Shirley Spycalla lives on the tiny island of Montserrat in the eastern Caribbean where, with her husband Lou, she runs the Erindell Villa Guesthouse.
While holidaymakers love the Caribbean for its sandy white beaches and clear turquoise waters, beneath the stunning scenery these islands are positively steeped in dark tales of mysterious forces and supernatural beings, the best-known example being the widespread belief in zombies, or “jumbies”.
Shirley knows more than most about this aspect of the Caribbean. Not only has she collected numerous real-life accounts of uncanny incidents from these islands, but she has also had several very strange experiences herself. Among these is the following, which she told me last week took place on the island of Grenada in around 1954:
“I was twelve or thirteen, and on my way home from school at about half past three one afternoon. At the Woolwich Road junction there were four men doing road repairs. I said good afternoon to them, politely. They responded likewise and then went back to their labour - all except one man, who continued to watch me all the way up the road. I couldn’t help but notice that this particular man was tall, with very black skin, and that he had bright red eyes that did not blink.”
She wasn’t the only one to notice him. When Shirley arrived home she found the family’s housekeeper, Dore, in tears, telling Shirley’s mother that she wanted to return at once to St. Kitts (as Saint Christopher Island is informally known).
“She told Mammy that a black man with red eyes kept coming to the kitchen door and asking for water or matches. He had done this several times during the day and always waited outside the kitchen door until she brought the water or matches. On the last occasion however, when she returned with the water, the man was standing inside the doorway. She was convinced that the man was a soucouyant and that it was going to come to suck her blood that night!”
I had previously come across the word soucouyant being used as one name for a type of witch who takes off her wrinkled skin at night to fly around as a fireball and suck blood from people. As with tales of other vampire-like creatures around the world, however, descriptions of the soucouyant seem to be quite mutable, the details varying from place to place and overlapping with those in stories of other supernatural entities.
Appropriately enough, Shirley told me that the soucouyant was said to be able to change its form:
“It becomes a shape shifter through black magic and, at night, sucks the blood of its victims. Sometimes the loss of blood is quite serious. In the shape of a lizard, a mosquito, or some other small insect, animal, or object, it can enter a victim’s room while the victim is asleep.”
It was that reported ability to enter its victim’s room that had so scared Shirley’s housekeeper, because Dore had heard stories that a soucouyant that entered your house during the day would be able to return at night to feast on your blood. Shirley’s mother laughed off Dore’s fears, as did the young Shirley, but the following morning, when the housekeeper had not prepared breakfast at the usual time, Shirley was sent to the servants’ quarters to see if Dore had overslept:
“After knocking several times, I peeped through a crack in the window and saw her lying on her bed motionless, with a deathly pallor. I called her name several times but she didn’t answer.”
Frightened, Shirley fetched her mother, and together they entered the housekeeper’s bedroom:
“Dore appeared to have lost quite a bit of blood, but she came to enough to show us her arm. In the bend of her arm, we saw two puncture wounds on which there were spots of dried blood. I saw it ‘with my own two eyes’! Well, she didn’t stay another day in Grenada. Daddy took her to the airport that afternoon, and off she went, back to her home in St. Kitts.”
Years later, Shirley bumped into Dore at the St. Kitts airport. The now elderly woman remembered only too well what had happened, but despite the passage of time she remained too scared to talk about it.
What particularly unnerved Shirley was that, “after all those years, she still had the scars of the creature’s bite in her arm.”
Shirley’s researches have since taught her that such incidents are reported “more often than one would wish” in Grenada. She also now knows the sort of defences traditionally employed to safeguard oneself against attacks by entities such as the soucouyant:
“In hindsight I know now that, had we taken her seriously, one of us could have sprinkled a line of salt, sand, or rice along her windowsill and across her doorway. Before being free to enter Dore’s bedroom, the entity would have been obliged to pick up grain by grain of the salt, etc., and thus would have been caught by the rising sun.”
Shirley is currently hard at work on a book called Dancing with the Dead about “growing up in the Caribbean with ghosts and ghouls”, and for this she has collected dozens of accounts of mysterious happenings there.
Having been given a sneak preview of some of the completed material I can’t wait to read the full book when it eventually comes out, and hope to be able to bring you further news when it does.
Images 1, 3: fakelvis (Lloyd Morgan) at Flickr; image 2: Ruth L at Flickr