Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Weird New England

I'm in New England, the location of my upbringing, for a week of a much needed vacation. Since H.P. Lovecraft has been such a topic of discussion with my gaming group as of late, I've been reading through a copy of his complete works on my Kindle (I'm only about 3% through) and it is my first time reading any of his works. True, I am familiar with what he wrote about -- any gamer is familiar with Cthulhu and the other Ancient Ones. And I know that as someone who grew up in "Lovecraft Country", that I should have sat down and read it by now. I just never got around to it. When you are surrounded by weird legends and folklore -- and Massachusetts has plenty -- you just grow accustomed to it. And you don't necessarily seek it out as just absorb it.

It's hard to see but it is a sign to Danvers -- Lovecraft's Arkham. Note the Do Not Enter signs

Massachusetts has a sordid history and folklore that sprung out of it as if to lay a reminder of the wrongdoings of the original settlers. And parts of the state is no doubt creepy to outsiders. For instance, I have a game called Timeline. Someone drew the Salem Witch Trials. I knew that year like I know my own birthday -- 1692. I could even name some of the victims of the Witch Trials by heart. Or another example. I once worked at a summer camp in which one of the counselors was from California. She remarked how creepy it was that we had so many graveyards. There are five in my hometown -- some reaching all the way back to the town's founding in the 1600s. I used to take a shortcut home from school by going through a graveyard.

This is the cemetery I would walk through to get home quicker

And as a bonus pic, this is the oldest cemetery in my town where the founders rest in peace (I hope)
I'm not going to say Massachusetts has the best folklore in the nation. You'll find some very interesting stories elsewhere too. But Massachusetts -- heck all of New England -- has folklore that really kind of surround curses and being punished for the sins of our ancestors. Something bad happened and there is a ghost now to remind us that we shouldn't do that bad thing. It is like the guilt the Puritans had for being sinful human beings lingers in the forms of ghosts and curses. If you look at other places in the United States that has a rich folklore like New Orleans for instance, there isn't the same level of heaviness. New Orleans has jazz funerals for instance. Death is taken lightly -- even with the creepy stuff. It's very Cest le vie.

What I have read so far into Lovecraft, one thing that stood out for me was how he wove this residual guilt that lingers in local New England folklore from the Puritans. It poisoned the earth. He's not the first author to make this observation. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote considerably about the early days of Massachusetts in such novels like The Scarlet Letter. And The House of Seven Gables is about a family believed to be cursed by the actions of their ancestors during the Puritan era. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a direct descendent of Judge John Hathorne who presided the Salem Witch Trials, sentencing many innocent people to their deaths and never repented. The Hathorne family added a 'w' to their name to disassociate themselves from the judge yet quite plaintively, Nathaniel Hawthorne carried the guilt and it shows in his writings. The Puritans of New England may have become Congregationalists but the folklore remains as a reminder.

Below, for old times sake, I am listing three of my favorite places of New England Folklore.

Salem, MA As I mentioned above, I know the date of the Salem Witch Trials like my own birthday. My grandfather used to live in Danvers (and I'll even note he used to be a college professor) and towards the end of his life, my mother and I used to visit him every weekend. Sometimes, we'd make a stop into Salem. Back in those days, Salem was a tourist place, sure, but it was more like a secret that only people from New England knew about. Now, it has become a lot bigger than it used to be.


It is interesting to see how much has spun off of the events that took place for not even a full year starting in March of 1692. Hawthorne obviously wrote about it and H.P. Lovecraft pulled both from the Salem Witch Trials and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible to mirror the McCarthy Era. And then we got some good early-90's camp from Hocus Pocus. Truth is often stranger than fiction and the Salem Witch Trials are a great example of this. A man was pressed to death. Never forget that.

More... weight.

Also, it is worth noting that there are so many theories circulating academia about what exactly happened. There is a certain group that maintain that those people were truly spell casters (Mainly some Wiccans and New Age types) but also others think it may have been Ergot poisoning or bored, oppressed little girls out for a lark. Then there is the political conspiracy theory, that the people targeted had huge swathes of land that the girls' parents wanted.

Still with terms like spectral evidence and girls claiming they were cursed, it is no wonder that the Salem Witch Trials continues to capture the imagination of the populous to this day.

The Bridgewater Triangle I didn't really hear about these tales until college in which I had a roommate who was from the area and she told me all about it. She even wrote a paper on it in High School. I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts (Mass speak it means I grew up on the ocean south of Boston. Salem is located on the North Shore) and I didn't venture into Bridgewater often and I didn't know anyone from Bridgewater to learn the tales from. The internet changed all this, no doubt.

Why is it always triangles?

But oh are they there. In this geometric space with the towns of Abington, Freetown, and Rohobeth as its spokes there have been ghost sightings, demonic sightings, UFO sightings, Satanic Cults, Cryptozoological animals like Thunderbirds, and anything else paranormal you can think of. In the center is Hockomock Swamp (early settlers called it the Devil's Swamp) which is Wampanoag for "Place Where Spirits Dwell." Metacomet used it as his military base during King Philip's War -- which segues into my next point.

Yep, highly defensible. No way in hell I'm going in there. That is where I lost Artex

I mentioned above how Massachusetts folklore is heavily tied to the guilt left by the Puritans. The tales of the Bridgewater Triangle might as well be another. But the guilt here is tied to early treatment of the Native Americans, which is probably why the Bridgewater Triangle is not as well known.

When the Puritans first settled in Massachusetts, the colony's leaders reached out to Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoags and the two made a deal. Massasoit gave land to the settlers and asked they leave the land of which is modern day Bridgewater and thensome alone for his tribe. The Puritans initially agreed and the two peoples lived together in reasonably well for a little while. Then Massasoit died and the Puritan settlers began to expand into land not previously agreed upon. It upset the tribe for obvious reasons so Massasoit's son, Wamsutta, tried to negotiate. However, shortly after he left the negotiating table, he mysteriously died. Then John Sassamon, a "Praying Indian" (a Native American who converted) who was an emissary, was murdered. All these points were catalysts which led to King Philip's War when Wamsutta's brother, Metacomet led his people into battle with the Puritans. Metacomet's men almost wiped out the settlements but disease held his forces back. They eventually became overpowered.

Metacomet died in Rhode Island, killed by a "Praying Indian". His wife and children were sold into slavery

Many of the tales of the Bridgewater Triangle involve Native American spirits, including one that drags people into the water until they drown. Hockamock Swamp is supposed to be the origin of strange happenings as it is in the center of the triangle. As I mentioned above, it is where Metacomet held his forces. Perhaps the reason of tales persisting for so long is the sense of buried guilt that "we don't belong here, we acquired this land by breaking a promise."

The Bridgewater Triangle remains the sight of my most favorite folklore and often overlooked history.

Dudleytown This one is not located in MA but in Connecticut. It always brought a sense of fascination to me because I am intrigued by abandoned places. I love reading about the history of ghost towns and how and why they disappeared, leaving only skeletons behind. That will probably be another topic I will go on about in the future.

Anyways, Dudleytown was supposedly founded by a cursed family called the Dudleys back in 1740. Everyone who moved there either died in a tragic accident, went crazy, or killed themselves. There was talk of demonic forces poisoning the earth there so nothing grows (and nothing does grow there but it probably has to do with the type of soil the town was founded on). All that is left are just foundations of the houses that once stood there. It is considered a gold mine of ghosts and the like by Ghosthunters. To me, it is just a very interesting, creepy story.


Anyways, those are my top favorite tales from New England. I have many more. Maybe there will be a New England folklore part II. But we'll see.

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