The Dead Hand is a scary story about a bog in Ireland that is rumored to be haunted by strange and disturbing creatures. It is based on a folktale collected by MC Balfour in her book, “Legends of the Lincolnshire Cars”. A version of this legend appeared in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
There was a small village in Ireland that lay on the edge of a large bog. The marshy land stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with small, bushy weeds and the skeletons of tall, ragged trees with branches that reached out like long, twisted arms.
The soggy ground could be dangerous because it was riddled with many deep bog holes that were filled with black, murky water. The bog holes were often hidden behind clumps of foliage and it was important to watch your step. If a man accidentally fell down a bog hole, he would never come up again.
It was a fearsome place, if all the tales told about it are true. It was before my time, but I have heard many a strange story about the bog and it would make your skin creep, just to listen to them.
Every day, the men in the village went out onto the bog and toiled for hours, cutting the turf. They loaded it up into wheelbarrows and hauled it home to dry it in the sun. They used the turf for fuel, burning it in the fireplace to heat their homes. They were also able to sell it to make money.
But, after the sun had set, nobody would dare venture out in the darkness onto that desolate bog. In the moonlight, the wind would whistle through the dead branches of the twisted trees. Those who lived nearby would often glimpse strange shapes creeping across the deserted stretch of swamp.
There were rumors throughout the village that strange creatures emerged from the bog holes at night. People were so afraid that they refused to leave their homes after dark. There was only one person in the village who did not believe in these creatures, a tall young man by the name of Tom McManus. Everybody knew him as “Long Tom”.
On his way home from work, as the light began to fade, he’d often whisper to his friends, “There’s one!” and they would jump and run. And Tom would laugh and laugh. Finally some of his friends turned on him. “If you know so much,” they said, “why don’t you go out onto the bog some night and see what happens to you.”
“I’ll do it,” said Long Tom. “Sure, don’t I work out there every day? Not once have I ever seen anything to frighten me. Why would it be different at night? Tomorrow night I’ll take my lantern and walk out to the hanging willow tree in the middle of the bog. If I get scared and run, I’ll never make fun of you again.”
The next night the men went to Long Tom McManus’s house to see him on his way. It was the blackest of nights and thick clouds obscured the moon, blocking out the light. When they arrived, Tom’s mother was pleading with him not to go.
“I’ll be all right,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t be foolish like the rest.”
He took his lantern and singing to himself, headed down the path that led to the bog. Some of the young men wondered if Tom wasn’t right. Maybe they were afraid of things that did not exist. A few decided to follow him and see for themselves, but they stayed far behind in case he ran into trouble. They were sure they saw dark shapes moving about. But Tom’s lantern kept bobbing up and down, and Tom’s voice kept floating back to them, and nothing happened.
Finally they caught sight of the willow tree. There was Tom standing in a circle of light, looking this way and that, whistling a happy tune. All of a sudden the wind blew out his lantern, and Tom suddenly stopped whistling. The men stood silent and still in the blackness, straining their eyes to see and waiting for something awful to happen.
When the clouds shifted and the moon peeked out again, they caught a glimpse of Long Tom. His back was up against the willow tree and his arms were out in front of him, as if he was fighting something off.
It seemed like the very darkness was alive with slimy, creeping things. Strange shapes were swirling about him. They could hear loud wails and awful moaning sounds. Then, the clouds covered the moon again and once more it was as black as pitch.
By now, the men were on their knees, praying for dear life and calling upon the Virgin Mary and all the saints to protect them. When the moon came out again, Tom’s face was as pale as death. He was desperately hanging onto the willow tree with one arm. His other arm was stretched out in front of him and something was pulling on it.
It looked like a disembodied hand, with rotting flesh dropping off the moldy bones and it had a tight grasp on poor Tom’s arm. Stronger and stronger it pulled, until at last, Tom lost his grip on the tree and was dragged off into the night, shrieking like a soul in hell. That’s what the men said they witnessed before Tom was swallowed up by the darkness.
When the clouds blotted out the moon once more, the men turned and ran through the blackness toward the village. Again and again they lost the path and fell into the muck, struggling to avoid the deadly bog holes. In the end they crawled back on their hands and knees. But Tom McManus was not with them.
In the morning the people searched everywhere for Tom. Finally they gave him up for lost. That evening, the villagers heard a cry. It was Tom’s mother. She was rushing down the path from the bog, shouting and waving. When the villagers spotted her, she frantically gestured to them to follow her.
Struggling to overcome their fears, the villagers ran after her and when she came to a stop, they found young Tom McManus slumped against a willow tree, shaking and gibbering as if he had lost his mind. His left hand was raised in the air, pointing and his wild eyes were staring at something only he could see.
Where his right hand should have been, there was nothing more than a bloody stump. It had been ripped clean off. Nobody ever knew for sure what it was that he had seen. Some people claimed that he had been attacked by the dead hand and others said that was just the talk of drunken, superstitious fools.
The only person who really knew what happened that night was young Tom McManus, but he never spoke another word again. He spent the rest of his short life, barricaded in his bedroom, shaking and trembling through the long nights.
He didn’t make it to the end of the year and when they lowered him into his grave, his grieving mother cried out to the people gathered in the churchyard and begged them never to be so foolhardy as to venture out onto the cursed bog in the middle of the night.