Chasing Monsters: Legends and Lore of the North Shore
CHASING MONSTERS IN MASSACHUSETTS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER MUISE
Massachusetts is known for its history surrounding the Salem trials and witch hunts of 1692. Several flock to Salem yearly to experience this compelling bit of history which has become an integral part of Salem and its people. The element and beliefs surrounding the supernatural does not end with Salem's witches. Peter Muise in his book Legends and Lore of the North Shore describes the folklore which surrounds the North Shore of Massachusetts. A sea serpent, Bigfoot, a werewolf, ghosts, and the belief in the true existence of Lovecraft's The Deep Ones are some of the folklore and legends which continue to permeate the area. Whether or not one believes in the existence of these monsters is inconsequential. Knowing that these beliefs exist within the local communities of Salem is worth investigating because it lends an inside glimpse into Massachusetts' people, its culture, and ultimately the human psyche. And what better person to take us to a journey through Massachusetts to meet its monsters than Peter Muise who has dedicated a significant portion of his time to researching the monsters that are believed to inhabit there. I had the opportunity to ask Peter Muise about his book and about his own experiences when chasing the monsters of Massachusetts.
How did your interest and passion for local folklore come to be?
When I was a kid I always enjoyed reading about mythology and folklore. I really loved Greek and Norse mythology, the Brothers Grimm, and things like that. I still do! I grew up in the 1970s, when the paranormal was really becoming popular in the mass media, so I also read books about Bigfoot, UFOs, Atlantis, and other strange topics. I didn't think about it this way when I was young, but the paranormal and folklore are really just two sides of the same coin. Basically, I was really fascinated with the mysterious, non-rational side of life.
When I was an undergraduate I majored in anthropology, and took some courses in mythology, folklore, and popular culture. (I actually wrote my senior thesis about UFO abduction narratives.) Years later, after I had been living in Boston for quite a while, I realized I knew a lot about the myths and folklore of other cultures but didn't know very much about New England's folklore, even though I had lived here my whole life. I just started reading what I could find, and the more I looked the more I found. My brain started to fill up with so much folklore that I needed someplace to put it all, so I started my blog in the summer of 2008. Legends and Lore of the North Shore came about when an editor from the History Press contacted me through my blog.
During your excursions or travels to the North Shore, have you ever encountered anything mysterious or unexplained?
The North Shore of Massachusetts is a really interesting place. It has a lot of beautiful old houses and some great beaches. On the other hand, parts of the landscape are dramatic and maybe even a little ominous - marshes and salt flats, stony cliffs, dark forests strewn with boulders, and abandoned old villages. Now add in more than 300 years of weird lore: the Salem witches, haunted pirate treasure, monsters, occultism and spiritualist experimentation. The whole area feels mysterious.
Sadly I didn't see any monsters or ghosts, but one of the weirdest places I went was Dungeon Rock in the city of Lynn. There's been a legend in Lynn since the 1600s that a pirate named Thomas Veal and his treasure were buried underneath a hill during an earthquake. This hill became known as Dungeon Rock. In 1852 a Spiritualist named Hiram Marble was instructed by Veal's spirit (speaking through a medium) to start digging into Dungeon Rock to find the treasure. Marble and his son dug a tunnel to find the treasure, and the tunnel still exists. It spirals down through solid rock for about two hundred feet and then stops. It is very dark, very wet, and very cold. I was there on a sweltering August day and it was so cold inside I could see my breath. The park rangers keep it sealed at night with a big iron door. Overall, a weird and fascinating place to visit.
The Marbles spent twenty-eight years chiseling away at the tunnel, but they never found the treasure, and they both died while working on the project. They were buried somewhere nearby. Some people say their spirits, and maybe Thomas Veal's, still haunt Dungeon Rock. I didn't encounter any ghosts or spirits but I can understand why some people might.
What would you say are the most popular legends and/or monsters in your book? Can you tell me a little bit more about them?
A sea serpent has been seen off the North Shore sporadically for centuries. I think it's the most popular monster in the book. The sea serpent was first sighted in 1639, and made a few appearances in the 18th century, but in August of 1817 it took up residence in Gloucester harbor. Dozens of people saw the creature, including sea captains, experienced sailors, and two very well-connected townswomen. A similar creature was see in nearby towns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and was last seen in 1960.
People also like learning about the Deep Ones, who were a race of aquatic humanoid monsters created by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft for his 1931 story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Lovecraft was inspired to write this tale of a decaying coastal town and the creatures that haunt it after he visited Newburyport on the North Shore. Lovecraft always swore his monstrous creations were just fiction, but some modern occultists believe he was actually channeling secret necromantic lore through his stories. Famous occultists like Kenneth Grant claim to have actually summoned the Deep Ones through magical rituals. It's a little spooky.
For travellers to the North Shore who are interested in legendary monsters and the unexplained, can you recommend places to visit? Can you tell me a bit more about these places ie. a bit of history surrounding them and why you particularly recommend them?
Other than Dungeon Rock, I recommend that people visit Dogtown Common, which is a Colonial ghost town located between Gloucester and Rockport. Centuries ago Dogtown was a thriving and industrious village, but it fell on hard times and most people moved out. It became a refuge for social outcasts, particularly widows and freed slaves. People in nearby towns thought the widows were witches, and many of the women took advantage of this and made money by telling fortunes and by threatening to curse travelers unless they were paid.
The village got the name Dogtown because of the semi-feral dogs that lived there, but there is a related legend claiming that a werewolf haunts the area. At first I thought this legend was just a modern creation, but it turns out people have been seeing a large wolf-like animal there since the 1800s.
If you visit Dogtown now, you can see the cellar holes of the original village, plus a large number of boulders that have motivational slogans carved in them. The slogans were commissioned during the Great Depression by Roger Babson, a financial genius whose ancestors helped establish Gloucester. He thought Dogtown's eerie reputation was undeserved and that visitors should remember the hard-working colonists who founded it. Unfortunately his carved boulders have the opposite effect. Dogtown Common is a dense forest now and Nature is taking over. Babson's boulders, carved with mottoes like "Be On Time" and "Use Your Head" just seem ironic and add to the overall eerie atmosphere. You can "Be On Time" all you want, but time and nature are going to win in the end.
If someone does visit Dogtown Common they should go with some friends. It's very large (more than 3,000 acres), the terrain is rough, and there have been a few violent crimes there in the past. That shouldn't deter anyone from visiting but they should definitely not visit alone. It's a little piece of wilderness.
Based on your research and your travels, why do you think some people are fascinated with the legends surrounding monsters, witches, and the unexplained?
I think people are fascinated with these things because they are part of who we are. They are part of our psychic landscape, and even in this very rational and scientific age some people still see strange monsters in the woods. Many people are also scared or intrigued by monster stories even if they don't believe they are true. I think that's because deep, deep down these things feel like they are true. It's easy to be skeptical when you're home in your living room but it's a lot harder when you're out in the woods at night.
Name your most favourite place to visit and why.
I love to visit Salem in October, when the city is at the height of its Halloween tourist mania. Even if I'm really busy I make time to go at least once. You can experience three kinds of witchcraft when you visit: historic accounts of the 1692 trials, modern Wiccan style witchcraft, and of course cheesy Halloween haunted house witchcraft. It's fascinating to see how those three things interact. I also like seeing the tourists dressed up in Halloween costumes roaming around. Salem is great to visit other times of the year but during October it's a really unique experience.
For travellers to the area who are interested in learning more about these monsters and ultimately the local culture of the various areas of Massachusetts, I urge you to read Peter's book. He also suggests visiting Salem in October during Halloween, Dungeon Rock to meet Thomas Veal's ghost, and Dogtown Common to catch a glimpse of the werewolf reported to exist in this overgrown ghost town. For travellers who are interested in the unknown and historians alike, Massachusetts offers a culture ripe with beliefs and an enthralling history surrounding the paranormal and the unexplained.