Original script by NICK BROWNLEE
From the audio series “WELL WEIRD, WITH ADRIAN CLAYPOLE“
On June 23 2008 a woman named Rosemary Blackburn was walking across moorland near her home in Scotland when she saw something looming out of the mist up ahead. It was a creature – jet black, with four legs and a slobbering mouth filled with gleaming white fangs.
Despite her terror, Rosemary had the presence of mind to take a photograph of the beast with her cameraphone before running to the safety of her car and driving off.
Returning home she breathlessly reported the sighting to her husband Dennis. Sensing he was sceptical, Rosemary showed him the photographic proof of the creature on the moors.
“But that’s Campbell, you daft bitch,’ Dennis said in disbelief. To her horror, Rosemary realised her husband was right. The beast was indeed their 14-year-old pet Labrador, Campbell, who she’d taken out for a walk barely two hours earlier.
Rosemary immediately drove back to the moors to search for their dog. Sure enough, Campbell was sitting by the side of the road looking bemused.
You might argue that Rosemary Blackburn’s was a genuine mistake. But can the same be said for the thousands of other sightings of strange creatures recorded throughout history?
Even if just one of them was proved to be correct, what does that tell us about our own grasp of the natural – or unnatural world?
And our place in it?
The legend of the Beast of Bolestadt dates back to the late 19th century. Nobody knows exactly when the first sighting of the creature took place in this remote Norwegian village close to the Arctic circle – but over a period of just a few weeks the number of uncorroborated reports grew to the point where they could no longer be considered a coincidence.
Typical was the account of local seamstress who was walking back from visiting her elderly mother one evening when she became aware of a presence behind her.
“I heard a moist slurping noise and smelt foul, fetid breath,” she said. –“and at first I thought my mother had followed me. But when I turned, I saw a large beast. It was the size of an elk, but with the face of a monkey. It had horns and glowing red eyes. When I asked it what I wanted, it meiowed like a cat.”
The beast’s description matched that of several other people, including the village sealmonger. His encounter came when he was delivering a parcel of seal meat to a customer on the outskirts of the village.
“I knocked on the door and after a few moments I heard a moist slurping noise from inside, he said The door opened slightly and a long, thin arm extended outwards. It was partially feathered and I noticed that, instead of fingers, it had what appeared to be a complete set of inflated penguin bladders. nded over the parcel and the creature snatched it, slamming the door without signing the receipt docket.”
Investigators from Oslo soon arrived, determined to get the bottom of the mystery. Although they found no evidence of the creature their suspicions were aroused when, under questioning, the seamstress, the sealmonger and 14 other villagers who claimed to have seen it could not stop giggling.
Eventually they confessed that it had all been a big joke. According to the seamstress they’d dreamed up the Beast because “There’s fuck all else to do round here.”
Boredom is a powerful motive for mischief. But does it explain events in Russia in 1901 when a man named Boromir Vladikov claimed to have seen a strange creature swooping above the rooftops of Minsk at dusk on August 16.
The creature, he said, was “black as death, with a sharp, rodent-like face, talon-like feet, and a pair of bat-like wings”. When it was suggested to Vladikov that what he had seen was, in fact, a bat, he admitted that they probably had a point. But four days later he was found dead in the Rover Svislach. The official report said that he had drunk three bottles of vodka – although until her own death in 1914 his wife maintained it had only been two.
The Hound-Spider of Hong Kong, the Lizard-Man of the Limpopo, The Danubian Devil-Mouse, Korokakian the Half-Man, Half-Crocodile of Caracas, The Flying Testicle of Fuengirola.
Every country and every culture seems to have a strange, quasi-mythical creature of its own.
Are they merely figments of common folklore. Or are they fact, burned into the collective synapses of those too terrified to question their own rational consciousnesses?
In 1643, in the English village of Bedale, a crowd gathered on the green to witness a grisly spectacle. A local woman named Betsy Whitbread had been accused of witchcraft. And for women accused of being witches there was only one form of trial.
At 9.30 on the morning of September 6, Betsy was transported from her prison cell and placed on a ducking stool. As the crowd jeered she was repeatedly ducked into the river.
If she drowned without confession, she was innocent. If she survived, she would be burned at the stake. Nobody had yet worked out what would happen if she survived that ordeal – but there was little or no precedent for such an occurrence.
Instead, what happened silenced the baying mob.
As Betsy was about to be ducked into the freezing water for the ninth time, a shout went up. Fingers pointed and there, at the tree line several hundred yard away, was a creature.
The creature was human in form, but stood eight feet tall. Its skin was glowing red, it emitted a choking, sulphurous smoke, and, most terrifying of all, it had a barbed tail and horns protruding from its forehead.
According to contemporary accounts the creature stared at the crowd for several moments, shaking its head and wagging its finger in admonishment. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished again.
At that moment, a horseman came galloping onto the green. He was a messenger from the Duke of York and, in his hand, he bore a sealed parchment. It was a signed pardon for Betsy Whitbread. It seemed she was not a witch after all. Her accuser, a local man, had confessed that he had made it all up over a dispute about an unpaid laundry bill.
Immediately a cry went up to free Betsy. But it was too late. Distracted by the commotion, the ducking stool operative had forgotten to raise her from the river. Betsy was dead – drowned, but exonerated.
We live our lives by expecting the expected. When we leave the safety of our house, we do not imagine we will be confronted by strange creatures. But what happens when our expectations are confounded. When, while walking through the dimension of normality, we encounter a rift…in our own sanity.
A rift through which strange creatures can pass at will. And do.