-up adjective for a second name. So, for example, Sol Invictus came out of the original Roman agrarian deity Sol Indiges when the former began to incorporate foreign and more bellicose influences as the Roman Empire moved its focus eastward in the third century CE.

There is no big mystery why the Christians adopted this festival for Jesus. Jesus is associated with light and the Sun. In ancient mythologies going back to Egypt, the Sun is believed to “die” (either every night or every year) and be reborn in the morning. There are rituals, particularly in the north, to help the Sun return. The parallels with Jesus (even without lines like the one in “Silent Night” that goes “Son of God loves pure light”), and his death and resurrection, are pretty obvious. Because this was a festival that has been set on the Solstice rather than actually being the celebration of the Solstice, further reorganization of the calendar moved the date of the Solstice apart from the date of Sol Invictus/Christmas without much apparent concern.

So, basically, Sam’s wrong.

Incidentally, we had this year a major conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn known in the media as the Christmas Star. This very rare conjunction only happens about every four centuries (but hasn’t been visible since 1226 CE) and even more rarely on the Winter Solstice. One theory about the Star of Bethlehem that, according to the Bible, led the Magi to the Christ child in the manger, is that it was either a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn (a fall birth) or a similar conjunction between Jupiter and Venus (a summer birth).

So, the Winchester theory here is that when people hang the meadowsweet wreaths on their doors, it’s an invitation for the pagan god to come in and eat them. The question now is whether this is accidental (modern humans ignorant of what it means) or deliberate.

Bobby also speculates that pine stakes can kill these pagan gods (If they’re really gods, how can they be killed, eh?), but he doesn’t tell the Brothers until later. The Brothers go to the local Christmas shop (The Cosy Crafts? Something like that) where the wreaths were bought and talk to the owner, with a slow-tempo and rather extemporaneous version of “Deck the Halls” playing in the shop. He thinks they’re a gay couple, which Dean plays into (much to Sam’s annoyance), but still gives them the name of the woman (Madge Carrigan) who made the wreaths. She gave them to him for free (the Brothers suspect this is not quite accurate). He, of course, didn’t sell them for free. There is no evidence he is otherwise involved in what’s going on.

Back at the motel that night (so, Christmas Eve, maybe?), the Brothers speculate how much a meadowsweet wreath would cost, with Sam guessing maybe “a couple hundred dollars.” As they sit on separate twin beds, Dean then reminiscences about a wreath of beer cans John once brought home for Christmas, that he had stolen from a liquor store. Sam doesn’t remember it quite so fondly and is confused why Dean is so obsessed with Christmas now, when he hasn’t “spoken about it in years.”

Dean points out the obvious – that this is his last year. Sam says he knows that and that’s why he can’t celebrate with Dean, knowing Dean will be dead the following Christmas. On the one hand, Sam is so focused on losing Dean in less than a year that he’s not appreciating his brother right now, nor the stories Dean is telling. On the other hand, boy, John sure was a piece of work, wasn’t he?

Off they go to Madge’s house and, what do you know? It’s a Christmas extravaganza. Every possible light, do-dad and plastic deer (but no creches), with Christmas carols blasted to the outside air (It’s an instrumental with lots of flute that I suspect comes from an animated TV special, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one. Help me out, Dear Readers). Dean bets they even have a plastic-covered couch (after scoping out the interior while Sam engages the Carrigans in conversation). Madge and her pipe-smoking husband, Edward, seem friendly (entirely too friendly, really) and offer the boys some peanut brittle (which Dean starts to go for before Sam slaps his hand down).

The Brothers establish that Madge only made two meadowsweet wreaths and thinks they smell divine. That’s enough for them to decide to come back later that night, much later, not least when Sam finds out the Carrigans moved from Seattle (remember the grandfather from the teaser?) the previous January, after two abductions around Christmas (including Doomed Teaser Santa). From their visual check of the inside of the house, Sam establishes that the Carrigans had vervain and mint in the house, rather than the traditional holly (It’s all pagan, anyway, Sam). Neither brother can figure out how the Carrigans are involved, with their current theory being that they’re worshipers of the god, but they need to find out. But first, they carve the pine stakes Bobby told them would kill this particular god.

As the Brothers arrive at the house that night, “O Come All Ye Faithful” is blasting out on a loudspeaker over the neighborhood. At first, I was puzzled because that’s a very Christian song, but then I appreciated the delicious irony of a couple of pagan devotees (or are they?) using a traditional Christian hymn to welcome other pagans.

After picking the lock and arriving in the living room (where the carol turns into a quieter instrumental), Dean quietly comments to Sam on the Carrigans having a plastic-covered couch, as he’d predicted. Inside is just as Christmasfied as outside, with Dean checking out some very Germanic Santas on the mantle and Sam walking past a Santa with an accordion, what looks like a Christmas penguin, and various other holiday bric-a-brac. Dean also finds snow globes and a large gingerbread house, while Sam finds an entire table of gingerbread cookies in the kitchen.

(Probably related – there’s a theory that gingerbread men started as a baked-bread substitution for actual human sacrifices. Hence why I once wrote a story called “The Gingerbread Man” about a minor pagan god from the Mesolithic who is sacrificed by Neolithic invaders as a bog body over and over again for thousands of years – until the day he escapes. FYI, if you’re wondering if my story “Zombieville” (which includes a zombie giraffe) predates the Resident Evil inspiration for the zombie baboons Andrew Dabb was so in a hurry to botch this show’s ending in order to, uh, bring to life – you’re right.)

The Brothers sneak around and eventually find a cellar door. Downstairs they go and – holy crap – it’s a completely different story. Dark, dungeon-y, blood and body parts all over the place. Lots of bones still stuck in various shop tools. Sam looks ready to throw up, while Dean is more clinical (and less fascinated than Sam).

Sam goes up to one of the red-leather sacks we saw before and touches it. Suddenly, the person inside starts thrashing around. This is a rather large plothole. The story has already established that everyone in the sacks is dead by the time they leave their houses and…well…there are too many body parts lying around for either of the two victims we know got taken to have survived. Plus, we never see or hear about this victim again, so maybe it was just a lure?

As Sam jumps back, Madge grabs him and pins him to a wall. Dean shouts Sam’s name and comes rushing to the rescue, but Edward appears out of nowhere, grabs Dean, and slams him head-first into a wall. Dean goes down like a sack of grain (Jensen Ackles does the same sexy stuntfall he does in “Scarecrow.” Not that I’m complaining).

As Madge and Edward stare up at Sam, his flashlight moves across their faces as he struggles in Madge’s grip, showing monster faces underneath. Madge is all sweetness and light as she smacks the back of Sam’s head into the wall and knocks him out cold. She then looks perkily at her husband, who sticks his pipe in his mouth.

As a clarinet-heavy instrumental version of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” plays on the house loudspeaker, both boys wake up tied to chairs upstairs (Looks like the dining room, though it’s next to the table where Sam found the gingerbread cookies, so maybe the kitchen), back to back. After asking Dean if he’s okay (Dean took a really hard blow to the head in this one), and Dean says he thinks so, Sam guesses the obvious – that Madge and Edward, far from being mad worshipers, are really “Mr. and Mrs. God. Nice to know.”

Madge and Edward come in, all cheerful, and get started with the “ritual.” Edward calls them out. “You’re Hunters,” he says, indicating they’ve taken down a few Hunters in their past, as well. Dean calls them out right back as pagan gods and suggests they let him and Sam go, and “call it a day.” Edward, unsurprisingly to anyone, demurs, saying they’d “just come back with more Hunters and kill us.” Sam suggests they “should have thought of that before you went snacking on Humans,” while Dean mocks their attempts to minimize their killings by calling them “the Cunninghams” (from 1970s show Happy Days).

This precipitates a rant from Edward about how disrespectful humans are these days.

Edward: You, mister, better show us a little respect!

Sam: Or what? You’ll eat us?

Edward: Not so fast. There’s rituals to be followed, first.

Madge: Oh, we’re just sticklers for rituals.

The sickly smile, all shiny teeth, that she gives Sam is downright creepy.

As they get cracking (so to speak), Madge complains that they used to get a hundred sacrifices a year and now they only take two or three. Edward says that Sam and Dean (“Hardy Boys”) bring this year’s count up to five (which indicates a victim we and the Brothers never heard about). The gods complain that “this Jesus character” ruined their fun long ago.

Edward and Madge’s arrogance seems well-earned at this juncture (even if they’re being total hypocrites about the reason). By their own admission, they’ve killed and eaten over 4,000 humans in the past 2,000 years alone and probably hundreds of thousands before that. Granted, the timeline’s a little fuzzy. If Jesus (and not, say, pagan Roman emperors getting rid of a rival local pagan Germanic cult) is responsible for their downfall, then they’ve been out in the cold a good bit less than the two millennia Madge whines about. Northern Europe wasn’t fully Christianized until around the 11th century or so (Think Vikings. In Iceland. This will come up in the review). But even so, that would only raise their body count. So, there’s no reason for them to perceive the Brothers as threats, now that they’re tied up. Ha.

Dean tries to joke that the gods can’t get started on their rituals without meadowsweet and Madge promptly comes in with two dried wreaths of it to hang around their necks (Dean actually cringes). Edward comments that they now look “good enough to eat.” And he smacks his lips.

They slice the Brothers’ arms for blood and Edward yanks a fingernail off Sam’s right hand, commenting that young men used to “come from miles around to be sitting where you are now” (These gods seem to go only for adult men, not women or kids). When Dean yells at Edward to leave Sam alone and calls him a “son of a bitch,” this precipitates another rant from Edward (Madge chiming in) about how no one respects the gods, anymore. Once enthusiasm for “this Jesus character” came into their culture, their “altars were burned down” and they were “hunted like common monsters.” They cheerfully chatter on about how they “assimilated.” They “got jobs, a mortgage,” and “play bridge on Saturdays.” Dean tells Madge, “You’re not blending in as smooth as you think, lady!”

With unctuous glee, Madge slices Dean’s arm, causing him to call her a “bitch.” Madge schools him on using the “swear jar” and the term “fudge,” instead. Dean says, panting in agony, “I’ll try to keep that in mind!” then uses it the very next time she cuts him. Madge purrs, “Very good, dear!”

Just as Edward’s about to extract one of Dean’s molars as the final part of this first (yes, first) ritual, the doorbell rings (and Dean, still defiant, suggests that they “really should get that”). It’s an overly-nogged neighbour with a fruitcake, wanting the couple to go caroling.

In the kitchen, a hurting Dean tells a hurting Sam, “Merry Christmas, Sammy!”

Madge and Edward beg off (Edward complaining about his back) and eagerly return to their holiday meal with a roll of their eyes at the neighbor, stepping on the fruitcake on their way back to the kitchen. Unfortunately for them, said double-meat feast has got free of the chairs, fled to the living room, and locked them in the kitchen. At this point, Madge and Edward dispense with the assimilation and turn full monster.

I like the soundtrack music in this scene, which manages both to be festive and evoke rising action. Violent action. Nice job.

Dean is able to pull out a drawer from a cabinet and block his door. He goes over to help Sam, who suggests they pull out a cabinet to block that one. Dean wonders where they’re going to get more pine stakes to kill the monsters and Sam suggests the tree (another pagan lore loan). Just as they’re knocking the tree down and pulling it apart, the monsters come roaring out and grab them, Madge Sam and her husband Dean. Edward actually attacks Dean first (He sees him as the bigger threat? I dunno).

“Merry Christmas,” Sam echoes Dean immediately afterward (to Dean’s exasperation).

Madge is especially salty about what the Brothers did to her tree. After she knocks him across the room, Sam kills Madge first, twisting the stake in good, which helps Dean get the drop on a shocked and furious Edward with a branch to the face. Dean brutally stabs Mr. Grendel a couple of times and that’s it for our pagan gods. They lie side by side next to their fallen tree, equally formidable and now equally dead.

I’ve always wondered what the neighbors and the police made of Madge and Edward’s crime scene afterward. Granted, the Brothers’ blood was all over the kitchen, so they might have been tied to the killings of the Carrigans. But the carnage down cellar would have been much harder to pin on Sam and Dean, and you’ve got things like Sam’s fingernail, too. Imagine realizing that nice middle-aged couple next door were brutal, serial-killing cultists. They might have even been traced to Seattle, or further back from there.

In the flashback, it’s snowing hard outside. Young Dean wakes Young Sam up and tells him John came, but Sam slept through it. Dean has presents for Sam, but Sam quickly finds out they’re for a girl (a Barbie and a baton), prompting Dean to make a joke about John thinking Sam is girly, that has not aged well. Turns out Dean pilfered them from a house up the street that looked wealthy. On the one hand, it sucks when someone steals your Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve and I sure hope Dean brought those back. On the other, I kinda have to admire Young Dean’s willingness to trudge through the snow to the house up the street in the first place.

Sam decides that John is not worthy of his gift and his devotion. He gives John’s present to Dean, instead. This gift turns out to be Dean’s famous amulet (which we now know is a Grail object). Dean is humbled and awed at the gift and puts it on, promising never to part with it. We get a brief instrumental refrain of “Jingle Bells” on the soundtrack.

Fade to Adult Dean and his amulet coming in the door to the Brothers’ motel to find that Sam has made him Christmas after all, to a modern version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that actually has the original lyrics from the film. Thank God.

(A brief aside about that song: As you may have noticed from my IFP article on Solstice carols back in the day, I’m a big fan of Christmas carols and have strict standards for what I like. I’m a firm believer in the original “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” line over that insipid “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” line, especially in this “Hard Candy Christmas” year, and the original is far more appropriate for this episode and show, anyway. I also think the “woke” version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (by John Legend and Kelly Clarkson) and that revolutionary elves song (the Barenaked Ladies’ “Elf’s Lament”) are hilarious. Yes, I’ve been listening to Christmas music since before Thanksgiving. It’s 2020. Don’t judge.)

Dean asks Sam what changed his mind. At a loss for words, Sam hands him some eggnog, instead. When Dean tries it, he coughs in surprise, realizing Sam spiked it heavily with rum. Dean then surprises Sam by giving him two presents. Sam surprises Dean by giving him two back. It turns out they shopped at the same place: “the gas mart down the road.”

As in the flashback, Dean is impressed and touched. Yeah, the tree is tiny and kinda pathetic-looking. Yes, the booze-laced ‘nog is nasty (Jensen Ackles insists his reaction was genuine when Dean makes a face because Jared Padalecki pranked him by spiking the eggnog with real rum – lots of real rum). Yes, the beef jerky and motor oil from the gas station down the road are a little basic (Dean got Sam “skin mags and shaving cream”). But Dean has still gotten Sam some gifts in return and is touched by Sam’s effort (He doesn’t even make fun of it, as he might have in Season 1). Dean wishes Sam a Merry Christmas and Sam returns it. He tries to add something, but can’t. After almost saying deep things to each other, the Brothers awkwardly decide to watch a game, instead. Outside, it starts to snow on the Impala (their motel door number being 12, of course), the pagan-god spell broken at last.

Credits

Review: Watching the Closer Look interview of Eric Kripke on the Season 3 DVD for this one, I probably should have not liked this episode. Kripke merrily states that he set out to smash up every single Christmas tradition he could find. As my articles on Christmas fantasy, paranormal romance, and horror show, he’s a bit late to that game, but I suppose he still had to go there. Ironically, Kripke also seems to love Christmas. I think the clincher is his story about what he went through to get that spinning “Special” intro at the beginning of the episode. A scrooge would have hated that, not remembered it fondly as a part of childhood and gone to great lengths to track it down.

That said, holy batshorts, is this one bloody, gory episode. I’m not sure if it’s the goriest, considering there are so many candidates from the show, but my God, was that R-level gore. It’s gotta be in the top five. And it’s prosecuted with such taboo-shattering enthusiasm. Kindly, Santa-clad granddads are dragged up chimneys to their deaths. Women proposition Santas in porn flicks. A pervy old Santa gets stoned and drunk after his work day is done. Sam and Dean kill two pagan gods with a Christmas tree. And then there’s that dark, grotty, chaotic cellar of horrors literally underneath the safe, sanitized, suburban festival of hearth and home.

Wow.

I hadn’t noticed this before, but the different MOTW-vs.-Doomed Redshirts (literally, here) scenes have what appear to be intentionally different tones. Originally, I thought the acting by the kid in the teaser was a bit broad, but now I think he was directed to do that. The teaser is brutally jocular satire of the kind of Very Special Christmas episode programming that usually came after that “Special” intro and that you can see in all its glory here on YouTube. The scene immediately after is much sadder and gives a more “Face on the Milk Box” feel.

The next scene where the MOTW strikes and kills the father right in front of the terrified little tyke goes right for terror along the lines of “…And All Through the House” from Tales from the Crypt (the 1972 movie and the 1989 TV episode, both of which came from the original comic, which some credit with inspiring Santa-themed slasher horror). The final battle between the Brothers and the pagan gods comes off very much like the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. So, the tonal switches are broad-ranging and striking.

Dang it. I just remembered that Dr. Seuss’ Grinch is basically Grendel made cute for the kids, right down to his motivation for trashing Whoville.

It might seem strange for there to be an actual entire genre of Christmas horror (Christmas slashers, especially), but it’s a well-established tradition. There’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course, and other 19th century antiquarian ghost stories (such as those by M.R. James) were often set or told around Christmastime. But Christmas horror goes back even further than that.

Icelandic folklore is often cited regarding a giant Christmas cat, the Yule Cat Jólakötturinn, who first appears in Icelandic records in the 19th century. He eats anyone who isn’t wearing a new piece of clothing come Christmastime. But even more terrifying is his much-older owner, the troll mother Grýla, who eats “naughty children” (because of course she does) and is part of a group of “Bad Santa” types known as the Yule Lads that goes back to the 13th century. Icelandic lore can get seriously weird, with its emphasis on the island being populated by “hidden people” (elves, basically, but not the Santa kind) who looked just like ordinary humans (and could even take a specific human’s shape to make mischief), but who had magic powers and a generally capricious nature.

There is, for example, an entire group of stories of house maids being visited by elves on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, while they’re guarding the house (sod houses that were basically like living underground) and the rest of the family is off to church mass. The elves play tricks on these young girls, trying to get them to come dancing with them. Medieval and Early Modern Icelandic authorities were highly suspicious of dancing, since it led to, uh, other things, especially for women.

If the girl remains virtuous and resolute in tending to her sewing or other household duties, she is often rewarded. If she gives in to temptation and runs off the howl at the moon with the elves, the family may find her the next morning (“morning” being a relative term in the month-long nights of Icelandic winters), lying across the threshold with her head cut off.

There is also, in Norway, a Yule Goat. These troll characters reflected a time not so long ago when life in Iceland was nasty, brutish and short, and very, very dark in winter.

Let’s talk a bit about the Krampus type of Bad Santa, with includes (but is not limited to) the group known as the Companions of St. Nicholas. These don’t include the Icelandic Yule Lads, who appear to work independently, within their own lore, or the Swedish St. Lucia. The latter is based on both the fourth century martyr and possibly a demon/minor Diana-like Nordic deity named Lussi, or even Adam’s naughty first wife Lilith.

The Rhineland and Pennsylvania Dutch Belsnickel, the Alpine Krampus, and the Dutch Zwarte Piet (yes, that means “Black Pete”), among similar beings in Western (especially Germanic) Europe, are, according to legend, demons who were enslaved by St. Nicholas to do good on his behalf. These are the figures Sam is looking at near the beginning of the episode (right after the title credits) and mentions in passing, with Krampus, by far, being currently the best-known.

As the example “Black Pete” makes clear, these characters have some pretty messy backstory. Black Pete is a caricature of a Moor (a Spanish or North African Muslim), from whence we get the not-so-nice term “blackamore.” The people who dress up as Black Pete during Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands do so, at absolute best, in blackface.

In medieval times, people in the Mediterranean region of Europe had a lot of contact with non-Christians, both Muslims and Jews. Jews also lived in northern Europe and Muslims lived as far north as the Pyrenees in southern France, but these communities were much rarer and more isolated. While living and working next to Abrahamic non-Christians was pretty common in someplace like Spain or southern Italy, a lot fewer people in Northern Europe were likely to encounter them. In fact, for much of the Middle Ages, those regions had much larger populations of Celtic and Germanic pagans. Hence, Yule Cat.

As such, the study of monsters in the Middle Ages (a thriving field, believe me) is full of representations from that part of Europe of Muslims and Jews as inhuman, pagan, even demonic. So, you have antisemitic figures like Krampus (who looks like a Jewish caricature) and the above-mentioned Black Pete (with some color racism for added squirm). It doesn’t help that the current versions we have date to nostalgic medieval revivals from the 19th century. Yes, they represent a dark side to the St. Nicholas legend (the punishment part), but they also represent something so, so much worse. You can see why the show took a hard left outta there after a few cracks about “Evil Santa” and went straight for the “evil pagan god vibe” deal, instead.

I want to take issue with the whole “When do we tell the kids Santa doesn’t exist” thing that gets played with. According to his legend, the original St. Nicholas left presents for the poor in his community, while hiding his identity. This was a way of fulfilling the biblical injunction to take care of the widow, orphan and stranger during times of the year that were especially tough (St. Nicholas was himself an orphan, albeit a rich one).

Part of the legend is that others began to imitate him, in his name, including a bunch of medieval charitable guilds. The idea that there are different representatives of Santa around the world and that at some point, you recruit the next generation into participating, is really part of the original legend. It’s not some feel-good modernization. Becoming a better community by collectively becoming a bunch of Santas for each other is the whole point.

So, when Dean tells Sam that Santa isn’t real, but that the supernatural world is, he’s basically doing a Supernatural version of the above. That’s what The Talk is about. It’s bringing people into a world and a group that protects humans from darker forces. Hunters are basically year-round versions of Santa. With saltguns.

I know that the weeChester stuff is important and it does have some useful information for future reference, but Lord, are those flashbacks incredibly depressing, or what? How could anybody think of John as anything but a card-carrying douchebag of a father after that? I also am not sure that they do Sam any favors. Sure, Colin Ford as Young Sam is as cute as a button, but I don’t think it helps Sam to show him as a whiny, self-absorbed kid and a whiny, self-absorbed adult relearning a lesson he supposedly learned nearly two decades before, all in the same episode.

Yeah, Sam, we get it. You’re going to be alone next Christmas, so get your act together and make this Christmas happy for the person who will be in Hell next year. Life is not worse than Hell. Yes, Sam does figure it out in time (on both occasions) to make Dean’s Christmas, but having the lesson shown us twice does make him look like kind of a selfish idiot for most of the episode.

Ironically, much of the rest of “A Very Supernatural Christmas” presents us with old-style Long-Suffering Genius Sam having to put up with Dumb Hick Dean, as if the writers didn’t notice how Sam was coming across. But then, these are the folks that gave us Ruby and it can be hard to see that kind of thing ahead of time.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the end because both times, Sam goes against his own self-pity and puts himself out for Dean. Sam may need to make the journey twice, but he gets to the same destination each time. That’s rather hopeful, considering the events of Season 4 and early Season 5: No matter how far off the reservation Sam wanders, he always seems to find his way back to his one great compass in life – Dean. (Ah, how young and optimistic I was when I wrote this in 2009.)

I’ve heard fans complain about Ridge Canipe and how his version of Young Dean isn’t very “sympathetic.” Well, I’d say the reason why Canipe comes across as edgy and brittle is because he’s supposed to. We’re seeing Dean under the incredible pressure of a burden that should never have been dumped on his shoulders in the first place (Daddy couldn’t be home for Christmas, my ass), trying to explain the unforgivable to his younger brother a good decade before he mastered how to internalize it. The one thing Canipe didn’t use from Ackles’ older version was Dean’s sense of humor, but one could easily argue that this pre-teen Dean version was before he fully developed that defense mechanism. He does use humor, but it’s bitter and sarcastic, not as light as he later makes it seem.

What I find rather unfortunate, in retrospect, is how this entire storyline is really Dean’s, yet Kripke seemed so determined to make Dean’s story, his personal character conflict (that he’s going to Hell in less than a year), All About Sam’s grief over it (and even though Jeremy Carver wrote this episode, Kripke was clearly in charge of the finished product). The main inspiration for it, I suspect, is Ebenezer Scrooge and his sister in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. You can find two excellent versions of this that came out this year, one for free (by some local friends of mine who do it every year) and one for a nominal fee (by a cast of ghost tour guides from York in England).

In the book, Scrooge has his beloved younger sister, Fan. She acts as an emotional mediator between him and his father, who dislikes him for unknown reasons. But then his father sends him off to boarding school. His sister dies in childbirth and he comes to resent his nephew for taking her away from him (and for resembling her too much). This is when Scrooge begins to turn into the bitter misanthrope we see in the present in the book.

Obviously, Dean is supposed to be an analogue for Fan and Sam for Scrooge. And since Scrooge is the protagonist of the book, so is Sam for the episode. But that doesn’t fit particularly comfortably with the season mytharc. Scrooge’s sister must have gone to Heaven. Dean is very much not heading that way.

I’m not sure how I feel about the amulet at this point. I know I don’t like calling it the “Samulet.” There turned out to be a lot more to it than a visible representation of Dean’s devotion to Sam. On the other hand, what it did turn out to be (which was really cool up to the end of Season 14 – thanks so much for that, Andrew Dabb, jackass) was a Grail object.

Considering how things turned out with God, I can’t help wondering if the way it “just happened” to end up with Dean instead of John was intentional. And not in a good way. More like belling the cat. The amulet was supposed to be a way of locating God. But what if it was being used at this point in the story as a way of keeping tabs on Dean? That’s kind of creepy, that God may have been stalking Dean even this early on. In fact, probably was stalking Dean this early on.

This is also one of the earliest (is the earliest, maybe?) mentions of Jesus in the show. The two gods speak of him as a real person, though it doesn’t appear they ever met him. They really resent him, too. Jesus comes across as a sort of Super Hunter. So powerful was his influence that he marked a transition from a period of literal darkness, when humans were at the mercy of pagan gods and monsters, and even enslaved by them, to a period of light, when humans were able to fight back and kill the monsters as equals and even superiors.

Jesus may not be the first Hunter in the SPNverse, but he certainly appears to have been the most successful. It’s therefore notable (in light of how Dean’s story goes later on) that the Brothers kill two pagan gods responsible for at least 4,000 human deaths over the past two millennia (and who knows how many before that), and that this is a fairly ordinary hunt for them.

Back to the mythology (I discussed this as part of an article on the pagan origins of Christmas in 2009, as well as an article that discusses Sam-as-Scrooge, for Fantasy Magazine the previous year). The pagan gods in this one don’t make a lot of sense. Okay, so they kill people (who have no clue what those wreaths mean) and then they give warm weather in return. It seems to me that the only difference between Mr. and Mrs. God and your garden-variety MOTW is that they eat people and assuage any guilt or responsibility for the murders by giving their community unseasonably warm weather.

Again, the point of human sacrifice is made utterly meaningless, as in “Scarecrow.” However, unlike “Scarecrow,” those making it meaningless are the gods themselves, which doesn’t make much sense. Gods, of whatever system, represent divine principles and I’m not seeing what divine principle these two represent. Yes, their ritual is (sort of) modeled on the Swedish ritual of Midvinterblot, but Madge and Edward bear more resemblance to Saxon(ish) monsters Grendel and his mother than to Odin or Freyja, gods propitiated at the Midvinterblot. Possibly, the writers intended to echo the myth of Norse god Baldur’s death, but Baldur is killed by mistletoe, not pine, and is a gentle precursor to Jesus. And we’ll find out later these gods definitely weren’t Baldur, anyway.

The alleged connection to Hold Nickar (mentioned once and then never again) also makes little sense. Hold Nickar was a sea god who appears to have given some of his traditions to our current Santa Claus, namely: his tendency to ride through the sky at the Winter Solstice and toss down favors to his worshipers in a version of the Ancient European Wild Hunt. How this translates into a male and female god, both equally dangerous but only one of whom rides to a house to grab a victim, I don’t know. And how a Teutonic sea god is vulnerable to pine stakes is also never explained.

I suspect what really happened was that the writers watched William Friedkin’s The Guardian a few times too often and that’s why we get all of this Celtic herbal mythology of the Green Man mixed up with Scandinavian and German traditions (Those nasty druids, they really got around, ya know – she said sarcastically). Then Kripke got it into his head that the Brothers should whack an MOTW with a Christmas tree (He actually has said this), and Mr. and Mrs. God were born. Though I’m especially confused by that after reading visual effects supervisor Ivan Hayden’s interview in Supernatural Magazine. How do you use a tree to kill a tree god? Some kind of like-kills-like sympathetic magic?

Concerning the Anti-Claus, he’s not Santa’s evil brother. He’s a collection of demons in Dutch folklore enslaved by St. Nicholas to do his bidding. Maybe the writers tried too strenuously not to show that they were ripping off Santa’s Slay. Maybe they quickly realised how intrinsically racist and antisemitic those traditions are (which is why they’re being phased out). But there’s shaping the lore to your story and there’s making it mean things it’s not meant to mean, and I think they crossed a line with this one. Roared right over a few, in fact.

So, why don’t I give a crap? Because, you know what? I don’t. Sam-worship, pagan-bashing and mythology-mastication that irritated the hell out of me in the Halloween ep, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester,” just make me giggle, shrug and turn the gain up so I can hear the mayhem better on “A Very Supernatural Christmas.” I think it’s because, underneath it all, this is a wickedly-funny shaggy-dog story intended to show us the True Meaning of Christmas, which is that Christmas magic is real and you can feel it even under the worst circumstances.

There’s a terrible moment in that dining room when the Brothers are hurting bad and Dean turns to Sam and says, “Merry Christmas, Sam!” And means it. This may have originally come out in 2007, but “A Very Supernatural Christmas” is the Christmas Special sendoff 2020 thoroughly deserves.

Also, the Christmas jokes, when it comes right down to it, are in-jokes and not mean, and episode writer Jeremy Carver has fun with the lore, while director J. Miller Tobin has a lot of fun with the Christmas décor. You can tell Jensen Ackles, a self-professed lover of the holiday, is having a blast as Christmas-crazy Dean. Poor Padalecki gets stuck playing the Boy Who Hates Christmas, which is a much-harder job, though he does get some great lines as a consolation.

I was also surprised to find the Christmas music for the episode, both original and soundtrack, much richer and more enjoyable than I’d remembered. I’d never paid much attention to it on watches (many, many watches) before. I hadn’t expected to find much that was new on this rewatch, so that in particular was a pleasant surprise.

Madge and Edward, with their obsessively “secular” Christmasfied home, are hysterical. Of course pagan gods would hide out under the trappings of plastic decorations and blinking lights. We all knew that in our hearts, in the same weird, secret place that still knows damned-well there’s a monster under the bed, no matter what anybody says.

And the actors they got in were perfect for the roles, especially Merrilyn Gann and Spencer Garrett as Madge and Edward Carrigan. Great job, both of them, alone together and with Padalecki and Ackles (I love the cat-and-mouse back-and-forth, where you’re not sure who’s hunting whom). Also of note are Douglas Newell as the cynical shop owner and Brandy Kopp as the horrified elf girl. See, the CW? See what you’re missing by insisting that actors on your show all be under 30 and anorexic?

Merry Christmas, Everyone!


Fun lines:

Dean [to Sam]: So, what did you find [in the victim’s house]?
Sam: Stockings, mistletoe…this.
Dean: A tooth?! Where was this?
Sam: In the chimney.
Dean: The chimney?! No way a man fits up the chimney. It’s too narrow.
Sam: No way he fits up in one piece.
Dean: All right, so if Dad went up the chimney…
Sam: …we need to find what dragged him up there.

Dean [after hearing that Christmas isn’t really Jesus’ birthday]: Next, you’ll be telling me the Easter Bunny’s Jewish!

Sam [about watching the Santa talk to kids]: We just came here to watch.

Dean: Hey, Sam, why are you the boy who hates Christmas?

Sam [to Dean before they bust into “Santa’s” trailer]: Mr. Gung-Ho Christmas might have to blow away Santa.

Guy in Santa suit on porno [to girl coming onto him in a bar]: Look, I’m just not in the mood, okay?
Girl: Mistle my toe. Roast my chestnut? You know…jingle my bell?

Store Owner: Can I help you boys?
Dean: Yeah, we were playing Jenga over at the Walshes and…well, he hasn’t shut up about this wreath. [to Sam] I don’t know. You tell him.
Sam [stiffly]: Sure. [to Store Owner] It was yummy.
Store Owner[to Sam]: I sell a lot of wreaths, guys.
Sam: Right, right, but you see, this one would have been really special. It had green leaves, white buds on it. Might have been made out of meadowsweet?
Store Owner: Well, aren’t you the fussy one?

Dean: Did you sell [the wreaths] for free?
Store Owner: Hell, no. It’s Christmas. People pay a buttload for this crap.
Dean: That’s the spirit!

Dean [looking at Madge and Edward’s christmasfied house]: So, this is where Mrs. Wreath lives, huh? Boy, can’t you just feel the Evil Pagan Vibe?

Dean [to Madge after she cuts him]: If you fudging touch me again, I’ll fudging kill ya!

Edward: Fingernail…blood. Sweet Peter on a Popsicle Stick – I forgot the tooth!

Madge [to Sam]: You little thing. [head spins disturbingly] I loved that tree.

(Original) Next Week: Houses of the Holy: Sam and Dean investigate when unlikely vigilantes kill secretly-bad people and claim an angel incited them to do it.

(Original) In the New Year (January 21): Sam, Interrupted: The Brothers check themselves into a psych hospital to investigate mysterious doings there, then can’t check back out when the MOTW starts to drive them crazy.

(Actual) Next week: Ask Jeeves: We’re back to Season 10 with an episode where Sam and Dean are called to a moldy old pile for the reading of a will and the solving of a murder.

The Kripke Years

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Season 5

The Gamble Years

Season 6 (with Kripke)

Season 7

The Carver Years

Season 8

Season 9

Season 10

Season 11

The Dabb Years

Season 12

Season 13

Season 14

Season 15

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #26: Spooky North Carolina

Many apologies for the lateness of this. As some of you may have noticed, my site was down (for the second time in the month) for a day or two over the weekend. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it took a few calls and some shouting at my website provider to get things fixed. Unfortunately, that took up the time and energy I was going to use to do these reviews, my latest Supernatural review, and class work. So, I’m currently about five days behind. All this means is that we will be going into November with the ghost story reviews until we get the full 31 (possibly not every single day), though I will continue to post them as timed in October, so that all you need do is click on that month to get to them. Sorry about the delay.

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Schlosser, S.E. Spooky North Carolina: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore. Paul G. Hoffman, illustrator. Morris Book Publishing, 2009.

Having previously read another entry in this series (Spooky New Jersey) and found it underwhelming, I had an idea about the format for this one. The author takes stories from around a state and basically fictionalizes them. Even though she has a long bibliography at the end (from which she clearly took lots of “inspiration”), she doesn’t give a whole lot on which to confirm or deny her details. Even with a map supplied near the beginning, the stories often feel set in some vague Never Never Land. So, you certainly can’t rely on any of these as being the “true” account of a myth or legend.

Most of these stories were quite well-known, to the point where I often could tell where she embellished. I think only the ghost dog in the mirror (from Boone) and the healing ghost of the suicidal father (from Raleigh) were ones I had never heard of before as either a specific tale or a collection of tales.

I think my favorite was the Jesus tale from Bat Cave about an itinerant carpenter who is hired by a farmer to build a fence blocking out his neighbor, with whom the farmer has a long-time feud. Instead, the carpenter builds a bridge, reconciles the two neighbors, and heals the farmer’s crippled son, to boot.

Blackbeard’s ghost from Ocracoke, the Little Red Man of Old Salem, Tsali’s protective Cherokee spirit of Smoky Mountains National Park, the fictional White Doe of Roanoke Island, the Dare County woman haunted by her sister after stealing the ring off her dead finger, the Maco Light, the fratricidal man from Murphy “plucked” to death by his brother’s ghost, they’re all here. There are even some lesser-known stories like the (mysterious, but quite real phenomenon) Seneca Guns of the Outer Banks.

This narrative storytelling approach isn’t necessarily a problem for most people. But the other issue is that while some of these stories are well-written and entertaining, they’re not very chilling. I know for a fact these tales have been told in more harrowing ways elsewhere, but there wasn’t a lot of Boo Factor in this one. The illustrations don’t help in that they are folksy and interesting, but not eerie like the ones in Haunted Uwharries from last year. As I recall, Spooky New Jersey wasn’t very scary, either. There was only one exception (involving a Satanic hitchhiker) that I even remember, let alone remember it being unnerving (though, in fairness, that one was a doozy).

Just to check whether I’d finally become too jaded to get scared easily, anymore, by ghost story books, I read an article of ten scary, true stories told by law enforcement officers. It was pretty creepy. So, the fault, Dear Brutus, lies in this book. ‘Cause I ain’t that hard to creep out.

Because of all the embellishment, I found the extra detail in some of these stories less than compelling. It was most obvious in the Witch in the Mill story (from Edenton) that comes directly from Daniel Barefoot’s Haunted Hundred series. The Barefoot version does not have a daughter character (let alone one as a narrator) in it.

So, when I read a whole lot more detail in the Boo Hag story from Elizabeth City (mostly to do with the Haint Blue around the doors and windows keeping her out, and her preying on her husband to sell to her Boo Daddy) than I had encountered before in that legend, I was suspicious of the extra detail. Was it really part of the original Gullah legend or had the author added it in?

Other embellished stories suffered from the heavy emphasis on narrative and lack of analytical distance. The one about the Raven Mockers (from Cherokee), far from sounding like a straight-up heroic tale of a Cherokee shaman who protects his tribe from the titular witches (as you normally get in tales about Spearfinger, say), has the disturbing subtext of a vicious witchcraze straight out of Salem, Massachusetts. The author showed a similar disinterest in exploring the Unfortunate Implications in her tales about witches and cats. A lot of misery was caused by these superstitions (still is, one could argue), so I’m leery of signing off on being oblivious to their ugly real-life history.

The stories I liked best (besides the Jesus tale) were a collection of Mountain tales in the middle of the book about various kinds of premonitions and death omens. In one (from Pineola), a woman has an elaborate waking dream in which she correctly predicts a complicated series of events where her sister-in-law runs away with a man, who is then shot dead by the SIL’s own brother. In another (Watauga County), a old country doctor whose father dropped dead at the age of 62 after seeing his doppelgänger, has a similar encounter at the same age, in the woods returning from a night call early one morning. It doesn’t end well for him.

In his book on Scottish folklore, The Supernatural Highlands, Francis Thompson refers to people who have these kinds of precog waking dreams as “seers.” There’s quite a tradition surrounding them in Scottish Celtic lore. “The Coffin” (Fayetteville) fits easily into this tradition.

Are these stories badly told? No, not really. They pass the time easily enough. Just don’t expect them to be … well … scary.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #25: Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County

Many apologies for the lateness of this. As some of you may have noticed, my site was down (for the second time in the month) for a day or two over the weekend. I’ll spare you the technical details, but it took a few calls and some shouting at my website provider to get things fixed. Unfortunately, that took up the time and energy I was going to use to do these reviews, my latest Supernatural review, and class work. So, I’m currently about five days behind. All this means is that we will be going into November with the ghost story reviews until we get the full 31, though I will continue to post them as timed in October, so that all you need to do is click on that month to get to them. Sorry about the delay.

Check out the rest of the month’s reviews here, and last year’s reviews here. If you enjoyed this review and want to help out with my folklore research, head on over to my Patreon page and join up, make a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or send me a coffee.

Baldwin, Karen, et al., eds. Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County: A Handbook and Resource Guide. Illustrated by David Norris. East Carolina University Folklore Archive, Department of English, Greenville, NC, 1990.

Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County (Pitt County, whose largest city is Greenville, is to the immediate southeast of me) is one of the more important folklore collections in North Carolina. Its introduction states that it’s intended as a resource for teachers (grade school and high school) in teaching about “folklife.” Only the last section involves itself with ghost tales and legends, though Henry Cowan, a cement sculptor and storyteller in the Material Arts section, also tells a supernatural tale or two about witches.

As you can guess, this book (which, alas, is not available online and was published in a very limited edition in 1990) comes out of the same tradition as that of Weird Tales of Martin County (which it mentions) and Whispers from the Past (which it doesn’t, though both came out the same year). There are sections on practitioners of the material arts and musical arts, occupational folklife, regional cookery, home medicine & midwifery, and (last and treated as least) narrative arts. Narrative Arts is where you find the rest of the witch tales, some ghost and UFO stories, and a short section about a tornado that hit a trailer park in 1984 because … it’s about the spread of urban legends, I guess. Honestly, I think they just didn’t know where else to put it.

“Folklife,” according to Lexico (the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary), is defined as “The way of life of a rural or traditional community. ” The book doesn’t give much of a definition of what it means by this word, but the impression I got was “Stuff old people do out in the country and isn’t that quaint.” Unfortunately, 1990 was back in the day when academics still tended to look down their noses at “folk” art and this book, unfortunately, follows in that tradition. It’s especially annoying to see now-famous whirligig makers Lester Gay and Vollis Simpson treated in a rather head-patting manner as quirky local eccentric inventors.

One could argue that the book is intended, basically, as a sort of textbook for grade school and high school, but that’s hardly an excuse. Tom Peete Cross managed to tell a rousing good tale in his copious footnotes for “Witchcraft in North Carolina” in 1919, while there was a lot more charging the horror engine for W.K. McNeil’s Ghost Stories from the American South (1985) than this book. This one comes across as condescending at times toward its subjects, a little pompous, and (too often) deadly dull.

The reason can be gleaned from a comparison to what the above two sources (as well as the Frank C. Brown Collection) did right. The introduction to Folk Arts and Folklife in and around Pitt County: A Handbook and Resource Guide claims that it was kept short (90 pages) because of limitations of space. It never explains why such limitations existed. Maybe someone thought a longer book wouldn’t fit the grade school format or maybe they ran out of budget.

But this leads to a rather odd mix of raw interview quotes of the subjects (who are often fascinating, especially Gospel/Jazz musicians like the Vines Sisters, just not presented that way) with some droning on about sociological theories of folklore and the barest minimum of context. And I think the lack of context is the real problem. You get a little biographical information about the subjects, but it’s bare bones. You get even less about the history of the towns in question.

Folklore motifs get the shortest shrift. The intros to the tales about the witch cat or the boyfriend’s head, for example, mention that these are old tropes, but don’t go any further and barely mention Stith Thompson. There are several family stories of dead relatives returning to haunt the living, with far more emphasis on the idea that this is how the family kept their history and far less exploration of them as actual ghost stories.

A quite-fascinating (if short) story about a car going dead near a sighting of mysterious red lights on NC 43 north of Rocky Mount (so, probably still in Nash County) is buried in the middle of a group of UFO stories (most of which sound like cases of mistaking an airplane or star/planet for an extraterrestrial craft). Thing is, this story could easily be a case of ghost lights and/or a roadside revenant, but the possibility is simply ignored. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in this book and that makes it a bit of a disappointment.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #24: Haunted Plantations

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Buxton, Geordi. Haunted Plantations: Ghosts of Slavery and Legends of the Cotton Kingdoms. Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

This one is not, strictly speaking, set in North Carolina. It’s stories about ghosts (mostly) of slaves from the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. But as we’ve learned from other such collections, state borders don’t limit folklore that neatly. Enslaved African Americans in North Carolina labored and suffered under similar conditions.

The author’s premise is to explore the experience of African American slaves and of slavery through Antebellum ghost stories. Some of these go all the way back to the 17th century (and earlier for the Native American tales). This mostly works, though there are some silly flubs, like the dated theory that slave labor built the Pyramids.

After a slow start and some objectifying in the manner of what Tiya Miles complains about in Tales from the Haunted South, Buxton gets into the lives (and afterlives) of slaves in South Carolina and Georgia. This includes some asides about coastal Gullah culture (and some extended detail about the origins and meaning of haint blue paint on houses) and West African religion like the Mami Wata.

There are some odd detours. For example, early on, we get the tale of Monsieur Dutarque. A (white) French teacher, M. Dutarque has to leave town in a hurry after tying a young white plantation owner’s daughter to a tombstone all night and causing permanent paralysis in her face. He then ingratiates himself into another community, only to disappear at the end of the school year. The boys he was teaching discover only their papers on his desk, corrected and marked with failing grades in his blood.

Until some months later, anyway, when one of them decides to pull the bucket up from the old schoolhouse well.

We then get into some of the better known ghost stories about the Lowcountry, such as the mass suicide by drowning of a group of Igbo slaves, newly arrived in South Carolina from Africa, in 1803. Buxton explains how their beliefs would motivate them to do so as a way to return to the old country in spirit, if not in body, and the subsequent hauntings of the water there. These include singing and the sound of clanking chains from beneath the river water.

Another story from Savannah Harbor tells of a place where something unseen tries to capsize passing ships. Could it be the mass ghost of a French pirate slave ship from the Civil War that was capsized by escaping slaves?

He also devotes two chapters (from both sides of the conflict) to slave revolts, such as the Stono River Slave Rebellion (1739), which resulted in the passing of laws forbidding the education of slaves that restricted the rights of both slaves and slaveowners. Another slave revolt may (or may not) have been headed off in 1822 by the hanging of freedmen Denmark Vesey and Gullah Jack in Charleston. Who may, or may not, have been completely innocent of the crime of insurrection.

Another Charleston hanging (the last public one) leads to the unsettling tale of the arrest and summary hanging without trial for murder of teenager Daniel Duncan in 1911. The reason why it was the last public hanging is because three days later, while his body still hanged on display, a major hurricane slammed into Charleston. Residents took it as divine punishment for hanging what was probably an innocent child. It later became known as “Duncan’s Storm.”

More mysterious are the spectral riders who appeared at dusk to some firefighters near the beginning of the 21st century on James Island in South Carolina. These Lightwood Cowboys, originally slaves who herded cattle on the island’s plantations during Antebellum times, were apparently America’s first cowboys.

Equally mysterious, but more uncanny, is the specter of a woman who also appears at dusk. Also probably the ghost of a slave, she is seen beside Boone Hall Brickyard near Wampancheone Creek, still apparently making bricks. The saddest ghosts are the ones who cannot seem to break free from the sufferings of their lives in the afterlife.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #23: Smoky Mountain Tales, True and Tall, Volume II

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Baldwin, Juanitta. Smoky Mountain Tales, True and Tall, Volume II. Suntop Press, October 1, 2008.

It wasn’t until I got to the end of this one that I realized had probably read the wrong book. Yes, they’re called “true” tales as well as “tall,” but just as often in this genre, such tales are more tall than true.

The author’s book of Appalachian ghost stories is called Smoky Mountain Ghostlore (and the number on this one indicates there’s a first volume I likely should have begun with). Though the book does have some legends, the only “ghost” story is about a woman who spots a light over a grave in a cemetery at night – only to discover it was a solar lantern left on a child’s grave. According to the mother, her son had been afraid of the dark and she didn’t want him to be uneasy in his grave.

Most of the stories are historical and even from the author’s own family, but there are some legends. Admittedly, the author spends as much time in Tennessee as North Carolina, but the folklore doesn’t exactly recognize that boundary, anyway. Yeah, I probably should have dropped this one early on, but it was short and I found the stories charmingly told. So, sue me.

There’s an amusing tale (unsourced) about the Devil and kudzu. The legend goes that the Devil stirred up his rebellion while God was away planting the Garden of Eden (the Devil was jealous because God wouldn’t allow the angels to visit His new creation – Earth).

When God returned, he kicked the Devil out and the Devil promptly went to the South because it was one of the nicest places in God’s new creation. God reassured the rest of his angels that He had everything taken care of. He’d altered the kudzu just a little bit so that the Devil would exasperate himself trying to manage it. You could say kudzu can bedevil the Devil himself.

The author also includes several stories about gold/silver mines and lost treasures. One John Smith became wealthy from mining silver in the Appalachians during the Colonial period. But he ran afoul of Royal sentiments when visiting Britain during the Revolution. By the time he returned 15 years later, he was old and nearly blind, and his friends and colleagues had all died or scattered to points unknown. So, he was no longer able to find his mines. A whole mess of people have been looking for them since he died in 1800, leaving behind his maps.

From the same time period is Sequoyah. He created a different kind of treasure by inventing the Cherokee alphabet, and teaching his people how to read and write in it.

Another lost mine is the Perry Shults Mine. It’s said you can find it by following a big black bird.

My favorite stories by far, though, are of the tough and pioneering women of the Appalachians. Most notable is Malinda Blalock, a Civil War combat veteran from Watauga County. Her husband Keith was pro-Union and anti-slavery when the Civil War started, in a region where that sentiment was brutally suppressed. When Keith was drafted anyway by the Confederate Army, Malinda disguised herself as his younger brother and marched off with him to war.

After she was shot in battle, her secret was eventually discovered and she was kicked out. Keith rolled in poison ivy to get a temporary discharge and join her. Then the two of them lit out for Grandfather Mountain (in Avery County). They were eventually able to join up with the Union Army and become guerrilla fighters for the rest of the War. And by “fighters,” I mean that Malinda was right there in the thick of it with her husband.

One baby and several war wounds later between them, they settled down after the War and started a country store. Despite vicious opposition from some of their family and neighbors, they prospered, had more kids, and outlived most of their enemies.

Then there is Evelyn Brian Johnson (1909-2012), a famous aviator from Morristown, TN. Still alive at the age of 98 when the book came out in 2008, she gave the author an interview in which she talked about how she got into flying. At the time of her death, she had more flight hours than any woman and more than any living person (57,635.4), and held the record in number of people trained (about 9000). Starting in 1944, she flew planes until a car accident and glaucoma grounded her in 2006, after 62 years. She also outlived two husbands.

These two women are the epitome of “Slid into home, beat to hell, yelling, ‘Wow! What a ride that was!'” I hope I’m able to do the same when I go.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #22: Ghosts of the Triad: Tales from the Haunted Heart of the Piedmont

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Renegar Michael, and Amy Spease. Ghosts of the Triad: Tales from the Haunted Heart of the Piedmont. Haunted America, 2011 (ebook edition: 2013).

When I saw one of the authors of this was Michael Renegar and the other was Amy Spease (Greer), I perked right up, despite having read several books about this area, already. Although I haven’t yet got hold of Roadside Revenants, I thoroughly enjoyed Looking for Lydia: The Thirty-Year Search for the Jamestown Hitchhiker and Tar Heel Terrors last year. I had a feeling I would be in for a good, well-researched yarn and I was not disappointed.

First things first – let’s establish where the Triad is. The authors do a solid job of this in their first chapter. Which is good because I initially confused the Triad with the Triangle. The Research Triangle is an urban region of three cities in Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties: Raleigh (the capital), Durham and Chapel Hill. These are more-or-less in the center, in the Piedmont region. Where I am about an hour east is known as the much-more-rural Tri-County area of Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties on the Upper Coastal Plain. But then you’ve got Tri-County Community College in the western part of the state, which serves Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties.

So, the Triad is points further west of Raleigh, rather than east. It comprises Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, in Forsyth and Guilford counties. As the authors note, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Piedmont. Hence the subtitle.

If you’ve been reading my reviews, you’ll already know about a fair number of famous ghosts from Moravian Old Salem. The authors start right off with the most famous one – the Little Red Man. Contrary to his sinister name, which evokes the vicious Scottish Borders goblin Redcap, Andreas Kremser was a real person. This cheerful shoemaker and Moravian brother died horribly when a cellar caved in on him in 1786. He is (or was, since a visiting, rather intolerant minister reportedly exorcised him about a century ago) a mischievous, but friendly, spirit who likes to play pranks on people, but won’t hurt anyone.

The authors also discuss the tavern ghost in Old Salem of a man who died without identification, but visited the innkeeper after his death to send a message to his brother in Texas. The message duly sent and received, and the man’s family arrived to retrieve his possessions, the ghost never haunted the inn again.

Spease tells of a house her parents bought in the Historic Waughtown District (Winston-Salem), before moving away. After moving back in as an adult, she didn’t mind the hauntings at first. The resident ghost was a benign elderly lady. But the house later became infested by a darker aura and the appearance of shadow people. She met her co-author Michael Renegar in the process of trying to figure out what was going on and they tried several ways of “cleansing” the house. Nothing worked, at least not for long. Eventually, after a particularly scary dream involving coffins, she was forced to move out. Her stepfather still owned it, but no one lived in it, at the time of publication (2011).

The chapter on the bizarre life and mysterious shooting of tobacco empire heir Zachary Smith Reynolds (1911-1932) at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem is almost a textbook case in how you write the family history of an old house in an interesting way. The shocking case of Reynolds’ Jazz Age death (murder? Suicide? Misadventure? The jury remains out) actually overshadows reports of the path outside the house being haunted by Reynolds’ mother, Katharine.

Other famous sites like Korner’s Folly in Kernersville get a look-in, and there are several haunted theaters and inns. But some of these tales come about from the authors’ own experiences or their investigations of historic houses as Camel City Spirit Seekers. This results in a lot of talk about EVPs and we get to see folkloric stories at various stages in their development.

For example, Spease reports a haunting of a backyard that started after one of her neighbors hanged himself outside his house. There are stories of ghostly encounters with phantom soldiers at the site of The Battle of Guilford Courthouse (1781) in the National Military Park in Greensboro. Lydia gets a chapter, but she’s not the only roadside revenant. And then there’s Spookywoods Haunted Attraction in Archdale, near High Point, which is allegedly really haunted by ghost lights and other shadowy figures. It’s open this time of year, so you can go check it out for yourself.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #21: Ghostly Spirits of Warren County, North Carolina & Beyond

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Bice, Arlene S. Ghostly Spirits of Warren County, North Carolina & Beyond: Extrordinary True Stories Told By Ordinary People. 2016.

Perhaps I should have seen the misspelling (not mine) of “extraordinary” in the title as a bad sign. But as I’ve said in the past, self-published local collections of ghostlore can be good, despite the need for a decent proofreader or copy editor in some (most?) of them. This one, however, was more in the category of requiring a substantive editor. This is a revised version, too. Go figure.

I’ll admit to being a bit more salty than usual with this book. I paid over twice as much as I generally would for a Kindle book (this one cost $5.99 in Kindle format, $14.00 in paperback). If you’re going to charge me for that, at least deliver a final product with some decent editing.

A big problem is that the author just tosses a lot of stuff in that not only includes the kitchen sink, but the plumbing all the way out to the septic tank, for good measure. For example, she reproduces interviews with owners of Warren County Antebellum mansions, in their entirety. She does things like, “Mr. X continues, ‘As soon as we finished the renovation, the ghosts came back.” Cue a long and rambling account, with plenty of side trips well outside the county. This is standard for the way people interview, but it should have been incorporated more coherently into the book itself.

That’s too bad, because the section on Traveler’s Rest (AKA the Devil’s Den) that comprises the first quarter of the book could have been quite fascinating. The city itself (which is near the northern border of North Carolina) got its official name from being an important stop for travelers from the 18th century onward. Kind of like Natchez down in Mississippi, but in the North Carolina mountains.

We get the story behind both names. A respectable woman forced to stay at Traveler’s Tavern (now The Marshall-Moore House), sometime after it was built in 1788, referred to the tavern after her night there as “the Devil’s Den.” Guess it wasn’t to her taste.

The house’s reputation has continued into the 21st century (though it’s funny how what started out as an Early American den of ill repute has come up in the world by dint of sheer survival over nearly two and a half centuries). A “clairvoyant” student of one of the owners Bice interviewed declared about the house, “The walls are full of black snakes and the house is full of spirits!”

That said, the spirits don’t seem to get up to an awful lot of specific things that the snakes and bugs in the walls don’t. Keys go missing. Doors are found open. The smell of roses occasionally appears. More interesting is the nearby roadside revenant, a gentle haunt that appears as the ghost of a white mule. This spirit goes back to the days of the horse and buggy, when it would appear, peeking over the side of the wagon, to the astonishment of the occupants.

We get a lot about haunted Antebellum piles like Oakley Hall Plantation in Ridgeway (owned by the same people who owned and renovated The Marshall-Moore House) or the Somerville-Graham House in Warrenton. There’s also a very odd chapter on a woman Bice met while doing jury duty who had visions of angels and shadow people, protecting her from harm or trying to get her to do evil. In another chapter, the author is invited to a ghostly children’s tea party at the Putnam House (also in Warrenton).

The chapters tend to be of different lengths and they ramble quite a bit. Lots of family history is stuffed in, with a mind-numbing parade of names and dates of the biblical “begat” variety. Yet, basic info like the house’s location by town and how long it’s been there is buried in the text. These are quite-famous houses, too, so protecting the owners’ privacy doesn’t seem to be the reason.

In these chapters, house owners do renovations that rev up the spirits. Then they talk to them, reason with them, yell at them, do cleansings and banishings with sage, bring in psychic investigators, and so on. Dealing with the ghosts becomes part of dealing with the general environment of the house.

Here and there appear photos taken at the sites by the author. Some of them have rather … odd … photographic anomalies. You decide for yourself what they may entail. Personally, I found them intriguing and creepy. I would have liked some more info on them.

There is also an interview late in the book, with Michael La Chiana from The Heritage Hunters Society (THHS), a paranormal investigation group out of Raleigh, that probably should have appeared earlier. The chapter also references G.H.O.S.T.S and NC Hags, both also out of Raleigh. The group did an investigation on The Putnam House.

The Legends section talks about Person’s Ordinary (c.1770) in Littleton. An ordinary was a stagecoach stop/inn for lower-class people who could not get introductions to the nicer mansions of the rich when they traveled. Stains on the floor allegedly come from an assassination attempt on the visiting (incognito) General Lafayette, who killed the assassin in the struggle. The other story is about a local ghost light called Bragg Light, named after a prominent local Antebellum family.

The author runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through. To pad the book up a bit, she includes a final section about Lake Gaston – but it’s not actually about Lake Gaston. It’s stories told by people who visit Lake Gaston from other places, who had experiences in those other places. This greatly disappointed me, as I would have liked to have heard some tales about the lake.

Bice does include a short bibliography at the end that has some sources I hadn’t seen before. So, there’s that. I just wish the content that came before it had been better organized.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #20: Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina

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Pitzer, Sara. Myths and Mysteries of North Carolina: True Stories Of The Unsolved And Unexplained. Myths and Mysteries Series. Globe Pequot, December 21, 2010.

This one surprised me. I put off reading it for quite some time because my expectations for it were low. The cover is cheerfully garish in a My Boyfriend Was Kidnapped By Ripley’s Believe It Or Not-Obsessed Aliens sort of way. I figured what I would be getting was a rehashed version of various familiar legends, with little new content.

So, I was pleasantly disabused of this notion by the author bringing in some new (or, at least, lesser-known) stories along with the old standards. For example, there’s an entire chapter on Salisbury, with some stories not in The Wettest and Wickedest Town” (which I reviewed last year), though I was disappointed that she didn’t touch on the infamous 1906 lynchings there. Salisbury is one of those towns that always end up inexplicably ignored in state-wide ghost story books.

But even more impressive was that she did her own homework on these tales and came up with some fresh twists. The only disappointment on that score was the chapter on the Lost Colony. Nice to see a detailed bibliography at the end, too. And it’s a quick read.

The author lives in the Piedmont (or did at the time the book came out), so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that her stories heavily favor the western part of the state. Even so, we do start off on the coast before heading west. There, she deals with ballad regulars Frankie Silver and Tom Dula, as well as a pretty detailed history of the railroad in the NC mountains, in her chapter on the Cowee Tunnel (which is, of course, haunted).

My favorite chapters involved Native American sites Judaculla Rock and the Pee Dee tribe. Judaculla Rock is a large surviving example of petroglyph (carved) rock art in Jackson County. No one knows its age, what it says, or who made it. The pre-Columbian Cherokee attributed it to their thunder god Tsul ‘Kalu, the “Slant-Eyed Giant.” In other words, they didn’t make it and they didn’t know who did, either.

The Pee Dee chapter is about an archaeological site surrounding the surviving Town Creek Indian Mound in Montgomery County. The Pee Dee (not what they called themselves) were a South Appalachian Mississippian Culture who flourished in what is now North Carolina and Tennessee in the half-century before the arrival of Europeans and who appear to have been wiped out in the 18th century. Several tribes claim descent from them.

Pitzer goes into a fair bit of detail about the Pee Dee culture and the archaeological finds at Town Creek. I’m a little surprised that she doesn’t mention Joara in either these chapters or the Lost Colony one. Archaeologists were looking for the settlement at the time, but as this book came out in 2010 and they didn’t discover the Joara site until 2013, perhaps she simply didn’t know about it.

This is a fun collection, with a bit more heft than I first thought. It also has info about paranormal investigators who were active in NC in 2010 and some of their investigations. Recommended.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #19: Weird Tales of Martin County

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The Skewarkians. Weird Tales of Martin County. Junior Historian Club. Bear Grass School, Williamston, NC, 1980.

So, remember the student compilation of statewide folklore from 1990, Whispers from the Past, that I reviewed a week or so ago? Well, this is a decade older, was done by a students’ club in a school two counties over, and is confined to just one county (though being a bit longer). They’ve also done a history of tobacco in the county. Personally, I like this one better. Not that Whispers from the Past was bad, but it lacked the focus of this collection and was stage-managed by adults in state government.

It’s weird to think that the kids who did this compilation are now my age and that most of the community elders they interviewed are probably now dead. But this is part of the value of these collections. The most amusing part is the rant in the introduction by one of their teachers about how a book like this is necessary in a day and age when kids are distracted by modern technology and don’t listen to their elders, anymore. Oh, those darn TV sets! Some things never change.

This collection has a big focus on “forgotten” history, beginning with the history of “Bear Grass” as a name in the county. The story is that the name is for the Yucca plant, which grows abundantly in Martin County. Local Native Americans used it to cure bear meat – hence, Bear Grass (the town) and Bear Grass Swamp as place names for the local community now.

Since Martin County is so near to the coast (and is part of the Coastal Plain region), much of its folklore has coastal motifs. There are several stories about witches and conjurers, including one about a witch cat. Ghosts, of course, appear in several stories. Slavery is also a recurring theme.

There is a ghost light (Swinson’s Light) in Bear Grass Swamp. The students trace it back to the 18th century and claim it is the oldest legend in the region (mmm … maybe, but wouldn’t the name “Bear Grass” be older?). The light is traced to an early settler named John Swinson who received a land grant from the Earl of Granville in 1761. The legend is that Swinson buried a treasure somewhere on the land and the light is now his ghost guarding it. Charles Gritzner cites the book and its version of this legend in his book, North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends.

Then there is the Legend of the Screaming Bridge (which I first heard about from local author Jim Lee – thanks, Jim!). This dates back to the Civil War. A young girl from a prominent family named Yarrow was drowned near or under a bridge that crossed Sweetened Water Creek. The mystery is that it’s unclear if this was an accident, suicide or muuuuuurrrrrder. But sometimes, during a New Moon, people can hear her ghost near the bridge, screaming, or sitting nearby. The story is headlined by a photo of the bridge as it was in 1980, in Griffin’s Township.

There is also a story that connects 19th century horse racing (which generally occurred on Sunday) with the Devil. This one is called “The Phantom Rider.” In this one, the Devil (or a prankster dressed up in a dark coat and hat) appears at one such race, wins, and disappears with a “fiendish” laugh without collecting his winnings. Unless you assume, as some of the spectators did, that he came to collect their souls.

This legend did not actually stop horse racing in Martin County. Or ghost story telling, it seems. This one’s online (I put a link up top), so go ahead and check it out. The kids done good.

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Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #18: Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina

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Madia, Tonya and Joey Madia. Watch Out for the Hallway: Our Two-Year Investigation of the Most Haunted Library in North Carolina. Visionary Living, Inc., September 25, 2018.

When I first discovered this book, I got pretty excited about it. Basically, my first impression was that this book was like what Haunted Broughton turned out to be and Haunted Broughton would be like what this turned out to be. Go figure.

So, I was thinking, “Hey! Now I have a book of hauntings related to a specific hospital and one related to a specific library! Yay!” The library in question, by the way, is the Webb Memorial Library in Morehead City, which is down near Beaufort on the southeastern coast of the state.

Now, some of the book is actually pretty decent. The chapter about the spirits upstairs (even though the whole extended infodump about the “vortex” theory is silly) is pretty scary. In fact, the title is an alleged quote from a warning by one of the friendly ghosts about the upstairs hallway.

There’s a lot about the history of the library and all the events that probably caused the haunting folklore. The courtyard coming into the library, for example, is apparently quite haunted and people not-infrequently see things from the street such as lights going on and figures in the windows.

The “investigation” of the library occurred over a two-year period roughly 2016-7. This is something of a misnomer/exaggeration. What the authors actually did was conduct regular ghost tours at the library and keep detailed records about them. That’s hardly nothing, but bringing groups of civilians through a place like that doesn’t strike me as something nearly as professional as an investigation.

Lord, was this book tedious and bloated in parts. Stories in the chapters wander and twist and take a long time getting to the point. The authors go into a lot of detail about Tonya’s alleged psychic gifts. As I said in my review of Ghosthunting North Carolina, I’m not into that. I feel that if you’re going to create your own New Age narratives about the local folklore, at least tell me about the original stuff you’re riffing from, first.

There’s an embarrassing moment in the introduction when the authors are talking about their experiences prior to coming to the library. They once set up a Lakota sweat lodge outside their house in West Virginia and then experienced an increase in paranormal activity. A Shawnee friend pointed out that no Lakota had never lived in that area, so the local spirits might be a bit miffed. Cultural appropriation at its most well-intentioned, but obtuse.

One of the most frustrating parts of the authors incessantly going on about their psychic abilities was that the writing often made it unclear whether someone sitting in a chair in the library was a living member of a ghost tour, a ghost everyone could see, or just a strong impression one of the Madias had of them. It’s deceptive because a lot of the communication actually occurs via flashing lights on instruments. This vagueness had a tendency to “Scooby-Doo” the very ghost encounters that are the intended selling point of the book.

Ultimately, yes, there’s a lot of info about the library’s (and neighborhood’s) folklore and ghost stories. But boy, is it a wade to get to it in some cases.

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