Supernatural China and the Ghost House

A highrise in Macau, seen through the ruined 17th century Church of St. Paul. Photo by Shawn Smallman.

Every Halloween I write a blog post about the supernatural or the mysterious, from a book review regarding a Russian mystery, to a description of the best podcasts to make you afraid.  Last summer I did fieldwork on public policy and infectious disease in southeastern China, during which I traveled to Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen. I was delighted by the ancient temples in Hong Kong, and fascinated by the enduring strength of traditional religion in the region. In fact, I was very disappointed to find that I was leaving Hong Kong one day before the “Festival of Hungry Ghosts” began on August 25th. But I was surprised to find that even urban and energetic Shenzhen is haunted by its past. This is surprising since the city has a population of perhaps 12 million people today, while it had a population of at most 30,000 in 1979. When I visited the Shenzhen Museum (which is both free and excellent, if you are interested in urban development) they had pictures of neighborhoods in the 1980s that were little more than fields. These pictures were juxtaposed with photos of Shenzhen currently, where developers compete to build the highest skyscraper. There can have been few places where development has so quickly erased the past. The city is filled with sweeping avenues, towering sky-scrapers, world-class architecture and graceful parks. It was painful to contrast the new public works in Shenzhen with the sometimes antiquated state of subways, bridges and roads in the United States. Yet even here, the city is haunted by disturbing memories. …

Devil’s Breath: An Andean drug

Brugmansia sanguinea. By Paul K from Sydney (Brugmansia bicolor) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
This spring I taught a class on the Global Drug Trade, and one of the students in the class shared a Vice News video with the class regarding a drug called Devil’s Breath. Please be warned that this video contains disturbing content, including discussion of rape and violence, as well as profanity. It is also an unusual video regarding drug usage, because Devil’s Breath (scopolamine, which is also known as Burundanga in Latin America) is unlike other drugs in that it is not consumed for pleasure. Rather, it is allegedly used by criminals in Colombia in order to take away someone’s will. The drug itself can be created easily from a common tree in Colombia, called the borrachero tree. There are seven trees in the Brugmansia genus, which contain the active ingredient scopolamine. These trees are common throughout northern South America, where they are extinct in the wild, but are sometimes used as ornamental trees because of their beautiful flowers.

According to Colombians who were interviewed in the video, criminals can ask someone to smell the powder, and the drug is so potent that it will take effect when they sniff. The video contains a series of interviews, including a taxi driver who seems to know all too much about the drug, and some people who were victimized using it. Still, the stories were so extraordinary that I couldn’t help but wonder, could this possibly be true? Can victims truly lose their will, so that they will assist a robber to burglarize their home? Or is this partly folklore? Vice’s reporter Ryan Duffy did not appear to be someone with a deep knowledge of Colombia. Nonetheless, the interviews with authorities, including the police and a doctor, were very convincing. Nonetheless, I wondered how to judge where reality ended and folklore began. After all, this drug is used in Western medicine to treat some conditions such as motion sickness? Wouldn’t this effect be familiar from this usage? Or are there differences between scopolamine and the the drug variant used …

Conspiracy Theories and Murder

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet shot to his right temple. Nisman was the lead investigator in a 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. He had been scheduled to address the Argentine Congress the following day, to denounce the President’s actions related to the investigation. His death unleashed a media firestorm, as opponents of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner argued that he had been assassinated, while her supporters advanced their own conspiracy theory, which pointed the blame for his death at the nation’s security services.

Academics dislike conspiracy theories, which are typically omitted in social science theory classes, even though they are far more influential than the theories of Gramsci, Weber and Durkheim. There are many reasons for academics’ distrust of these theories, not the least of which is their historical association with political and ethnic persecution. At the same time, conspiracy theories are true “theories,” in that they provide an overarching framework for understanding the world. While they don’t have foundational writers, they also have their texts. They also emerge from the folk and not from intellectuals, and accordingly provide insight into popular attitudes, beliefs and fears. …

The Nazi Gold Train and folklore

By M. Swierczynski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Warsaw, January 1945. By M. Swierczynski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I love international folklore, and have written about everything from a mystery island in Mexico, to conspiracy theories and the 2009 influenza pandemic. Few instances of folklore, however, have received as much attention over the last year as the “Polish Gold Train.” According to local legends in southwestern Poland, during the waning days of the Nazi regime in Germany, the Nazi party hid a train filled with gold in a tunnel system in what is now Silesia, Poland. Two Polish treasure hunters approached the government in 2015, with an offer to reveal the location of the train in return for a percentage of the value of the gold. When word leaked to the press, the result was a media frenzy. Jake Halpern has a great podcast episode “The Hunt for Nazi Gold,” which describes his own investigation of the mystery, and his travels into the very real tunnels that the Germans created underneath mountains during the war. I loved his interviews with Polish treasure hunters, who introduced him to dowsing, UFOs, and aging witnesses. As with the best folklore research, Halpern also placed the narratives into a regional and historical context, which was defined by the Polish settlement of an area from which the German population had been expelled. This experience, Halpern suggests, had a deep psychological impact on the region that has endured until today. If you’re in the mood for a quirky mystery, you might enjoy the podcast from the New Yorker Radio Hour. You can also read my own book on Canadian Indigenous folklore, or my blog post about the mystery ship called the Baltimore.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

In honor of Halloween: A Book Review of Haunted Girl

Every Halloween I look at an international mystery or folklore. This year, I’ll review a book by Laurie Glenn Norris and

Leon Trotsky spent time incarcerated in Amherst, Nova Scotia after World War One.
Leon Trotsky spent time incarcerated in Amherst, Nova Scotia after World War One. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Thompson titled Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery. The book examines events surrounding one of the most famous poltergeist cases in Canadian history, which took place from 1878 to 1879. As the authors note, these events have been the subject of a 19th century non-fiction book, a novel, a mural, a play and a doll. At the core of this tradition is the biography of Esther Cox, who was an 18 year old when she claimed to experience a series of terrifying incidents, which included moving furniture, bodily wounds, and spectral writing on a bedroom wall.

Norris and Thompson place these events into the context of Nova Scotia at the time, and Esther Cox’s own troubled personal life. The work is scholarly, and the authors have investigated all aspects of Esther’s world in impressive detail. Still, the authors never wander from their focus on Esther herself, which makes for an engaging work. The book also benefits from a plethora of photographs, which allow us to visualize key actors and locations. Having written my own book on Canadian folklore (Dangerous Spirits, which is available in the US and in Canada) I can imagine the amount of time that these photographs must have required to locate. …

Dangerous Spirits now available

Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.
Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.

I’m happy to announce that Dangerous Spirits is now available for sale in print in Canada. You can find it on here. The American launch is set for April 2015, so if you are in the States (or Britain) you will have to wait a little longer for a print version. But the book is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play BooksNookKobo and iBooks. I spent eight years working on this book, which studies narratives told in Algonquian culture about an evil spirit, the windigo. The book traces these narratives through time, from the rich traditions of Algonquian peoples to its modern incarnation in novels, films, and boardgames. How is it that a being from northern Algonquian tradition can be found in movies set in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and board games created in Britain? I also look at how different outside groups understood the windigo through time, based on the records of Jesuits, explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and murder trials.

I want to thank Sara Loreno, who worked to create the maps for me (and thanks to David Banis who worked with her), Anne Lindsay who tracked down countless archival materials, Robert Brightman, who answered endless linguistic and cultural questions, and Heritage House, which did an outstanding job editing this book. Grace Dillon, a Professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State (and great colleague) wrote a preface that is both insightful and funny.  …

The Dylatov Pass Incident: a new book

From Wikipedia: “The Mikhajlov Cemetry in Yekaterinburg. The tomb of the group who had died in mysterious circumstances in the northern Ural Mountains.” Photo by Дмитрий Никишин / Public domain

Every Halloween, I look at mysterious topics, such as books on international folklore, or the story of the strange ghost ship called the Baltimore. This year I want to review a book on one of the strangest mysteries in Russian history, the Dyatlov pass incident. The book is written by Donnie Eichar, and is titled Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

On the night of February 2, 1959 a large group of hikers disappeared in the northern Ural mountains. They were experienced campers in winter conditions, and when they did not return, people were not initially worried. After eight days, however, an expedition was organized to find this group, all of whom were university students at the Ural Polytechnic institute. After a great deal of effort, their tent was found on the side of Dead Mountain (Halatchahl mountain). Everything inside the tent was in order -there was even food set out waiting to be eaten, although the stove had not yet been set up- but the nine students were not there. The tent itself had been damaged, and there was a cut in the back, which would later lead to speculation that perhaps someone had tried to cut their way into it. Investigators later determined that the tent had been cut from the inside, probably because people were rushing to get out. The searchers were able to follow a trail of footprints that led away from the tent, and soon came upon the bodies of two of the students, who were only partly dressed. Three other bodies were then found nearby, also in a state of partial undress. It was not until May that the remaining bodies were found, at the bottom of a ravine. …

Dangerous Spirits Forthcoming

Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.
Dangerous Spirits, forthcoming from Heritage House.

My work on the windigo, an evil spirit in Northern Algonquian traditions, will be published by Heritage House in Canada this November, and in the United States this spring. We’ve now finalized the book blurb:

The windigo is a cannibal spirit prevalent in the traditional
narratives of the Algonquian peoples of North America. From Labrador in the north
to Virginia in the south, and from Nova Scotia in the east to the Rocky Mountains
in the west, this phenomenon has been discussed, feared, and interpreted in different
ways for centuries. Dangerous Spirits tells the story of how belief in the windigo
clashed with the new world order that came about after European contact.
Dismissing the belief as superstitious, many early explorers, traders, and missionaries
failed to understand the complexity and power of the windigo—both as
a symbol and as a threat to the physical safety of a community. Yet, judging by the
volume of journal entries, police records, court transcripts, and other written documents describing windigo cases witnessed by or recounted to Euro-Canadians over …

New dolphin species discovered in the Amazon

Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat
Deep Forest Waterfall by Witthaya Phonsawat

In a recent post I talked about the discovery of a new species of tapir in the Amazon. What is amazing to me is that there are still large mammal species being “discovered” in the region. Within the last ten years a new monkey species was described scientifically for the first time, after having been identified within 60 miles of Manaus, the largest city in the Amazonian river basin. Of course, local and native peoples are already well aware of these animals, which they have hunted for long periods of time. Now, not a month after the last such discovery of a large mammal species in Amazonia, a new dolphin species has been described in a scientific journal. It is the first new species of river dolphin discovered in a 100 years. …

A large unknown mammal discovered in the Amazon

"Tropical Waterfall" by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee
“Tropical Waterfall” by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee

In an earlier blog post I discussed the fact that explorers and scientists are still making major new discoveries on our mysterious planet. If any still place holds many surprises it must be the Amazon. In 2009 I was staying in a lodge on the Rio Negro near Manaus, in the midst of the worst flooding that the Amazon had seen in sixty years. My wife and I took our two daughters down to the bank of the river. Swarms of small insects were attracted to the lights on the river bank. Fish would rise to the surface and surge up to catch the insects. And as we watched, a bat flew past and captured a fish, which hung twisting and flopping in its clutches. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. I think that I began my sentence, “that almost looked as if that bat just. . . ” But a minute later it happened again, and there was no question. There really are fish-eating bats in the Amazon. But now scientists have found something not only amazing but also unknown- at least to outsiders. …

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