Annie lost her children in a fire on the north side of Carmi, Illinois quite some time ago. Ever since she wandered the dark alleys at night, looking for her lost children. She wore black, still in mourning, her face beyond pale and ghastly blue in the moonlight. Sometimes you could hear her shuffling along, her feet kicking through the gravel. Other times she was said to hide in the shadows, waiting for a child to come by, whereupon she would rush out, clawing and grasping at the unfortunate child, screeching “my children, my children.”
Some said that if you found yourself in her clutches, she would drag you into her house, where unknown horrors awaited. Others said the walls of her house were lined with a ghastly wallpaper, made from the skin of the children who had wandered too close.
I first heard of Black Annie from my mother, who got the tale from her grandmother and aunt. The desired effect of telling this story to a young child, was to keep them from wandering dark alleys at night. There comes the time in every little boy’s life when he earns the freedom to go out after dark. And stories like these travel with you out there, a mother’s warning when she can’t be there to keep an eye on you.
And then there was also the thrill of just being scared out of your britches. My mother tells of trying to go to sleep at night as a little girl, with her aunt and grandmother sharing a bed across the room, the two of them happily chatting away about Black Annie, knowing full well the effect they were having.
The stories then spread among the little children, growing wilder as they did. Like the crazy man who lived in the old, derelict, weather-beaten two story house down the street. The man no one ever saw, just a single, bare light bulb illuminated through the window at night, occasionally casting his shadow as he moved around inside.
One day after school, we were talking about whether the stories about the man were true. One of my friends dared me to go up and knock on the door. I’m sure there were taunts, double dares and I had no choice but to do it. It was an old fashioned door as I recall, with a large window and no curtain, but dirty enough that you could barely see through it into the darkness beyond.
I was scared shitless.
But I knocked all the same. When no one answered, my knocks grew bolder. Then the other boys joined me and soon we were all knocking wildly on the door. No one was really paying attention, till I happened to look up and saw through the window, a rather large man wearing overalls with no shirt underneath, holding a shotgun and grinning like a maniac. Within seconds we were running like the wind. The bogeyman did exist.
Or so we thought. Had we seen “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the southern gothic tale of childhood fears among other things, we might have known the story of Scout, Jem and Boo Radley – the bogeyman in the story who turns out to be not what he appeared to be.
People don’t think of the film as a horror movie. But that’s just because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, after dark, wandering the streets and going places they weren’t supposed to go. Today, a film like the 1963 terror The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, doesn’t even cause a ripple when a child watches it. These stories require the imagination of the viewer, the ability to believe that there’s something unknown in the dark, something inhuman, or perhaps no longer completely human, waiting to take you away.
In Harper Lee’s novel, or the film version of Mockingbird, Boo Radley turns out to be sweet and gentle, and not the monster he appeared to be. Like Boo, our crazy man in the house down the street turned out to be someone quite different. The house where he lived was being used as a warehouse for a neighborhood grocery store. And the man, who was mentally challenged in one form or another was allowed to live there to keep an eye on the place. By all accounts, he was a very sweet person, and very gentle.
What of Black Annie? If we thought of it, we would have realized that the stories couldn’t be true, at least with Annie as a mortal woman, since my mother had heard tales of her when she was a little girl. A few years back, after recounting the story to a friend of mine, he sent me a link to the story of Black Annis.
Black Annis, or sometimes Black Agnes, a blue-faced witch or crone, lived in a cave in the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, England. At night she would roam the countryside, looking for children to gorge upon. Some said she would skin the children and hang the skins from an oak tree which stood outside her cave. Others claimed that the cave was lined with the skins of children. Still others claimed she wore the skins around her waist. Mothers would warn their children that if they didn’t behave, Black Annis would take them away.
The earliest references to Annis date to about the fifteenth century. Others tie her to older, Gaelic and Celtic legends. And according to some, Black Annis is based on a historical figure. Agnes Scott is thought to have been a Dominican Nun, who wore a traditional black habit, ran a leper colony, and lived in a cave away from the village, as she didn’t want to spread the disease. In this leper colony were a large number of children, many of whom she nursed back to health, or at least made their lives easier. In return, the children would give her tokens of appreciation, which she would then hang on the walls of her cave. Her cave was said to be covered with these tokens.
My guess is that like most legends, the truth and legend became intertwined and now there is no way to separate the threads. And who would want to? The stories five centuries ago were as effective in scaring children into better behavior, as they were when I was a child. Which is why when my family migrated from England generations ago, one of the treasured things they obvious brought with them, were the stories, such as the one about Black Annie.
In today’s rational world, there isn’t as much room for the supernatural in a child’s life, and to me that’s sad. Children today are told to beware of flesh and blood predators, which leave little room for the imagination, and are far too real. I believe children, as well as adults, need to believe in the existence of things they can’t understand. Things which can’t be killed, which wander the dark alleys and haunt us from beyond the grave. To fear something which is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, forces us to use our imagination. When you can do that, dark alleys, abandoned houses, the nighttime sky and the full moon open the mind. And inside, you find magic.