A Brief History of Terror.
On 14th April 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton was charged with various crimes performed by supposed witchcraft. On 19th April she was hanged as a witch at Tyburn. Sawyer’s case is relatively well-known: with impressive speed and opportunism Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford adapted her story into a play and had it on the stage by December of that year. One of their sources was an account published by a minister, Henry Goodcole, who had spoken to Sawyer in prison. Among other things, Goodcole tells of how Sawyer did ‘witch unto death Agnes Ratcliffe’, because Ratcliffe did ‘strike a sow’ belonging to Sawyer ‘for licking up a little soap where she had laid it’. Declaring that she would be revenged for this assault on the pig, Sawyer ‘thus threatened Agnes Ratcliffe, that it should be a dear blow unto her, which accordingly fell out, and suddenly; for that evening Agnes … fell very sick, and was extraordinarily vexed, and in a most strange manner in her sickness was tormented’. Her husband indeed swore to the court that his wife ‘died … within four days after she fell sick: and further then related, that in the time of her sickness his wife Agnes … lay foaming at the mouth, and was extraordinarily distempered’.
It does not seem to have been realised that Ratcliffe in fact died of ‘voodoo death’. In numerous cases of tribal magic, those believing themselves the victim of a curse or tapu have behaved in just this way: sometimes foaming at the mouth, they enter a state of despair, often refuse food and drink, and die within one to four days.
Whilst voodoo death as a concept originated largely from tribal societies in which curses echoed the power and effects of early-modern witch beliefs, many other people have died of related but distinct supernatural terrors. In vampire country there are cases in which a supposed vampire attack again leads to a person languishing, in a kind of physiological shut-down, before dying within four days. In nineteenth century Britain both country and city-dwellers, educated and uneducated, died of terror of ghosts – in some instances as victims of the crudest hoaxes, and even after this had been explained to them.
In recent decades we have many well-detailed accounts of adults and children who have died of terror or shock through fear of violence, claustrophobia, or simply getting lost. Supernatural terror evidently includes a strong mental component: Ratcliffe and others like her seem to be dying of their beliefs. Yet, given the number of small children and even animals who have suffered this fate, it is difficult to easily separate out mental and physical elements in such cases.
One ironic and radical feature of witch- or curse-deaths is that magic is real for those who believe it to be real. It is real enough to kill them, or to cause extreme physiological trauma, inluding temporary blindness, muteness, and paralysis. In a strange sense, then, some of the things which people believed about witches, vampires and ghosts were true.
Strangest of all is the relationship between those three entities and the poltergeist. In relatively modern poltergeist cases, personal, sexual or social trauma centred on a child or teenager can occasionally be released in the form of poltergeist events: unsourced rappings, inexplicable fires or floods, and objects levitated or hurled around. Bizarre as this seems, it yet appears to obey broad patterns or laws: the incidents follow the agent from place to place, and depend upon their body, decreasing or ceasing at a certain distance from it.
The body is indeed woven through all of this long fraught history, whether afflicted with voodoo death, conversion disorder or vagal inhibition, or trapped within the strange shadow-play of the Sleep Paralysis Nightmare.
In witch, vampire or ghost territory, the catalyst for poltergeist outbreaks seems to have been sheer supernatural terror, rather than social or personal stress. By examining in detail certain vampire and witch cases with clear poltergeist features, I aim to show that, sometimes, supernatural belief genuinely did make supernatural things happen.
Dr Richard Sugg is the author of six books, including John Donne (2007), Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (2011, 2nd edn 2015), The Smoke of the Soul (2013) and A Century of Supernatural Stories (2015). 2017 will see the publication of three new books: The Real Vampires, A Century of Ghost Stories, and A Century of Animal Stories. Fairies: A Dangerous History is due out with Reaktion in spring 2018. He has published or contributed to articles in Social History of Medicine, The Lancet, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Sun, and appeared several times on international radio and television programmes. He is collecting real life ghost and poltergeist experiences, and would welcome any new contributions. https://doctorrichardsugg.com/