Superstitions of the Undead (Or How to Keep the Dead in Their Graves)

Arkane Curiosities

Every culture fears that the dead will return to haunt and terrorize them. Throughout the centuries, different superstitions regarding death and burial arose to help keep the dead in their graves, where they belong.

Haitian Lip Sewing

The religion of voodoo is a mixture of several different practices originating in Africa. The main fear is that a deceased person might rise as a zombie. This isn’t the flesh-eating ghoul introduced by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. These are bodies animated by a sorcerer (bokor) and forced into an eternal slavery.

One common practice is to sew the corpse’s mouth shut. A bokor could only raise the dead by forcing the deceased to answer its name. Thus, sewing the lips shut prevents the dead from speaking. 

Another way to keep the dead from talking is to bury the corpse face down with its mouth against the earth. A dagger is also given to the deceased so they can stab any bokor who disturbs them. 

Finally, you can distract the dead with trivial tasks. Leaving an eyeless needle that can never be threaded or sprinkling a handful of sesame seeds to be counted will keep the deceased busy so they won’t hear the bokor call their name. 

How Death Got His Scythe

In Eastern Europe, many corpses were found buried with a sickle or scythe positioned across their necks. The idea here is that if a corpse rose from its grave, the sickle would slice the head off. 

People finding these bodies in the Middle Ages associated the sickle and scythe with the apparition of death. 

The reason we see burial stones in the shape of a cross is yet another way to keep the dead where they belong. The sign of the cross was thought to deter an evil spirit. Even a sword, with its cross-like hilt, stabbed into the he grave soil will do the job.

A Coin is Your Ticket to the Afterlife

One superstition, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is to place a coin in the mouth of the deceased. The name for this offering is “Charon’s obol”. An obol is a measure of currency. The Greeks believed that the dead spirit traveled to the underworld where it needed to cross the River Styx. Charon was the ferryman tasked with taking souls across the river. But he didn’t work for nothing. The coin was a bribe to make sure your loved one reached the afterlife. Otherwise, they might return as an evil spirit. 

Greeks are obsessed with the idea of keeping at least one coin on their person at all times. Your pocket or purse should always have at least one coin. Even your bank account needed a little something. This superstition was meant to ensure that you always had money. 

Never Dress Your Corpse in Red

Apparently it’s a difficult journey from the grave to the afterlife. The Chinese believe that a soul travels through the ten Magistrates of Hell, where they face faces trials and torments (one for each sin they committed in life). To ease this journey, monks chanted around the deceased to get them through the Courts of Hell as quickly as possible. There would also be a group of people gambling. The idea being that the corpse must be guarded day and night and the gambling kept the people awake and alert. 

The color red signifies happiness. After a death, all statues of deities in the house should be covered with red paper, to protect them from the corpse. Mirrors are also removed because to see the reflection of a coffin means that you will shortly die. 

The deceased is never dressed in red because this will cause the corpse to return as a ghost. 

Dead Flesh Chewing Gum

In Turkey, gum chewing is perfectly fine so long as it happens during daylight hours. If you chew gum at night, it transforms into the flesh of the dead. The color of Turkish gum is very similar to skin tone and can be mistaken as flesh. 

Additionally, you are not supposed to trim your nails at night otherwise a djinn will paralyze you.

Tim Kane

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Gabriel Succumbed to the Sin of Vanity

Chapter 34

This is a Young Adult story tackling issues of self-harm and suicide. It is intended for teen readers or older. If you want to read from the beginning, click over to chapter 1.

Gabriel’s mouth tightened into a straight line as he touched his wounded cheek.

“Help me stop Luke.” Kassandra looked him straight in the eye. “Can you do that?”

“I want to help you.” He looked toward one of the mirrors, body slumping under the pressure of those images.

She grabbed his face. “Focus on me. Ignore the mirrors. They’ll show you everything you’ve done wrong.” Kassandra leaned close, pressing their foreheads against each other. “Close your eyes. Shut it all out.”

Gabriel did what she said. Except now he was back to square one—surrounded by these horrible mirrors and trapped in the middle. The room was still in control.

“Think. The mirrors only show your mistakes.” Kassandra glanced at the reflections. “What’s something you did right?”

“I can think of nothing.”

“No, I won’t accept that.” She scanned the room, settling on the easel. “Listen, you said you only drew the cards, right? Luke was the one who did the nasty part. He filled them with people’s souls, not you.”

Gabriel nodded.

“So what did you really do wrong?”

“Vanity. That was my bargin with Donald Cloots.”

She glanced at the mirror holding Mr. Creeps, still draped with the black cloth. Her skin prickled. Could he see her through the sheet? 

“I wanted my work to live forever. Now it is my curse.”

“Yes, but we have a chance to stop it. To stop Luke. Isn’t it worth trying?”

Gabriel opened his eyes and looked straight at Kassandra. “Pain and misery have surrounded me for these many years. Yet you…” He ran his fingers along her cheek. “You are filled with so much hope.”

Kassandra looked down. Of all the ways to describe her, hope would never be the word she used.

“Perhaps, I can atone for my misdeeds a little by helping you.” He leaned closer and she picked up the musky wood scent again. “Thank you.”

Kassandra smiled. Not something she’d done a lot of lately. 

“You say Luke has all the cards?” Gabriel flexed his right arm, testing it. 

“Except The Magician.”

“And you hid it?”

“Yeah, more or less.” Kassandra could picture the card wedged behind Mom’s phone.

“If we hope to defeat Luke, we must travel to his card to discover his secrets.” Gabriel picked up a sliver of mirror from the ground. He pulled off a shirt button and used the mirror to slice the thread. 

Wee-tee-tee-tee-tweet.

The nightingale chirped from its perch on one of the candelabras. The bird had done the same thing when she was gathering the supplies on the workbench. It acted like the world’s smallest cheerleader.

“We shall need a portal for our escape.” Gabriel set the mirror and button on the ground and used the rope from his ankles to create a thick knot. Then he spat into his hand. 

Kassandra made a face. He wasn’t going to make her shake his hand, was he? Some sort of friendship bond?

“Bring the mirror, the rope, and the button.” Gabriel scooted to a clear section of marble floor and squatted down. She gathered the items and brought them over. 

“Are you going to make one of those door things?” 

“Yes. The portal opens a passageway between cards.”

He dipped a finger in his hand, and then drew a watery spit line on the floor. After the first line, Gabriel had to spit again for more liquid.

“Okay, I get that the mirror represents swords and the button is coins.” Kassandra knelt down on the floor. “I’m guessing you knotted the rope to make it like a club for the wands suit. But how does spit equal a cup?”

“I cup my hand to hold it.” He dipped his finger again and completed the rectangle drawn on the floor. “In addition, each suit relates to one of the four elements. Water is the element for cups, air for swords, earth for coins, and fire for wands.”

Kassandra flashed back to the items the bird set out on the workbench. The match looked sort of wand-shaped. But it could also light on fire. Maybe it was the fire part that really made it represent the wand suit. 

The nightingale fluttered down and landed next to the rectangle.

“Each card is hitched to another in a series, like a caravan of wagons.” Gabriel waved in the direction of the mirrors. “You can see them there.”

Scanning the mirrors, Kassandra found the one with Ezabell. Behind her ran a line of covered wagons, strung together like a train.

Gabriel’s fingers brushed hers as he took the knotted rope, placing it in the upper right-hand corner of the rectangle. “We must reach Luke’s castle in The Magician card, yet ten cards stand between us and our goal.” He placed the mirror shard and button on opposite corners. “The Wheel of Fortune might prove useful to alter our course.”

“That’s Auntie Jo’s card. Luke used the card on her. Is she’s trapped in there?”

“Most likely, but…”

“We need to save her.”

Gabriel paused, thinking a moment. “You cannot rescue your aunt from inside the Tarot deck.”

“Now wait a minute, I cut you down. Why can’t I do the same for Auntie Jo?”

“If I glance away from the floor at those mirrors, I will become lost again in a world of my sins.” He glanced up at her once. “Your aunt will be overwhelmed by the illusion of the Tarot deck. She will not leave except by force.”

“Then I’ll force her.”

Gabriel gave a half smile.

So what if he thought Kassandra was nuts. She wasn’t about to give up on Auntie Jo. Not if there was even the slightest chance of saving her.

“So how come Luke said you betrayed him? It seems like you were both screwed by this Cloots guy.”

“I did betray my brother, though it was only to save his soul.” Gabriel rubbed his elbow where an old scar ran along the skin. “Once I learned of how he empowered each card, I refused to draw the last illustration, the Tower. Without a complete deck, there could be no deal with Cloots, and therefore no chance to save Ezabell.”

Kassandra looked at the mirror where Luke held the scraps of paper showing the creepy tower. He screamed, shaking the torn illustrations. She’d never seen him so angry.

“Luke would often visit here.” Gabriel pointed to the knocked over easel. “He made me illustrate Ezabell.”

“Why would you do anything for him?”

“So I could see her again. Not in death, but how she was in life. Luke would cover the mirrors and I drew from memory.” Gabriel took a long breath, letting it out slowly. “It was a serene moment in a sea of tumult.”

Kassandra glanced at the rectangle. Only three corners held items: the button, the knotted rope, and the mirror. “Wait. Isn’t there something missing?”

“I am the last symbol.” He cupped his hand again and rested it on the lower right corner. The floor rumbled. Then the marble inside the rectangle crumbled and fell away to darkness. 

Kassandra trembled. Going into the blackness last time felt like swimming through tar.

“First we must traverse the card of Fortitude.” Gabriel stood slowly, teetering a little. “Be wary of what you see. Although I designed each card, I have never been inside any but this one. I do not know what we shall encounter.”

Kassandra strained to remember the illustration from Fortitude. It was the card Lindsay had taken in the hall at school. And the one Luke used against her. Did people end up being trapped by the cards they chose? Auntie Jo said the Wheel of Fortune was her card.

Kassandra stared at the black rectangle in front of her. There was a lion loose in there. But also Lindsay. She swallowed. Which one scared her more? 

Teeny Haunts: The Night Hag

The idea that some hideous creature slinks into your room at night to suffocate you both enthralls and terrifies me. Obviously the myth grew up around the sin of gluttony — don’t gorge yourself or else! But it also has some science behind it. People who stuff themselves will have breathing problems, especially if they sleep on their backs.

Digging down into the legend, I found that many cultures have this scream-stealing monster. In Moroccan culture it’s known as Bou Rattat — a demon that presses down on the sleeper’s body so they can’t move or speak.

Slavic mythology calls it the Notsnitsa (or the Night Maiden). She was known torment children as well, so that would make a frightening bedtime story. (Hey kids, if you wake up with the Notsnitsa in the room, don’t bother screaming… because you can’t.) Apparently a stone with a hole in the center serves as protection. (Where would you find one of those?)

In Spanish culture you have the Pisadeira, a demon woman who sits on your full stomach while you doze at night. Her victims are always people who have eaten too much. This is where I primarily pulled from for the illustrations.

In England, the creature is the Night Hag. In fact the word nightmare was coined to describe the shortness of breath you have awaking from such a terror.

Scientifically, there is a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis, in which a person wakes to consciousness, but cannot move their body. Laying in bed, totally immobilized, some people feel a chilling presence in the room.

Maybe this Night Hag is real and sneaks into our bedrooms at night, slurping up our fear and screams of terror. Now where did I put my stone with a hole in it?

Happy haunts,

Tim Kane

Teeny Haunts: The Demon Car of Proctor Road

I had no idea I lived so close to such a haunted road. Apparently the dirt road that connects my city to Jamul has all sorts of haunts associated with it — a ghost lady, a goat man and of course a demon car.

Digging into this legend, I can’t help but wonder if it was inspired by the 1977 film The Car, where James Brolin has to defeat, you guessed it, a demon possessed car. The movie has a few problems, but the car design is exceptional and I used it as a basis for the illustration of the Proctor Valley version.

The mouth that opens up at the end was inspired by the cartoon Regular Show, specifically the episode Ello Gov’nor. This is where a British taxi chases Rigby down, but it’s grill opens up into a mouth.

There are also elements of Stephen King wrapped up in the Proctor Valley legend. Not so much Christine, but rather Salem’s Lot. The movie did the best they could, but I recall in the story, King describes the car in much the same way it was depicted in the 1977 Car movie.

I haven’t yet experienced the Demon Car myself. It’s supposed to happen to travelers who embark on the dirt road at night. Once, I did travel down the bumpy path at sunset and behind me loomed a pair of headlights. They never sped up to my number.

All the same, I pushed my car as fast as it would go. Just in case.

Stay haunted…

Tim Kane