Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 8 : The Spooky Mystery of Shakespeare’s Missing Skull

For today’s Halloween-themed Blogtober post I thought I’d share one of my favourite spooky mysteries with you. This is the story of Shakespeare’s missing skull.

William Shakespeare’s body is buried in Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon. However, an archaeologist investigation for a 2016 Channel 4 documentary using ground-penetrating radar suggests that his skull is not.

Rumours started circulating that the grave was missing a head after an 1879 magazine report claimed his skull had been removed by trophy hunters nearly a full century beforehand. But, other than some obvious disturbance and repair work on the stone itself, there was no clear evidence to back this report up.

That was until the documentary, however. The archaeologists discovered that beneath the ledger stones of the Shakespeare family were several shallow graves and at the head-end of the Bard himself’s resting place, it seems as though the grave had been filled in to support the weight of the stone. This suggested the grave really is missing the head after all and the team concluded that the grave had indeed been disturbed.

One of the most unnerving details about this whole situation is that, despite having died nearly 180 years before the magazine article claims the skull was taken, his epitaph seems to have seen the grave robbing coming:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

There have been attempts to reunite the skull with the grave but the problem is that the location of the skull is still a mystery to this day. There are multiple theories are to where the skull might be but these have all led nowhere so far. The biggest dead end came from a mystery skull in St Leonard’s Church in Beoley. Allegedly another old magazine article claimed the Bard’s skull had ended up in Beoley after the grave robbers who stole it were unable to sell it. When this lead was followed up by the documentary, it turned out the skull was that of a 70-year old woman and not Shakespeare at all.

One much more wild theory was that the skull was stolen by Dr Frank Chambers and sold to Whig politician and Gothic author, Horace Walpole. Walpole is perhaps best-known now for Strawberry Hill, a “Gothic castle” he designed to house his collections of art, miniatures, ceramics and more. Could it be that Shakespeare’s skull was another one of his collector’s pieces, the phrenological answer to literary genius? It’s probably just a far-fetched story but it is a compelling one.

Considering how far science has come, it would now be possible to get a DNA match on Shakespeare’s real skull so maybe it will turn up one day. As for the identities of those who stole it in the first place, I don’t think we’ll ever discover who they were. It would be fascinating to know if the curse England’s most renowned writer placed upon them ever came back to haunt them though… after all, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dream of in our unique philosophy.

Bye for now!

Posted in Blogtober

Blogtober Day 6: Thoughts on Ouija Boards

If you type “Ouija Board” into YouTube, you’ll find countless clickbaity videos of groups of friends who claim to have summoned a demon or had a spooky experience with a spirit board. Although I highly doubt the validity of most of these videos, Ouija Boards have managed to capture the minds of horror fans and ghost hunters for well over a century. Blogtober got me wondering where Ouija Boards came from and how they came to be so big so here’s what I found out.

The Origins

Ouija Boards as we know them today are a direct product of the rise of spiritualism and the growing interest in mediumship in the nineteenth century. A Baltimorean businessman called Elijah Bond got the patent for Ouija Boards way back in 1891, though talking boards were already popular at this time. There isn’t really much more to say about Elijah other than this fairly creepy detail, his gravestone has an Ouija Board engraved onto the back of it.

William Fuld is the next person of note in the mass-production of Ouija Boards as he oversaw the manufacture for Elijah. Eventually he became so invested in the product that he and his brother leased the Ouija Board name and set up a business together making them to supply the increasing demand. A feud drew the brothers apart though and resulted in William suing his brother for selling talking boards that were near replicas of the official Ouija Boards. William was making so much on Ouija Boards he even started creating Ouija-themed jewellery!

These days, the rights to Ouija Boards are owned by Hasbro, a toy and board game company.

The Scientific View

Aside from the whole, it can easily be faked explanation, scientists think there is another, more psychological theory as it how Ouija Boards work. This is the ideomotor phenomenon. Now, I’m no scientist but the basic gist is that the ideomotor phenomenon can explain how our unconscious mind can make our bodies move without our conscious mind recognising it. An example of our unconscious taking the reigns would be reacting when something is thrown at you without having to consciously think about it.

Our brains are so complicated and most psychologists and neurologists agree that there is so much we don’t know about them. What is known is that the power of suggestion is mighty. Most of the time, if someone attempts an Ouija Board session they are a believer in the paranormal and they probably want the planchette to move. This means their unconscious mind could respond by telling their hand to move it without them even being consciously aware of their movement.

My Verdict

All this brings me back to the start of this post, Ouija Boards make a great YouTube video. Watching that planchette move and spell out some message allegedly from the other side is undeniably spooky. But, for me, at least most of the time, a faked video is possibly all it is. Here’s the thing. I believe in ghosts and in cases of poltergeist activity, I do think it’s possible for ghosts to move things. Therefore, I think it’s plausible that a ghost could be moving that planchette but as for unlocking some portal to a ghost realm or this inanimate object being a hub of demonic activity, I don’t really buy it.

Slightly weird disclaimer before I go but I just want to say that although I don’t think Ouija Boards are demonic, just in case are, I wouldn’t recommend trying one because… well, you never know.

What do you make of Ouija Boards? Let me know in the comments and I’ll be back tomorrow for Blogtober Day 7.

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 4: It’s All in the Origins: Werewolves

It’s a series within a series. Throughout Blogtober, I’m going to be sharing the origin stories of some of the spookiest supernatural figures. Today, I’m kicking this off with werewolves.

From An American Werewolf in London to a bare-chested Taylor Lautner, werewolves have really ranged in their ferocity. Sometimes, they’re terrifying creatures of nightmare and other times, they’re cuddly-looking pups. Where then did the idea of these iconic shapeshifters come from and why have they stood the test of time?

The First Mentions

The very first potential reference to werewolves is found in one of the oldest texts in the world. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem dating possibly as far back as the eighteenth century BC, there is a woman who transformed an ex-lover into a wolf.

Wolves have also played a huge part in myths and legends. From the formidable Fenrir of Norse mythology to the ancient Scythian Neuri tribe who were said to turn themselves into wolves for a portion of the year, there are countless references to wolves and werewolves to be found. One particularly well-known story in the development of werewolf lore comes from ancient Greece and concerns Lycaon of Arcadia. As the myth goes, Lycaon wanted to test whether Zeus truly was all-knowing so he invited the great god for dinner and roasted one of his sons for the feast. Zeus saw through this test and turned Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for his infanticide and cannibalism.

As Western Christianity spread across Europe, stories of humans transforming into wolves continued to terrify believers in the occult. Stories and beliefs about werewolves vary across Europe through the Middle Ages, sometimes werewolfery was even thought to be caused by witches or having some relation to vampire legends circulating at the same time.

Why Wolves?

There are a lot of possible reasons as to why there was a widespread fear of werewolves across Medieval Europe. The main theory as to why it was wolves people were the most scared of simply comes from the fact that wolves were the biggest predators. Wolves were much more common in Europe then than they are now and considering most people wouldn’t ever travel much further than their home village, the threat of a wolf attacks on livestock (one of their few sources of food and income!) was just as scary as an attack on a human.

People believed in the strange and the mystical a lot more back then and most people didn’t have the means to fact-check anything they were told. If a priest told his congregation they were to obey the teachings of the Bible and avoid witches otherwise they might cross paths with a werewolf, the fear is then placed in the heads’ of all the people in that church.

There’s also the idea that any crime that seems too horrific for a human to have committed could be given a supernatural explanation to make it easier to swallow. Or, perhaps that as it wasn’t always easy to capture and punish wild animals for the havoc wrought upon a village, it was preferable to blame someone. This led to a lot of mass hysteria and wild accusations. An infamous example of this would the case of alleged serial killer, cannibal and werewolf, Peter Stumpp. Under torture, Stumpp confessed to a variety of hideous crimes that he claimed he could carry out by wearing a magical belt, gifted to him by the Devil, which transformed him a wolf. I’m going to spare you the details but Stumpp, his daughter and mistress were tortured and executed in particularly brutal fashion.

More Recent Beasts

Moving on from horrible facts to fiction, let’s look at how we got from then to now. As I’ve said already, werewolves have been popping up in literature and mythology for a long long time but it’s 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore that is considered to be the seminal work of modern werewolf fiction. This book came along as Hollywood movies were really starting to take off and it’s on the silver screen (silver… lol) that werewolves really howled their way into the hearts and nightmares of contemporary horror fans.

Are you a werewolf fan? Are you just as surprised as I was to discover how far back werewolf legends go? Let me know in the comments.

Posted in Blogtober, History

Blogtober Day 2: The History and Origins of Halloween

Nowadays (although maybe not so much this year), Halloween is all about dressing up, trick-or-treating, scary movies and scream parks but it wasn’t always this way. Pumpkins weren’t even the original vegetable of choice for Jack-o’-lanterns! Read on to find out how Halloween came to be the spookiest festival on the calendar.

Samhain and the Earliest Origins

Halloween is often thought to have its earliest origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which is still celebrated by Pagans and Wiccans to this day. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the move into the darker and colder part of the year. Coming in at the midpoint between the autumn equinox (Mabon) and winter solstice (Yule), Samhain is believed to be the point at which the veil between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. This Otherworld is the realm of mystical beings such as fairies and possibly even the land of the dead.

The Samhain festivities would usually last around three days and involve a mixture of feasting, guising and the lighting of symbolic bonfires. Over time, as Christianity was brought to the Celtic lands, some believe All Saint’s Day was introduced as a Christian alternative to the Pagan festival. All Saint’s Day is celebrated on the 1st November with All Souls’ Day, a festivity about remembering and honouring the dead, following the day after.

Trick-or-Treating and Halloween Costumes

Our fondest Halloween traditions of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food dates back several centuries.  The British tradition of mumming, whereby an acting troupe would use mime to act out a scene for cash, was commonplace at many yearly festivities. Although, you’d be more likely to see the mummers at Christmas than Halloween back in the Middle Ages.

Another theory as to the origins of trick-or-treating comes from the idea that when the veil to the Otherworld is thinned out and the spirits come trooping through, they can be kept at bay by leaving offerings of food out for them. Alternatively, the custom might have developed from the old tradition of souling. This was when beggars would go house-by-house asking for soul-cakes to eat over Allhallowtide.

As all of these traditions and early stages of the Halloween we know and love today evolved, going to houses in Halloween costumes for treats carrying Jack-o’-lanterns were brought into the fray in the nineteenth century. The concept of the Jack-o’-lantern originated in Ireland and quite possibly took its name from the folkloric figure of Stingy Jack. This infamous drunkard made a deal with the Devil so that he would never have to go to Hell but, being too sinful to enter Heaven, his soul was destined to roam the Earth forevermore with only a candle in a turnip to light his way. That’s right, the earliest Jack-o’-lanterns were made from turnips. The pumpkin version popular today comes from North America.

From Then to Now

Our current Halloween traditions have taken a strange route through a pretty tangled historical web. And, as so many of these stories come from rural parts of the UK and Ireland where local customs weren’t well-documented, all of these ideas about where our Halloween traditions come from are mostly theories based on what facts historians do know for certain. It’s likely our current ways of celebrating the season, like pumpkin carving and dressing up in costumes, come from a mixture of all of the above. In a way though, isn’t there something wonderfully mysterious about the fact that we don’t really know exactly how the spookiest season of them all came to be how it is today?

Don’t forget I’m going to be posting Halloween-related content all month so come back tomorrow for Blogobter Day 3!