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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Curses! We take you on a terrifying tour of 6 haunted objects, from an ancient book to an arcade game

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Pazuzu, a king of demons ruling over the demons of the wind, is seen at the University of Chicago's Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures.
Pazuzu, a king of demons ruling over the demons of the wind, is seen at the University of Chicago's Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS) Photo Gallery

Illinois likes a good curse.

You know about Wrigley Field, cursed by an angry goat owner.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the curse of Kaskaskia, a once bustling town near Missouri that was briefly the capital of Illinois. What happened was — so says an old, racist legend — a French fur trapper in the 18th century, upset that his daughter fell in love with a local Native American boy, found the boy and drowned him in the Mississippi River; as the boy was dying, he condemned Kaskaskia to be reclaimed by nature. The story is apocryphal, but Kaskaskia certainly looked doomed forever after: It suffered crop failures, flattening tornados and even an earthquake, though the final blow came when the Mississippi reversed course in the 1860s and ate at the town’s banks until it fell into the river. Kaskaskia still exists, but according to census figures, the population is 17.

Maybe you even know the curse of the (former) John Hancock Building on Michigan Avenue, hexed by George Streeter, whose boat ran aground near its land in 1886, in what we now call Streeterville. Streeter declared himself sole ruler of the area, and never light on trouble, he passed in and out of jail, for everything from selling liquor on Sundays to murder. By 84, he was reduced to selling hot dogs at a stand on the Calumet River, and, as he died, Streeter cursed his old Chicago home. That curse has been used to explain 90-story falls, spider infestations, improbably broken double-pane safety windows, the overdose of Chris Farley (who died in his apartment there), and the death of 12-year-old actress Heather O’ Rourke, whose final movie, “Poltergeist III,” was filmed in the building.

But here’s the thing: Those are cursed places.

Typically, curses are ascribed to objects. Dolls, mirrors, paintings, songs, even emails. This being Illinois, home to some of the nastiest episodes in American history, we have plenty of cursed, and haunted, objects. The stuff of the damned, so to speak. The Field Museum owns screaming mummies and floating coats — supposedly. The Chicago History Museum has a mysterious stone carved by unknown hands — and, tempting fate for a second year, curators hid 13 “haunted dolls” throughout its galleries (a scavenger hunt that runs through Nov. 5). Many a guard at the Art Institute will tell you about paintings appearing to move in the corner of their eyes, always in darker galleries.

And that’s just institutional, archival Chicago.

Ask Charlotte Walters if she has anything cursed or haunted, and she doesn’t know where to begin. She opened the Lost Eras antique shop in Rogers Park in 1969. Like other antique store proprietors, she purchases entire estates, some of which carry negative energy.

“People think of this (cursed object) thing as a joke,” she said. “It’s not a joke. We have had people return items who do not want their money back. They just didn’t want a spooky item in their homes anymore.” Recently, she bought the estate of a man who collected memorabilia of the radio drama “The Shadow.” As she and an employee were unboxing items, they found a wax carving for a Shadow ring and Walters, using an old catchphrase, joked: “The Shadow knows!” At that instant, “the lights went out, a glass flew off a shelf — we freaked. I’m afraid to touch the thing now.”

Her son, Casey Walters, runs Cora Violet Auctions with his wife Cora. “My mother is more convinced about cursed objects than I am,” he laughed. “I’m a pragmatic person, yet …”

Long story short, Casey and Cora recently bought leather boots at an antique mall in the suburbs. At home, as Cora slipped her foot into the left boot, they heard a loud crack, like a bone snapping. Cora jumped. Soon, the house filled with a horrible smell that came and went. As they began to investigate, “a pair of curtains ripped up one side, books flew off a dresser and there was a scratching sound,” Casey said. Despite being in the antique business, they rarely bring home antiques. So, Casey decided to store the boots on the second floor of Lost Eras, but when he peeked back into that storage space soon after, “the room was just a (expletive)-show mess.”

“Those boots haunt a landfill now,” he said.

The good news about curses is that, should you need to place a curse, Chicago has you covered: There are several occult stores on the North and South sides that sell oils, dolls, brimstone, even graveyard dirt — everything required for a decent hexing.

The bad news is, many curses are explainable, said David Paul Smith, a Chicago psychologist who explores the science of the paranormal as a hobby. He describes many cursed objects as benefiting from an inverse placebo effect: Invest enough negativity in an object, you fixate on bad luck. And yet, “if enough people believe an object is cursed — maybe it’s not in their heads. A metaphysical explanation is still out.”

What’s certain is that curses and hauntings, being legends, overflow with selective truths, iffy facts, hearsay and — most commonly — a general equating of bad vibes with evil. Here then are six histories of Illinois-centric objects thought by some to be cursed, haunted, best avoided or simply responsible for raising the hairs on quite a few necks.

The Curse of the South Shore Painting

Bill Stoneham was a young Chicagoan, adopted, haunted by what life might have been like with birth parents. He lived at his grandmother’s on South Shore Drive. “Which was strange,” he recalls now, at 76. “My parents slept in a Murphy bed, I slept in the closet.” At age 5, someone took a photo of him there alongside a neighborhood girl holding a doll. Later, in the 1970s, as a nascent artist in California, Stoneham sold a moody painting titled “The Hands Resist Him,” modeled on that old photo, replacing the girl with a doll and adding handprints to the door behind him. He sold it to the character actor John Marley (best known for waking up with a decapitated horse head in “The Godfather”). Within a year of selling the painting, the gallery owner who showed it had died, as did the Los Angeles Times critic who had reviewed Stoneham’s paintings.

Marley lived another decade, but eventually, when the artwork turned up on eBay in 2000, it came with a disclaimer that it was cursed and its figures moved. Online rumors went viral. Stoneham had seen his image as representing a doorway between worlds — what is and what might have been. But he had no idea what was being said about the painting until he began to get emails from people who viewed it online and associated it with childhood trauma. Soon after, he also learned he had a sister — spooky, as he doesn’t know the girl in the photo (who was not his sister, but he now thinks of her mysteriousness as a sign.) He still lives in California and gets emails from people all over the world saying his artwork unsettles them. He replies that anyone who looks at it will die — he is certain.

And for the painting itself? It was bought on eBay for $1,025 by Kim Smith, owner of the Perception Gallery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He still owns it, but doesn’t show it. “When I do, people laugh, until they see it, then they go silent, then someone says it’s creepy.” As for Smith: At 71, his heath is good and since his purchase: “Oh, I’ve had mostly good luck.”

The Mystery of Haunted Mary

One of the best places in Chicago to freak out is a store in Andersonville named Woolly Mammoth. It is a self-described “curiosity cabinet” of the unnerving, a gothic cornucopia of death masks, mummified cats, Victorian wreaths and a skull or two. Haunted Mary, a fairly standard human skull, with a bit of unexplained red paint around the eye sockets, was acquired by Woolly co-owner Adam Rust earlier this year. Its former owner, Jojo Baby, an artist and fixture of Chicago’s drag scene, died in March at 51. Rust doesn’t know the identity of Haunted Mary, but he discussed her a while back with Jojo Baby, who bought Mary at a New Orleans thrift shop and insisted often the skull was haunted.

To ward off the bad energy, Jojo Baby would leave offerings for Mary. Rust continued the practice. Mary sits under a glass dome, which visitors lift to deposit loose cigarettes, candy, tampons, even an occasional Narcan nasal spray. Not that it’s helped: Soon after installing the skull, security cameras showed a box of photos “jumping off a shelf and scattering” in the middle of the night, Rust said. Then a customer sent him an email saying that after she visited, something followed her home, and ever since, she’s dreamed about looming taxidermy. Though at Woolly, looming taxidermy is their thing.

The Demon Trapping Bowls of Hyde Park

As you know, catching a demon gets confusing. There are good demons and bad demons, and who’s got time to sort them out? For instance, at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures at University of Chicago (formerly the Oriental Institute), there are Neo-Assyrian figures of monsters used during the first millennium to ward off demons. Among those figures is Pazuzu, a lean winged serpent thingy infamously misused by the filmmakers of “The Exorcist.” In the original movie, an amulet of Pazuzu summons forth a nasty Pazuzu. In ancient cultures, Pazuzu was actually a protection against evil.

“They got it all wrong,” said Kiersten Neumann, curator of the museum.

But since a good museum covers its bases, ISAC also has demon trapping bowls, several of which likely holds a demon or two, assuming they worked. And there’s evidence they did. Demon trapping bowls were made of clay, found mostly in Southern Iraq and used from the 6th to 8th century. ISAC has a dozen, and written inside each of them are incantations, in Aramaic, Syriac and Mandaean. Sometimes the language is illegible, possibly because the writer was illiterate, Neumann said, “or because the text was intended to be read only by demons.” At the bottom of each bowl is a drawing of a demon. Bowls were placed in doorways, courtyards and beneath homes. Now the creepy part: The bowls in Hyde Park were discovered buried upside down, suggesting their owners did trap something, flipping the bowls to contain their demons. At the museum, though, the bowls are shown upright. Sounds like trouble waiting to happen.

The Curse of Evil Otto

Evil Otto is the bouncing, indestructible smiley face that appears in the old arcade game Berzerk whenever a player takes too long to clear a wave of robots. The game was created by the late Chicago designer Alan McNeil for Stern Electronics and released in 1980. It was a hit during the brief, intense video game boom that built neighborhood arcades across the country, including Friar Tuck’s Game Room in Calumet City, a place so friendly it had a Robin Hood theme, offered free doughnuts to parents and sat in a suburb with a cute landmark: water towers painted with huge smiley faces, just like Otto.

According to urban legend, the Berzerk in Friar Tuck’s killed three people. Not true, of course: The first death, as the story goes, came after a 19-year-old entered his initials into the game — his high score being a Satanic 16,660 — then dropped dead. That never happened. But this did in 1982: An 18-year-old from South Holland was playing Friar Tuck’s Berzerk well enough to enter his initials, then collapsed in the arcade and died. According to a Tribune report at the time, a coroner found scarring on the boy’s heart tissue, and despite no prior heart problems, it was decided any strenuous action might been the catalyst. Then this happened in 1988: a 17-year-old was stabbed to death at Friar Tuck’s by a 16-year-old. More apocryphal is the rest of the legend: Supposedly, the fight erupted after the older boy inserted a quarter left on a machine by the 16-year-old.

That game? Berzerk. As for the machine itself, Friar Tuck owner Tom Blankley, who closed the arcade in 2003, sold off the games. He said he has no idea of its whereabouts.

The Blood Pact of Cleveland

Ryan Graveface owns the Graveface oddities museum and record shop in Bucktown. It’s an eerie place, full of music, horror videos, sideshow specimens and John Wayne Gacy artifacts. There’s also items from an unusual estate Graveface bought a couple of years ago, owned by a late member of Cleveland’s Church of Satan. Nearly 10,000 pieces, including business receipts, a coffin and a massive occult library. Many of the books, Graveface said, are handwritten, full of spells. One has a literal blood pact with Satan — “Until this, I’d never seen a non-jokey blood pact with the devil.” Graveface has a friend in Cleveland who came across the collection and started to experience a rash of bad luck; he begged Graveface to take it. Graveface found sacrificial spells and instructions for skinning horses. Since he began displaying the book with the blood pact, customers have heard whispers; when they take pictures of the book, Graveface said the images occasionally contain strange orbs of bright light. He doesn’t know much about that original owner: “It could all be innocent, but the guy was clearly up to something.” When Graveface opened the coffin, he found “bottles of blood in it, a ram’s skull and pentagrams painted on the inside. I mean, it was great!”

The Newberry’s Witch Hunting for Dummies

There is a book at the Newberry Library so ugly and hated, even church leaders of the Inquisition “considered it a bit over the top,” according to Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Newberry curator of rare books and manuscripts. The title is “Malleus Maleficarum,” though it’s colloquially known as the “Hammer of Witches.” About a 100 copies exist, but for years, throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it became the manual for how to recognize, prosecute and torture women seen as witches. It was a common bestseller, a sort of slender FAQ for witch hunting. Before “Malleus Maleficarum” was first published in 1484, witchcraft prosecutions tended to see light sentences; in the decades after it was released, an estimated 50,000 women (and some men) were executed for witchcraft.

“It’s full of invective against women and women being the lustful source of problems,” said Jill Gage, who specializes in the history of printing at Newberry. Though its origin is usually traced to a German clergyman, “there is some dispute about that authorship.” It’s also one of the first printed books, and the Newberry copy — cataloged under “legal procedure” — is a first edition, containing several strange burn marks, Karr said. “So we know it was used.” What they don’t know is how the library acquired a copy, or who owned it.

But in 1985, when it was part of a Newberry exhibition about the Inquisition, the book was found to have rotated daily in its case — including, one weekend, a full 30 degrees. The library assumed the source was the rumble from passing CTA buses or the building’s heaters. But no other books in the exhibit had stirred.

“Malleus Maleficarum” was never shown again.