S5 Ep. 2: Scared to Death

Nightmare Death Syndrome and The Hat Man

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So, I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”
― John Lennon

 

You wake in a cold sweat, fighting to regain your composure, wrestling for control of the reality you think you know. It’s happened again. The same dream. The same man. The man in the hat…

In the late 1970s/early 80s, 18 seemingly healthy Hmong men living in the United States suddenly died in their sleep. This event in itself wasn’t odd, but 100 more deaths followed in the next decade before dropping off. What did these men have in common? Most notably, they were all of Southeast Asian descent. Apparently, a syndrome is to blame. It’s been called SUNDS or Sudden Unexpected/Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome in the United States. Researchers have come to theorize that the deaths were caused by Brugada Syndrome, a condition that causes irregular heartbeat in people of Southeast Asian descent and causes the sufferer to have an irregular heartbeat, increasing the risk of sudden death. In the Philippines, Thailand, and Laos, places where this event is common, it’s known as Nightmare Death Syndrome. As if it were the dream itself and not the heart issue that caused the individual to expire.

Welcome back to another sleep-depriving episode of The ODDentity Podcast. This week, I wanted to explore the nightmarish vision that is The Man in the Hat, a common figure seen during what many of us know as sleep paralysis. I’ve tackled my rendition of the creature that causes sleep paralysis in my part of the world on a past episode, The Hag and the folklore surrounding it, but I find it very interesting that The Man in the Hat is a commonality in many American cases of sleep paralysis. I wondered if people of other cultures from other parts of the world had seen him and, sure enough, when I went looking for reports they appeared one after another. Google blew up with stories of experiences and it was difficult for me to narrow down some of these stories for this episode. Difficult, but not impossible.

And so, on with the show…

Upon reading about the deaths of the Hmong refugees, Shelley Adler, a medical anthropologist at the University of California, San Francisco, became interested in nightmares and their cultural origins.

In an October issue of Quartz, Corrine Purtill writes, “In an effort to understand Hmong interpretations of these deaths, Adler interviewed Hmong refugees living in Stockton, California. When asked about common nightmares, men and women described a figure called dab tsog (pronounced “da cho”), an evil spirit that visited sleepers at night, pressed upon their chests, and attempted to smother them as they slept. Almost all of the interviewees were familiar with dab tsog (“da cho”); 58% reported having been visited by the nightmare themselves.

But the Hmong were hardly the first or the only people to have an oral record of such suffocating night-time visitors, as Adler describes in her book, Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-body Connection. (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0051NXHEM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1)

For about as long as written records have existed, people have described a frightening night-time vision that paralyzes them with fear and seems to suck the breath right out of them, often by pressing directly upon their chest. Tales of such evil spirits come from ancient Assyria and Greece. Among the Canadian Inuit, the word uqumangirniq (ook-uhman-gear-nique) described this awake-but-paralyzed feeling; in Japan, kanashibari (can-ash-e-bar-e). Folklore from Newfoundland describes an old hag who sits upon sufferers’ chests as they sleep.

“The entity has stalked human beings throughout history, not merely within a particular society or during a specific time,” Adler wrote.”

Before we get into stories about The Hat Man, let’s talk a little bit about what sleep paralysis is and what causes it.

According to WebMD, “Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking. Sleep paralysis may accompany other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is an overpowering need to sleep caused by a problem with the brain’s ability to regulate sleep.”

If you find it generally occurs while you’re in the process of falling asleep, it’s called hypnagogic or predormital. If you experience it when you’re beginning to wake up, it’s hypnopompic or postdormital. So, what does all that mean?

During Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis, “As you fall asleep, your body slowly relaxes. Usually you become less aware, so you do not notice the change. However, if you remain or become aware while falling asleep, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.

During Hypnopompic Sleep Paralysis, “During sleep, your body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. One cycle of REM and NREM sleep lasts about 90 minutes. NREM sleep occurs first and takes up to 75% of your overall sleep time. During NREM sleep, your body relaxes and restores itself. At the end of NREM, your sleep shifts to REM. Your eyes move quickly and dreams occur, but the rest of your body remains very relaxed. Your muscles are “turned off” during REM sleep. If you become aware before the REM cycle has finished, you may notice that you cannot move or speak.”

There are 3 phases of non-REM sleep. In phase 1, you’ve just closed your eyes. It’s easy to wake you at this point and you won’t feel any disorientation if someone were to “wake you up.” This phase generally lasts anywhere from 5-10 minutes. In stage 2, your body temperature drops and your heart rate slows in preparation for deep sleep. It’s still fairly easy to rouse you at this point. Stage 3 is deep sleep. If someone were to jostle you awake at this point, you’d likely be disoriented. People like this deserve a high five in the face with a chair, but I digress. This stage is known as NREM sleep, when the body works to repair itself, build bone and muscle, and strengthen the immune system. Studies have shown that the older you get the less deep sleep you get and aging has been linked to shorter sleep periods. My grandfather sleeps maybe 5 ½ hours a night and always wakes refreshed. He’s clearly magic. However, this doesn’t mean you will be as vibrant at the age of 88 if you sleep 5 ½ hours a night. Studies have also shown that you need just as much sleep as you did when you were younger.

So, 90 minutes after all of the above happens, you slip into what is known as REM sleep, the final stage of the sleep process. As you sleep, your REM stages lengthen, the final stage might last up to an hour. Intense dreams are the mark of REM sleep because your brain is more active during this time. Your heart rate and breathing quickens. Fun fact: Babies spend up to 50% of their sleep in this stage.

What do we make of these night frights and the Freddy Krueger-esque feeling of dread we get when we think that our nightmares might kill us? Apparently 40% of people will have at least one experience in their lifetime and around 8% of us experience sleep paralysis regularly. If you have issues falling into or out of REM sleep, and your experience involves hallucinations or you’re unable to move or speak as you begin the waking process, you might be experiencing sleep paralysis.

Psychology professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, Christopher French explains, “you’re in this weird kind of hybrid state, a mix of normal waking consciousness and dream consciousness. You know you can’t move. You can see that you’re in your bedroom. So it feels very, very real. When I sat and thought about [the Hat Man], the thing that came to my mind was Freddy Krueger. This notion that you can be attacked when you’re asleep, that’s when you’re vulnerable. And of course, Krueger wears a hat.”

The Hat Man has become somewhat of an urban legend to those of us who experience sleep paralysis and I wonder if the telling and retelling of similar stories and experiences has poisoned the well a little. I don’t doubt what people see. I wouldn’t want that judgement of what I know I’ve experienced. I just wonder. It intrigues me that all of the experiences are so similar. There’s a description of The Hat Man that seems to cover every story I’ve read. He’s tall, dressed in all black, and completely featureless. Sometimes he’s wearing a long black coat or a cloak. He wears a hat with a brim (either something that looks like a top hat or a wide-brimmed fedora.)  How is it that so many people have described the same apparition? For the Quartz article, Purtill reached out to several Redditors and listened to countless stories about The Hat Man. People from the United States and Mexico had similar stories. I’m from Canada originally and I have my own Hat Man story which is very similar, if not almost identical, to those I’ve read. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t familiar with The Hat Man until I searched for him the first time…right after I saw him in my room one night.

It was late, likely 2 or 3 am on a weeknight. I was anxious about a test I had (likely maths though I don’t recall specifically) in the morning, first period, and was having trouble sleeping. I awoke at the aforementioned time with the feeling that someone was watching me. I opened my eyes and looked toward the door. I had recently moved into the basement of my grandparent’s house because one of my uncles had bought a house so the room was larger than my previous space. It had 2 areas, a “living” area where I had an old sofa (my uncle had left it behind) and a TV set up, and a sleeping area that contained my bed, a desk, and a dresser. From where I was, I could only see half of the door and I usually kept it closed, but when I opened my eyes, I saw that it was ajar. In the hallway beyond the door, illuminated by the light from the street beyond the windows behind it, stood a man in a hat. He was tall and his form was solid black. He wore all black clothing, a long jacket that came down past his knees, and seemed to be watching me. I couldn’t make out his features and he didn’t move. He just stood there and watched me. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t make a sound. I tried to sit up but it felt as if a weight were pressing down on my chest, pinning me to the bed. I remember being able to wiggle my fingers and toes, but I couldn’t look away from the man in the hat. I was terrified, though he didn’t move and didn’t speak out loud he seemed to exude fear. I could hear a scratching sound in my head. It sounded like someone lightly running their fingernails along a guitar string. It almost sounded like more than one person hissing out the words at once, but I couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. The next thing I remember is my grandfather shaking me awake. He said I’d been screaming and he’d found it difficult to wake me.

In the years since, I’ve tried to sort this experience out and find the logic in it. I had felt awake, but must have been asleep if my grandfather had witnessed me doing so and had been trying to rouse me. It seemed to me that I had a partial witness to the experience leading me to believe that it must have been a nightmare. To this day I don’t know what The Hat Man was trying to tell me.

I’ve not only seen The Hat Man. I’ve also seen various shadow people, though it’s sometimes difficult to call them that. They’re often just black masses that appear in a doorway or at a window and disappear again as suddenly as they appeared there. I’m not the only person whose seen them. Shadow people are a staple in the folklore and legends of many people and places throughout the world.

From Wikipedia, “The Coast to Coast AM late night radio talk show helped popularize modern beliefs in shadow people. The first time the topic of shadow people was discussed at length on the show was April 12, 2001 when host Art Bell interviewed Native American elder Thunder Strikes, who is also known as Harley “SwiftDeer” Reagan. During the show, listeners were encouraged to submit drawings of shadow people that they had seen and a large number of these drawings were immediately shared publicly on the website. In October that year, Heidi Hollis published her first book on the topic of shadow people, and later became a regular guest on Coast to Coast. Hollis describes shadow people as dark silhouettes with human shapes and profiles that flicker in and out of peripheral vision, and claims that people have reported the figures attempting to “jump on their chest and choke them”. She believes the figures to be negative, alien beings that can be repelled by various means, including invoking “the Name of Jesus”.

Although participants in online discussion forums devoted to paranormal and supernatural topics describe them as menacing, other believers and paranormal authors do not agree whether shadow people are either evil, helpful, or neutral, and some even speculate that shadow people may be the extra-dimensional inhabitants of another universe. Some paranormal investigators and authors such as Chad Stambaugh claim to have recorded images of shadow people on video.

The thought that shadow people might be from another dimension within our universe reminded me of the horror film Mirrors featuring Kiefer Sutherland. He plays a security guard charged with watching a department store that’s been gutted by a fire. There are scenes in that movie that smack of experiences I’ve personally had with shadow people, catching a glimpse of them in a mirror.

I’m also reminded of the 2015 documentary The Nightmare which interviews several sufferers of sleep paralysis from different parts of the world and investigates some of the experiences they’ve had with shadow people through a cultural lens. If you experience sleep paralysis, this is a must watch. I’d definitely recommend it. You’ll also get the opportunity to hear the Newfoundland accent, which I think is pretty cool. The documentary is free to watch on YouTube. I’ll drop a link into the show notes.

You might remember a past episode of this podcast where Katie told her story about The Hat Man. She’s seen him on several occasions, waiting in a darkened corner of a room or just beyond a doorway. The difference with Katie’s experience is that she also saw this shadow figure while she was driving home, reflected in the window of a nearby car. I have no explanation for this. The fact I’ve seen him myself doesn’t make him real or lend credibility to his existence. It just means that we’ve both had similar experiences that might have been due to high stress, too much caffeine, too little sleep… Apparently, he’s a common hallucination, tacked on to the list of various other critters and creatures including spiders or insects. This explanation doesn’t make these experience any less terrifying and, if you don’t experience sleep paralysis, you’ll soon understand how frightening these experiences can be. I’ve reached out to a few of my Reddit friends and received a few emails about The Hat Man. Some run a little longer, others are to the point.

Kayla, Missouri

I was twelve and living with my dad. My parents had divorced and my time was split between two houses. When my grandmother on my father’s side passed away, he inherited her house. It wasn’t long before we moved from a cramped apartment to a three-bedroom house. It was cool having all that space and I immediately claimed the third bedroom, the one in the attic. It was brighter than all the other rooms and had a large window looking out over the neighborhood. We settled in and unpacked.

One night a few months after that I woke up in the middle of the night to a scratching sound. I could hear the sound but couldn’t see where it was coming from. I scanned the room but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I closed my eyes again and tried to go back to sleep. Suddenly, I felt air on my cheek and opened my eyes again. There was a solid black figure standing over me, close enough that I could feel its breath on my face. I tried to move but it felt like I was frozen and I could only look into whatever this dark thing was. It only lasted a few moments but it was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced. I was afraid of everything as a kid, especially horror movies so I know I didn’t watch something before bed that would freak me out. The next day at school I told my friend what I’d seen and she said she’d seen him too in the past.

Noxy, London

I haven’t told anyone this but sometimes when I wake up at night, I see a dark figure in my room. He wears a hat with a wide brim and I can’t make out his face. I don’t know why he comes or what he wants, but I always feel afraid when I see him and I hear whispers like my room is filled with lots of voices. Sometimes I sleep at my mates flat because I don’t want to go home.

Phil, Amsterdam

Sometime around 1976, I moved to Amsterdam with my family. I came here to teach English and stayed after I retired from teaching. I remember several times seeing a figure in my room at night. My wife would be asleep next to me and I’d watch as the figure leaned over her as if it was whispering something to her. I couldn’t move or do anything; I could only watch. In the morning, she would tell me about a bad dream she had about someone in the room. She also would have terrible headaches in the morning after experiencing this the night before. It was very strange and I still have no explanation.

Another time we were visiting friends and stayed overnight because we were a couple of hours from home and had stayed too late. I again saw a man in a hat leaning over my wife while she was asleep and again in the morning she complained of headaches and nightmares. I’m not sure if this is the type of story you’re looking for, but these experiences are very real to me.

Antonio, Mexico

I dream of him every night, though I’m not sure it is a dream. He’s often in the doorway to my room that I share with my older brother and he doesn’t say anything. I think it’s a he. I feel like it is. He watches us from the dark corner of the doorway and disappears slowly. It’s almost like he’s made of smoke. It’s like when you put out a cigarette. He’s there and then gone again. I feel fear when I see him, but he’s never hurt me. I feel like he could if he wanted to.

Brent, Florida

My wife and I bought a house a few years back and it has a storage room that you can get to through a little door. It’s like a trap door with a little handle and it opens out. We made the room with the trap door our bedroom because it was the master and our son who was 16 at the time wanted to live in the basement bedroom. The house was built in the 40s and has some creaks and groans, but is mostly in good shape. We’ve been fixing it up for a few years now.

My wife has sleep paralysis and has gone for sleep studies to try and figure out why she can’t get good sleep. She’s tried many different medications and even warm milk before bed. Nothing will help her sleep better. So she’s up and down in the night time because she can’t sleep at all or has had what she calls a bad dream. I’ve never been one to have bad dreams until recently.

I dream that there is a shadow standing in the corner of the bedroom next to the trap door. He’s tall and wears a hat. He’s solid and you can’t see through him, but it seems like he comes out of the trap door. The door doesn’t open, it’s like he slips through the crack where the door meets the frame. He just stands there looking at me. I’m not sure what he wants, but now I’ve started talking to my doctor about medication because I can’t get what I’m seeing to go away and now I’m not sleeping well either.

Amanda, California

Ever since I was very little, I’ve been able to see shadow people. I’ve done a lot of research about them online and read a lot of books about them because I want to understand what I’m seeing. I’ll see them just as I’m going to sleep but I’ve also seen them in my house and in other places like stores and supermarkets. They hide behind displays and peek out around corners. I remember you talking about your being able to see spirits on an episode of this podcast so I thought I’d send my story along. I love the podcast and that it is so supportive of those who have had these experiences. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but once a week I get to listen to the ODD Pod and all that worry goes away! Thanks for that.

Anyway… I’ve always had imaginary friends. I was always the kid who would want to play by themselves because I was never really alone. I found out when I was in my teens that not everyone can see shadow people or spirits. I used to think that everyone had imaginary friends that nobody else could see.

I remember one night when I was in bed, I woke up to someone saying my name. They said it very loudly and it seemed like they were right next to me sitting on the floor and level with my right ear. I looked around but didn’t see anyone. Later that night, I woke up again to my name being called out. When I opened my eyes, I was looking at a black mass. It was like it was all around me and I couldn’t see through it. I felt cold and it felt like hands were pushing me down. My parent’s bedroom was right next to mine but even though I was screaming in my head I couldn’t make any noise out loud. The next morning at breakfast I told my mom about it. She said it was just a bad dream and I should just forget about it.

The next couple of weeks, I kept seeing the black mass in my room at night and I kept having the same experiences. I told my mother each time it happened and my father too, but they didn’t believe me. They did however send me to a psychiatrist who told me I have schizophrenia. I’m not on medication anymore because it didn’t help, but I moved out of my parents house when I was in my early 20’s and have not seen the menacing shadow since. I’ve seen hundreds of shadow people, but none of them have made me fear for my own safety like this one has.

Toby, Michigan

Back in 1998 I went to live with my aunt and uncle because my parents were in an accident and lost their lives. I had never seen anything I would consider weird before then, but when I moved in with them The Man in the Hat would visit me regularly. He never said anything, just watched me. I didn’t sleep well until I went away to college. He left me alone after that.

Rhonda, Cape Town, South Africa

My whole family has trouble sleeping and we’ve been to doctors to have it checked. My father was an insomniac and my mother has trouble getting to sleep. I’ve always had nightmares, I guess some people call them night terrors, and often have dreams about a man that has a wide-brimmed hat. The top of the hat is sometimes pointy kind of like a witch hat, but I think this might be just the way I see him or the way he appears to me. I’ve read a lot about other people’s experiences and about shadow people and I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing is real or not. I know it terrifies me when I see him and can’t move. I never talked to anyone about him because I thought they’d think I was crazy.

Tom, Belize

I’m an ex-pat living in Central America and have always seen shadows. They look a little like people but more often than not are just black blobs. Sometimes I think they want to tell me something because of the way they appear. Sometimes it looks like they’re gesturing or trying to get my attention. I’m not sure what they want but I don’t try to talk to them. I’m afraid to try because of what I’ve heard and read about possession and communicating with people from the other side. I see them regularly, several times a week. When I see them, I also sometimes see a man wearing a top hat. He doesn’t say anything either but he also doesn’t do any gesturing. I wonder sometimes if he wants them to deliver his message for him.

If you’re interested in reading more Hat Man stories, check out thehatmanproject.com. It appears that many of the links at the top of the page don’t work, but there are a ton of experiences catalogued here. Additionally, Reddit is a great source for spooky stories about the spectacularly spooky. I’ve come across several shadow person stories on the No Sleep subreddit. There are also a bunch of videos on YouTube about The Hat Man and his shadow companions that are sure to whet your creepy whistle. I’ll drop the links into the show notes for anyone who’s keen on freaking themselves out even further.

That’s it for this week, dear listeners. Thanks so much for tuning in and special thanks to those who shared their experiences with me for this episode. I’ll be back again next week with more tales of the creepy, weird, and paranormal.

Until next time, Stay Spooky!

The ODDentity Podcast is brought to you on a weekly basis by host Janine Mercer.

The podcast is written, produced, and edited by Janine Mercer (unless otherwise stated), and the music is provided by Garage Band.

Find the odd pod on Twitter and Instagram @oddentitypod and on Facebook as The Oddentity Podcast. You are welcome to email suggestions for future episodes to theoddentitypodcast@gmail.com and if you’d like a transcript of this episode, one will be available at theoddentitypodcast.wordpress.com.

Please take a moment to leave a 5* review on iTunes and, if you haven’t already, please make sure to mash that Subscribe button to be sure you’re in the know when a new episode drops. Sincerest thanks to those who have promoted The ODDentity Podcast to their family, friends, and coworkers. Every little bit helps!

 

Sources/Additional Links:

https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-paralysis#1

https://qz.com/quartzy/1444843/what-is-sleep-paralysis/

https://nerdist.com/article/hat-man-nightmares-sleep-paralysis/

www.thehatmanproject.com

The Nightmare: Sleep Paralysis Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gY2gh51KdnQ

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/nightmares

https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/

Evaporated People

Without A Trace: Japan’s Evaporated People

You’ve likely heard of people who disappear without a trace. Sometimes, they are the victims of foul play. Perhaps they left their homes on a perfectly normal morning after breakfast with their families and simply never returned. Perhaps these individuals were snatched off the street or met an untimely end and their remains have not yet been discovered, or perhaps they left their homes with the intention of disappearing and, in most cases, never to be seen or heard from again.

 

Welcome back, dear listeners, for another season of The ODDentity Podcast. I’ve got a bunch of new ideas for episodes and I can’t wait to present more weird, wonderful, and macabre stories designed to titillate and terrify. 11 new episodes PLUS a very special interview that you’re sure to love if you’re a professional weirdo like me. This week, I’d like to introduce you to the Johatsu, or evaporated people, of Japan. Those who voluntarily choose to disappear out of the lives they know to begin new ones somewhere else. It’ll be an interesting ride.

A little news before we get started this week.

Shout out to Clive from London, England who listens to The ODD Pod on his morning commute through The Tube and to Geoff and Gina from Nebraska who bond over the weird and wonderful and have found a home here within the ranks of their fellow Odd Balls. I’m so pleased you’re all enjoying the podcast and I greatly appreciate your continued support!

As you may have seen on social media, the pod closet has gotten a bit of an upgrade. The wifey added a shelf so that I can have more room to work and I’ve put up soundproofing material in an effort to further improve audio quality. A heavy moving blanket has been added as an extra layer of soundproofing for the door and all in all recording in there is akin (I’m sure) to recording in a crypt. I’m enjoying it immensely. 😊 I’ve also been fiddling with mic settings and am considering adding a mixer to my setup in the future. I’ll likely be using my employee discount in the not too distant future to procure a mixer or interface and upgrade further. All in due time.

Well, without further delay, on with the show…

 

The population of Japan (according to a 2019 evaluation) is somewhere around 124.8 million. Within this sea of people, it’s no surprise that some might slip through the cracks or that disappearing would be fairly easy. In Japan, there is a term for this. Johatsu or “evaporated people.” Individuals who choose to disappear or orchestrate their disappearances and vanish. This phenomenon is not new to those who live in Japan. As a matter of fact, disappearing was the easiest way to break an unhappy marriage or break the bonds of family life. Trying to avoid creditors? Disappear. Want to get out of an abusive relationship? Disappear. There are literally hundreds of companies in Japan that cater to those who wish to leave their current lives and begin anew and charge anywhere from $2,000-$12,000.00 American for their services.

From the New York Post:

“A shadow economy has emerged to service those who want never to be found — who want to make their disappearances look like abductions, their homes look like they’ve been robbed, no paper trail or financial transactions to track them down.

Nighttime Movers was one such company, started by a man named Shou Hatori. He’d run a legitimate moving service until one night, in a karaoke bar, a woman asked if Hatori could arrange for her to “disappear, along with her furniture. She said she could not stand her husband’s debts, which were ruining her life.”

Hatori charged $3,400 per midnight move. His clientele was vast: from housewives who’d shopped their families into debt to women whose husbands had left them to university students who were sick of doing chores in their dorms.

He refused to give specifics to the authors, but he eventually quit; as a child, Hatori himself had disappeared with his parents from Kyoto, after they found themselves in debt. He believes that his former line of work was a kindness.

“People often associate [this] with cowardice,” he says. “But while doing this work, I came to understand it as a beneficial move.”

“According to a 2014 report by the World Health Organization, Japan’s suicide rate is 60 percent higher than the global average. There are between 60 and 90 suicides per day. It’s a centuries-old concept dating back to the Samurai, who committed seppuku — suicide by ritual disembowelment — and one as recent as the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II.

Japanese culture also emphasizes uniformity, the importance of the group over the individual. “You must hit the nail that stands out” is a Japanese maxim, and for those who can’t, or won’t, fit into society, adhere to its strict cultural norms and near-religious devotion to work, to vanish is to find freedom of a sort.”

According to “The Vanished: The ‘Evaporated People’ of Japan in Stories and Photographs,” by Léna Mauger and Stéphane Remael, French authors who spent 5 years traveling around Japan in 2008, the trend is troubling and shows no sign of stopping. They met loved ones of individuals who had disappeared and created a book that catalogs, through words and photographs, the trend of Johatsu. Government data about this practice doesn’t exist, but Mauger and Remael believe some 100,000 people disappear annually. Many family members believe that their loved ones might return someday and are often so ashamed by their disappearance that they don’t report it to police. I’ll leave a link to the book in the show notes for anyone who’d like to grab a copy.

In a place like Japan, where culturally it’s appropriate to blend with the masses and avoid standing out too much, it’s no surprise that so many people might use a night moving company and free themselves from the bonds of assimilation (perceived or otherwise.)

So, walking out on your life is a little weird and random, but that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. I’m taking a dive into Japanese lore and finding possible connections between the disappearances of so many people and folkloric creatures that inhabit another world to which these people could possibly be spirited away. A film called Spirited Away is one of Japan’s highest-grossing films. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I offer a brief synopsis from IMDB. “In this animated feature by noted Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents (Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi) stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku (Miyu Irino), who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.”

Let’s begin by talking about the plausible. Each year, there are those who travel to the forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, known as Aokigahara or The Sea of Trees. It’s a piece of land known for its popularity as a suicide spot. You might recall the piece I did on a previous episode, but I’ll rehash the basics.

Aokigahara is a densely forested area at the base of Mt. Fuji where those who have given up on life, or possibly those searching for a reason to live, are often lost. Many bodies have been uncovered within the forest and signage is posted telling those who enter to reconsider if they are considering suicide. There are people charged with entering the forest in order to find those who might have gotten lost or taken their own lives and personal items can often be found abandoned either at the site where human remains are found or in random locations throughout Aokigahara. Cell signals are poor and, even though some have used twine or ribbon to mark their route through The Sea of Trees, they might get turned around and not be able to find their way out. Even a compass won’t help.

There are many Japanese folklore tales that involve some mythical creature taking humans from the earth and transporting them onto an otherworldly plane. For example, the Kappa is a frog-like creature, roughly the size of a child, with a turtle shell on its back and it’s been blamed for drownings and disappearances. Apparently, the Kappa enjoys sumo wrestling and will challenge its victim to a match in order to remove a mythical organ called the shirikodama from their victim’s anus. I guess we all have this organ and it contains our soul. Not sure why it’s in our anus, but that’s the story. It was customary for people to consume cucumbers, supposedly the Kappa’s favorite food, for protection before water travel or swimming. It’s likely that, when a family member disappeared, something like the Kappa might have been blamed for the loss. Clearly, someone forgot to eat their cucumber or lost a sumo wrestling match.

As is the case with many cultures, if a reasonable explanation could not be found for an event, the supernatural would be named as the cause. Where I come from, people used to believe that sleep paralysis was caused by a creature that sat on your chest. There were people who slept with “anti-hag devices” (a board with a nail in it) on their chest so that they could be protected while they slept. If a disappearance defied explanation, it was likely easier to blame some fantastical creature than to examine what the actual cause might be.

As a child, you may have been told fantastical tales of witches, ogres, princesses in peril, and monstrous beasts by your caretakers. In Japanese culture, children are often told stories very similar to those you might have heard during your childhood. Grimm’s Fairytale-style tales. In Japan, there are many kamikakushi stories, otherwise known as stories about being “spirited away.” When I was a child, I was told to watch out for faeries in the woods, small creatures who would lure you into the depths of the forest to perish or leave you with a permanent mark so that anyone who saw it would know you had strayed from the path of safety and trespassed onto their lands. There are stories like these in Japanese culture as well and they essentially serve the purpose of warning children away from harmful situations. However, some of them can be quite horrifying. For example, there is a story about a little boy who gets lost in the mountains for several days and returns with a belly full of live snails. Truly disturbing. Other tales, that of Visu the Woodsman and the Old Priest, for example, serve to promote balance and warn of what one might lose if balance is shifted.

“Many years ago there lived on the then barren plain of Suruga a woodsman by the name of Visu. He was a giant in stature and lived in a hut with his wife and children.

One day Visu received a visit from an old priest, who said to him: “Honorable woodsman, I am afraid you never pray.”

Visu replied: “If you had a wife and a large family to keep, you would never have time to pray.”

This remark made the priest angry, and the old man gave the woodcutter a vivid description of the horror of being reborn as a toad, or a mouse, or an insect for millions of years. Such lurid details were not to Visu’s liking, and he accordingly promised the priest that in future he would pray.

“Work and pray,” said the priest as he took his departure.

Unfortunately, Visu did nothing but pray. He prayed all day long and refused to do any work so that his rice crops withered and his wife and family starved. Visu’s wife, who had hitherto never said a harsh or bitter word to her husband, now became extremely angry, and, pointing to the poor thin bodies of her children, she exclaimed: “Rise, Visu, take up your ax and do something more helpful to us all than the mere mumbling of prayers!”

Visu was so utterly amazed at what his wife had said that it was some time before he could think of a fitting reply. When he did so his words came hot and strong to the ears of his poor, much-wronged wife.

“Woman,” said he, “the Gods come first. You are an impertinent creature to speak to me so, and I will have nothing more to do with you!” Visu snatched up his ax and, without looking round to say farewell, he left the hut, strode out of the wood, and climbed up Fujiyama, where a mist hid him from sight.

When Visu had seated himself upon the mountain he heard a soft rustling sound, and immediately afterward saw a fox dart into a thicket. Now Visu deemed it extremely lucky to see a fox, and, forgetting his prayers, he sprang up, and ran hither and thither in the hope of again finding this sharp-nosed little creature.

He was about to give up the chase when, coming to an open space in a wood, he saw two ladies sitting down by a brook playing go. The woodsman was so completely fascinated that he could do nothing but sit down and watch them. There was no sound except the soft click of pieces on the board and the song of the running brook. The ladies took no notice of Visu, for they seemed to be playing a strange game that had no end, a game that entirely absorbed their attention. Visu could not keep his eyes off these fair women. He watched their long black hair and the little quick hands that shot out now and again from their big silk sleeves in order to move the pieces.

After he had been sitting there for three hundred years, though to him it was but a summer’s afternoon, he saw that one of the players had made a false move. “Wrong, most lovely lady!” he exclaimed excitedly. In a moment these women turned into foxes and ran away.

When Visu attempted to pursue them he found to his horror that his limbs were terribly stiff, that his hair was very long, and that his beard touched the ground. He discovered, moreover, that the handle of his ax, though made of the hardest wood, had crumbled away into a little heap of dust.

After many painful efforts, Visu was able to stand on his feet and proceed very slowly toward his little home. When he reached the spot he was surprised to see no hut, and, perceiving a very old woman, he said: “Good lady, I am amazed to find that my little home has disappeared. I went away this afternoon, and now in the evening it has vanished!”

The old woman, who believed that a madman was addressing her, inquired his name. When she was told, she exclaimed: “Bah! You must indeed be mad! Visu lived three hundred years ago! He went away one day, and he never came back again.”

“Three hundred years!” murmured Visu. “It cannot be possible. Where are my dear wife and children?”

“Buried!” hissed the old woman, “and, if what you say is true, you children’s children too. The Gods have prolonged your miserable life in punishment for having neglected your wife and little children.”

Big tears ran down Visu’s withered cheeks as he said in a husky voice: “I have lost my manhood. I have prayed when my dear ones starved and needed the labor of my once strong hands. Old woman, remember my last words: “If you pray, work too!”

We do not know how long the poor but repentant Visu lived after he returned from his strange adventures. His white spirit is still said to haunt Fujiyama when the moon shines brightly.

  • Source: F. Hadland Davis, Myths and Legends of Japan (London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1912), pp. 136-39.
  • This is a type 766 folktale. Davis entitles the story “The Rip van Winkle of Old Japan.”

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/japan.html

 

This story appears on page 136 of a 1912 printing of Myths and Legends of Japan by F. Hadland Davis and is comparable to the tale of Rip van Winkle, but you could also read into the text and find the theme of being “spirited away,” warped in time. I wonder if these kinds of tales are relatable to those who are missing loved ones who have disappeared? Perhaps. There are many Japanese families who are still wondering where their loved ones are and when, or if, they might return.

There are also many folktales in Japan that speak of disguising oneself as something else and hiding in plain sight or wishing to be another person or object more powerful or of higher regard than the form a person might currently take. It seems to be that being powerless or lacking in the ability to control your own fate or path is a common theme and something that many of the subjects within these legends struggle with. For example, there is the tale of The Stonecutter, a man who toils in the sun day in and day out to cut stones for walls, roadways, and tombstones. One day he carries a tombstone to the home of a rich man and sees all of the beautiful things the man owns. He wishes out loud that he might be as a rich as this man and, because there’s a spirit living within the mountain he’s working upon, his wish is granted. Throughout the story, the Stonecutter continues to wish to be that which he thinks is more powerful or of higher regard than that of which he last wished. He wishes to be a prince and the wish is granted, but finds that even the prince can be burned by the scorching sun overhead.  So, he wishes to be the sun. This new power is exciting but eventually becomes tiresome. He then sees the clouds striking the earth with thunder and pelting the ground with rain causing floods and creating life. He wishes to be a cloud. Eventually, this too becomes tiresome. In the end, the Stonecutter wishes to be the mountain because he deems it to be strong and immoveable.

“Towns and villages were destroyed by the power of the rain, only the great rock on the mountainside remained unmoved. The cloud was amazed at the sight, and cried in wonder: “Is the rock, then, mightier than I? Oh, if I were only the rock!”

And the mountain spirit answered; “Your wish is heard; the rock you shall be!”

And the rock he was and gloried in his power. Proudly he stood, and neither the heat of the sun nor the force of the rain could move him. “This is better than all!” he said to himself. But one day he heard a strange noise at his feet, and when he looked down to see what it could be, he saw a stonecutter driving tools into his surface. Even while he looked a trembling feeling ran all through him, and a great block broke off and fell upon the ground. Then he cried in his wrath: “Is a mere child of earth mightier than a rock? Oh, if I were only a man!”

And the mountain spirit answered: “Your wish is heard. A man once more you shall be!”

And a man he was, and in the sweat of his brow, he toiled again at his trade of stone cutting. His bed was hard and his food scanty, but he had learned to be satisfied with it and did not long to be something or somebody else. And as he never asked for things he did not have or desired to be greater and mightier than other people, he was happy at last, and never again heard the voice of the mountain spirit.”

(Source: Andrew Lang, The Crimson Fairy Book (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1903), pp. 192-97. Lang’s source: David Brauns, “Der Steinhauer,” Japanische Märchen (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Friedrich, 1885), pp. 87-89.)

 

Who are we if we are powerful? We are the mountain. We are the sun and the clouds. But who are we if we are powerless? Who are we without strength? It seems that these are all questions brought to mind while reading these legends. Not everyone can be powerful and hold all the cards. Not everyone can have the same balance in their lives. Perhaps, after hearing stories like this in their childhoods and living within the collective hum some individuals decided to break away. Indeed, some of the Johatsu may have taken their own lives, some may have run from creditors or abusive spouses, but others may have just wanted to escape and be free to become their own person.

Now, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Japan’s love of ghost stories in this episode. There’s certainly a ghostly quality to some of the stories I’ve read regarding those who have disappeared without a trace. It’s almost as if they are swallowed up by some sort of vortex and cease to exist, even though there is proof that many of these people wind up moving to new places and beginning again. So I guess from here I should talk a little about Yokai, otherwise known as tales of ghosts, demons, monsters, or the unexplained. Yokai is basically a catch-all term for creepy shit. I’m all about that.

In December of 2019, the Albuquerque Journal released a story about Yokai and the showing of some Japanese artifacts at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Curator Felicia Katz-Harris was interviewed about the exhibit.

“Japan is famous for its variety of yokai. Early imagery appeared in religion; they materialized as oni (demons or goblins), complete with horns and fangs.

The roots of many of the stories and images extend back to Muromachi Period scroll paintings from about 1336 to 1573. A scroll from the Edo Period (1603-1867) describing “The Night Parade of 100 Demons” also helped set the stage. Yokai may range from the malevolent to the mischievous.”

“They’re these weird, inexplicable shared experiences,” Katz-Harris said. “Then there becomes this yokai that becomes the bean washer. By the Edo period (1603-1867), artists began depicting these phantoms in woodblock prints, then books. Kabuki theater and puppets expressed the yokai on stage. “This was a time of relative peace,” Katz-Harris said. “There were new markets for leisure activities like books.” Illustrated graphic novels and comic books appeared in Japan long before their occurrence in the West.

By the time of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan’s 250-year-old feudal isolationist policies crumbled with the overthrow of the government. Social issues began to surface in yokai arts.

“The Tale of Genji,” a story about a woman who is rejected by a married womanizer, appears in Taiso Yoshitoshi’s 1886 woodblock print of a ghostly woman sitting on a tangled vine. Equal parts sexist and yokai, a mask of the ghost Hannya by artist Terai Ichiyu depicts a woman who transforms into a demon through jealousy and rage.”

There have been instances where people who have disappeared have been seen on the street or in a marketplace. Friends and family members have witnessed these appearances and are sure that it is their loved one they’re seeing. When they try to catch the person or approach them, it’s as if they disappear completely. Have these people passed on and become a part of the continual energy swirling around us or did they simply become aware they’d been spotted and slipped into some otherwise unseen area, seemingly swallowed up by some supernatural vortex?

 

That’s it for this week, dear listeners. Thanks so much for tuning in. I’ll be back again next week with more tales of the creepy, weird, and paranormal.

Until next time, Stay Spooky!

The ODDentity Podcast is brought to you on a weekly basis by host Janine Mercer.

The podcast is written, produced, and edited by Janine Mercer (unless otherwise stated), and the music is provided by Garage Band.

Find the odd pod on Twitter and Instagram @oddentitypod and on Facebook as The Oddentity Podcast. You are welcome to email suggestions for future episodes to theoddentitypodcast@gmail.com and if you’d like a transcript of this episode, one will be available at theoddentitypodcast.wordpress.com.

Please take a moment to leave a 5* review on iTunes and sincerest thanks to those who have promoted The ODDentity Podcast to their family, friends, and coworkers. Every little bit helps!

 

Sources:

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/japan.html#stonecutter

https://time.com/4646293/japan-missing-people-johatsu-evaporated/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0245429/

https://www.amazon.com/Vanished-Evaporated-People-Stories-Photographs/dp/151070826X

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVc_AdJoAVs

https://nypost.com/2016/12/10/the-chilling-stories-behind-japans-evaporating-people/

 

 

S5 Ep. 1: Evaporated People

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-x89pi-d04182

S5 Ep. 1: Evaporated People

Every year, over 100,000 people go missing in Japan and there’s a whole business surrounding orchestrated disappearances. Join me as I take you inside the Night Moving business in Japan and the folklore and spooky tales that permeate this part of the world. Is there a connection?

This episode contains a magical body part, a dude who wants to be a rock, some Japanese folklore, and tales of being spirited away.

Get Social!

Find the odd pod on Twitter and Instagram @oddentitypod and on Facebook as The Oddentity Podcast. You are welcome to email suggestions for future episodes to theoddentitypodcast@gmail.com and if you’d like a transcript of this episode, one will be available at theoddentitypodcast.wordpress.com.

Please take a moment to leave a 5* review on iTunes and sincerest thanks to those who have promoted The ODDentity Podcast to their family, friends, and coworkers. Every little bit helps!

Sources:

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/japan.html#stonecutter

https://time.com/4646293/japan-missing-people-johatsu-evaporated/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0245429/

https://www.amazon.com/Vanished-Evaporated-People-Stories-Photographs/dp/151070826X

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVc_AdJoAVs

https://nypost.com/2016/12/10/the-chilling-stories-behind-japans-evaporating-people/

S5 Ep. 1: Evaporated People

S5 Ep. 1: Evaporated People

Every year, over 100,000 people go missing in Japan and there’s a whole business surrounding orchestrated disappearances. Join me as I take you inside the Night Moving business in Japan and the folklore and spooky tales that permeate this part of the world. Is there a connection?

This episode contains a magical body part, a dude who wants to be a rock, some Japanese folklore, and tales of being spirited away.

Get Social!

Find the odd pod on Twitter and Instagram @oddentitypod and on Facebook as The Oddentity Podcast. You are welcome to email suggestions for future episodes to theoddentitypodcast@gmail.com and if you’d like a transcript of this episode, one will be available at theoddentitypodcast.wordpress.com.

Please take a moment to leave a 5* review on iTunes and sincerest thanks to those who have promoted The ODDentity Podcast to their family, friends, and coworkers. Every little bit helps!

Sources:

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/japan.html#stonecutter

https://time.com/4646293/japan-missing-people-johatsu-evaporated/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0245429/

https://www.amazon.com/Vanished-Evaporated-People-Stories-Photographs/dp/151070826X

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVc_AdJoAVs

https://nypost.com/2016/12/10/the-chilling-stories-behind-japans-evaporating-people/

 

Haunted Holidays

Hello ODDballs,

This week, I wanted to express my love of spooky stories and connect the sharing of spooky tales with the holiday season. You see, it used to be a pretty popular custom, sharing ghost stories around a fire while the wind howled and the snow fell outside. But before we get down to it, I wanted to give a shout out to Arthur and Susan. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the podcast! Thank you for the suggestions for future episodes. I’ll absolutely add them to my ever-growing list. Now, on with the show.

If you think about it, this time of year, a time when everything is dormant and cold, is the perfect time to snuggle in a blanket with a mug of hot chocolate and do our level best to scare the shit out of the ones we love.

When I was little, my friends and I would often observe the tradition of sharing spooky tales this time of year. It wasn’t something my parents or grandparents did, but my friends and I made sure to gather on a night when the snow was coming down in great blue-grey gusts and the cold moon was obscured by heavy storm clouds, in order to celebrate our yearly custom. We got together until we reached our teenaged years and then we just stopped. No more scary stories during the holidays. It makes me a little sad to remember the first year it didn’t happen after having enjoyed the practice for so many years.

Recently, I came across a Smithsonian Magazine article(https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/) titled “A Plea to Resurrect the Christmas Tradition of Telling Ghost Stories” and it reminded me of those times in my youth. The article was written in 2017 by Colin Dickey and I’ll include a link in the show notes so you can enjoy it too. I think there’s something about this time of year that makes us sentimental. Likely because there isn’t that much else to do but huddle in your house until the snow and cold decides to recede. I mean, I know there’s lots to do. Sledding, skiing, ice skating, building various human forms out of snow, snowball fights…but if you’re me then you spend it huddling.

Apparently, the custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas didn’t really catch on in America, I guess the Puritans weren’t fond (go figure), but was ensconced in the Victorian era in England. That kind of explains why my friends and I embraced the custom. Newfoundland was once a British colony and a lot of the traditions have hung on.

Before we get to the custom of telling ghost stories during the holidays, I think I should provide some background on storytelling in general. Humans are narrative creatures by nature. We enjoy telling stories to get our point across. I’m telling you a story for that very purpose right now! You can bet where people gather together to socialize, there will be storytelling. Of course, you can also count on how ridiculous those stories will be when malt liquor is added. I don’t think we need to go all the way back to cave drawings, but I think it’s pertinent to know where something came from so that we can track its trajectory. I mean, the custom of telling ghost stories during the holidays stretches back hundreds of years, but finding the roots of storytelling itself is a real backbreaker.

From reporter.rit.edu,

“Storytelling through oral tradition dates back to different points in history, depending on the culture. These traditions use song, chant and epic poetry to tell stories that had been handed down from generation to generation and eventually written and published. Myths were also first passed on through word of mouth.

There is evidence of written symbols that date back to about 9,000 years ago. The first written stories were manually transcribed, whether on paper, stone or clay. As described above, writing began as drawings, but over time changed into script. The current alphabets were derived from older forms of writing, such as the Phoenician alphabet.

The transition from oral to written culture overlapped but is predominantly accounted for in ancient Greece, where the earliest inscriptions date from 770 to 750 B.C. Scholars suggest that “The Iliad” by Homer is the oldest surviving work in the Greek language that originated from oral tradition, according to History of Information. Unfortunately, not all populations were literate, so only the educated class was able to read and write stories. This era also brought about the use of plays to tell stories.

The next great milestone in communications history is the introduction of mass printing that would make news and other information more readily available to all.  Printing helped increase literacy among laypeople. Johannes Gutenberg is considered the inventor of the printing press in the 15th century; however, 600 years before Gutenberg, Chinese monks created a block printing mechanism that set ink to paper using wooden blocks.”

Today, tech has really affected the way we communicate and the way in which we assimilate learned information for our social audience. I don’t know how many times I’ve complained about how tired I am on a Monday morning and gotten a meme of Grumpy Cat from a friend in response. It’s sad, really. I don’t want to get all squishy about what life was like when I was younger, free from the chains of social outlets and smartphones, but I will say that technology has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s a double-edged sword for sure. Anyway, let’s get on with it.

Now that we know a little about where storytelling originated, let’s talk about one of the most famous ghost stories of all time: A Christmas Carol. Now I know what you’re saying. “But, Janine! A Christmas Carol isn’t a ghost story!” It 100% is! Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, the last of which shows him his own demise. Every film rendition of A Christmas Carol I’ve seen (including the one with the Muppets) was pretty dark. Again, there’s something about being huddled in your house on a dark night in front of a roaring fire that gives just the right amount of goosebumps.

From the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers,

“By Dickens’ time, Christmas was not much of a holiday. In fact, for most people, it was still a workday. The Industrial Revolution meant fewer days off for everyone, and Christmas was considered so unimportant that no one complained. This was thanks to none other than Oliver Cromwell, the Lord and Protector of England in mid-seventeenth-century England. Cromwell had toiled to eradicate Christmas altogether because the holiday had no scriptural basis; the Bible mentions no “holy day” other than the Sabbath and certainly doesn’t exhort Christians to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25.

Furthermore, Cromwell knew that the date of December 25 was shrewdly chosen by early Christian officials who wanted to replace pagan rituals with Christian ones. The day was selected because of its association with two pagan holidays, Yule and Sol Invictus (the birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Both were celebrated in conjunction with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. On this night, the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds were considered particularly permeable. It was believed that spirits would return to Earth to finish unsettled business – exactly what Jacob Marley does in A Christmas Carol.”

I find the point about the boundary between the living and the dead being the thinnest on December 25th to be particularly interesting as this is generally believed to be between October 31st and November 1st (All Soul’s Day.)

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is a beloved part of literary canon, but Dickens wasn’t the only one telling ghost stories. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, HP Lovecraft, Robertson Davies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edith Nesbitt, Elizabeth Gaskell also dipped their toe into the Christmas ghost story well, to name a few.

As a treat, I wanted to share with you a classic ghost story, one that has been told many times to many people around many a roaring fire. I’m speaking of course of A.M. Barrage’s “Smee.” It’s a classic tale that was originally published as part of a collection called “Someone in the Room” (1931.) The story takes place on Christmas Eve and is essentially a story within a story, offering many spinetingling moments! The bottom line is, it’s delightful and I wanted to make sure you all got the chance to experience it.

Without further adieux, I present “Smee.

Smee

A.M. Burrage

Copyright Barrage Publishing

The book in which this work appears, A.M. Burrage – Smee & Other Stories: Classics from The Master of Horror, is available on Amazon as part of a collection in paperback or Kindle versions.

 

‘No,’ said Jackson, with a deprecatory smile, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset your game. I shan’t be doing that because you’ll have plenty without me. But I’m not playing any games of hide-and-seek.’

It was Christmas Eve, and we were a party of fourteen with just the proper leavening of youth. We had dined well; it was the season for childish games, and we were all in the mood for playing them—all, that is, except Jackson. When somebody suggested hide-and-seek there was rapturous and almost unanimous approval. His was the one dissentient voice.

It was not like Jackson to spoil sport or refuse to do as others wanted. Somebody asked him if he were feeling seedy.

‘No,’ he answered, ‘I feel perfectly fit, thanks. But,’ he added with a smile which softened without retracting the flat refusal, ‘I’m not playing hide-and-seek.’

One of us asked him why not. He hesitated for some seconds before replying.

‘I sometimes go and stay at a house where a girl was killed through playing hide-and-seek in the dark. She didn’t know the house very well. There was a servants’ staircase with a door to it. When she was pursued she opened the door and jumped into what she must have thought was one of the bedrooms—and she broke her neck at the bottom of the stairs.’

We all looked concerned, and Mrs Fernley said:

‘How awful! And you were there when it happened?’

Jackson shook his head very gravely. ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I was there when something else happened. Something worse.’

‘I shouldn’t have thought anything could be worse.’

‘This was,’ said Jackson, and shuddered visibly. ‘Or so it seemed to me.’

I think he wanted to tell the story and was angling for encouragement. A few requests which may have seemed to him to lack urgency, he affected to ignore and went off at a tangent.

‘I wonder if any of you have played a game called “Smee”. It’s a great improvement on the ordinary game of hide-and-seek. The name derives from the ungrammatical colloquialism, “It’s me.” You might care to play if you’re going to play a game of that sort. Let me tell you the rules.

‘Every player is presented with a sheet of paper. All the sheets are blank except one, on which is written “Smee”. Nobody knows who is “Smee” except “Smee” himself—or herself, as the case may be. The lights are then turned out and “Smee” slips from the room and goes off to hide, and after an interval the other players go off in search, without knowing whom they are actually in search of. One player meeting another challenges with the word “Smee” and the other player, if not the one concerned, answers “Smee”.

‘The real “Smee” makes no answer when challenged, and the second player remains quietly by him. Presently they will be discovered by a third player, who, having challenged and received no answer, will link up with the first two. This goes on until all the players have formed a chain, and the last to join is marked down for a forfeit. It’s a good noisy, romping game, and in a big house it often takes a long time to complete the chain. You might care to try it; and I’ll pay my forfeit and smoke one of Tim’s excellent cigars here by the fire until you get tired of it.’

I remarked that it sounded a good game and asked Jackson if he had played it himself. ‘Yes,’ he answered; ‘I played it in the house I was telling you about.’

‘And she was there? The girl who broke—‘

‘No, no,’ Mrs Fernley interrupted. ‘He told us he wasn’t there when it happened.’

Jackson considered. ‘I don’t know if she was there or not. I’m afraid she was. I know that there were thirteen of us and there ought only to have been twelve. And I’ll swear that I didn’t know her name, or I think I should have gone clean off my head when I heard that whisper in the dark. No, you don’t catch me playing that game, or any other like it, any more. It spoiled my nerve quite a while, and I can’t afford to take long holidays. Besides, it saves a lot of trouble and inconvenience to own up at once to being a coward.’

Tim Vouce, the best of hosts, smiled around at us, and in that smile there was a meaning which is sometimes vulgarly expressed by the slow closing of an eye. ‘There’s a story coming,’ he announced.

‘There’s certainly a story of sorts,’ said Jackson, ‘but whether it’s coming or not—‘ He paused and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Well, you’re going to pay a forfeit instead of playing?’

‘Please. But have a heart and let me down lightly. It’s not just a sheer cussedness on my part.’

‘Payment in advance,’ said Tim, ‘insures honesty and promotes good feeling. You are therefore sentenced to tell the story here and now.’

And here follows Jackson’s story, unrevised by me and passed on without comment to a wider public:

 

Some of you, I know, have run across the Sangstons. Christopher Sangston and his wife, I mean. They’re distant connections of mine—at least, Violet Sangston is. About eight years ago they bought a house between the North and South Downs on the Surrey and Sussex border, and five years ago they invited me to come and spend Christmas with them.

It was a fairly old house—I couldn’t say exactly of what period—and it certainly deserved the epithet ‘rambling’. It wasn’t a particularly big house, but the original architect, whoever he may have been, had not concerned himself with economising in space, and at first you could get lost in it quite easily.

Well, I went down for that Christmas, assured by Violet’s letter that I knew most of my fellow-guests and that the two or three who might be strangers to me were all ‘lambs’. Unfortunately, I’m one of the world’s workers, and couldn’t get away until Christmas Eve, although the other members of the party had assembled on the preceding day. Even then I had to cut it rather fine to be there for dinner on my first night. They were all dressing when I arrived and I had to go straight to my room and waste no time. I may even have kept dinner waiting a bit, for I was last down, and it was announced within a minute of my entering the drawing-room. There was just time to say ‘hullo’ to everybody I knew, to be briefly introduced to the two or three I didn’t know, and then I had to give my arm to Mrs Gorman.

I mention this as the reason why I didn’t catch the name of a tall, dark, handsome girl I hadn’t met before. Everything was rather hurried and I am always bad at catching people’s names. She looked cold and clever and rather forbidding, the sort of girl who gives the impression of knowing all about men and the more she knows of them the less she likes them. I felt that I wasn’t going to hit it off with this particular ‘lamb’ of Violet’s, but she looked interesting all the same, and I wondered who she was. I didn’t ask, because I was pretty sure of hearing somebody address her by name before very long.

Unluckily, though, I was a long way off her at table, and as Mrs Gorman was at the top of her form that night I soon forgot to worry about who she might be. Mrs Gorman is one of the most amusing women I know, an outrageous but quite innocent flirt, with a very sprightly wit which isn’t always unkind. She can think half a dozen moves ahead in conversation just as an expert can in a game of chess. We were soon sparring, or, rather, I was ‘covering’ against the ropes, and I quite forgot to ask her in an undertone the name of the cold, proud beauty. The lady on the other side of me was a stranger, or had been until a few minutes since, and I didn’t think of seeking information in that quarter.

There was a round dozen of us, including the Sangstons themselves, and we were all young or trying to be. The Sangstons themselves were the oldest members of the party and their son Reggie, in his last year at Marlborough, must have been the youngest. When there was talk of playing games after dinner it was he who suggested ‘Smee’. He told us how to play it just as I’ve described it to you.

His father chipped in as soon as we all understood what was going to be required of us. ‘If there are any games of that sort going on in the house,’ he said, ‘for goodness’ sake be careful of the back stairs on the first-floor landing. There’s a door to them and I’ve often meant to take it down. In the dark anybody who doesn’t know the house very well might think they were walking into a room. A girl actually did break her neck on those stairs about ten years ago when the Ainsties lived here.’

I asked how it happened.

‘Oh,’ said Sangston, ‘there was a party here one Christmas time and they were playing hide-and-seek as you propose doing. This girl was one of the hiders. She heard somebody coming, ran along the passage to get away, and opened the door of what she thought was a bedroom, evidently with the intention of hiding behind it while her pursuer went past. Unfortunately it was the door leading to the back stairs, and that staircase is as straight and almost as steep as the shaft of a pit. She was dead when they picked her up.’

We all promised for our own sakes to be careful. Mrs Gorman said that she was sure nothing could happen to her, since she was insured by three different firms, and her next-of-kin was a brother whose consistent ill-luck was a byword in the family. You see, none of us had known the unfortunate girl, and as the tragedy was ten years old there was no need to pull long faces about it.

Well, we started the game almost immediately after dinner. The men allowed themselves only five minutes before joining the ladies, and then young Reggie Sangston went round and assured himself that the lights were out all over the house except in the servants’ quarters and in the drawing-room where we were assembled. We then got busy with twelve sheets of paper which he twisted into pellets and shook up between his hands before passing them round. Eleven of them were blank, and ‘Smee’ was written on the twelfth. The person drawing the latter was the one who had to hide. I looked and saw that mine was a blank. A moment later out went the electric lights, and in the darkness I heard somebody get up and creep to the door.

After a minute or so somebody gave a signal and we made a rush for the door. I for one hadn’t the least idea which of the party was ‘Smee’. For five or ten minutes we were all rushing up and down passages and in and out rooms challenging one another and answering, ‘Smee?—Smee!’

After a bit the alarums and excursions died down, and I guessed that ‘Smee’ was found. Eventually I found a chain of people all sitting still and holding their breath on some narrow stairs leading up to a row of attics. I hastily joined it, having challenged and been answered with silence, and presently two more stragglers arrived, each racing the other to avoid being last. Sangston was one of them, indeed it was he who was marked down for a forfeit, and after a little while he remarked in an undertone, ‘I think we’re all here now, aren’t we?’

He struck a match, looked up the shaft of the staircase, and began to count. It wasn’t hard, although we just about filled the staircase, for we were sitting each a step or two above the next, and all our heads were visible.

‘…nine, ten, eleven, twelve—thirteen‘ he concluded, and then laughed. ‘Dash it all, that’s one too many!’

The match had burned out and he struck another and began to count. He got as far as twelve, and then uttered an exclamation.

‘There are thirteen people here!’ he exclaimed. ‘I haven’t counted myself yet.’

‘Oh, nonsense!’ I laughed. ‘You probably began with yourself, and now you want to count yourself twice.’

Out came his son’s electric torch, giving a brighter and steadier light and we all began to count. Of course we numbered twelve.

Sangston laughed.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I could have sworn I counted thirteen twice.’

From halfway up the stairs came Violet Sangston’s voice with a little nervous trill in it. ‘I thought there was somebody sitting two steps above me. Have you moved up. Captain Ransome?’

Ransome said that he hadn’t: he also said that he thought there was somebody sitting between Violet and himself. Just for a moment there was an uncomfortable Something in the air, a little cold ripple which touched us all. For that little moment it seemed to all of us, I think, that something odd and unpleasant had happened and was liable to happen again. Then we laughed at ourselves and at one another and were comfortable once more. There were only twelve of us, and there could only have been twelve of us, and there was no argument about it. Still laughing we trooped back to the drawing-room to begin again.

This time I was ‘Smee’, and Violet Sangston ran me to earth while I was still looking for a hiding-place. That round didn’t last long, and we were a chain of twelve within two or three minutes. Afterwards there was a short interval. Violet wanted a wrap fetched for her, and her husband went up to get it from her room. He was no sooner gone than Reggie pulled me by the sleeve. I saw that he was looking pale and sick.

‘Quick!’ he whispered, ‘while father’s out of the way. Take me into the smoke room and give me a brandy or a whisky or something.’

Outside the room I asked him what was the matter, but he didn’t answer at first, and I thought it better to dose him first and question him afterward. So I mixed him a pretty dark-complexioned brandy and soda which he drank at a gulp and then began to puff as if he had been running.

‘I’ve had rather a turn,’ he said to me with a sheepish grin.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know. You were “Smee” just now, weren’t you? Well, of course I didn’t know who “Smee” was, and while mother and the others ran into the west wing and found you, I turned east. There’s a deep clothes cupboard in my bedroom — I’d marked it down as a good place to hide when it was my turn, and I had an idea that “Smee” might be there. I opened the door in the dark, felt round, and touched somebody’s hand. “Smee?” I whispered, and not getting any answer I thought I had found “Smee”.’

‘Well, I don’t know how it was, but an odd creepy feeling came over me, I can’t describe it, but I felt that something was wrong. So I turned on my electric torch and there was nobody there. Now, I swear I touched a hand, and I was filling up the doorway of the cupboard at the time, so nobody could get out and past me.’ He puffed again. ‘What do you make of it?’ he asked.

‘You imagined that you had touched a hand,’ I answered, naturally enough.

He uttered a short laugh. ‘Of course I knew you were going to say that,’ he said. ‘I must have imagined it, mustn’t I?’ He paused and swallowed. ‘I mean, it couldn’t have been anything else but imagination, could it?’

I assured him that it couldn’t, meaning what I said, and he accepted this, but rather with the philosophy of one who knows he is right but doesn’t expect to be believed. We returned together to the drawing-room where, by that time, they were all waiting for us and ready to start again.

It may have been my imagination—although I’m almost sure it wasn’t—but it seemed to me that all enthusiasm for the game had suddenly melted like a white frost in strong sunlight. If anybody had suggested another game I’m sure we should all have been grateful and abandoned ‘Smee’. Only nobody did. Nobody seemed to like to. I for one, and I can speak for some of the others too, was oppressed with the feeling that there was something wrong. I couldn’t have said what I thought was wrong, indeed I didn’t think about it at all, but somehow all the sparkle had gone out of the fun, and hovering over my mind like a shadow was the warning of some sixth sense which told me that there was an influence in the house which was neither sane, sound nor healthy. Why did I feel like that? Because Sangston had counted thirteen of us instead of twelve, and his son had thought he had touched somebody in an empty cupboard. No, there was more in it than just that. One would have laughed at such things in the ordinary way, and it was just that feeling of something being wrong which stopped me from laughing.

Well, we started again, and when we went in pursuit of the unknown ‘Smee’, we were as noisy as ever, but it seemed to me that most of us were acting. Frankly, for no reason other than the one I’ve given you, we’d stopped enjoying the game. I had an instinct to hunt with the main pack, but after a few minutes, during which no ‘Smee’ had been found, my instinct to play winning games and be first if possible, set me searching on my own account. And on the first floor of the west wing following the wall which was actually the shell of the house, I blundered against a pair of human knees.

I put out my hand and touched a soft, heavy curtain. Then I knew where I was. There were tall, deeply-recessed windows with seats along the landing, and curtains over the recesses to the ground. Somebody was sitting in a corner of this window-seat behind the curtain. Aha, I had caught ‘Smee’! So I drew the curtain aside, stepped in, and touched the bare arm of a woman.

It was a dark night outside, and, moreover, the window was not only curtained but a blind hung down to where the bottom panes joined up with the frame. Between the curtain and the window it was as dark as the plague of Egypt. I could not have seen my hand held six inches before my face, much less the woman sitting in the corner.

‘Smee?’ I whispered.

I had no answer. ‘Smee’ when challenged does not answer. So I sat beside her, first in the field, to await the others. Then, having settled myself I leaned over to her and whispered:

‘Who is it? What’s your name, “Smee”?’

And out of the darkness beside me the whisper came back: ‘Brenda Ford.’

I didn’t know the name, but because I didn’t know it I guessed at once who she was. The tall, pale, dark girl was the only person in the house I didn’t know by name. Ergo my companion was the tall, pale, dark girl. It seemed rather intriguing to be there with her, shut in between a heavy curtain and a window, and I rather wondered whether she was enjoying the game we were all playing. Somehow she hadn’t seemed to me to be one of the romping sort. I muttered one or two commonplace questions to her and had no answer.

‘Smee’ is a game of silence. ‘Smee’ and the person or persons who have found ‘Smee’ are supposed to keep quiet to make it hard for the others. But there was nobody else about, and it occurred to me that she was playing the game a little too much to the letter. I spoke again and got no answer, and then I began to be annoyed. She was of that cold, ‘superior’ type which affects to despise men; she didn’t like me; and she was sheltering behind the rules of a game for children to be dis-courteous. Well, if she didn’t like sitting there with me, I certainly didn’t want to be sitting there with her! I half turned from her and began to hope that we should both be discovered without much more delay.

Having discovered that I didn’t like being there alone with her, it was queer how soon I found myself hating it, and that for a reason very different from the one which had at first whetted my annoyance. The girl I had met for the first time before dinner, and seen diagonally across the table, had a sort of cold charm about her which had attracted while it had half angered me. For the girl who was with me, imprisoned in the opaque darkness between the curtain and the window, I felt no attraction at all. It was so very much the reverse that I should have wondered at myself if, after the first shock of the discovery that she had suddenly become repellent to me, I had had room in my mind for anything besides the consciousness that her close presence was an increasing horror to me.

It came upon me just as quickly as I’ve uttered the words. My flesh suddenly shrank from her as you see a strip of gelatine shrink and wither before the heat of a fire. That feeling of something being wrong had come back to me, but multiplied to an extent which turned foreboding into actual terror. I firmly believe that I should have got up and run if I had not felt that at my first movement she would have divined my intention and compelled me to stay, by some means of which I could not bear to think. The memory of having touched her bare arm made me wince and draw in my lips. I prayed that somebody else would come along soon.

My prayer was answered. Light footfalls sounded on the landing. Somebody on the other side of the curtain brushed again my knees. The curtain was drawn aside and a woman’s hand, fumbling in the darkness, presently rested on my shoulder. ‘Smee?’ whispered a voice which I instantly recognised as Mrs Gorman’s.

Of course she received no answer. She came and settled down beside me with a rustle, and I can’t describe the sense of relief she brought me.

‘It’s Tony, isn’t it?’ she whispered.

‘Yes,’ I whispered back.

‘You’re not “Smee” are you?’

‘No, she’s on my other side.’

She reached a hand across me, and I heard one of her nails scratch the surface of a woman’s silk gown.

‘Hullo, “Smee”! How are you? Who are you? Oh, is it against the rules to talk? Never mind, Tony, we’ll break the rules. Do you know, Tony, this game is beginning to irk me a little. I hope they’re not going to run it to death by playing it all the evening. I’d like to play some game where we can all be together in the same room with a nice bright fire.’

‘Same here,’ I agreed fervently.

‘Can’t you suggest something when we go down? There’s something rather uncanny in this particular amusement. I can’t quite shed the delusion that there’s somebody in this game who oughtn’t to be in at all.’

That was just how I had been feeling, but I didn’t say so. But for my part the worst of my qualms were now gone; the arrival of Mrs Gorman had dissipated them. We sat on talking, wondering from time to time when the rest of the party would arrive.

I don’t know how long elapsed before we heard a clatter of feet on the landing and young Reggie’s voice shouting, ‘Hullo! Hullo, there! Anybody there?’

‘Yes,’ I answered.

‘Mrs Gorman with you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, you’re a nice pair! You’ve both forfeited. We’ve all been waiting you for hours.’

‘Why, you haven’t found “Smee” yet,’ I objected.

You haven’t, you mean. I happen to have been “Smee” myself.’

‘But “Smee’s” here with us,’ I cried.

‘Yes,’ agreed Mrs Gorman.

The curtain was stripped aside and in a moment we were blinking into the eye of Reggie’s electric torch. I looked at Mrs Gorman and then on my other side. Between me and the wall there was an empty space on the window seat. I stood up at once and wished I hadn’t, for I found myself sick and dizzy.

‘There was somebody there,’ I maintained, ‘because I touched her.’

‘So did I,’ said Mrs Gorman in a voice which had lost its steadiness. ‘And I don’t see how she could have got up and gone without our knowing it.’

Reggie uttered a queer, shaken laugh. He, too, had had an unpleasant experience that evening. ‘Somebody’s been playing the goat,’ he remarked. ‘Coming down?’

We were not very popular when we arrived in the drawing-room. Reggie rather tactlessly gave it out that he had found us sitting on a window-seat behind the curtain. I taxed the tall, dark girl with having pretended to be ‘Smee’ and afterwards slipping away. She denied it. After which we settled down and played other games. ‘Smee’ was done with for the evening, and I for one was glad of it.

Some long while later, during an interval, Sangston told me, if I wanted a drink, to go into the smoke room and help myself. I went, and he presently followed me. I could see that he was rather peeved with me, and the reason came out during the following minute or two. It seemed that, in his opinion, if I must sit out and flirt with Mrs Gorman—in circumstances which would have been considered highly compromising in his young days—I needn’t do it during a round game and keep everybody waiting for us.

‘But there was somebody else there,’ I protested, ‘somebody pretending to be “Smee”. I believe it was that tall, dark girl. Miss Ford, although she denied it. She even whispered her name to me.’

Sangston stared at me and nearly dropped his glass.

‘Miss Who? he shouted.

‘Brenda Ford—she told me her name was.’

Sangston put down his glass and laid a hand on my shoulder.

‘Look here, old man,’ he said, ‘I don’t mind a joke, but don’t let it go too far. We don’t want all the women in the house getting hysterical. Brenda Ford is the name of the girl who broke her neck on the stairs playing hide-and-seek here ten years ago.’

 

I hope you enjoyed “Smee” and the goosebumps it gave you. I also hope you’ll join me next year when the podcast returns for Season 5. I’m expecting to start recording sometime toward the end of January and I have many more creeptastic and weird tales to tell. I hope you’ll join me for that and wish you all a wonderful haunted holiday. And do me a favor? Tell at least one ghost story this time of year. Let’s bring that tradition back from the brink of extinction. All the best, friends and, as always, Stay Spooky!

 

The ODDentity Podcast is brought to you on a weekly basis by host Janine Mercer.

The podcast is written, produced, and edited by Janine Mercer (unless otherwise stated) and the music is provided, my Garage Band.

Find the odd pod Twitter and Instagram at oddentitypod and on facebook as The Oddentity Podcast. Email suggestions for future episodes to theoddentitypodcast@gmail.com and if you’d like a transcript of this episode, one will be available at theoddentitypodcast.wordpress.com

“Smee” is available in Kindle and paperback formats on Amazon and is the property of Burrage Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1783945087?pf_rd_p=ab873d20-a0ca-439b-ac45-cd78f07a84d8&pf_rd_r=908A93WQBSP8P3VX90RC

 

Sources:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._M._Burrage

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1783945087?pf_rd_p=ab873d20-a0ca-439b-ac45-cd78f07a84d8&pf_rd_r=908A93WQBSP8P3VX90RC

https://ilab.org/articles/why-did-charles-dickens-write-ghost-stories-christmas

https://reporter.rit.edu/tech/evolution-storytelling