I love you to death!

Laura Macfehin looks at the horror flicks that best fit your every Valentine’s Day mood.

OK, so I’m a little biased in that I truly believe every holiday is made better with a horror film, but I think that a very strong case can be made for horror being the perfect Valentine’s Day match. 

Sure on the surface a Rom-Com might seem more appropriate– but I think we all know that these are by and large a tissue of lies and un-meetable expectations that do nothing for real-life romance except set us up for at best disappointment and at worst the inability to differentiate between romance and disturbing stalker behaviour.

Horror, on the other hand delivers no matter what your Valentine’s needs may be.  For those in a new relationship there is nothing more bonding than sharing a scare or discussing how you would have avoided the slasher’s axe. 

For those jaded with romance or happily dating yourself in a world obsessed with hetero pair bonding, what could be more cathartic than seeing young love literally getting its heart ripped out. 

And for those soft souls in a committed relationship with their beloved only horror provides stories of romance that defy time and space to endure.

Scream if you want to go faster!

If you’re on the new relationship buzz one of the best things you can do is watch a good old fashioned slasher flick.  You’ll be jumping into each others arms in no time! There are obviously plenty to choose from but some that  that might work particularly well are–

Urban Legend (1998)

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Although it’s not specifically Valentine’s Day themed it is one of the best slasher films of the 90s.  Students at a New England university start popping off in ways that suspiciously mirror the eponymous legends. 

It’s got a bit of the meta po-mo self-reflexiveness made popular by the Scream movies but it is also just great slasher flick.  The formula was at its peak here and a good time via a nostalgic trip back to the simpler late 1990s is guaranteed.

If you want to see all those horror tropes in their original incarnations then you have to travel back to the early 80s.  My Bloody Valentine (1981) hasn’t been lauded like other films in the genre–  movies like Friday the 13th (1980) or Halloween (1978) but its a great little picture. 

Twenty years after a Valentines Day dance is turned into a massacre by a traumatised miner the town decides to party again… with deadly consequences! 

Sure it might not be that scary to our 21st century eyes but it is set in Valentines Bluff on Valentines Day so you can’t get more on theme than that.

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Also with an on-the-nose Valentine’s theme is Hospital Massacre (1981) aka X-Ray aka Be My Valentine, Or Else…  In the same ‘killer returns’ mode Hospital Massacre features a woman who in her youth spurns a would-be valentine.  Twenty years later and– you guessed it– he’s back and still wants to claim her heart!

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In a similar vein but as yet un-viewed by me are Lover’s Lane (1999) and Valentine (2001).  The latter stars David Boreanaz of Angel fame and Denise Richards, and both films look trashy as all get out which is a bonus for me– the trashier the slashier in my books.

Love is for losers

In more recent years we’ve had a bevy of horror features with a somewhat more cynical take on romance and dating, so if that’s your current feels there are some fabulous films supporting that mood!

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You’re Next (2011) is still one of my favourite horrors to come out in the past ten years.  Centred around the already fraught ‘meeting the parents’ scenario You’re Next makes the idea that love is a trap literal with stellar turns from aussie Sharni Vinson and horror icon Barbara Crampton.  If you’ve ever shouted at characters not to be so stupid you’ll find this flick a very satisfying watch!

There are more aussies highlighting the dark side of love in The Loved Ones (2009).  When troubled but spunky teen Brent turns down Lola Stone’s invitation to a dance (he already has a girlfriend after all) Lola enlists her dad’s help to make her prom dreams come true– with decidedly twisted results.  It may seem odd to call something so gut-roiling ‘refreshing’ but The Loved Ones really is, and not just because its a gender-flip on the usual spurned-dork-becomes-killer storyline.  They are thrills and gore a-plenty here.

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If you’ve had first hand experience with gaslighting, belittling and other bullshit behaviour then last year’s Midsommar (2019)  is for you.  An American college student tags along with her (obviously the worst) boyfriend and his friends on a trip to a secretive Swedish commune.  Yes there are a couple of shocks along the way but cartharsis is the name of the game here and sometimes you need a good slap in the face.  

See also May (2002), Teeth (2007), Jennifer’s Body (2009), and Get Out (2017) 

Gothic Romance

It’s not all romance gone bad in horror films though– in fact some of the most romantic storylines (in my slightly gothy brain anyway) are contained in horror scripts.  So if you’re a loved up softy then horror is still the greatest genre to with which to celebrate.

I may have been at a somewhat formative stage when Francis Ford Coppola brought out his version of Dracula (1992), but I still think Gary Oldman’s Count is the most romantic to have graced the silver screen.  You couldn’t be an angsty teen in the early 90s and not swoon when he says this to Winona Ryder.

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To be fair by the time Coppola made his gothic period piece my penchant for creepy re-vivified ancient lovers had already been established by Boris Karloff’s role in The Mummy (1932).  Everything in this film is beautiful, from Jack Pierce’s masterful monster makeup to the romantic love that would bring Imhotep back from the dead looking for his re-incarnated princess.

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Ok it may seem like I’m just sticking this last one in here because I like to put Poltergeist (1982) on every list I make, but I genuinely think of this as a very romantic film.  Unlike a lot of horrors in which a family is divided by a paranormal experience, the Freeling’s stick together.  Ultimately it is the strength of their love and in particular Steve’s confidence in his wife that allows her to rescue her daughter and protect their little family and, corny as it sounds, that seems really romantic to me.

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For other genuinely romantic films see also: The Conjuring (2013), and The Lost Boys (1987),

So what do think?  Is horror the perfect accompaniment to Valentine’s Day?  What will you be watching?

The Gothmother: Maila Nurmi

Before Elvira, before Lily Munster, before Morticia Adams, before Maleficient, there was Vampira. Natasha charts the rise and fall of the original glamour ghoul, Maila Nurmi.

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Gliding through a corridor billowing with dry ice, the black-clad wraith, lets out a blood-curdling scream.

The camera zooms in to focus on her heavily arched black eyebrows, plunging décolletage and extreme hourglass figure.

“Screaming, it relaxes me so”, Vampira purrs, giving the camera a knowing wink.

It’s April 30, 1954 and post-war American audiences don’t know what to think. Television is still in its infancy and no one has seen anything like The Vampira Show before.

‘Who on earth is this terribly seductive, macabre woman with the three-inch fingernails (painted her trademark ‘haemorrhage red’), long raven tresses and impossible 17-inch waist?,  they wonder while not being able to tear their eyes away from the sophisticated spectre on screen. 

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TV’s first horror host

The late-night American variety show which aired on Los Angeles ABC television affiliate KABC-TV screened from April 30 1954 through to April 2, 1955.

Vampira was television’s premier horror host. Her role was to introduce the evening’s feature film – a low budget horror flick such as White Zombie- while reclining on a skull-encrusted Victorian sofa.

At the time, movies were seldom aired on television. The big studios had zero desire to provide their competitors with content, so the only films to feature came from poverty row outfits such as Monogram and PRC.

Viewers tuned in week after week to watch the saucy seductress bath in a cauldron, stroke her pet spider Rollo, and share ghoulish cocktail recipes mixed up in her poison bar.

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A scream queen is born

Vampira’s look took its inspiration from pulp sci-fi, B-movie horror films and American burlesque. Her personality borrowed from silent film queens such as Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson, plus fictional characters such as the Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White and the Dragon Lady character from the Terry and the Pirates comic strip.

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Her aesthetic was inspired by the spooky New Yorker cartoons by Charles Adams which were later adapted for the TV show The Adams Family in 1964, and her costume was the embodiment of John Willie’s fetish artwork in the underground magazine Bizarre.

Although it was unseen outside of the Los Angeles area, The Vampira Show quickly became a cult classic and fan clubs sprung up all around the world.

She was even nominated for an Emmy award as ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality’ in 1954.

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At her height of her fame, Nurmi would stroll the streets in Vampira drag. She even hired a funereal-style black 1932 Packard convertible to chauffeur her around town while she sat holding a black parasol. She soon became a fixture in nightclubs and jazz clubs of LA.

During this time, Nurmi became best buddies with James Dean. The pair loved to cruise the late-night dives swapping morbid stories or hanging out at Googie’s Coffee House on the corner of Crescent Heights.

However, just as she was on the brink of mega stardom, her show was cancelled and by the late 1950s, her TV career was over and she gradually fell into obscurity.

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Early beginnings

She was born Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi in 1922, to Finnish-American parents, although there are conflicting reports of her birthplace. Biographer and historian W. Scott Poole writes that she was born in Massachusetts, however Maila herself claimed to have been born in Petsamo, Finland.

She lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle during her childhood, moving from Massachusetts to Ashtabula Ohio, before settling in Astoria, Oregon.

Her father was a lecturer and editor and her mother, a part-time journalist and translator.

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An actress prepares

Maila moved to Los Angeles, California in 1940 to pursue an acting career, and later in New York City.   

She supported herself with various jobs as an actress, a ‘blonde bombshell’ pin-up model for soft-core men’s magazines, and as a burlesque dancer (at one stage she shared a chorus line with none other than Lili St. Cyr). She also did stints as a chorus girl, a showgirl and a hat check girl on Sunset Strip.

As legend has it, she was apparently sacked by Mae West in 1944 from the cast of Catherine was Great because West was worried about being upstaged by the fledgling actress.

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She gained notoriety on Broadway for appearing in the burlesque show Spook Scandals in which she rose out of the grave, hung out in a fake cemetery and emitted her famous blood-curdling scream.

In 1946, she was cast in film adaptation of the Russian novel Dreadful Hollow, a Howard Hawkes production with screenplay by William Faulkner. However, the project was put on hold so many times that she walked out of her contract in frustration.

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Her big break 

It was in 1953 that a 31-year-old Nurmi showed up at choreographer Lester Horton’s masquerade ball with her husband in an outfit reminiscent of Morticia Adams from Charles Adams New Yorker cartoons.

Her skintight black dress and porcelain white skin caught the eye of TV producer Hunt Stromberg JR who invited her to host horror movies on the Los Angeles TV station KABC-TV.

Her job was to entice late night viewers to stay up and watch the stations schlock horror, spicing things up with double entendres and campy hijinks.

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Maila’s child-actor-turned screenwriter husband Dean Riesner coined the name Vampira to describe her new character and a cult icon was born.

Despite being a hit, the show was cancelled in 1955 over murky contractual disputes and Nurmi’s refusal to sell the rights to the Vampira character to ABC.  Instead, the character had a short-lived revival in 1956 on rival channel KHJ-TV but Nurmi eventually left the project due to ‘creative differences’  The studio sent out a casting call and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira) auditioned and won the role.

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The ‘worst film of all time’

She returned to the big screen in the late 50s with roles in films such as Too Much, Too Soon, The Big Operator and The Beat Generation.

However her most infamous movie appearance was in the master of low budget horror Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The epitome of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, it’s been dubbed ‘the worst film ever made’ and posthumously billed Bela Lugosi as a guest star.

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In Plan 9 Nurmi played a Vampira-eque zombie (filmed in 1956 but not released until 1959). The screenplay was reportedly so bad that she refused to read out loud the lines in the script.

“I didn’t want to hurt his feelings but my god, I could not say those words. Do you know what jewels those lines must have been? I tried to say them but I curdled my own blood. They were awful!” she said afterwards.

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Nurmi followed up with I Passed for White (1960), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) and The Magic Sword (1962). She even appeared in one of Liberace’s Vegas shows.

In the 60s she opened an antique store on Melrose called Vampira’s Attic and released her own line of clothing and jewellery.

Rebirth of a legend

Vampira may have vanished but it was thanks to the cultural underground that she was she was reborn.  Horror punk band The Misfits helped stoke an appreciation for the fading icon, Vampira and The Misfits were great mates, and  often hung out together at West Hollywood Vinyl Fetish.

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Vampira was immortalized in a namesake song by The Misfits and The Damned’s Plan 9 Channel 7.

During the ’80s she was the frontwoman for a punk band called Satan’s Cheerleaders- although she was more of a beatnik than a punk.

Vampira also sparked many imitators-  including Cassadandra Peterson’s Elvira character which was blatantly ripped off from Nurmi’s on-screen image- although Peterson elevated it to cartoonishly buxom heights.

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Nurmi unsuccessfully tried to sue Peterson and remained bitter about the appropriation of her work.

 “I’m just waiting for her plastic surgery to backfire- for her bosoms to poison her,” she famously sniped.

Resurrected for a new generation

Vampira came back on the radar in 1994 when Tim Burton’s kooky film Ed Wood D Jr hit the screens.

In this kooky biopic of the low-budget auteur, Vampira was portrayed by Burton’s then girlfriend Lisa Marie. Despite it being rather a wooden, weirdly sullen portrayl of Nurmi’s character, it helped introduce Vampira to a new generation of fans.

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Her fall from grace

With her star on the wane, Maila moved in with her mother and was reportedly lay floor tiles and cleaned the homes of celebrities, in between collecting unemployment benefits. She died alone in her small Hollywood apartment in 2008, aged 85, and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Although long forgotten by Hollywood, her legend lives on and is the province of horror fans and goths/ psychobillies and she’s finally recognised as being light years ahead of her time.

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In 2012 Maila was the subject of a documentary film called Vampira and Me directed and written by Ray Greene- following a successful radio documentary series, which featured extended interview footage of a 74-year-old Nurmi.

Although not one to blow her own trumpet, Nurmi remained philosophical about her legacy.

 “I don’t have any babies or any social history that’s remarkable, so I’m leaving something behind, you know, when the time comes to say goodbye, I’m leaving something. Vampira wasn’t really acting, it was television, just a load of hogwash.

Her legions of fans would disagree.

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5 Incredible Things People Have Believed About Bananas (that are almost mostly completely untrue)

Laura peels back the layers of banana myth and legend.

If you’ve been on the internet for any amount of time over the last year you may have seen ‘warnings’ over the dangers of eating eggs and bananas together.  This hoax, which seems to originated in Bangalore, claimed that the combination makes a ‘fatal poison’ in the stomach, which was responsible for the death of a young man foolhardy enough to consume both in one sitting.

Of course anyone who has enjoyed a nice slice of banana cake is living testimony to the fact that this combo is not dangerous– but this did not stop many people from worrying about the possibility.

As silly as this might sound to some, it is only the latest in a long line of strange, interesting and sometimes down right ridiculous beliefs people have held about bananas.

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Adam and Eve and the Banana

Although early on artists started depicting the fruit that tempted Eve as being an apple, scholars have long debated whether this was in fact correct.  Many point to the latin word ‘malum’ which can be translated as both ‘evil’ and ‘apple’ as starting the confusion.  In opposition to the apple (which many point out wouldn’t have been known to the writers of the Old Testament) many have put forth the banana in its place.

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Carl Linnaeus, the famous taxonomist and botanist was a firm believer in the banana as fruit of knowledge theory; noting that bananas grow at the right height and that banana leaves make better clothing for humans who just been made self-conscious through forbidden snacks.

Linnaeus even named bananas Musa Sapentium, from the latin term for wise, and Mussa Paradissiaca (banana of paradise).

Of course Linnaeus was pretty keen on bananas in general, which may have coloured his thinking.  He was the first person to successfully grow a banana plant in Holland, and believed they could provide cures for everything from prostate problems to coughs and angry feelings.

I can’t help but think that the phallic look of the banana had some impact of this theory of the banana-as-the-fruit-of-knowledge.  Some point to Gen. 1:27-29 where God tells Adam and Eve they can eat any fruit that has seeds in it as proof the fruit of knowledge wasn’t an apple, but of course, bananas in their natural state also have seeds.

If we are going to give the Garden of Eden an earthly location and fix the fruit of knowledge as something that still grows here, my money is still on the fig, which is more historically accurate and itself a pretty sexy fruit.

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Mine Eyes!

The potential sexiness of the banana was something that troubled a portion of Victorian England.  While bananas were a very popular snack in Victorian England, synonymous with having fun and good times, one group of mainly ladies believed that the provocative shape of bananas was so dangerous that the mere sight of a banana could immediately produce undesirable and illicit behaviours in the viewer.

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Subsequently, they wanted bananas banned in order to protect the morals of the population.  No such ban was ever seriously considered, but the anti-banana feeling was enough that one fruit company at least put out a series of postcards showing ‘decent’ women eating bananas in an attempt to depict bananas as part of a morally healthy lifestyle.

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There is no evidence as to what effect seeing virtuous women eating bananas might have had on an unruly Victorian libido, but the sale and consumption of bananas continued anyway.

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Banana Ghosts

Considering that bananas are a staple of diets in many parts of the world, it is not surprising that they have made their way into many legends and folklore around the world, making for some banana beliefs that are far more established than those crazy Victorian fads.

One of my favourites is the Nang Tani of Thailand.  She is a sort of ‘lady of the wood’ type character, a beautiful, greenish female spirit who is said to haunt the groves of wild banana there.

She is generally a gentle spirit, reminding people of the sanctity of nature, and providing shelter for monks and other travellers.  One group that really gets her goat though are men who have wronged women, and if one of them breaks off a wild banana they can expect a nasty reprisal.

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The Sloop John B..anana

Given how notoriously superstitious sailors are it is perhaps to be expected that bananas should also be given this treatment by sea-faring folk.  Some locate the origin of the ‘maritime banana curse’ with the unlucky encounters sailors had with poisonous spiders or snakes that had hitched a ride on early banana cargoes, or the fact that the ethylene produced by the bananas caused other fruit around them to spoil faster.

Whatever the reason, bananas are now considered unlucky by many sailors and fisherfolk, and a banana on board can be blamed for everything from a poor catch to foul weather.  So keep your bananas out of your tackle box if you want a good number of bites.

 

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Smoke em’ if you’ve got em’

Hands up who wasn’t told at some point in their lives that you could get high from smoking banana peels?

Apparently this rather silly idea caught on in the1960s when people made the connection between the effects of LSD and serotonin on the brain and the fact that bananas too have serotonin in them ( actually the levels of seratonin in bananas is too small to cross the blood-brain barrier).

It spread quickly due to the fact that many people wanted to get high and also had no money, so the ‘a-peel’ of smoking bananas was obvious (no I’m not sorry).

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The flames were fed by the synchronistic release of folksinger Donovan’s single ‘Mellow Yellow’ which contained the lyrics “Electrical banana / Is gonna be a sudden craze / Electrical banana / Is bound to be the very next phase” .  Donovan later definitively stated that those lyrics were about a yellow vibrator and not about smoking banana peels.

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Still the myth persisted, despite the empirical evidence of anyone who tried it that smoking any part of a banana could not get you high.  Part of its endurance can be put down to the fact that William Powell, author of The Anarchist Cookbook (1971) included in his cult tome what was in fact a hoax recipe printed in the Berkeley Barb in 1967 which purported to explain how to extract ‘bananadine’– the psychoactive element in bananas.

More than anything this myth, like some of the other strange ideas about bananas seem to stick around because bananas themselves have a hold on our imaginations. Mainly because they look funny and taste good.

What’s the Story Mourning Glory?

To say the Victorians were obsessed with death and dying is putting it mildly. However, worse than death was the idea of dying and not being mourned, writes Natasha Francois.

She was her Most Eccentric Majesty. The monarch with the stratospherically high morals who gave her name to an entire era was one of the stubbornest and most opinionated women in history.

Queen Victoria hated; in no particular order: babies, breast-feeding, smoking, modern technology, motor cars, bishops, Catholics, and the Irish, but she also had a wicked sense of humour, never wore “drawers” and was totally devoted to her husband Prince Albert.

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Her Most Eccentric Majesty: Queen Victoria dragged the rest of the 19th century world into mourning with her when her beloved Prince Albert died of typhoid.

Upon hearing the news that her beloved Albert had died of typhoid in 1861, the pious and popular queen collapsed in a heap on the floor, clutched her youngest child Beatrice, wrapped her in her husband’s night-clothes and lay there until sunrise. She then plunged into a state of mourning that lasted four decades and dragged the rest of the 19th century world into mourning with her.

Victoria was a trend setter and unwittingly sparked the craze for mourning jewellery. Although mourning jewellery had been around for millenia, the Victorians took it to new heights. She even decreed that only mourning jewellery could be worn in court until 1880.

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Weep woman weep: Following the death of Prince Albert , Queen Victoria donned ‘widows weeds’ for the rest of her life.

The Queen wore black

Queen Victoria and her subjects were the first to wear black while mourning. The queen wore black ‘widows weeds’ for the rest of her life. She even slept with a cast of Prince Albert’s hand beside her pillow so she could hold him while she slept.

Under her orders, her husband’s clothes continued to be laid out each day, his breakfast prepared and hot water delivered to his room every mourning so he could shave– despite being dead and buried!

Following Albert’s death, the longest reigning monarch in British history exited public life until her death in 1901.

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Dearly departed: Queen Victoria was an ‘influencer’ in her day and sparked the trend for mourning jewellery.

Die, die my darling

To say the Victorians were obsessed with death and dying is putting it mildly. However, with the average lifespan a mere 50 years, with women commonly dying during childbirth, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid running rife- not to mention the widespread unsanitary conditions in which they lived, death was no stranger. This preoccupation with death filtered into everyday life, and the Victorians embraced it as much as they were repelled with it.

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Death becomes her: Death was a fact of life for the average Victorian.

Death is not the end…

From the 1850s, it became popular to snap post-mortem portraits of the deceased, which were given to relatives as pictorial keepsakes.

Death was not the worst thing for the Victorians; worse was the idea of dying and not being mourned. It therefore became of paramount importance that the living show their respect for the dearly departed in their outward appearance, no matter their social class or walk or life.

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Angel of the mourning: Mortality rates were also high during the Victorian age. This led to the practice of post-mortem photography.

Mourning fashion was widely adopted, particularly by widows and other women. Some wealthy women even dressed their servants for mourning and elderly widows often remained in mourning for the rest of their lives.

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The art of mourning

There was a strict protocol when it came to mourning in 19th Century England, a widow was expected to be in mourning for two years. There were also various stages that had to be observed.

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Full mourning lasted for a year and a day. Dull black clothing was worn without ornament: the Victorians considered it crass to wear extravagant jewellery in the first stage of mourning. Widows wore a weeping veil made of black crepe.

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Second mourning lasted nine months. Minor ornamentation was permitted by way of fabric trim and sombre mourning jewellery. The veil was now raised and could be worn back over the head.

Half mourning lasted between three and six months. More elaborate fabrics were allowed to trim the garments and colour was gradually phased back in. It now became appropriate to wear regular jewellery.

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Revering the dead

Mourning jewellery was worn by both men and women and often featured life and death symbols such as skulls, crosses or hearts. Mourning watch fobs, lockets, necklaces, rings, clasps, buttons, bracelets and brooches were all worn in reverence for the dead.

Mourning jewellery was suitably dark coloured, understated, elegant and made from materials including jet, Vulcanite and celluloid.

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Queen Victoria’s material of choice was jet, a fossilized coal. Jet, which resembles black glass, has been washing up on shores since prehistoric times. It was the only material allowed during the first phase of mourning. However, jet was very expensive, so it was also flaunted as a display of wealth and status.

When natural jet supplies began to dwindle in 1870s, dark mouldable alternatives such as shellac, dyed horn and celluloid were employed as replacements. Celluloid was the first man-made plastic and was nicknamed “the great imitator”, due to its ability to mimic natural materials which were becoming scarcer and more expensive.

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Vulcanite is a type of hardened blackened rubber that, like jet is lightweight and warm to the touch. Although it can be polished to a high sheen, it never has the same shine as genuine jet. Gutta percha is a natural latex found in East Asia evergreen trees, and was the first material to be used for costume jewellery.

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Forget me not: Victorian vulcanite tri-cameo mourning pendant.

Hair we go

Human hair was also used. Today it might sound morbid to make jewellery with hair from the deceased. But death in Victorian times was viewed in an entirely different context. There was far less division between the living and the dead, and hair ornaments served not only as a reminder of the person, but were considered a way for the living and the dead to communicate.

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Hair was woven and knotted in order to make brooches, bracelets and watch chains. These human-hair ornaments were suitable for half mourning. Preparation was important: before jewellery could be made, the hair had to be boiled in soda water for 15 minutes before being sorted into lengths and divided into sections of 20-30 hairs. Most hairwork was based around a mould or strong material.

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Sometimes the hair wasn’t made into an ornament itself but was hidden within into an item, such as a locket. By the late-Victorian era, popular women’s magazines included new hair art patterns.

Collecting mourning jewellery

Because Victorian mourning jewellery was made to last, it can still be found today. The internet is an excellent place to start: eBay is awash with examples that include brooches, bracelets, necklaces and lockets.

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Jet necklace

The most common pieces include jet, vulcanite and horn brooches. Necklaces, rings and bracelets are far rarer and therefore command higher prices.

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The most prized items are crafted from enameled precious metals and include intricate hair art examples.

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Personalised pieces are the most valuable, so look for items featuring photographs or a date.

Such was the nature of mourning jewellery that pieces engraved with a date- in particular the date of a person’ death are common. This makes it very easy to date an item.

Find out more about mourning jewellery:

Love after Death: The Beautiful, Macabre World of Mourning Jewelry

House of Mourning – Victorian Mourning & Funeral Customs in the 1890s

Victorian Mourning & Funerary Practices

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The Curse of Valentino’s Ring

Rudolph Valentino had the world at his feet when the star of the silver screen met an untimely death.  But did a mysterious ring and it’s supposed curse send him sooner to his grave? 

Laura Macfehin looks at the legend of the so-called ‘ring of destiny’ and the troubled lives of the people caught in its curse!

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The Star

By the time Rudolph Valentino came to Hollywood he had already left two lives behind.  In 1913 he arrived at Ellis Island as a teenager alone, leaving behind a doting mother in Italy, a certificate in agricultural studies he had no interest in using and the memory of a disapproving father.

In New York he waited tables and eventually became a taxi dancer (also called tango pirates) at Maxim’s.  His good looks made him a favourite amongst the older ladies that were his clientele, and he started a relationship with the Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles. 

This tumultuous friendship saw Valentino testify in court at their divorce proceedings as to Mr de Saulles infidelity, after which de Saulles had Valentino arrested on trumped up vice charges.  When Blanca then shot her ex husband after he refused her court appointed custody rights, Valentino, fearing he would be called to testify again, left the East coast in a hurry.

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Mrs Blanca De Saulles

In sunny Hollywood Valentino began his third life– quickly gaining work in the burgeoning movie business.  He secured his first leading role in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in 1921, which was a huge success.  It was The Sheik, however, filmed that same year that cemented his sex symbol status as a ‘Latin Lover’.

Men and women alike found his presence on-screen mesmerising, and the studios capitalised on this with films like Blood and Sand  and The Cobra.  He was at the height of his popularity when, on a break from shooting in San Francisco he spotted a ring in the window of an antique store.

It was a large signet ring with a tiger’s eye set in gold.  The shop owner was reluctant to sell it Valentino, telling him it was jinxed, and describing it somewhat ostentatiously as ‘the ring of destiny’.  Valentino bought it on the spot.

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The Curse

He used it as part of his costume in his next film, The Young Rajah, which was a flop at the box office, and thinking of what the shop keeper had told him he put the ring away.  He got it out again though some years later to wear in The Son of the Sheik.

Shortly after filming had finished on the film Valentino collapsed in New York, where he was operated on for perforated gastric ulcers.  The doctors gave him a good prognosis but shockingly just a week later he died of peritonitis.  He was 31.

 

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Pola Negri supported by friends at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino.

The Vamp

His death caused a wave of hysterical grief across the United States, and at the centre of this maelstrom was his then girlfriend, actress Pola Negri.

Although Valentino had been seeing at least one other woman at the time, Negri insisted that she was the fiancee, and rode in be-veiled state in the funeral wagon that took Valentino’s body by rail back to California, stopping at every small town along the way so that mourning fans could pay their respects.

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Fans line the streets to witness Valentino’s funeral cortege.

As well as taking centre stage, Negri also took the jinxed ring as something of Valentino’s estate to remember him by.

After nine months she had recovered herself enough to marry a Georgian “prince” Serge Mdivani.  She suffered a miscarriage, something she mourned the rest of her life, and the marriage quickly faltered too.

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The Crooner

In 1932, Negri was performing with a young crooner named Russ Colombo.  Negri was struck by his resemblance to her former lover, and gave Colombo the tiger eye ring as a token of her affection.

She was not the only one to make the comparison– the baritone was known as ‘Radio’s Valentino’ not just because of his physical likeness to the silent movie star but also because the romantic image his crooning love songs gave him.

He and Negri parted ways, but the ring went with Colombo as his star rose.

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In 1934 he was at the height of his popularity with hits such as “You Call it Madness (But I Call It Love)” and “Too Beautiful For Words”.  The latter he had written for the beautiful blonde star he was in love with– Carole Lombard.

She returned his love, and on September 2nd 1934 had a dinner date with him planned.  In the day time he visited his good friend, photographer Lansing Brown.  He was wearing the ring.

Lansing Brown had a collection of antique firearms, and he was fooling with a duelling pistol while the friends sat in the library.  Unexpectedly the gun went off in his hands and a fragment of shot ricocheted off a table and hit Colombo above the left eye.  He died in hospital at age 26.

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Lombard and Colombo

Colombo’s siblings, fearing what the shock would do to their mother, who was at the time hospitalised with heart failure, maintained the fiction of Colombo being alive for the next ten years, Lombard herself helping by sending letters to the older lady she penned herself under Colombo’s name.

Little did anyone know Lombard herself would die a tragic death just eight years later when a plane crash would leave Clark Gable her grieving widower in 1942.

The Brothers

In the mean time, the ring went to Colombo’s good friend, fellow entertainer Joe casino.  Wary of the ring’s reputation as a bringer of bad luck, Casino kept the ring locked up in a glass case in his house.  After a while though he let friends convince him the curse was just superstition, and he took the ring out of its case and began to wear it.  A week later, the car Casino was driving was hit by a truck and he was killed instantly.

Del Casino, Joe’s brother, then inherited the ring.  He scoffed at the curse being nothing but coincidence and bad luck, and made a show of wearing it with no ill effect.  He lent it to a Valentino impersonator, who also suffered no bad consequences, leading one newspaper columnist to print that there was no curse on the ring.

Shortly after this a burglar named Joe Willis was accidentally shot by police fleeing Del Casino’s home– the ring was found in his pocket.

The Skater

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In 1938, producer Edward Small was working on a biopic of Rudolph Valentino.  For the main part he had in mind a young english man named Jack Dunn.  Dunn had been a world medallist in ice skating, until he quit his skating career in the hope of following his former girlfriend Sonja Henie onto a career on screen.

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In 1938 Dunn had already starred in one film, Everybody’s Girl, and had been cast in the lead of another, The Duke of Westpoint, when he was asked to screen test for the role of Rudolph Valentino.

The producer borrowed actual items from Valentino’s wardrobe to dress Dunn up in, and he borrowed the ring from Casino to complete the look.  Dressed as The Sheik, Dunn made a very convincing Valentino, and everyone agreed the test went very well.

Work done Dunn went with some friends on a hunting trip in Texas.  He was a novice hunter, and it is not thought he even did any shooting, and yet a week later he had died from the rare blood disease tularemia, possibly from handling a dead rabbit.  He was 21.

 

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After this, Del Casino decided to err on the side of caution, and had the ring locked up in a bank vault in downtown Los Angeles, where it remains to this day.  So far, no-one else has experienced any weird effects from the tiger eye ‘ring of destiny’.

The bank has perhaps suffered more than its fair share of robberies, strikes and other disruptions though.  After a heist that went spectacularly wrong the leader of the gang responsible supposedly said they never would have hit that particular bank if they had known what was in its vaults.

The curse sleeps?

Does the curse persist?  Did it ever exist?  The portrait above by Federico Beltrán Masses, which features Valentino with a guitar and Negri wearing the ring, was sold last September in London for NZ$285,444.  Masses, who knew the couple and painted many Hollywood stars likely incorporated the ring in his composition because he knew it added to the allure of their story– which is after all the flip side to any cursed object.

Something old, Something strange…

In this edition of Believe It Or Not Laura Macfehin looks into the strange superstitions surrounding wedding dresses!

Recently I was lucky enough to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Phantom Thread.

I had been a little nervous that the plot might be a bit Pygmalion-ish (which is one of my all time most hated storylines) but it wasn’t, thank goodness.

Instead it was an obsessively beautiful fever dream set inside a fictional and chilly couture house in 1950s London.

There was, obviously, lots of sewing which was great for me, as sewing is one of my favourite things to do/watch/think about.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread

Wedding dresses play a central role in the story (as they do in real life couture houses), and the couturier, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, tells his new muse of some of the superstitions surrounding them.

In particular he tells of how his terrible nanny wouldn’t help him sew a wedding dress for his mother for fear that she would not then marry herself, and of how young models don’t wish to model them in case they marry a bald man.

These stories got me thinking of some of the weird superstitions I had heard around wedding dresses, a garment that has been loaded up with some fairly heavy symbology over the years.

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Seamstresses prepare a wedding dress fit for a Princess in Phantom Thread

Oh no she didn’t!

First, let us do a little low-key myth-busting.  No- Queen Victoria did not ‘invent’ the white wedding dress as some people put about.  Although she certainly gave it a boost in the popularity stakes white wedding dresses were around before Victoria tied the knot with her cousin Albert (this is just talking about the Western European tradition of bridal wear, because of course Shinto brides have been wearing white for centuries).

She chose white because she wanted to make a feature of the Honiton lace that swathed the otherwise quite subdued satin gown, and support British cottage industries which were suffering at the time. Her gown was hugely influential and the Devon lace-makers certainly benefitted from her choice.

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Queen Vic in her wedding dress

She was not the first royal to marry in white.  A couple of decades earlier Princess Charlotte had married in a stunning regency gown of silver and white.

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Princess Charlotte’s 1816 wedding dress

And as many (including historical novelist Loretta Chase here) have pointed out- white wedding dresses were already quite in vogue; as these ladies magazine fashion plates from the 1830s demonstrate.

 

 

Which brings us to our second bit of myth-busting (or perhaps it is more like myth-tweaking? Anyway).  And that is addressing the idea that the symbolism of white as equalling chastity is an ancient one.  The reason aristocracy (and those wealthy enough to imitate them) had traditionally chosen white was because it is so impractical.  Most women throughout history (and even up until the end of the 1940s) married in their ‘best’ frock.

Even if they had a new dress or suit for the occasion (and sometimes employers would foot the bill or provide a hand-me-down of good quality) it was generally expected by most women that they would get more than one days wear out of their wedding outfit.

In the days before dry cleaners a white silk gown was the height of luxury, because it said to the observer I can afford to wear something new that I never expect to wear again.

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A 1950s bride and groom

Historically blue had been the colour that signalled ‘purity’ and innocence-hence Our Lady’s blue garb.  The Late Victorians (wouldn’t you know it) were the ones who got caught up on the virginal brides thing and made the link between chastity and wearing white.

Certainly until the 1950s it remained common to marry in whatever colour you fancied (within some limits as we will see).

It perhaps not a surprise that in the 1950s, a time when both consumerism and gender conformity both spiked, there was a huge uptake on the notion of a white wedding dress as a one-wear garment.

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Colour me lucky

Although marrying in a colour other than white was not unusual, that is not to say the were no superstitions around colour choice!

In Scotland, green was considered so unlucky it was not only banned from the bridal party but also from guests and even wedding decor.  As the following rhyme shows there could be repercussions for brides flighty enough to go with their own taste over folklore.

Married in White, you have chosen right,

Married in Grey, you will go far away,

Married in Black, you will wish yourself back,

Married in Red, you will wish yourself dead,

Married in Green, ashamed to be seen,

Married in Blue, you will always be true,

Married in Pearl, you will live in a whirl,

Married in Yellow, ashamed of your fellow,

Married in Brown, you will live in the town,

Married in Pink, you spirit will sink.

 
 
Different fabrics have different superstitious connotations as well.  In most traditions silk is lucky, satin unlucky and velvet will result in poverty!
 
It is not surprising that so much superstition should surround weddings.  In a time before divorces were attainable and property rights for women largely nil, there was a lot riding on making a decent marriage.  Brides really needed luck to be on their side.
 

I should be so lucky

This is where some of the weirder superstitions come in.  Although I scream inside to write it, it has long been held lucky in English folklore to find a spider inside your wedding dress (one would hope before the frock goes over your head).  This probably dates back to Roman times– the Romans considered spiders very lucky and used to carry spider charms around with them to aid in business transactions.

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Old postcard with a good luck spider

In other animal related luck– if a bride should find a cat eating from her left shoe a week before she is married then that is also hugely lucky.  And, you know, really probable without any highly involved orchestration.

The Evil Eye

Other superstitions built into the choosing and constructing of wedding clothes tend to be more about diverting bad luck.  Much of this is seems to come from people’s paranoia around hubristic displays of good fortune or happiness in public, with a little bit of not counting your chickens thrown in for good measure.

The wedding veil is a good example of this.  Although some point to the veil’s utility in keeping the bride’s face a surprise in arranged marriages, it actually has an older and more talismanic function, which was to ward off the evil eye from jealous onlookers or angry gods.

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This 1960s bride easily deflects bad hoodoo with her nifty shoulder-length veil

In the not counting your chickens basket it has been considered unlucky to complete your outfit too far ahead of time.  Ideally the last stitches should be sewn (by the bride’s mother) just before she walks down the aisle.  Some dressmakers still leave a little bit of hem unstitched for this purpose.

When it comes to the construction of wedding dresses there is a whole bevy of superstitions.  Some (possibly dressmakers looking to protect their business) say that it is unlucky for a woman to sew her own wedding dress, and that every stitch she sews will be a tear she sheds in the marriage.

 

 

 

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In the seamstress’s workshop

Within the couturier’s workshop there are plenty more superstitions that come into play with the sewing of wedding dresses.  A common one is for unwed seamstresses to sew a hair of their’s into a seam of the dress.  This is meant to ensure they will marry themselves.  Sometimes, to secure the bride’s good luck, they may sew in a hair from the head of seamstress who is happily married.  In other shops they may sew in a good luck charm, like a small cardboard horseshoe or a piece of blue ribbon into the hem or waist stay of a gown.

D.I.Y-not?

Once upon a time, long, long ago I myself got married dear reader!  I was lucky enough to have my mother sew my dress for me (she also sewed the dresses for my beautiful best-women) so I avoided the tears that would have come from sewing it myself, but I did sew a red velvet wrap to go around my shoulders.  Perhaps the fact that I was still sewing it the night before the wedding mitigated the terribly unlucky red velvet!

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My mum fitting me for my wedding dress while my sister offers encouragement

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Me sewing my wrap the night before the wedding

So far we’ve stayed married for coming up to eighteen years, so the D.I.Y approach can’t be too unlucky.

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My parents and I on my wedding day

How about you?  Did you or would you sew your own wedding dress?  Do you have any family superstitions or cultural traditions around wedding clothes?  I’d love to hear about them!

New Zealand’s Most Haunted Hotels

In part three of Believe It Or Not Laura Macfehin dials up some ghoulish room service in five of New Zealand’s haunted hotels!

Hotels seem to collect ghost stories like boy scouts around a campfire; maybe because like that campfire in the darkness they give hotels an added frisson that makes the stay that little bit more interesting.

With all the comings and goings and associated drama that takes place within their walls it is not surprising that they might hold on to some extra energy– or that some guests simply refuse to check out.  New Zealand hotels are no exception– here are five that are considered our most haunted.

The Masonic

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The Masonic Hotel in Napier is a gorgeous Art Deco structure- part of the city-wide rebuild after the 1931 earthquake that gave Napier its special character and draws visitors from all over the globe today.  This present incarnation is in fact the third Masonic to stand in this spot– the first being a three-storey Victorian building that went up in the 1860s and was destroyed in a fire at the end of the nineteenth century.

It was rebuilt in 1897 as one of the grandest and most up to date hotels in the country until the earthquake that laid low so much of Napier in 1931.  In 1932 it was rebuilt for the third time- the Art Deco design by Wellington architect W. J. Prowse is what still stands today.

Perhaps this turbulent history is part of the reason the Masonic has a reputation for being ‘unsettled’ in a paranormal sense too!  As well as the fire and earthquakes the Masonic has seen its share of human upsets– the usual hotel casualties both natural and less so– including the death of a Maori chief in a bathtub and of a regular patron in an elevator.

Staff and guests alike report unexplained lights and music, lights that turn on by themselves, spooky whispers and cold spots.  Still if you are willing to risk a chance encounter with a ghost the Masonic is the perfect place to do it while enjoying some unique architectural history!

Check it out here

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The Masonic Hotel is an important part of Napier’s art deco heritage

The Chateau Tongariro

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Tongariro National Park was given by Paramount Chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku Te HeuHeu Tukino IV to the people of New Zealand in 1887, in order to protect the sacred peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.  In 1925 a new road opened up the area to visitors and The Chateau was built to cater to these visitors’ needs.

Like the Masonic it has had a vibrant history.  It was a government-run hostel which saw a lot of action during the ‘roaring’ twenties and thirties, then it was temporarily sequestered as a women’s asylum in the 1940s after a severe earthquake damaged the Porirua Hospital.  Towards the end of the second world war it was used for the recuperation of returned serviceman before opening to the public again.

Unsurprisingly a lot of the ‘unusual’ happenings at the hotel are linked to its use as an asylum and convalescence home for World War Two airmen.  Staff believe that a nurse named Charlotte who died there still continues her rounds and is particularly fond of room 308.

Guests and staff have reported seeing objects move by themselves, doors lock and unlock on their own and taps turn on in empty bathrooms.  This spooky reputation does not deter guests though– it would take a lot more to put people off such comfortable hotel in such a stunner of a setting. 

Check it out for yourself here

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Skiing from the front doors of the Chateau, NZ Herald 23 July 1931

The Riccarton Racecourse Hotel

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The Riccarton Racecourse Hotel leapt into the headlines and the national consciousness in the early thirties when the proprietor Donald Fraser was shot to death in his upstairs bedroom by unknown assailants.  The murder had the appearance of a (perhaps contract) execution with two loaded shotgun barrels being emptied into the sleeping man’s chest.

Despite the fact that Fraser had made many enemies through his quick temper over the years the investigation baffled detectives and to this day the case remains unsolved.

The Victorian built Racecourse Hotel and Motorlodge still offers affordable accommodation to this day, conveniently set- as the name suggests- adjacent to the Riccarton Racecourse.

Be aware though- despite having been dispatched in such an efficient manner in 1933 Donald Fraser does not seem to have departed entirely from the place.  There have been numerous reports of encounters with him roaming the corridors– perhaps looking for rowdy punters to toss– or perhaps searching for his killer? 

You can check it out here

The Vulcan Hotel St Bathans

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The Vulcan Hotel in St Bathans is a mud-brick building dating from 1882 — although like the Masonic a previous wooden hotel stood in the same spot before being destroyed by fire.  Although now a quiet place in its mining heyday St Bathans was home to some two thousand miners as well as farmers, families and those entrepreneurs supplying the infrastructure to support their endeavours.

It may appear that all that is left of this ‘wild west’ time is the seemingly placid man-made Blue Lake and some Victorian architecture, but many claim some of the town’s more interesting characters stayed around long after the mines closed.

The spirits of long gone miners are said to rise from the depths of Blue lake at night, which is also said to also hold the restless spirit of a barmaid who drowned herself there.  The most famous haint in the place though is a resident of room one of the Vulcan Hotel.

There have many reports over the years of disturbing visits by a female spectre who sits on the chests of men and attempts to throttle them.  She has also been seen reclining on a chaise in the hotel, and apparently has no problem with lady guests who come to stay.  Legend has it that she was a prostitute known as ‘The Rose’ who was strangled by a john on the premises. 

If you are game to step back in time in Central Otago you can check it out here

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The Waitomo Caves Hotel

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Set in the tiny tourist village of Waitomo in the strange and beautiful King Country region of the North Island The Waitomo Caves Hotel is both New Zealand’s most haunted hotel and one of my favourite places on earth!

Originally built in 1902 on the site of British fort ‘Waitomo House’ was taken over by the government in 1905 and renamed as a Government Hostel (as The Chateau would be also).  The limestone cave system with its underground waterways and glowworms has continued to bring in tourists ever since, and the hotel added an art deco wing in 1928.

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The Waitomo Caves Hotel as it stands today, showing the 1920s wing

The bloody history and the limestone cave system might be enough to ensure an ‘active’ site, but The Waitomo Hotel has legends of its own.  A Maori Princess is said to walk the halls and moan, and young boy killed in the kitchens can be heard giggling.  Many strange incidents have been reported over the years.

Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro credits his stay at the hotel for inspiring a particularly bloody scene in Crimson Peak involving a bath tub.  I have had my own far less gruesome experiences there– there is a former matron who continues to keep an eye on the place!

Despite recent renovations the hotel maintains much of its character and charm and ghosties aside I can whole-heartedly recommend it as a unique place and catch up with some reading or check out some glowworms. 

Find out for yourself here

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Early Waitomo Caves guides

That’s my round-up of some of New Zealand’s most haunted hotels.  Have I missed any doozies?  Have you got a ghost story to add?  Let me know!

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