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A Family Bewitched: The Hoffman Poltergeist

I am in the throes of the Big Push for The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past and said throes are cutting into my sleep. So in the interests of time, today I’m going to revisit a story from The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. There you will find a much fuller account of an entity labeled “IT” by those it tormented, in a chapter called “A Family Bewitched: The Hoffman Poltergeist of Wooster.”

I like to think that I’m pretty well up on the literature of poltergeists. Slashing polts like the ones you will read about below are found as least as early as the 15th century. It is puzzling, if you believe that all poltergeist activities are merely pranks caused by mischievous teenaged girls, how their activities follow the same patterns, remaining unchanged over the centuries. Personally, I think polts are a form of spontaneous PK arising from trauma and repression. Polt vectors are likely to be frustrated, angry, or even abused individuals, who feel that they have no choices and cannot solve the problems they face.  Hormonal shifts seem to play a role, whether in puberty, menstruation, or menopause. Dissociative behavior is often part of the picture. What the mechanism is, I haven’t an earthly….

As I outlined in another chapter in FITW, “Rock, Fire, and Scissors: The Mysterious Poltergeist,” poltergeists often have specialities. There are the garden-variety ones who throw household items and rap on walls; there are ones who materialize water; there are the stone-throwing devils or lithobolia; incendiary poltergeists like the tragic Minnie Merkle in “Haunted by Fire: A Fire-Spook in Springfield,” from FITW. Lastly, there are the slashing poltergeists who shred clothing and other textiles in what feels like a very personal, intimate attack. While IT did many things to the unhappy Hoffman family, its attack on their wardrobes was one of the most interesting (and distressing) features of the case. Here is a representative article about IT’s depredations.


There have recently been doings in Wayne County, Ohio (reports the New York Times), as marvellous as any that ever frightened Cotton Mather, or mystified Dr. Johnson. In the little city of Wooster there lives a quiet and respectable family, named Hoffman, which for nearly two years has been haunted and tortured by malignant spirits. The persistent demons cannot be entreated or exorcised away; and their proceedings bear a like close resemblance to those of divers familiar imps conjured up by modern spiritualists, and to those of the famous Cock Lane ghost of a century ago.

The mysterious pranks that afflict the Hoffman family were begun in June 1869, while the family lived in Millersburg, Holmes   County, Ohio. At that date, by way of keynote or prologue to the weird drama to come, Mr. Hoffman one day lost two dollars from his purse. He did not at first attribute this to any Satanic or supernatural agency, although he felt subsequently called on to do so. Prudently resolving to hide his money more carefully in future, he went his way. But put his loose cash where he might, the cunning depredator spied it out and relieved him of it. The poor man soon found that it was absolutely impossible to keep any funds about him at all; and this was only the beginning of his woes. Articles of food and of dress began to disappear in the same unaccountable way. Crockery fell from shelves without the aid of human hands, and was smashed to pieces. Stones, eggs, and other small objects were tossed wildly about the house; and now and then the unseen tricksters got up a little shower of gravel and sand, which would be playfully thrown in the faces of the inmates.

The family were at first very naturally surprised and annoyed; afterwards they got alarmed, and having unsuccessfully tried every means that occurred to them, both to discover the cause of these visitations and to put a stop to them, they resolved to quit their home. Mr. Hoffman took another house for his wife and three children—the latter being aged twenty-seventeen, and fifteen respectively—in the town of Wooster, at some distance from their former abode; while, with the discretion that appears to characterise him, he took up his own temporary quarters at a mill where he was employed. The family now hoped to remain unmolested; but they soon found to their chagrin how trivial were the impediments of space or locality to their malefic attendants. The prudent Hoffman, indeed, escaped further attentions; but his spouse was less fortunate. That lady and her offspring being domiciled at the house of one Snooks, in West Liberty Street, Wooster, [Spitzer B&B is at 504 W Liberty St] now became the victims of an extraordinary series of persecutions. The clothes of the mother and eldest daughter were first abstracted and then returned in fragments, having been cut and slashed to pieces. Sometimes the garments would be stuffed in out-of-the-way places. One day, for example, most of the linen of the family was discovered carefully packed in the mouth of the cellar drain. Another time a silk dress was found under a wood pile; and skirts were dug up that had been deliberately buried in earth or sand.

A fresh feature was now added to the entertainment, in the shape of notes that arrived, none knew from whence, although they sometimes appeared to be thrown form the cellar. These missives contained various threats and admonitions. One of the number advised Mrs. Hoffman, in a friendly way, that if she would come down the cellar stairs backward on her knees, at a specified day and hour, she would find a box containing 2,000 dollars. The worthy lady was anxious to clutch the glittering prize, but “being afraid of bodily injury, was dissuaded by neighbours from making the hazardous attempt.” It occurred to her, not unreasonably, that the task might be more wisely undertaken by her husband; and she therefore repaired to that cautious person at his mill, and induced him to go with her to Wooster. The spirits, however at this juncture, promptly transmitted another note to the effect that no one could possibly get the money but herself; and we are not surprised to hear by the latest accounts that hit has not yet been secured. By way of amends for this disappointment, the concealed powers have begun a new and lively round of diversions. Poundings are heard on the walls at night, stones from the size of pebbles to that of a man’s fist are pitched through the doors and windows, dishes rattled, and “a general rumpus is created, as if imps were holding high revelry.” A bold young man, a visitor, having said something disrespectful of the unseen agencies, a red-hot stone was dropped on his head, and on taking out his pocket-handkerchief, he found it was cut into shreds. All sorts of mystifications are practised. Mr. Hoffman, for instance, answered one of the “spirit notes,” and put his reply in the cellar; but just as he got upstairs into the room above, “his own note dropped on the floor by his side—all his family being present.”

The family are now quite impoverished by the thefts and other ravages of their demoniac tormentors. Mrs. Hoffman and her daughters have no clothes save those worn by them daily on their backs; while the husband and father has only a single worn old working suit left to him. Nearly all the domestic utensils, such as plates, cups, and saucers, and even the table cutlery, have been either broken or carried away. Of course the obvious suggestion is that all this mischief has really been wrought by cunning mortals, and not by spirits at all, and that, as with the artful William Parson and his family in 1761, discovery, if long averted, must be certain at last. The local press declares that most careful watch has been kept, and that hundreds of men and women have visited and inspected the premises without being able to suggest any clue to the mystery. Several clergymen and physicians have investigated it, and a circle of professed spiritualists have likewise essayed to do so. As yet no light whatever has been thrown on the matter, and, so far as the postponement of detection goes, this Ohio ghost must certainly be allowed to surpass in cunning his predecessor of Cock Lane, who so marvellously perplexed the wise heads of last century. The Week’s News [London, England] 20 May, 1871: p. 628

The original article appeared in The New York Times 24 May 1871

The Cock-Lane Ghost was the talk of 1762 London. Although the manifestations were of a poltergeist type, they were attributed to the ghost of the restless spirit of “Scratching Fanny,” a former resident of the house. She rapped out that she had been murdered by her husband. He denied it and claimed that someone was trying to extort money from him. The case was investigated by Dr. Samuel Johnson himself. Spoiler Alert: A 12-year-old girl was responsible. You can read more about the story in Dr. Johnson’s account in The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1763, or in Cock Lane and Common Sense, Andrew Lang, 1894. “Cock-Lane Ghost” was used in the 19th century papers as shorthand for any sensational ghost story, perhaps as we might say, “It was a real Amityville Horror case,” or “The place was like something out of The Shining.”

As with so many poltergeist cases, this one doesn’t really have a satisfactory ending, where, after an exorcism, the torment stops; a teenaged girl is caught red-handing throwing something; or an enemy is discovered trying to drive the family out of a property for reasons of malice or greed.

After the Hoffman family left Wooster, they went to Akron where the family seemed to shatter. Mrs. Hoffman, who had been told by some mediums that she herself had the Power, and her son, Jacob, lived in an apartment while Mr. Hoffman worked as a teamster and lived in a boarding house a few blocks away.  Husband and wife did not divorce, but they never lived together again. I have theorized that Mrs. Hoffman, at a hormonally difficult time of life, might have been the poltergeist vector.  Many of the stories about this case stress how Mr. Hoffman was left unscathed–until his wife begged him to move to Wooster and “protect” them and help her get the money she thought was in the basement.

Given the information I have, it’s not possible to prove who was responsible. If you just look at the case in a symbolic way, it becomes still more baffling. Food, clothing, and money were the targets–everything essential for life.  But what was the motive? Someone was furiously angry: stealing money and food and chopping up the family’s clothing—its second skin, as it were–was a highly aggressive and personal attack. I don’t have any answers. I can only suggest that IT ultimately destroyed the family as thoroughly as it shredded their clothing and possessions.

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Intruders and incubi: The waking nightmare of sleep paralysis

Brian Barrett Motherboard

© Nicolas Bruno

Once, when I was 17, I woke up in the dark and couldn’t move.

I could hear, at least. That’s why I was awake to begin with: someone was banging on the front door in the middle of the night, insistent, sharp, angry.

I could see, too. My eyes were open to the ceiling above me. My head, though, was locked into position by some invisible vise. I tried to yell, to warn my parents about the angry intruder outside, and the irrevocable harm I was convinced he would do. I couldn’t yell. The knocks got louder.

No matter how insistently I begged my body to jump out of bed and find a place to hide, it remained a slab. Something terrible was about to happen to me, to my family. The door was going to give way. The outsider was going to come in. I was going to face whatever—whoever?—came after completely immobilized and alone.

It was the most afraid I’ve ever been in my life. What I realized, looking back later, was that it still would have been even if it weren’t for those knocks on the door, and my certainty that something awful would follow. My deepest fear came from the realization that my body, in that moment, had become completely dissociated from anything I recognized as myself. It was a car sinking to the bottom of a lake, my mind its captive passenger, waiting to drown.

I don’t remember how long it lasted, but eventually it wore off. I quickly found out that the person on the porch was my older brother, home at an unexpected hour on an unexpected visit from college. It took me a few more years to figure out that the other part, the immobility, the sense of self reduced to flickering consciousness, even the deepness of the fear I felt, had a name. It was sleep paralysis.

At least, that’s what we call it now. Dr. S.A. Kinnier Wilson coined the term in a 1928 edition of the medical journal Brain. His description then should feel familiar to anyone who has experienced sleep paralysis today: a man dreamed of a murderer, then carried that dream over to a conscious state. The patient in question “lay thus, flat on the floor, motionless but suffering acute mental stress.

That’s not to say that sleep paralysis is a relatively new human experience. A Dutch physician named Isbrand van Diemerbroeck published several case histories that accurately describe sleep paralysis in 1664, one of which, titled “Of the Night-Mare,” may as well have been penned by Mary Shelley.

“In the night time, when she was composing her self to sleep, sometimes she believed the devil lay upon her and held her down, sometimes that she was choaked by a great dog or thief lying upon her breast, so that she could hardly speak or breath, and when she endeavored to throw off the burthen, she was not able to stir her member,”van Diemerbroeck wrote, suggesting moderate exercise and plenty of juice as a possible remedy to the invisible nighttime demon attacks. [17th century sics implied throughout.]

Even that landmark medical documentation isn’t remotely the first reported instance. Go back further still, and you’ll find references to sleep paralysis in medieval Persia and Ancient Greece and even more ancient (400 BCE) China. There’s probably a cave drawing somewhere that depicts a red-eyed saber-toothed tiger sitting atop a paralyzed Neanderthal’s chest. Sleep paralysis is as ageless and as universal as fear itself.

It’s not quite as simple as simply being afraid, though. It’s a complex confluence of physiological and psychological occurrences that force you to experience your deepest nightmares with eyes wide open.

Take a normal night of sleep, assuming you still have those once in awhile. Your body cycles through five sleep stages, the last of which is REM, which you probably remember from your high school biology class as being your brain’s lights-out, shut-it-down, dream-time state.

Which is great! Dreaming is wonderful, especially if you ever wondered what it might feel like to fly down Rodeo Drive with a soft serve twist cone in one hand and a chainsaw in the other. Dreaming, though, can also be dangerous, because your big dumb body doesn’t necessarily know that your brain is just playing pretend. Given the opportunity, your body will act out those dreams, which can lead to a whole other terrifying condition called REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD).

You’ve heard of sleepwalking, which can technically be a type of RBD, depending on whether it occurs during the REM stage of sleep. Many RBD episodes are much more involved than just puttering down the hall, however. Think of it like this: juggling with tennis balls and juggling with flaming swords are both technically types of juggling, but you’d never confuse the two.

Comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia turned his experiences with RBD into a very entertaining show, book, and film called Sleepwalk with Me. Well, entertaining but also terrifying; at one point in his mid-20s, Birbiglia threw himself out of a closed, second-story La Quinta motel window. At the time, in his dream, he was trying to escape an incoming guided missile.

The reason more people don’t experience RBD is that the brain also has a safety valve. “During dreaming… bursts of neural activity called PGO waves spread through the cortex, producing the imagery we experience during dreams,” explained James Allan Cheyne, sleep paralysis expert and professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo. “Simultaneously, activation spreads down the spinal column causing spinal interneurons to suppress signals that normally would produce muscle movement.”

Your body, in other words, paralyzes itself during REM sleep to keep you from throwing yourself down a stairwell when you dream about laying out for touchdown pass to win the state championship.

Sleep paralysis, then, is what happens when you wake up before that effect has had a chance to wear off. Your body has frozen to keep you from acting out your dreams. But also, haha, good joke, you’re still dreaming.

“You have aspects of REM sleep that are going on when you have waking, conscious awareness,” said Brian Sharpless, assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University and author of a recent book about sleep paralysis. “First, you’re paralyzed, and second, you are having dreams, but unlike normal dreaming these two things are happening while you’re awake and able to look around the room.”

Not just any dreams, though. Sharpless estimates that while a little less than a third of our normal dreams could be considered nightmares, 80 to 90 percent of dreams experienced during sleep paralysis qualify. “You can kind of imagine why,” he said. “If you’re lying on your back and can’t move, that’s scary enough. And if you’re having hallucinations that are scary as well, that’s a bad mix.”

My own sleep paralysis, then, was fairly textbook. The banging on the door vaulted me into consciousness but not out of REM, leaving me frozen in a liminal hell of the mind, waiting for a bad man with an axe to bust down my door. Actually, I got off easy.

As it turns out, sleep paralysis nightmares can be divided into three tidy categories, two of which—the Intruder and the Incubus—would make for decent Paranormal Activity sequels. The third is “vestibular and motor,” a less-fun name for a more-fun condition.

Cheyne cautions that these categories are broad, and the experiences the describe can vary greatly. On the other hand, he also is one of three authors of a landmark 1999 scientific paper, published in Consciousness and Cognition, that helped define them.

Vestibular and motor incidents—Cheyne calls it “Unusual Bodily Experiences” in his 1999 paper—are relatively harmless, potentially even enjoyable. “It’s fancy term for feeling like your body is being moved without its volition,” Sharpless explains. “You could feel like you’re floating, or levitating, or your arm is being lifted.” Not so bad, right? Your standard Sigourney-Weaver-in-Ghostbusters scenario.

The other two, Cheyne says, have no such upside potential.

For Intruder experiences, the main sensation is the sensed presence—a feeling of something in the room,” he recently explained over email. “That something may then also be seen, heard, or physically felt. It may move around the room, approach the bed, and sometimes climb onto the bed.”

Scary! But remember, at this point you also can’t move. As far as you know, you may never be able to move again, even if you somehow survive being horribly violated by the shadow monster in your periphery. Screaming would at least be cathartic, but you can’t scream, and you can’t breathe all that well, so all that’s left is to wait.

I was fortunate in that my Intruder scenario involved an actual (friendly!) person. That gave quicker closure, presumably, than some hallucinatory demon-dog lurker might have. I was fortunate, also, that I didn’t draw an Incubus instead:

The Incubus experiences often continue this sequence by climbing on top of the ‘sleeper,’ Cheyne continues, “perhaps smothering, and even assaulting them physically and sexually.” This is how your brain works. This is van Diemerbroeck’s devil.

© Nicolas Bruno

Beginning in February of 1995, reports began to circulate throughout Zanzibar of a spirit that assaulted men and women in the dark of night. Its name was Popobawa, which means “winged bat,” because that was the form it was said to take most often, though it was just as often invisible.

As social anthropologist Martin Walsh detailed in 2009, Popobawa attacks spread quickly throughout the country, jumping from person to person, house to house, and village to village, eventually constituting a full-blown paranormal pandemic.

The bat demon was said to sodomize its victims. The response was violent. At one point, residents of Zanzibar City murdered a suspected Popobawa who unsurprisingly turned out to be a human, one who had visited the capital in search of mental health treatment. The terrors, both spiritual and corporeal, continued. Then, three months after they began, the Popobawa incidents stopped.

An entire nation plagued by a sex-starved bat demon would laughable as a SyFy channel script. As reality, it seems impossible. That it led to mobs and murder, more so.

It happened, though. And again, to a lesser degree, in 2007 (“Sex attacks blamed on bat demon” read the restrained BBC headline that time). How?

“A typical [Popobawa] assault involved somebody waking up in the night to find themselves being attacked by an amorphous or shape-shifting intruder, which was most frequently described as ‘pressing’ or ‘crushing’ their chest and ribs, and of suffocating them until they had difficulty in breathing and passed out,” Walsh wrote. “In general all of the victims experienced extreme terror, and were often frozen speechless when they were assaulted.”

An intruder. An incubus. The inability to move. The loss of respiratory control. The Popobawa, Walsh concludes, was no demon. It was textbook sleep paralysis, at a massive scale.

Zanzibar’s example is extreme, but far from isolated. Every culture has its bogeyman. Every century has ghost sightings. Everyone has heard things go bump in the night.

“We believe that sleep paralysis is a good, naturalistic explanation for a lot of paranormal beliefs,” said Sharpless. “Alien abductions that occur at night; visits by ghosts and demons; more recently, shadow people. If you look at people’s first-hand descriptions of these events, they map really well on to sleep paralysis.”

“Different cultures have come up with unique names for sleep paralysis that are descriptive of various common experiences in how it manifests,” explains Kevin Morton, who five years ago founded a site dedicated to better understanding sleep disorders as part of an undergraduate project at Stanford University. “In Japan it’s been known as ‘Kanashibari’ (retaliating spirit), in Thailand ‘Phi um’ (enveloping ghost), or the ‘Hauka’I po’ (night marchers) in Hawaii.”

In the same way that we might ascribe a happy coincidence to a guardian angel or God, we paint sleep paralysis with the brushstrokes of our deepest terrors.

Sleep paralysis being blamed on ghosts, spirits, and demons transcends cultures, but you can count on Japan to give it the perfect anime treatment.

Estimates vary as to how many people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. Sharpless pegs it at 8 percent of the general population, with students (28 percent) and psychiatric patients (32 percent) even higher. Sharpless thinks that spike may be attributable to those groups having disrupted sleep patterns to begin with, making sleep paralysis more likely. Cheyne notes that incidence rates are higher still “in societies with an active tradition of haunting night spirits.”

Despite the prevalence of sleep paralysis, especially among certain groups, there’s been no large intervention trials to determine an effective treatment for it. In a 2014 paper, Dr. Sharpless and co-author Jessica Lynn Grom outlined a few preemptive methods (e.g., changing sleep positions and patterns), as well as techniques to help mitigate the impact mid-episode. Among the most effective of those? Simply trying to calm yourself down in the moment, if you can manage it. Focus on trying to move your extremities. Don’t worry about the demon on your chest.

That’s more easily accomplished if you’re aware that you’re experiencing sleep paralysis, or even of what sleep paralysis is. It’s a condition that’s been largely (apologies) in the dark, in part because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I didn’t tell anyone about my experience for years, and even then it was only after I had found out what it was. Until then, I was too worried that it signaled something deeply wrong with my body or mind or both.

“Sleep paralysis has quite a large awareness bias associated with it,” says Morton, whose site has received hundreds of submissions from people who have lived it, and a magnitude more visitors looking for answers. “It is such a crazy experience–waking up with your body paralyzed, often hallucinating frightening dream imagery, occasionally of a sexual nature–that those who experience it often don’t talk about it with others, usually out of fear that they will be seen as crazy or possessed, or just otherwise stigmatized if they bring it up.”

Morton is optimistic about the internet’s power as a great normalizer; all it takes is a quick search of symptoms to find out that you’re neither possessed nor insane. Sleep paralysis also seems to be having a larger cultural moment beyond the web, if a phenomenon as old as consciousness itself can be said to have moments.

That’s a brief clip from The Nightmare, a documentary from Rodney Ascher, which brings brings to life people’s real descriptions of sleep paralysis events. Ascher, who previously directed the critically lauded Room 237, pursued the topic after experiencing it himself. Devil in the Room, a short film released in 2014, takes a similar approach, while photographer Nicolas Bruno has a series of photographs depicting the horrors he has experienced in his years of sleep paralysis.

Most dreams stop when they want to, not when you tell them. A modicum of awareness, though, helps with what comes after. Even if you can’t beat sleep paralysis, you can cope with its reverberations.

There’s comfort in knowing that the demon on your chest actually resides in your mind. Or at least, that yours isn’t the only mind with demons.

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The Charlie Charlie Challenge – what is the spooky craze?

A strange new viral phenomenon has left social media buzzing with attempts to summon a Mexican spirit.

Although it has been around for quite some time, the challenge, which involves using pencils and a piece of paper to summon a spirit named Charlie, has really taken off this week.

To play, participants are required to take a piece of paper, balance two pencils in a cross shape in the middle and then write the words “yes” and “no” at the four corners of the page.

To begin, those taking part must then clearly recite the phrase “Charlie, Charlie, are you here?”.

If the pencil moves then, according to the myth surrounding the game, the spirit of Charlie will have arrived to begin answering your questions.

Despite the widespread uptake of the challenge on social media this week however the mechanism behind this alleged paranormal communication is actually very simple – the pencils will invariably move by themselves no matter what because they are so precariously balanced.

The vibration of a footstep, someone shuffling around in the room or even a subtle draft from a window or door can make it seem as though Charlie has come out to play.

Nevertheless with the “Charlie Charlie Challenge” becoming increasingly popular online it is likely that we will be seeing quite a few reaction videos of pencils moving over the next few weeks.

Source: Independent

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A Drug Addict Changed His Ways When He Saw Something Strange In This Photo

While some consider ghosts to be expert photobombers, they’re certainly not alone in the world of paranormal photobombing. Demons also seem to be quite good at it. In fact, demons might actually be better photobombers than ghosts, which is something Joe Martinez learned a few years ago in the most shocking way.

Martinez, who was heavily involved with drugs at the time, went with his wife to his in-laws’ wedding anniversary celebration. It was a fairly ordinary party by all accounts. At one point in the evening, however, someone snapped a picture of Martinez posing with his wife. No one thought anything of it…until the picture was developed.

Could it actually have been a demon? Perhaps it was a trick of the light? According to Martinez, several reputable paranormal investigators examined the photo and found no evidence of tampering. Even stranger is the fact that the demon creature did not appear in any other photos from the anniversary party. Fake or not, at least this photo did some good in getting Martinez to clean up his life.


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