Monday, April 26, 2010

The Michigan Dog Man

In March of 1987 WTCM morning radio personality Jack O'Malley thought it would be fun to create a Michigan monster as an April Fool's joke. An avid folklorist, O'Malley cobbled together various local legends into a composite creature he dubbed "the Michigan Dog Man."

Half dog, half man, the creature O'Malley imagined was a kind of modern day werewolf that stood on two feet like Bigfoot or the Boggy Creek Monster, and had a glowing red eyes like the Jersey Devil. O'Malley wrote a poem about his invented creature that morphed into a song, and then put the whole thing on the air as an April Fool's joke.

Then the calls and sightings started to trickle in.

At first, O'Malley assumed that the sightings were hoaxes or misidentifications triggered by his April Fool's joke, but the sightings kept coming. When a cabin in Luther, MI was attacked by what appeared to be an unnaturally large, vicious dog, (the creature attempted to chew right through the doors and windows and left blood and saliva samples), the story went national.

To O'Malley's astonishment, the Ojibway tribe native to the Michigan area had long believed in a shapeshifting half dog, half man creature. The early French trappers who visited Michigan in the 1700s also reported a half dog, half man creature they called the loup garou, (which is French for 'wolfman').

A record of sightings stretching back over 250 years soon emerged, all authentic, all carefully documented.

How is it that O'Malley's prank turned out to be based on a real local legend after all? Maybe he'd heard of the creature and just forgotten it--although, considering his rabid interest in legends and cryptids that isn't very likely. Maybe all such shapeshifting creatures share common features that make them 'fit' almost any made-up story. Certainly he took features from several other shapeshifting entities to create this one.

Or maybe there really are 'spirits of place'--creatures that are neither all-spirit nor all-flesh--creatures that move between the spirit world and the 'real' world without impediment.

Whatever the reason, the next time you are walking through the Michigan woods and you think you hear the howl of a wolf, don't doubt yourself.

But do bar the door.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Resurrection Mary & the Vanishing Hitchhiker

The story of the vanishing hitchhiker is one of the oldest known urban legends. Vanishing hitchhikers appear in the Bible and in religious texts going back thousands of years before Christ. Supposedly these stories speak to the danger of journeying at night and the hazards of road travel in general, and yet, the specifics are weird enough that you really have to wonder why they persist in this exact form.

One of the most famous vanishing hitchhiker stories is the tale of Resurrection Mary--Chicago's most famous ghost--who is seen walking along Archer Avenue on they city's southwest side. Since the 1930s at least half a dozen credible encounters with Resurrection Mary have been reported.

The story of Resurrection Mary fits the vanishing hitchhiker outline perfectly.

A driver is traveling between Willowbrook Ballroom and Resurrection Cemetary on Archer Avenue late at night. The driver (usually a man) sees a very young woman in a white dress walking along the side of the road. He stops to offer her a ride, thinking it odd and a little dangerous that she is out at this hour in cold weather, alone. She climbs in the car and gives him her home address.

She is quiet and pale and the car feels cold as soon as she closes the door. As they approach Resurrection Cemetery, the girl suddenly calls out for the driver to stop. When he does pull over, she jumps out of the car and runs toward the iron gates of the cemetery entrance, vanishing before the driver's eyes just as she hits them.

In some versions of this story the driver takes the young woman all the way home, but in her hurry to get inside she leaves a scarf on the seat. When the driver returns the next day to return the scarf, he is invited into the house by a stunned older woman. A photo of the girl the sits on a bureau in the front room. The driver learns that the young woman is the older woman's daughter, and that she died years ag in a hit-and-run accident on Archer Avenue while walking home from a dance.

So many people have seen Resurrection Mary over the past 80 years that paranormal researchers have even narrowed down the girl's identity to two possible real women: Mary Bregovy, who died in an auto accident in the Chicago loop in 1934--or Anna Norkus, who died on her way home from the Oh Henry Ballroom in 1927. Anna Norkus fits the actual story much better than Mary Bregovy, although for years Mary Bregovy was assumed to be the real Resurrection Mary because she is the only candidate actually buried in Resurrection Cemetery.

Resurrection Mary and other vanishing hitchhiker ghost follow a familiar pattern in paranormal research. On the one hand are the eyewitnesses who swear the event was physically, materially real. On the other are the folklorists and psychologists who insist that the whole thing is a compelling story or myth that is passed down from generation to generation.

It is almost as if some stories force us to question and expand our view of reality; as if the purpose of a certain kind of story is to cause exactly this kind of confusion and questioning.

But another possibility that rarely gets mentioned is that some stories literally 'take on flesh' and become real over time. In bygone days when people believed in magic--not stage magic, but real practical magic--putting flesh onto words was one of many things a skilled magician might do.

A world that doesn't believe in magic is kind of at its mercy.

Just something to think about the next time you find yourself driving down a deserted cemetery road late at night, alone.

You might not be as alone as you imagine.