When I was a kid, Halloween was always a hoot. Whether it was dressing up with my brothers to beg for several pounds of candy, or the old-fashioned carnival my 4-H chapter would host each year, it was good, clean fun.
And of course, research nerd that I am, I loved reading about some of the origins of many of the tales behind vampires, zombies and ghosts, as well as watching some good old-fashioned horror flicks—the ones where suspense, not gore, fed the frights. Alfred Hitchcock? Yes, please! (Though not The Birds … just creeps me out too much.)
So what brought this reminiscence on? That would be an email from a reader with a scan of at least part of a front-page story from the Aug. 24, 1905, edition of the Fayetteville Democrat. The story concerned a measure to prevent premature burial—the injection of fluorescein solution (spelled in the story as fluoresicine) to detect circulation. The skin would turn yellow and the eyes would glow green if the person was dead or alive (depending on the story’s source, apparently, as I found conflicting reports, though it would seem more logical for fluorescence to appear if the person was alive and blood was circulating). And there are those pesky side effects that sometimes happened, like anaphylactic shock, cardiac arrest, death … not that that matters …
The fear of being buried alive was widespread throughout Europe at least through the turn of the 20th century, so much so that William Tebb—a businessman and anti-vaccination activist (he believed sanitation, not vaccination, was the key to stopping the resurgent smallpox epidemic)—co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with Walter Hadwen. Reportedly his will stipulated that unmistakable signs of decomposition had to be visible before he could be considered dead (no fluorescein for him); when he died in 1917, he was dead for a week before cremation.
Yes, there have been people throughout the centuries at times accidentally buried alive, and because of that, not only were there measures to determine if the deceased was not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead (thank you, Munchkinland coroner), but enterprising inventors also came up with safety coffins with periscopes to provide air and show watchers signs of life, or bells on the outside rigged to be triggered by movement in the coffin, or vaults with escape hatches. More modern versions include such things as intercoms and food and air supplies (I’m all out of love, I’m so lost without you … I can’t get rid of this earworm …).
All that’s just more reason to be cremated, if you ask me.
According to legend, a brother of Wallachian Prince Vlad Dracula, the most famous vampire in lore (take that, Edward and Lestat), was blinded and buried alive in the attack by opposing chieftains that overthrew their father. Add that to Vlad’s later habit of impaling his enemies on pikes outside his castle and elsewhere, plus the lurid, embellished tales (including the moniker Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler) after his death in battle with the Turks, and Bram Stoker had plenty of fodder.
And politicians and other bloodsuckers got a hero. Somehow I think The Donald would really relate to him …
Another favorite of Halloween is the ghost, though I don’t recall ever dressing up as one, if just because Mama didn’t want us cutting up her sheets. In Arkansas, more than a few ghost stories have floated around for years, such as Ghost Mountain in Fayetteville, where a drunken father, angered by his crying baby keeping him awake, threw the child down a well outside. His wife, according to the story, grabbed the well rope and jumped in to save the baby, but the father cut the rope with an axe and left. Arkansas.com reports that “it is said when the moon is full, you can walk by that well and hear the screams of a woman and the cries of a child.”
Creepy. And all I can think of right now is Samara from The Ring … think I’ll keep the lights on tonight.
“The phenomenon consists of a light floating above the railroad tracks near the town of Gurdon (Clark County). A variety of scientific explanations have been advanced to explain the light, but local legend connects it to a murder. In December 1931, a railway worker attacked his foreman with a shovel and then beat him with a spike maul, killing him.
Other stories attached to the Gurdon Light include those of a miner looking for his wife or his daughter, or a man looking for his head because it was cut off by robbers or because it was cut off by a train coming down the tracks. The light is, in all the stories, said to be the light of a lantern held by the ghost.”
In Little Rock, spots like Curran Hall, Mount Holly Cemetery, and the Old Arsenal at MacArthur Park are said to be haunted by various spirits, generally less disconcerting than those unquiet ghosts of the well.
And of course, there’s the 1886 Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, considered likely the most popular haunted Arkansas site, and often called America’s most-haunted hotel. One of the more well-known of its ghosts is Michael, an Irish stonecutter who helped build the hotel. The reputed flirt fell to his death where Room 218, one of its most popular rooms, now stands … and death apparently couldn’t change his ways; he’s still a ladies’ man.
The hotel at one point also briefly served as a cancer facility and it once had a morgue in the basement, so lots of potential for ghostly activity there.
When I was growing up, the cousin of a friend lived in a “haunted” home that was once a funeral parlor (at least that’s what we were told at the time). In the one night I stayed there with her, I can’t say I saw any ghosts, but I sure didn’t get a lot of sleep.
Creepier was what was at my own house: A neighbor’s cat (who wasn’t so cuddly despite the name Cuddles) often roamed around outside the house meowing, but it sounded like he was saying “Mama.” The combination of that with a clock’s very loud second hand made me often dream of little kids being chased in wheat fields by mad men with scythes.
Ghost stories, spooky sounds and impressionable kids do not a good night’s sleep make.
On to other ghoulish behavior: A reader informs me that, after his most recent letter, he received an “unsigned, rambling, and somewhat frightening letter” at his home address.
This, unfortunately, is a byproduct of our hyper-partisan times, in that some people (and I hesitate to call them people) feel it is their right to hector and outright threaten those with whom they disagree, most often, it seems, anonymously. At this time, we’ll continue our current policy of requiring and printing real names on the Voices page, as do the vast majority of newspapers in the U.S. It’s a matter of credibility, really.
Those who feel the need to threaten others in such a manner need to grow up. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It takes far more bravery to identify yourself and stand behind your views than it does to bully someone anonymously.
Don’t make me sic Vlad on you.