I don't know how or why I ended up with a Philosopher Kings CD. The band had some success in Canada, but their Juno awards probably had a heavy layer of dust by the time I slid their first record into my car's CD player. I can't tell you the names of any of their songs without Google, and even then, I only vaguely recall their Bob Dylan cover. The only reason I remember the Philosopher Kings at all is because I was in two car accidents—neither one my fault—while their Ontarian attempts at R&B played on that Oldsmobile stereo.
After the second crash, I was too freaked out to listen to it again, anywhere. I hadn't thought about that record in years, not until I read J.W. Ocker's latest book. In Cursed Objects: Strange But True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items, the Edgar Award-winning author turns his attention to some of the historical artifacts, jewelry, paintings and sometimes innocuous-looking home furnishings that have brought bad luck and misery to the people who encountered them—assuming that those cursed things didn't just kill them first.
"A cursed object is an object that gathers stories to itself—and more specifically, tragedies," he writes. Ocker covers the backstories and the tragedies associated with several dozen of them, and they range from the infamous (like the tomb of Tutankhamen) to the previously unknown (like the chest of drawers that might've quietly offed 15 members of the same family).
Because 2020 is definitely the year when we'd accidentally buy a cursed ring at an estate sale, VICE called Ocker to talk about what makes these objects so dangerous, why they're not 'haunted,' and what to do if we think we might have, for example, a particularly fucked up Philosopher Kings CD in the house.
VICE: In your previous books, you've toured Edgar Allan Poe's homes and covered Salem, Massachusetts' whole haunted vibe. What made you switch your focus from creepy places to cursed objects?
J.W. Ocker: It was a combination of things. I've always been interested in artifacts and in anything weird and physical, like a memorial or a historical site. Cursed objects are pretty amazing because they have two types of stories to them, which other objects don't have. Most of them have legit histories behind them, and the ones that are in museums are actual cultural artifacts, too. Then there are the paranormal stories that run parallel to that. I always start with the Hope Diamond, as an example. That thing has a 700-year history, starting in the mines in India, then going to French royalty, then making its way to England and then to the United States. But along with that history are these tales of tragedy and the supernatural that it might've caused too.
The Hope Diamond and King Tut's tomb both come to mind when most of us think about big-time curses. Was there a particular item that you read about or encountered that really got your attention?
One of the big conclusions that I came to was that there aren't a lot of famous cursed objects. I don't know why that is, or what that means, but so many of them are still largely unknown. When I started researching this, a friend sent me two academic sources about [a stone figure called] the Little Mannie. I had never heard of it in my entire life, and I started digging into it and there's this whole story from the museum workers [who encountered it] and a newspaper that picked it up. There's a massive story here in this little figurine that I didn't know about, with a documented cultural and paranormal history, and it made me wonder how many others I was missing. If Little Mannie's out there, then what else is out there that we don't know about?
Having an actual documented history seemed to be a requirement for the objects you included. Did you ever start researching something, or start fact-checking a story only to realize that there wasn't anything there?
Yeah, that happens a lot and it's usually pretty, pretty obvious when it does. Like, there are a million cursed objects on eBay right now. Some of those in the past have gone on to become real artifacts, like the dybbuk box or the 'Hands Resist Him' painting, but those are just two out of the thousands and thousands on eBay. It's easy to find something that somebody says is cursed, but with no real story wrapped around it. I went to St. Augustine, Florida because there was a cursed cat rug down there. It's a rug with a cat on it and the whole thing is made out of cat hair. It was found in Ancient Egypt, wrapped around a mummy, and the mummy's foot is on display with the rug in the Villa Zorayda Museum. The curse is that if you walk across it, you die. That's cool and creepy, but that's it: There's no list of victims and there's no narrative around it. King Tut's tomb and Otzi the Iceman have really long hit lists, and that's what I need, as a storyteller looking for a story.
Why do you think that these stories endure and people are so willing to accept that, like, this thing is what caused all of their misfortune?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First, a lot of these artifacts are too expensive for regular people to buy. I'm not making any assumptions, but I couldn't afford the Hope diamond. Rich people will always fall into weird troubles, and it's usually generational. The first generation makes the money, the second generation is really bad with money, they fall on hard times and all that. The most expensive cursed objects are tied to the rich, and to whatever bad stuff they get into. The other reason is because it's a physical thing, and there's a point of undeniability about it. The story is wrapped around that particular object, and if it's real, then the stories must be real, too.
It's also easier to say 'this thing is the cause of my problems' as opposed to 'I am the cause of my problems.' You don't have to accept any responsibility for your own questionable decisions.
Yeah, again, the rich can find ways to gamble their money away, they have infidelities, they're doing all of these things so sure, blame it on the Hope diamond for the fact that you never got the tools to exist as a human being.
In the book, you make a distinction between a cursed object and a haunted object. Why was it important to establish those as two separate things?
In my experience, ghosts rarely hurt people. Like 99% of the time, the ghost story—and we're talking real-life ghost stories—it ends with 'we ran away' or 'then we moved' or 'then the priest came.' Ghosts rarely harm, and for a cursed object to be a cursed object, it has to harm someone. I felt like I had to make that distinction to say that we're not just talking about objects that are creepy, because they're usually not. They're just chairs, lamps, and vases and stuff, but they also cause misfortune. It's usually death, but also financial loss, strife, that kind of thing. If a haunted object does cause serial harm and it hurts more than one person, then it becomes a cursed object as well. Annabelle is technically a possessed doll with the spirit of a little girl trapped inside, but she also wants to hurt everyone. Cursed objects are supposed to be dangerous.
You included Annabelle and the Warren Occult Museum where she's kept in a section on the 'business' of cursed objects, which included other for-profit museums. Are you surprised that cursed things have been commodified?
Not really, but only because we have such a precedent for it, after turning haunted houses and chasing ghosts into marketable things. What does surprise me is the cognitive dissonance we need to do that. In order to have a museum of cursed objects, and to charge people to see them, you have to have those things on site at all times, and the public has to be convinced that it's both dangerous and that they can see and touch it. We almost treat them like rollercoasters, in that it's something that can both give me a thrill and harm me. But the second you decide that you're OK with going into, say, Zak Bagans' museum into a room filled with cursed objects, your practical actions are saying that you don't believe [that they are cursed].
On the other hand, if someone really does think that they have a cursed object or that they're being affected by one, what should they do with it?
First, if they're already suspecting a particular object, they're a genius. When I do a presentation, I show two slides: one is a chest of drawers, and the other is a mummified serial killer's head. I ask which of them looks cursed, and obviously it's the head—but what's so insidious about cursed objects is how mundane they are. If you start having misfortune in your life, or people in your life start dying, you're never going to suspect the rocking chair or the ottoman. But if you do, then send that thing to one of those museums [of cursed objects]. There is a recipe for deactivating them that is salt and prayer, water and sunlight, but honestly, I'd just say just get rid of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.