One of the glorious, challenging and invigorating things about living in New England is being surrounded by the weight of history. Our part of the country was among the first settled by Europeans. Everywhere we drive, walk and, indeed, hike, we travel over hundreds or even thousands of years of our history, and over the stories humans tell themselves to understand the places they live in. These pieces of folklore live on, not necessarily documented in traditional ways, but passed on through oral tradition.
One of the most enduring collections of Connecticut folklore are the stories about the Moodus Noises. According to Stephen Gencarella, professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, evidence of stories about the Moodus Noises stretches back at least 400 years. The name Moodus, today a village in East Haddam near the Connecticut River in southern Connecticut, itself means “noises” in the local version of the Algonquian language. (The Moodus Noises have been attributed to shallow earthquakes, but the science of the matter is not the focus of folklore studies.) “I think the Moodus Noises is arguably the most important [piece of folklore] in Connecticut. Fans of the Charter Oak will be up in arms about that. [The noises] is just a longer history and it’s much more complicated. And I would argue that the Moodus Noises has a run for being one of the most important pieces of folklore in New England,” says Gencarella.
To go on a drive or a hike with a folklorist is to watch the landscape erupt with stories and legends and history. Gencarella has developed a tour of Mount Tom in Machimoodus State Park, where much of the folklore of the noises originates. On a rainy spring day, Gencarella and I set off up Mount Tom, a perfectly wonderful hike, if not life-changingly strenuous or scenic in the cloudy weather. But as Gencarella’s history and folklore sprouts from every rock, tree and cliff, the mountain comes alive.
There are four distinct cycles of Moodus Noises folklore, Gencarella says. Their earliest known appearance in print is in 1702, when Haddam Rev. Jeremiah Hobart complains to the Connecticut General Assembly about the separatist residents of what is now East Haddam, who wanted their own parish. The reverend hoped the noises would remind them to be humble in the face of God’s awesome power. In 1729, the first minister of the new parish of East Haddam notes in a letter to a Boston intellectual that the area of Machimoodus had a large native population, and that he believes they do a “prodigious trade with the devil,” Gencarella says. Thus starts a long tradition that links the local indigenous population with the devil, a legend which lasts for hundreds of years. In his letters, Hosmer would also relay a story that a local native person said the noises were made by an enraged native god, angry that the Christian God had come. This version of the story takes off, and doesn’t end till this day.
In a 1790 edition of New London newspaper the Connecticut Gazette, an educated foreign man called Dr. Steele, or Steal, is introduced to the myth. In subsequent versions of the story, Steele has come to investigate the Moodus Noises. According to Gencarella, this is the importation of a European folktale, in which a treasure hunter of some sort investigates a mystery, often located in a river or lake, in this case the Salmon River which slithers around Mount Tom. Gencarella is of the theory that the story is inspired by an immigrant seafaring tradition of lore that located treasure with supernatural power in bodies of water.
In a third cycle in the late 1800s, the source of the noises travels up the mountain from the river, where the noises then become a part of the mountain: either witches fighting inside the mountain, or a cave nearby. Yet another fourth cycle of the myth beginning in the 1970s introduces the devil again, that it is he who inhabits Mount Tom and makes the Moodus Noises.
Gencarella says, very broadly speaking, the four cycles can correspond to four ages of anxiety for the people of the area, and the U.S. at large. The first cycle taps into colonial anxieties about indigenous people; the second about new waves of immigration with their own folklore and storytelling traditions. The introduction of witches in the third cycle ties up neatly with the increasing presence of women in public life through the suffragette movement. The fourth cycle marks the reintroduction of the devil as a character in American folklore, familiar to anyone who has seen The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, as anxiety about the ungodliness of society took hold during the backlash to the movements of the 1960s.
Gencarella says that because Connecticut is so rich with history and folklore — “the bastard child that anthropology begat upon English literature,” he says — nearly every corner of the state has a hike with a rich folkloric tradition attached to it.