The 1970s show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, about a hard-bitten newspaper reporter who constantly stumbles across monsters in modern-day Chicago, is my all-time favorite TV series. Most critics agree that the episode “Horror of the Heights,” scripted by Hammer Films alumnus Jimmy Sangster, is the best of the series. In it a Hindu demon called the Rakshasa, a hairy, toothy, humanoid flesh-eater, preys upon the elderly Jewish inhabitants of a Chicago neighborhood. Not satisfied with a simple shape-shifting spirit, Sangster kept his monster to one form – but it can telepathically project images into its victims’ minds, who see someone they know and trust instead of a fanged and clawed predator, and who walk happily into its shaggy outstretched arms.
The closing lines of "Horror in the Heights" always remind me of this account from that early volume published by the Society for Psychical Research, Phantasms of the Living. The story came from John Rouse of Croydon (a borough of London). Rouse worked for Cockerells, a coal-distribution company, but he was also a member of a group “which met to investigate spiritualistic phenomena” (which sounds a little Kolchakian in itself). A “Mrs. W.” was part of this group, “between whom and himself a strong sympathy existed.”
In the spring of 1873 Rouse traveled to Norwich on business. At about 11:00 PM he decided to take a walk in a rural area on the edge of town.
“It was in the brightest moonlight, about full moon, I should think, with hardly a cloud in the sky,” Rouse recalled. He mounted the summit of a hill and could see far across the land in the silvery lunar light. The only moving object for miles was a human figure on the road ahead, which was walking his way. As the two drew closer to one another, the coal representative decided it must be a country woman hiking to Norwich with eggs and other produce to sell at the market. Rouse continues: “The next moment I began to fear that, the time and place being so lonely, the woman would be afraid to pass me. I, therefore, under this feeling, got as near as possible to one side of the road, thus giving her all the width on the other side to pass; but, to my astonishment, she also left the middle of the road, and took the same side as myself, as if determined to meet me face to face. I then walked into the middle of the road, thinking I would avoid her, but to my surprise, the woman did the same.”
Though the figure was a woman, it was no farmwife: "I could plainly see that the figure before me was a well-dressed lady in evening dress, without bonnet or shawl. I could see some ornament or flower in her hair, gold bracelets on her bare arms, rings on her fingers, and could hear the rustle of her dress.” No matter where he walked on the road, she shifted to match him, as if intending to crash right into him.
Mr. Rouse suddenly recognized the woman as Mrs. W. from London. He was not overly shocked; he assumed that some business had brought her to Norwich as it had himself. The two late night pedestrians came within five feet of each other.
“She held out her hand to me, and I could see her face and lips move as if about to speak to me. I was in the act of taking her hand to greet her, but had not touched her, when some iron hurdles which formed the fencing of the cattle market, rang as if they were being struck with an iron bar. This startled me, and unconsciously I turned round to see what made the noise. I could see nothing, and instantly turned again to Mrs. W. but she was gone.” [Sidgwick, pp. 366-367]
Mr. Rouse sensed something strange was going on. He walked swiftly back to Norwich and spent a sleepless night in his hotel room. The next day he made inquiries about Mrs. W. and was informed that the woman was quite well, and had been in London that night among friends.
Misdirection that pulls one’s attention from a strange sight is not unknown in fortean tales. “We have found in a number of instances that, while mobs of monster-chasers were combing one forest or swamp, UFOs were engaged in covert activities only a few miles away,” notes John Keel. [Keel, p. 129] In folklore there is the old saw that a Leprechaun is under your power unless it can get you to look away.
I keep thinking of The Night Stalker episode, though. We learn in “Horror in the Heights” that only a crossbow bolt blessed by a priest can kill a Rakshasa, and there are apparently “Rakshasa hunters” roaming the world watching for the ravenous demons. Perhaps the "clanging noise" at the fence was a crossbow bolt ricocheting off the iron hurdles, fired by a nearby Rakshasa slayer, and the creature itself vanished "like the cowards they are."
I hope Mr. Rouse counted his blessings. As Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) finishes up in “Horror”: “And if you happen to be walking along a lonely country road one night and you see your favorite aunt coming towards you . . . Good luck to you, too!”
Keel, John A. Strange Creatures from Time and Space (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1970).
Sidgwick, Eleanor, et. al, eds. Phantasms of the Living (University Books: New Hyde Park, NY, 1962 ).