Southern Spookery

It’s that time of year again, when we embrace all the cobwebs, adorn our homes with skeletons and decorative gourds, and channel our inner granny witches. That’s right, the spooky season is upon us, and in celebration we thought we’d tell you about some Halloween-appropriate Southern men, women and monsters. The South is known for its many storytelling traditions, as well as its inherent spookiness, so it’s no surprise that the two should combine into some scary folktales and stories. Scout’s been bookmarking spooky Southern tales for the past couple months (thanks, Lore!) just to bring them to you in this most ghoulish of holiday seasons. The four creatures that follow are all purported to be real by some party or another. We may be skeptical, but where’s the fun in that? So put on this playlist, paint the ceiling of your porch blue, turn down the lights, and settle in for some good old-fashioned ghost stories.

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Rawhead and Bloody Bones: Many Southern ghost stories and folklore come from African traditions and culture, but while some connect this particular tale to the Gullah culture, it’s more likely a story brought over from England and adopted by multiple local cultures. Rawhead and Bloody Bones are both bogeyman figures meant to put fear into children and induce good behavior. Whatever the origins, Rawhead, a skull stripped of skin, and his companion Bloody Bones, a headless skeleton, prowl the night looking for misbehaved children. Sometimes they’re said to live near water, sometimes in dark dank cupboards under stairs or sinks. 

The story dates back as far as the early 1500s and is mentioned in sermons, stories and nursery rhymes: Rawhead and Bloody Bones / Steals Naughty Children from their Homes/Takes them to his dirty den/ And they are never seen again. Seems like good motivation for good behavior. also, fun fact: The monsters are the subject of a song by the post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees

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Fouke Monster: Also known as the Southern Sasquatch, the Fouke Monster is the most well-established of the many Southern cryptid (aka a creature whose actual existence is not yet proven) hominids. Somewhere between seven and ten feet tall and weighing between 300 and 800 pounds, the monster was first spotted in the early 1970s. It runs with an arm-swinging gallop and has bright red eyes the size of silver dollars. In 1971, the monster apparently attacked Bobby and Elizabeth Ford in their new Arkansas home. The creature was then allegedly spotted crossing a nearby highway, and supposed footprints were found at a nearby filling station. Sightings died down in the later part of the decade, but the monster resurfaced in the late 90s and sightings continue to occur.

The Fouke Monster is just one of many Bigfoot-like creatures that roam the American South. In Fort Worth, Texas, there’s the Lake Worth Monster. Described as a “fishy goat-man” in a 1969 local headline, the creature is supposedly half-man, half-goat and covered in scales. South Carolina has the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, and Louisiana has the seven-foot-tall, web-toed Honey Island Swamp Monster.

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The Bell Witch: In the early 19th century, the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee, a small town just a ten-minute drive from the Kentucky border, claimed to be haunted and cursed by a poltergeist named Kate. The inciting incident was an encounter with a chimerical animal with the body of a dog and the head of rabbit. For days after this event, the Bell family’s nights were disrupted by pounding on the exterior of their home, the source of which could never be found. Eventually, the banging and clanging started coming from inside the house (dun dun dun…). Scratching on walls and slamming doors were accompanied by strange whispers and objects moving of their own accord.

The Bell’s youngest daughter, Betsy, was a particular target of the spirit. She was said to have been slapped and had her hair pulled by the specter. The whispers grew into discernible voices singing hymns and quoting scripture. Stories of the Bell Witch spread so far that future president Andrew Jackson came to investigate. One of his men was apparently badly beaten, and they all fled the Bell homestead. The ghost-witch focused her intentions increasingly on the Bell family patriarch, tormenting him into ill health and eventually poisoning him, making this particular ghost one of the only ones to actually kill someone. The whole story is incredible…and probably almost entirely fabricated by Martin Van Buren Ingram, who penned an account 45 years after the so-called haunting, based solely on a diary written by Bell’s son nearly 30 years after the fact. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Richmond Vampire: In Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery there sits the mausoleum of one William Wortham Pool. Pool lived a fairly standard life, died at the age of 80, and was interred with his wife in the aforementioned mausoleum. After his death, though, that’s when the rumors started. Folks started saying that the W.W. Pool mausoleum was the home of a vampire. In 1925, a railroad tunnel collapsed nearby, trapping members of a repair crew inside. As rescuers tried to free the trapped men, a ghastly, bloody creature emerged from the rubble and ran toward the cemetery and into the Pool Mausoleum. Though people followed, no one could find it, and no one saw it leave the tomb. A rumor started that Pool was a vampire, and that it was W.W. himself who had been spotted that tragic night. The cemetery is very close to Virginia Commonwealth University, and the vampire rumors spread quickly among the students; the Pools’ bodies eventually had to be moved due to repeated vandalism.

However, the actual story of the 1925 cave-in didn’t need any vampires, ghouls, or other creatures to make it creepy. In truth, the man fleeing the rubble was Benjamin Mosby, who died shortly afterwards in a nearby hospital. A scary sight to be sure, but not necessarily hair-raising…except that when the townspeople eventually went back to unearth the rest of the collapse’s victims, they found only one corpse, leaving at least two laborers unaccounted for. The tunnel was boarded up, and they never recovered the rest of the bodies.

Illustrations Via: Ogres Vs. Trolls, FoukeMonster.Net, Newzbreaker, Kristy Heilenday

Just Keep Rolling Along

The first time I remember taking a train I was 19. My roommate’s grandfather had died that week. They were very close, and she was utterly devastated by the loss, so her boyfriend (at the time, my other best friend) and I decided to go down to Long Island for the funeral, for support. Now it’s true that I may be forgetting some other journey in my youth, and I’m choosing to omit little jaunts on the Conway Scenic Railroad on summer vacations to New Hampshire. But this was the first trip that stuck. I bought a ticket, boarded a big Amtrak snake of steel, and rode it south.

The trip was an emotional one. I was hurting for my friend, searching for a way to make things easier for her, inexperienced in dealing with this kind of all-consuming, world-altering grief. I was lucky at that point; the only major loss I’d personally suffered was that of my paternal grandfather, and I was only 5 at the time, so I was far more traumatized by the sight of my own daddy crying than at the knowledge that I would never see the big man with the deep voice who read me the Cajun Night Before Christmas again. There was something about the permanence of this loss — Christina kept begging, in a broken voice, for the chance to talk to her grandpa just one more time — that hit me like a freight train (no pun intended), the awful forever-ness of it. But despite the emotional toll, the trip also planted the seed of a great source of joy and happiness for me.

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I love trains. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a great road trip as much as the next person, and I have this thing about airports and cloudscapes and the world spread out in miniature below a 747’s window. But if I had to choose, there’s no question: I would do all of my travelling on rails. I know I’m not alone in this. Scout is also a rabid train devotee, and among the general population trains seem to inspire a romanticism that no other mode of transportation quite does (except for maybe those vessels that fall under the category of “the sea,” but that’s a whole other story, and more to do with the landscape traveled than the vehicle in which one is doing the travelling, I think). A few years ago Amtrak even started offering mobile “residencies.” Writers could apply and, if they were chosen, they would get to crisscross the country for free, round-trip on one of the company’s longest routes, while the rhythm of the rails got their creative juices flowing. In the first round alone, they received over 600 applicants: 24 were chosen. There are songs about trains, and poems, and folktales. And even though the United States lags far behind most of the other continents in terms of train travel, there still seems to be something quintessentially American about rumbling along a track that cuts through small towns and wheat fields, under urban grids and over river deltas.

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There are of course practical factors that make train travel ideal. It is efficient (if you stay within a certain set of departure points and destinations, particularly when talking about American travel). It requires none of the security rigmarole or early arrival times of air travel. It doesn’t necessitate the focus or engagement that driving does, enabling you to, say, write a blog post while in transit. But I think the true appeal of train travel lies in the bones of the structure itself.

A train travels along a track, on wheels that hug rails, which cut through the landscape in an uninterrupted stream from Point A to Point B. This means two things. One, there is a rhythm to train travel that neither planes nor buses nor automobiles have. It’s even in the name: Toddlers across the country will delight in discussions of choo-choo trains and their chug-a-chug-chug.  The train rocks you, gently, as it propels you forward. It’s why, when Scout and I made this month’s playlist, we dismissed any song without a sense of momentum, of forward motion, of purpose. You can feel it in your bones. Two, a trip by train allows you to see.  Now some people will argue that a car or plane does this too, that by driving you see the road and by flying you get a big picture panorama of the distance traversed. And both of these statements are true. But neither of them let you really see the trees that line the road, the cars that sit in driveways, the geese resting on a lake. Planes go too wide and cars too narrow. But from the window of a train, you can watch the whole coast go by, uninterrupted. You see the landscape transform and, at this time of year, the leaves shift into increasingly violent shades of scarlet and saffron and tangerine.

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I went to Washington, D.C., this weekend to visit my sister, after a week that had been, emotionally, a lot. There were many factors to this, many of which are still too fresh or too personal for me to articulate in this space, but suffice it to say that this trip, planned a month ago, turned out to be very timely indeed. Friday afternoon, I boarded my train and found myself a window seat. We burst out of the tunnel into New Jersey, the sun shining defiantly on watery canals and trees just kissed by autumn. And something inside of me started to unclench.

@sadieharlan I'm coming for you!

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I am not unhappy in New York the way I was when we started this blog. As a whole, in fact, I have come to love it, to love my life there and especially the people that make it whole.  But not hailing from such a frenzied, urban environment, I do find that my lungs remember how to expand just a little further, my shoulders to ease down that extra fraction, whenever I get out of the hustle and bustle.  And there’s something about the train in particular that pushes me that extra mile. I relax into my speckled teal seat, stare out at the yellow leaves streaming by, feel the chug-a-chug settle into a steady rhythm in my gut, and despite whatever else may be going on, I feel just a little more at peace.

And so I put in my headphones. I hit play on our new autumn playlist, Eva Cassidy and Brandi Carlile and Houndmouth filling my ears. I opened up my laptop. And I began to write.

Autumn 2016: Rain-Soaked Highway

Autumn has rushed into Brooklyn. The air is crisp and cool. Zelda is unfurling her cavalcade of scarves. Kids are heading back to school. and Scout is heading back below the Mason-Dixon line on a 12-hour road trip to attend yet another wedding (she’s actually quite excited about this one), and Zelda is off on a journey her own this weekend, to our nation’s capital. So we’ve combined the wet October streets of New York in the fall and the open winding roads of the Appalachian mountains to bring your a road-trip playlist for a rainy day.

We’ve combined some of our new summer favorites, like Sarah Jarosz and Brandi Carlile, with old standby’s like Houndmouth, Ingrid Michaelson, and Audra Mae for a playlist that will propel you down the rain-soaked highway, be it in your mind or actually laid out in front of you. Lean your head against the window, and watch the world go by.

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As always, you can listen along here, or we’re on YouTube and Spotify.

Not Unhappy

I’ve tried to write this post multiple times before. I’ve never succeeded. I’ve never finished it, because I constantly worry that talking about my depression will make me seem petty or weak, that because I don’t have it as bad as some people, people won’t understand why I just can’t deal with this seemingly little problem. But I’m trying to overcome that, to recognize that my feelings — my mental health diagnosis — are completely valid, and I’m allowed to acknowledge them. My experience is mine, and I don’t have to compare it to anyone else’s. This story is mine to validate

(Illustrated by Gretchen Cutler from You’re the Worstwhich has produced the most accurate TV story line about depression that I’ve seen)

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Let me start at the beginning. When I was 14, my mom came home to find me curled up on the floor in a corner of my room sobbing. It was the third or fourth time that month that it had happened, but this was the first time she had found me. She asked me what was wrong, and I half-yelled through a runny nose and continuing tears that I didn’t know. I didn’t understand why I was crying, but it just kept happening. She told me to tell my doctor at my upcoming check-up.  After more tears and trying to explain that just working up the will to do things was hard, my doctor put me on anti-depressants, and I started going to a counselor. I was lucky: No one wrote me off as just “moody” or hormonal or whatever other excuses people use to explain away mental illness in teen girls. I got the support I needed, and because of that, it didn’t get worse. The meds and the counseling helped. They really did. But once I felt “normal” again, I stopped going to the counselor. Once I felt “good” again, I stopped taking the antidepressants. And by the time I graduated high-school, I felt like I had my “issues” fixed.

But depression doesn’t just go away. It sits dormant for a while and then comes rushing back all at once. I suppose “rush” isn’t really the right word. It creeps in and slowly weighs me down. It did that most of junior year of college. Slowly, it crept back into my life, making it harder and harder to do things: to get out of bed, to go to class, to write papers, to see and talk to my friends. That was the first time I had felt like that in a long while. The crying bouts returned, and eventually I went back on anti-depressants to get through the end of the year. That winter I switched meds because the original meds I had been taking made me so tired that regaining the will to do things was cancelled out by not having the energy. I’ve been on those same meds ever since. Sometimes I try to stop taking them because I think I feel okay, but it never sticks. And since I’ve moved to New York, the spaces between bad bouts have gotten shorter. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m in this city, or maybe because I’m getting older. But I’m not going to try to rationalize it. That doesn’t work for me.

I’ve had three really bad periods since I moved here. The first one was in my first six weeks in New York. I hadn’t started school yet and spent a lot of time lying on the floor of the tiny apartment I was sharing with three other people trying not to cry, and failing. I would have mild anxiety attacks on the subway; I’d start shaking and not be able to think straight, sometimes hyperventilate. It got better, slowly. I made friends and had people I could open up to. I took my medicine on a regular basis. I worked through it. Funnily enough, Hurricane Sandy hitting actually helped. It distracted me.

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The second period was two years ago. It began when I forced myself to go to a friend’s birthday party, even though I had a panic attack on the steps of my apartment building as I was leaving. I was shaking and hyperventilating and crying, but I told myself that I should be able to support my friend on her birthday. My body was telling me not to try and interact with people or the world, but I tried to ignore it, to push past it. I ended up bursting into tears at said party and making a quick exit. Thankfully, my friend understood. She had gone through similar struggles, so she got that sometimes you don’t get to choose when you’re high-functioning and when you just can’t. That particular period culminated a few months later with my crying through a fight with my mom at a brewery in Portland.

Then there was last week, in which the crying bouts that had haunted my teen years came back in full force. A lot of things are changing at my job right now, and I tried to chock it up to that. But the truth is, I’ve felt it coming for a while. I’ve tried to keep taking my meds and maintaining self-care strategies that have worked for me in the past. But something just broke, and all the crying I’d been holding in until I got home or ducked into a bathroom stall came pouring out of me. I cried at my desk four times last week, prompting my co-workers to ask what was wrong. I answered that I was fine, it’s just a bad week, a bad month. And most people just chock it up to the changes that are happening around me, which is fine. But I know it’s not going to go away once the dust settles.

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And that’s the most important discovery I’ve had to make, and accept, about my depression: It doesn’t just go away. Even when I feel okay or good or great, it’s always there, in the background. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I have to be the one to keep it in its place. Which is hard. Just thinking about finding a therapist in this city sends me into a whole anxiety spiral. That’s the issue, really —that taking steps to treat myself long-term makes everything worse in the moment.

It’s not that I’m unhappy with my life. I think that’s important to say. I really, really love my life right now. I’m in a great place with great friends and a supportive family. I’m so lucky, in so many ways. But my depression doesn’t care about that. It does what it wants. It doesn’t care that my birthday is soon, or that I’m supposed to get drinks with friends. My depression doesn’t give a shit about my plans. I’m not going to be able to just snap out of it when I’m in that place. And I’m working to treat it, to keep it where I need it to be, I can’t win depression, I can’t beat it, but I can manage it. But it’s a long process, and a hard one, and some days it’s just too much.

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I’ve been wanting to write this for a while — to share with Z&S the thing that makes writing for this blog hard for me sometimes. This is part of me, and of my life here in the city. Maybe it doesn’t totally fit into the theme of the blog, but as usual with New York life, we make the pieces fit the puzzle, not the other way around. I’m happy that this feels like a safe enough space that I can talk about it. I’m glad to have created that in my life.