Tabletop sessions can sometimes be like episodes of TV shows—there’s the pilot, the bottle episode, the two-parter—so if you’re planning on starting a new campaign this week, why not start thinking about a Halloween “episode” for you and your friends? While it’d be easy to reach for vampires or zombies as some kind of quick horror reference for your world, you can borrow from these some real-life hauntings to bring some shivering spines and ghastly encounters to your fun-filled night.
Roanoke Colony: Virginia
Our first encounter isn’t necessarily a haunting per se, but it is a real-life mystery that still captures the imagination. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched Jon White and another ship of Colonists to settle in the Chesapeake Bay region, but also to check in on the Roanoke Island colony in Virginia.
White’s scouting group turned into a new attempt to recolonize the island at the behest of fleet commander Simon Fernandez, but circumstances remained dire as relations with the local Croatan tribe remained sour thanks to previous conflict. Later that year, White sailed back for England to plead for assistance, leaving behind his newly born granddaughter and 115 colonists. When he returned, the colony and its inhabitants were gone, their houses dismantled, and the word “Croatan” carved into a tree.
The reason for the colonist’s disappearance is probably very logical and deals with tribal relations, food shortages, and adapting to survive as relief from England seems less and less likely every day. But this mystery or one like it could be perfect for your adventurers on a spooky, stormy night. What would it be like to return with White to this empty, haunting island? What danger forced the colonists to leave? Or perhaps, one day, while your characters are wandering by long after the disappearance… they suddenly reappeared?
The Fox Sisters
In the mid-19th century the United States was caught in the thrall of a religious revival that came hand in hand with a movement called Spiritualism: a religious belief that the dead have the ability and desire to interact with the living, and continue to grow and evolve in the Afterlife. This movement was spearheaded by three sisters who claimed to have the power to speak with the dead, Leah, Margaret, and Catherine Fox, and held ‘spirit circles’ at haunted locations and interpreted mysterious knockings and ghostly sounds as messages from beyond the grave.
They were a hit act and traveled the country speaking on behalf of family’s dead loved ones, many recently passed during the American Civil War. There was just one big catch: all of it was a lie. The Fox sisters confessed later in life they’d used A-grade showmanship to create unseen knockings and horrific encounters, and whipped up fear and excitement for their “clients” to make a small fortune.
At first you may think “Well if the hauntings were known to be fake, what sort of good encounter would this make?” Well dear reader, what would happen if one day, someone like the Fox Sisters had encountered something supernatural? Or if their knocking and rapping was a way to legitimately communicate with the undead? If you’ve even got the time to develop a system, you could use actual knocks and bumps as a means to communicate information to players.
Reading up more on Spiritualism may also give you incredible inspiration for supernatural encounters–though it mostly boiled out to be lies and hoaxes, this movement went so far as to capture the imagination of Arthur Conan Doyle and more tragically, the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln.
The Short Wave Radio Number Stations
During World War I, various nations began setting up short-wave number stations to broadcast coded messages over long-distance frequencies. If you weren’t a spy, and you happened upon one of these stations, all you would hear is a voice reading out a string of numbers, over, and over again. After the Cold War, these stations fell out of use, (with one major exception in 2001), but if you flip on a short-wave radio today…. you might still stumble onto one. Just a string of numbers, going out into the unknown, with no identified recipient and no clear broadcaster.
You may recognize these numbers from Call of Duty: Black Ops and a few other pieces of media that have used them to reference Cold-War spying, but their continued presence remains as haunting and eerie as it was for short-wave enthusiasts in the 1980’s. Mysterious voices, sending out coded messages, with no regard for who picks them up, except for the one who has the code. Like the Fox Sisters story, maybe it’s worth doing a little code-digging for your own, and whipping up a little recording for your party members to dig through while solving a mystery on a long Saturday night.
(Featured Image via WallpaperCave)