Traditionally Christmas was a time for ghost stories, and tonight we’re doing our part to bring back the custom. A bit of history on supernatural stories of the season and then something a bit different for the holiday — a bit of storytelling for your fireside enjoyment — a ghost story from the Victorian master of the genre, M.R. James. An unfortunate holiday incident experienced by Wilkinson and your narrator is also discussed. Merry Christmas to you all! (This episode also provides an example of one of our Patreon rewards: audio texts from classic old books of horror and folklore delivered over a brooding soundscape.)
Historically, Christmastime in Central Europe was a season haunted by otherworldly spirits, werewolves, ghostly huntsmen, and wandering hordes of lost souls. This is particularly the case in the Krampus’ homeland of German-speaking Central Europe.
We open with a survey of the various frightful spirits said to be afoot this time of year. Bavaria, particularly the Bavarian Forest turn out to be particularly rich in such things, menaced by everything from spirits of the forests (Schratzn) and marshes to entities said to reside in mills, and historic castles. Historical figures with unsavory reputations including the legendary cowherd Woidhaus-Mich, Chatelaine Maria Freiin of Castle Rammelsberg and the Bavarian outsider prophet Mühlhiasl of Apoig are said to return as evil spirits this time of year. We hear a brief clip from Werner Herzog’s 1976 production, Heart of Glass, a lovely and peculiar treatment of Mühlhiasl’s story.
Just as the Krampus appears as an evil counterpart to St. Nicholas on his feast day (and its eve), we encounter other frightful creatures from German culture said to represent similarly sinister incarnations of other saints celebrated in December. From the Upper Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps, there are the moss-encrusted Bärbele (“Barbaras”), or sometimes “Wild Barbaras,” and throughout Bavaria and Austria, St. Lucy was also inverted on her day (Dec. 13) as the “Luz,” or “ugly Lucy,” an entity particularly hungry for blood and ghastly punishments. We also meet “Bloody Thomas,” a figure appearing on the eve or night of St. Thomas Day, December 21.
Next we consider a raft of superstitions associated with the Twelve Nights, or Rauhnächte, a name likely derived from the German word for “smoke” (Rauch) thanks to the use of incense during these nights to dispel evil influences.
Of all the terrors unleashed during the nights around Christmas, the most widespread in German-speaking lands were those ghostly hordes in nocturnal processions, dead souls, solemnly walking, or wildly riding, the latter usually going under the name of “Wild Hunt” or “Furious Army.” This mythologem is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and even North America, where the spirits appear in cowboy legends, and made their way into the 1940s country-western ballad “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”
Wilkinson reads for us some rather dramatic (and grisly) accounts of this form of apparition from the 16th century, and we hear a variety of accounts emphasizing the weird sounds that were said to accompany the Wild Hunt.
A number of figures were presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt, in particular the Germanic god, Odin, whose presence was associated with the superstition all the way into the 1800s as we hear from a newspaper account of the period.
We close the show with some folk tales recounting a similar phenomena in Austria and Switzerland, namely tales of the “Night Folk,” or “Death Folk,” nocturnal hordes whose appearance often heralded death or misfortunes.
Hope you enjoy part two of our exploration of Spiritualism and seances. This one is particularly full of shocking, sad, and amusing tales you won’t hear anywhere else.
First we wrap up last week’s story of the Fox sisters, who in many ways started the whole ball rolling. Two surprising revelations regarding their ghostly communications are revealed with the help of Vincent Price’s 1979 Hall of Horrors episode about these early mediums.
Next we get to the root of rumors about Thomas Edison’s building a machine to talk to the dead and have a look at some interesting ways in which his pioneering technologies were embraced by those eager to connect with those on the other side, including a 1901 Russian recording of spirits channeled in Siberia. Edison’s decidedly creepy (and failed) talking doll is also discussed
Leaping forward a bit we provide a little background on the modern EVP phenomenon and and some rather eccentric Swedish and Latvian researchers (Friedrich Jürgensen and Konstatin Raudive) who were quite convinced their dead mothers were speaking from their tape recorders back in the 1960s and ’70s.
After some eerie snippets of their work, we’re back to early 20th-century Spiritualists.
Eva Carrière, was a French medium particularly notorious for conducting her seances in varying states of undress. The things she and her lesbian lover Juliette Bisson did with ectoplasm are truly the stuff of historic clickbait. Flash photos taken during her sittings by more skeptical researchers, however, reveal a decidedly less impressive side to her craft.
We also have a look at the Boston medium Mina (or “Margery”) Crandon whose notoriety came from a public feud with the debunker Harry Houdini and her own tendency toward scanty dress during sittings. Her dead brother Walter also figures into the story along with a suspicious “teleplasmic” hand revealed to be constructed in a rather ghastly way.
From newspapers of the 1920s we provide two particularly obscure accounts of Spiritualists gone wild. The first, from a 1921 story in the Pittsburgh Press relates the tale of despondent mother who has lost her baby during childbirth. A particularly nefarious seance medium inserts herself into the tragedy, and before long the entire town is celebrating the arrival of a miraculous “Spirit Baby.” A purchase of cheap necklaces, however, proves to be the medium’s undoing.
The second tale, from a 1928 edition of The San Francisco Examiner, begins with a jeweled dagger found in the corpse of an unlucky newlywed. Though the police have already obtained a confession, a Spiritualist circle in France blames a rather brutish spirit that’s been hanging around their seances. A series of 13 inexplicable deaths, including that of dancer Isadora Duncan are also involved.
Our show concludes with an audio clip from a rather sad, but historically important seance held in Hollywood in 1936.