Our Halloween is a highly commercialized children’s holiday/party night. Its original significance was far other. It was the prime religious festival of the Celtic societies, the most holy and important day in the Celtic year.
The Celts were northern Europe’s first historic people. Most Americans of European descent have some Celt in them. The Celts were more of a culture and a language family than an ethnicity or an empire. November 1 was both their New Year’s day and their Day of the Dead. Halloween – the night before it – was the time when the gates between earth and Otherworld were thought to loom open, and family ancestors were likely to return to visit their homes. They weren’t the only inhabitants of the Celtic Otherworld, and other ungainly supernaturals – goblins, pookas, kelpies, glaistigs, and mainstream fairies – were likely to drift over with them. You could also blunder into their realm. Halloween was a bad night to be out hoofing it. You had to watch your step.
The first Halloween is impossible to date. Surely the event is thousands of years old. I would suggest that Halloween is the oldest still-celebrated festival in the world.
Because food and gifts were once set out for the family dead, our customs of Trick or Treat surely came from this aspect of the old Halloween. The garish costumes impersonating the other demons may account for the custom of masquerade in favor today. No wonder Halloween gets us thinking of monsters.
We associate legendary monsters with preindustrial cultures and other continents. We don’t think of them in developed North America. But Western New York has a crew of homegrown figures of folklore, report, and legend. This is a top-thirteen list of my favorite local classics, ones with either deep roots in time or heavy impact on contemporaries. It should be no surprise that many have Native American connections.
1 High Hat, Salamanca.
“The Western Door” is a nickname for Seneca territory, Western New York. One of the folkloric standouts in the territory of the Allegany Seneca Reservation is a bestial figure called High Hat. My old friend the Seneca storyteller DuWayne “Duce” Bowen used to tell tales about High Hat as if he didn’t completely doubt that something answering to the profile might now and then turn up.
A marsh-dweller, High Hat was no easy neighbor. He was a giant cannibal with a mouth full of sharp teeth and a fondness for the tender flesh of children. The Seneca call him “High Hat” because in some reports he’s wearing a stovepipe chapeau and reminded people of President Abraham Lincoln. They may not be the only ones who see him. The 1960-65 creation of the Kinzua Reservoir brought a lot of non-Natives to Reservation territory, day after day. More than one white dam worker spotted a big strange form along the northern shore, typically just before daybreak. The whites didn’t know the legends, of course. But the crews got so used to seeing him that they came to look for him. “Anybody see old Abe Lincoln today?” they used to ask each other.
2 The Hellhounds, Wales.
For most of the 20th century the town of Wales’ desperate Goodleberg Cemetery was strictly a local haunt. Its debut in print came in my first book Shadows of the Western Door (1997). By now it’s famous nationally as a haunted site, but don’t blame me for what’s gone on with it. Something about Goodleberg grips the imagination of a serious percentage of people who hear about it. With the advent of the internet and the cult interest in surveillance ghosthunting, it was only a matter of time. Teams of 20-something ghost-hunters from all over the east used to camp out there routinely at night, as if that could be likely to bring an experience of “paranormal activity.” They drove the local residents crazy. Some of them vandalized the site and cemetery as part of their silly custom of “provoking behavior.”
Still, it to say that people don’t think they see things up there. Recent folklore features an impressive spectral cast. The most distinctive apparitions associated with Goodleberg are rare ones for American cemeteries: the menacing, vanishing, glowing-eyed black dogs I likened in 1997 to the Hellhounds of Old World folklore.
The Black Dog apparition is a familiar one in European cemeteries, where it’s generally presumed to be a protector of the peace of the dead, if not an alter-form of Old Scratch himself. It’s a rare apparition-form in the U.S., and I don’t know what to make of the black-dog ghosts that people have reported at Goodleberg. None of my witnesses are folklorists who ought to know how to make up a rad story.
3 The White Bigfoot of Belmont/The Black Creek Whodat, Allegany County.
A broad, rugged zone in central Allegany County is the reputed home of at least one creepy critter. A three-year flap starting in 1973 spooked communities near Lost Nation and Black Creek. It sounded like a Bigfoot, but I call the blastie, “the Black Creek Whodat,” since it was so light in color and otherwise so bizarre that I don’t know how to categorize it. Maybe it has a cousin.
In the last couple decades the White Bigfoot of Belmont has become notorious in local circles. A good report comes from two women, in high school at the time, who were out on that snowy night in 1999 when they spotted something big, beige, and rangy keeping pace with cars in the vicinity of West Almond on Rt. 244. This is about eight miles east of Belmont village and close to a couple of protected forests.
I lump these two figures together not only because of their appearance, but because they are close in time and place. A surprising number of the Bigfoot-like critters people report in Western New York are light-colored.
4 The Manitou Road Demon, Greece.
Late Monroe County historian Shirley Cox Husted encountered this locally-famous beastie in her youth while sleeping in her brother’s Manitou Road farmhouse, most likely in the 1940s. She is far from the only one. In fact, Manitou Road has had generations of reports. Fast, fanged, and flying, its resident bogie loves to harass cars and beat on bedroom windows. Husted’s one sighting of it gave her the impression of something that doesn’t sound like a bird.
The road a few miles west of Rochester is named for the Algonquin power-word manitou, which I like to translate for simplicity’s sake as “the Force,” just as it’s used in Star Wars. Rather than meaning a wizard, a monster, or witchery in general – as pop adaptations would have you believe – manitou is a word for the force of life to Algonquin-speaking societies. It was the energy behind all magic. It could be used to hurt or heal.
Rochester did have an old settlement of Algonquin-speaking people, and they would have known their landscape. Maybe the word lingered in local tradition. Reports of spontaneous psychic act-ups would be the norm in places where lots of manitou is free-ranging, like power-mountains or energized valleys. That might explain our demon. Whoever named this road thought it had mojo.
5 The Pigman, Angola.
The grotesque man-form-monster of Holland Road is one of the region’s shooting stars. I never heard talk of the creepie before 1990, and his legend didn’t seem developed enough to include in my first book “Shadows…” Nevertheless, The Pigman has become a major figure in the region’s psychic nightlife.
The short rural Holland Road southwest of Angola village is atmospheric. It has two one-lane underpasses, and the ground on both sides of it is overgrown. The ill-fated train involved in the incident called “the Angola Horror” passed over it on one of those viaducts in 1867. Could the Pigman be some kind of psychic shock-wave?
The Pigman legend has a number of popular back stories, most of them rejected in a thorough and seemingly authoritative article by M. C. Hageman. Hageman connected the Pigman legend to a road resident named William Derrecks (1913-1973?), a big fellow with such a severe facial deformity that he had no chance at a normal life. A bit of mystery surrounds Derrecks’ death in, according to Hageman, the Halloween night fire that took his house in 1973.
6 The Hobgoblin, Fort Niagara, Youngstown.
One of the region’s oldest Euroamerican spooks is this gremlin of Fort Niagara’s "Black Hole," a fearful cavelike cell used for solitary confinement. The first report of it may have come from a besotted piper around 1804 and appeared with a couple Fort Niagara ghost stories in Samuel DeVeaux’ 1839 book on Niagara Falls and region.
After “paying tribute too freely to Bacchus” (the wine god), the Fort’s music-man John Carroll got lippy with the commandant, possibly the formidable Major Moses Porter. He was thrown into the Hole to dry out and wise up. He wailed so piteously that the guards brought him a lantern, paper, and pen so he could write the song the hobgoblin inspired in him. The song itself, “Carroll’s Thoughts on Eternity,” was rediscovered within the last few years and played at a recent Fort celebration.
Another hopping, dark critter often referred to as a hobgoblin is spotted in the Fort’s graveyard, so maybe the bogie of the Hole has a sidekick.
Hobgoblins are figures of British Isles folklore and not often reported in the U.S. At the time of the first sighting, though, a lot of off-the-boat Irish were in the country, and some would have been more superstitious than others.
I have found from my talks and tours that 21st century people have trouble visualizing a hobgoblin. When I mention this figure of Fort legend, people often ask me what a hobgoblin looks like. “Imagine a regular goblin,” I always say. “Then think of one just a bit... hobbier.”
7 The Great Snake of the Allegany.
Most of Halloween’s stars are MFM’s, as the horror-fans call them: “man-form-monsters.” To the general mind, they seem more sinister. I see why. If King Kong comes calling, it’s society’s problem. You may be terrified, but you aren’t exactly going to be surprised. Now if the wolf man jumps you... Well, he could hide in your closet. See if you make it till 911 gets there. But in consideration of the power of the dragon/serpent archetype in New York legend and report, we have to pay due attention to this giant.
The general observer would be shocked to hear how many of New York’s ponds and lakes have not only Native legends about serpents, lizards, and dragons, but contemporary reports. Water bodies range from the vast (Lake Erie) to the ample (Canandaigua Lake) to the small (Silver Lake), and even to the tiny (a farm pond in Alabama, Genesee County, called “Divers’ Lake”).
Like symbols of national psychic unrest, during the Kinzua Dam’s construction “The Great Snake of the Allegany” made quite a few appearances in the Allegany hills. My Native friends tell me that it’s a custom among them that there may be four of these big reptiles turning up about the Great Lakes, possibly coming in the four cardinal colors – black, red, white, and yellow – of the Iroquois system. Lest all this seem just legend, a handful of estimable witnesses on a bridge reported spotting a gigantic serpent making ripples in the waters of the Kinzua Reservoir. It wasn’t big enough to send shivers into Godzilla, but it was at least the size of the world’s biggest constrictor, if not the thankfully extinct Titanoboa, and a long way from any environment that should have sustained it.
8 The 1920 Incident, North Tonawanda.
In the summer of 1920 “The Lumber City” underwent a week-long bout of hysteria based on sightings of a giant human-form apparition. Seeming to float as much as it flew, like a willing kite it came night after night to the older streets of the village. It was reported by a number of able witnesses including a policeman. It stopped traffic at some of the crossroads. A Tonawanda bicycle club resolved to stalk the thing, staying by their phones at night and flocking like Minutemen into the streets when reports came in. Once they even had the apparition surrounded but it made its getaway in some undescribed fashion.
The varying narratives I’ve read make the blastie sound to me like a sort of robed, lighter-than-air scarecrow with Native American overtones like a headdress or mask. Its penchant for buzzing moving cars reminds us of the famous “Mothman” cycle of incidents from West Virginia.
9 The Oak Street Specter, Batavia.
In June of 1905 there was a serious flap of sightings of some shape-morphic critter in a gulf of Oak Street north of Batavia village, between today’s Lyon and Union Streets. There was no real certainty about its form. It affronted walkers and carriage riders, and changed its shape when someone lashed out at it with a whip or launched a stone. Because of the range of reported forms – bull, cat, or headless woman in billowing robes – you almost suspect a morphing critter of Old World mythology like the Gaelic pooka.
The extent of the survival of Old World supernaturalism into the New World is one of folklore’s dirty little secrets. I’ve seen a series of Western New York paranormal reports that look like figures of legend, and from the wrong century and continent.
10 The Anti-Hubbard, East Aurora.
East Aurora village has reports of a supernatural form whose hippie-style hair, dark coat, and Indiana Jones-like hat make it resemble on the surface the founder of Roycroft (whose ghost, to be fair, is reported in many spots about the town). This one’s skinless face, though, is so demonic that I call it “the Anti Hubbard.” It’s been reported in five places to my knowledge, including three sites on the Roycroft Campus. I would call it a simple ghost and leave it out of this column but for the creepy appearance.
Not many ghosts look scary. Most ghosts look like perfectly natural things that used to be where their images are seen, making one think that most ghosts are simply images caught on a video time-loop which something as yet unexplained now and then replays. When a witness is scared by a sighting, it’s usually a choice. People do project a lot onto ghosts, that’s for sure. This is one of the few Western New York ghosts that does come with an edge.
11 The Leaping Loopy of Leicester.
In October, 1870, Livingston County experienced a flap concerning some odd bipedal beastie that could answer to the description of one of the altered animals of the Iroquois. Moscow (today’s Leicester) straight east of us on 20A was the stage. This critter could have been reported as a Bigfoot, but I have my doubts. It was such a combination of animal-parts. It hopped like a kangaroo. It fought like a bear.
This part of the Genesee Valley is known, I must say, for AAF (Altered-Animal Form) apparitions (my abbreviation). It was a region of Seneca settlement; and on reservations today, apparitions are reported when non-Natives transgress on power-ground. I wonder if these unusual images might be conjured up by the mix of time, place, and witness.
12 The Lockport Imp.
In early December 1867 the Spalding Street, Lockport, house of tailor William Schaak was troubled by some grim little supernatural beastie. The episode lasted barely a full day, but it caught the attention of both the town’s papers.
The impressions of this elusive, destructive imp make it sound like the medieval descriptions of a familiar, that Satan-servant who comes to each newly-pledged witch and serves thereafter as spy and sentinel. It’s the first and only such incident I’ve heard of in Western New York. In searching for more conventional explanations, one almost suspects a microscopically brief poltergeist episode. Some of them get... almost that dramatic.
13 The Shapeshifters
The prime feature of the classic Iroquois witch was the power to launch a blight or a curse. A close second was the ability to change shape: to become an animal and think and act like a human being. Today’s Longhouse folk still believe that if you see an animal that looks or acts most unusually, it’s a good possibility that it’s witched. It might be a witch in animal form; it might be something else. Who knows? As Seneca scholar Arthur Parker sagely observed, “No one has ever made a complete examination of one.”
Reservation folk today talk about figures of legend and report they call “shapeshifters.” Sometimes they use the word, “changelings.” By the use of either word they probably mean, “people who turn into animals.” Such candidates never make it all the way through.
A morphed bear might keep a human foot. A wacked deer could walk on its two back legs. You might spot a strange hiker at the road’s edge with a single animal feature like a bushy tail or a set of wolf-ears sticking over a hat. With those that look utterly normal, the behavior gives them away if you watch long enough. A coyote might act with human focus and savvy. A group of deer might be heard talking like people.
My late Seneca friend Duce Bowen would caution you about those crisp evening walks, especially at this time of year. “You don’t want to walk by and see two horses talking to each other. You don’t want to have an animal ask you why you’re out and invite itself home with you.” I would say not.
Such encounters, if they happen at all, are a lot more likely in rural areas than in paved spaces like Allentown and Cheektovegas. Still, anywhere you are in Western New York, some manifestation consistent with the ancient supernaturalism might occasionally show itself, at least according to the witnesses. Happy Halloween.