Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft

Weird Musical History #9

In 1977, NASA launched the probes spacecraft Voyager 1 and 2 on a journey that will eventually have them leave our solar system far behind. They each carry a twelve-inch golden phonograph record with a message to any aliens who might in the distant future find one of the probes. The record’s cover had a diagram telling the aliens where we live, and the golden record featured classical, folk and rock music along with animal noises and greetings from earthlings in languages from around the world.

Only in the 1970s would we think the best way to get a message to extra-terrestrials was to send them a concept album.

The Sounds of Earth – NASA’s 1970s concept album for aliens

In any case, it will be around another 40,000 years before these interplanetary craft reach another solar system.[i]

However, in 1953 an even stranger attempt to contact aliens took place – World Contact Day. On this occasion, the message was sent not by spacecraft but by telepathy.

World Contact Day was the brain child of Albert K. Bender, a factory worker from Connecticut who headed one of the few large organisations that studied UFO sightings that existed at that time – the International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB).

Albert K. Bender

The reasoning behind World Contact Day was that if aliens were visiting us in flying saucers and if telepathy was a reality, then it might be possible to contact the visitors through thought alone. The collective telepathic ability of many people concentrating on the same message at the same time would surely get through to the aliens.

World Contact Day was declared as 15 March 1953. On that day at a set time (adjusted for one’s time zone), all members of the IFSB in the USA, UK, France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand were asked to close their eyes and concentrate on a message that had been previously memorised. This was the message:

Calling occupants of interplanetary craft! Calling occupants of interplanetary craft that have been observing our planet EARTH. We of IFSB wish to make contact with you. We are your friends, and would like you to make an appearance here on EARTH. Your presence before us will be welcomed with the utmost friendship. We will do all in our power to promote mutual understanding between your people and the people of EARTH. Please come in peace and help us in our EARTHLY problems. Give us some sign that you have received our message. Be responsible for creating a miracle here on our planet to wake up the ignorant ones to reality. Let us hear from you. We are your friends.

We are among you and know your every move

As the day arrived, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of flying saucer enthusiasts all over the world sat down in a quiet place and concentrated on the message. Alfred Bender did the same but the experience he described was markedly at odds with the saucer-eyed hopefulness of the recitation he had memorised.

Bender described how after lying down on his bed and concentrating on the message three times, he developed a sudden chill and intense headache and noticed an unpleasant smell of rotten eggs before seeming to lose consciousness.

He described small blue lights swimming in his brain while an odd feeling of weightlessness came over him. He opened his eyes to find himself floating above his body. It was then that the aliens made contact with a voice Bender described as being in his head. The aliens had the following discouraging message:

We have been watching you and your activities. Please be advised to discontinue delving into the mysteries of the universe. We will make an appearance if you disobey.         

The aliens, it seems, were on some special assignment and did not want to be disturbed by humans. ‘We are among you and know your every move,’ they told Bender ominously.

When Bender was aware of being back on his bed, his room was filled with a yellow mist and a shadowy figure stood by his bed before everything melted away.[ii]

Bender’s out of body experience sounds very like an episode of sleep paralysis, a disorder in which the sleeper awakens to find him or herself feeling paralysed or floating, often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations in a kind of waking nightmare.

Perhaps Bender had a persecution complex, as aliens were not the only ones keeping watch on him. As well as World Contact Day, Alfred Bender was also responsible for an iconic element of UFO folklore – the Men in Black. Bender claimed to have been visited by three sinister, darkly clad agents who warned him away from his study of flying saucers. This was the first encounter with these notorious Men in Black, who according to UFO legend, threaten and intimidate UFO witnesses to keep quiet about what they have seen or what they know.[iii]

Bender’s sketch of a Man in Black

World Contact Day may not have succeeded in reaching aliens (unless you believe Bender’s ufological adventures), but it did inspire a song that was surely the Carpenter’s weirdest moment – ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognised Anthem of World Contact Day)’.

Klaatu Barada Nikto

For me, though, this song entered my life as a teenager in the early 1980s. Browsing second hand records on a market stall in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire one afternoon, I was struck by the gloriously sunny cover of an album by a mysterious band called Klaatu. Some of the song titles appealed to my teenage mind – ‘Anus of Uranus’, ‘Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III’ and most of all ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)’.

Klaatu’s 1977 debut featuring ‘Calling Occupants…’

The album was priced at 50p, but I wasn’t going to part with my money that easily. I asked the market stall holder if he’d play a bit on his little turntable. He was curious himself to see what the band sounded like and put on side one track one: ‘Calling Occupants of interplanetary Craft’.

We looked at each other in bemusement as a variety of birdsong came floating from the speaker. After several more seconds of birdsong, the stall holder picked up the stylus and moved it further into the track. Still birds singing. He moved the stylus again. Still birds. ‘I don’t believe this!’ he gasped before moving the needle a final time. And then the song started:

In your mind you have capacity you know

To telepath messages through the vast unknown…

A song about sending telepathic messages to aliens was enough to convince me. I coughed up my 50p and fell in love with the album and the band.

The band Klaatu were something of an enigma. They took their name from the alien in the 1951 science fiction movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, (that’s Tom Cruise in the 2008 remake). Their album sleeve has no band photo, no named credits and no indication of the identity of the band.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This led to some intense press speculation that the band were actually the Beatles reformed under a  pseudonym and numerous spurious ‘clues’ were found on the album (and various solo Beatle albums) that were supposed to confirm this. The record label, Capitol, seemed in no hurry to scotch the rumours.[iv]

However, while some songs have a distinct anglophile feel and there are some hints of 60s psychedelia, the singers are clearly no scousers. They were in fact Canadian.

As the Beatle rumours went global, Klaatu were actually in London recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. They were working on their second record Hope, a concept album about an alien civilization that destroyed itself leaving as its only survivor a cosmic lighthouse keeper forever keeping watch over his ruined world. But that’s another story.

Fellow Canadian Richard Carpenter heard Klaatu’s debut album and decided to record a cover version of ‘Calling Occupants’, utilising 125 musicians and making it their biggest (and strangest) recording. The success of the movie Star Wars made this song seem perfect for a single, and though it performed modestly in the US, it was a top ten hit in the UK in 1977. ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognised Anthem of World Contact Day)’ was at the time the longest title of a hit single.[v]

In the movie that gave the band Klaatu its name, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the character Klaatu (an alien peace emissary) uses the pseudonym Carpenter. I assume that this pseudonym is actually a nod to Jesus Christ the Carpenter rather than Richard or Karen Carpenter. Still, it’s a pleasing synchronicity.

The lyrics of ‘Calling Occupants’, written by two members of Klaatu, Terry Draper and John Woloschuk, were inspired by Alfred Bender’s recitation and invite us send a telepathic message on ‘World Contact Day’ – out to aliens in their spaceships asking them to make contact with Earth and save us from destroying ourselves.

The album’s still one of my favourites and certainly the best 50p I ever spent.


The sixtieth anniversary of World Contact Day in 2013 led to a week of alien and UFO related activities as well as another telepathic attempt to call those occupants of interplanetary craft.[vi]

And now as we approach the seventieth anniversary, we need those interstellar policemen more than ever.

If you want to telepath along on 15 March, the 2013 version of the recitation is below.

Happy World Contact Day!


[ii] Albert K. Bender ‘By mental telepathy’, in Jay David, The Flying Saucer Reader (1967) The New American Library New York

[iii] James W. Moseley and Karl T. Pflock, Shockingly Close to the Truth Prometheus Books Amherst 2002




Iranian School Girl Poisoning: Mass Hysteria?

Since November 2022, over one thousand students, mostly girls, have reportedly been victims of poison attacks in Iran. The girls in schools across several cities have suffered symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, breathing problems, weakness, fatigue and paralysis. Often the students noticed a strange smell – variously described as tangerines, rotten fish, peppermint, bleach or burning plastic – before the onset of the symptoms.

One unnamed parent described what happened to her daughter to the BBC:

My daughter and two of her friends say they heard something like an explosion and immediately afterwards an unpleasant smell – something like burned plastic filled the air. They were asked to leave the class and go into the yard. Many of the students started collapsing in the yard.[i]

The speculation being reported in western media is that the schoolgirls are being poisoned in revenge for their participation in the protests sparked by the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody after she had been arrested for supposedly violating Islamic dress codes. The apparent attacks are also being blamed on religious fundamentalists opposed to the government allowing girls the right to an education.

A spokesman for the Iranian Teachers Trade Association tweeted that ‘the poisoning of students at girls’ schools, which have been confirmed as deliberate acts, was neither arbitrary nor accidental.’ Ned Price, US Department of State spokesman, described the events as ‘very disturbing’ and ‘an abhorrent act’.[ii] Several other Iranian human rights activists have claimed that the poisonings were deliberate.

The deputy education minister Younes Panahi stated on Sunday 26 February that the poisonings were ‘intentional’, adding it was ‘found that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed.’ To confuse matters, he later stated he had been misquoted in saying the poisonings were intentional.

There is similar confusion over the death of an 11-year-old girl Fatemah Rezai from Qom where the first such attacks took place in November 2022. Social media have claimed that she was killed in a poison attack, though state media deny this, a version of events supported by the girl’s father. Many activists are sceptical of the government denial and believe the parent has been forced to say what he said.[iii]

Mass Hysteria

However, several aspects of this narrative don’t make sense. For one thing, there is wide variety in the descriptions of the smells the supposed poisons produced, and likewise in the range of symptoms. Furthermore, if the government wanted to stop girl’s attending school they could simply close them rather than relying on random hit and miss poisonings. And investigations have found no evidence of toxins.[iv]

It seems far more likely that these events are cases of mass hysteria. Mass hysteria (or mass psychogenic illness, to give it the more politically correct name) occurs when emotional conflict or anxiety lead to the simultaneous development of physical or mental conditions in a group of people when there is no organic cause. It’s socially contagious and spreads easily between individuals.[v]

The civil unrest and draconian government response in Iran created an environment of anxiety which is often the condition in which hysterical outbreaks occur. On top of this, like much of the world, Iranian people endured the stress and psychological damage caused by covid policies and the fear of contamination – both by the virus and by the vaccine – are also part of the background to this outbreak of hysteria in young Iranian women.  

The first cases of Covid in Iran in 2020 were in the city of Qom – the same city where the first gas poisonings were reported.[vi] Ironically, with many parents calling for classes to be online, Iran’s girls may soon find themselves back in a lockdown.[vii]

Typically, in these outbreaks an unusual odour is noticed, then symptoms rapidly spread from person to person and then to nearby communities. Rumours spread of poison gas.

Well-meaning activists and campaigners (‘moral entrepreneurs’ in sociology speak) often play a key role in sharing and escalating these episodes. Media repeat and exaggerate the reports further spreading the hysteria.

The Arjenyattah Epidemic

A similar event known as the Arjenyattah Epidemic (named after some of the villages involved) took place on the Israeli occupied West Bank in the spring of 1983. A teenage girl in the village of Arrabah noticed a smell of rotten eggs in class on the 23 March and soon developed symptoms including breathing problems, dizziness, headaches and blurred vision. Soon after, fifteen of her classmates developed similar symptoms. The following day, 61 students and five adults were affected.

Newspapers speculated about poisoned gas being the cause and exaggerated the symptoms (replacing blurred vision with blindness, for example), and more cases emerged in nearby villages. It was suspected that Israeli forces were responsible for the gas attack. Some press reports referred to the events as an attempted genocide.

Tests on water, soil and air found no traces of poison and as with the Iranian girls, the victims recovered quickly. Israeli and US psychologists concluded that the events were psychological in nature. The smell that started the episode was identified as coming from the school toilet with the girls in the rooms nearest the toilet most affected.[viii]

Women and girls are more likely to suffer from these epidemics of hysteria than men, which is why these outbreaks often occur in girls’ schools. There’s a long history of similar outbreaks, though none of the media reports about the Iranian ‘poisonings’ mention the possibility of mass hysteria, preferring to use the hysteria as an excuse to demonise Iran.

But these mass panics are a normal human response to stress and anxiety – they’ve always been with us and always will. We can’t prevent them because they are part of human nature.

However, when it comes to mass hysteria, it is far wiser to recognise it than to weaponize it. Because one day the person seized by the hysteria could be you.





[v] Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Historical Epidemics and Modern Cultures, (Picador: New York, 1997), p.22



[viii] Robert E. Bartholomew and Peter Hassall, A Colourful History of Popular Delusions, Prometheus: Lanham, 2015) pp.185-186

Chinese Balloons Over Hebden!

In the summer of 2008 the skies over the Calder Valley were invaded by mysterious lights, seen by witnesses from Mytholmroyd to Todmorden. MYSTERY LIGHTS FUEL UFO SPECULATION was the headline in the Hebden Bridge Times of 21 August 2008. All the sightings were remarkably similar.

In Todmorden on 26 July, Gemma Kipping’s guests had just left her house when they phoned her to say that ‘aliens’ were hovering above her roof. These ‘aliens’ were yellow glowing balls that moved slowly and silently through the night sky. Many others contacted local newspapers to say that they had seen similar objects. According to Chris Granger, an ex-RAF technician, the lights could not have been aircraft:

They moved in a very erratic manner and did not display the flight characteristics of a conventional aircraft. Nor did they display the normal lighting array of a conventional aircraft – flashing white strobe and red and green navigation lights.[i]

The mystery seems to have been solved by two girls out walking their dogs. Amy Cheetham and Louise Neil found the spent remains of Chinese lanterns on their walk and suggested that these might have been behind the sightings.[ii] This is certainly plausible: Chinese lanterns glow orange or yellow, appear as eerie lights in the sky and change direction unpredictably as they are buffeted by air currents.

In fact, the Sun newspaper told its readers of an ‘alien invasion’ several times in June 2008, many of the descriptions and photos being very similar to the ones described in the Calder Valley. It appears that the trend for letting off Chinese lanterns at wedding receptions and birthday parties triggered a nationwide UFO flap. The significance of these lanterns should not be underestimated: UFO authority Jenny Randles, who fielded reports of UFOs for Jodrell Bank Science Centre, gave the following breakdown. In 2007, 15% of UFO sightings she investigated were likely to have been Chinese lanterns. By 2008, this had risen to 50% of sightings. By November of 2009 it was a phenomenal 90% of UFO sightings that were suspected of being caused by lanterns.[iii]

History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, and hot air always rises…

[i] Hebden Bridge Times 21 August 2008

[ii] Halifax Evening Courier 1 September 2008

[iii] Fortean Times 255 and 256

Close Encounters of the Third World War Kind

Suddenly everyone’s talking about UFOs again. After President Biden ordered the military to shoot down a supposed Chinese spy balloon, several more unidentified flying objects were also tracked and destroyed over North America, with senior military officer General Glen VanHerck saying they were not ruling out the possibility of extra-terrestrial involvement.[i]

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the USA’s political and military elite really believes these flying objects were piloted by aliens from another world. Indeed, in a statement that made Trump look eloquent, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated that there was ‘no indication of aliens or extra-terrestrial activity ’ in the skies over the USA and ‘Canadia’.[ii]

The Chinese balloon was clearly of this earth, whether it was a surveillance craft or a weather balloon blown off course. The other objects over North America were only discovered because radar sensitivity was purposely turned up, though there was not much detail about these at the time of writing. A recent New York Times piece reported that official sources said the objects were unlikely to be surveillance devices.[iii]

But why all this talk of UFOs?

Well one possibility is that it generates headlines and serves as a distraction – it’s a way to bury bad news. And what kind of news is being buried by the UFO hysteria?

One obvious candidate is the report by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh which alleges what many long suspected – the USA was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream 2 gas pipelines, constructed to supply Germany with Russian gas. Hersh details how, with the collusion of Norway (whose energy exports stand to gain considerably by this attack) and undercover of a NATO military exercise, divers planted mines on the pipes that were later remotely detonated.[iv] If true and it certainly seems credible – it was an audacious attack on Germany, its energy security and the standard of living of its population. It’s arguably an act of war.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

It’s also likely that the balloon and other flying objects will be used as justification for increased military spending and more overseas intervention.[v] We must be protected against the Russians. Or is it the Chinese now? Oh yes, it’s the aliens.

If you look at the history of UFO sightings over the last century or so, you find they tend to come in waves – often called flaps.

There were phantom airship scares in Britain in 1909, where strange zeppelin-like flying objects were seen in various parts of the country. In 1947, US pilot Kenneth Arnold described seeing some flying objects moving like a saucer skipping over water kickstarting the flying saucer era that followed. The tense period of the cold war featured several UFO flaps. Ominously, it seems many UFO flaps occur at times of great tension such as just after – or shortly before – military conflicts.

Perhaps, as psychologist Robert Bartholomew has predicted, the balloon and other objects being shot out of American skies will lead to a new UFO flap.[vi] Anxious times mean many people are hyper vigilant to threat, and fallible human perception and psychology mean that as more and more people scan the skies looking for anomalous objects, they are bound to see things they wouldn’t normally notice – whether they’re there or not.

But with our eyes on the skies, what are we missing under our noses?





[v] See here for some examples:


The Dublin Blackberry Poisoner

In the autumn of 1989 it was feared that a maniac poisoner was at large in Dublin, coating blackberries with the deadly herbicide Paraquat. Anyone, especially children, could be in danger from this lethal toxin as they went blackberrying. The press called him the ‘Paraquat Lunatic’ or the ‘Poison Maniac’ and it led to understandable questions about the kind of world we are living in where even innocent children picking blackberries are in danger of being murdered by a malevolent psychopath.[i]

It started on the 25 November when an unnamed woman saw a man behaving mysteriously by some blackberry bushes. She told the Sunday World:

I was going to feed a couple of calves in the morning when I saw him at the bushes. When I questioned him, I knew he was up to no good and I hit him with my bucket. He dropped the spray and ran off.[ii]

The man was described as in his early twenties with long blond hair. He was wearing faded denim jeans and rode a distinctive green motorbike with yellow mudguards and no numberplates.[iii]

Don’t take chances – Don’t pick blackberries

It’s not clear if the unnamed bucket-wielding woman told the police or if someone she informed contacted them, but they soon closed a mile long stretch of Moyne Road in Balgriffin, north Dublin county. An emergency meeting was called by Dublin’s chief medical officer Dr Brendon O’Donnell to decide what must be done – to cut down all the blackberry bushes in the area or simply burn them. Samples of the berries were taken and sent for analysis.[iv]

Of course, if a ‘Paraquat Lunatic’ is on the loose, it’s reasonable to assume that he may have poisoned other blackberry bushes. This was the conclusion the Gardai came to, issuing a warning to the public: ‘Don’t take chance. Don’t pick blackberries.’[v]

A Sick Mind

The press, the police and the public all speculated as to who the Poison Maniac was, why he had done what he had done and whether he was going to strike again. One police spokesman said:

It’s reasonable to assume he’s from the area and it’s surprising no one has contacted us with any information about his identity.[vi]

This seems a fair point. A long-haired blond man on a green motorbike with yellow mudguards is pretty distinctive and you would think this would have rung some bells for someone.

Another police spokesperson speculated on the poisoner’s motives and sanity:

This has all the hallmarks of a sick mind. There appears to be no definite target. Anyone could have suffered a terrible fate. But the person responsible obviously needs help. Our main worry is that he may strike again.[vii]

The police admitted they were baffled by the crime.

In order to gain an insight into the thinking of the Mad Motorcyclist, the Sunday World asked a forensic psychiatrist to profile the mind of someone who would carry out such a heinous act. Dr Art O’Conner’s reply was honest, if unhelpful and probably not what the tabloid wanted to hear:

As there are not many cases of this kind, it is impossible to profile the mind of the person involved. Anyway, over the years the practice of profiling an offender, which was very popular in the sixties, has been found to be quite ineffective and at times misleading.[viii]

Others viewed the poisoner not as mad but as evil. In an opinion piece for the Derryman journalist and musician Mickey MacConnell lamented the state of his country:

Things have come to a pretty pass in this country when you cannot pick and eat a blackberry out of the hedge without running the risk of being poisoned by some lunatic running amok with Paraquat. I wonder if the man who poisoned the berry bushes at Moyne Road, Baldoyle, in North County Dublin is really a lunatic or just another manifestation of the face of evil that is becoming more and more visible nowadays.[ix]

A Phantom Attacker?

The Dublin Blackberry Poisoner was never caught, nor did he strike again. However, a couple of points make me suspicious about this story. Firstly, when a crime makes little sense and leaves the police baffled as this did, it’s worth considering it in a more sceptical light. After all, poisoning a blackberry bush in order to harm innocent children (who would be the most likely to eat of the fruit) just seems implausible. Secondly, the results of the analysis of the blackberry bush were never published, which is strange. Even if the results came back negative, surely that information  would still be worth releasing. Thirdly, although the description of the young poisoner (jeans and long blond hair) is fairly generic, a green motorbike with yellow mudguards should be easily recognisable, yet the clue led to nothing. And finally, who was the nameless bucket wielding cow girl whose story kicked off the scare?

Although I can’t be sure, after studying many similar cases, this looks to me to have the hallmarks of a hoax, most likely by the anonymous source of the story. Perhaps that’s why the woman refused to be named, fearing that her story had got out of hand.

The Dublin Blackberry Poisoner may in fact be a Phantom Attacker. Often in times of anxiety people imagine or make up stories of malevolent attackers lurking in the shadows waiting to harm innocent people. Examples include the Halifax Slasher (my personal favourite – see my Weird Calderdale for the amazing full story), the Delhi Monkey Man, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and the recent panic over imaginary needle and drink spiking attacks on young women in nightclubs.

A Bizarre Japanese Serial Killer

However, these Phantom Attacker panics often reflect real anxieties and the Dublin episode is no exception. There were real – and often justified – fears about the use of some chemicals in agriculture, and Paraquat was at the heart of this fear. Perhaps this is understandable as the herbicide was used in suicides and murders, as well as being the weapon of choice of a bizarre Japanese serial killer.

In 1985, an all too real maniac added Paraquat to soft drinks and left them on top of or inside Japanese vending machines. The drink, called Oronamin C, had a buy one get one free offer so many people thought the extra drinks found on the machine or in the slots were part of the promotion. Twelve people died from Paraquat poisoning and many more suffered serious effects. The killings seemed indiscriminate and motiveless. Police had no clue. The poisonings stopped as suddenly as they started and no one was ever caught.[x]

Oronamin C – Poisoned by a mystery Japanese serial killer

However, shocking events like this may have been in people’s minds as the story of the Dublin Blackberry Poisoner spread making it all the more believable.

Witches’ Spit and Devil Piss

Interestingly the Dublin Blackberry poisoning scare also reflected long lost folklore related to the fruit. It used to be widely believed in England and Ireland that blackberries should not be eaten after Michaelmas Day (30 September) – coincidentally, around the time the supposed Dublin poisoning happened. This is because the berries are contaminated by witches or goblins spitting on them after this date, so the belief goes, though why they would do this or how they managed to spit on every blackberry in the British Isles in one day is anyone’s guess. As far as the Devil goes, there’s a clearer motive. Saint Michaelmas Day celebrates Saint Michael who did battle with Lucifer and cast him from heaven, where legend has it he landed in a blackberry bush. Ever since that day, Old Nick curses, spits or pisses on your blackberries after the end of September…[xi]

I’d give them a rinse if I were you…


Paraquat was banned for use in the UK in 2007 due to its danger and a possible link with Parkinson’s Disease. Controversially that hasn’t stopped British companies making the product for export to other countries…[xii]

[i] Mick MacConnel ‘Paraquat lunatic hits blackberries’, Kerryman, 29 September 1989, p.28; Marese McDonagan, ‘Gardai hunt poison maniac’, Evening Herald, 25 November 1989, p.2

[ii] Pauline Cronin, ‘Poison Maniac still at large’, Sunday World, 22 October 1989, p.6

[iii] ‘Hunt for Poison Man’, Evening Herald, 26 September 1989, p.6; Pauline Cronin, ‘Poison Maniac still at large’, Sunday World, 22 October 1989, p.6

[iv] Marese McDonagn ‘Gardai hunt poison maniac’, Evening Herald, 25 September 1989, p.2

[v] ‘Hunt for Poison Man’, Evening Herald, 26 September 1989, p.6

[vi] ‘Hunt for Poison Man’, Evening Herald, 26 September1989, p.6

[vii] ‘Poisoner puzzles Gardai’, Sunday World, 1 October 1989, p.3

[viii] Pauline Cronin, ‘Poison Maniac still at large’, Sunday World, 22 October 1989, p.6

[ix] Mick MacConnell, ‘Paraquat lunatic hits blackberries’, Kerryman, 29 September, 1989 p.28

[x] Martina Petovka, ‘The vending machine murders’, Medium, 24 September 2020, available at:

[xi] Roy Vickery, Garlands Conquers and Mother Die: British and Irish Plant-Lore (Bloomsbury Academic, 2010) p.18


Music for Plants Weird Musical History #8

I recently came across an odd vinyl album on Hebden Bridge flea market called Music for Plants by the Baroque Bouquet (pictured above). The record’s back sleeve claims that playing it to your plants will keep your plants happy and healthy. What kind of music do plants like? Well, that was worth coughing up my pound and buying the LP.

Plants’ musical tastes are helpfully clarified by the album’s sleeve notes. Apparently, a number of experimental chambers were created in which plants were played different kinds of music with all other conditions being kept equal, and the results were clear.

Plants love Bach and classical Indian sitar music and grow better when exposed to it. On the other hand, plants can’t stand acid rock or percussive music.

If everything you grow tends to wither and die, it’s probably all that loud acid rock you’re playing. Instead try Bach, Ravi Shankar or this album of light baroque music with some gurgling synth flourishes. ‘We know,’ the sleeve notes tell us, ‘our music will stimulate a favourable response within your growing plants.’

Roots Music

Anyway, the record inspired me to survey the academic literature to see if there was any more recent research on the effects of music on plants, and there’s rather a lot. Most of the studies detailed experiments similar to the one described on the album’s back sleeve. Researchers played different genres of music to plants over a certain period of time then compared these plants’ growth rates, number of shoots, size of flowers and various other metrics with a control sample of the same plants grown in silence.

I’ve had a look at seventeen of those studies so you don’t have to. The plants and flowers used in the studies included peppers, lettuce, wheat, marigolds, orchids, broccoli, spinach, roses and several others.[i]

The types of music used in the experiments varied, but plants showed positive results when exposed to Indian sitar music, western classical music, Indonesian gamelan and sung verses from the Koran. These results are similar in a number of studies.

Oddly, the studies that found that plants grow best when exposed to Indian (and western classical) music were all conducted in India. The studies showing that plants grow best when exposed to Indonesian gamelan music were conducted in…. you guessed it. And studies showing plants responded best to recordings of recitals from the Koran were conducted in Islamic countries. In fact, much of the research in this area seems to be from India and Indonesia.

Rhythm and Greens

But when it comes to music that has a negative effect on plants, six of the research papers came to the same conclusion – plants hate rock music. In two papers, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC were named and shamed for their deleterious effect.

The paper about AC/DC deserves special attention, though, as it hints at a possible explanation for why plants don’t rock n’ roll. The study by Barton et al was brilliantly titled ‘Testing the AC/DC hypothesis: Rock and roll is noise pollution and weakens a trophic cascade’ and was published in 2018 in the journal Ecology and Evolution. The authors tested AC/DC’s ‘hypothesis’ that ‘Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ by exposing an ecosystem consisting of soybean plants, the aphids that fed on the plants and the beetles that fed on the aphids to various sources of urban noise pollution including AC/DC’s hit song of the same name.[ii]

The results showed that when exposed to rock music the beetles became less effective predators, meaning the aphid population grew and the plant suffered resulting in reduced biomass. The authors don’t know why AC/DC’s music had such an effect, but they consider the hypothesis ‘Rock n’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution’ to have been refuted. Rock ‘n’ roll, it seems, is noise pollution.

So what explains plants’ apparent dislike for rock? Perhaps the vibrations of the beat, the throbbing bass or the high pitched screams of the lead guitar impact the plants in some way. Perhaps it’s all of the above scaring away the predators that eat the pests that eat the plants.

And what about plants’ penchant for the music of the country where the experiments were conducted? Is this down to methodological flaws and experimenter bias, or are plants just rather conservative in their taste?

Who knows. As for my LP of plant music, I’m hoping it grows on me.

[i] Sorry, there’s no way I’m going to reference all seventeen of those studies. Stick ‘music for plants’ or something into Google Scholar and you’ll find them if you’re that desperate!

[ii] Brandon T. Barton ‘Testing the AC/DC hypothesis: Rock and roll is noise pollution and weakens a trophic cascade’, Ecology and Evolution, 8(15) pp.7649-7656.

Uri Geller ~ The Album

Weird Musical History #7

In the early 1970s a young Israeli self-proclaimed psychic called Uri Geller made his first appearances in Britain, gaining tabloid headlines and demonstrating his supposedly supernatural powers on TV. The superpower that Geller became best known for was the rather prosaic one of bending spoons with the power of his mind, simply by gently stroking the metal. The amazing ability to bend cutlery with one’s psychic power was dubbed ‘The Geller Effect’.

My family and I watched one such television demonstration and saw Uri stroke a spoon gently before it began to wobble and bend before our eyes. He told his TV audience to try it for themselves. Like many across the country, I did and to my parents’ amazement, I found that I too had the ability to bend spoons with the power of my mind.

I accomplished this feat in the same way that Geller did. I waited until no one was looking and bent the spoon by force then wobbled it in my hand to make it look like it had turned to jelly, pressuring it with my thumb for a bit of extra bend.

Geller’s fame was such that he gained the attention of several high profile scientists who tested and supposedly validated his powers in their laboratories. Of course, clever physicists would never be outwitted by cheap conjuring tricks… would they?

Anyway, by 1975 the world was ready for Uri Geller – the album. I listened to it so that you don’t have to.

A cross between Donovan and Charles Manson

The music on the LP is composed by two of Geller’s friends. One is Byron Janis, a world-celebrated American pianist, most known for his performances of Chopin. Janis believed Geller had helped him contact the spirit of Chopin one time when Geller, Janis and some friends were holding Chopin’s death mask – a plaster cast made from the dead composer himself. As they held it, Janis claims, tears started trickling from its eyes. Janis tasted the tears and they were salty. They also saw bubbles surface on the mask’s mouth.[i]

If you’re wondering what made poor old Chopin drool and weep, it could well have been this album.

The second composer is Del Newman who was arranger to stars like Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Paul Simon, Elton John, Donovan and many others. Uri himself provides the lyrics.

Uri doesn’t sing though. He whispers his new agey cosmic verse as if he’s trying to hypnotise you. The first track has Uri exhort us to ‘Come on and Love’ sounding creepily like a cross between Donovan and Charles Manson, though this is possibly being unfair to both those parties.

As pianos and strings swell, Uri intones that he is ‘Floating in deeeeep, velvet, black spaaaaccceeee….’

The best track is the ‘The Day’ which is the cold war apocalyptic closer to side one. It’s Geller’s Book of Revelations and against a backdrop of ominous spacey noises and gurgling 70s synths he warns us about the day that…

The mist became so heavy sunken

Sunk so deep above

The colours dropped to nothing burnt

Again and sown the fields

The fields that grew these colours yellow…

In one song (‘The Lonely Man’) Uri ignores his producer’s injunction not to sing and he tunelessly warbles a few phrases, which may not make your spoons bend, but will make your toes curl.

It’s only when we get to the final track on side two that we get what we’ve been waiting for – how to bend stuff with your mind. ‘Inner cosmos outer space, they have no ending’, Uri explains before instructing us to pick up something, ‘…maybe a fork, a spoon or a key’. Hold the thing in your hand, he tells us, as syrupy strings weep and groan, while repeating in your mind:

‘Bend….. Beeeennnnddddd….’

Unfortunately, he missed a key part of the instructions – cheat!


Speaking of cheating, the inside of the gatefold sleeve has a photo of Geller with Professor John Taylor, a well-known physicist of King’s College, London. Above the photo is a letter from Dr Taylor describing how he has tested Geller’s metal bending abilities in his university laboratory and how ‘the Geller Effect’ is ‘clearly not brought about by fraud’. He thinks Uri’s magic powers are such a challenge to orthodoxy that it could ‘destroy’ the scientific establishment.

Professor John Taylor (left) and Uri Geller (from the inside gatefold)

In fact, Professor Taylor studied 38 psychic metal benders (mostly children) in his lab. He noted one curious aspect of the phenomenon that he dubbed ‘the shyness effect’. For some mysterious reason the bending of the metal only seemed to occur when the ‘psychics’ were not being observed. Funny that.

Another believer, Harry Collins, a sociologist from the University of Bath, carried out a similar experiment but observed the test subjects through a one-way mirror.[ii] Guess what.

They cheated.

[i] Byron Janis, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal (Wiley Publishing: New Jersey, 2010) pp.181-183

[ii] David Marks, The Psychology of the Psychic (Prometheus: New York, 2000) pp.195-196

The Paris Vampire – The Vampires That Time Forgot #2

You may have heard of the Highgate Vampire said to have haunted Highgate Cemetery in London in the 1960s and 70s. You may also have heard of the Kirklees Vampire which was supposed to have infested Robin Hood’s grave, near Brighouse in West Yorkshire.

However, I recently stumbled upon another ‘real’ vampire case that seems to be virtually unknown: The Parisian Vampire.

The supposedly true story comes from a book called Evenings with Prince Cambaceres written by Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon in 1837.[i] The book purports to be a ‘faithful record’ of conversations the Baron had with the prince of the title and with Napoléon Bonaparte himself. The remarkable story of the Paris Vampire is told by the Duke of Otranto, Joseph Fouche, the minister of police, and was widely reported in the press.[ii]


A strange phantasmagorical story

In the very early nineteenth century a mysterious man called Rafin, described as being good-looking and well-dressed, though with a fierce countenance, had taken an apartment at the Hotel Pepin on Rue Saint-Eloi. For some reason he had attracted the attention of the police, though we are not told why. In any case, the police were suspicious enough to put a watch on the hotel and follow Rafin whenever he went out.

During the day Rafin would go out and spend time with various Paris families, though his evening behaviour was much stranger. Every night at exactly 11pm police agents would follow him to the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery where they would lose track of him. Then at 4am Rafin would appear again, and the agents would follow him back to his hotel. This happened every single evening, and no matter what the agents did, Rafin would always disappear when he got to the cemetery, only to reappear a few hours later.

Pere-Lachaise Cemetery – Haunt of the Paris Vampire

Eventually, it was decided to arrest Rafin on his way to the cemetery. However, when two officers attempted to detain him, Rafin flattened them with blows that felt like they came from an iron bar. Rafin was surrounded and searched but had nothing incriminating on him and was released. Although police officers tailed him, he once again disappeared on entering the cemetery.

He was stopped on his way back from the cemetery some time later and the officers were overpowered by a foul odour that emanated from every part of his body.

Assassin and Monster

The people that Rafin visited during the day did not fare well. A young woman who worked as a milliner had been healthy until Rafin started paying her visits, when she became pale and ill. The same thing happened to a stout widow who soon became pale and emaciated after Rafin’s attentions.

And then a young man turned up at the hotel and asked for Rafin. When informed that Rafin was out, the young man sat and waited for his return. After an hour or so, Rafin entered the hotel, at which point the young man leapt on him, grabbing his collar and calling him an assassin and a monster.

As they wrestled, the young man drew out a knife and stabbed Rafin in the right side. Rafin moaned and stopped moving. The young man fled before the police arrived, leaving his knife sticking out of Rafin’s side.

The surgeon arrived and pronounced Rafin dead. When they undressed him, however, it was seen that instead of the single wound he had six bleeding wounds on his throat, his side, his abdomen and on his thigh. The witnesses were unanimous that Rafin had only been stabbed once, after which the knife was left in the wound. The other bleeding wounds were made by different blades from the one that was stuck in his side.

Rafin’s apartment was searched but no clue was found apart from a passport that said he was from Strasbourg.

The young man who had stabbed Rafin was eventually traced. The youth said that Rafin had been his rival for the attentions of a young lady, who soon after meeting Rafin had started to sicken and suffer from nightmares. She had told her sister that every night a hideous creature would come to suck her blood, and that the creature bore some similarity to Rafin.

The young woman died, and believing Rafin was responsible, the young man had set out to confront him, leading to the fight that killed his rival.

Back from the Grave

Rafin’s corpse was kept in a ground floor room in the Hotel Pepin to be buried the next day, though when the time came for the internment, the body was gone. Body snatchers were suspected, but despite a police investigation, no trace was found.

However, six weeks later, to the horror of the staff, Rafin turned up at the hotel demanding the key to his apartment so he could collect his clothes. The police were sent for and Rafin was caught once again.

According to Rafin, some medical students had stolen his body for dissection and were just about to cut him open when he stirred. The medical students revived Rafin, and he in turn promised not to betray them as they had saved his life.

Fouche, the Minister of Police, however, did not believe Rafin’s story and ordered him to be arrested and tightly bound in a cell. Fouche visited Rafin with the object of drawing his blood with a surgical lancet to see what would happen. When Rafin realised this was Fouche’s plan, he struggled violently and furiously.

Fouche stabbed Rafin and drew a little blood, and as soon as the first drop appeared, all six of his wounds also opened and began gushing blood. The bleeding could not be stopped and Rafin died, the whole spectacle supposedly watched by eleven horrified witnesses.

‘I cannot admit the reality of vampires, yet it is certain that I have witnessed the facts I had stated,’ said Fouche.

Rafin’s head, hands and feet were chopped off and the remains were tightly wrapped in cloth and placed in an iron coffin and buried. One year later, Fouche ordered the body to be exhumed and thankfully Rafin’s remains were still there, albeit badly decomposed.

Of course, some sceptics considered that the story about the vampire was made up in order to cover up a suspicious death in police custody…


The tale of the Paris Vampire is told as if true, and the chief of police Fouche was a historical figure. Pere-Lachaise Cemetery where Rafin disappeared each night is also real, the resting place of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Frederic Chopin and Jim Morrison, to name but a few. The author of the book that contains the story, Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, was one of France’s best-selling authors of the 1830s and produced huge number of works, many of which were what we might call faked non-fiction – biographies filled with invented salacious episodes. He also wrote fiction, including an early example of vampire fiction about an avenging female bloodsucker called The Virgin Vampire (1824).[iii]

Joseph Fouche, minister of police … and vampire slayer?

At the time the story of Rafin was written (it’s not very clear when the action was supposed to have happened, though it must be early nineteenth century) it seems much of the popular folklore surrounding vampires had yet to solidify. After all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) was the best part of a century away. Rafin has no pointy teeth, is not bothered by daylight (nor, as far as we can tell, garlic or crosses) and doesn’t change into a bat. Furthermore, his weakness seems to be unique – once his blood is drawn, all the serious wounds from his long existence simultaneously open and he bleeds out.

There are some similarities to Lamothe-Langon’s anti-heroine of his novel The Virgin Vampire. In this story, Aniska is a Hungarian vampire bunny boiler who exacts a terrible revenge on the French soldier who ghosted her. Like Rafin, Aniska’s previous wounds refuse to heal and she too has no fangs and can move around in the daytime.  We are not told how Rafin fed off the blood of his victims, but we shouldn’t assume he sank his teeth into their necks and sucked away as Dracula did. Aniska operated in an unusual way. Here’s the section from the Virgin Vampire where Aniska attacks her former lover’s child:

She places her fetid mouth on the pure mouth of the child, and seems to drink long draughts of blood, which she aspires from the unfortunate creatures lungs.[iv]

As with Rafin’s victims, there are no tell-tale tooth marks.

It is clear that the dubious tale of the Parisian Vampire owes some debt to Dr Polidori’s pioneering gothic vampire story The Vampyre, published in 1819 and written in the company of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley – at the same time she came up with the idea for Frankenstein. Polidori’s vampire even has a rather similar name to Rafin – Ruthven and there are some plot similarities, though Polidori’s downbeat ending is in sharp contrast to that of the Paris Vampire.

It’s most likely the story of the Paris Vampire was a complete fabrication inserted by the mischievous Baron into his pseudo history for some fun.

Stay tuned for more Vampires That Time Forgot, coming soon…

[i] Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, Evenings with Prince Cambaceres (1837)

[ii] ‘The Parisian Vampire’, Londonderry Standard, 15 March 1837, p.6

[iii]; Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, The Virgin Vampire (Black Coat Press, 1824) Trans Brian Stableford

[iv] Baron Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, The Virgin Vampire (Black Coat Press, 1824) Trans Brian Stableford, p.34

Todmorden Ghost Busting Wizard Priest Necromancer’s Xmas Advice

Henry Krabtree, also known as Merlinus Rusticus, was a seventeenth century Todmorden curate – but that’s not all. He had a reputation as a ghost buster, necromancer and healer and did battle with weird demons while at the same time writing arch bitchy comments about his congregation in the parish records.

In 1685 he wrote a strange almanac under the pseudonym of Merlinus Rusticus – the Country Merlin. The book mixed geopolitical prophecy inspired by the Biblical book of Daniel with his sage advice for the different months of the year.

Much of the advice was not pretty and involved purging, vomiting and bleeding. However, his advice for December and the Christmas season is simple and worth trying:

DECEMBER: The best Physick this Month is good meat and the strongest Drink you can get, warm Cloaths and moderate exercise, Hunting or Tracing Hares.

There you have it. Todmorden’s Ghost-busting Wizard Priest Necromancer’s guide to December – eat, drink and be merry![i]

[i] For the full life of Henry Krabtree, see Henry Krabtree: Curate of Todmorden, (Paper Portal Publishing, 2019) which includes a full reproduction of his rare almanac. For just the weird bits of Krabtree’s life, see my own Weird Calderdale.

Image from the Wellcome Collection (Creative Commons).

Some Headless Xmas Ghosts

Hannah Grundy – the Headless Ghost of Staithes

If you take a night walk on the beach near the North Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes at Christmas, you might see an eerie transparent figure floating down from the towering coastal cliffs. As the shape comes closer, it crosses a bridge and comes onto the beach where you can see in the pale winter moonlight that the figure is that of a young woman who appears to be searching in the freezing rockpools, and it’s then that it strikes you what she is looking for – her head!

This is the headless ghost of Hannah Grundy.

Staithes 1880

Hannah Grundy has slipped into North Yorkshire folklore, but she was a real person. On Tuesday 14 April 1807, she and three other teenage girls went down to the beach at Staithes to hunt for shellfish. As she sat on the beach for a rest, forty yards from the base of a 700 foot high cliff, a dreadful accident occurred. A large flat rock, loosened by stormy weather, came hurtling down onto her neck and ‘severed her head from her body without mangling it, and threw it thirty yards from where she was sitting’.[i]

Ever since her headless ghost has supposedly been seen on the beach, especially at Christmas. It’s assumed she is searching for shellfish, though I think it more likely she’s looking for her own head – not easy without any eyes, which may be why she’s been searching for over two centuries.

A Headless Ghost in Buckingham

A respected farmer and his friend were driving their horse and trap along a dark country road a few miles from Buckingham one evening between Christmas 1897 and New Year 1898. As they approached the corner of a crossroads they saw a sombre looking dark figure standing in front of them.

The farmer called out, ‘Hullo there! Move on, please!’ However, the strange figure made no answer and did not move. As they drew closer they saw to their horror that the figure, wrapped in a black cloak, was that of a headless woman. At this moment the horse also caught its first glimpse of the phantom and stopped paralysed with fear and trembling violently.

Again the farmer cried out ‘What do you do there? Move on, please!’ but to no avail. The mysterious figure stood silent and immovable in the road. The horse, however, began backing away and was in danger of pulling the pair into a ditch by the side of the road, so the driver’s friend leapt out to prevent this. At this point, it seemed the headless wraith had vanished.

As soon as the horse and trap were ready to proceed, the dark figure appeared again a few yards in front of them. This time the farmer told the spirit to speak in the name of God, at which she slowly glided away through a hedge.

Now the road was clear, the terrified horse took the opportunity to gallop for its life to the nearest village.[ii]

Unfortunately, the farmer and mate are unnamed and the source for the story is the Illustrated Police News, a true crime paper famous for its lurid illustrations and known as Britain’s worst newspaper. See the top of this article for the accompanying illustration.

This story also lacks the punchline that a satisfying ghost tale needs. Usually the punchline is something along the lines of …’and that was the room where the murderer hanged himself….’

So, let’s speculate. The supposed sighting took place at a crossroads – traditionally a place where people who commit suicide were buried as they could not be interred in hallowed ground. Perhaps the headless woman in black took her own life in lovelorn despair. Though suicide by decapitation seems a bit far-fetched. Perhaps she was murdered on the spot by a dastardly lover? But this doesn’t give her much agency.

Crossroads are also associated with black magic, necromancy and the raising of evil spirits. So, I suggest she is the ghost of a necromancer who tried to raise Beelzebub in some ghastly black magic ritual but had her head torn from her shoulders by a demonic force she could not control…

The Ghost of Christmas Post

Here’s a lighter – but no less bizarre – Christmas ghost story to finish with.

In the Postmaster General’s report of 1876, a strange tale emerged set in the West of Ireland. A new post box had been built into a wall, but the post office could not get anyone to collect the letters posted there.

This was because many of the locals were afraid of a strange ghost that haunted that stretch of road – a large, white headless turkey.[iii]

Illustration by Isaac Cruikshank 1876: ‘A white woman without a head! That’s a sure sign of a frost!’

[i] Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 21 April 1807; Larne Times 26 December 1936

[ii] Illustrated Police News 8 January 1898

[iii] The North Briton, 9 September 1876

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