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Haunted Holland

28 Oct

Here’s a special pre-Halloween treat for all of you – a post about Utrecht, the most haunted city in the Netherlands! Founded by the Romans in 47 AD, Utrecht was one of the first places in the Netherlands to embrace Christianity, and in the Middle Ages it grew into an important religious centre. The city retains many of its medieval churches and monasteries – wandering the backstreets it is possible to revel in the architectural reminders of past centuries. But there is also a darker aspect to this history. During the horrific witch hunts of the 16th century, thousands of women all over the country were executed – burned, drowned or otherwise tortured to death – on suspicion of witchcraft. Weighing was one of the more common methods of determining witchery, as a popular belief held that any woman who was too light for the size of her frame was obviously a witch (because hags like that have no soul). The nearby town of Oudewater emerged with some honour – no one was ever proved to be a witch here and this is held up as a symbol of the honesty of the locals, who refused to take bribes to rig the weights. It is also seen as the first stirrings of people power and a turn against the church, which was behind the witch-hunts.

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Jerusalem Syndrome

21 Jul

Jerusalem syndrome is a mental disorder characterised by delusions, fantasies or other similar states of mind triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians, and Muslims of many different backgrounds. The syndrome manifests itself in different ways. Sufferers could be convinced they are biblical figures, like Ronald Hodge who started referring to himself as the Messiah during his time in Israel. After turning 40 and experiencing the dissolution of his marriage, Hodge (who was given a pseudonym) turned to the Bible for comfort and embarked on a trip to Jerusalem. There, he began referring to himself as the Messiah and received treatment at Herzog Medical Centre in Jerusalem. Others may become obsessed with an idea or duty that they need to fulfill. In 2007, Dr. Pesach Lichtenberg, who was the head of men’s psychiatry at Herzog Medical Centr at the time, said many sufferers feel a relentless need to make the world better and they believe they have a messianic mission which they must fulfill. The most contentious point of debate among scholars of Jerusalem Syndrome is what one group of doctors has called Type III cases: people with no history of mental illness who become overwhelmed by the city’s religiosity and temporarily lose their minds.

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Jersey Ghosts

21 Jan

Eerie goings on abound on the island of Jersey. Despite being the largest of the Channel Island archipelago and having a slew of interesting and creepy tales its legends don’t seem to be written about as much as other places in the British Isles, which is a shame given that it is just as rich in myth and superstition as anywhere on mainland Britain. Aside from the more well-known stories that follow, a great deal of personal experiences are also reported by ordinary island folk: from strange lights to full-blown apparitions. Certainly, folklore and tales of the supernatural have always been integral to this island and the yarns that emanate from here range widely, featuring everything from fairies and witches to ghosts and giants. Most famously, on the north coast of Jersey tales used to spread of the Black Dog of Bouley Bay, a terrifying beast with huge teeth and eyes the size of saucers that roamed the coastline. The tales were probably invented by smugglers hoping to scare away parishioners from the coast while they landed their cargoes of brandy and tobacco but there are plenty of other tall tales told throughout the Channel Islands – of cursed wreckers, devil’s footprints, ghostly children and wailing grey ladies.

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Canterbury Tales

13 Nov

One of England’s most venerable cities, Canterbury offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. The city began as a Belgic settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernum, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish borders. With the Roman empire’s collapse came the Saxons, who renamed the town Cantwarabyrig; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert, who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death, Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become the first cathedral in England. Canterbury, like any other city with such rich history, has its fair share of spooky ghost stories, including the Girl in Grey in St Margaret’s Street, the mysterious figure in white at the Marlowe Theatre, and the Robed Man of Sudbury Tower.

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Kong: Fact or Fiction?

10 Jul

King Kong is a fictional giant movie monster, resembling a colossal gorilla, that first appeared in the 1933 film of the same name. The character has since appeared in various media, having inspired countless sequels, remakes, spin-offs, imitators, parodies, cartoons, books, comics, video games, theme park rides, and even a stage play. In the publicity materials for his first appearance, Kong was described as, ‘a prehistoric type of ape’ and, while gorilla-like in appearance, he had a vaguely humanoid look and at times walked upright in an anthropomorphic manner. A much more recent screen incarnation of Kong – Peter Jackson’s 2005 film – while far less successful and iconic than the 1933 original, presented an altogether more interesting take on the character. Jackson opted to make Kong a gigantic silverback gorilla without any anthropomorphic features. Kong looked and behaved more like a real gorilla: he had a large herbivore’s belly, walked on his knuckles without any upright posture, and even beat his chest with his palms as opposed to clenched fists. In order to ground his Kong in realism, Jackson and the Weta Digital crew gave a name to his fictitious species, Megaprimatus kong, which was said to have evolved from the Gigantopithecus – a species of prehistoric giant ape, which actually once existed. Is there, however, any real-life precedent for Kong himself?

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Legend of the Black Swine

13 Jul

London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.

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The Lost Souls of Mingulay

9 Mar

There are few places in the British Isles that are more grim, isolated and ill-omened than the barren isle of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides. Located 12 miles south of Barra, it is known for its important seabird populations, including puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and razorbills, which nest in the sea-cliffs. Today, iron age remains on the island offer mute testimony to the two thousand years or more of continuous habitation that Mingulay once knew. The culture of the island was influenced by both Vikings and early Christians and between the 15th and 19th centuries Mingulay was part of the lands of Clan MacNeil of Barra. These are merely footnotes in history, however, for the island has now been more or less deserted for more than a century. The island was abandoned by its residents in 1912 and has remained virtually uninhabited ever since – today it is no longer used even for grazing sheep. Whatever happened to the lost souls of Mingulay?

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Shadows in the Fens

12 Jan

I’ve often considered the Fens, a vast tract of land stretching north from Cambridge right up to Boston in Lincolnshire, to be one of the strangest and most compelling of all English landscapes. They are not beautiful in the conventional picturesque sense but, with their huge skyscapes and curious translucency of atmosphere, they are quite unlike any other part of England. For centuries they were an inhospitable wilderness of quaking bogs and marshland, punctuated by clay islands on which small communities eked out a living cutting peat for fuel, using reeds for thatching and living on a diet of fish and wildfowl. Although systematic draining in the seventeenth century transformed the Fens, reclaiming the land and making it extremely fertile, its towns and villages remained scattered and isolated. Even today, much of the land is either water-logged or under water altogether, making it extremely treacherous. The few remaining areas of undrained fenland, in particular, are notorious for the tales told there of drownings, disappearances and all manner of other strange sights and sounds. There has even long been a theory – not mine I hasten to add – that paranormal activity might be conducted through water vapour, making damp areas like the Fens a fertile breeding ground for all manner of supernatural phenomena. Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that ghost stories are one thing that this dark corner of East Anglia is not short of.

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Midwinter Ghosts

15 Dec

There is something about the festive season that irresistibly brings ghosts to mind. Who can tell whether it is the wintery chill, the creeping mist or the inscrutable blanket of snow, but the period approaching Christmas seems inextricably bound with the supernatural. A traditional time for tales of unquiet spirits and the restless dead, the Yuletide season has inspired writers from Charles Dickens to M R James to write ghost stories either during or expressly set at Christmas. But is there perhaps more to this? Are these fictional ghostly tales actually based on real-life paranormal occurrences? There is no shortage of material to support such a conclusion – in Britain alone, there are spooky stories of things that go bump in the night each Christmas that span the length and breadth of the country. From spirits that roam the bleak North York Moors, to haunted houses in the garden of England, from ghastly deeds in the cobbled streets of old London town to dark legends of the highlands of Scotland, almost every region has its own chilling seasonal tales to recount. So, whilst everyone else is buying presents and preparing for Christmas parties, spare a thought for the more sinister side of the festive period and its very own Midwinter ghosts.

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Megalodon, Terror of the Deep

24 Aug

Megalodon, an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 1.5 million years ago, is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. If you have a thing about sharks, then I’d suggest that you don’t read any further – Megalodon really is the stuff of nightmares. This prehistoric marine predator may have grown to a length of up to 100 feet and, with teeth the size of Olympic javelins, it possessed by far the most powerful bite of any creature that ever lived. Today, it is generally accepted that Megalodon’s descendant, the Great White Shark, is nature’s ultimate hunter. To put things into perspective, then, imagine a creature capable of swallowing a Great White whole in a single bite! With such fearsome natural weaponry at its disposal, it is hardly surprising to hear that, back in the Cenozoic Era Megalodon wasn’t too picky about its diet and in fact ate pretty much whatever it wanted. If imagining a shark the size of a battleship makes you shudder, then you might find the thought that Megalodon is now extinct fairly reassuring. Until, that is, you hear about the persistent, bloodcurdling reports that this super-shark still exists and continues to hunt at the depths of the oceans of the 21st century. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

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