“DANVERS – THE INSPIRATION FOR ARKHAM ASYLUM” and More Terrifying True Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Mother Shipton was known for her prognostication skills – but she was even more well known for her grotesque appearance. So much so that she was nicknamed The York Witch, and the Devil’s Daughter. But others have another name for her… hoax. (The Devil’s Daughter) *** A family heirloom begins acting strange when a woman moves into her deceased grandmother’s home. (I Moved Into My Dead Grandmother’s House) *** Is it possible that ghosts, visions, and other paranormal experiences are not only real – but also good for your mental health? (Therapeutic Ghosts) *** After it closed, the old hospital site became a popular destination for thrill-seeking kids looking for the scare of a lifetime. Why does Danvers State Hospital rank among history’s most infamous asylums? (The Infamy of Danvers State Hospital) *** Attend any amateur magic show and most assuredly you will hear a certain word at least once. Why do illusionists use this word? What does it mean – if anything? We’ll look at the very interesting history behind the word “Abracadabra.” (Say The Magic Word)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
“Arkham’s Dark Past” was written by Darren Marlar
“I Moved Into My Dead Grandmother’s House” by Kelsey for Your Ghost Stories: https://tinyurl.com/rjcvecr
“The Devil’s Daughter” by Marc Hartzman for Weird Historian: https://tinyurl.com/vp6vlo4
“Therapeutic Ghosts” by Andreas Sommer for Aeon: https://tinyurl.com/r7xcv2v
“The Infamy of Danvers State Hospital” by William DeLong for All That’s Interesting: https://tinyurl.com/rd223yu
“Say The Magic Word” from Ancient Origins: https://tinyurl.com/sl9nlzm
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The hospital has a long and brutal history, beginning when its own architect became mentally unwell and hacked his workers to death with an axe. He was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in the very same hospital he had been building.
The hospital was built in honor of Elizabeth Arkham, the mother of hospital founder Amadeus Arkham. The hospital’s dark history began in the early 1900s when Amadeus’ mother, Elizabeth, having suffered from mental illness most of her life, committed suicide. However, it was later revealed that the man had actually euthanized his mother and had and repressed the memory. Amadeus then decided, as the sole heir to the estate, to remodel his family home in order to properly treat the mentally ill, so others might not suffer the same fate as his mother. Thus the establishment of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.
During the period of the hospital’s remodeling, Amadeus Arkham received a call from the police notifying him that a serial killer by the name of Martin Hawkins had referred to the asylum shortly before escaping the state psychiatric hospital. They wanted to know his opinion about what the murderer’s state of mind might be. Shortly after that phone call, Amadeus Arkham returned to his home to find his front door wide open. Inside, he discovered the mutilated corpses of his wife and daughter in an upstairs room, with Martin Hawkins alias, “Mad Dog” carved into his daughter Harriet’s body. Despite this family tragedy, the hospital officially opened that November.
With his sanity in tatters, Dr. Arkham designed a floor plan that evoked occult runes, he believed that the pattern would drive away the mysterious bat that haunted his dreams. One of its first patients was Martin “Mad Dog” Hawkins, whom Amadeus insisted on treating personally. After treating Mad Dog for six months, Amadeus strapped him to an electroshock couch, then deliberately and purposefully electrocuted him to death. The staff treated the death as an accident, but it contributed to Amadeus’ gradual descent into mental illness himself, which he began to believe was his birthright. Eventually, Amadeus was a patient in his own hospital after he tried to kill his stockbroker in 1929, where he dies scratching the words of a binding spell into the walls and floor of his cell with his fingernails and belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a loud voice.
The Elizabeth Arkham Hospital for the Criminally Insane is better known by fans of comic book as simply, “Arkaham Asylum” – the fictitious asylum in the city of Gotham where the criminally insane rogues gallery of Batman’s foes are sent for treatment.
But Arkham Asylum is based on a real place – a hospital by the name of Danvers. So infamous is the hospital, that aside from writers at D.C. Comics, but even H.P. Lovecraft took inspiration from it for his writings.
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…
Mother Shipton was known for her prognostication skills – but she was even more well known for her grotesque appearance. So much so that she was nicknamed The York Witch, and the Devil’s Daughter. But others have another name for her… hoax. (The Devil’s Daughter)
A family heirloom begins acting strange when a woman moves into her deceased grandmother’s home. (I Moved Into My Dead Grandmother’s House)
Is it possible that ghosts, visions, and other paranormal experiences are not only real – but also good for your mental health? (Therapeutic Ghosts)
After it closed, the old hospital site became a popular destination for thrill-seeking kids looking for the scare of a lifetime. Why does Danvers State Hospital rank among history’s most infamous asylums? (The Infamy of Danvers State Hospital)
Attend any amateur magic show and most assuredly you will hear a certain word at least once. Why do illusionists use this word? What does it mean – if anything? We’ll look at the very interesting history behind the word “Abracadabra.” (Say The Magic Word)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER=====
History remembers Nostradamus and his predictions well, but lesser known is his English counterpart, Mother Shipton. The Yorkshire seer was born in a cave in 1488 as Ursula Soothtell (or Southeil) and was known for her grotesque appearance before she gained fame for her foresight.
As described in 1686’s The Strange and Wonderful History of Mother Shipton, little Ursula’s body “was long, but very big-bon’d, great Gogling eyes, very sharp and fiery, a Nose of unproportionable length, having in it many crooks and turnings, adorned with great Pimples, which like vapors of brimstone gave such a lustre in the night, that her Nurse needed no other Candle to dress her by.”
With looks like that and the power to see the future, it’s no wonder she became known as the Witch of York.
As a young girl, she heard other names as well, like “the Devil’s Bastard”, “Devil’s daughter,” and “Hag-Face.” Yet, those who dared to insult her may have gotten a taste of Ursula’s developing powers. According to an article from 1911, she was said to have had “a peculiar power over her school fellows, and ability to pull their hair, pinch them and throw them to the ground without being near them.”
By the age of 24, despite her pimpled nose and “hag face,” Ursula married a carpenter named John Shipton. From then on, she became known as “Mother” Shipton. Her gifts gained fame gradually, starting with local triumphs, such as helping a neighbor find a thief and giving women “advice in matters of the heart.”
Later she predicted the death of Cardinal Wolsey in 1530. Mother Shipton soon solidified her status as England’s greatest soothsayer. She went on to allegedly predict other events, such as the English Civil War in the mid 1600s, Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power, and the Restoration of the monarchy:
“Forth from the North shall mischief blow,
And English Hob shall add thereto;
Mars shall rage as he were wood,
And Earth shall drunken be with Blood.
But tell’s what’s next, Oh cruel fate!
A King made Martyr at his gate.
The just Kind dead, the Woolfe shall then
With Blood usurp the Lyons Den.
But death shall hurry him away,
Confusion shall a while bear sway,
Till fate to England shall restore
A King to Reign as heretofore;
Who mercy and justice likewise
Shall in his Empire exercise.”
Following those events, she foresaw the Great Fire of London in 1666:
“A time shall happen, when a Ship shall come sailing up the Thames, till it come against London, and the Master of the Ship shall weep, and the Mariners of the Ship shall ask him, Why he weeps, since he hath made so good a Voyage? And he shall say, Ah! what a goodly City this was, none in the World comparable to it, and now there is scarce left an house, that can let us have drink for our Money.”
Other prophecies included the rise of Queen Elizabeth and her reign, the death of Mary Queen of Scots, various wars, the gunpowder plot, the reign of James I, the automobile, the telegraph, iron ships, steam engine, tunnels under water, and aviation.
At least, these are the stories that have been told over the centuries. Mother Shipton may, however, be more legend than legendary. At least some of her prophecies were admitted as hoaxes in 1873 by Charles Hindley, a publisher who in 1862 reprinted a 17th-century book on Shipton.
Hindley took a few liberties in his version by adding lines about things that had already come to pass. For example:
“Under water men shall walk,
Shall ride, shall sleep, shall talk.
In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black, in green.”
But by the time of his publication, as a 1919 article notes, “aeronautics had reached a primitive stage of development half a century before Hindley wrote, and no fewer than fourteen submarines had been patented in England prior to 1727.”
The prankster also added a few near-future events that caused Shipton believers to panic, like the people of Somerset, England, who were convinced an earthquake and flood would destroy their homes in 1879. Hundreds of families abandoned their homes in fear. Despite the fact that Somerset was not destroyed, people were fooled once again just two years later, believing Shipton had foreseen the end of the world:
“And this world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.”
Thousands across England and other countries were convinced they were doomed. As for the predictions that occurred during Shipton’s lifetime (which lasted till 1561), no evidence exists to support any of them as true. Yet, whoever Mother Shipton was—witch, soothsayer, Devil’s daughter, or just a woman with odd features—she’s carved her place in the weird annals of history and serves as a reminder of humanity’s timeless desire to believe and our ability to find truth in prophecies.
STORY: I MOVED INTO MY DEAD GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE=====
I think I was about 12-13 at the time, maybe a little older it’s hard to recall. But my step-dad’s mom had recently died of lung cancer, and she had lived about a 5 minute drive across town from us. I had me, my mom, my older sister, 2 younger sisters, younger brother and step-dad living in an undecorated 2 bedroom semi-detached house… I mean, the fact that my step-dad had never put a door on the cellar in that house that led right under the stairs was freaky enough. I was already convinced that house was somewhat unusual.
But what was truly eerie was when we upped and packed one day on a whim – my grandma’s house was 4 bedroom (weird she still lived there even when all her kids had moved out and she was divorced…?) and he just sent me and my older sister up on bikes to clean out what was left. All the furniture was gone minus some heirlooms in the garage which had been used as a storage room, the sofas and kitchen etc, and we just moved in like, that night. She couldn’t have been dead for longer than 2 months at that point but left the house in her will between my step-dad and his 2 siblings so he agreed to pay them their percentage if they let us live in it. To be honest, we needed the space.
I’ll mention that my mom and grandma did not get along. My grandma was a tight, annoying, clean-freak who wouldn’t let you get your mucky paws on any of her things. Ironically, it had been her idea to let us stay there before we moved into the 2 bedroom, but she drove my mom so crazy we moved out to the smaller house early, before it was finished.
So a few months along the line, once we’d moved into my grandma’s now vacant house, we started talking about getting rid of some of the heirlooms. My mom hated the old granddaughter clock that had been left in the hallway, and put it into the garage with the other things. That’s when it started. Now that clock hadn’t worked for years – it was simply an ornament at that point. It hadn’t told the time even when my grandma had lived there, or when I had lived there temporarily prior. My mom wanted to give it to my step-dad’s sister – it was a granddaughter clock, and so would be passed to the next woman in the family. But we weren’t on great terms with his sister and so it was put into storage.
A couple of nights later… It only starts to ring. Like loud, warped ringing, at weird times in the night. It rang sporadically too – not with even pauses in between – and it didn’t ring to symbolise the hour – no, it rang until you went downstairs, into the garage and fiddled with the broken bits and cogs and knocked it off. Then you’d go upstairs, lie in bed, and an hour later or so it’d start again. Normally a clock like that would be muffled from the cushioning of the garage door, and the kitchen one as you had to go through the kitchen to get there. But it was like it was in my bedroom with me, right next to my head. Sometimes it even did it during the daytime.
Eventually it stopped doing it altogether. The thing just stopped ticking, which it also randomly did on and off. You’d be stood in the kitchen and you’d hear it ticking quietly. Even if you turned on a tap you’d distinctively hear it. I can’t even remember the last time it went off, or if we even own it anymore. I don’t live with my mom anymore so, I don’t know if she just got rid of the stupid thing.
But I also remember one day when we got a leak. It was right under where the boiler cupboard was upstairs, so nobody seemed too bothered. My step-dad was some kind of handyman, and so he just looked at the boiler and said he’d have to get someone in to fix it as soon as possible.
One day, me and my mom with one of my younger sisters and my eldest sister were in the kitchen having lunch – directly below the boiler. My youngest sister was asleep in her Moses basket in the living room, and my brother was out with my step-dad. To be honest, it was my mom, the skeptic, who pointed it out.
Not super heavy ones, just like someone was passing from room to room upstairs. We all froze, just listening. My mom just shrugged it off, changing the subject, and it stopped eventually. We carried on eating lunch, but my mom said something. It was something to do with my grandma – I can’t remember what as it was so long ago – but I don’t think she said anything malicious or spoke badly of her. It may have just been regarding the belongings we wanted to get rid of to make more room.
But something set off the footsteps again as we heard the boiler cupboard door slam – bear in mind the only people home were in the kitchen or sleeping in the living room – which was mega weird as we never heard it open. It was a noisy door too, really squeaky and dragged on the carpet.
Then a bang. Water began to seep through the ceiling, and my mom ran upstairs to find the boiler had exploded at the back, pipes burst, and water had leaked out into the back wall which was connected to her built-in wardrobe. It soaked her whole bedroom carpet.
I think this happened twice more. I wasn’t home for either of them. All the doors and windows had been shut that day, too, so nobody had gotten in. And if they had… Why would they target our boiler? I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore. The woman was already hard to live with when she was alive… Apparently worse when she was dead.
STORY: THE INFAMY OF DANVERS STATE HOSPITAL=====
Hathorne Hill in Danvers, Massachusetts harbors a beautiful Kirkbride building with its gothic-style spires and red brick construction. The judge that presided over the Salem Witch Trials, John Hathorne, once lived here a few hundred years ago. Perhaps that dark history cursed the building that currently sits on Hathorne Hill.
The facility that once housed Danvers State Hospital is now home to a residential community featuring fully renovated apartments. However, the building’s dark past make it one of the creepiest monuments to insane asylums in the world.
The idea was that the facility would be self-sustaining, meaning that everything it needed was on site. The overall design, as seen from the air, looked like a bat in mid-flight. The design supposedly helped draw breezes through the entire facility.
Although the building looked beautiful on the outside, inside was a different matter.
Danvers State Hospital was originally called the State Lunatic Asylum at Danvers (a cheerful name, for sure). It was part of the countrywide concept – at least in the late 1800s – that people with psychological problems needed to be cured inside specially made facilities. Construction on Danvers State Hospital started in 1874 and the first patients moved in sometime in 1878. At its peak, the facility had 40 buildings and maxed out at 450 patients. The goal of the facility was to completely cure patients of their ills.
Danvers was a success at first. By 1900, Danvers State Hospital employed 125 people and had treated more than 9,500 patients since opening. Its good reputation proved to be Danvers’ undoing. Over the next 20 years, the population of the hospital swelled to more than 2,000 patients despite its official capacity of 450.
Administrators begged the state for money to build more rooms and hire more staff, to no avail.
Then the horrific abuses started.
Patients walked through hallways naked. They lived in their own filth from a lack of basic hygiene. People weren’t being cured. Their symptoms got worse.
Shock therapy and straight jackets became the norm. The thinking was that jolts of electricity could either alter a patient’s brain or make the patient afraid of shock therapy and scare them into submission. When they misbehaved, they were put in straight jackets and forgotten.
When shock therapy failed, the lobotomies started. In 1939, the medical community was looking for a permanent fix to the crisis facing mental health facilities. The population of the hospital swelled to 2,360. A total of 278 people died at the hospital that year.
Medical science saw lobotomies as a cure for anyone’s insanity, and as a way to stop the deaths.
Neurology experts often called Danvers State Hospital the “birthplace of the prefrontal lobotomy.” The moniker came from its widespread use, but also from the procedures refinement at the hospital.
Visitors to Danvers State Hospital in the early 1940s reported lobotomy patients wandering aimlessly through the halls of the hospital. At least the patients didn’t complain, because many of them just stared blankly at walls. Patients walked around in a drugged, hellish daze. No one would let them leave and held them against their will. That is, if patients could express their thoughts after having a portion of their brain ripped out during surgery.
The lack of funding continued. Buildings fell into disrepair, which made conditions worse. Finally, the state intervened.
Portions of Danvers State Hospital were shut down in 1969. Most of it closed in 1985 before a permanent shutdown in 1992, after which the site became a popular destination for thrill-seeking kids looking for a good scare.
In 2005, a development company bought the rundown property and tore down a large portion of the buildings. The renovations turned the once-macabre lunatic asylum into Avalon Danvers Apartments. Construction faced delays in 2007 when a mysterious fire broke out and burned a majority of the new construction and some trailers. Perhaps the tormented spirits of the dead put a curse on the place.
The Hell House on the Hill (one of several unkind yet accurate nicknames for Danvers State Hospital) looks brand-new today. However, its reputation remains. Horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft used Danvers as the inspiration for his Arkham Sanitarium. If the name Arkham sounds familiar, DC Comics latched onto the name and created Arkham Asylum as the backdrop for where Batman’s ultra-psychotic villains come from.
The only remnants of the horrific practices that went on in Danvers State Hospital are the gravestones in two nearby cemeteries, which contain 770 bodies. Some headstones only have numbers as opposed to names. Even in death, administrators at Danvers State Hospital did not dignify their patients.
Up next… is it possible that ghosts, visions, and other paranormal experiences are not only real – but also good for your mental health?
Attend any amateur magic show and most assuredly you will hear a certain word at least once. Why do illusionists use this word? What does it mean – if anything? We’ll look at the very interesting history behind the word “Abracadabra.” These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns!
STORY: THERAPEUTIC GHOSTS=====
“If the fruits for life of the state of conversion are good, we ought to idealise and venerate it, even though it be a piece of natural psychology; if not, we ought to make short work with it, no matter what supernatural being may have infused it.” [From The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James]
There is a long tradition of scientists and other intellectuals in the West being casually dismissive of people’s spiritual experiences. In 1766, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that people who claim to see spirits, such as his contemporary, the Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, are mad. Kant, a believer in the immortality of the soul, did not draw on empirical or medical knowledge to make his case, and was not beyond employing a fart joke to get his derision across: ‘If a hypochondriac wind romps in the intestines it depends on the direction it takes; if it descends it becomes a f–––, if it ascends it becomes an apparition or sacred inspiration.’ Another ‘enlightened’ enemy of other-worldly visions was the chemist and devout Christian, Joseph Priestley. His own critique of spirit seership in 1791 did not advance scientific arguments either, but presented biblical ‘proof’ that the only legitimate afterlife was the bodily resurrection of the dead on Judgment Day.
However, there is good cause to question the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions. About a century after Kant and Priestley scoffed at such experiences, William James, the ‘father’ of American scientific psychology, participated in research on the first international census of hallucinations in ‘healthy’ people. The census was carried out in 1889-97 on behalf of the International Congress of Experimental Psychology, and drew on a sample of 17,000 men and women. This survey showed that hallucinations – including ghostly visions – were remarkably widespread, thus severely undermining contemporary medical views of their inherent pathology. But the project was unorthodox in yet another respect because it scrutinised claims of ‘veridical’ impressions – that is, cases where people reported seeing an apparition of a loved one suffering an accident or other crisis, which they had in fact undergone, but which the hallucinator couldn’t have known about through ‘normal’ means. The vicinity of such positive findings with ‘ghost stories’ was reason enough for most intellectuals not to touch the census report with a bargepole, and the pathological interpretation of hallucinations and visions continued to prevail until the late-20th century.
Things slowly began to change in about 1971, when the British Medical Journal published a study on ‘the hallucinations of widowhood’ by the Welsh physician W Dewi Rees. Of the 293 bereaved women and men in Rees’s sample, 46.7 per cent reported encounters with their deceased spouses. Most important, 69 per cent perceived these encounters as helpful, whereas only 6 per cent found them unsettling. Many of these experiences, which ranged from a sense of presence, to tactile, auditory and visual impressions indistinguishable from interactions with living persons, continued over years. Rees’s paper inspired a trickle of fresh studies that confirmed his initial findings – these ‘hallucinations’ don’t seem inherently pathological nor therapeutically undesirable. On the contrary, whatever their ultimate causes, they often appear to provide the bereaved with much-needed strength to carry on.
Rees’s study coincided with writings by a pioneer of the modern hospice movement, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in which she emphasised the prevalence of comforting other-worldly visions reported by dying patients – an observation supported by later researchers. Indeed, a 2010 study in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics addressed the need for special training for medical personnel regarding these experiences, and in recent years the academic literature on end-of-life care has recurrently examined the constructive functions of death-bed visions in helping the dying come to terms with impending death.
Kübler-Ross was also among the first psychiatrists to write about ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs) reported by survivors of cardiac arrests and other close brushes with death. Certain elements have pervaded popular culture – impressions of leaving one’s body, passing through a tunnel or barrier, encounters with deceased loved ones, a light representing unconditional acceptance, insights of the interconnectedness of all living beings, and so on. Once you ignore the latest clickbait claiming that scientists studying NDEs have either ‘proven’ life after death or debunked the afterlife by reducing them to brain chemistry, you start to realise that there’s a considerable amount of rigorous research published in mainstream medical journals, whose consensus is in line with neither of these popular polarisations, but which shows the psychological import of the experiences.
For instance, although no two NDEs are identical, they usually have in common that they cause lasting and often dramatic personality changes. Regardless of the survivors’ pre-existing spiritual inclinations, they usually form the conviction that death is not the end. Understandably, this finding alone makes a lot of people rather nervous, as one might fear threats to the secular character of science, or even an abuse of NDE research in the service of fire-and-brimstone evangelism. But the specialist literature provides little justification for such worries. Other attested after-effects of NDEs include dramatic increases in empathy, altruism and environmental responsibility, as well as strongly reduced competitiveness and consumerism.
Virtually all elements of NDEs can also occur in psychedelic ‘mystical’ experiences induced by substances such as psilocybin and DMT. Trials at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Imperial College London have revealed that these experiences can occasion similar personality changes as NDEs, most notably a loss of fear of death and a newfound purpose in life. Psychedelic therapies are now becoming a serious contender in the treatment of severe conditions including addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder and treatment-resistant depressions.
This brings us back to James, whose arguments in The Varieties of Religious Experience for the pragmatic clinical and social value of such transformative episodes have been mostly ignored by the scientific and medical mainstream. If there really are concrete benefits of personality changes following ‘mystical’ experiences, this might justify a question that’s not usually raised: could it be harmful to follow blindly the standard narrative of Western modernity, according to which ‘materialism’ is not only the default metaphysics of science, but an obligatory philosophy of life demanded by centuries of supposedly linear progress based on allegedly impartial research?
Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not approved by everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos may strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.
By making this quasi-clinical proposal, I’m aware that I could be overstepping my boundaries as a historian of Western science studying the means by which transcendental positions have been rendered inherently ‘unscientific’ over time. However, questions of belief versus evidence are not the exclusive domain of scientific and historical research. In fact, orthodoxy is often crystallised collective bias starting on a subjective level, which, as James himself urged, is ‘a weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can’. No matter if we are committed to scientific orthodoxy or to an open-minded perspective on ghostly visions and other unusual subjective experiences, both will require cultivating a relentless scrutiny of the concrete sources that nourish our most fundamental convictions – including the religious and scientific authorities on which they rest perhaps a little too willingly.
STORY: SAY THE MAGIC WORD=====
Magic words are often used by magicians whilst performing magic tricks on stage. One of the most common of these incantations is ‘Abracadabra’. Although this word is known to many, it is likely that fewer people are aware of its origins. Apart from ‘Abracadabra’ there are several other magic words that are popularly used by stage magicians. Like ‘Abracadabra’, however, the origins of these words are also a mystery to most people.
While ‘Abracadabra’ is commonly used by stage magicians today for the entertainment of the masses, this word is said to have its origins in the ancient Roman world. Back then, this word was not used for performances, but was believed to contain potent magical power within it.
According to one theory, the word ‘Abracadabra’ is derived from the Hebrew words ‘ab, ben, ruach hakodesh’, which translates as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Thus, the word ‘Abracadabra’ is in fact an invocation of the Holy Trinity .
According to another theory, this magic word is derived from another magic word known as ‘abraxas’. This word is special, as its letters, in Greek numerology, adds up to 365, i.e. the number of days in a year .
Yet another theory for the origins of the word ‘Abracadabra’ is the Aramaic phrase ‘Avra kadavra’. Fans of the Harry Potter series would perhaps be familiar with this phrase, as a similar spell, ‘Avada kedavra’ is featured in the books. In the Harry Potter series, ‘Avada kedavra’ functions as a killing curse, and J. K. Rowling, who authored the books, is said to have drawn inspiration for this spell from the original Aramaic version of it. The original meaning of these magical words, according to Rowling, was ‘let the thing be destroyed’, and it was used for curing illnesses .
In any case, ‘Abracadabra’ was used as a talisman over the ages. The 2nd century Roman savant, Serenus Sammonicus, for instance, provides a description in his Liber Medicinalis about the way this magic word may be used. This talisman involved the word being written on a piece of parchment repeatedly, with a letter being removed each time, until only one is left, leaving an upside-down triangle pattern made from the letters.
In the Middle Ages people believed that any event they couldn’t explain was possibly caused by magic, and much of the population of Medieval Europe deeply feared having an enchantment cast on them so they used Abracadabra to ward off any potential wrongdoing sent in their direction. As in Roman times, it was also used to “cure” disease.
The use of this ‘Abracadabra’ pyramid is mentioned by writers in later ages, including the 16th century Eva Rimmington Taylor, who wrote in ‘ The Troublesome Voyage of Capt. Edward Fenton’ : “Banester sayth yt he healed 200 in one yer of an ague by hanging abracadabra about their necks.”
And Abracadabra was still around in the 18th century, as Daniel Defoe wrote in his 1722 work ‘ Journal of the Plague Year’ , that the superstition was unfortunately being applied during to that epidemic : *** “People deceiv’d; and this was in wearing Charms, Philters, Exorcisms, Amulets, and I know not what Preparations, to fortify the Body with them against the Plague; as if the Plague was but a kind of a Possession of an evil Spirit; and that it was to be kept off with Crossings, Signs of the Zodiac, Papers tied up with so many Knots; and certain Words, or Figures written on them, as particularly the Word Abracadabra, form’d in Triangle, or Pyramid… How the poor People found the Insufficiency of those things, and how many of them were afterwards carried away in the Dead-Carts.” ***
Eventually, people stopped believing in the efficacy of ‘Abracadabra’ to heal or protect them and this word became relegated to stage magicians performing magic tricks .
Another common magic word is ‘Alakazam’. This incantation is said to have its origins in the Arabic language, and there is a similar-sounding word in that language, ‘Al Qasam’, which means oath. It has also been suggested that ‘Alakazam’ is a proper name, and that this magic spell was supposed to invoke the powers of a certain person by the name of Alakazam.
‘Hocus Pocus’ is another magic word that is often used by magicians. Unlike ‘Abracadabra’, the origin of this magic phrase lies in the more recent past, around the early 17th century, to be more precise. Like ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Alakazam’, there are several theories trying to explain the origin of this phrase.
One, for instance, is offered by John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1694. Tillotson suggests that this is a corruption of ‘hoc est corpus meum’ (this is my body), and is a parody of the consecration during the Catholic Mass .
Another suggestion is that the words just sounded exotic and this pair of words was coined simply because they rhymed. It may be a nonsense word made up solely to impress people during a magic trick.
In addition to these traditional magic words, there are also many others that have appeared in more recent times. Some of the better-known ones include ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’, used by the Fairy Godmother in Disney’s Cinderella, ‘Shazam’, used by DC Comic’s Billy Batson to transform into the superhero Captain Marvel, and ‘A-la Peanut Butter Sandwiches’, which is uttered by the Amazing Mumford in Sesame Street .
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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.
“I Moved Into My Dead Grandmother’s House” by Kelsey for Your Ghost Stories
“The Devil’s Daughter” by Marc Hartzman for Weird Historian
“Therapeutic Ghosts” by Andreas Sommer for Aeon
“The Infamy of Danvers State Hospital” by William DeLong for All That’s Interesting
“Say The Magic Word” from Ancient Origins
Again, you can find link to all of these stories in the show notes.
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.” – Proverbs 29:23
And a final thought… “How you make others feel about themselves says a lot about you.” – Unknown
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.