21 Dec The Devil’s Footprints
“The Devil’s Footprints”Written by Charlotte O'Farrell Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 11 minutes
Growing up, my dream was to be a journalist. Maybe I’d watched too many movies, but I loved the idea of chasing down big stories and going undercover to investigate huge scoops. Mingling with the rich and famous and being first on the scene of major historical events seemed impossibly glamorous.
I got my first job as a rookie reporter on my hometown paper when I graduated, back in 1995. You won’t be surprised to hear that it didn’t exactly live up to my starry-eyed expectations. But hey – every journey starts with a single step, right?
Most of the work was dull: reporting on local amateur dramatic society’s plays and charity events, and writing the obituaries. My quiet little town skewed elderly even back then, so there was never a shortage of those to write.
But it was thrilling to see my by-line somewhere other than my school paper. The editor seemed pleased with my work, so she gave me my own recurring column. It was called ‘How Strange!’ and it looked at some of the funnier, weirder stories around town. Once I interviewed an old woman who claimed her house was haunted by the ghost of Jack the Ripper. She could never quite answer my question about how “Jack” had ended up spending eternity in a semi-detached house three hours’ drive from London, but she wouldn’t be swayed.
The idea caught on. Soon I was writing stories about the local stories of a wild panther stalking the streets of our quiet town center in the dead of night and the spate of garden gnomes turning up in people’s gardens, with no explanation. Of course, the panther was a large pet cat, and of course, the gnomes were just a rather wholesome teenage prank. But it was good fun to write and the letters I’d get for it were hilarious.
Another time, I investigated the mysterious disappearances of two of the town’s more infamous road signs: Bottom Hole and Fannyhands Way. Part of the fun was how obvious it was that this was the work of local kids, giggling at the names; both signs had been stolen hundreds of times by generations of kids, displaying them proudly in their bedrooms like trophies. But I played it straight, writing as if this was a truly strange disappearance, even hinting that aliens or ghosts might be behind it.
The week before my first Christmas on the job, I’d just made up the story behind ‘How Strange!’. Something for the kids to enjoy about how Santa’s elves had been spotted in town, searching out the local pubs for a place for their boss to rest on Christmas Eve night. Honestly, the standard of letters had been a bit low that week, so none of the real ones had much life in them. I hoped it might pick up after New Year.
On Christmas Eve itself, just me and my editor were working. Everyone else had taken the day off. I was hoping she’d let me go early: it was very snowy. The paper’s next edition was finalized and, barring some huge story the likes of which the town had never seen, we could just sit back and relax.
Or so I hoped.
“Got a story for you,” she said the moment I walked in. “We’ve had a call in.”
I was just taking my snow-covered coat off and getting used to the warmth, so this wasn’t a welcome comment.
“What? On Christmas Eve?”
“Oh don’t worry, you’ll like this one!”
She sat forward in her chair and clasped her hands together, the way she always did when she was excited.
“This is right up your street. You know Newtown?”
I nodded. It was a tiny village just a mile or two to the east of our town.
“Well, they woke up today after the storm, and they found footprints in the snow.”
I laughed at that. Was she playing with me?
“Footprints in the snow? Seriously? So what?”
She leaned even further over the desk, getting increasingly animated.
“They’re calling them the devil’s footprints! They’re shaped like hooves and they go all through the town. On roofs, across streams, up walls. It’s wild.”
I laughed again and covered my face with my hands.
“Oh, come on.”
“I’m serious! This would make an amazing column for ‘How Strange!’.”
“It’s just some kids playing a joke. Or some weird animal. They’re probably… mouse tracks, or something. Badgers. Foxes.”
My editor raised her eyebrows.
“So what?” she said quietly.
I told you my dream was to be a journalist, right? And I knew it wasn’t always going to be a glamorous route to the top. But as I dusted the snow off the newspaper’s small motorbike and prepared to travel on country roads to some shitty little village on Christmas Eve, I almost reconsidered my career. My Dad had warned me to go into law instead.
Once I got on the road, there was no time for regrets. I was concentrating on not ending up as roadkill! The snow had started to turn to slush on some of the side roads and the motorbike was tiny and unreliable. There was no way of spotting potholes before my front wheel went bashing into them. How I made it to Newtown that day, I’ll never know.
I was in such a bad mood by the time I drove into that place. But I felt something, perhaps a stirring of curiosity at least, when I saw the people of the village standing outside. They were in lines, holding umbrellas over the snow on the ground while letting themselves be covered in the still gently falling flurry.
I pulled up beside a cluster of people and hopped off my motorbike. One of the crowd grabbed my arm.
“Careful where you stand!” he hissed, nodding towards the ground.
And that’s when I first saw them: the so-called devil’s footprints in the snow. I had to admit, I saw what they meant. They did look like they’d come from something with cloven hooves. There was a big gap between each one, so whatever it was that had left these had a long stride too.
I shook my arm away from the old guy who had grabbed it.
“So this is where the tracks are, then,” I said.
“Not just here. All over the place. On walls, up on rooftops,” he replied, his voice shaking. “And right up to the river, too. Up to the bank on one side and then straight back up on the other, like it just walked clean across.”
I raised my eyebrows. For all my resentment about being sent out here on Christmas Eve, now they had my attention.
I bent down in the snow and inspected the footprints. They were surprisingly deep. Whoever and whatever had left them had been stamping on the ground with some force. I got my camera out of the under-seat holding space on the motorbike and started to snap photos.
Walking at a distance, I followed the tracks. Newtown was a picturesque little place in the snow. It looked like an illustration in a genteel old children’s book, like a quaint English village from an imaginary yesteryear. Everywhere I went, I saw the residents crowding around the footprints, baffled. If this was a hoax, not all of them were in on it – that was for sure. Some looked frightened.
My mind was whirring as I took photos by the river. If this was the work of pranksters, it was quite complex! They’d have needed to get up in the early morning, make the footprints – I’m not sure what with – and somehow manage to conceal their own footprints alongside the fake ones. And if they were animal tracks? Well, they weren’t like the tracks of any animal I’d ever seen before.
There was only one place in the village that didn’t have any of the weird footprints: the churchyard. The tracks moved around it, circling around it, before heading back into the village.
I was taking some photos of the untouched snow in the churchyard when I saw the vicar walking over, dressed in snow boots, crunching on the path as he went. He was about 45, with flyaway mad professor-style hair and wire-framed glasses.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?” he asked quietly. I shook my head.
“Never in my life. You?”
“Well, I read about a similar incident in Devon in the 1850s. Tracks appearing overnight in the snow, with no explanation.”
He looked around, as if worried we’d be overheard.
“They called them the devil’s footprints then, too.”
I stopped taking photos and looked the vicar in the eye.
“And do you think they are the devil’s footprints?”
He met my gaze for a moment and paused. A beat too late, he laughed. It sounded quite forced.
“No, of course not! Just a strange superstition, I expect. These isolated villages in the snow… it can be easy to imagine things, when you’re this closed off from the rest of society.”
He gestured to my camera.
“Still, it’ll make a good newspaper story.”
I watched him walk slowly back to his church, being careful not to slip on the snow. Something about the brief interaction really unnerved me but I couldn’t figure out why. I watched him retreat.
Walking back to the center of the village, I bent down and examined the footprints again. Some strange urge to touch them overcame me. I moved my fingers slowly forwards until just the tips were touching the indentation in the snow – and felt a burning shock jolt through my arm. Crying out, I fell backwards into the snow.
“What the fuck?!” I shouted. I looked at my fingers. They were red and sore, but didn’t look as if they’d been burned.
I shook my head and tried again, more timid this time. When I put my fingers into a footprint, there was nothing but snow. After the pain of that first shock, it almost felt soothing.
I was squatting there, gently moving my fingers around the snowy hoof prints of God knows what, when I heard the first screams. Just one person at first, a woman, screaming at the top of her lungs. Then more joined the chorus. Louder and louder, until there seemed to be dozens of them, crying out hysterically.
I got up and ran instinctively towards the noise, squashing a small section of the devil’s footprints underfoot as I went.
I found a crowd gathering around the doorway of a small, semi-detached house down a side street. The door, covered with flaking baby blue paint, had been smashed open – I could tell by the broken lock.
“Oh my God, the kids! Look what he’s done to the kids!”
Those were the first words I could make out amid the screams. A chill ran down my spine that had nothing to do with the snowy weather. I quickened my pace until I was standing at the edge of the panicked crowd.
I saw the horrifying scene in the house in flashes. My view kept getting obstructed by the people in front of me, pushing forwards for another look at the horror.
What I saw that day is burned into my brain now. There was a pile of bodies hacked up, bloodied flesh mashed together. At first glance, it was hard to tell one victim’s body from another. It was as if all four of them had been placed one on top of the other, their blood seeping out in rivulets across the other corpses.
Each victim was naked, their bodies slashed repeatedly. Their arms and legs stuck out at odd angles. The gouge marks were so deep in some that I could see the exposed bones. One set of bloodied intestines had been thrown against the wall beside the bodies and left to fall down it slowly, leaving a trail of gore that ended in a pool of discarded viscera.
As my brain adjusted to the unfathomable sight in front of me, I focused on the victim on top of the others. Her leg stood at a sickening right angle from the knee, the leg bones sticking out. Four of her fingers lay on the floor beside them, as if hacked clean off. Her mutilated face, blood oozing from each slash inflicted on it, was frozen in a silent, futile scream.
The dead eyes of the second victim in the pile were facing towards the door. Those empty eyes met mine. Turning on my heel, I vomited into the snow.
I staggered backwards, away from the crowd.
“I didn’t hear anything!” a woman standing in the next door’s doorway kept shouting. “I was here all night and I never heard a sound!”
The world seemed to spin around me. I grabbed the garden fence of the house across the street and steadied myself.
There were already sirens in the distance. When the ambulance arrived, they would need a ton of body bags. And the police forensics team would definitely not have a happy Christmas as they sorted this mess out.
I suppose I should have had my journalist’s mindset on. I could have got some initial reactions, identified the name of the family whose decimated corpses were currently on show, or tried to get some kind of control of the situation. Maybe even taken a couple of sneaky photos of the bloody aftermath. But I wasn’t thinking like a journalist right then; I wasn’t really thinking at all, except how much I wanted to get out of this fucking crazy situation.
Next thing I knew, I was running. Where the hell had I left my motorbike?
Logically, I probably shouldn’t have been running away from people when there was likely a crazy psycho on the loose. But this didn’t seem like a time for logic. As I crunched through the snow, I looked down and noticed with a shiver that I was running right alongside the devil’s footprints. I seemed to have a similar stride too. Anyone who came after might have thought I was going one-for-one in a race with Satan. But as the horror show in that doorway illustrated, that fucker was one step ahead of us all.
Freaked out by my closeness to those damn snow tracks, I turned around and headed for the one place I could think of to go: the churchyard. In my panicked brain, I thought maybe the vicar would know what to do. No doubt he had more experience with death, bereavement, loss… and evil.
I hopped over the old stone wall into the churchyard. I ran through the Victorian section of the graveyard, nearly tripping over some of the weathered stones. As I choked back tears, I swear I heard a faint, demonic laughter on the wind. Damned if I was going to look back and see where that was coming from.
I reached the vicarage, set right by the church itself. I started hammering on the door.
“We need you right now! Please – please help!” I shouted, again and again.
Nothing. No response whatsoever.
That damn cackle on the breeze again. Like the devil was waiting for me to notice something.
I felt another deep shudder down my spine as I moved towards the window. The vicarage was small and you could see most of the ground floor from the front window. I rubbed away at it with my sleeve and peered through.
At first it looked like the vicar was floating in the air. His mouth hung open as if in shock, his head inclined to one side. That’s when I spotted the noose around his neck. The vicar – or rather, his dead body – was hanging from his own staircase. It had only been a few minutes since we were speaking. He must have killed himself the second he returned.
I took two steps back then fainted, falling into the snow with my arms in a crucifixion pose at my sides.
* * * * * *
It was February before my doctors let me go back to work at the newspaper. Until then, I avoided all news about the tragedies in Newtown. I laid low, gave Christmas a miss, and gave myself time to heal.
It’s been years since that day. In my work as a journalist, I’ve covered war zones, shooting sprees, and serial killings. But no story could ever get me like this one did.
Over time, I’ve felt able to re-visit the case. It’s a favorite of online conspiracy theorists and new-age people alike. The official story is the most boring: the so-called devil’s footprints were animal tracks, perhaps some kind of deer. The hysteria surrounding their appearance in the village contributed to the decision of a local man to kill his wife, sister-in-law, and kids, before throwing himself in a river in a town a few miles north. The vicar had been depressed for some time, losing the faith he’d built his life on, and his suicide around the same time as the murders were discovered was simply a coincidence.
And the unofficial stories? Well, take your pick. Quite a few people have taken the route of suggesting demonic possession was to blame. What Satan was doing in a small English village just before Christmas is never fully answered. Some think the guy who killed his family went to the vicarage next and staged his final murder to look like a suicide, though there was no sign of a struggle and I can personally attest that the timings don’t work out. I’ve even seen a few people go out on a limb and say it was aliens that caused the tragedies that day.
As for me? Well, I don’t like to guess. Even after this experience, I wouldn’t say I believe in demons, or the devil as a physical entity who causes chaos in this world. I think humans do a good enough job of that on our own. But I know what I experienced in that small village on that fateful Christmas Eve, and I can say this for sure: something walked in Newtown that night, and whatever it was, I hope to never cross its path again.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A