“Be cautious of bears at all times, even when being mauled by a tiger” – Craig Benzine
I have a question for the trickster gods that seem to be running the show around here. Are ghost bears really necessary? I mean, come on. As anyone who’s ever been within 50 feet of a bear in the wild can tell you, bears are plenty terrifying in their mundane, corporeal form. Ghost bears just add insult to injury. It’s an odd proclivity of the human race that we always feel the need to compound the terror. The popular sociological trope is that monsters, ghosts, and the various things that go bump in the night are designed as road signs on the liminal highway, that is they let us know where our cultural boundaries lay, e.g. promiscuity at summer camp leads to fatal flesh wounds, you probably won’t make it out of the dark forest alive, selling your soul to the devil never ends well, and necromancy should be left to the professionals. Okay, I made the last one up, but it seems like good advice anyway. So why in god’s name would we need a liminal signpost for bears? We all know, and have known for at least 200,000 years, that the best way to engage with a bear is to be somewhere else. And while ghost bears may be overkill in an already decidedly nightmarish universe, people nonetheless keep reporting them, even in places that have rich histories of other creepiness, like the Tower of London (which has no shortage of ghosts, so no need to throw a bear in there).
More than sixty years ago, Mr. Edmund Lenthal Swifte, some time Keeper of the Crown Jewels, published an account of a fatal event which had taken place during his tenure of office at the Tower. One of the sentries on night-duty at the Jewel Office (which, by the way, is said to have been the prison of Anne Boleyn) saw an apparition, in form like a huge bear, issuing from underneath the door of the Jewel Room. He thrust at it with his bayonet (which stuck in the door), fell in a fit, and was presently carried senseless to the guard-room. (It would be interesting to know if the bayonet-mark is still in the door.) Mr. Swifte visited him there next day, and heard him tell his experience. His companion of the watch was present, and testified that he had seen and spoken to him just before the alarm, and had found him “awake and alert.” “I saw him once again,” adds Mr. Swifte, “on the following day, but changed beyond my recognition; in another day or two the brave and steady soldier …died at the presence of a shadow.” (Macleod, 1921, p106-107).
Edmund Lenthal Swifte, an employee at the Tower during the ghost bear encounter, and the source of the tale, emphasized, “His fellow-sentry declared that the man was neither asleep nor drunk, he himself having seen him the moment before awake and sober. Of all this, I avouch nothing more than that I saw the poor man in the guard-house prostrated with terror, and that in two or three days the ‘fatal result,’ be it of fact or of fancy, was—that he died” (Swifte, 1860, p192). It’s no wonder the poor fellow died of fright. Running into a ghost in the Tower of London would be unnerving enough. Running into a ghost bear is a recipe for a heart attack. Victorian ghost hunter Elliott O’Donnell was similarly surprised by how many ghost bears were lumbering about out there, and mentioned it when he mused on the case of the Ghost Bear in the Tower.
Mr. George Offer, in referring to this incident, alludes to queer noises having been heard at the time the figure appeared. Presuming that the sentinel was not the victim of a hallucination, the question arises as to the kind of spirit that he saw. The bear, judging by cases that have been told me, is by no means an uncommon occult phenomenon (O’Donnell, 1913, p237).
Now, a bear will maul you and eat you. A ghost bear will scare you to death. A Transylvanian ghost bear takes it to the next level, burning you to a crisp and vandalizing your gun for good measure.
In a case reported in the Occult Review in 1914, under the title of “The Precolitsch,” a sentry in Transylvania was actually killed by an evil spirit in the form of something resembling a huge bear; in this case the unfortunate man’s body was scorched black, and the barrel of his musket found bent into a semicircle (Macleod, 1921, p107).
Lest you think that ghost bears are a peculiarly Victorian invention, it seems we can go back to the Homeric Hymns, and find the Greek gods terrorizing sailors by transforming themselves, not just into bears, but phantom bears.
In the first of the Homeric Hymns l to Dionysos, we read how the god appeared as a youth on the sea-shore, and was seized by Tyrsenian pirates, who in vain attempt to bind him. The fetters fall from his hands and feet and he continued sitting smiling with dark blue eyes. The wise pilot, Medeides, warns the infatuated crew that the beautiful stranger must be a god, Zeus, Apollon, or Poseidon; but they, like Lykourgos and other contemners of Dionysos, are stricken with blindness, and bring him on board their ship. Then wonders appear. Wine trickles down the deck, ivy twines round mast and oars, and the vine covers the sails. The god changing into a lion, and further alarming the pirates by the apparition of a phantom bear, seizes on the captain while the terrified crew leap overboard and are changed into dolphins; and the wise pilot is crowned with good fortune and encouraged by the god who reveals himself as Dionyso Eribromos, the Loud-shouting, whom a Kadmeian mother Semele bore, being embraced by Zeus (Brown, 1877, p26).
Major-General David J.F. Newall of the Bengal Horse Artillery, recounting his years with the British Army in India, in all his world travels knocking heads for King and Country, only ever saw but one ghost. Of course it was a ghost bear.
At Sopur we found a division of Golaub Sing’s army encamped. We proceeded downstream to Baramoola, and there, finally leaving our boats, marched leisurely along the banks of the river to Oorie. The Jhelum is here a turbulent mountain stream, and its banks present some very picturesque points of view. We shot our way along; and here I may recount a curious incident, where I beheld the only ghost it has fallen to my lot to encounter in life—the ghost of a bear! We were sitting at our mid-day breakfast on the banks of a clear pool of water in the forest when I distinctly seemed to see a large bear deliberately walk down to the water’s edge and drink. I caught up my gun and gave the alarm! But no bear was there, or even could have been, as we found no traces! (Newall, 1882, p33).
There are certainly instances of robust folklore surrounding local phantom bears, although there does seem to be some confusion over whether the ghost is a ghost bear or ghost dog, particularly in Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire. Such ambiguity is understandable, as both dogs and bears belong to the carnivore suborder of Caniformia (“means dog-like”), generally characterized by long snouts and non-retractable claws.
In the village of Barnack, in Northamptonshire, the Shagfoal is a “great spectral bear,” or a huge animal generally supposed to resemble a bear; it is not white. In the township of Thorney, in Cambridgeshire, it is a spectre, “half a horse and half a dog,” and of great size, but which half is horse and which half dog does not appear to be known. At another village, Ailesworth, not far from either of the above-named places, the Shagfoal is “large, and has ﬂaming eyes.” The Shagfoal is or has been somewhat feared, but like ghosts generally, the fear it creates is the only harm it does. The animal appears at rare intervals, and at Thorney only in the month of August. It is not usually very particular where it appears, it may be in the cow-pastures, in the hills, or in the village streets; at Thorney, however, it is only seen beside the thicket on the Wisbech road. The animal is however very particular about the time, never displaying itself during the day or even during the night, but only at dusk. No wonder, therefore, that those who have seen the animal should have a hazy idea as to its build and other characteristics, and that the rising generation should feel grave doubts as to its existence (Northamptonshire Natural History Society, 1903, p15).
Stories of spectral bears can be found in the folklore of the North Carolina highlands, which also mention the disconcerting element that the locals are abundantly familiar with it, and that it screams at you with a human voice. Again, totally unnecessary. I would run at a polite growl from a bear.
Going home one night by Crackwhip Furnace, Mr. B. beheld the likeness of a black bear in front of him. It screamed horribly at him with a human voice. His horse was terrified, and when the thing came nearer and screamed again, he rode for his life. Half a mile away from the spot the same dreadful cry sounded in his ears more shrill and appalling than ever! The above is a plain matter-of-fact statement of a not unusual occurrence. It is related in a most meagre fashion, with no conscious literary art, and no detailed description, nothing but a commonplace reference to a familiar haunt (Bayley, 1920, p116).
Since we’re considering the lack of a need for phantom bears, we can’t fail to note the mother of all monster bears, the onikuma of Japanese mythology, an upright-walking demon bear that sneaks into villages at night to steal food and livestock. The onikuma is another of those pesky supernatural yōkai, and in this instance it is said that when a bear has lived a 100 years, it inevitably becomes an onikuma. The whole 100 year thing is big with yōkai. If your umbrella lasts 100 years, it becomes some sort of monstrous, one-footed demon umbrella.
So, phantasmagoric bears do not seem like a necessity. Perhaps they are just a reflection of what naturalist John Muir always knew when he said, “Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear’s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain. And whether he at last goes to our stingy heaven or no, he has terrestrial immortality. His life not long, not short, knows no beginning, no ending”.
Bayley, Emily Elizabeth. Folklore of the North Carolina Mountains. Thesis,University of Illinois, 1920.
Brown, Robert, 1844-. The Great Dionysiak Myth. London: Longmans, 1877.
Macleod, Philip. “Some Dangerous Apparitions”. Rider’s Review v34. London, 1921.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Animal Ghosts; Or Animal Hauntings & the Hereafter. London: W. Rider & son, 1913.
Swifte, Edmund Lenthal. “Ghost in the Tower”. Notes And Queries Series 2, v.10 (Jul-Dec). London [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 1860.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death–what? Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1909.
Newall, D. J. F. The Highlands of India. London: Harrison, 1882.
Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Field Club “The Shagfoal”. Journal of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Field Club v12. Northampton [England]: The Society, 1903.