Fairy Circles of Doom: Natural or Supernatural?

tr-n-anh-tu-n-33013-unsplash

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

1024px-Fairy_circles_namibia
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! 

A Repository of Paranormal Knowledge: Artificial Ghosts

This series explores the paranormal basics: key terms, categories, theories, and schools of thought. This will prepare you to be an intellectual ghostbuster. 

img_2239

An artificial ghost is a ghost created though the collective imagination and energy of a group of people.

The Philip Experiment

In 1972 a parapsychology experiment was conducted to see if humans could create and communicate with a fictionalized ghost. The experiment occurred in Toronto, Canada and was led by several members of the Toronto Society for Physical Research. This group had a diverse set of backgrounds:

The experiment was conducted by the mathematician A. R. G. Owen and overseen by psychologist Dr. Joel Whitton. The test group consisted of A. R. G.’s wife Iris Owen, former chairperson of MENSA in Canada Margaret Sparrows, industrial designer Andy H., his wife Lorne, heating engineer Al Peacock, accountant Bernice M, bookkeeper Dorothy O’Donnel, and sociology student Sidney K. (Wikipedia)

None of these members had ever demonstrated psychic ability.

The group created a man named Philip and his life story:

  • “Philip Aylesford” was born in 1624.
  • He joined the military at age 15 and was knighted at age 16.
  • He was friends with Charles I.
  • He fought for the crown in the English Civil War.
  • He married a woman named Dorothea.
  • While married, he fell in love with a Gypsy girl. Dorothea found out and accused her of witchcraft. She was burned at the stake.
  • Philip died from suicide in 1654 (age 30).

Once the story was complete, the group met to meditate, visualize, and materialize him into existence. After having no success for months, the group turned to techniques used by Spiritualists: seance and table-tilting. Rosemary Ellen Guiley describes their first contact with Philip:

On the third or fourth table-tilting session, the group felt a vibration under the tabletop. The vibration became raps and knocks, and the table moved beneath their hands. When one member of the group wondered out loud if ‘Philip’ was responsible, a knock sounded in answer. Using a simple code of one rap for yes and two for no, the group communicated with the spirit, who claimed to be the very man they had created. Although the spirit was able to give historically correct answers concerning the events and persons–perhaps due to cryptomnesia or extra-sensory perception (ESP) among members of the group–it was unable to provide any information about itself which had not previously been manufactured as part of his life’s history. (The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits 254)

People questioned the validity of the study, pointing to the unreliability of seance methods and the lack of solid controls (Wikipedia). Additional experiments were done with the characters “Lilith” and “Humphrey” with similar results. The Owens believed the study demonstrate that a group’s subconscious could created effects resembling a ghost or psychokinetic (PK) effect, what they termed “PK by committee” (The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits 254).

A short video about the experiment:

Ghosts Created in Labs

Parapsychologists aren’t the only ones creating ghosts. According to mental_floss, scientists created their own ghostly sensations in the lab.

Olaf Blanke, a researcher from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL), first had to find the scientific culprit for these strange sensations [the presence of an unseen entity]. He and his team analyzed brain scans of patients suffering from neurological disorders who experience the ghostly feeling. They found abnormalities in the areas controlling how the brain sees the body, or one’s own spatial self-awareness. These abnormalities “can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence,’” says Giulio Rognini, who led the study.

Armed with an understanding of where the feeling of being haunted comes from, the researchers set out to recreate it in “healthy” people. A group of subjects—oblivious as to the experiment’s purpose—were blindfolded, their fingers connected to a robotic device. When the test subjects moved the device, a robotic arm behind them mimicked the movement, poking them in the back. Sounds pretty straightforward, but when researchers introduced a slight delay between the subject’s movement and the resulting poke, the subjects were spooked. They felt they were being touched by another presence. Some even reported sensing more than one “ghost.”

Both are interesting experiments which put forth the question: are ghosts real or something we create (whether through energies or through tricks of the brain)?

Nightmares, Sleep Paralysis, and the Supernatural

photo-1427324301858-41039f1e0c32

I have been plagued by horrible nightmares since my childhood. Just last week, I had a dream that my oldest dog was bitten by a wolf and bled to death in front of me. The dream was so realistic and upsetting that upon waking I realized I had been crying in my sleep.

While in my teens, a family member passed away and strange occurrences began to happen in our home. Electronics would turn on in the middle of the night, for example. One night, I woke up to a dark figure standing in my bedroom doorway. Frightened, I tried to speak and move, but no sound came out and I was paralyzed. While the black figure moved towards my bed, I tried to tell my brain to free my frozen limbs. I felt pressure on my chest, as if someone was sitting on me. At this point, the figure was standing next to my bedside and I heard sinister laughter. I closed my eyes tightly and asked for the creature to leave. When I opened my eyes, he had disappeared and I had control of my body once again.

Sleep is a very vulnerable state, where we hand over our mind and body to the night. Wes Craven addresses this very vulnerability in his Nightmare on Elm Street series. And, while Freddy Krueger is frightening, the inspiration behind him is even more so. In an interview, Wes Craven explains:

I’d read an article in the L.A. Times about a family who had escaped the Killing Fields in Cambodia and managed to get to the U.S. Things were fine, and then suddenly the young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street.

This article, titled “Medical Experts Seek Clues to ‘Nightmare Deaths’ That Strike Male Asian Refugees,” begins with the scary sentence: “Since April, 1983, at least 130 Southeast Asian refugees have left this world in essentially the same way. They cried out in their sleep. And then they died.” Frightening! Medical experts cite stress and genetics as possible causes. Science, too, has given us some explanation on sleep paralysis, the thing that caused me to imagine a supernatural attack in my bedroom.

In “Ridden By the Hag: My Sleep Paralysis Visitors,” (The Hairpin) Jenah Shaw writes: “Reduced simply, sleep paralysis occurs when, in transition between sleeping and wakefulness, the mind is alert but the body still sleeping.” She continues:

For most people, this happens during their waking process; while REM sleep allows for sight and hearing, movement is suppressed. Typically, this muscle atonia is accompanied by the idea of a direct threat: the hallucination of an intruder in the room, or something or someone pressing down physically on your chest.

It is a very common occurrence with 3 million U.S. cases per year (source). Sleep paralysis often happens to people who have narcolepsy or sleep apnea. It is also common among young adults and people with a history of mental illness (source). Possible treatments include improving sleep habits and focusing on mental health issues.

While science has provided a reasonable explanation, it should not underestimate the stories of those who have dealt with it. Imagine, if you will, experiencing this terror before the time of modern medicine. How else would you explain it than through a supernatural lens? Surely, that was my initial reaction.

In her article, Jenah Shaw explains sleeps paralysis’s historical link to dreaming:

The word “nightmare” can be traced back to old Norse and Germanic words (“mare” or “mara” or “mahr”) that were used to describe the hag that sits on peoples chests while they sleep and brings them bad dreams; the spirit was also thought to ride horses in the night, leaving them exhausted by the morning. (Norwegian and Danish words for “nightmare” are mareritt and mareridt, which translate to “mare-ride.”) A Persian medical text from the 10th century describes a nightmare in which “the person senses a heavy thing upon him and finds he is unable to scream” and suggests that “the nightmare… is caused by rising of vapours from the stomach to the brain… The therapy includes bloodletting from the superficial vein of the arm and from the leg vein and thinning the diet, especially in patients with red eyes and face.

Lore attached this occurrence to the Old Hag. Generally, it is a supernatural creature, in the form of a hag or witch, that sits on the chest of their sleeping victim so they cannot move. The hag appears in a variety of cultures.

Newfoundland gives us the terrifying expression of being “hag rid,” or ridden by the hag. In Chinese culture it is called, in pinyin, guǐ yā shēn (“ghost pressing on body”), in Turkish karabasan (“the dark assailant”), and in Vietnamese ma đè means “held down by the ghost.” The Hungarian term boszorkany-nyomas means “witches pressure”, while German has alpdrucken, or “elf pressing.” (source)

Sleep paralysis was also tied to witchcraft as seen through documentation on the Salem Witch Traials. Jenah Shaw explains:

In the Salem witch trials, John Louder recounted how, after arguing with the accused Bridget Bishop, “he did awake in the night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him; in which miserable condition she held him, unable to help himself, till near day.” In 1595, in another trial, Dorothy Jackson accused several neighbors of witchcraft, saying she was “ridden with a witch three times of one night, being thereby greatly astonished and upon her astonishment awaked her husband”; in the late 17th century, Nicolas Raynes provided testimony at the trial of a purported witch and said that his wife, “after being threatened, has been continually tormented by Elizabeth, a reputed witch, who rides on her, and attempts to pull her on to the floor.

Along with the hag and witch, history has attributed this experience to demonic behavior or more specifically the incubus and succubus. The Encyclopedia Mythica describes this horrific being:

In medieval European folklore, the incubus is a male demon (or evil spirit) who visits women in their sleep to lie with them in ghostly sexual intercourse [I must interject to say most often without consent]. The woman who falls victim to an incubus will not awaken, although may experience it in a dream. Should she get pregnant the child will grow inside her as any normal child, except that it will possess supernatural capabilities. Usually the child grows into a person of evil intent or a powerful wizard. Legend has it that the magician Merlin was the result of the union of an incubus and a nun. A succubus is the female variety, and she concentrates herself on men. According to one legend, the incubus and the succubus were fallen angels.

In a 2015 Vice article on sleep paralysis, Brian Barrett talks to James Allan Cheyne, sleep paralysis expert and professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, about the types of sleep paralysis. Sleep Paralysis can be divided into three categories: (1) Vestibular and Motor, (2) the Intruder, and (3) the Incubus:

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.” […]

“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.

As we learned in my Ouija Board post, the mind is just as scary as supernatural creatures. While I’m still trying to explain the spooky behavior in my childhood home, I was relieved to learn my intruder was stress personified and not a dark mass of evil intentions. Sleep well, folks!