Our collective past histories are filled with myths and legends that help to encapsulate a particular experience, historical event, or even embody a specific emotion. In essence, they are stories that function as a way of explaining phenomena not readily supported by scientific fact or recorded history, and they have acted as a communicative tool for centuries.
The most popular myths or legends of course date to antiquity. But human consciousness has continued to create and preserve these stories, in order to better describe the indescribable, and enshrine them for future generations. Some of these stories are rather terrifying, and continue to fascinate us with their multitude of meanings.
From ancient Greece to modern day New Orleans, here are a couple of the most haunting stories inscribed into collective memory.
Medusa, Greek Mythology
While now Medusa’s appearance can be found on the logo of stylish brands such as Versace, her legend is of course a well-worn tale that has been revisited by historians, artists, and writers for centuries. Medusa was one of the Gorgon sisters, daughter of Phorkys and Keto, who were likewise children of Gaea (Earth), and Oceanus (Ocean). She was originally a beautiful, golden-haired woman who was priestess of Athena, and meant to devote her life to celibacy. However, she fell in love with Poseidon, thus forgetting her vow and married him.
She was mercilessly punished by the Goddess Athena, who turned her once beautiful wavy hair to snakes, gave her gentle eyes a frightening blood-shot tinge, and her skin a hideous greenish color. Her ugly and terrifying visage turned all who looked upon her into stone.
In despair, she fled to Africa, where she wondered restlessly, and snakes dropped from her hair as she walked, which – according to the ancient Greeks, is how Africa became the perfect environment for venomous reptiles. She finally found some peace when she was beheaded at the hands of Perseus.
Medusa’s story has been interpreted differently by historians, feminists, and psychoanlysists throughout time. It has taken to represent, amongst other things, the historical trauma of invasion by another country, or the embodiment of female rage.
Madame LaLaurie, New Orleans
The LaLaurie mansion is one of the most haunted sites in New Orleans. The story begins in 1832, when Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his wife, Delphine, moved into a Creole mansion in the French quarter. Known for their enormous wealth and social standing, the house was attended to by dozens of slaves. Delphine was incredibly beautiful and stylish, and she kept her daughters dressed in the finest fashions of the day. The mansion, which seemed rather plain on the outside, was filled with awe-inspiring artwork on the inside. Any socialite who received an invitation to attend a function there was considered extremely lucky.
But behind this gilded façade, Delphine possessed an incredibly cruel, and perhaps insane streak. This was revealed in the aftermath of a fire in the mansion’s kitchen, in which the horrors were revealed. Legend has it that behind a barred door in the attic lay a torture chamber for those enslaved, and the charred bodies of men and women chained to the walls were found, alongside children shut inside cages, random body parts were strewn on the floor, and human organs gathered in buckets.
The gruesome scene led to a mob of people gathering at the mansion, demanding justice against the brutal mistreatment of slaves. That night, a carriage drove furiously past the gates, ensuring that the family disappeared into the night, forever.
It was rumored that the family disappeared into a smaller enclave nearby New Orleans, or that Delphine perhaps ended up in France. What is known for certain is that no record of a lawsuit was ever brought against the LaLauries.
The mansion went through various metamorphoses since their escape, particularly during Reconstruction. Some people tried to occupy it, but died mysteriously. It was changed into a furniture shop and bar, only to be shut down shortly thereafter. Thing is, everyone has heard moans of despair emanating from deep within the house, or apparitions of Delphine herself, roaring with deranged glee into the night.
Teke Teke Ghost, Japan
Perhaps it would be more viable to categorize this as more of an urban legend than a myth, since the tale is rather recent. Arguably in light of Japan’s high suicide rate, the tale of Teke Teke’s spirit came into being; sort of as a cautionary tale. She is the spirit of a girl who tripped on train tracks in what was initially framed as an intentional suicide attempt. She was cut in half by the oncoming train, and now her spirit wanders around looking for victims to share her fate, by murdering them with a scythe.
There is a similar tale based on the spirit of Teke Teke, in which a girl by the name of Kashima Reiko died on the train tracks, thus losing her legs. She haunts bathroom stalls and asks occupants where her legs are. In order for her not to kill them, they must correctly answer Meishin Railway, for fear of her cutting their own legs.
Gorbals Vampire, Scotland
Vampire legends have been around for centuries, but this is perhaps the most recent incarnation, dating to 1954. A panic overtook Glasgow, Scotland, when paranoia regarding vampire with iron teeth was blamed for the brutal death of two young boys.
The story starts with the police receiving a call regarding mischief in the Southern Necropolis Cemetery one evening. The local constable went, finding a group of nearly a hundred children, ages 5 through 14, many of them armed with various kinds of primitive weaponry. The children told the bewildered constable that a vampire with iron teeth lived in the cemetery, and was responsible for the death of two children. He attempted to laugh them off, but realized they were dead serious when the hordes of terrified children begged him to find the monster and drive a stake through its heart.
Local officials initially blamed the newfangled obsession with American comic books for the hysteria, although Scotland has a deep folkloric tradition filled with vampire lore. The Gorbals Vampire is most likely based on the ancient Scottish tale of Jenny with the Iron Teeth, who was said to bite the throats of children who refused to sleep when told do so. Either way, seems that the kids had a right to be concerned.
There are hundreds – if not thousands – of myths and legends that we continue to share and tell ourselves, perhaps in slightly different forms, throughout history. Much like the tale of Pandora’s Box, for example, these stories are often used as cautionary tales. Whether to prevent an overly curious child from opening a box of secrets, or the many doomsday narratives we have told ourselves to be careful about walking alone into the night.