Fairy Circles of Doom: Natural or Supernatural?

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You are walking in the woods alone. You come across a circle of mushrooms or a barren circle surrounded by lush greenery. Do you step into the circle? Might seem innocent enough, but lore recommends turning around and heading back home.

Listen, I’m not a wilderness woman. I cannot tell you which poisonous plants and wildlife to avoid, but I can tell you what supernatural spaces and forest demons to avoid when camping. So, get your pen ready…

Fairy Rings

Fairy Rings (also called Fairy Circles, Elf Circles, Elf Rings, or Pixie Rings) are circles of mushrooms that appear in forestland and grassland.

Fairy_ring_on_a_suburban_lawn_100_1851Various cultures attribute fairy rings to supernatural beings: witches, fairies, elves, demons etc. These circles form a space for magical beings to gather, dance, or protect. Any non-magical human who enters the circle will face consequences. Some (somewhat) scary consequences include:

  • If you enter the ring, you will be forced to dance to exhaustion or madness (English and Celtic folklore).
  • If any livestock crosses the fungi boundary, the milk they produce will be sour. That’s where the devil keeps his milk churn, after all (Dutch folklore).
  • If you dance in a fairy circle, you might enter a time warp. You see, fairies live at a different pace. You may leave the circle thinking it has been minutes, but it has actually been days or weeks (“Rhys at the Fairy-Dance”).

Not all fairy rings are bad. Some happy consequences include:

  • If you grow crops around such circles and have cattle feed nearby, you will increase fertility and fortune (Welsh folklore).
  • On Walpurgis Night, witches dance in the circles.

What creates these rings? Austrian folklore says the fire of a dragon, but there are some natural explanations.

A fairy ring is formed when a mushroom spore falls in the right spot and grows a mycelium (“vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony”) and then spreads tubular threads called hyphae underground. The mushroom caps grow on the edge of the network. Basically, the formation absorbs and pushes the nutrients outwards. When the nutrients are exhausted, the center dies and leaves the ring. The rings can grow up to 33 feet in diameter.

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Circles Without Vegetation

During my research, I came across the phenomenon of barren circles in nature. In these cases, I never heard the word “fairy circle” uttered. Nevertheless, I am going to discuss them (I’m the blog boss).

Devil’s Tramping Ground (North Carolina)

In Bear Creek, North Carolina there is a 120-year-old legend concerning a barren circle of forest ground created by the devil’s tramping. Animals refuse to enter the circle; plants will not grow. If you leave an object in the circle overnight, no matter its weight, it will be thrown from the circle by the next morning. The devil needs room to dance!

Journalist John William Harden (1903–1985) wrote of the spot:

Chatham natives say… that the Devil goes there to walk in circles as he thinks up new means of causing trouble for humanity. There, sometimes during the dark of night, the Majesty of the Underworld of Evil silently tramps around that bare circle– thinking, plotting, and planning against good, and in behalf of wrong. I have heard that boy scouts spent the night there and woke up with their tents a few miles away. There were also some guys who tried to stay up the whole night there. 2 men attempted to stay up all night, but were lulled to sleep by a soft voice.

Devil's Tramping Ground
CC BY-SA 2.5 by user Jason Horne

Would you be brave enough for a campout? In recent years, a journalist (and his two dogs) stayed the night in a tent right in the middle of the circle. He went there to disprove the old legend, but ended up hearing footsteps circle his tent. Other overnight campers reported strange shadowy figures staring at them from the treeline.

Is there a natural explanation for this barren circle? Could heavy traffic and bonfires be the culprit? Soil scientist Rich Hayes, who has run several tests of the site, says it may not be that easy: “The fact that there are written accounts going back hundreds of years about this spot being barren of vegetation makes me think something else is going on here besides people camping and burning big fires.” He argues soil tests do not give any reasons why plants cannot grow there. The mystery continues!

Hoia-Baciu Forest (Transylvania region of Romania)

Hoia-Baciu is called the “Bermuda Triangle of of Transylvania” and was named after a shepherd who disappeared in the forest with a flock of 200 sheep. The Clearing, where trees abruptly stop and surround a barren oval, is by far the creepiest part of the forest. In 1968, a military technician captured a photo of an alleged UFO flying above the clearing and received international attention. The Clearing, according to The Independent, “attracts Romanian witches, sword-wielding Americans, and people who try to cleanse the forest of evil through the medium of yoga.” I have no natural explanation for you concerning this circle, so maybe hold off on your yoga retreat.

The forest itself is home to ghosts. People have also reported losing track of time, electronic devices failing, and random “ectoplasms” floating in the air. One legend says a five-year-old girl was lost in the forest and returned years later, unchanged and wearing the same clothes.

Fairy Circles of Namibia

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CC BY 2.5 by user Stephan Getzin (via Beavis729)

There are mushroom fairy circles and there are these fairy circles: circles created by mysterious grass formations. Until recently, this phenomenon only occurred in the grasslands of the Namib desert of southern Africa. These circular patches can range in size from 7 to 49 feet, dotting the red desert surface like chicken pox.

Folklore says these circles are the footsteps of the gods or poisoned patches caused by dragon breath. These circles are believed to hold spiritual powers.

There are two competing scientific theories behind these circles. One theory is that termites are clearing the area around their nests, creating the circles. Another theory is that plants are competing for water. There was a detailed article about the scientific journey to explain these circles printed in The Atlantic last month. I recommend giving it a read.

Stay out of the forest and don’t walk into fairy circles! 

6 Paranormal Photo Hoaxes (Maybe)

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This year an alleged ghost photo taken at the Stanley Hotel by tourist Henry Yau went viral and, with programs such as Photoshop, people questioned its authenticity. Kevin Sampron of the SPIRIT Paranormal investigation team of Denver argues the photo is indeed the real deal and there is in fact another figure in the image. Kenny Biddle, researcher and podcaster at Geeks and Ghosts, believes the figure (and the second figure) is simply a glitch made from the panoramic feature of the iPhone used to capture the ghost:

Panoramic images are not taken in the same fraction of a second as a normal images are. They take several seconds, which would allow Yau to start taking his panoramic image at one end of the room, and another guest or two to hit the halfway point down the stairs, turn the corner, and begin the second set of stairs to the floor as Yau ends his panoramic image on the other side of the room.

With new technologies comes new ways of capturing paranormal phenomenon, but also new ways of faking it or mistakenly believing you did. In the following post, I share six interesting examples from history. Do you think they are real or fake?

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

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In September of 1936, a photographer from Country Life magazine captured the famous Brown Lady of Ryanham Hall in Norfolk, England. The Brown Lady is allegedly the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686–1726). She was the second wife of Charles Townshend, a very angry man who, after finding out about his wife’s affair with Lord Wharton, locked her away in a room. She eventually died of small pox (or under mysterious circumstances). The story has multiple versions.

The photographer, Captain Hubert C. Provand, captured what seemed to be a spirit descending the main staircase. Harry Price, famous paranormal investigator (most famous case: Borley Rectory),  believed the negative was never tampered with and only collusion between Provand and his assistant would make this photo a hoax. Skeptics suggest the photogenic spectral was created by applying grease to the lens, double exposure, a woman wearing a white sheet, or a Virgin Mary statue.

The Cottingley Fairies

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In 1917, two young cousins named Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffiths (9) took photographs of frolicking fairies. The photographs were so convincing that they caught the attention of  Arthur Conan Doyle, spiritualist and author. General public perception was mixed. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Elsie and Frances admitted the photos were fake. They used images from a popular children’s book and cardboard cutouts. Both women still claim to have seen fairies.

Read more on The Museum of Hoaxes.

The Loch Ness Monster

The Loch Ness Monster  PICTURE TAKEN IN 1934 OF THE LOCH NESS MO

The famous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster (1934) was taken by a London gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson and published in the Daily Mail. This was the first photograph that captured the monster’s head and neck.  According to Wikipedia, this photograph was part of an elaborate (revenge) hoax.

The creature was reportedly a toy submarine built by Christian Spurling, the son-in-law of Marmaduke Wetherell. Wetherell had been publicly ridiculed by his employer, the Daily Mail, after he found “Nessie footprints” which turned out to be a hoax. To get revenge on the Mail, Wetherell perpetrated his hoax with co-conspirators Spurling (sculpture specialist), Ian Wetherell (his son, who bought the material for the fake), and Maurice Chambers (an insurance agent).The toy submarine was bought from F. W. Woolworths, and its head and neck were made from wood putty. After testing it in a local pond the group went to Loch Ness, where Ian Wetherell took the photos near the Altsaigh Tea House. When they heard a water bailiff approaching, Duke Wetherell sank the model with his foot and it is “presumably still somewhere in Loch Ness.” Chambers gave the photographic plates to Wilson, a friend of his who enjoyed “a good practical joke.”

Eventually the fake photograph ended up in the Daily Mail. Many argue that this hoax does not disprove the monster’s existence. People still claim to have captured the monster through satellite images and video.

William Mumler’s Photo of Mary Todd Lincoln (and Abraham)

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American William Mumler worked as an  jewelry engraver, but enjoyed photography on the side. In 1861, he noticed that a transparent young girl was floating beside him in a self portrait. He believed it was a technical glitch, but friends pointed out the girl looked like his cousin. She died 12 years earlier. Spiritualists caught wind of the photograph and soon William Mumler because a photography sensation, taking pictures of those who lost their loved ones in the Civil War.

Mumler had many critics including showman P.T. Barnum, who claimed that Mumler was taking advantage of those grieving. Barnum even spoke out against Mumler when he was on trial for fraud. People argued that Mumler went as far as breaking into people’s houses to steal pictures of their loved ones. The photographs were simply a product of double exposure. Mumler was acquitted, but his career was never as successful. He still had one believer, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mumler captured her deceased husband, President Abraham Lincoln (see above). Mumler claimed he didn’t know she was a Lincoln when the photograph was taken.

That UFO Photo from that X-Files Poster

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A Plejaren // Public Domain // Wikipedia

In the fourth season of X-Files, production made a slight set change. The iconic “I Want to Believe” poster was updated with a different, but similar image. The first poster was the subject of an intellectual property lawsuit, since X-Files mistakenly used a UFO photograph taken by Billy Meier without permission. Billy Meier is a Swiss man known for producing photographs of UFOS and providing evidence of extraterrestrial life. He also claims to have contact with extraterrestrials called the Plejaren, which come from the planet Erra and fly around in “beamships.”

His photographs display shiny metal discs flying across the Swiss countryside. Did he want to believe like Mulder or is he a liar? Regardless, it would have made a great X-Files episode.

The Wem Ghost Girl

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During a fire at Wem Town Hall in 1995, a man named Tony O’Rahilly took photos and captured a young girl, but no one recalled a young girl being in the building. Town members believed it was Jane Churn, a young girl who died in a fire in 1677.  It’s been debated whether the picture was doctored or real, but a postcard from 1922 with the same girl revealed it was most likely a hoax. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.