Friday, July 18, 2014

ROOTS OF HORROR: The Death Coach And Other Spectral Vehicles

~by Marie Robinson

Imagine you are driving alone late at night on a one-lane, backwoods road. Your headlights graze the trees that hug close to the road, the hum of your tires drones softly under music or talk radio. The monotony of the seemingly endless unraveling road sets your mind to daydream—but your thoughts are interrupted by the twin points of headlights in your rear-view mirror. The car must have just crested some hill, or rounded some turn, because this is the first time you’ve seen anyone else on the road tonight. The car is traveling at an alarming speed, and as they slow down to pull up beside you see it is a strange black car. The window begins to roll down…

If you are unfamiliar with any legends concerning sinister automobiles, then I am here to inform you. They come in several different forms, each one as unsettling as the last.

The Death Coach 

The Death Coach has its strongest roots in Ireland, where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar (koe-shta bower), which translates to “deaf coach” or “silent coach”. The Cóiste Bodhar is a death omen and to see it or hear it means that someone is going to die. The Irish version of the Death Coach is quite sinister looking and is often decorated with candles and human remains.

Even more frightening than the wagon itself is its driver, a fairy called a dullahan. His head, which is carried under one arm, has small, flicking black eyes and a wide, ear-to-ear grin. He carries a whip made from a human spine. If you hear the dullahan call out a name, it is sure that the owner is the next to die. While the Cóiste Bodhar can go through any locked gate, the dullahan is terrified of gold, and having any near will send them away. The Cóiste Bodhar makes an appearance in the 1959 Disney film (a childhood favorite of mine) Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

The revolutionary Swedish special effects film, The Phantom Carriage (1921), concerns a similar legend. In the film, the last person to die before the clock strikes twelve on New Years Eve must take the seat at the front of the Death Coach and collect souls of the dead for the next year.

In Robert W. Chamber’s iconic short story, “The Yellow Sign”, the Death Coach comes through an ominous dream, whose driver is a man with pale, puffy flesh, who reminds the narrator of a, “plump, white grave-worm.”

I, too, have taken inspiration from the legend of the Death Coach, and have written of it in my story, “Crossroad”, published in the 4th issue of Sanitarium Magazine.

The Hearse 

“Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by, for you may be the next to die,” sings “The Hearse Song” as documented in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  If hearses weren’t ominous enough for you, there are several superstitions attached to the corpse-carrying cars. For example, it is bad luck if a hearse stops in front of someone’s house, as it is a sign that an occupant will soon die; even the sight of a hearse is a possible omen, especially if it is empty, for it means that it is looking to be filled.

The song I aforementioned dates back to World War I, sung by American and British soldiers and popularized as a children’s rhyme. Also frequently called, “The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out”, several different versions have been documented—below I’ve written the lyrics to just one.

“Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next one to die.
They wrap you in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Until your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your scalp,
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your sides.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You’ll spread it on a slice of bread,
And this is what you eat when you are dead.” 

The Black Volga 

One of my favorite urban legends is that of the Black Volga. This tale became popular in the 60’s in Eastern European; the car, a black Volga, is said to kidnap children and use them for gruesome black market trades. The car of legend has had a myriad of drivers such as nuns, vampires, or the very Devil. Sometimes the car will be driven by no one at all, startling those in the car alongside it so badly that they will swerve off the road.

Author Joe R. Lansdale penned a story called, “The Folding Man” for the urban legend-inspired anthology, Haunted Legends (you can read my review of the book, here.)  His tale, inspired by the legend of the Black Volga, involves a group of teens being tormented on Halloween by a car full of nuns.

The doomful black car also plays a key role in the 2003 film, Dead End, in which a family takes a back road in an attempt of avoiding traffic and find themselves in an evil, haunted place where the only other car is the Black Volga, coming to claim its victims.

So the next time you are on that lonely stretch of road and see another pair of headlights, beware the Black Volga.

No comments: