Guest post by Vampira author and Charleston-based historian Scott Poole.
The weather in the American South may not always turn chill in October. But it’s still a region that’s as full of restless spirits as the rest of the world that celebrates Halloween. In fact, the Southern night shivers with haunts, more than a few born directly out of the region’s peculiar — and sometimes frightening — history.
Some of the most well-known regional ghost stories are frequently connected to Gullah/Geechee culture in the sea islands and lowcountry of the Carolinas and Georgia. One of the most popular of these tells of two terrifying creatures sometimes imagined as parts of the same monster. One is a skull stripped of skin and liable to bite called “Raw head” and the other its equally terrifying companion, a kind of dancing headless skeleton called “Bloody Bones.”
Occasionally, the story of Raw Head and Bloody Bones appears with a moral, at least of sorts. In one version of the tale, a gossip loses their head to the monster as punishment for their wicked tongue. Other versions connect Raw Head and Bloody Bones to the Gullah tradition of the “haint,” a general term for any kind of restless spirit that prowls at night (and comes looking for bad children).
If you are familiar with Southern folklore, you know that many of the region’s stories draw from African tales retold by enslaved people to whites over the 250 years before the Civil War. Raw Head and Bloody Bones may be an example of a legend that worked in the opposite direction, passed on by whites to their African slaves.
The story seems to have been common in England at least as early as the 1500s. One of the first mentions of the horrifying pair appears in a sermon in 1566 in which an Anglican minister warns that “Hell and the Devil” needs to be taken at least as seriously as “Grandmother’s tale of bloody bone, raw head and Ware woulfs (werewolves).” No word on whether his parishioners went away more impressed with Satan than grandmother’s worrisome stories.
At least one nursery rhyme about this nighttime terror comes from Yorkshire and shows that this story served up scares to children for centuries:
Rawhead and Bloody Bones/
Steals Naughty Children from their Homes/
Takes them to his dirty den/
And they are never seen again
If you find this a bit chilling, you aren’t alone. These stories spread throughout the region and show up in scary bedtime stories as far west as the Ozarks. Famed horror director Clive Barker even wrote the screenplay for a film based on the story called “Rawhead Rex” in 1986.
One curious phenomenon that does seem traceable to Africa has strangely migrated to the world of Southern architectural design. The painting of porch ceilings “haint blue” comes from the Kongo people of west central Africa and the belief that cerulean blue wards off the evil eye of a sorcerer. African American vernacular architecture in the South retained this practice, especially in the early 20th century, by painting window frames, doorframes and porches in various shades of blue.
Some whites painted their porches haint blue in Charleston and Savannah, though it may actually be more common today than in earlier times. Paint companies now produce versions of haint blue, and magazines dedicated to Southern haute aesthetics have recommended its use as a nod to lowcountry tradition. Unfortunately, the use of modern paint may be missing out on the real benefits of haint blue. The original recipe called for a combination of indigo and lime, making it an excellent repellent for insects, the real Southern creepy-crawlies.
We should take our monsters more seriously though. Scary stories may seem like only the stuff of nursery rhymes and folk tales, but the monsters of the South — like all of the monsters of America — are hardwired into history. In a region shaped by slavery, the stories we have told ourselves have been correspondingly dark, tinged with the light of people who kept their cultures alive in a world they made, unwillingly, together.
Scott Poole’s recent book Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror is the first published biography of the eclectic life of the dancer, stripper, TV actress and artist Maila Nurmi, who would come to be known as Vampira and would pave the way for women like Elvira, Madonna and Lady Gaga. Poole teaches at the College of Charleston and has written widely about American history, horror and pop culture.