Lore Report: “Rooted” (Episode 176)

Around the world, countless cultures have viewed the forest as a place of darkness and danger. From the foot of Mt. Fuji to the depths of Germany, people all throughout history have looked at the shadows between the trees as the home of something to be avoided at all costs. The woods have always been a place that demands respect; whether the true danger comes from ancient forest deities, or the inherent risk of entering the wilderness unprepared, the best course of action might just be to never set foot inside at all. Because if we do, we might not come back out.

In episode 176 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads an excursion into the woods, and they are unlovely, dark, and deep. “Rooted” covers a lot of forested territory, ranging through Roman, Hindu, and Norse mythology, Grimm fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and Scandinavian folklore. The second half of Mahnke’s narrative is devoted to the “Witch Woods” outside Salem (accused practitioner Giles Corey is said to have hid out there at one time). Mahnke relates Caroline Howard King’s mid-18th Century encounter with an uncanny farmhouse in a clearing in the woods (an event that King would later record in her memoir When I Lived in Salem). The episode’s Gothic trails all converge into a concluding promo for Mahnke’s latest venture, the audio fiction podcast Bridgewater (which premieres on August 6th). Before traveling on to Bridgewater, though, loyal listeners will easily get lost in the strange sylvan spaces visited in this highly enjoyable installment of Lore.


Lore Report: “Head Case” (Episode 175)

We humans are really good at judging things by appearance alone. But clearly there is so much more to our world than what we can see on the surface. That hasn’t stopped us from leaning into that flaw, so much so that it’s become entirely automatic, like a compulsion or a mindless habit. A habit that has led us to do dark and terrible things.

Heads up: Episode 175 of the Lore podcast delves into the pseudoscience of phrenology (the attempt to read skull bumps as indicators of mental traits). Host Aaron Mahnke does a fine job of sketching the history of such mindful endeavor, noting its positive (its application to crime fighting) and negative (its racist dichotomies) components. The central theme of Mahnke’s narrative is that people often take matters too far, which leads to a recounting here of some ghoulish cases. Listeners learn of the skullduggery surrounding the corpse of the renowned composer Joseph Haydn, whose grave was robbed and his head stolen (by an associate with phrenological leanings). Mahnke closes the episode with the tale of a woman with a literal hole in her head (a wound traced to the craziest of causes), whose treatment by an unscrupulous, zap-happy doctor sounds like something right out of Frankenstein. The lore shared in “Head Case” is more of the strange-criminal than the supernatural variety, but the podcast’s fans will still go crazy for this episode.


Lore Report: “From Scratch” (Episode 174)

But just like our innate need for a place to live, sometimes that new life in a new place required new stories to make it all come together. Folklore evolves, it grows, and sometimes it’s invented from scratch to help a people feel a better sense of community. And one place in particular is famous for its stories, both in the ones they made up and the ones that are too amazing to believe.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners on a tour of weird Wisconsin. The various tales related range from the interesting (e.g. an anecdote concerning the rescue of a famous sideshow figure from a hotel fire) to the unnerving. There are ghost stories galore, including one involving reported sightings of an executed murderer whose postmortem condition will put you in mind of a legendary Washington Irving character. A wild outbreak of seeming poltergeist activity results in the blaming of a girl named Mary with possibly Carrie-like abilities. The longest stopover here is in the haunted town of Whitewater; nicknamed “The Second Salem” and featuring a water tank of unsavory repute known as the Witches Tower (pictured above), the place certainly justifies the attention Mahnke gives to it. The only issue with the episode’s narrative is that it breaks off in its back end to promote and present an extended clip of a new podcast (Haunted Road) from Mahnke’s production company. “From Scratch” shifts ground abruptly and lacks closure, but its first half mines a rewarding vein of lore in the Badger State.


Lore Report: “Darkness and Light” (Episode 173)

Their task might seem simple to us today–to keep the light burning all the time–but it was a job filled with countless dangers. And by taking a closer look at the lives of a few lighthouse keepers throughout history, one lesson seems to shine brighter than all the rest: the closer one stood to the light, the darker the shadows became.

Episode 173 of the Lore podcast focuses on the chiaroscuro, as host Aaron Mahnke explores some of the dark lore surrounding lighthouses. A brief survey of these seaside structures establishes the plentiful pitfalls of the lighthouse-keeping profession. As isolated sites that frequently bore witness to the savagery of nature, island lighthouses formed the scene of fatal mishap time and again. Such death and destruction in turn has furnished the fuel for many a haunted narrative. Accordingly, Mahnke centers the episode on Eilean Mor in Scotland’s Flannan Isles, a place of inhospitable geography and otherworldly reputation–which was greatly enhanced in 1900, when three lighthouse keepers were seemingly ghosted away while on duty. The mystery remains unsolved to this day, but the various theories (from the meteorological to the supernatural) of the cause of disappearance are fascinating. I wish that Mahnke had gone on to note the incident’s inspiration of works of fiction (Robert W. Sneddon’s “On the Isle of Blue Men”) and film (The Vanishing), and drawn connection with Robert Eggers’s sublime effort The Lighthouse, but that is the only shortcoming to be remarked upon here. For aficionados of the dark, this is a delightful episode, one that effectively illustrates how an icon of the romantic shades off into the Gothic.


Lore Report: “Under the Influence” (Episode 172)

And while history is filled with examples of bad leaders, one man from a century ago set the bar incredibly low. Lives were destroyed, families were torn apart, and an entire community was imprisoned by fear–all because of dark magic.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast opens with a revealing anecdote about George Washington, and then sets up a captivating topic (as can be gleaned from the excerpt quoted above). From there, host Aaron Mahnke proceeds to trace the machinations of one Edward Arthur Wilson (a.k.a. “Brother XII”), an early-20th Century cult leader of a community known as the Aquarian Foundation. Like many an evangelist who would come after him, Wilson proved a charismatic figure of dubious moral character. He was even taken to court by his own followers, and at this point the narrative grows quite interesting, as a series of inexplicable courtroom incidents stymie Wilson’s would-be prosecutors. This outburst of the strange and possibly supernatural, though, represents a fleeting foray into true Lore territory, and Wilson’s story fails to justify such an extensive focus. Ultimately, “Under the Influence” presents a sobering prospect: that after 172 episodes, the podcast’s well of entertaining folklore is at last beginning to run dry.


Lore Report: “Long Shadows” (Episode 171)

Even the places we live can become extraordinary given enough time. After all, the longer humans live in a place, the more of themselves they imprint upon its streets and landscape. But if you want to explore the oldest in America, there’s only one place to go. It might be bright and sunny, but don’t let that fool you, because time has left a mark that can still be felt today, thanks to all the tragedies that have paid a visit. It seems that there’s one more rule that history wants us to remember: the older our cities get, the darker their shadows become.

A trip to St. Augustine, Florida, is on the itinerary in the latest episode of the Lore podcast. To no surprise, host Aaron Mahnke gravitates toward the darker side of town. He recounts tales of creepy cemeteries, ghost sightings galore, and one unnerving case of nearly premature burial. The narrative seamlessly weaves together local lore with St. Augustine’s daunting geography (its treacherous coastline) and bloody history (including the story of how Fort Matanzas–the Spanish word for “massacres”–earned its name). While there’s nothing earth-shattering about this episode, it nevertheless does a fine job of digging up the various skeletons (and that’s not just a metaphor here!) that have accrued over the years. With its emphasis on the past’s persistent impact on the present, “Long Shadows” clearly shines a light on the American Gothic.


Lore Report: “Into the Wild” (Episode 170)

In the decades that followed, Peter the Wild Boy would become a living representation of an age-old debate: what exactly makes us human? Is it something we’re born with, or can it be taught? And in the process, it demonstrates humanity’s ancient fascination with an area of folklore that expresses our fears, highlights our flaws, and begs us to question whether or not we’ve evolved as a species. Stories about creatures that shouldn’t exist–stories about the Wild Man.

In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners beyond the pale of civilization and into the woods, where dark folklore easily takes root. Mahnke tackles the subject of the Wild Man by first ranging far back in history (invoking texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the writings of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder), but focuses primarily on the North America of the past few centuries. The stories he shares grow progressively more sinister, crossing a spectrum from unnerving glimpse to grisly murder. All the talk of encounters with a feral, hairy humanoid naturally points the discussion towards Bigfoot, yet Mahnke thankfully doesn’t settle on recounting familiar tales of the popular (if elusive) creature. I do wish that Mahnke had taken a step back to consider why the Wild Man is such a prominent figure in the folklore of so many cultures, but that is my lone criticism of an otherwise entertaining episode.


Lore Report: “Blood Money” (Episode 169)

After all, life is full of surprises. But if you spend a bit of time studying history, you quickly learn that life is also full of darkness. Darkness, and an irrefutable truth: things that are too good to be true can sometimes turn out to be deadly.

Witchcraft is one of the most popular subjects of the Lore podcast, but in the latest episode host Aaron Mahnke takes a different angle of approach. Traveling back to 17th Century England and Scotland, Mahnke focuses on the witch-hunters themselves–now-notorious figures such as Matthew Hopkins and John Kincaid. Along the way, listeners learn of the unusual practices employed to identify witches, such as cruentation and pricking with a bodkin. What ultimately emerges is a portrait of remorseless hucksterism, of deadly frauds capitalizing on the rampant panic of the public. The episode is very informative, and the concluding segment’s narrative features a terrific plot twist, but “Blood Money”–which determinedly documents the deeds of historical con artists–isn’t terribly lore-ish (at least by the standards of this podcast).


Lore Report: “Beyond the Pale” (Episode 168)

But one story echoes this ancient belief in the returning hero more than any other. It’s not as famous as the rest, but it represents any entire nation oppressed under the thumb of a foreign ruler, and the hope they placed in their hero’s return. And to hear it, we’re going to need to travel to a land of limitless beauty and enduring pain: Ireland.

The latest installment of the Lore podcast is one that goes heavy on the exposition. Its first half plays like a history lesson, as narrator Aaron Mahnke traces the life story of the 16th Century Irish political figure Gerald Fitzgerald. Exiled from his homeland as a youth and pursued by his enemies (the agents of King Henry VIII), Fitzgerald developed a reputation for unlikely escapes from punishment and death. He accordingly became known as the “Wizard Earl” of Kildare (his open interest in alchemy only added to his mystique), and this Lore episode hits its stride when it delves into the story of Fitzgerald’s attempt to prove his magical powers to his wife–a demonstration that certainly puts her courage to the test. Mahnke also ties Fitzgerald into an Irish version of the “king under the mountain” legend, and recounts a tale (of the Wizard Earl’s ghostly return on horseback to Kilkea Castle every seven years) that sounds like something straight out of Gottfried August Burger or Washington Irving. For those who can get past the initial infodump, “Beyond the Pale” proves an episode rich in dark lore.


Lore Report: “Deviation” (Episode 167)

Archeologists call them “prone burials,” and the reason behind them is much less rational. These were burials driven by fear–fear that the person might come back to life. Like I said, it seems like an irrational motive, swapping out respect and reverence for supernatural fear. But if you spend any amount of time flipping through the pages of history, one thing becomes clear: they had very good reason to be afraid.

The Walking Dead stands as a modern phenomenon, but restless and ill-intentioned corpses have a rich history. The latest episode of the Lore podcast traces a representative sample, as host Aaron Mahnke invokes a wide range of cases from world folklore (China, India, Ghana, Ireland, etc.). Settling his focus on England, Mahnke shares a narrative involving the intriguingly labeled “hound priest.” The episode centers, though, on a malevolent revenant bedeviling Croglin Grange (in Cumberland County) in 1875–a tale as harrowing as any ever recounted on the podcast, and one worthy of Bram Stoker, M.R. James, or Stephen King. Replete with enlightening info (e.g. the ostensible logic behind prone burials) and gripping stories, “Deviation” is right on the mark in terms of what Lore does best.