Lore Report: “Fragments” (Episode 189)

Today, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is considered the father of microbiology, but at a more basic level, his hobby demonstrated a universal truth: there is so much left to explore, and if we dig deep enough, we might uncover something truly groundbreaking. And, sometimes, that discovery might lead to something else: fear.

Episode 189 of the Lore podcast grows positively abominable in its approach, as host Aaron Mahnke tracks the legendary woolly monster of mountainous locale in various world cultures from the Far East to the Canadian northwest. Besides uncovering the origin of the phrase “abominable snowman,” Mahnke discusses the “Yeti-mania” that ran rampant in the mid-20th Century. Yet in taking the public fascination with (reported sightings of) such creature as a subject, the episode could have devoted more than just passing mention of the figure’s prevalence in pop culture. Offering only eighteen minutes of content (the final third of the under-thirty-minute runtime constitutes a preview of Mahnke’s new podcast Grim & Mild Presents: Sideshow), the episode lives up to its title, alas, and ends up feeling somewhat fragmentary.

 

Lore Report: “Hide and Seek” (Episode 188)

Things we take for granted, like phrases or legends or the honesty of people we know, sometimes those things can turn out to have an altogether different meaning. But nowhere is this more true than within the world of folklore and belief, because when it comes to the traditions we love, it’s easy to allow emotional attachment to blind us to the real stories behind it all.  And what better way to see this concept in action than by exploring one of the most celebrated times of the year: Christmas.

Aaron Mahnke gives the gift of Lore in this seasonally-themed episode (the podcast’s last original one of 2021). The host regales his audience with the legends of the Mari Lwyd and the diabolical, child-eating holiday boogeyman, the “Christmas Scarecrow” Hans Trapp. Mahnke invokes Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, linking the famous novel to a discussion of the Puritan ban on traditional Christmas celebrations–such as the telling of spooky stories–two centuries earlier during England’s Commonwealth period. Another legendary English story, that of the White Lady of Bramshill House (whose haunting traces back to a game of hide-and-seek that went terribly awry during a Christmas Day wedding reception), is also shared. And Halloween lovers will take joy when Mahnke recounts how Christmastime rituals of masking/begging evolved into the American practice of trick-or-treating. This holiday episode stuffs the stocking with an assortment of narrative presents and provides a fine listening experience to close out the year.

 

Lore Report: “The Crucible” (Episode 187)

[Hansel and Gretel] is a story we tell to teach an important lesson: be careful around strangers. And as our world has more and more become a dangerous place to live, it’s a fairy tale that still seems to hold onto a lot of its relevance. Of course, most of us were raised to see the fantasy in a story like that–a witch who murders, cooks, and eats other people. Honestly, how much more fictional could we get? But it never hurts to push back against assumptions and ask the difficult question: what if it could actually happen?

In these review posts, I sometimes critique Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast for getting bogged down at the narrative’s outset in historical contextualization. This episode takes matters in the opposite direction, jumping right into an extended story, which can be a bit disorienting at first. Mahnke details the life and crimes of Leonarda Cianciulli, a figure who would become notorious in Italy in the mid-20th Century. Cursed by her own mother (who disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband), Leonarda seeks out a Romany fortune teller who warns her that she will outlive her children; a second fortune teller a few years later asserts that Leonarda is fated for either prison or a mental asylum. Circumstances (I won’t spoil the whole story here) lead Leonarda into occult practice herself, and then to mass murder (what she did with the corpses afterwards is the true jaw-dropper). But was Leonarda the powerful witch she claimed to be, or simply criminally insane? Pondering the woman’s self-mythologizing, Mahnke eventually steps back to address the purpose of fairy tales and folkloric story. Still, one might question whether this justifies the extensive focus on such a singular case. Overall, “The Crucible” is a fast moving episode, but falls short of a bewitching listening experience.

 

Lore Report: “Invisible Boundaries” (Episode 186)

One outbreak, though, stands out above most in terms of the impact it had on society, and within it is a story that is both deeply inspiring and utterly terrifying. But whether or not you’re ready to hear it, there’s one thing we can all agree on: fear, just like sickness, can often be contagious.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke journeys back several centuries to delve into a subject that is lamentably timely today. The narrative focuses on the outbreak of the (bubonic) plague in the Derbyshire village of Eyam in 1666–a spread of devastating disease likely caused by the shipment of flea-infested cloth from London to a local tailor. What makes Eyam’s ordeal noteworthy is the bold measures the community adopted to combat the outbreak, a response that included the voluntary quarantine of the entire village. The populace doubtless endured through grim circumstances (e.g. the contagiousness of the dead forced survivors to dig plots and bury relatives on their own property rather than in the village graveyard), but the story of Eyam just makes for an interesting historical anecdote. “Invisible Boundaries” doesn’t really begin to feel like an installment of Lore until the closing couple of minutes, when Mahnke surveys some of the reportedly haunted sites in the village. Yet Mahnke is unwilling to end on an uncanny note. In this clearly optimistic episode, the heroic self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam is held up as a positive model for modern listeners, and the the tale of the plague-ridden village isn’t employed in the interest of fearmongering (something all too rampant during the current pandemic).

 

 

Lore Report: “Under the Skin” (Episode 185)

Exorcism Cleric Doing a Spell (1878)

 

So let’s take a trip together: a journey into the past, where possession stories were rarely taken for granted. And where real lives were impacted by real superstitions, where the devil himself showed up and lives were destroyed in the process. But hold on to something solid, lock the door, and maybe turn on a light or two, because this one is bound to get under your skin.

Episode 185 of the Lore podcast gets positively devilish, dealing with the subject of Satanic/demonic possession. Host Aaron Mahnke begins with an overview of evil figures in various faiths, from ancient Zoroastrianism to modern Catholicism (which absorbed/repurposed many features from other cultures’ devils, such as ancient Greece’s sinister satyr Pan). The bulk of the episode is devoted to the story of a turn-of-the-20th-Century teenager who apparently was possessed by Satan while living in a South African mission. Her manifestations of infernal takeover were chilling, including bouts of levitation that could only be counteracted by dousing with holy water. Mahnke is careful to address the pop cultural aspect of possession narratives, and throughout the episode makes interesting reference to The Exorcist. Brief but fiendishly good, “Under the Skin” is apt to raise goosebumps atop yours.

 

Lore Report: “Falling to Pieces” (Episode 184)

Some people have never been satisfied with accumulating Happy Meal toys or rare coins. They’re drawn to something different, something darker. And their collections across history have demonstrated one truth that’s difficult for many of us to swallow: if there’s one thing humans have always been good at collecting, it’s ourselves.

The concluding October installment of the Lore podcast features a ghoulish topic: the collection of human body parts. Host Aaron Mahnke opens by discussing holy relics (from the Christian Cult of the Saints to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth) and trophies whose power resided in their manner of obtainment (here Mahnke reveals the practical consideration that led to the practice of scalping). A good chunk of the narrative is devoted to infamous killers (Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, Ed Gein) who took “their hunger for human remains to a dark, horrific place.” Then there’s the strange tale of a month-old corpse who had his body fat stolen from the grave in 1858 Ireland (a forewarning: you’ll never think of the process of butter-making the same way again.). Throw in a closing story that connects an executed Scottish witch and an American captain of industry, and “Falling to Pieces” forms one impressive body of grim lore.

 

Lore Report: “Suffer the Children” (Episode 183)

Humans are very good at assigning value to things, the more rare, the higher the significance. But truly valuable things have one other quality in common: a dash of the unexpected. And when it comes to history, those are the stories that deserve to be told. Because they take us off the beaten path, put us off balance, and give us a fresh view of something we thought we understood. And in the process, they offer a perspective that’s more than a little disturbing.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast demonstrates that Sweden is the source of more than just Abba, meatballs, and a madcap Muppet chef. No, host Aaron Mahnke recurs to one of his favorite topics and traces the country’s staging of witch trials. Rather than rehearse a familiar narrative, though, Mahnke emphasizes the salient differences marking Sweden’s witch hunts. Children played an unusually prominent role, both in giving accusing testimony and suffering physical abuse (especially at the hands of one evil, torturing priest) and execution. “Suffer the Children” is stuffed with dark elements, folkloric and historic. The fabled island of Blakulla, reachable only by magical flight and purported to be the site of devil-attended witches’ sabbaths, is discussed. Mahnke also hearkens to the Great Noise, an ignominious peak of the witch panic (circa 1668-1676) that included “the largest execution on a single day for any recorded witch trial.” The October appropriate of this week’s episode is cemented when Mahnke invokes an Easter/Halloween holiday hybrid in which children dress up as witches and engage in trick-or-treat-style traipsing from door to door. Episode #183 makes for quite a bewitching listen, and is not to be missed this Halloween season.

 

Lore Report: “Ever-Present” (Episode 182)

Mention Nevada to most people and they’ll talk about the Vegas Strip–slot machines, neon signs, fake pyramids, and all-you-can-eat buffets. And sure, that’s a part of Nevada, but it’s not the entire picture. The larger story is older than the lights of Vegas, and much more dangerous than the risk of sunburn or dehydration. It’s a tale filled with big dreams, bigger losses, and more than a few disasters along the way. Yes, you may think you know Nevada, but right around the corner is something wholly unexpected and downright terrifying.

In this week’s episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke explores the dark history of the Silver State. In the mining boomtown of Virginia City, a hotel built over the site of a deadly mine-fire becomes the scene of a series of haunting incidents (later in the episode, Mahnke discusses some other hotel ghosts, the ominously denominated “Red Lady” and “The Stabber”). In the town of Genoa at the end of the 19th Century, a criminal strung up on the “Hanging Tree” by a mob of savage vigilantes levels a generational curse against his persecutors just prior to his lynching. These central narratives lead to a host of unnerving anecdotes (Mahnke’s last account of a cursed Genoan is an absolute goosebump-raiser). A perfectly chilling episode for the Halloween season, “Ever-Present” establishes the ghostly and Gothic as continuous threads running from America’s shadowed past.

 

Lore Report: “Unsettled” (Episode 181)

But some discoveries are more significant than others. In fact, sometimes the breaking of earth is just the first of many steps down a new road, the start of a journey rather than the end. And sometimes the thing that’s been hidden in the dirt has the power to change lives–just not in the way you’d imagine.

For the month leading to Halloween, Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast presents weekly episodes that put an premium on the eerie. October’s first offering, “Unsettled,” goes ghostly: in 1660’s England, the discovery of scattered teeth and skull fragments beneath kitchen floorboards precipitates visitation by a spirit given to enigmatic statements (but who eventually makes clear that he has been murdered in that very house). The subsequent investigation into this cold case is bound to give listener’s chill bumps. This central narrative also ties into a larger theme explored by the episode: the curious intersection of spectral events and courtroom drama. Final verdict: “Unsettled” is an exemplary episode, one that explores the fascinating borderland between the factual and the supernatural.

 

Lore Report: “Above the Law” (Episode 180)

Everyone loves a good outlaw story. From the bandits of the Wild West to the tricksters of modern adventure films, there’s something attractive about the bad characters. And our obsession with them has been going on for a lot longer than you might believe. So long, in fact, that many of the most legendary criminals throughout history have become archetypes of an entirely new type of folklore. Because some of them even became heroes.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast focuses on hero outlaws–rebels against oppression and foreign occupation who captured the hearts and minds of the masses. Host Aaron Mahnke invokes notable names such as Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Ned Kelly, as well as some lesser-known Irish figures who fit the description: daring deeds, clever escapes, and ultimate, untimely demises (often stemming from betrayal by an associate). A good portion of the narrative is devoted to the story of the English thief “Honest” Jack Sheppard, whose attempt to escape his execution by hanging fails in a most ironic manner (the incident also connects with a famous English writer). Mahnke shares a lot of colorful history here via his oral portraits of these larger-than-life outlaws whose renown only grew posthumously. But by Mahnke’s own admission, there’s a shortage of the dark lore that listeners have come to expect from this podcast. All told, a very entertaining yet somewhat atypical episode.