death and dying

The Death Coach

myth and meme month

I’m becoming more interested in the ways that European folklore traditions were brought over to the States and integrated into American folklore traditions. Many of the stories are effectively the same, or similar to where the stories are told in the same way-just-different-locations. I don’t find that off-putting, I like seeing how the stories were reworked to account for different environments.

I was reminded of the death coach (C√≥iste Bodhar) while watching Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry this weekend. An off hand comment is made to the phantom coach. Set in Vermont, it’s suggestive that the story was familiar enough in New England at least as late as the 1950s to make it worth a passing mention (I can’t be the only one who notices stuff like this).

(Completely unrelated, The Trouble With Harry is a wonderful, adorable movie with just enough black humor and death to make it enjoyable for a horror fan, but definitely a comedy and definitely not one of Hitchcock’s heavy movies. Perhaps not a family film, but much more lighthearted than what people think of when they think of his catalog).

The phantom/death coach legend is both lingering and fairly straightforward. The coach is a harbinger of death; those that see it will either die or experience a death close to them. The coach is suggested to not be able to return to the other side empty-therefore, someone -has- to die in order to fulfill its obligations when it enters the mortal plane. The story has evolved over time to begin to include versions and/or related legends about driver-less or cursed motor vehicles that fill a similar role. Further, both the car and the coach are often described as black. Where there seems to be the largest departure between the car and the coach variations of the legend is that the coach, depending on era of telling and location where the legend is set, is driven by the dullohan (a type of faerie known for its decided lack of a head). Alternatively, the Devil Himself drives the Death Coach I’ve not heard of a version set in the States with a headless driver (though the headless entity motif is definitely present in the New York folkloric tradition), but if someone knows of one, let me know.

The Coach seems to be a fairly low level, underground legend in the States, with a lot of passing mentions and “oh yeah, it’s around here” types of transmissions. I’ve seen references to the coach in New York, Vermont, and West Virginia. There’s very little in the way of concrete information on the presence of the coach in specific regions, which may (or may not) suggest that it’s an old oral tradition.


The Dullohan

This isn’t a particularly pretty or fluffy folklore entry but hey you know. They can’t all be.

I really wanted to write another folklore entry and sometimes the only thing that sounds appealing to write about are headless fairies. What can I say. I’m an odd creature.

This is actually a fae spirit that American school children, at least those raised in the Northeast would probably recognize on sight. While most likely not a dullohan, though potentially a cousin, the horseman that chased Icabod Crane around the Hudson Valley is the prototypical dullohan-a headless spirit that has very little interest in playing nice with the living.

The only issue with Irving’s image in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is that the dullohan actually has its head, it simply doesn’t wear it. It carries it with it while it rides through the night. As with many of the dark faeries it functions as a death omen, bringing nothing good to those who see it.

The dullohan is Irish but the image is fairly common through European folklore. However, the image is not always fae; often headless ghosts fall into the same role. Saturdays may have been particularly popular (Saturdays actually factor into death folklore with some frequency), but whether or not that’s a regional invention, I’m not sure.

I suppose just be glad that I’m not writing about Crom Dubh or Crom Cruach, since he’s who I really wanted to write about today-you can thank my knitting of all things for that one.

Phantoms and Hauntings


Sunday Legends-Catherine the Great’s Doppelganger


I am not in fact named after Catherine the Great (that honor actually goes to Katherine Hepburn). However, when I was a kid I really wanted to be.

I don’t care so much now.

Anyway, I’ve always felt a draw towards Catherine-it’s probably that whole ‘one of the most powerful women in history’ thing.

This isn’t a story about the end of the world, but it’s still sort of creepy. We’re heading in my birth week, so I’m going to go with the woman that I used to think I should have been named after.

Near the end of Catherine’s time on the throne, it is said that she was summoned out of her sleep by her servants. They were understandably concerned, being that at the same time that she was asleep in bed, she was also sitting on her throne in the throne room.

The double was still on the throne by the time that she got out of bed and made her way down there. Catherine, probably not liking anyone being on the throne but herself-even if the other person was herself-ordered the double shot on sight.

Whatever happened next seems to have been lost (if the event happened at all, that is) but Catherine did die soon after. There is a belief that seeing oneself that directly is a harbinger of death, so maybe this was the universe’s way of telling Catherine it was time to get off of the throne?

However, there seems to be things that only happen when one is a czarina.


The Grim Reaper


I seem to have inadvertently created a theme, haven’t I? I wasn’t trying to go quite so morbid with the last few folklore/horror entries. Hopefully this will run its course.

The Grim Reaper, as he is most commonly portrayed today, may be the most modern of the myths that this month examines. The image of the tall, skeletal hooded figure dates only to the fifteenth century, but may be connected to an older image called the Ankou.

The Ankou is an image that originated in the Brittany region of France. The Ankou was a type of psychopomp believed to shuttle the spirits of the dead. The Ankou was sometimes said to be the spirit of the last person to die in the village. It was described as being a tall, skeletal or almost skeletal figure that drove a cart that it used to collected the spirits of the dying. However, unlike the Grim Reaper the Ankou was not seeing as being death itself but rather just an assistant.

However the image as we are familiar with it now is not limited to one historical source or image. Many pantheons and mythologies feature a similar image of a figure in robes carying a scyth or other tool for the collection of spirits. The modern image is mostly a combination of these images, pulling from older ideas to create a modern psychopomp.

Seasonal Sunday Legends-The Sad Fate of Elmer McCurdy


I was reminded of this story while we were standing in at Frightworld last weekend. It’s not so much a Halloween legend-in fact, sadly, it’s not a legend at all-but still, it’s creepy enough that I’m going to call it a seasonal legend anyway.

I will say that the story has made the jump to urban legend status anyway as the story that I was told on Saturday involved New Jersey, when the details of the case place it in the Midwest and West Coast.

This is the strange, sad case of a mummy, an amusement park…and the Six Million Dollar Man.

The story goes that Elmer McCurdy was killed in Oklahoma after engaging in several thefts in 1911. Mccurdy was embalmed, and apparently the work of the local undertaker was so good that they dressed him up in his best clothes and set him up as a sort of local attraction. This went on for years with entertainment companies wanting to buy the corpse but the funeral home he was housed in refused the offers.

After several years, two men came forward who claimed the corpse as family-but in reality were intending on cashing in on the body the same way the funeral parlor had. This was the beginning of McCurdy’s second-life entertainment career, wherein he began to appear at amusement parks and as a prop in several films.

Eventually, the Six Million Dollar Man crew became interested in using the ‘prop’-which is when it was discovered that it was an actual corpse that had been shuttled around. In 1977, McCurdy made his way back home where he was finally buried-under cement.

Elmer McCurdy

Elmer McCurdy