Return of Spring-Heeled Jack
Can you imagine a mysterious masked creature that looks like a black shadow, with a monkey-like face, flaming red eyes, and sharp metal claws, attacking people at night, jumping four stories high and disappearing into thin air? Bunk, you say? Well, that’s not what the people in East Delhi, India, thought last year. In May, just such a creature was repeatedly spotted, instilling terror and claiming two lives. The craze got to a point where vigilante groups armed with sticks patrolled the streets at night on the lookout for the creature and police announced a 50,000 rupee ($1,067) reward for information leading to its capture.1
Hey, Hey, We're The Monkees
Reports of the “Monkey Man,” as the press promptly baptized it, first reached the local police office on May 13, 2001. According to one report2 the masked man had appeared in the village of Ghaziabad around 8:30 p.m. and had remained there till 4:00 a.m., terrorizing the residents. Vineet Sharma, grandson of the first victim, said that that night, when he and his brother were sleeping with their grandmother, a masked man had entered the veranda and attacked the old lady and pushed her. She suffered bruises in the abdomen and arms. Then the assailant went into the neighbor’s house and injured a child, finally disappearing in the dark lane before villagers could be aroused.
After that first blitz, dozens of individuals in a number of areas in East Delhi claimed to have been hurt in subsequent attacks and pictures of scratched victims started to appear in daily newspapers.
Descriptions of the Monkey Man soon appeared to be contradictory: some described the entity as a masked man, others as a monkey, and a few others as a cat with glowing eyes. Some said it wore a skin-tight costume, while others stated it was a bandaged figure with a helmet. At least one witness claimed that it looked “like a remote-controlled robot like object, which jumped high in the air in a jiffy and vanished within seconds.”3
What’s certain, however, is the fact that two people (some sources say three) died because of this creature-or at least, because of the panic created. Early May 15, at 2:30 a.m., a pregnant woman in East Delhi fell down some stairs after being awakened by the shouts of neighbors saying that the Monkey Man had arrived. She died in a hospital, as did another unfortunate soul, who died in similar circumstances.
What is happening here? Is there really some freak monster out in the woods of New Delhi? Or is this some kind of evil superhero, waiting for the local Spider-man to capture him and return him to justice?
During the past century there have been tales of strange creatures or men with properties similar to this Monkey Man, such as the glowing eyes and the ability to suddenly disappear in front of witnesses. In the 1960s, in America, there was a spate of such sightings: the creature was dubbed Mothman or Owlman in different areas.4 The past few years have seen a number of sightings of a creature dubbed El Chupacabra.
However, to find another episode that has had a similar impact on the public we need to go back at least 150 years, when Victorian London fell for some time in the clutches of terror of what was then known as “Spring-Heeled Jack.”
Jumping Jack Flash
According to legend, the first reports of a strange leaping figure sighted in London date back to 1837; some descriptions tell of a strange monster, half-man half-bat, complete with wings and horns. Others refer to a powerfully built man in a shiny suit with a helmet and cloak, spitting fire.
Whatever its features, it seems that it was a series of sudden and unexpected aggressions that led an anonymous citizen to write a letter giving details of an attack by a mysterious “Spring-Heeled Jack,” to Sir John Cowan, the Lord Mayor. Cowan drew public attention to the letter and his acceptance of the rumors led to a flood of letters from individuals reporting their own previous encounters with the terrible Jack.
Young Jane Aslop, for one, told the press that one evening she answered a violent knocking at her front door. There was a man in the shadows by the front gate who identified himself as a police officer, and asked her to bring a light . . . he claimed to have captured the infamous Spring-Heeled Jack! Excited, Jane fetched a candle and hurried it out to the gate but nobody could be seen.
Suddenly, two arms grabbed her neck and began to rip up her dress and body. It was only thanks to the arrival of Jane’s sisters, alarmed by the struggle, that she was able to break free wearing only a few scars on her neck and arms. Into the distance, Jack leapt away.
Two months later, another girl, Lucy Scales, was returning home with her sister. As they entered a dark, empty alley, a tall, cloaked figure leaped from the shadows, belched blue flames into Lucy’s face, blinding her, and then disappeared again.
In the ensuing years sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack multiplied and through the 1850s and 1860s he was spotted all over England. Sometimes he enjoyed slapping sentries with his icy hands and jumping atop their guard boxes, while other times he was reported as leaping into some apartment from an open window, trashing the furniture around and then leaving by jumping out of the window again.
The few times when he was cornered he was able to escape thanks to one of his fabulous leaps. He soon became a sort of folklore figure, the subject of so called “penny dreadfuls,” melodramas and at least one later film, The Curse of the Wraydons (1946). Even mothers teaching their children to behave cried the name of that fearful bogeyman: “Be good or Spring-Heeled Jack will get you!”5
Just an Illusion
The careful reader will certainly have noticed by now the many similarities between the case of Spring-Heeled Jack and its modern equivalent, Monkey Man. In both cases a mysterious character, half-man and half-something else, on whom descriptions rarely agree, attacks defenseless people unprovoked and then disappears in an impossible way. No traces of his passage can ever be found but there are many who claim to have seen it, or at least to have felt its presence. It is in fact only on the basis of a feeling that the attacker was pursuing them that two people jumped off a roof.
Investigation by the police, finally, brings forth similar results in both cases: some scratches and bruises on the victims of the elusive creatures turn out to be caused by animal bites or accidents, while most of the wounds could have been self-inflicted by impressionable people. Statements from the victims change overnight and are vague and often contradictory. Like in the old days, when sensationalistic newspapers’ accounts fueled sightings of Jack, the same thing happened again recently. The final report from the Indian police said: “It was due to unsubstantiated media reports that people were encouraged to come out with bizarre accounts of the creature though no one had actually seen it.”6
Furthermore, in both cases a host of imitators jumped on the bandwagon: pranksters, persons of malicious intent (like in Japan, which is currently experiencing a series of “Pandaman” murders with the perpetrator wearing a Panda mask),7 and possibly some who simply saw an opportunity to get some attention.
The conclusion of Indian police is similar to one reached by those who have carefully studied the case of Spring-Heeled Jack: “The mysterious 'Monkey Man' that instilled terror and claimed three lives in the Indian capital was simply the product of the city’s collective imagination.”8
In other words, this was another sensational example of what sociologists call collective delusions. “Collective delusions,” say sociologists Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Goode, “are typified as the spontaneous, rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a particular region, culture, or country. . . . Many factors contribute to the formation and spread of collective delusions and hysterical illness: the mass media; rumors; extraordinary anxiety or excitement; cultural beliefs and stereotypes; the social and political context; and reinforcing actions by authorities such as politicians, or institutions of social control such as the police or military.”9
Usually, it all starts when, in an uncomfortable environment-dark and foggy alleys in Victorian London yesterday, degraded neighborhoods with unrepaired street lights and scarce drinkable water in New Delhi today-something unusual happens. In London, it is quite possible that some street assaults actually took place, since there have always been similar assaults anywhere in the world, but it was only following an anonymous letter that the culprit was identified as the improbable Spring-Heeled Jack. In New Delhi, likewise, it may be that some aggressive, roaming monkey got too close to some people sleeping and scared some child. This spark is usually enough to start the mania: from that moment on, anything that seems a little bit out of the ordinary immediately becomes a Monkey Man, a leaping Jack or anything else: a black cat walks on the roof? It’s Monkey Man! Two drunks get into a fight? It’s Monkey Man attacking an innocent victim!
In Victorian London the imaginary exploits of Spring-Heeled Jack were soon forgotten and replaced in popular culture by the real and horrible ones of another Jack, the Ripper. In New Delhi, on the contrary, the wave of panic resulted in street lights being turned on, plentiful buckets of water being distributed, and better police-guarded streets. As Douglas Chapman remarked in his commentary on the episode for Strangemag.com, “This may be the first time in history that fortean phenomena-genuine, error, or hoax-has resulted in improved social services.”10 Can you imagine?
- “India’s 'monkey man' branded imaginary,” ccn.com, June 22, 2001. See also: Hindustan Times, 16 May 2001; Mainichi Shimbun, 2 May 2001; Daily Pioneer, 16 and 20 May 2001; Times of India, 17 May 2001, 19 May 2001.
- “Monkey man goes amok,” Hindustan times.com, May 12, 2001 (www.hindustantimes.com/nonfram/130501/det1ST03.asp).
- Nickell, Joe. 2002. 'Mothman' Solved! Skeptical Inquirer March/April 26(2): 20.
- Begg, Paul, “Spring-Heeled Jack: The Terror of London,” in Brookesmith, Peter (ed.), Open Files, London, Orbis Publishing Ltd, 1984.
- cnn.com, op. cit.
- Chapman, Douglas, “Chaos in Delhi: Monkey Man Madness,” Strangemag.com.
- cnn.com op. cit.
- Bartholomew, Robert E., and Erich Goode. 2000. ”Mass Delusions and Hysterias.” Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 24(3): 20-28.
- Chapman, Douglas, op. cit.