Waterphone

The haunting crying instrument that you’ve heard in thriller / horror movies.

Invented around 1968 by Richard Waters, the waterphone is an atonal musical instrument which has vertical metal rods of different lengths attached to a metal resonator pan/bowl. Inside the resonator is a bit of water, similar to a water drum, so when the vertical rods are played (with a mallet or more frequently with a bow) the resonator can echo and bend the sounds. The effect ranges from spacey to creepy.

Given its haunting sound the waterphone has been used to create tension and uneasiness in a variety of TV shows, theatrical productions, and movies. You can hear it in ALIENS, Poltergeist, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, etc. It’s used for jump scares such as in The Matrix when Neo’s new cellphone rings. It’s been used in multiple productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead has used the waterphone, Tom Waits has used the waterphone, as well as a host of contemporary classical composers.

Waterphones aren’t all scary though. Composer and activist Jim Nollman used the waterphone on Playing Music With Animals, where he played a waterphone to orcas.

A demonstration of the waterphone.

Egyptian Mummies: From Medicine to Paint

For hundreds of years Europeans used ground up Egyptian mummies as medicine and paint pigment.

The Arabic word mūmiyā (which later became “mummia”) was the name for the black sticky asphalt material that came out of the ground used as a sealant, an adhesive, and as medicine around the ancient world. Pliny the Elder and others wrote about the medicinal uses for mummia which became a bit of a cure-all for a range of ailments.

Unfortunately mummia the petroleum product looked like another black substance that was a byproduct of the Egyptian embalming process. As such the word “mummia” came to mean both the petroleum product AND the byproduct of Egyptian mummification, which was then even further confused as meaning an entire mummified body. This is how we got the word “mummy”. Unfortunately this series of mistakes also led to hundreds of years of cannibalism.

Cannibal Medicine

Since the petroleum based mummia was used both externally as a salve as well as ingested internally, the Egyptian mummy version of mummia became used in the same ways. The 11th century physician Constantinus Africanus even described mummia as a “spice” found in the sepulchers of the dead. Soon the human version replaced the petroleum version and people began to crumble & grind human corpses for medicine.

With the Crusades, Europeans learned of mummia and its medicinal possibilities. This significantly increased European demand for Egyptian mummies and by the 15th-16th centuries there was a thriving trade in mummies. Thousands of bodies were being exhumed and shipped to Europe to be turned into medicines. In 1586 English merchant John Sanderson shipped 600 pounds of mummies to London to sell at various apothecaries. This was fueled in part by orientalism, that Egyptian mummies had some sort of exotic ancient knowledge or power.

Europeans would consume portions of Egyptian corpses for help with general pain, ulcers, inflammation, epilepsy, cough, difficult labor, etc. – none of which worked, or if they worked it wasn’t the mummy that was the active ingredient. The practice was so common Shakespeare included mummy as an ingredient in the witches’ potion in Macbeth. Demand was so high that by the 17th century some mummy dealers were producing counterfeit mummies. Newly deceased people, animals, or prisoners who had been purposefully starved & executed, were put through a process to simulate ancient Egyptian mummies.

After a few hundred years of medicinal cannibalism Europeans began to express doubt as to the practice’s efficacy (and ethicality). The 16th century herbalist Leonhard Fuchs felt foreign mummies were acceptable but local ones were wrong. While doubts arose during the Renaissance in the 16th century it took until the 18th century age of Enlightenment for the practice to fall out of fashion. As consuming mummies slowly ended Egyptian mummies took on a new role: paint pigment.

The Egyptian Widow by Lourens Alma Tadema is an 1872 painting of Egyptian life potentially painted using mummy brown paint.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is another painting that’s theorized to contain mummy brown.

Mummy Brown

Around the end of the 16th century artists began using ground up Egyptian mummies (mixed with other materials) to produce mummy brown, a shade of brown pigment. Apothecaries that were grinding up mummies for medicine began to grind them up for paint as well. As a paint it was good for shadows, flesh tones, and glazing. Artists Benjamin West, Martin Drolling, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Eugène Delacroix, and others all painted with mummy brown.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mummy brown began to fall out of favor. That said as recently as 1926 C Roberson & Co. still sold mummy brown made with ground up Egyptian corpses. As mummy brown died out so too did hundreds of years of large-scale desecration of deceased Egyptians, using human beings for medicines and paints.

Zombies: Sadder Than You Think

The concept of Haitian zombies was used as a threat to keep slaves working.

Before Haiti was an independent country it was the French colony of Saint-Domingue where they produced sugar, coffee, cotton, and other goods. The French brought more than a million West African people to the colony as slaves, more than any other colony in the Caribbean. Slavery in Saint-Domingue was particularly brutal – most people were poorly fed, they worked 12 hour days, pregnant slaves frequently didn’t live long enough to have babies, torture was common. Life expectancy was about 3-6 years with about half of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue dying within the first few years of arriving.

The brutal conditions of Saint-Domingue left the enslaved people hoping that, in death, their souls would return home to West Africa.

Haitian Vodou & Zombies

The Code Noir was a 1685 decree that outlined how slavery was to be conducted in the French empire. Among other things it stated that slaves were prohibited from practicing African religions and instead were forcibly baptized into Catholicism. What resulted was Haitian Vodou, a religious blend of West African beliefs (practiced in secret) given a veneer of Catholicism.

Part of this belief system was the idea that, upon dying, you would return to lan guinée (ie. Guinea, or West Africa). Their idea of heaven was to escape the slavery of Saint-Domingue and to simply go home. Feeling the allure of going home some people decided to escape slavery on their own terms. As such suicide was very common Saint-Domingue.

Initially suicide was seen as a viable way of getting to lan guinée but at some point there was a change. At some point (oral tradition is murky on when/how) suicide was prohibited and the punishment for committing suicide was that you’d be a slave forever – you’d become a zombie. The zombies of Haitian Vodou are not the Western pop culture shambling brain-eating zombies. The Haitian zombie was someone whose soul had been captured, denied entry to lan guinée, and was turned into an undead field hand with no chance of escape. Plantation slave-drivers used this to their advantage threatening slaves that if they killed themselves they would be turned into zombies to work forever under the control of a bokor/sorcerer. Unlike today what was feared was the threat of becoming a zombie, not the actual zombies themselves.

1929’s White Zombie was the first zombie movie. It used some Haitian Vodou beliefs but took significant artistic license.

White Zombie

Over time the zombie concept evolved and changed. The sensationalistic 1929 William Seabrook travel book The Magic Island introduced voodoo and zombies to mainstream Western culture. This inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which was the first zombie movie. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as the villainous Murder Legendre (a bit on the nose) who’s a bokor enslaving people as zombies to be his henchmen and to work in his sugarcane mill. White Zombie used Haitian Vodou ideas but with a lot of artistic license. Later zombie stories dropped the Saint-Domingue threat of eternal slavery, then they dropped the bokor master commanding the zombies. Aside from being mindless undead creatures, the zombies of today have little resemblance to their sadder more terrifying origins.

Added info: following the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code outlaws the practice of turning someone into a zombie.

The Necronomicon

The most famous magical book of occult knowledge that sounds real, but isn’t.

Possibly the most famous book that doesn’t exist, the Necronomicon is a fictional book of dark magic invented by weird fiction / horror author H.P. Lovecraft. First mentioned in 1924’s The Hound, the Necronomicon is part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a dark collection of cosmic horror, ghouls, inter dimensional monsters, and unspeakable evil all set in an uncaring indifferent universe. The best interpretation of the name “necronomicon” is “book considering (or classifying) the dead”. Supposedly written in 738 CE by Abdul Alhazred (who was later eaten alive by an invisible monster in broad daylight), the Necronomicon is a dark book of forbidden knowledge and most Lovecraft characters who read it come to horrible ends.

Lovecraft felt to produce terror a story had to be “… devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” As such the Necronomicon is very much treated as if it were a real book. Lovecraft enjoyed making his fictional world seem believable. For example, in a list of real books he would throw in a few real-sounding fake ones (such as the Necronomicon) – blurring the line between reality and fiction. Similarly he wrote that there were copies of the Necronomicon held by 5 world institutions: the British Museum, Harvard, Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Buenos Aires, as well as Miskatonic University … which is a fictional school set in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Again, including a fictional creation in a list of real places making something fake seem real.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon can be found in a host of movies, books, comics, and more.

Crawling Chaos

Part of the appeal of the Necronomicon (beyond the spooky name) is that, like all good suspenseful horror, Lovecraft gives the reader just enough details to understand the idea of the Necronomicon but the exact contents (or even a good physical description of the book) are left open to your imagination. This vagueness also kept the door open for future expansion of ideas. Soon other authors began to include the Necronomicon in their work, and so it spread.

Today the Necronomicon has gone beyond the works of Lovecraft & his friends and has appeared in countless other projects. It’s in books, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc, each with their own take on exactly what the Necronomicon is, but it’s always a book of dark magic. It’s in the The Evil Dead series, it’s in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Burns mentions it at a meeting of republicans in The Simpsons, it’s the name of a German thrash metal band, it’s the name of H.R. Giger’s first collection of artwork, Michael Crichton and Stephen King have both referenced it, etc. The book of the dead lives on, spreading its tentacles across dark fiction. Cthulhu fhtagn.

Added info: The fictional Arkham Asylum in the DC Universe, where many of Batman’s foes are frequently locked away, was named after the fictional Lovecraft town of Arkham, Massachusetts.

Mr. Burns has Bob Dole read from the Necronomicon.

In a cleverly titled episode The Collect Call of Cathulhu, the Ghostbusters discuss that the Necronomicon will be on display at the New York City Public Library.

Vampires & Arithmomania

According to folklore, vampires have an obsessive compulsion to count.

The idea of an undead creature murdering and/or consuming the living is found in a host of cultures around the world. Some of these monsters are cleverly cunning while others are mindless killing machines, but the general vampiric themes are shared. Our modern idea of vampires is largely based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, which in turn took ideas from Romanian folklore.

The Final Countdown

One curious component of vampiric folklore in Slavic down through Greek cultures is the vampire’s obsessive compulsive need to count things. Vampires were said to have arithmomania and needed to count things and actions. People took advantage of this by scattering seeds, salt, grains of rice, or whatever else they had in tiny sizes & large numbers, on the floor of their houses. An intruding vampire would then have to count each seed/grain giving the homeowner time to escape or, if it took the vampire long enough, the sun to rise and vanquish the undead intruder. Similarly it was believed vampires would count all of the holes in a fishing net leading some to hang nets by the entrances of homes. It was also tradition to spread seeds/grain in a cemetery on the grave of a possible vampire so, upon rising from the grave, they would be kept busy through the night counting and stay away from the living.

Strangely this obsession with counting wasn’t always limited to vampires. In parts of Italy it was believe that witches had a similar affliction. On the Eve of St. John’s Day you could defend yourself from a witch by giving her a red carnation because she would have to count the petals giving you time to escape. In America some believed witches had to count the holes in sieves, leading some to hang them by their door.

I Love to Count

Ultimately this compulsion to count things is the joke behind Count von Count on Sesame Street. He’s a vampire who loves to count and teaches children numbers. Like the Slavic vampires of folklore he is driven to count anything he sees. It’s a joke hidden in plain site.

In the X-Files episode “Bad Blood” a drugged Mulder defends himself against a vampire by throwing a bag of sunflower seeds on the floor.

“Pumpkin” Spice

The autumnal flavor designed to resemble the spices in freshly baked pumpkin pie (but doesn’t contain any actual pumpkin).

Pumpkin spice does not contain pumpkin. It’s a blend of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and clove used as an ingredient to spice up pumpkin pies. This spice mix (or variations of it) goes back as far as colonial America. Unlike the spice blend you buy in the store however, the pumpkin spice used in most commercially produced products doesn’t contain these spices. Commercial pumpkin spice flavor uses chemicals to simulate these spices which replicates the taste of a freshly baked pumpkin pie.

One reason a synthetic flavor is used, in lattes for example, is that using the actual spices makes it taste a bit more like Indian masala tea (chai tea) instead of pumpkin pie. Synthesized pumpkin spice flavoring has been engineered to taste like the spices after they have been transformed by the pie baking process. Other reasons for using a synthetic flavor are reliability (the flavor is the same every time) and cost (synthetic flavoring is a lot cheaper than using actual spices).

He who controls the spice controls the universe

The craze for all things pumpkin spice began in 2003 with the limited release of Starbucks’ latest specialty seasonal drink, the Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). With the success of their winter themed Peppermint Mocha and Eggnog Latte, Starbucks wanted an autumnal offering. Inspired by the flavors of freshly baked pumpkin pie the marketing team chose the name Pumpkin Spice Latte.

From big brands to small, just a few of the pumpkin spice products available for your autumnal seasonal needs.

In 2004 the drink was offered nationwide and became the most popular seasonal Starbucks beverage, generating an estimated $1.4 billion in sales as of 2017. It also started the flavor trend of all things getting a limited edition pumpkin spice variety. You can find candles, lip balm, cereal, soap, SPAM, chocolate candy, air fresheners, beer, and more all with pumpkin spice flavors.

Added info: Starting in 2015 the Starbucks PSL now contains some amount of pumpkin, but the flavor of the drink is still created using a pumpkin spice flavoring. Also, despite the autumnal seasonality of the drink, the PSL is on the Starbucks Secret Menu and you can buy it all year round.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.

“Haunted” Houses

The feelings associated with haunted houses can be explained with science.

Chemical Spirits

Fear, the chills, seeing visions that disappear, hearing things without a source – some people also have headaches, nausea, temporary paralysis, a feeling of weakness and or dizziness. These are all classic signs of a haunted house … and carbon monoxide poisoning.

As far back as 1921 there has been a connection between “haunted” houses and carbon monoxide. Dr. William Wilmer published an account of his patient, “Mrs H.”, in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. Mrs. H., her family, and her servants moved into a large mansion and over time suffered a whole host of paranormal fear-inducing experiences. After months it was discovered that the furnace in the basement was pouring fumes containing carbon monoxide into the house instead of up the chimney. Upon fixing the furnace all symptoms of the “haunting” ended. This is not an isolated incident. As recently as 2005 a woman reported seeing a ghost in her shower, but it turned out that her visions were caused by a newly installed water heater that was leaking carbon monoxide.

When carbon monoxide enters your body it attaches itself to your red blood cells preventing oxygen from attaching to the cells and being delivered to your organs. This lack of oxygen is what affects your brain into seeing & hearing things that aren’t happening (among other effects).

The Fear Frequency

Another feeling in a “haunted” house is an overall sense of dread – a fear with no known source. People say they can feel a presence, that there is something in the room with them but they can’t see it. This too can be explained but instead of an invisible gas it’s invisible sound waves.

Infrasound are sound waves just below the range of human hearing. Even though we can’t hear infrasound we can feel it. The low wave vibrations of infrasound can cause panic, fear, disorientation, and it can even vibrate your eyeballs into seeing something that isn’t there. In 1998 British engineer Vic Tandy was the first to connect infrasound and “hauntings” in his paper Ghosts in the Machine published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The Warwick lab he was working in at the time was said to be haunted, where people would feel uncomfortable, scared, and occasionally see a shape move in the room. It turns out this was all the result of a 19 Hz infrasound wave coming from the lab’s newly installed extractor fan. They fixed the fan and the “haunting” stopped.

So before you call 555-2368 to bust your ghosts, turn to science for a more logical explanation.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman (the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War whose head was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River because the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dress in black, riding black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s only to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is to make it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon which Tam crosses, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The witches’ ingredients for the cauldron in Macbeth are mostly coded names for medicinal plants.

Macbeth’s Act 4 opening scene is probably one of the most well known scenes in Shakespeare. The Three Witches (aka the Weird Sisters) are in a dark cave with a boiling cauldron at the center. The witches gather and begin an incantation of dark magic, adding ingredients as they go. “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Each witch then lists a series of ingredients that, at face-value, sound disgusting and macabre. But the ingredients are not what they seem.

Witches, like early alchemists, kept their knowledge a closely guarded secret. After putting all of that effort into R&D you didn’t want the competition getting a hold of your findings. But witches had other reasons for secrecy. Unlike the fictional witches in Macbeth, most “witches” were in reality female medical workers using herbs & botanicals to create medicines. In Medieval Europe medicine was a male-dominated profession and women caught practicing medicine were sometimes branded as witches. As such they had to keep their activity, and their recipes, secret. By using alternate names for their ingredients, the contents of one’s “spell book” were kept secret. Also, using alternate names worked as a safe-guard to keep their proprietary medical knowledge out of the hands of the general public who might mistakenly try to prepare these treatments themselves.

Some believe that almost all of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew are actually coded plant names, even the problematically named “liver of blaspheming Jew”. How much of this Shakespeare knew is unclear. All the ingredients together would make an unrealistic ridiculous concoction, so they were probably chosen for theatrical shock value. He may have found a list of real “witches” ingredients and used them without knowing they were coded names. Still, if you want improved blood circulation some eye of newt (aka mustard seed) might help.

A list with pictures of the 23 ingredients in the witches' brew in Macbeth
A list of the 23 ingredients in the witches’ brew, and their real world counterparts.
Learn more about these and other alternate ingredients.