HELL ON WHEELS
THEO PAIJMANS unearths some distinctly odd cases of monstrous clouds that sap the lifeforce of their victims
Outlaw motorcycle clubs have often employed Satanic iconography to terrify mainstream society. STEVE TOASE explores how films and fiction have exploited these links between biker culture and the occult over the years to produce some cult classics.
On the evening of 29 March 1892, 10 fishermen were preparing themselves for a good night’s sleep. It was winter fishing season in Iceland, so the men stayed at the shore near the village of Stokkseyri. The sky was overcast and wind and rain swept over the hut that gave them shelter. Their foreman left around 10pm and the fishermen closed the door behind him. The men went to their bunks and fell asleep – all except two of them. One, Eyjolf Olaffson, would later recount their horrible experiences. While they were lying awake, listening to the wind and rain, they noticed that one of the men was stirring in his sleep, uttering strange sounds.
Olaffson and his friend woke the man up. He told them he had experienced a “most unpleasant sensation”. While he was still groping for words, another sleeper began to behave in the same manner, uttering whimpering sounds. The three men who were awake lit a lamp and inspected the cabin, but found nothing out of the ordinary. A fisherman in the bunk opposite Olafsson was helping himself to some tobacco from a snuffbox. Suddenly the man changed colour and his arms fell to his sides. Olaffson sprinted to the man to resuscitate him. After his recovery, the man told how “a terrible heaviness” had come over him, draining all his strength. He became so weak that he could not move but could only make a sound, after which he had become insensible.
All through this night and the next, the fishermen experienced similar, inexplicable disturbances. One of them proposed borrowing the church bell from Stokkseyri to hang in their hut. This they did, and that night their sleep was undisturbed. Believing their ordeal over, they returned the bell; but the thing that disturbed their sleep also returned. The fishermen fled the cabin and took refuge in a nearby farm where their foreman also slept. Nothing troubled them here, but for the next six weeks similar hauntings were reported in various huts around the area.
What stalked the cabins in the area, Olaffson later declared, was also seen by some of his hut-mates. It looked like “a bluish cloud of vapour that moved back and forth and sometimes glowed. Some were also aware of a strange wind, sudden, sharp and chill”. Others saw “a thick, bluish cloud, about an ell high”, and some fishermen thought they had seen “a lump, about the size of a small
The fisherman told how “a terrible heaviness” had come over him, draining all his strength. He became so weak that he could not move and afterwards became insensible...
saw the cloud at his side: “It moved along the ground with the dogs barking and jumping at it – then rose in the air and vanished.” Barlow never saw the strange cloudlike thing again 3 Interestingly, one of his farmhands, Samuel Jones, lived in the house in Byron Street in Runcorn, that had the year before been plagued for weeks by an annoying poltergeist.
A faint suggestion of poltergeist activity also clings to the strange case of the ‘cloud of smoke’ with two arm-like extensions that nearly choked the life out of Mary Winters. In 1963, the newly divorced Winters had just moved into her new house in Miami – but the omens were not good. The cat was terrified to walk on the plot of land on which the house was built, while inside the dwelling lights would go on and off by themselves and chairs were tipped over by some invisible force. A tree in the yard was struck by lightning. “It didn’t ooze sap, it oozed blood,” Winters remembered.
One night later that year she was preparing for bed at around 11.30. She was sitting on her bed, taking her shoes off. The door of her bedroom was slightly ajar, and the light was on in the hallway. “Suddenly a cloud of smoke seeped into the room and slowly rose to the ceiling. It was like a large, turbulent cloud,” Winters recalled. She jumped into bed and pulled the sheets over her head.
When she peeked out from under the covers, she saw that the cloud was now right over her head and slowly descending. Winters decided to get up, but “suddenly two things like arms on each side came out, and as I started to get out of bed, they grabbed me around the neck. They felt like ice. I was paralysed and could hardly breathe.” She slid towards the floor, with the tentacles still around her neck. While the life drained out of her, she heard a sound: “In a soft, low voice that could have been either a man’s or a woman’s it made a sound like ‘Aaaaaaah’.” The cloud, she said, transmitted the thought to her that her eight-year-old son would be next. That gave her the strength to switch on the light, with the two arm-like protrusions still around her neck. The thing disappeared as soon as the light came on. The whole ordeal had lasted 15 minutes. Winters called a friend, who came over. He saw the cloud as well, when it returned an hour later. The light was switched on and the thing disappeared as before. Winters moved from the house, which was eventually torn down. 4
These stories of vaporous entities with their roots in folklore exhibit a strange link with the poltergeist tradition5 and are found in ghostlore as well. A spirit form, “white, cloudlike and shapeless”, was said to have been seen near a church at Stanbridge, Dorsetshire: “This floats along the road for about 200 yards, perches itself on the churchyard wicket, and finally vanishes unaccountably. The same form of apparition troubles Gravel Hill, near Poole.” 6
Sometime in 1950, a Mr Diprose and his son watched in amazement as a “white, shapeless figure” glided from a field, across the road from Dunstan’s Bridge, into another field. “It always vanished and it doesn’t leave footprints. It’s not just mist or fog, because I’ve usually seen it early on a clear morning.” Mr Diprose added that during the war soldiers who were stationed there refused to use the lane at night. 7
Such stories of formless, misty apparitions suggest that there may be further undiscovered tales of vampiric vapours that invade the homes of their victims to feast on their life force. And sometimes, these strange clouds even inflict lasting injury. James Ilor was living with his brother-in-law and his family in a house in the town of Kenton, Ohio, in the winter of 1853-1854. The house was haunted in the most undesirable way. So plagued were they by poltergeist phenomena that the family moved out. Perhaps Ilor should have done the same. One night he saw “a white cloud in the loft overhead”. The cloud floated slowly to the north wall and down to the lower floor, when with incredible speed it made towards him. It struck his arm just below the shoulder. “It went through me like lightning where it coloured the skin of my arm and on my body on each side of my arm just like a lightning strike.” 8
In 1947, Nick Danilatos was awarded more than £800 in damages in a Supreme Court hearing. Danilatos and his wife were travelling by train between Redfern and Newton, Australia, when a white mist broke his arm. Their cabin window was only slightly open. Another train was just passing them when suddenly “something white, transparent and misty like steam” appeared at the carriage window. Danilatos felt a smashing blow to his arm. “I remembered little more until I found myself lying on the seat with my arm broken. I don’t know what hit me. The window was open only a few inches. It was not broken. There were no marks inside the carriage,” he related. His wife had heard a hissing noise and a glimpse of something near the window before her husband fell. During the hearing it was suggested that the thing might have been a “supernatural being”. 9 dog”. It was often seen at the window of the hut, where it looked like “a lump with some sort of tentacles attached to it”. The tentacles would fasten onto the pane, “as if it would get in”.
But what was it? Some fishermen suggested that it was a sea monster or perhaps a ghost that had been inadvertently set free. The local doctor and sheriff investigated; they found nothing, but the hauntings continued. Instead of calling in a pastor, the fishermen turned to old folk wisdom. In the spring, one Eyolf Magnusson visited the nearby hamlet of Eyarbakki. He had a reputation of being able to use ‘words of power’. After some persuasion, he uttered a few verses, banning the tentacled vapour for nine years; it is said that Magnussen did not, or could not, for a reason now lost to us, guarantee a longer period of relief from it.
We do not know if the thing that haunted Stokkseyri returned in 1901. 1 In the 1970s, the descendants of the people in whose lifetimes the hauntings of Stokkseyri had occurred, were still living. 2
Although rare, there are other accounts of vaporous manifestations with tentacles, prongs or protrusions and which don’t seem to harbour the best intentions. In 1953, Cheshire farmer Herbert Barlow encountered such an entity. The farmer had lost 53 pigs in a fortnight and, a newspaper claimed, five local veterinary surgeons examined the carcasses but were unable to find a reason for this sudden mass death. Two days after the loss of his last pig, Barlow saw in his yard “a large black cloud about seven feet [2m] in height, shapeless except for two prongs sticking out at the back”.
A few days later his wife also saw the cloudlike thing moving about in the yard. But it did not stay there. One night, Barlow found the cloud in their kitchen. Determined to take a closer look he brushed past the cloud to switch on the light. But then the two prongs touched him on the throat. “They felt solid, like blunt sticks,” he later claimed. When he switched on the light, the cloud had gone. Two days later he saw it again. He was letting two dogs out of a shed when they rushed past him, barking frantically. Turning, he