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Case Studies in Death Curses

Written by Luke Greensmith

Originally published on July 20th, 2020

This episode is a bit more all around the world for a topic than usual, as I’m looking at a fairly widespread concept.

No real fixed inspiration or listener request, certainly no one specific event, it just kind of came to me. I wanted a look into death curses this month. Not black magic to cause a death, but curses following on from deaths. I’ve got a couple of big ones here, on top of some more general digging around. Bear with me on this one as it really did spread about in every direction this this episode.

I will start with something of a segue. Looking up the phrase “Death Curse” for extra material led to a lot of expected dead ends. The black magic I wasn’t looking to focus on, very low rated horror movies, a lot of metal music, but as I sifted through the obvious I found something that stood out.

The Scottish Play.

I don’t quite know how exactly MacBeth got this badly maligned, but yelling “fire” in a theatre will worry thespians less than yelling “MacBeth”. It seems to tie into anti-witch hysteria of the times, and The Scottish Play should only ever be referred to as such in a theatre. Certainly not the full title of the play, unless absolutely necessary for the performance. As the story goes, a coven of witches objected to the use of actual incantations in the play so laid a curse upon it. That in itself seems to be yet more anti-witch hysteria, but the play certainly has an impressive disaster count.

A good few centuries worth of actor injuries, and actor deaths for that matter. A link to the Astor Place Riot. On top of some incidents involving the actors getting burned, whole damn theatres have caught fire. Director Ari Astor has an anecdote about how his friend asked him not to call the play by it’s name, which Astor proceeded to do to mess with his friend, like pretty much anyone would. But it didn’t take long before they decided never to push it again as a light exploded when they tried to film a scene immediately afterwards. It just seemed better to leave sleeping curses to lie after that.

Whether by overwhelming coincidence, sheer psychic willpower of everyone’s belief in the curse, or actual cranky witches getting the last laugh this is a death adjacent curse that gets taken very seriously.

Should you accidentally use the name which you should not in a theatre, asking for the well known curse to turn upon you, there’s a procedure in place:

Exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, curse, and then knock on the theatre door to be allowed back in.

Now you are suitable armed to protect yourself from a different type of Death Curse, on to the interpretation of the main topic I was going for.

In a way, almost any haunting can be considered a death curse. Folklore around the world is filled with the unquiet dead, especially those who suffered a violent end. It’s something that resonates with all people on a very primal level: A fear of violence, and a fear of death, the two together make for a worrying cocktail.

It really is everywhere, pop culture embracing the idea of vengeful spirits certainly hasn’t hurt the popularity of this concept. How many times have the dead gone in search of revenge across books, TV, and at the movies?

The Headless Horseman is simple, evocative, and pretty damn angry about being dead. How many ancient Indian burial grounds fight back? The underrated 2001 remake of Thirteen Ghosts came up with a whole menagerie of unpleasant posthumous characters. There’s a Candyman reboot coming soon, and I doubt the titular character of the series is going to suddenly be a peaceful ghost when it drops.

Not to dismiss pop culture, especially given how much I love horror movies and how it is that current stories will become tomorrow’s folklore, but this theme runs deeper and older than the media surface level.

It feels like there’s an element of guilt involved. Vengeful spirits on purely the metaphorical level certainly are the consequences of misdeeds that no amount of physical might are capable of stopping. The deed is done, there’s no apology big enough to undo the mistake, and the shadow it casts is long.

The Flying Dutchman became cursed when the Dutch Captain refused to take shelter in a storm, ignoring the pleas of crew and passenger alike to instead loudly challenge God to do their worst. With the benefits of hindsight, I think we can give God the win on that one, the destroyed vessel is now a portent of doom haunting the seas until the end of time. The Bell Witch was supposed to have attached to the Tennessee farm of John Bell after he shot a strange animal on his property, going on to raise hell for four years up to and including shaking the whole damn farmhouse. The Navajo have the Chindi, wherein speaking ill of the dead can cause an angry spirit to harass those doing the ill speaking. La Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexico, was well known long before Hollywood’s recent attempt to miss the mark with her story.

The “Indian burial ground” trope isn’t confined to just movies either. The Lake Shawnee Amusement park opened in 1920 to almost immediate disaster, and still stands abandoned now between the none stop tragic accidents on top of the discovery the land used was a native American burial grounds. Although it did worryingly manage to run through to the early 60s before it finally chewed up enough children to be force the realisation maybe a cursed funfair might not be the best way to make a living.

Think to how many times you hear of a haunted prison, or haunted battleground. Even hospitals, and especially asylums which had a pile of living horror preceding the shades to follow. Looking local to me, I think it’s easier to list the castles that aren’t haunted by the shocking events that nobles got up to to pass the time before TV was invented, and that amount of evil leaves an indelible stain.

Such delightful examples as the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, that when it had to abandon using solitary confinement due to overcrowding started coming up with new punishments such as chaining tongues to wrists.

The Gettysburg Battlefield of Pennsylvania has a lot of people swearing to it still being haunted, and the former trench networks of the Great War across Europe don’t fare much better. The ghost stories of the trenches began in the dairies of soldiers still living and fighting in them during World War I. The famous, although largely dismissed, Angels of Mons tale of phantom longbowmen supporting the English is far from the only story to emerge from what was absolutely dire times of slaughter.

Where miserable deaths start, the angry dead soon follow.

This kind of spirit reaches back to Classical era folklore too. In Greece the spirits of specifically violent or cruel death were known as Keres, becoming their own kind of spectre in line with how bad their end was. The classical Roman equivalent was focused more on how the remains of a person got treated, those without proper burial could be doomed to roam as Lemures.

I hope I pronounces Lemures right… It’s way too easy to cross wires with the adorable fluffy Lemurs with that one. That being because the Romans named the animal after their restless dead, since they’re nocturnal wanderers. I especially wouldn’t get the two mixed up in the wild. One is fluffy and can be petted, the other will be a pretty damn angry shade of a millennia old Roman who is still waiting to get buried properly.

As I dug deeper into the topic it soon became clear there is an uncomfortable amount of these stories relating to women, and the specific mistreatment of women, which I don’t really want to tackle head on. Just Indonesia alone needs a much deeper dive, and a lot of accorded respect to the topic and traditions, that an extended introduction to a concept isn’t enough room to unpack properly. I may come back to that as it’s a massive topic, but I’m also not too comfortable being the one to voice the these stories. I’ll mull it over, and it will take quite a lot of work to get right if I do go for it.

I promised two big examples, let’s call them this month’s case studies. So on to the meat of it.

Case study one: The Onryo of Japan.

Even without growing up surrounded by the traditional stories of Japan, I guarantee most people know exactly what one is if they see them depicted in media.

Pale. All dressed in white, long black hair, and very damn angry about their untimely demise.

The Japanese horror series The Grudge is a prevalent example of this. If not THE example, as the also well known The Ring series uses a much less traditional interpretation of an Onryo. All books and films surrounding this story come from a very simple idea, that of the Ju-On. A Ju-On meaning “curse grudge”, and is the idea that in a location where violent death occurred, you could then have violent ghosts who will hurt intruders. An absolutely terrifying concept which didn’t then need such effective movies to give a signal boost.

It speaks volumes that even before the US adaptations, and without the cultural shorthand of already knowing what an onryo (or vengeful spirit) clad in white with long black hair means in the West, pretty much anyone from anywhere can pick up a movie from that series and immediately get how much NOPE is on offer here.

A curse from a bad end to miserable lives so terrible, that contact with this Ju-On is unbreakable. Following whoever had the poor fortune to encounter it wherever they go and upon claiming a new victim the Grudge can then infect a new household, spreading like an unstoppable supernatural infection.

It makes for some pretty full on movies. Especially if either the original Director Shimizu or original Kakayo performer Takako Fuji are involved. They tapped into some deep dark fears bringing this traditional Japanese folklore to life and I massively recommend you go to the source here and pick up the Japanese original movies to get the best sense of a Ju-On out of control.

Case Study Two is a hugely famous death curse. That of the desecration of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a very high profile discovery that got a lot of press coverage and pretty much everyone will have heard of the supposed curse that followed.

All kinds of things got chalked up to messing with the tomb of Tutankhamun. The Lord who sponsored the dig especially went through the wringer. Their pet bird got eaten by a snake not long before he got bitten on the cheek by a mosquito, a mosquito bite they then caught while shaving for good measure, which led to their dying in a delirious fever. For good measure, as there’s no kill like overkill, apparently his pet dog back home died about the same time this Lord did in Egypt.

The radiologist who x-rayed the mummy is supposed to have died of arsenic poisoning. A rich American who visited the tomb was reported as dying of a mystery illness. There’s even some particularly dumb stories about treasures from the tomb being aboard the Titanic, which is extra impressive when you consider the titanic sank 10 years before the tomb was opened.

Right from the starting publicity of the dig through to modern day stories this curse gets a lot of discussion, writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being a prominent voice at the time. Not much longer to go now until we will have had a hundred years of documentaries and articles on this.

There is, of course, one big spoilsport for the whole Curse of Tutankhamun.

There’s no actual death curse in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

While there are Pharaoh tombs with these death curses prominently displayed to try, and usually fail, to ward off looters, his was not one of them. The remains of Tutankhamun are just incidentally the most visible when it comes to the ensuing disasters, plus there was an inciting incident with this one. When the tomb was discovered it was very high profile, being an untouched tomb filled with treasures, which meant that pretty much anyone could get in there and clean it out if the original archaeologists weren’t careful. So it appears that the head of the excavation team Howard Carter spread a death curse rumour among the press in an attempt to help keep the loot all to themselves.

Not to say that the mass grave robbing of the cultures of Ancient Egypt by assorted Empires, mostly British, didn’t deserve some serious karmic retribution, so who knows? Plundering the tomb of a child Pharaoh that didn’t even come with a warning label may have been the straw that broke the cosmic camel’s back, and repeated ass whuppings followed.

Claiming the curse of Tutankhamun sunk the titanic is still dumb, though.

You may have noticed I’m framing a lot of what happened here in terms of plunder, and that’s because it basically was. Plenty of archaeology is benign but what happened to Egypt really wasn’t. If you’re ever bored while near an archaeologist, try asking them how long someone has to be dead until it stops being grave robbing and becomes science. The looks on their faces can be great!

In a way, though, you can say that everyone involved with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb died. Plenty from old age, since it happened so long ago, so definitely be a little sceptical if that fact comes up. You can sometimes tell a fact straight up and still only be using it to twist the truth. The people of the time dropped like flies because medicine wasn’t so great, and enough of them died old that it wasn’t much of a curse. Only 6 of the 26 present at the tomb opening died within a decade, even the Lord whose death got sensationalised in the press was 57 and well known for a sickly disposition following a motor accident he survived. (still sucks about his pets though).

That shall have to do for now, although I’m sure I can dig deeper on this topic if anyone is interested and lets me know. I can also very definitely take a run at black magic, I discarded a lot of low hanging fruit on this one to get at the topic I was after.

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Goodbye for now.


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