Transcript: The Story of the Snallygaster

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Listen close, or the Snallygaster will get you.  

A story to scare little children with. The Snallygaster: an enormous vampire beast that flies by night. Half-bird, half-lizard, with a silver beak filled with sharp steel teeth. The Snallygaster…even the name is worth a chuckle now.  You see, the old world needed stories like this to keep children from wandering out into a savage night filled with wild terrors. Real harm, real danger was everywhere; so common that even little children grew used to it, and couldn’t be frightened with it. So, great and terrible creatures like the Snallygaster were born: horrors created to save the children they frightened, to save them from themselves; from their own rashness and folly.

And the only protection from the Snallygaster was the symbol of the seven-pointed star. The star was a good luck charm, a powerful kind of magic to ward off evil. Paint one on your barn, wear one on a necklace, carve one on the doorpost of your house, and the creature would have to leave you alone.  A silly superstition. You know, in the old days disease and misfortune befell people so arbitrarily, they needed to believe in symbols like the seven-pointed star to give themselves some illusion of control over their own destinies.  

Nowadays we have real knowledge, science, logic; the tools to actually control our lives. And our well-lit modern nights have been so tamed now, the wild terrors have all been defeated...haven’t they? So quaint old stories like the Snallygaster and cute old charms like the seven-pointed star are only good for a smile and maybe some merchandising: selling a t-shirt and some refrigerator magnets to the tourists.

But if you start to dig a little deeper… if you find and read the old stories as they were originally told… bit by bit that smug modern condescension begins to wear off.  You start to hear the voices, you start to see the people who first told the stories. You start to feel their world, and their humanity within that world. And if you reach way back into the vast darkness of the past and try to listen to the stories as those people heard them… you might start to wonder.  Was it all just ignorance and superstition? Are we really so much smarter than our ancestors? Aren’t there inexplicable things out there, uncontrollable dangers; things we simply choose to explain using the language of science and rationality? Maybe some old stories are still worth hearing. Maybe it doesn’t hurt to heed a few old superstitions.

So listen close: you might learn something. Listen close… or the Snallygaster will get you.

This is the Camp Monsters podcast.

Every part of the country has its own explanations for that symbol that you found carved on an old gravestone, or what happened to that ghost town they say is up in the hills. So every episode we’ll be traveling to a different place, sitting around a campfire and trying scare each other with stories about the things that roam just outside the circle of firelight... the things that stay outside… in the dark.

And as you listen to these stories, remember: these are just stories, strange things to tell around the campfire. Sure, some of them are based on the testimony of people who claim to have had…encounters with these creatures, but it’s up to you how much you believe…and how to explain away what you don’t.  So come up to the fire. Come listen to tonight’s tale.

Wasn’t it supposed to be clear this weekend? I was really hoping for some stars, a bit of moon.  By this time of year the wind has usually shifted out of the west: crisp clear air out of the hills on the other side of the Shenandoah Valley. But when the breeze is still spitting that stagnant air off the Potomac… well, you get a real central-Maryland night like this… these low clouds, this damp that makes it colder than it should be; colder than it is, really.  Throw another log on the fire, I’m chilled through.

Nice big hearth we have here, isn’t it? A stone chimney and everything, like a fireplace without the cabin.  A few of the campsites in this park have them: they say the chimneys make the fires burn hotter, but I don’t really know.  That’s not why the chimneys are here, anyway, they weren’t built for that. They were built for the little houses of the town that used to be here.  That’s right, we’re camping in a ghost town. Don’t worry, it’s so old even the ghosts have abandoned it. It was just a little farming village anyway, gone so long ago that history has lost its name, if it ever had one. By the time of the American Revolution the cabins were already rotted away, just these few chimneys still standing, slowly crumbling. They fixed the chimneys up and repurposed them as hearths when they built this campground in the 1930s.

Why was the old town abandoned?  Oh, they probably built the turnpike a few miles away and the people moved over there, easier to get their crops to market.  Of course, like any ghost town there is an old legend about it that some of the locals tell...

In the early seventeen-hundreds German Anabaptist immigrants started settling in this area. They were fleeing religious persecution back in Europe, hoping to carve little farms for themselves out of the ancient forests that once covered this part of Maryland. The old legend begins with a group of such settlers coming into this area. They cleared the trees and brush by hand, built simple little houses.  For a little while they… well, they didn’t exactly prosper, but they worked very hard and lived very simply, as they wanted to do.

But a year or two after they settled here, as the summer season faded into fall, things began to go wrong. Something began to plague the new settlement. This far removed from the historical events it’s hard to say for sure just what was happening; it’s hard to separate fact from legend.  But for some reason the livestockthe community’s means of surviving the winterstarted dying off.  

It could have been some kind of wasting disease, something we have antibiotics against now...but the stories all say it happened suddenly, always at night. An animal would be healthy in the evening and sick or dead in the morning. Some people started staying out all night to protect their flocks and herdsand something similar would happen to them.  No matter how they tried, an overpowering urge to sleep would steal over them, and they’d awake the next morning from a deep slumber looking gravely ill and haggard.  Anything that was kept outdoors at night was in dangerthere’s an old tale that a jug of milk left on a windowsill to keep cool overnight was found sucked almost dry the next morning, and the little milk left at the bottom thick with blood. There’d been no time yet to build proper barns, and people started bringing as many animals as they could into their own little houses at night.

Whether the old stories are true or not, contemporary documents do mention some kind of hysteria breaking out around here: a religious pamphlet refers to the events in the area as “die Heimsuchung”“the Visitation,” and a German-language newspaper in Philadelphia makes the first mention of something called the “schneller geist”“the quick ghost.”  That’s where the name of the legendary monsterthe Snallygasteroriginates from.  Whatever the truth waswhatever was really going on all those centuries agoit’s clear that people were truly fearful.  Some families left the area and returned to older, established settlements; outlying farms and even small towns were abandoned… little towns like the very one we’re camped in here.

They say the desperate people who remained came together to build a great barn, larger than any in the area, to try to shelter as many of their animals as they could. They took the task in shifts, feeding great bonfires to keep the work going by day and night. There was an old tradition in the areaalready old in those long-ago daysof putting a seven-pointed star on homes and barns in order to ward off evil. There was quite an argument over that, as many people thought that this new barn surely needed to have the star, but church elders forbid it as a blasphemous superstition.

So they raised the barn without a star, drove in their remaining animals… and the terror continued.  Something would come by night and get into the barn unseen. The animals would begin to cry out, and the people could hear them trying to run from whatever it was that was inside. No one could be found to venture into the darkened building at such times, and in the morning there would be fewer animals and more fear. This didn’t go on for long, though.  In desperation the church elders quietly reversed themselves. Willing to try anything to stop the terror, a seven-pointed star made of iron was hung at the very peak of the roof of the big new barn. From that day forward, it’s said, the affliction ceased, and the people returned to their homes and farms and made the most of their new-found peace.

Whatever else you think about it, it is a very odd legend. Most old monster tales have some kind of moralthe good little children prosper and the bad little children get eaten. But in this old schneller geist story, bad things happen to good people for no discernable reason, and then stop just as randomly. Some might say that brings the story more in line with the way the real world is, but who can actually believe that a seven-pointed star has anything to do with protecting you from harm? I only know one person who really believes that.

Hey hey, back up, back up a bityour jacket is starting to smoke. Ha!  I guess maybe these old chimneys do make the fire burn hotter. Just take my advice, and try not to catch on fire.  I don’t think even a seven-pointed star could help you then.

Oh yeah, I was going to tell you about the only person I know who believes in that old hocus-pocus. Her name is Anna. You’d like her. Everyone who meets her likes her, she’s that kind of person. If we’re ever in Washington D.C. together I’ll have to introduce you. And Anna is a climber. I mean yes, she is ambitious and capable, but she’s an actual climber, a rock climbing enthusiast. That’s kind of how her story gets started.  

She moved to D.C. from one of those states out West that’s just one continuous mountainwhere rock climbing is practically part of your daily commute. She jumped right into a really stressful job in D.C., and it wasn’t long before she found herself craving the release that she’d always found climbing. Now, people come to D.C. for all kinds of reasons: to serve their country, to serve their cause, to serve themselves… but folks don’t exactly move here for the rock climbing. There are some great climbing gyms in the area, but Anna wanted something different, something that offered her more of the solitude she had known on some of her favorite routes back home.  She found what she was looking for not far from here.

It was a big old barn, all by itself on the back forty of some property owned by a friend’s family.  It had a great big spacious interior criss-crossed with beams and posts and a loft and old platforms andit was love at first sight for Anna.  She’d helped build climbing walls beforeand this was going to be a masterpiece. Her friend’s family didn’t use the barn for anything, and were only too happy to let Anna turn it into her own personal climbing getaway, barely an hour from the city.

Anna is the kind of person where the harder she works the more energy she seems to get. Well, Anna’s D.C. job just got crazier and crazierand the barn got the benefit of it. Anna cleaned and painted and renovated it at an unbelievable pace. And you know how big old buildings with dim interiors can feel spooky when you’re inside all alone…but Anna only had one strange incident during that time, one thing that made her stop and wonder.  

She was up at the very top of the barn, on a funny little platform that runs right under the peak of the roof. She’d never been up there before, and it was a job accessing that little loft, raising and leaning a long aluminum ladder just right. The ladder creaked and wobbled under her as she made the ascent. She poked her head up into the dim space, and pulled it back so quickly she almost startled herself off the ladder. There was a dead pigeon hidden on the edge of the platform, right in front of her face as she’d looked in.  She pushed it gingerly aside and climbed up.  

It was a strange, uncomfortable space, lit by a large open doorway-to-nowhere at the front of the barn, just under the eaves. It was not quite tall enough to stand in, with the roofbeam down the middle and braces to duck under every few feet. The floor was covered with dust and a few centuries of things left by birds and rodents. Anna walked gingerly down the length of the platform, testing the boards ahead of her as she went. When she got to the doorway at the end she cringed a bit as she lay on her stomach in the mess on the floor, then reached down the outer face of the barn with a little crowbar to complete her task. Nailed to the siding just below her was an ugly old metal star that had bled red rust stains all down the face of the barn.  Any painting she planned to do would be wasted as long as the star was up there, just waiting to bleed ugly streaks down her work after the first rain or two. She got the crowbar under a corner of the star and began to work it looseshe expected the thing to come off in pieces, but after a little prying the whole star started to come free. She reached a hand down and pulled it off the barn, brought it onto the platform and looked it over.  

The star was very old, that was clear. The nails that had held it to the wall were square and hand-forged, and the whole thing had the rough, strong construction of an old village blacksmith’s job. The front had been painted over many times, but the back left her hands stained red with rust.

As she sat there idly examining the star, she noticed something strange about the platform itself. There were marksold gouges in the floor of the platform that she had taken for tool marks as she walked across the boards. The barn was old enough that all the timbers would have been hewn and sawn by hand, leaving the marks of the tools on the surface of the wood.  But up close she could see that these weren’t the kind of traces left behind by an adze or a sawthey were deep, narrow marks, some of them straight but others crooked and haphazard.   

Well... the gouges were old and dust-covered, whatever had made them was long gone, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Old buildings have lives of their own, and the mystery of those marks would either reveal itself or notAnna didn’t give it much thought at the time. It seemed a shame to throw the ugly old star away, so she left it on the high platform right beside the access hole. There was no chance of it being in the way, as she assumed that she would probably never find herself up there again. That assumption was wrong. And it was right about then that the dream started.

It was a dream she kept having, very simple and clear, and she always remembered it when she woke up. In her dream she was climbingas hard and as fast as she couldbut climbing toward something she loathed and feared, something she never wanted to reach. If she slowed for even an instant, a hand or foothold would crumble away and she would have to scramble and lunge for the next one. It was like she was out climbing a landslide, but one that only happened when she tried to slow down. Every time she came back to the dream she could tell somehow that she was higher, closer to that terrible something at the top of the climb.

And she began to sleepwalk, too, in ways that terrified her. The night air would wake her up, standing in the open front door of her apartment with her car keys in her hand, about to go… where? Somewhere she knew she didn’t want to go.  

She didn’t connect any of this with the barn, because she only had the dream when she was in the city.  In fact, she started to spend more and more weekend nights camped out at the barn, because she found that she always slept so deeply and dreamlessly there. Maybe it was the fresh night air.  The summer nights were balmy, and she’d pull her little pickup inside the barn, set up a little sleeping area in the bed of the truck. She thought it was very cozy, and she didn’t mind the occasional rustle and flutter of the other creatures that called the barn home.  Anyway, she always fell asleep so fast she hardly noticed it.

I remember talking to Anna at that time, and worrying about her. She told me about her dream and her sleepwalking and general exhaustion, but insisted that she made up for all of that during her weekends in the country.  One night out there, she said, was worth a week of tossing and turning in her apartment. She felt great, she said, and she said it with such conviction that I believed her but…but she didn’t look great. Over the course of the summer she had begun to look more and more unwell, like she was wasting away.  At the time I figured all the work was just wearing her down to nothing. I have a different theory now.

But anyway just as fall began I talked her into at least taking a few days off, just tearing herself away from it all and getting out of town.  Going someplace to get a little rest. So she packed up and went to camp out at the barn.

As a change of pace she brought a little tent with her, and pitched it in the field outside the barn on the edge of a little grove of trees. When the night came it was clear, with just a sliver of moon.  Anna remembers looking over at the barn before she turned in for the nightshe noticed the contrast that the black doors and windows made in the moonlight reflected off the new white paint. She took a deep breath of the cool night air, fresh with the lingering smells of the grasses and trees, and knew that she would sleep deeply out here, away from all the hustle and worry of the city.

And Anna did sleep deeply. Very deeply. But the dream had followed her to the country this time, more urgent and terrifying than ever beforealmost felt painful, she said, as painful as a dream can ever be.  Like she was being stretched apart in her own mind. And she slept walked. To this day she is thankful that she made the trip by herself, because how terrifying would it be to see a friend of yours sit up abruptly from a dead sleep, rise, walk to the nearest wall and start climbing. That was evidently what Anna did: she walked into the barn and climbed. And she must have done some of the most difficult climbing of her life, since she managed without a ladder to reach that lonely loft right up near the peak of the roof.  

She began to awakennot awaken, but her memory picks up with her walking slowly down the platform toward the dark doorway, stooping a bit to avoid the massive roof beam, her bare feet crunching and sliding over the filth on the floor. She was conscious of where she was and where she was going, but unable to stop her slow, steady progress. There was nothing she could do but go to that doorway… and she dreaded it.

She took her last steps. She stood at the doorway, looking out over the empty fields below, blue and indistinct in the full moonlight. She stared, and waited... and nothing happened. She began to awaken more fully now, until she was completely herself. The feeling of dread had faded with consciousness, and now she just standing at the peak of the old barn, perplexed, breathing heavily, filled with relief and wondering how she had got there... and how she was going to get down. The last thing she expected was the head of the Snallygaster to suddenly appear in the doorway.  

It took her an instant to notice itthe head was down at the level of her knees, as if the thing were clinging to the front of the barn below. It was the movement of the thing that caught her eyes, and when she looked down the head was moving frenetically, quivering and twitching and grimacing with a thousand constant, tiny motions. The head and neck of the thing were completely bald, like a vulture, but the pale skin of the face covered the beak and allowed the thing to snarl and grimace almost as though it had lips.  It had teeth, she could see its teethgreat black ones that snapped together with a sound so enormous it was like the clashing of two giant steel plates being dropped on one another.

Anna screamed and fell into the mess on the floor of the platform.  She scrambled backward and the thing began to climb in at the window, its large dark body making the pale head and neck stand out horribly for an instant.  It opened its mouth impossibly wide and its whole head shook with the force of its screama scream that almost deafened her but that she somehow knew only existed in her head, a scream that was silent to the rest of the world.  And then the bulk of the Snallygaster’s body lurched into the window and filled it, blocking out the moonlight entirely.

She scrambled back, further and further, and she heard the scrape of the thing’s claws across the platform as it pursued her. She knew the entry hole to the platform was behind her somewhere, knew that if she kept going this way she was bound to fall through it, but she didn’t care. Anything, anything was better than staying there to face that creature.  She crab walked backwards until one hand, reaching out for more floor, found only empty air beneath it. She crashed down on her back and skinned her arm, landed on somethingon that old iron star she had pulled off the front of the building.  She snatched it up and flung it at the advancing creature, then rolled over on her belly and began feeling all around outside the entryway, feeling for a hand hold that she could swing to.  

She didn’t find one, but after awhile she realized that the creature hadn’t grabbed her up, either.  She didn’t hear itdidn’t hear its claws scraping the boards anymore.  Slowly, slowly, she turned her head and looked back down the platform behind her. There was nothing there. Just moonlight streaming through the open doorway andand the old iron star, propped strangely upright by a couple of its old nails, silhouetted against the blank night sky.

Morning revealed two things: the first was fresh gouges in the planks of the platform that Anna was on, fresh gouges that matched the old dust-covered ones that she had wondered aboutgouges that led from the doorway up to within a foot or two of where she had been lying beside the entry hole.  The other thing that morning revealed was a crossbeam near the entry that Anna could use as a hand-hold to begin her descent from the platform.  It was a precarious route to the safety of the barn floorbut Anna is a very good climber.

As for the Snallygaster, well… if you ask her about it Anna will tell you that it was just a dreamit must have been, just a sleepwalker’s nightmare.  Her subconscious manifesting some old folklore that she must have read about in college and then forgotten. The gouges weremaybe the rats gnawing on the wood for some reason, who knows? She links the whole experience to overwork and too much stress, and she’s found a lot of ways to relax and balance her life a little better now. Most weekends you’ll still find her out at the barn, climbing. You can’t miss the barn, it’s the big white one just back from the road, the one with a seven-pointed star nailed right up beneath the eaves.  And Anna wears a little matching star on a thin gold chain around her necknothing to do with superstition, you understand.  She just likes the way it looks.

Boy, if this fire burns hot it sure burns fast, too.  Do we have any more logs for the fire? Just as welltime to put it out and turn in.  Oh, wait, look at this. Here, shine your flashlight up here, just above the old mantel. See it?  Behind the sootsee the way the lighter-colored stones are arranged? The seven-pointed star. I’m not a superstitious person but… I guess I’ll sleep a little better, knowing that it’s there.

Camp Monsters podcast is a part of the REI podcast network.  It is written and performed by yours truly, Weston Davis, and recorded and edited by Nick Patri in the very cozy and campfire-like confines of Cloud Studios in Seattle, Washington.  

Be sure to listen to the next episode of Camp Monsters, when we’ll drift down a river in New Jersey and enjoy the local wildlife… enjoy most of it, anyway.

If you enjoy these stories, please subscribe, rate, listen and spread the word.  It is your support that keeps us recording. Thank you.

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