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Red Eyes (and Black Dogs and Water Spirits)

black dogs conjure in fiction crossroads draugr fairy tales family mythology family narrative florida folklore ghost stories haints iceland jacksonville mississippi monsters old red eyes pensacola personal mythology rawhead and bloody bones sackabilly shapeshifters st. rumbold the unquiet dead

[This was originally posted in 2019 on my personal blog that’s mostly about family history projects. I’m reposting it here because it references a few things that might be of interest to some of y’all.]

[Remember, this blog here at the shop address is a mirror / backup of the real Seraphin Station blog here. Visit there comment, ask questions, get responses, interact with others, see useful and interesting links and resources, and/or read all the blog posts, not just the highlights I repost here.]

Red Eyes was one of my great-grandmother Mae’s stories to scare the crap out of children with, along with Sackabilly, the Apple Lady, and the Seacanamarampus. Red Eyes lived under Mae’s house in Pensacola, Florida. So obviously, the children didn’t go under the house.

I’m pretty sure Red Eyes was a Mae-specific creation, like many of her creatures. While there are beings with similar names in folk tales all over the world, Mae’s house, which she lived in for almost 100 years and which served as the gathering site for sprawling generations of her descendants, was the center of something strong and dynamic enough to function as its own culture with its own lore for a remarkably long time. And Mae’s lore reflected the concerns and enforced the mores of that familial culture. Some of it was Pensacola-specific, like the Axe Man from Axe Alley, which really happened. Some of it fit pretty common patterns – X would get you if you misbehaved – but for the overwhelming majority of her lore, I haven’t had much luck finding it outside of the family. I really think she put her stamp on this stuff (and in some cases simply conjured it as  needed).

Reading about a mid-20th century Mississippi tale of Sackabilly in which he was associated with Rawhead and Bloody Bones [1] got me thinking that maybe Mae’s Red Eyes is more of a suburban version of Bloody Bones, a monster under the stairs/cupboard sitting on a pile of bones of children who said bad words or lied. I don’t really remember it being that specific in our family, though. In fact, most of Mae’s stories weren’t all that specific, weren’t actually really *stories.* She’d just *mention* this stuff and leave the rest to your imagination. And if she were still here for me to ask, and I asked her where she first heard the tale of Red Eyes, I guarantee you she wouldn’t give me a straight answer anyway. Mae was kind of a smart-ass, and she knew better than to take the juice out of something with a bunch of boring facts.

But here are a few tidbits to gnaw on.

Red Eyes in Lore and Literature

There are other stories of creatures or ghosts called Red Eyes or Old Red Eyes that I’ve been digging into, but as folk tale types go, they so far have pretty much nothing in common with our family’s Red Eyes, and I doubt there’s a connection aside from a name similarity.

But really, various bogeymen and ghosts and creatures with red eyes aren’t uncommon at all. After all, what color would be more effective to scare the hell out of you in the dark, more evocative of hellfire and the devil and blood? How do you know if you have a friendly ghost or a malevolent bogeyman? Well, does it have red eyes? That’s a pretty sure sign of the latter!

Old Red Eyes – Kingsley Plantation, Jacksonville, Florida

I got really excited when I saw that S.E. Schlosser had a chapter about Old Red Eyes in her Spooky Florida: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore, because Red Eyes is another one I’ve never heard of outside of my family. I finally got hold of the book, and alas, it’s not much to do with our Red Eyes, but I’ll tell you about it anyway. Schlosser’s is a Jacksonville story concerning a slave overseer who was a murderer and a rapist. In her version, the plantation master hanged him after he raped and murdered three women in one go and left their bodies lying around in a blood-filled house in the slave village, but then people started seeing his ghost around on the road at night by the oak tree where he was hanged, and the ghost had glowing red eyes. It would assault women and whisper threats at them and pull on their clothes, trying to pull them off the road.

It’s told from the point of view of a young enslaved woman on a plantation who’s studying with her auntie to become the village’s next conjure woman. She uses conjure to basically seal the ghost off behind a wall of light protecting the road so it can’t attack anybody else and all anybody ever sees of it after that is those glowing red eyes in the darkness. It’s quite imaginative and it’s entertaining and well-told. Don’t expect scholarly work or take anything about the spiritual practices of the characters as representative of actual conjure practices – this is fiction and it doesn’t pretend not to be, and I wouldn’t hit a hog in the behind with the portrayal of some of the “conjure” in here, but as a short story, it’s pretty good.

She doesn’t cite any sources – again, it’s not trying to be scholarly work – and while she doesn’t indicate what resources, written or oral, she used in writing these short stories, she does have a bibliography at the end. But as it stands, I have no idea where she heard the story of Old Red Eyes and how much of her tale is part of the larger oral tradition versus detail she added for narrative purposes to make a short story work, so it didn’t really get me anywhere in my search for Mae’s Red Eyes. But as a collection of spooky stories from Florida, it’s worth reading for sure. She’s pretty good at finding a way into these old legends without just repeating/rehashing, and she fleshes them out into actual stories with believable characterization and period details. If you like ghost lore, you should like her books – and she has a slew of them based on lore of different regions.

Old Red Eyes of Kingsley Plantation is another shorter telling the story of the plantation ghost that Schlossen bases her story on, and here you can learn that this ghost is attached to Kingsley Plantation on St. George Island northeast of Jacksonville, which once belonged to Zephaniah Kingsley. The old plantation house is still standing and you can see a picture at that link. The plantation is also home to the ghost of a child that fell in a well and drowned, to a woman in white, and to a flock of ghost peacocks. Well, ghostly albino peacocks, anyway!

The Red-Eyed Ghost of Hólar – Iceland

The Red-Eyed Ghost of Hólar is an Icelandic ghost with red eyes – and this is a characteristically Icelandic tale, in a lot of ways, too. It’s awesome. Ghosts and monsters in Icelandic lore have some typical characteristics, and the older the stories are, the more recognizable some of them are, like the insistent corporeality of some of them. This one is from the 16th century, so its ghost is more traditionally ghost-like than the beings that appear in the sagas, which are probably really better described as the undead – they don’t appear as incorporeal mist and just frighten you. Rather, they get up out of their graves and squeeze the crap out of you or fling your cow across the field or stomp around on your roof trying to destroy the place. [2] These ghosts are incorporeal, but this tale as told by Unnar Helga still retains some elements that make it atypical of your “archetypal European ghost story.”

So the story goes that a woman’s ghost appears in the church to a young girl running an errand for the bishop, and the ghost tells her that she was cursed by her own mother – and wouldn’t you know, the mother’s ghost was hanging out in the church, too! The girl makes peace between the two ghosts, who then disappear – but then all the other souls damned or stuck in between worlds clamor for her attention so she can help them, too. The girl decides her business is done, she’s got the book the bishop sent her for, and she’s gonna get out of dodge. But one ghost tries to stop her, locking the door to bar her exit, and demands that the girl turn and see her red eyes.

Now these damned or lost souls have been appearing in the church, mind you. So when the savvy girl overcomes that red-eyed ghost, she escapes out of the church and *into the graveyard* to get away from them. I’m telling you, there’s always something a little different about Icelandic ghost stories!

The Beast of Flanders, Nixies, and Black Dogs

My cousin Julia pointed out another European Old Red Eyes that I had never heard of before: Oude Rode Ogen or the Beast of Flanders. This rather complex tale has links with a few interesting motifs. This one supposedly also had origins in actual events, when some children disappeared in the 15th or 17th or 18th century, depending on your source (hence my skeptical “supposedly”). A shape-shifting cannibal creature was blamed. When pursued after trying to steal a young girl from her bed, he is said to have shifted into the form of a large black dog. Sadly, the events seemed to end in the lynching of an itinerant black man, and legend has it that his skin was buried in the basement of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen for some reason I have not ascertained. He prowls around in search of his skin to this day. [3] Since then, people have seen a dark figure with red eyes in the area, and mothers have used the story to threaten their children who tried to stay up past their bedtimes. [4] And children are warned not to lean over wells because a black devil might reach up and drag them down.

I can’t find any sources on this in English that aren’t all basically parroting (or outright plagiarizing) each other, and I suspect most of them are plagiarizing Guillaume de Lavigne’s 2015 book Les Chiens Celebres, Réels et Fictifs, dans l’Art, la Culture et l’Histoire — which would probably explain why I never heard of this Old Red Eyes until now. But I don’t know for sure which book or Wikipedia article or blog post came first. And I don’t read Dutch. So please – if you have evidence of this legend predating 2015, please, please let me know!

However, near as I can piece together from remaining rusty bits of Germanic languages, various repetitive blogs, and an article on by Xander van Eck, a Dutch art historian, Mechelen in general and St. Rumbold in particular have long associations with water spirits and miracles related to water. I think I’m understanding that this was probably some site of pagan significance that the Christians ultimately built a church on, as they often did, and the waters in a well in the area were believed to protect against swamp fever. And so even before St. Rumbold resurrected a young boy who had fallen into a moat and drowned, and even before his murderers tried to hide his body in a bog but were foiled by a miraculous light emanating from it, water was central to the lore and mythology of the area.

So this story of the Oude Rode Ogen has links to the Germanic water spirits called nixie, nekker, nixe, or nikker, depending on which Germanic language you’re reading about them in. In fact, Mechelen, where St. Rumbold’s is, has a village called Nekkerspoel, which literally means “pool of nekkers.”  They are shape-shifters and can take various forms when upon land, so they might be mermaids or mermen, or basically were-seals like the selkie or water horses like the kelpie. They sometimes lure people to their deaths with music like the fossegrim (who might also be enticed to teach you to play his violin if you bring him a gift like human blood, or a black animal, or some vodka). Or they may just want to drag you into the water and eat you, like Grendel’s mother in Beowulf, or the grindylow or Jenny Greenteeth. [5]

adriaen coene fish book
A sea monster in Adriaen Coenen’s 16th century Visboek. See some images here. Public domain.

And then there are the black dogs. Even though black dogs are not generally considered water spirits, they’re often encountered near water [6] or are associated with devil’s bridges. The Black Dog of Ivelet Bridge ends his appearances by diving into the river. The Mauthe Doog comes from the ocean. And they are definitely spirits of the liminal places where borders are blurry, whether at crossroads, shorelines, graveyards, or meres and caves. They might be denizens of or bounty hunters for the underworld, red-eyed hellhounds, or even Hel hounds.

They might be people who have shape-shifted, returned from the dead in hellhound form like the Beast of Flanders or Moll Bloxham of Warwick Castle to terrorize the living for revenge. Tales of devil dogs like Black Shuck and the Barghest can sometimes correlate to local political tensions — perhaps meant to associate an unpopular public figure with the demonic or portend a local pocket of hell-on-earth where the natural order is popularly perceived to have been disturbed. They might even serve multiple, complex purposes in a legend, like that of Richard Cabell, the country squire of Dartmoor. An avid hunter and all-around rotten bastard, he was apparently known as “Dirty Dick” during his life and was suspected of selling his soul to the devil and murdering his wife, among other things. When he died in 1677, fiends and black dogs appeared to howl at his tomb, and he’s said to lead black dogs his own personal version of a Wild Hunt on the anniversary of his death. [7]

Spectral hounds might in some cases even be led by angels, like Gabriel Hounds, or be part of a Wild Hunt brought about by an Anglo-Saxon thane pissing off the fairies. Sometimes they’re basically invited (or created) and are more omens or psychopomps than supernatural predators, like church grims. They absolutely will both absorb and reflect their surroundings, be shaped by them and also shape them. So of course you can find these creatures — or their relatives, anyway — in the Americas. Rawhead and Bloody Bones might make their homes in the Mississippi bayou despite not being particularly associated with water in England. [ed. turns out they *are* particularly associated with water in England, at least as of the 19th century – working on research/citations]

The fossegrim is surely a cousin of the crossroads spirit that might teach you mastery of the guitar in the Mississippi Delta (though the price may be your soul rather than vodka, and the black dog may come for you later instead of your bringing a black animal as an offering, depending on your source). European and African lore about crossroads spirits mingles and percolates through the Spanish moss into a big ol’ gumbo of folklore and folk magic in the Southern U.S., so you might meet the devil at the crossroads, or the Black Man, or a black dog. The loup garou haunts the swamps of Louisiana, the wendigo the woods of Minnesota, dog-men — skinwalkers — rural Utah, Nahuales eastern Mexico.

Wherever they appear, they’re serving some sort of cultural purpose, and their behavior and appearance will reflect their particular time/place and whatever social or spiritual anxieties or concerns are in the atmosphere. That’s what monsters do best, after all.

Red Eyes at 220 West Romana Street – Pensacola

So what does all of this have to do with Mae? Well, in a way, maybe not much. But in another way, maybe a lot, even if it’s not the in the way that I was looking for. I haven’t found any kind of actual source for Mae’s Red Eyes lore, and the more I asked family, the slipperier it got. Different people heard different things in different contexts. Mae wasn’t really into the details – she was into the effect. Red Eyes served whatever purposes he needed to serve at the time.

So while it still remains for me to collect as many Red Eyes memories as I can from whichever family members I can pin down for a minute, I’m not really confident any sort of larger picture with any details colored in is going to emerge. I suspect I’m going to find that Mae’s Red Eyes functioned over the course of 100 years on Romana Street much like the larger tales of black dogs and red-eyed ghosts and nixies function all over the world (or at least the Western world), shifting over time to meet various cultural needs, reflect cultural anxieties, reinforce certain behaviors, and convey important bits of local history, albeit in somewhat “coded” legend form. The red-eyed Beast of Flanders wouldn’t be the same creature in a different place. Neither, I think, would Red Eyes of 220 West Romana.

So now I have this kind of thing hanging around in the back of my head, wondering where Red Eyes went when Mae’s house got torn down. I haven’t written anything with it yet because it just makes me sad, but I mean to one of these days. I guess I don’t really know how to picture Red Eyes. Red Eyes was just some red eyes you could kinda glimpse under the house. I’m not sure if we were supposed to know what he looked like out from under the house. But I guess I picture a sort of snarl of darkness with some tangled hair or fur and red eyes. I guess if Red Eyes had to come out from under Mae’s house, he’d probably be smaller than he appeared in our imaginations when we pictured him under the house, probably shorter than we all thought, maybe about 4 feet tall. And I guess he’d have his worldly possessions tied up in a red bandanna on a stick slung over his shoulder.

Maybe he just shuffled down Romana St. and fell in with Sackabilly on the sidewalk once dusk hit. Maybe they went to see the Apple Lady. Or maybe they went down to the bay to hitch a ride on the Seacanamarampus somewhere – tramp steamer for Mae’s monsters. Gotta wonder what Red Eyes’ worldly possessions would even *be.* A few old cat’s eye marbles a few generations of boys lost under there? Couple of mummified rats for snacks? A few old chicken bones some cousins tossed under there, daring each other? Couple of old mop strings. A tin cup. A carved bone comb for his back fur.

Think he had a picture of Mae?


[1] I can’t link to it because I have only been able to find it on PressReader. Story was “Smokin’ the Blues” and it ran in The Commercial Appeal on 1 May 20017, written by Michael Donahue about Gary Hilton and Tom Ramsey and their cigar shop in Clarksdale. It’s the only reference outside my own family I’ve heard to Sackabilly.

For a brief overview of Rawhead, Bloodybones, and haints in the American South, this blog post from Deep South Magazine isn’t bad. And for a delightful Midwest version in which a wronged conjure woman basically creates the creature out of the corpse of her murdered pet razorback boar, see here.

[2] I have a bunch of work I did on the Old Norse draugar when I was researching monsters, concepts of the soul, and Old English literature back in grad school, after I got to wondering why there were no Anglo Saxon ghost stories and what was going on with various cultural representations of available modes of being after death – why ghosts as such weren’t really a thing yet, when they started to become a thing, and what that meant. I ultimately ended up getting a dissertation out of that question, but I didn’t focus on draugar in it. But if I can ever find any of that stuff on the Norse-Icelandic undead again I might slap some of it up here.

It really does suck to not have access to university library resources anymore – I’m still not used to it after so many years of having so much info and research “on tap.” And so I’m adjusting only very roughly and slowly to how to write things with resources and links that are publicly available for free. But I’m trying!

[3] I mean that I don’t get why they buried his skin in the church, not that I don’t get why he’d look for it. The idea that he’d roam around looking for his skin has cognates in plenty of lore about shapeshifters who can’t shift back without their human clothing (Marie de France’s Bisclavret), or who use skins to induce shapeshifting (Sigmund and Sinfjofli in Volsungasaga), or who shed their animal skin to become human and can’t shift back without them (selkies).

[4] de Lavigne, Guillaume. Les Chiens Celebres, Réels et Fictifs, dans l’Art, la Culture et l’Histoire, 2015. Probably self-published? The nekker spirit “viendrait les chercher et les mangerait tout cru” – basically, he’ll snatch them up and eat them raw (de Lavigne 40). Either everybody’s plagiarizing de Lavigne or he copy/pasted whatever he found on the internet into his book. I’m inclined to believe the former. However, de Lavigne, like a billion blog plagiarists, cites a book that as far as I can tell does not actually exist, but all these people talking about the Beast of Flanders think it does. I think it’s like the frickin’ Necronomicon myself. But this mysterious and possibly nonexistent source for some of this stuff is supposed to be in a book by a Vincent Menten called The Beast of Flanders. Whether it’s supposed to be an English, French, or Dutch work, I cannot tell you. When it was supposed to have been published and by whom I cannot tell you. And despite de Lavigne including a footnote, there is zero publication information about this book in his footnote, and his citations are definitely not professional and hence not terribly useful. It’s all very sketchy.

Anyway, one bit from de Lavigne that I did not see in all the blog posts is that the black dog is said to drag a chain behind itself. It’s a chien a la chaine, ha ha.

[5] In Beowulf, the titular character fights loads of things, but among the various monsters and hostile beings is the nicor, and they’re actually all over the place in this poem – translations just don’t always make it clear if you don’t read Old English. Prior to his arrival at Hrothgar’s, Beowulf fought with and “on ýðum slóg niceras nihtes” [amid the waves slew nicors by night] (lines 421-422). But even monstrous enemies that aren’t what you might consider “sea creatures” or water spirits often have associations with the nicor and with water. Grendel and his mother are human-shaped, can walk on land, and probably don’t have gills, but they live in an underwater cave among the sea monsters. After being mortally wounded, Grendel flees “on nicera mere” [to the nicor’s mere] (845). When Grendel’s mother — called, among other things, a brimwylf [sea wolf] (1506) — snatches unfortunate Æschere, Hrothgar’s men search in the area of the “nicorhúsa” [lit. nicor house, dwelling of the nicor] (1411). The Anglo-Saxon mere is one of those dangerous liminal spaces that’s haunted by complex creatures who provide a fascinating window into contemporary typology and ontology. We get monstrous sea-wolves with souls who are said to be the kin of Cain. Spend a minute unpacking some of that and you should have some great questions. Even if it’s not immediately coherent to us as modern readers, especially when we’re probably introduced to it in high school, once you start digging, it’s some fascinating stuff. 

[6] Bord, Janet & Bord, Colin. Alien Animals. London: Panther Books, 1985.

[7] He was so widely loathed that when the locals buried him, they first put a heavy stone on his head, then built a building on top of him in the hopes that he’d stay put. So in his case, more corporeal undead like a vampire or a draugr than a disembodied ghost. See some cool pictures here.

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  • Karma on

    Shopify’s blog capabilities leave a lot to be desired lol… I don’t see any way to reply to a comment or make them show up threaded or anything like that. And so you will probably never know that I posted a response to your comment!

    But thank you for sharing this! This is the first time I’ve heard a reference to Red Eyes that wasn’t the Jacksonville slavery-era plantation ghost. So if it’s a southeastern folk tradition, I think it’s a pretty damn obscure one. I would have bet that it was not until you told me your mother knew of a Red Eyes growing up. This is a fascinating lead in my research – thank you so much!

    It sounds like her Red Eyes, much like my great grandmother’s, didn’t necessarily have an actual narrative and any real details associated with him/it. Rather, he existed as a bogeyman with a name and a general role and not much else. Same kind of deal with Rawhead and Bloody Bones, at least up until the emergence of the witch with the pet wild boar story, which near as I’ve been able to uncover, didn’t emerge until probably the 1960s. Prior to that, there was no tale associated with the figure. It was just a name and some scary characteristics, which meant he/it could turn up anywhere at any time to serve any needed purpose, really. So the lack of detail is really part of the point, I guess you could say.

    Anybody wandering by who’s curious about the Rawhead and Bloody Bones stuff can read a bit more with some discussion of sources here, in these comments:

  • Val on

    My mom used to talk about Red Eyes. She grew up in a rural area outside of Valdosta (I think), so maybe this is a southeastern folk tradition? I grew up in Louisiana, and I’ve never heard of anyone here talk about Red Eyes.

    I’m not sure where Red Eyes lived, or who told her about Red Eyes. I just know Red Eyes could only get you in the dark. Needless to say, she is still largely terrified of the dark as an adult, but I attribute this more to being scared of her own plentiful internal demons coming for her in the dark than lingering fear of Red Eyes.

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