A common feature in the world of the strange and paranormal is that of the phantom being. Throughout history there have been various stories, tales, and reports of bizarre, mysterious shadowy figures that seem to lurk just beyond the periphery of our reality, to only make themselves known when they wish to instill terror within our hearts. These shadow people and phantom figures seem to have have rooted themselves into our collective consciousness, and they are reported in both reality and myth across cultures. Sometimes threatening, sometimes merely creepy, but always frightening, these are unidentifiable beings that are difficult to classify and which seem to have stepped right out of our nightmares. One of the more enduring cases of such a phantom intruder is an intimidating, ominous black cloaked figure that stepped forward from some dark place to terrorize a small town in Massachusetts, and which has remained a rather perplexing mystery to this day.
It all began in October of 1939, in the town of Provincetown, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the United States, where frightened children began returning home from night with a scary story to tell. They claimed to have seen an extremely tall figure dressed all in black, which would appear out of nowhere to growl ominously and then to disappear just as suddenly in a flash. Some of these reports claimed that the thing had a hideous, deformed face and glowing eyes. Whatever it was they were seeing, the ghoulish phantom certainly terrified them, and children were known at this time to come home crying and shaking inconsolably. Yet, as obviously upset and shaken as these children were, the adults did not take it all very seriously. After all, this was the Halloween season, and it all seemed like just over imagination or someone playing a prank with a Halloween costume.
Then, one night a woman named Mary Costa was walking alone along shadowy streets past the city hall when she claimed that an impossibly tall figure, around 8 feet tall, had leap out of some bushes to loom menacingly in front of her. The thing was described as having long, pointed ears and glowing eyes, which it used to coldly stare at the frightened woman for a moment before rapidly fleeing the scene in a series of inhuman incredible leaps and bounds far beyond what a person should have been capable of. Costa claimed that she had run into a nearby coffee shop excitedly telling people about what she had just seen, and that some men had gone out looking for the mysterious intruder but had found nothing.
Although police did not take this report very seriously at first, it was soon followed by similar accounts by other adult citizens. In all of the cases the shadowy apparition was claimed to be dressed in all black, complete with a flapping black cape, and to possess glowing eyes that were either red or silver, as well as long, pointed ears that were sometimes said to be of a silver color. It was also said that a weird buzzing noise like a very large insect accompanied it, and others said that it would let out a malevolent, unsettling laugh that was described as having an unearthly timbre and tone. It was also known for being extremely fast and agile, as well as for its purported superhuman jumping ability, with witnesses claiming that it could easily leap over high fences and could jump over 10 feet in a single bound. Curiously, police would often get different reports from different areas of town practically at the same time, suggesting that the thing was either incredibly fast, could somehow teleport, could fly, or that there were more than one of them.
While most of these encounters involved the mysterious dark phantom merely startling or terrorizing witnesses before bounding away, something it seemed to take great pleasure in doing, others were decidedly more harrowing. In one case, a man named Charles Farley claimed that he had actually shot at the creature and hit it, but that it had been totally unfazed by the gunshot, simply laughing maniacally before nimbly jumping over a high fence with a single leap. Another man reported that he had been suddenly confronted and cornered by the entity and had instinctively thrown a punch at it. The being was claimed to have caught his fist in its own hand and then proceeded to crush the man’s hand, breaking it, before hurling him to the ground effortlessly as if he were an unwanted toy. Yet another such violent encounter happened when another witness claimed that the creature had lashed out to strike him with breathtaking superhuman strength, sending him flying through the air, and there were other adult males who also reported being easily overpowered by the apparition. Other even more far out accounts claimed that the thing had shot blue fire at them from its mouth.
Before long, the town and indeed other areas were buzzing with talk of what people were starting to call the Provincetown Phantom, the Black Phantom, the Phantom Fiend, the Devil of the Dune, and the Black Flash, which was the name that the media would go with and would become the most popular name for the bizarre, spectral thing lurking about. Indeed there were a variety of sensationalized reports of the Black Flash at the time in newspapers and on radio newscasts, which along with the increasing number of sightings really whipped people up into a panicked fervor. Speculation ran rampant on what it could be, with some saying it was just a prankster or a peeping tom, and others saying it was some sort of supernatural entity such as a ghost or demon with an inscrutable agenda not of this world. Some particularly religious folk thought it was the Devil himself.
Making things even worse were the other bizarre and unsettling events orbiting the whole Black Flash fiasco. This was not long after the time when the 1938 Orson Welles CBS radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was aired, on Sunday, October 30, 1938, sending many parts of the country into a mass frenzied panic. Further causing stress and uneasiness was the onset of World War II and its looming shadow of violence inexorably pulling America in, which seriously weighed on the nation’s mind at the time, as well as the devastating effects of the Great Depression. There were various other weird goings on at the time in the immediate area as well, such as news of a “sea monster” that had washed up on shore near Wood End and would later be identified as a rotting basking shark, as well as that of serial a serial arsonist who had terrorized the town in the September before the appearance of the enigmatic Black Flash. All of these converging events no doubt caused the Black Flash story to pulse, grow, and become sensationalized, with its various elements embellished and exaggerated in the notoriously overdramatized news reports and radio shows of the era, where it took on a life of its own in the minds of a populace whose imaginations were primed and their nerves frayed.
The story typically goes that the Black Flash would supposedly go on to torment the people of Provincetown for 7 years, with reports going all the way up to 1945. In one such incident from November of 1945, a group of police officers apparently saw the phantom leap over a 10-foot-high fence after they went to a schoolyard to investigate a series of sightings there. The following month, a group of children claimed that they had been attacked by the Black Flash and had escaped into their house to seek refuge, where they cowered as it banged on the walls and rattled doors. One man by the name of Louis Janard allegedly got a hot pan of boiling water to throw at the creature, which sent it screaming off into the night and would mark this as purportedly the last reported incident of the Black Flash.
These incidents up to 1945 are written of by researcher Joe Citro in his book Passing Strange, where he claims they were recounted to him by the folklorist Robert Cahill, who wrote of the Black Flash in a book called New England’s Mad and Mysterious Men, in which he says the phantom terrorized Provincetown for years. These details provided by Citro and Cahill have been widely referenced for stories on the Black Flash, but there has been some disagreement with this timeline. According to one of the foremost researchers of the Black Flash phenomenon, paranormal researcher Theo Paijmans, this timeline is false and he claims that these are details added later, that Calhill’s work was substantially embellished, and that the Black Flash really only struck for a few weeks before vanishing. He wrote a heavily researched article in 2007 for the anomaly journal Intermediate States and said of his findings:
I found the original accounts in the Provincetown Advocate and with the help of these accounts I was able to reconstruct a clear timeline and to throw out a lot of the stuff that had grown onto the Black Flash over the years, but was clearly fabrication. One of these inaccuracies was the timeline; the Black Flash did not strike between 1938 and 1945 as is often alleged, but only for a few weeks in 1939.
Whatever timeline is correct, the question still remains, what was the Black Flash? Many theories have been proposed on the answer to this. It has not gone unnoticed that the Black Flash was in many ways similar to another mysterious phantom that had allegedly terrorized parts of Great Britain in 1837, a phantom known as Spring Heeled Jack. There are several similarities between the two entities, such as glowing eyes, a black cloak, and the startling ability to make enormous leaps and bounds. This has caused some to suggest that the Black Flash and Spring Heeled Jack were one in the same, or that they were the same sort of entity, but it could also mean that some of the details from reports were embellished or added to make it seem that way. Indeed the relentless sensationalism of the case at the time, and the embellishments, additions, and exaggerations made over the years since, as well as the substantial lore it has accrued and surrounded itself with have made it difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the case of the Black Flash. Even researchers on the phenomenon can’t seem to agree on what really happened or how long it lasted.
Other ideas are that it was all a form of mass hysteria or collective delusion, with the media hype and spooky stories escalating until it had everyone in its grip, or even that it was some sort of demon, ghost, or vampire. Again, with all of the embellishments made and liberties taken with the tale in the news at the time and through rich oral traditions since, it is hard to know what parts or details of the story are even real, so it is hard to say how much merit any of these ideas have. There is simply no real concrete evidence that favors any one of these.
For their part, authorities at the time were certain that it all stemmed from a malicious prank, and although news of the Black Flash was everywhere and many believed it was a real mysterious apparition, it seems that actually a lot of people in Provincetown itself concurred that it was most likely jokesters or a peeping tom. Chief of Police Anthony Tarvers even claimed to have known who the perpetrators were and how they did it. According to Tavers, it was four local boys who were playing a Halloween trick to scare everyone, and that they had accomplished it by one boy standing on another’s shoulders and then covering themselves with a large black cape and wearing a mask. The two sets of boys were claimed to have coordinated their costumes and appearances in order to make it look like they were teleporting or dashing with preternatural speed around town.
Tavers also said that he had even gone so far as to speak with the alleged culprits and their parents, and that this is why the whole phenomenon had ceased. However, he never did release the names of the perpetrators, and no one has ever claimed responsibility for the supposed hoax. The statement by Travers was also apparently not even really an official police pronouncement. The Black Flash’s potent jumping ability, agility, strength, toughness, and other purported powers aren’t really addressed with this theory either. This has led some to suspect that Tavers was merely making up this story to calm everyone down, or to cover up what was really going on. In the end we have no way of knowing for sure.
In the end, it is unclear what the Black Flash was. It isn’t even really clear which elements of the story are true, which are complete fiction, or even how long the phenomenon actually went on for. The story has been picked up and written about in numerous articles and books, which often give different or even conflicting, contradictory information. With all of the tales and the mish mash of information out there on the Black Flash of Provincetown, just about all we can say for sure is that something was terrorizing the town in at least 1939. What that was, whether a prank, a mass delusion, a ghost, demon, alien, or vampire, or something else altogether no one really knows. We probably never will, and the mystery of the Black Flash will likely remain in the shadows within the realm of speculation even as its legend grows.