Sometimes, it feels like life is just getting stranger and stranger — and if you were just going by each year's fresh batch of scary news stories, you could be forgiven for believing that the world is getting creepier, weirder, and scarier. But if you've been worried about that, I have some really good news for you — the world has always been incredibly creepy, weird, and scary! What a relief, right? OK, well, this was a good talk we had here. Good night!
OK, fine. I know that's not exactly the dictionary definition of "good news." But still, it can be a little bit soothing to realize that bizarre modern news stories that make you question how the world operates — like those about the Westfield Watcher, or the unsolved death of Elisa Lam — are scary and troubling, but they're really nothing new. The world has been full of creepy, bizarre and terrifying news for centuries — lots of people just didn't notice, because no one had invented Reddit yet. Um, good job, us?
If you're curious about what a creepy-ass place the U.S. has always been — or just need some ammo for the next time you argue with a relative who likes to go on rants about how this country has been going to hell in a hand basket lately — read on and dig into four scary, freaky, and creepy true stories from the past century that you probably haven't heard before. Because if we're in a hand basket, we've been there for a while.
1. The Boston Molasses Disaster Of 1919
If you're anything like me, you'll often stroll around and think to yourself, "What a wonderful day! I can't imagine anything ruining this day — like, say, I don't know, a giant wave of molasses rolling down the street, destroying everyone and everything in its path." Can you believe that, for one day in American history, people who had that thought were sadly incorrect?
On January 15, 1919, a tank filled with over two million gallons of molasses ruptured on Boston's Commercial Street, sending a 25-foot wave of the sweet stuff down the block, killing 21 people and injuring 150 more. The wave was so thick and powerful that it even damaged some nearby elevated train tracks. It took weeks for workers to clean up the Boston Molasses Disaster, which was later blamed on shoddy tank construction.
2. The Ghost Blimp Of 1942
In 1942, blimps were a thing — or at least, much more of a thing than they are now. Back then, blimps were a legitimate form a transport, and it wasn't unusual to see one floating around in the sky as you listened to old-timey radio plays or planted your Victory Garden or did whatever other things people did as leisure activities in 1942 (probably only those two things).
What you didn't see, however, were many abandoned blimps floating around in the sky — you know, on account of how awfully difficult it is to get out of a blimp once it is in use. And yet, that very thing happened on August 16, 1942, when a Navy blimp which was supposed to be out over the sea near San Francisco looking for enemy submarines was instead spotted floating off-course near the town of Daly City. The blimp soon crashed into a nearby home. However, when the blimp was examined, rescuers found no trace of the ship's two-man crew. The abandoned blimp showed no signs of struggle, the parachutes were unused (though the life jackets were missing), and the confidential military information on board hadn't been stolen. One crew member's cap was still on the control panel. What the hell happened here?
Before some smart aleck out there says, "Well, I'd say they fell out": Yes, of course they fell out! But why did they fall out? Over 70 years later, no one has ever quite figured it out. Theories have included everything from both crew members falling out while trying to do emergency maintenance on the blimp to both men being captured by the crew of the enemy submarines that they were trying to monitor. The important thing to remember is that, just as our generation didn't invent youth rebellion or edgy sexuality, we also didn't invent terrifying aviation mysteries! Like, seriously.
3. The New Jersey Shark Attacks Of 1916
Jaws doesn't seem like it should be based on a true story, right? Though the 1975 film (about a shark whose hobbies include eating nude girls and terrorizing a small seaside community) is a classic, it seems thoroughly improbable. Don't sharks only eat people by accident? You know, like when a trick of the light accidentally makes a swimming human look like a delicious, delicious seal? But while Jaws author Peter Benchley has denied that his story was inspired by any true tales, the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 are just about the only story on record of a single shark flipping out and going on a killing rampage in the U.S.
Over the course of 12 days in July of 1916, historians believe a single shark traveled 75 miles through New Jersey, from Beach Haven to Spring Lake to Matawan, making stops to kill in each town. The shark fatally attacked one man swimming in the sea in Beach Haven on July 1, and another man doing the same in Spring Lake on July 6 — which, while horrifying, is at least kind of understandable. No one wants to get bitten by a shark in the ocean, of course, but at least it makes sense.
But the true story actually diverges from Jaws in that it ends in a less believable way — with the shark turning away from the sea and traveling through creeks to get to Matawan, which was 15 miles inland, on July 12. The shark ended up in Matawan Creek, where it was spotted by a retired sea captain — who, in classic horror story tradition, was blown off by local authorities who thought he was nuts.
That disbelief lasted a few hours, until a local boy playing in the creek was attacked by the shark and pulled under. His friends ran off and gathered a search party, who weren't totally sold on the idea that a shark was responsible for the boy's death ... until a young man in the search party was also attacked by the shark. The man managed to get away from the shark, but soon died from his injuries. The shark then went further up the creek, attacking another young boy, who was pulled to safety by friends and was injured but survived.
The tale of the Matawan Man-Eater, as the papers called the shark, ended on July 14, when the shark attacked a fishing boat in Raritan Bay (just like in a certain movie that is definitely not based on this story). The two men in the fishing boat managed to kill the shark, which, when dragged ashore, was found to have 15 pounds of human viscera inside it.
The wildest part of this entire story, of course, is that sharks generally don't attack people. They're far from the malicious creatures depicted in most aquatic action films. Mostly, they just want to be left alone to eat delicious, delicious seals. So what went wrong with the Matawan Man-Eater? Was it rabid? Did it go crazy? Can a shark go crazy? Ichthyologist George Burgess told Smithsonian Magazine: "[I]t could have been a shark that was either injured or had some sort of deformity ... We know, for instance, that lions or elephants with injuries to their feet or a rotten tooth have sometimes been implicated in attacks on humans because they are feeling pain from these other things. It is very unusual for sharks, though. We don’t have very many instances in all of our studies on sharks where we can attribute multiple attacks to a single individual, the so-called rogue shark."
But of course, we'll never know for sure what caused the Matawan Man-Eater to go on a rampage, or why there hasn't been another reported case like it in the century since. So we will all just have to make due drawing our own personal conclusions from this story. Mine is that all shark movies are factually accurate, so Tara Reid was right and sharknados are scientifically possible! Can't wait to hear yours!
4. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders Of 1946
OK, fine, was that story too PG-rated for you? I find the idea of a shark attacking me to be profoundly terrifying — way more so than the idea of another human attacking me, frankly — but fine, we'll do it your way.
You know how so many urban legends involve a masked murderer who sneaks up on young couples making out in a car in the middle of the night and then mercilessly kills them? Why, so many that it was actually a part of the film Urban Legends! But guess what, hot shot: That ain't no legend. That tale is based off the real story of a series of murders that happened in Texarkana, Texas, in 1946.
In fact, the Texarkana Moonlight Murders follow the urban legend all the way to the end — because as in those campfire tales, the person responsible for four murders in that small town over the course of two and a half months was never caught.
Despite there being a number of survivors, no one was ever charged with the crimes — three of which involved young couples in parked cars, and one of which involved a middle-aged couple who were shot in their home. The murders stopped as suddenly as they began, and they have captivated the imaginations of many American ever since. The story was adapted into a diverse array of media, including the original 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a 2014 remake, and your nightmares tonight!
See? The world's not getting any scarier! Because it has always been straight-up terrifying.
Images: Blumhouse Productions, GIphy (4)