Listen to ““THE RISE AND FALL OF BELA LUGOSI” and More True Stories For Halloween! #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
Picture this: a struggling movie studio gambles big on an adaptation of a story that’s existed for a long time. The director lobbies to cast a relatively risky actor. The movie is ultimately a success based on the performance of that actor and goes on to spawn a connected universe of films that dominate the box office for a decade to come. No, it’s not the story of Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man. It’s the story of Bela Lugosi’s life and the monster movie that made him a star, Dracula.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
Nearly a century has passed, and the grisly crime committed by two sisters remains as mysterious as ever. We’ll look at the Papin Sisters and the shocking gruesome murder they committed in 1933 that horrified France. (The Murderous Papin Sisters)
You think you know what Halloween is all about, but you might not—not really. After all, it wasn’t always about carving pumpkins and collecting candy. (Why Celebrate Halloween)
When it comes to murder investigations, the skeletons in everyone’s closets – even those who are only peripheral characters in the drama – can still have their darkest secrets revealed. (The Mystery of the Poisoned Powder)
And if I was to tell you I had a story called “The Woodchipper Murder” you might think it sounds like something out of the movie “Fargo” – but for Helle Nielsen, it was all too real. (The Woodchipper Murder of Newtown, Connecticut)
But first… He began as an obscure actor, became a universally loved monster, but ended in destitution. We’ll look at the career of Bela Lugosi. (The Rise and Fall of Bela Lugosi)
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Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: THE RISE AND FALL OF BELA LUGOSI=====
From his humble origins as an actor in his native Hungary to the heights of worldwide fame to a long slide into dependency and obscurity, Bela Lugosi’s career was marked by bad luck and tragedy. His poor command of English made him both mistrustful yet easily duped, and his success as Dracula turned his career into one where he played increasingly cheap knockoffs of the Count.
It’s difficult to tell how much of what happened to Lugosi was bad luck, and how much was the result of his own choices. By many accounts, he was vain, impetuous, and insecure. He had lavish tastes and no discernible skill with money. But he was also polite, and many of his former colleagues remember him fondly, if with a certain reserve. To many, he seemed from another era: chivalrous, aristocratic, and often aloof.
Perhaps it was this reserve, this distance from other people, that allowed him for so long to conceal his slide into substance reliance and bankruptcy. When the spotlight faded for Lugosi, he never recovered. In the end, he was laid to rest with his famous Dracula costume – the figurative memento that defined his legendary status as the first king of horror.
In the early 1900s, political tension was rife in Hungary. The nation declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on October 17, 1918. Immediately after independence, a communist revolution toppled the government. Lugosi, who had fought in WWI, agitated for the communists within the local community of actors. When the communist regime was itself replaced, though, he found himself blacklisted at every state theater, effectively ending what had been a promising stage career.
Lugosi and his wife fled the country in 1919, hiding under bales of hayas they crossed the border to Vienna. From Vienna, they went to Berlin, where Lugosi quickly established himself as a leading man in German cinema. From Berlin, he made his way to the United States, passing through Ellis Island in March 1921.
Although “Bela Lugosi” seems like the perfect stage name for an actor who became famous playing dark, seductive Eastern Europeans, his real name would have sounded even more foreign to American ears. He was born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó, in the town of Lugos, Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania), in 1882. When he began acting on the Hungarian stage, he took the name of his birthplace and called himself Bela Lugossy.
Over time, Lugossy became Lugosi – particularly when the dramatic Hungarian introduced himself to American audiences – and the name is now synonymous with the vampire he made famous.
The crash of 1929 left the movie industry in shambles, and no studio suffered more than Universal. They needed a hit, though it’s unlikely they expected it to come in the form of a horror movie based on a stage play based on a book. Indeed, it’s surprising the project got off the ground at all, given that Bram Stoker’s estate was locked in a litigation battle over an unauthorized version of the story (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu).
To help drum up interest, early publicity for the movie claimed Lugosi himself was descended from European nobility – a claim that was completely unsubstantiated. Regardless, Dracula turned out to be a hit beyond all expectations, and Lugosi became instantly recognizable as the Count.
It wasn’t until 1931 that Lugosi played the big screen role that would make him famous. After playing the titular character in Draculaonstage hundreds of times, Tod Browning’s film made him a household name – and his recognizable look remains a pop culture staple to this day.
But it is perhaps surprising that the man who seemed born to play Dracula didn’t play the Count until he was 48 years old. Still, the impact of his performance was electric. Lugosi recalled the effect he had on the women who saw him both onstage and off:
“Women wrote me letters. Ah, what letters women wrote me! Young girls. Women from 17 to 30. Letters of a horrible hunger. Asking me if I cared only for maiden’s blood. Asking me if I had done the play because I was, in reality, that sort of Thing. And through these letters, couched in terms of shuddering, transparent fear, there ran the hideous note of hope.”
The success of Dracula was a huge boost to Universal, and they quickly turned to make more monster movies. Naturally, Lugosi was immediately considered for Universal’s next project: Frankenstein. The actor was brought in for a screen test, which sadly has not survived.
At the time, Frankenstein’s monster hadn’t been designed to look the memorable way it does now, so for the test, Lugosi wore a cheap wig. By all accounts, it only trivialized his performance. As a result of the disastrous screen test, the original director was fired, and the filmmakers began looking elsewhere for their monstrous lead.
Lugosi, however, was reportedly uninterested in the project due to its lack of lines. “I was a star in my country – I won’t be a scarecrow in this one!” he allegedly said.
After Boris Karloff was cast as Frankenstein’s Monster instead of Lugosi, one would assume these two titans of horror would have become fierce rivals. From time to time, however, there was genuine warmth in their relationship.
According to Karloff, his relationship with Lugosi was a little complicated:
“Poor old Bela. It was a strange thing. He was really a shy, sensitive, talented man who had a fine career on the classical stage in Europe. But he made a fatal mistake. He never took the trouble to learn our language. Consequently, he was very suspicious on the set, suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene-stealing. Later, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.”
On the other hand, Lugosi’s widow later said, “Bela didn’t like Karloff; he thought he was ‘a cold fish.'”
Despite playing Dracula onstage to great success, Lugosi had a hard time breaking into film. He often played supporting roles or bit parts. When Universal chose Tod Browning to direct Universal’s adaptation of Dracula, however, he lobbied hard to give the part to Lugosi.
At first, Universal was unconvinced, but Lugosi volunteered to cut his salary down to $500 a week, an insultingly low figure at the time.
This became a pattern for Lugosi, who often found himself dramatically underselling his talents. He was constantly bankrupt, forced to accept measly offers to ward off his creditors. One of his biographers estimates:
“Lugosi from 1929 averaged less than $10,000 a year. From these earnings, one must deduct an agent’s fee of 10%. Certainly Lugosi was one of the worst paid of Hollywood’s so-called stars.”
Throughout Hollywood history, many good actors break through with a desirable role, only to find themselves stuck playing a version of that part for the rest of their lives. But few actors had it as bad as Lugosi. After his success in Dracula, he found he could not be cast as anything else.
Universal had a stranglehold on the Dracula property, so Lugosi was often asked to play mad scientists and sinister hypnotists. Even in these cases, however, it’s clear that he was directed to be as much like the Count as possible.
Lugosi was able to keep a sense of humor about it, though, saying:
“I discovered that every producer in Hollywood had definitely set me down as a “type” – an actor of this particular kind of role. Considering that before Dracula I had never, in a long and varied career on the stage of two continents, played anything but leads and straight characters, I was both amused and bitterly disappointed.”
In the late 1940s, Lugosi was definitively past his prime. A string of low-quality B-movies had damaged his name, and his substance use was well-documented in Hollywood circles. A comeback seemed impossible. A potential opportunity for Lugosi hovered in the form of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a satire of the now old Universal Horror franchise and one of the few high-budget studio pictures the aging star had a real shot at getting.
The only problem was the producers were somehow unaware Lugosi was still alive, so he was almost passed over for the role of Dracula in the film. It was a low point for Lugosi, almost being overlooked for the very part that had made him famous.
He was eventually cast in the spoof, but it did little to turn his fortunes around and was his last picture for a major studio.
In 1951, Lugosi returned for a final time to reprise the role that made him famous, agreeing to a short run of performances of the stage version of Dracula across smaller markets in Britain. He hoped these performances would lead to a successful run in London, but that was not to be the case.
Mismanagement plagued the tour from the beginning. It was a huge mess, and though it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction, it’s clear it was a bitter disappointment for Lugosi.
Originally, Lugosi hoped to gain the interest he needed after the six-week tour to reinvigorate his career. But soon, he had been on the road for over a dozen weeks, and there was still no sign of interest from London.
At 68 years old, Lugosi could no longer handle the rigors of such an extended tour. He began dropping cues and saying the wrong lines. After 20 weeks on tour, the show closed and Lugosi retreated to the US.
Despite his courtly demeanor, Lugosi could often be temperamental and vindictive. Nowhere is this more evident than in his divorce from his fourth wife, Lillian Arch Lugosi. When she filed for divorce, he wrote her a poem in a letter that, while intended as a bittersweet summation of their relationship, had some troubling lines:
Leave me – if you can.
If you think you have the strength to do it.
Don’t even be sorry; don’t be sorry for me – go!”
Lilian left. In the court documents that followed, she testified that Lugosi was incredibly jealous and kept a constant watch on her; she “could not even go to the dentist without his calling up to check.”
Since Lugosi did not attend the hearing, the court sided with Lilian. Knowing Lugosi did not have the money to pay her proper alimony, the judge sentenced him to pay only $1 per month.
If there is one specter that haunted Lugosi, it was his inability to manage money. He was always a lavish spender, and a combination of his habits, addiction, and an ever-growing pile of debt meant Lugosi spent much of his life on the edge of bankruptcy. And as his poverty forced him to accept less money for his work, his stardom faded.
In the later years of his life, Lugosi was often penniless. He relied on charity, often from unexpected quarters. Frank Sinatra is rumored to have made a number of anonymous donations to Lugosi. Sinatra’s motives for this are unknown; perhaps he admired the older actor or had fond memories of his movies.
Regardless, the money must have been greatly appreciated, as Lugosi had been reduced to a shadow of his former self, commenting to one interviewer, “Now I am the boogieman.”
In 1955, with his career in shambles and substance use that was out of control, Lugosi checked himself into Los Angeles General Hospital’s psychopathic ward. It was a remarkable step for someone in the public eye to take, especially given the attitudes of the time.
In a hearing a few days later, a judge committed Lugosi to the state ward at Lugosi’s insistence. There, the actor read a new script by Ed Wood and reportedly received a letter a day from Hope Lininger, one of his fans. When he was released from the ward, he was smiling, and told reporters he felt like a “new man.” He married Lininger soon after that; she became his fifth wife.
Unfortunately, the good times were not to last long. One year later, Lugosi had a heart attack in his Los Angeles home – his wife reportedly found him in unresponsive on his bed.
Lugosi’s service was distinguished more by who wasn’t there than who was. Most of his directors, many of his costars, and numerous friends did not attend. Perhaps most conspicuous in absentia was Boris Karloff – Lugosi’s longtime friend/rival and fellow monster.
Lugosi clung to his legacy until the end and was interred wearing his costume from Dracula. Everything was original, except the cape – he had given it to his son, who put it up for auction in 2011.
Lugosi’s final film role is a legendary piece of schlock: Plan 9 From Outer Space. At the time of his passing, Lugosi was working on a number of potential projects with filmmaker Ed Wood. One of these projects was called The Vampire’s Tomb, for which they had already shot some material. After Lugosi passed, Wood decided to build a zombie movie around the footage.
To fill out the five minutes he had filmed with Lugosi, Wood used his wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in. It’s laughably clear in the remaining footage that the man looks nothing whatsoever like Lugosi.
While some have decried this movie as a cynical cash grab on Wood’s part, there is significant evidence that he meant it as a loving tribute to his friend. Lugosi had become a kind of muse for Wood, offering his work a legitimacy the rest of Hollywood denied him.
When Weird Darkness returns… nearly a century has passed, and the grisly crime committed by two sisters remains as mysterious as ever. We’ll look at the Papin Sisters and the shocking gruesome murder they committed in 1933 that horrified France.
Plus… you think you know what Halloween is all about, but you might not—not really. After all, it wasn’t always about carving pumpkins and collecting candy.
STORY: THE MURDEROUS PAPIN SISTERS=====
On February 2, 1933, Christine and Léa Papin committed a gruesome crime. But were they motivated by madness, blood lust, or class warfare? To this day, we still don’t know—it’s just one of the many questions about this perplexing case that has gone unanswered for nearly a century.
Born into a dysfunctional, working-class family, the Papin sisters were raised by aunts, uncles, and a Catholic orphanage. Christine had wanted to become a nun, just like the girls’ older sister, Emilia, but their mother forbade it. Instead, both Christine (born in 1905) and Léa (born in 1911) took up employment as “the help” for wealthier families.
In 1926, the two sisters, who preferred to work together, took live-in positions as maids for René Lancelin, a retired solicitor who lived in Le Mans, France with his wife Léonie and their adult daughter Genevieve.
By all outward appearances, things were going well. The sisters ate the same food as the rest of the family, lived in heated rooms, and were paid the standard wage of the time. Christine in particular was praised for her cooking and needlework.
What wasn’t so apparent was that the sisters worked 14-hour days, with only one half-day off each week, and that Léonie Lancelin was a demanding mistress, who often performed “white glove tests” throughout the house and chastised the two maids severely for any perceived failings.
On the night of February 2, 1933, the Lancelins were supposed to meet for dinner at the home of a family friend, and weren’t expected back at the house until late. Léonie and Genevieve had been out shopping, and when they returned home before dinner to find the house dark, the mistress of the house was not pleased.
According to Christine and Léa Papin, the power had gone out when Christine plugged in a faulty iron. Since the family wasn’t expected home until late, the sisters had decided to wait until the following morning to have the iron repaired.
The sisters later testified that when they told Léonie about what happened, she flew into a rage and attacked them on the landing of the stairs. At first, the two sisters were just defending themselves, especially when Genevieve joined in the fray. Or so they said. But their ire quickly went far beyond self-defense.
The two sisters gouged out the eyes of their employers and, once the women were blinded and unable to fight back, beat them with a pewter pitcher and a hammer, then stabbed them with a knife taken from the kitchen. Observers of the crime scene later noted that it appeared as though the women’s bodies had been scored like the loaves of bread that Christine prepared each day.
Once they were done, they locked all the doors in the house and went up to their room, taking only a candle for light. That evening, when his wife and daughter didn’t arrive at dinner as planned, René Lancelin became concerned. Returning home and finding the house dark and all the doors locked, he fetched the police.
The police climbed over a garden wall to access the house, where they found the gruesome crime scene. Both women had been beaten and mutilated to the point that they were almost impossible to recognize. Léonie’s eyes were found in the folds of the scarf around her neck; one of her daughter’s eyes was found underneath her body, the other on the stairs.
When the police broke open the door to the sisters’ room, they expected to find Christine and Léa in a similar state. Instead, they found them huddled together in bed, naked. A candle was burning and there was a hammer on a nearby chair, with blood and bits of hair still clinging to it. Upon being questioned by the police, the sisters immediately confessed.
The story of the gruesome murder caused a firestorm in the media. Psychologists came to the defense of the women, arguing both that the two sisters were suffering from folie à deux, otherwise known as shared psychosis or shared delusional disorder. Meanwhile, notable French thinkers declared that the attack was a manifestation of class warfare, the inevitable result of the mistreatment and exploitation of the working class by the wealthy.
Among those who discussed and analyzed the case were such notable French intellectuals as Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Jean Genet. As for the sisters themselves, their explanation was simpler. “I’d rather have had our bosses’ hides than for them to have had ours,” Christine declared.
While the sisters claimed self-defense, their representation cited a family history of mental illness, including a cousin who had died in an asylum and an uncle who had committed suicide.
The court was having none of it, however, and decided that the two sisters were guilty after only 40 minutes of deliberation. Christine was sentenced to death by guillotine, while Léa, who was the meeker of the two and was considered to have been in the thrall of her dominant older sister, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
Separation of the siblings proved to be particularly hard on Christine. The elder sister suffered bouts of depression and even one episode in which she attempted to claw out her own eyes—an event that led to her being confined to a straitjacket and also contributed to the commutation of her sentence to life in prison.
At one point, authorities relented and allowed the two sisters to see each other again, at which time Christine reportedly “threw herself” at Léa and began unbuttoning her blouse. This, along with their having been found in bed together in the aftermath of the murders, led some to suspect an incestuous relationship between the two siblings.
What we do know is that Christine eventually stopped eating, at which time she was transferred from the prison to a mental hospital in the city of Rennes. However, on May 18, 1937, she died of cachexia, more commonly known as wasting, as a result of refusing to eat.
Léa fared better, serving only eight years of her ten-year sentence before moving to the town of Nantes under an assumed identity. There, she made a living for herself the only way she knew how—as a maid.
Léa Papin is thought to have died in 1982, though Claude Ventura, a French film producer, claims that he encountered her when he was working on the 2000 documentary En Quête des Soeurs Papin, or In Search of the Papin Sisters. The woman that he claimed was Léa had suffered a stroke which rendered her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. She died in 2001.
In Search of the Papin Sisters wasn’t the only film on the subject. The crime has served as the inspiration for dozens of books, movies, plays, songs, television shows, comic books, paintings, and even an opera. Perhaps the most famous example is “The Maids”, a 1947 play by Jean Genet that is still staged to this day and has since been adapted to film.
The story of the Papin sisters captured the attention of journalists, intellectuals, and psychologists of the time, and it has continued to fascinate storytellers in the years since. Though we may know what motivated the sisters to become killers, it’s a story that we have told one another over and over in an effort to understand this brutal and shocking crime.
STORY: WHY CELEBRATE HALLOWEEN=====
Trick-or-treating, Halloween parties, costumes, carving pumpkins, and haunted houses—if you grew up celebrating Halloween this is likely how you envision October 31 always was, but the holiday has changed a lot over the years. In fact, if you were able to time travel back and watch the Halloween origin you probably wouldn’t even recognize it. So before you start a list of Halloween costume ideas, plan your Halloween party games, set up your outdoor Halloween décor, or brush up on your Halloween trivia; keep listening for the true Halloween origin story.
As it exists today in the United States, Halloween is a holiday when we can all indulge in the darker, creepier side of life and eat loads of candy. It’s a lot of fun, a little spooky, and anything but serious. Historically, however, the holiday was religious in nature and extremely significant to the culture of the people who celebrated it.
“The word, ‘Halloween,’ is a contraction of the Scottish term ‘All Hallows’ Eve,’ which simply described the night before All Saints Day,” says Brian Sterling-Vete, PhD, historian, Halloween expert, and author of Paranormal Investigation: The Black Book of Scientific Ghost Hunting and How to Investigate Paranormal Phenomena. The first records we have of it being used this way date back to around 1555 AD.
All Saints Day started with early Christianity. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the feast of All Martyrs’ Day from May 13 to November 1 and turned it into All Saints’ Day. Then, in 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church added All Souls’ Day (which focuses on praying for the dead) on November 2. The evening before was subsequently called All Hallows’ Eve…and then Halloween.
At that time, it was a religious day bearing very little resemblance to the modern holiday. The word Halloween and the holiday as we’ve come to understand it today, didn’t become popular until around 1745, says Sterling-Vete.
In America, Halloween is always celebrated on October 31. Countries that celebrate Halloween as we do, like Canada, share the same day. However, not everyone is as Halloween-obsessed as Americans.
In England, Halloween is generally not celebrated at all. That was a result of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, the United Kingdom celebrates a completely unrelated holiday around this time (on November 5th, to be precise): Guy Fawkes Day, which revolves around the execution of an infamous traitor, features bonfires, burning effigies, and fireworks.
In Mexico, people celebrate Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. While it takes place from October 31 to November 2, it is very different in tone from Halloween. Yes, people do dress up as colorful skeletons and celebrate in the streets, but the point is to honor the dead and welcome their spirits back to Earth during this time, not to be fearful of them. To celebrate, people also adorn the graves of their ancestors with decorations and offer food to let them know that they haven’t forgotten them.
Halloween origin traces back to Gaelic and Celtic rituals dating back at least 2,000 years and it is from these we get the date and many of the ways we celebrate it.
The Gaelic festival of Samhain was traditionally held on the 1st of November to mark the official end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The celebrations always began the evening before, on the 31st of October, about halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, says Sterling-Vete.
It also draws from the three-day pagan religious festival celebrated by the Celts around October 31 to honor the harvest and prepare for “the dark half of the year.”
The ancients believed that on this day, the line between the living and the spiritual realm was blurred—meaning that ghosts from beyond could visit the living and monsters could find their way into people’s houses. Those celebrating aimed to ward off as much evil as possible. They held special rites to keep monsters, witches, and evil fairies at bay. They told tales about mythological heroes and the underworld. And they dressed up as monsters to ward off evil and to disguise themselves so they wouldn’t be kidnapped or consumed by actual monsters.
As Christianity became more popular, it added some of the Catholic holidays that fall right around Halloween, mixing the religious and pagan traditions. Why? To help further the transition from paganism to Catholicism. And it worked. All Souls’ Day embraced many of Samhain’s celebrations, including bonfires, parades, and costumes—though now people mainly dressed up as saints, angels, and devils.
Starting to sound familiar?
Most of us aren’t afraid of being eaten by monsters nor do we feel the need to celebrate the harvest so why has Halloween stuck around? Halloween was a tough sell in early colonial America because of the Puritan’s strict religious beliefs, says Sterling-Vete. However, the holiday remained popular in the less-religious circles and as more and more Europeans arrived and mingled with the Native Americans, traditions evolved even further.
Halloween festivities meshed with autumn festivals and featured celebratory public events, singing and dancing, ghost stories, and pranks. But it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that Halloween really became popular in the United States. Why? Irish immigrants escaping the Potato Famine brought their ideas and traditions about Halloween along with them.
In this new whimsical context, Americans adopted the Celtic tradition of dressing up and transformed it into what we now know as trick-or-treating. By the 1930s, Halloween became almost completely secularized, while All Saints’ Day became more of a religious holiday. To this day, some devout people are strictly against celebrating October 31 as anything other than a religious day.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Halloween became increasingly about commercialism and profits. In fact, Americans were expected to spend more than $8 billion on Halloween in 2020, according to the National Retail Federation.
So how is Halloween celebrated these days? Costumes, parties, toys, and candy are some of the most popular ways but there are lots of fun Halloween traditions:
Carving Jack-O-Lanterns: Around 1895 it became traditional to carve Jack-o’-lanterns with ghoulish faces. They were originally carved from turnips (neeps) in the U.K. but pumpkins were substituted in the United States. Once carved, they were turned into lanterns and were carried by “guisers” to ward off any evil spirits and because in Christian folklore they represent a soul who has been denied entry into both heaven and hell, Sterling-Vete explains. Thankfully, we no longer carry them around with us (freeing up kids’ hands for more candy!).
Trick-or-Treating: Roaming bands of costumed kiddos going door-to-door begging for candy is probably the most time-honored Halloween tradition. This custom is directly related to what is called guising, because of the disguises or costumes worn to hide from evil spirits and can trace its origins back to 16th century Scotland, says Sterling-Vete. The phrase “trick or treat” is meant to jokingly scare the homeowners into giving treats or small toys.
Decorating with skulls, skeletons and ghosts: Fake human bones are often displayed in silly ways on Halloween but they are a remnant of the ancients’ very serious fixation on the dead returning on October 31st—whether in spirit or with whatever is left of their mortal bodies. The imagery of the skull may also refer to the Christian tradition of Golgotha, or Calvary, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. “The skull serves as a reminder of death being ever-present amidst life, and of our short and transitory human existence,” says Sterling-Vete.
Avoiding black cats, scarecrows and witches: “Bogies” or evil spirits were a fixture in the Halloween origin and they live on today in the form of black cats, witches, and other things seen as omens or personifications of that evil. Scarecrows aren’t just used to scare birds away but evil spirits as well on Halloween.
Bobbing for apples: The harvest traditions are almost forgotten in modern Halloween celebrations (or are incorporated into Thanksgiving in November) but this classic party game reminds us of our agricultural roots. Bobbing for appleswas originally a Roman party game and not related to Halloween at all but rather true love. Apples were placed in water or hung from a string and each was given the name of a single man or woman. Then the unwed people would try to bite the apple of the one they wanted to marry.
Halloween movies and haunted houses: You wouldn’t be amused if someone holding a bloody knife chased you down an alley on a regular day so why do people seek out terrifying experiences at Halloween time? Frightening situations, including these scary Halloween movies, release a flood of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine—powerful chemicals in your brain that increase feelings of excitement, alertness, and pleasure. In real life, these neurotransmitters would activate your body to fight or escape but these Halloween activities allow us to have those feelings but in a completely safe space.
And of course… Halloween parties: What’s more essential to a holiday celebration than a party? Halloween parties range in size from a family at home, to school-wide bashes with parades, to community extravaganzas. Parties are typically decorated in the Halloween colors of black, orange, and purple along with silly or spooky decor. Then it’s all about the entertainment. Put on some spooky music, or do karaoke, or watch the Weird Darkness Halloween Live Scream with all of your friends! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the opportunity for a blatant self-plug).
Coming up… When it comes to murder investigations, the skeletons in everyone’s closets – even those who are only peripheral characters in the drama – can still have their darkest secrets revealed.
And if I was to tell you I had a story called “The Woodchipper Murder” you might think it sounds like something out of the movie “Fargo” – but for Helle Nielsen, it was all too real. Those stories are on the way when Weird Darkness returns.
STORY: THE MYSTERY OF THE POISONED POWDER=====
You have to say this much for murder: it has a way of ripping off masks. Investigations into untimely and suspicious deaths have a remarkable tendency to reveal how the most seemingly normal, respectable people can have hidden sides that are embarrassing at best and appalling at worst. Even when incidental players prove to have nothing directly to do with the crime itself, the revelations about their personal lives that are inadvertently revealed by these inquiries provide many unexpected sideshows.
One outstanding example came about as the result of a sudden death in a quiet Australian neighborhood. While this young woman’s demise was weird, the private lives of the main figures involved were even weirder.
On May 25, 1946, 20-year-old Audrey Cameron, a resident of Goulburn, a city in New South Wales, was suffering from a severe toothache. Having no other relief from the pain handy, she took what she believed was headache powder from the purse of Gloria Emerton, a 15-year-old friend who was staying at her home, and swallowed a dose.
A few moments later, Cameron became violently ill. She went into convulsions and died within a half-hour. A post-mortem revealed that the “headache powder” she ingested was full of strychnine. She had taken enough poison to kill several people.
Suicide was easily ruled out. Cameron had no serious personal problems and was in cheerful spirits in the period before she was poisoned. As she lay dying, Audrey cried to her parents, “Don’t let me go. I don’t want to leave you.”
Was the poison accidentally placed in the powder at the chemist’s store? That relatively innocent explanation was quickly dashed when Gloria and her mother stated that they had used some of the same powder with no ill effects. This had to have been a premeditated murder. But who was the intended target: Cameron or Gloria Emerton? And who could possibly have a motive to kill either girl?
Two years previously, Audrey had given birth to a son, William, who was being raised by her parents. At first, investigators thought the boy’s father might be involved in the murder, but they soon learned that the man was an Army soldier now stationed some distance away. After Audrey became pregnant, he had apparently exited her life completely. She had had no subsequent boyfriends. The police, faced with a total lack of suspects and finding themselves completely at a loss to get to the bottom of the mystery, placed all their hopes on the inquest into Cameron’s death, which was scheduled for July 31. (The date of the inquest had been set back in order to allow police and their expert witnesses to complete their investigations.) As one newspaper reported confidently, “The story to be given the coroner will, it is believed, offer a solution to many of the strange features of the case.”
Instead, “the story” merely made the case even stranger. The inquest opened on a startling note. One Shirley May Larkham testified that the previous October, Gloria Emerton confided to her that she was in “a certain condition”–she had no idea who among her numerous male friends was the father–and asked if Larkham could “get some stuff for her.” When Larkham refused, Emerton vowed that if she could find no way to end her pregnancy, she would kill herself. A chemist named Archibald Pratt revealed that on two occasions the previous year he had sold strychnine to Gloria’s mother, Mary Emerton. [Note: During the inquest, it was learned that Gloria’s biological mother was Pamela Ford, Mary Emerton’s daughter. Mary had raised Gloria from birth. The girl had grown up believing Pamela was her sister. She had only learned the truth about a year before.]
Mary Emerton admitted buying the poison, but stated that it had been used to kill rabbits and foxes, and that none of the strychnine had been left. Gloria denied the truth of Larkham’s story. “It’s a lie,” she declared. “I never said such a thing to anybody, and I have never been in trouble.”
On the second day of the inquest, a detective testified that when he had asked Gloria if there was anyone who might have wanted to poison her, she gave the unsettling reply, “Only Ormley [Mary Emerton’s son] or Mum.” She added, “Ormley has been cruel to me for years, and Mum told me I would get myself into trouble if I told the police about it.” Gloria also told how soon after the tragedy, “Mum came out of the bedroom with a tin and said, ‘I’ve got some poison here and I had better plant it, because if the police find it they will think I had something to do with Audrey Cameron’s death.'” Mary Emerton dismissed the girl’s entire story as “a wicked lie.”
The inquest was taking a decidedly “I, Claudius” sort of turn. One Henry McGuiness testified that late the previous year, he had overheard his landlady, Emily Hegarty, say to Ormley, “If you could only get rid of Gloria you would come into your money which you are entitled to and go to Goulburn and work on your mother’s property. She does not even pay you. You are a fool.” (Hegarty denied having ever said any such thing, and pointed out that McGuiness had an impressively long criminal record.)
When she took the stand, Gloria testified that before leaving home to go to the Cameron house, she took a packet of Presto headache powder from its usual canister and placed it in her purse. She averred that she had used powder from that same packet before, and professed to have no idea how it could have become poisoned. She now denied having told police that Ormley had beaten her and regularly treated her badly. She stated that she “didn’t remember” telling them about Mary Emerton disposing of a tin of poison. In short, the Emertons told one version of events, the police and other witnesses another. Despite the grim nature of the proceedings, Gloria often smiled and laughed during her testimony, earning her a rebuke from the coroner.
After all the witnesses had spoken, the coroner gave his summing-up. He stated that he had no doubt that Audrey Cameron had died of strychnine obtained from Gloria Emerton’s handbag. It was clear that Cameron had believed it to be an innocent headache powder, and that she had no intention of committing suicide. It was obvious that the poison could not have gotten into the wrapper accidentally; it was deliberately placed there by some person. “It is quite conceivable that the poison was placed in the handbag in such circumstances that the person who did so is not criminally liable. But whether that is so or not, whoever did it has not come forward to tell us anything about it. It is likely that no harm to Audrey Cameron was even intended.” He believed that the police “had investigated every conceivable avenue of inquiry,” but it remained unknown how the poison had gotten into Gloria’s handbag. The coroner closed by expressing his sadness that a young girl should have lost her life in such a dreadful fashion, and he expressed his deep sympathy with the Cameron family.
So that was that. A verdict of “accidental death,” but a death that took place under the murkiest of circumstances–circumstances that were fated to be left completely unanswered.
Gloria Emerton seemed remarkably unfazed by the unsolved mystery. After the inquest closed, she cheerily told a reporter, “Despite many things said about me during the inquest, my boy friend still loves me. He met me at a skating rink after he had finished at the Technical College. I was lucky to be alive. I could easily have taken the poison myself.”
STORY: THE WOODCHIPPER MURDER=====
The case of Helle Crafts was the first Connecticut murder case that was tried without a body. Well, sort of.
Helle Crafts was born Helle Nielsen. She was an only child, born on July 7, 1947 in Denmark. She grew up in a small village and enjoyed school. She spoke French and English, and understood German, Norwegian, and Swedish. She attended college in England, and later moved to France where she worked as an au pair until taking a job as an airline attendant with Capital Airways. She loved to travel. When she learned Pan American Airlines was looking for flight attendants, she applied and got the job. She was sent to Miami Florida for training, and it was in Miami that she met Richard Crafts.
Richard was born on December 20, 1937 in New York City. He was not a great student and after some time in college, he decided the military was the way to go. He joined the marines, where he learned to fly. After he left the military he worked as a pilot.
Helle and Richard started a relationship, despite the fact that he was already engaged. Helle became pregnant in 1975, and the couple married in 1979 and settled in Newtown, Connecticut. In the 1980’s Newtown was a very quiet place, rural, with plenty of lakes and streams. The couple had three children, and both parents continued to work, Helle as a flight attendant, Richard as a pilot, in addition to taking on a job as an auxiliary policeman.
The couple had no money problems, in fact their combined income placed them within the top 5% of wage earners in America. As an auxiliary policeman, Richard earned no wage, and often responded to police calls without authorization. He secured a job in nearby Southbury, where he was paid seven dollars an hour, and even paid for expensive training seminars which taught him police procedure.
Richard controlled all the money in the relationship, which allowed him to purchase whatever he wished without Helle’s knowledge. He collected guns, and even invested a great deal of money in landscaping equipment, which seemed to go unused.
They hired an au pair, Dawn Thomas, to help with the children, as both Helle and Richard traveled a lot for work. They were well liked in the community; some went so far as to say they were the perfect family. But appearances can be deceiving.
It was not uncommon for Helle to appear in public with bruises on her face. One of her friends later reported to police that Helle was being abused by her husband. Richard would disappear for days at a time, never saying where he was going. By 1985, Helle learned that Richard was engaged in multiple affairs. That September, she met with divorce attorney, Diane Anderson, who encouraged her to hire a private investigator. She hired Oliver Mayo, and as much as it pained her, he did his job, and caught photos of Richard kissing another flight attendant outside her home in New Jersey.
On November 18, 1986, Helle returned to Newtown after a long flight from Frankfurt, West Germany. She got a ride from another flight attendant, and when she arrived at home, she knew Richard and the kids were home. She was excited, especially with Thanksgiving coming up.
A massive, uncharacteristic, snowstorm rolled in. The snow was wet and heavy, causing power outages throughout Newtown. When Richard woke the next morning, power had still not been restored to their area.
Richard woke Dawn and the children up. He asked her to hurry and take them to his sister’s house in Westport, where they still had power. When she asked him where Mrs. Crafts was, he told her she had gotten out of bed, dressed, took her flight bags, and left the house an hour earlier.
At his sister, Karen’s house, he told her he would return later that day, after returning home to check on the electricity. Once the power was restored, he picked up the children and returned home.
Two days later, on November 20, Helle had not shown up for work. A colleague called Richard, who told her she had just called him from Europe. Helle, he said, had gone to Denmark to see her sick mother for a few days. He informed her that she had taken her flight luggage and parked her car in the Pan American Airlines employee car park. He gave this same story to the nanny and the children.
After an additional three days, Helle’s car remained untouched. Items that had been in her car after her last trip to Germany remained in the back seat. Her friends knew it was uncharacteristic of her to leave without saying anything to them; something was wrong. By the 29th, Lena Johannsson, a friend, obtained Helle’s mothers phone number in Denmark. Upon calling, however, they were informed that her mother was not ill, and she had not seen Helle. In fact, she didn’t expect to see her until the following April.
It didn’t help that Richard kept feeding them different stories, even once admitting that he did not know her whereabouts. Concerning them even more was the fact that Helle had told them about Richard’s volatile temper, even saying, “If something happens to me, don’t think it was an accident.” On December 1, they moved forward and filed a missing persons report.
Helle’s friends relayed to police their concerns about Richard. They told them about Helle’s fears, that if anything happened, it wouldn’t be an accident. They believed this extended to her disappearance. Detectives brought in Richard, who maintained his story, that she had gotten up early, dressed, took her flight bags, and left.
Detectives interviewed Dawn Thomas, who held nothing back, telling them about the morning of November 19, when she and the kids were rushed to Richard’s sisters house. She told them they left around 6:30am, and Richard didn’t linger; he quickly rushed off and didn’t return until 7pm that evening. Later that evening when she inquired again about Helle’s whereabouts, Richard told her he didn’t know. It wasn’t until the next morning, when she asked once again, that she was given the story about Helle going to visit her mother in Denmark.
Dawn began to notice things, like pieces of carpet had been cut out and were missing from the master bedroom. Richard had an explanation though – he had spilled kerosine, and it needed to be replaced.
Newtown police asked Richard if he would submit to a lie detector test. He agreed, and passed, with no deception being recorded. However, during this time, he did admit to lying about the story he gave regarding Helle visiting her mother. He told police that he and Helle were having difficulties and he didn’t want to “air his dirty laundry.”
While lie detector tests are not admissible in court, usually the concern is around those who fail. Richard passed, but some detectives, and even Oliver Mayo, believed he was somehow involved.
On December 11, Richard was again questioned. He had an answer for everything.
Q: “Did you know that your wife hired a private investigator?”
Q: “Why would your wife tell her friends she was afraid for herself regarding serving you divorce paper, and tell them to check on her if something happened?”
A: “I cannot imagine her saying this, it is completely out of character for her to say this.”
Q: “What’s the story with your bedroom rug? Apparently you removed it, or cut some pieces out of it. Can you explain this to me?”
A: “All the rugs in the house are being removed and replaced.”
Q: “What was spilled on the rug in your bedroom?”
Q: “Did you cut pieces out of the rug?”
A: “Yes. Two feet at a time. It’s easier to remove it that way.”
Q: “What did you do with the rug you took out of the bedroom?”
A: “Dumped bedroom rug in the Newtown landfill one week ago. It was blue in color.”
Mayo, convinced Richard had done something with Helle, felt he needed to do something. He recruited a few helpers and they took a trip to the landfill. Days of searching through garbage paid off though, when they located a piece of rug, nearly identical to the on that had been cut out. Unfortunately, no blood evidence was found.
Police pulled Richard’s bank and credit card statements where they found several odd purchases made around the time of Helle’s disappearance. A freezer, that was not found in the home, bed sheets, a comforter, and a woodchipper. There was also a receipt for a chainsaw, that was later recovered in Lake Zoar, covered in hair and blood, which matched Helle’s DNA.
Joseph Hine, a local man who worked for the town of Southbury, and happened to drive a snowplow, reported that on the night of November 18, while he was plowing the roads, he noticed a rental truck, with a woodchipper attached, parked close to the shore of Lake Zoar. He didn’t think much of it, until the search of the Crafts’ house made news.
Hine was able to lead detectives to the location, where they found several small pieces of metal, human tissue, a fingernail with pink nail polish, bone chips, human hair, the crown of a tooth, and type O blood. Helle had type O.
Had Helle been killed, her remains fed through a woodchipper?
With the help of a forensic dentist, the tooth crown was positively matched to Helle’s dental records. Though they did not have a “body,” they could conclude that Helle was dead, likely hit in the head and stored in the missing freezer until she was frozen solid. Her body was then cut into pieces with the chainsaw, then fed through the woodchipper, which projected her remains into the rental truck.
The Connecticut State Medical Examiner’s Office issued a death certificate on January 13, 1987 and Richard was immediately arrested.
State medical examiner obtained a pig carcass that was fed through a woodchipper. Inspecting the pig’s bone chips afterward showed similar results as the ones found by the lake.
Richard Crafts’ trial began in May 1988 in New London, and ended in July with a hung jury, when a single juror voted in favor of acquittal before walking out of deliberations and refusing to return. A second trial in November 1989, this time in Norwalk, resulted in a guilty verdict.
Richard Crafts was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Interestingly, he never served the whole sentence. Connecticut once had “good time” legislation which allowed a considerable amount of time to be shaved off an inmate’s sentence for good behavior. After serving just 32 years, Richard was released in January 2020 to Isaiah House, a halfway house in Bridgeport, and then to a shelter for homeless veterans.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! You can email me anytime with your questions or comments at email@example.com – and you can find the show on Facebook and Twitter, including the show’s Weirdos Facebook Group on the CONTACT/SOCIAL page at WeirdDarkness.com. Also on the website, if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, click on TELL YOUR STORY – or call the DARKLINE toll free at 1-877-277-5944. That’s 1-877-277-5944.
All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
“The Rise and Fall of Bela Lugosi” by Quinn Armstrong for Ranker’s Entertainment
“The Murderous Papin Sisters” by Orrin Grey for The Line Up
“Why Celebrate Halloween” by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for Reader’s Digest
“The Mystery of the Poisoned Powder” from Strange Company
“The Woodchipper Murder of Newtown, Connecticut” from The Scare Chamber
Again, you can find link to all of these stories in the show notes.
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
And a final thought… “Horror (such as in novels and films) is the natural reaction to the last 5,000 years of history.” – Robert Anton Wilson
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.