6 Terrifying Wartime Myths That Are Basically Horror Movies
War, by definition, is pretty horrific. There isn't a scary story in the world that matches the atrocities of actual warfare. Yet people throughout history have passed the time on the battlefield by swapping ghost stories filled with cannibals, demonic teleportation, human body farms, and other horrors generally reserved for grindhouse movies and haunted library books. For example ...
The Wild Deserters, Ravenous Ghouls Who Haunted No Man's Land
The battlefields of the First World War were mud-drenched nightmare fuel. A soldier's station was a hole in the ground that was constantly being bombarded with mortars and mustard gas, with the closest thing to civilization being a different hole full of people who wanted to murder you. Meanwhile, the land in between was an eerie moonscape of smoking craters, dead bodies and, worst of all, soccer matches. But to your average Tommy or Fritz, what scared them most about No Man's Land were tales of a ghostly group of killers who roamed the barren lands looking for lost soldiers to prey upon.
"OOoooOOOOooooOOooo, run and leave your food rations!"
"*sigh* I know that's just you, Karl."
Comprised of soldiers from every nation fighting in the war -- Australian, Austrian, British, Canadian, French, German, Italian -- the Wild Deserters were an army of men driven mad by the bloodshed and endless poetry. They forged a new underground society inside the abandoned tunnels and craters of No Man's Land, only venturing above ground to loot the dead and dying for food, clothing, weapons, and, according to some, to feast on their flesh.
The legend persisted after the war, mostly in the literary works of former soldiers who saw the Wild Deserters as the perfect symbol for the dehumanization of modern warfare. Civvies first came face-to-face with the tale of the Wild Deserters in The Squadroon, a 1920 novel written by a British Army officer who details watching an entire convoy of POWs disappear into the ground whilst being marched across No Man's Land. A rescue attempt was planned, but according to the author was canceled by the top brass out of fear of further losses to the "ghouls." Several military memoirs thereafter also recalled encounters with the mythical murder hobos. In 1948, the oddly-cheerful Laughter In The Next Room even provided an answer to what happened to the Wild Deserters after the war had ended. According to author Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet (Bertie to his friends), Allied brass desperately gassed the battlefields in the hopes of wiping out the deranged marauders.
"Maybe you'd like a little mustard to go with your meat ..."
Though many writers gave legitimacy to the tale of the Wild Deserters, there was never any official proof of large societies of ravenous deserters living in No Man's Land. Then again, "unexploded munitions" may not be the real reason why many World War I battlefields are still off-limits.
The Beliye Kolgotky, Female Snipers Who Emasculated Their Victims
Imagine the following scenario: You're a soldier trapped in the midst of a deadly battle. It's cold, muddy, and you're cursing Call Of Duty for lying to you like this. Then, amongst the chaos, you look up and see a vision of blonde-haired beauty dressed in white. And just when you think she's an angel coming to save you, she flips the bolt handle of her rifle and shoots your penis off. That is the tale of the Beliye Kolgotky, sexy blonde markswomen straight out of a sub-par Bond movie.
Or an above par porno.
For decades now, the idea of killer female snipers has haunted the minds of Russian soldiers. Commonly referred to as the Beliye Kolgotky ("White Tights"), these mysterious femme fatales clad in pure white outfits have popped up in several Russian conflicts. The basic story is always the same: scorned women who have turned their hate for Russian men into a profitable business. Sometimes, they're former athletes turned mercenaries. Other times, they were rumored to decapitate their victims, bagging the heads in order to collect their bounties. During the Chechen War, it was even reported that the rebels were paying the White Tights $2000 per officer killed, with a very specific request: to eliminate the Russians by blowing their genitals off.
... We, uh, take back the porno joke.
For all its sexist nonsense, the legend probably does have its roots in reality, namely the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922. During the conflict, many Latvian women joined the struggle as snipers. They must've left an impression, because nearly a hundred years later the tale of ice cold queens taking out Ruskies is still going strong. However, unlike most myths, this tale doesn't live on in the hushed tones of peasants -- it's being used as Russian propaganda. Those wild claims about the bounty price and the preference for nut shots came straight out of the mouth of a representative of the Russian Ministery Of Defence, with stories of actual encounters with the Beliye Kolgotky having been disseminated through government-owned newspapers. If it were up to the Russian government, they'd gladly keep blaming every military setback on a bunch of Valkyries descending from the heavens with a grudge against Putin's manliness.
The Crucified Canadian, Wartime Torture That Sparked Canadian Fury
In April 1915, the Battle Of Ypres was raging in Belgium, one of the most casualty-heavy battles in history. But the actual carnage and bloodshed gave birth to the terrifying tale of a Canadian officer being crucified with German bayonets amidst the mayhem. As The Times described it, "he had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet, another bayonet had then been driven through his throat, and finally, he was riddled with bullets."
"And they totally peed on the bullets first, and then-"
Like any good myth, the tale of the Crucified Soldier somehow got worse and worse with each retelling. The Toronto Star claimed he'd been bayoneted over sixty times. When a British Minister raised the issue in the House Of Commons, the number of victims had risen by three. Eventually, it was even retold to include an extra forty bayoneted bodies apparently found lying at his feet. It's a good thing the war only lasted until 1918, or eventually there would have been more crucified victims than there were soldiers on the Western Front.
Almost immediately after news of the incident reached Canada, the military launched a full-scale inquiry into the atrocity. It was such a rigorous investigation that they interviewed eyewitnesses, attempted to find the body and, perhaps most importantly, checked if the area had ever been occupied by the Germans. Of course, it hadn't. The tale was subsequently written off as the product of an overactive imagination by troops who clearly needed a fake tale of bloodshed, horror, and man's inhumanity to man to distract them from the actual bloodshed, horror, and man's inhumanity to man.
As is what typically happens to urban legends, being thoroughly debunked did nothing to keep the story from spreading, such as in the 1918 propaganda film, The Prussian Cur.
And in government propaganda.
You have to admire his commitment to the crucifixion when the allies are literally right behind him.
And the massive bronze statue that was sculpted to honor the event.
"He died as he lived, popped collar and all."
After some German objections, the statue was eventually removed -- until the nineties when it was tucked away in the Canadian War Museum. In a war fought around fictional borders, outdated treaties, and a weird nostalgia for the times when armies would just stand in rows politely waiting to get shot at, it's nice to know that World War I has an actual monument to bullshit.
The Philadelphia Experiment Was Basically Event Horizon
One of the most classic urban legend tropes is the "fucked up military experimentation," which taps into our fear that Uncle Sam is inappropriately manipulating his privates in some hidden room. And no story of private manipulation is more chilling than the Philadelphia Experiment.
According to conspiracy nuts, in July 1943, the country's supply of super scientists, temporarily bored of weaponizing everything in sight, decided to take a shot at turning a US Navy ship invisible. And they succeeded! The vessel, the USS Eldridge, reportedly disappeared for several seconds before returning safe and sound to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Pretty weird how the U.S. had invisibility technology during World War II, yet no pictures exist of Hitler getting a wedgie from a ghost.
Then, in October 1943, a second experiment was carried out using USS Eldridge, this time to master teleportation. And again it worked (conspiracy theories tend to be accidentally inspirational). Eyewitnesses reported that the ship was instantaneously transported from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, and then back again. But this time, the scientists had pushed too far. When they boarded the ship to congratulate the crew, they found that every man on board had been dismembered and fused with the metal hull. The U.S. government wisely decided to cover the whole thing up and try to put it out of everyone's mind -- which would explain why they really got into experimenting with LSD.
"Dude ... I've seen some shit."
In actual fact, the USS Eldridge hadn't even been commissioned when the first experiment allegedly took place, and was moored in New York during the second one that allegedly killed the vessel's crew. However, there were actual experiments conducted during World War II to try and make ships "invisible," although not in the literal sense. You see, "invisible" was just an unnecessarily grandiose way to describe "magnetic degaussing," which reduces the magnetic field of ships so that they might be able to pass by magnetic naval mines without exploding. Not as sexy as actual invisibility or teleportation, but preventing people from being blown into bite-sized chunks never is.
However, unlike the occult experiment, the curse of the actual USS Eldridge crew is all too real. The veterans who actually served on the ship have since gone on to endure a worse fate than their flesh fusing with steel -- they have to put up with jackasses constantly bombarding them with questions about the Philadelphia Experiment.
Half the men re-enlisted so they could go to the middle of the ocean just to escape them.
The Deadly Double, The Dice Game With A Creepy Connection To Pearl Harbor
Board games seem to have an unlikely relationship with the occult. But long before the likes of the Ouija Board and Jumanji, there existed a game that turned board games into something eldritch and terrifying. We talk, of course, of the game that predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1941, the New Yorker ran a series of ominous ads for a game called The Deadly Double. The ads, which grabbed readers attention with an emboldened "Achtung!" and a menacing black eagle, featured a set of dice and urgent instructions for readers to include The Deadly Double dice game in their emergency air raid kit. Then, a few weeks later, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese fleet, and certain people suddenly felt that there was something more to this craps advert.
"We're on to your shit, craps!"
A belief quickly spread that those innocent Deadly Double ads might have actually contained a coded message warning about the attack. You see, the ad featured two dice displaying a selection of numbers. Two of the most prominently visible were 12 and 7, and the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor was December 7th (12/7). The remaining numbers were allegedly references to the time of the attack. Add in the multilingual warnings and the mentions of going to an air-raid shelter and it's not hard to see why people thought this shitty little dice game was trying to warn them about a surprise bombardment. Even more eerie, some people claimed that the company who made the game didn't actually exist.
However, just like all conspiracy theories, it was really just a single tiny coincidence that people obsessed over to the point of ignoring all of the other bits that didn't make sense. For instance, none of the rest of the numbers on the dice actually have any relation to the attack on Pearl Harbor. And far from appearing out of nowhere, the game was easily traced back to an established Chicago game company who just made the dick move of trying to exploit America's worries about the war. Ironically, the game failed because instead of capturing people's obsession with the war in Europe, it was forever linked to the attack on America that finally pulled the country into the fight against the Axis. So, the shadowy supernatural dice oracle was really just the work of a bunch of unlucky dickheads with the worst possible timing.
The Kadaververwertungsanstalt, German Factories That Made Corpse Candles
There are always shortages during wartime -- food, steel, movies that don't feature Michael Moore, etc. During World War I, however, the Allied forces speculated that the shortages in Germany were so catastrophic that they were turning to their only surplus to plug the gap. That surplus? Dead bodies.
In April 1917, The Times published an account of a mysterious facility behind enemy lines that, according to reports, was constantly receiving trainloads of corpses from the frontlines. The Germans had called this factory the Kadaververwertungsanstalt -- the corpse-processing plants, where cadavers were boiled down into goo. From there, the human soup (or dourkraut, as we're calling it) would be separated into fats and oils, treated, and sent away to be turned into items like munitions and even soap and candles, because apparently Mother's Day was coming up.
The Kaiser did love his decorative soaps.
Before long, the story had gripped everyone everywhere, from the streets to the trenches to children's nightmares as parents warned them to behave lest they be turned into soap. Quite predictably, such a perfectly evil tale turned out to be bullshit. In 1925, the British Intelligence chief, John Charteris, revealed that he'd concocted the story as part of a plot to make this whole war fit a more convenient good-versus-evil narrative. He had even hatched a plan to have a fake diary mentioning the facility planted on the corpse of dead a German soldier. With that kind of scheming, no wonder the British brass needed to go as far as inventing a corpse melting factory to convince the world that the Germans were the evil ones.
The problem with Charteris' story, however, was that it was too good. In 1942, the Allies received a cable from Switzerland claiming that the Nazis were massacring hundreds of thousands of Jews and turning their corpses into soaps and fertilizer. In a tragic The Boy Who Cried Wolf twist, British intelligence deemed the "Sternbuch cable" too similar to the bullshit they fabricated during World War I, refusing to investigate the claim. If they had, the world probably would have figured out the actual human horrors the Nazis were perpetrating sooner -- something that would have changed the course of the war in ways we can never know.
"Thanks, British Intelligence."
There's a lesson here -- if you're going to start a piece of wild propaganda to vilify your enemy, make sure it's something so inhuman that it couldn't actually happen in the future.
Oh. Right. Shit.
You know all those facts you've learned about psychology from movies and that one guy at the party who says, "Actually ..." a lot? Please forget them. Chances are none of them are true. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, the one famous psychology study people can name. It was complete bullshit. Funny story actually, it turns out that when you post flyers that say, "Hey, do you wanna be a prison guard for the weekend? Free food and nightsticks," you might not get the most stable group of young men. So join Jack O'Brien, Cracked staff members Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim, and Psychology Professor Martie G. Haselton of UCLA as they debunk Rorschach tests, the Mozart effect, and middle child syndrome, so soon you can be that person at the party who says, "Actually ..." Get your tickets here!
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