Much like the creeping, iridescent, meteor mold that consumed everything it came into contact with in Stephen King and George Romero’s E.C. comics inspired horror omnibus “Creepshow,” this all too real tale of a simple farming family who was beset upon by a nefarious force of nature that stole from them their home and, according to their daughter, years of their lives, might have been ripped from the tattered, monster infested pages of a classic 50’s horror comic.
Mold -- with the exception a handful specialized scientists, I don’t know anyone who likes the stuff. It’s nasty, fuzzy, invasive and at this very moment it's lurking in some dark corner of your home ready to creep out. Any bachelor (or former bachelor) knows what kind of horrible science experiments unwashed dishes can evolve into and almost everyone has encountered the kinds of transformations that an unattended food dish can undergo in the back of a refrigerator, but as horrible as these sporadic fungal encounters might be... things can get worse... much worse.
Our story begins back in the sweltering summer of 1961, when a farmer from the tiny town of Elkin, North Carolina -- which is about 15-miles northeast of Winston-Salem -- made a purchase from a neighbor that he would regret for the rest of his life. The farmer’s name was Grady Norman and the purchase he made was a used piece of linoleum flooring.
The sheet of linoleum seemed innocuous enough and, by all accounts, Mr. Norman was pleased by the acquisition and thought it would fit perfectly on the exposed floor in two rooms of the modest, rural home he shared with his wife and teenage daughter. Grady Norman packed the linoleum into the back of his truck and carted it down the narrow gravel road toward his property. Once home, he and his wife scrubbed it clean before the frugal farmer nailed it down… and that’s when the troubles began.
Not long after the new floor covering was in place, Norman’s wife -- a woman who press accounts refer to only as Mrs. Norman -- began suffering from acute respiratory ailments including choking sensations and what seemed to be hay fever. Mrs. Norman consulted their family physician who recommended that she give up her feather pillows, which she did with no improvement in her condition.
Soon after these same ailments began to afflict Mr. Norman and, to a lesser degree, their daughter. It wasn’t long before the clan realized that their symptoms were most severe when they were in the rooms in which the “new” linoleum had been laid.
Mr. Norman sagely decided to peel back the floor covering in hopes of discovering the source of the perilous pestilence that had invaded their home, and that’s when he made a terrifying discovery. The underside of the linoleum was slathered with a thick layer of furry, gray-green mold. Mr. Norman wasted no time in removing the offending linoleum and bringing it out to the barn.
He and his wife then scoured their floors with detergent and scalding water, after which they shellacked the surfaces in an effort to discourage any further growths -- sadly, their efforts would be in vain and just two days later the sinister mold would resurge like a Biblical plague.
The mold now appeared on the walls and woodwork, covering them almost overnight, and the carpet in their living room transformed into a mass of mold, which emitted clouds of cough inducing “spores” whenever someone would step on it. Even more terrifyingly, the Norman family discovered that the mold was now growing on their clothing and, what’s worse, when the diabolical substance touched their skin it induced an intense itching and burning sensation. It was then that the Normans decided to fight back… with a vengeance!
Mr. Norman purchased in array of sprays, detergents, disinfectants and ammoniated cleaning products, and he and his family rolled up their proverbial sleeves and tackled the monumental job of removing the omnipresent organism from their home. They scrubbed the walls and the floors of their 70 year-old home with all manner of germ killing cleaners, and opened the windows and doors, allowing a plethora of fresh air and sunlight to work their magic against this dark, moisture loving vermin.
Following their epic endeavor, the Normans retired for the eve, but when they awoke the next morning they found that not only had they not managed to conquer this moldy menace, but it had thrived and multiplied in a frightening fashion
The hairy, grayish, seemingly invulnerable invader had spread from the walls onto the photos hanging there. It covered the floor and the furniture and the books on the shelves, even infiltrating the pages of the family’s Bible. Most alarming, what were only tiny spots of mold on the couch in the morning had, by midday, consumed the entire sofa, completely ruining it.
The Normans were perplexed and more than a little afraid. What kind of mold could spread so swiftly and completely resist the efforts of so many harsh detergents? The mind boggling resurgence of this nasty parasite proved to be more than the family could handle and they reluctantly began moving their furniture onto the porch and, eventually, the yard. Those who handled the fungus infested furnishings succumbed to severe coughing fits that allegedly lasted for hours.
Being a small community, it wasn’t long before the local press and the Surry County Health Department got wind of the Norman’s bizarre predicament. The SCHD quickly quarantined the infected domicile and the Normans -- who had, by this point, sent their youthful daughter to live with a family friend -- were forced to leave their fungus ridden home and move into an old bus which resided on their property.
Generous neighbors -- with the notable exception of the man who had sold them the infected linoleum, who had mysteriously moved away -- donated essentials to the now “homeless” Normans, who were unable to take anything from their house into the bus where they now lived.
The Norman’s disturbing story appeared in several local papers and as picked up by numerous other news agencies, but even before the SCHD could even decide what they were going to do with this uninhabitable abode, the press interest fizzled and the trail went, as they say, cold.
In 1964, just three years following the events in question, noted radio personality and journalist, Frank Edwards -- who had read newspaper accounts chronicling the frightening facts in this case -- included the Norman’s harrowing story in the chapter “The Plague of Mold,” in his 1964 book “Strange World.” Following its addition in Edward’s popular book, there was a brief rekindling of interest in the case, but it wouldn’t be until three decades following the Norman’s trying ordeal that a new set of researchers would pick up the torch and delve deeper into this captivating mystery.
In the June, 1991, edition of “The INFO Journal,” investigators Michael A. Frizzell and Alan McCann, published a follow up on Edwards’ intriguing account. The researchers managed to track down the Norman’s daughter who -- in an effort, one must assume, to avoid being labeled the “mold lady” -- requested anonymity, but nonetheless agreed to speak out about this difficult segment of her youth.
The now middle-aged woman recalled how, for her own safety, she had been sent to live with and care for a chronically ill friend of the family who lived nearby while her parents made do with the confined quarters of the bus and continued to try and find a way to rid their home of the all pervasive mold.
It’s worth noting that the Norman’s daughter claimed that the man who sold her father the tainted floor covering had relocated to somewhere in Virginia after liquidating most of his furnishings. While she was unsure if this man was ever troubled by mold, she did confirm that the small house, which had been converted to an “outbuilding,” was never occupied again.
The Norman’s daughter also recollected that a chemist hailing from New Jersey had developed a unique fungicidal solution of carbolic acid, which -- after the apparel was completely immersed -- managed to halt the spread of the fungus on their clothes. This method for removing the insidious agent proved ineffective, however, as the acid was just as destructive to the contaminated material as was the mold itself. She also remembered that when scientists were finally able to isolate the organism, they discovered that at least two diverse varieties of mold were evident in the samples.
Molds are a velvety variety of multicolored fungus that grow in the form of multi-cellular filaments called hyphae and usually appear in damp conditions. Like all fungi, molds produce tiny spores in order to reproduce and can grow on wood, paper, fabric, carpet, foods and other organic materials. When excessive moisture or water accumulates indoors, mold growth will almost always occur.
While there were no available record of how much moisture had penetrated the Norman’s Elkin home during the summer of ’61, what we do know -- thanks to the work of Frizzell and McCann -- is that two of the fungi that had infiltrated the Norman’s house were identified as -- the usually pharmacologically beneficial -- "penicillin mold" and the much more nefarious "aspergillus mold."
Aspergillus (especially aspergillus flavus) is a fungus that is considered to be a human pathogen that is often found on corn and peanuts, as well as water damaged carpets, which may be a clue as to the origin of this so-called “plague of mold.” Human beings are most likely to be adversely affected by exposure to molds when they accidentally inhale the spores.
This fiendish fungus can also cause corneal and nasal infections and has even displayed a proclivity for attacking the brain, arteries and lungs. Even more alarming is the fact that many strains aspergillus flavus produce significant quantities of a carcinogenic and acutely toxic compound called aflatoxin, which is ranked with the most virulent substances on earth and can result in acute hepatitis.
As to why this mold was able to flourish in the Norman’s home -- even in the face of the most stringent commercial cleaning supplies of the era -- as well as burn the flesh of all those who came into contact with it, the mystery remains intact. Could it be that along with the two known breeds of molds there was a third, even more dangerous, variety? Was it merely the unfortunate combination of the two? Or was something even more insidious at work in this isolated farmhouse?
After weeks of doing everything within their power to reclaim their overrun home, the Norman’s finally conceded defeat and -- after salvaging what precious little they could from the house -- they decided to put the property up for sale. This was especially difficult for Mr. Norman who had been born in the domicile and had lived there his entire life.
In 1962, the Normans were finally able to sell the house, as well as a small parcel of nearby land, to another neighbor who was either unaware (or simply not intimidated by) the curse which had apparently befell the quickly decaying home. The Norman’s used the profits from this sale to purchase a new home, which, according to their daughter, remained significantly mold free.
The unnamed buyer of the Norman house evidently took it upon himself to clean the place up and put it back into good working order, but just as suddenly as he began his work he abandoned the project and -- for reasons that one can only assume where mold related -- left the house to rot on the now vacated lot.
For nearly three decade the house -- which had surely garnered a reputation with neighborhood youngsters as being haunted by insidious forces of both natural and supernatural origin -- was left to be reclaimed by the wilds outside and the mold within. That would be until the spring of 1989, when the fellow who had so abruptly abandoned his renovation project 28-years before, now sold the property to another buyer. According to the Norman’s daughter, the house that she and her father had been raised in was demolished by a bulldozer in July of 1990 and, as of 1991, the land had been left barren.
Sadly, the Norman’s daughter revealed that several years after her parents had sold their farm, both Mr. and Mrs. Norman developed chronic emphysema. She conceded that her father was a smoker and was probably predisposed to the malady, but that her mother had never fallen prey to tobacco use.
While it’s is difficult not to assume that “second hand” smoke played its part in the heart failure that claimed Mrs. Norman in 1966, or that “first hand” smoke didn’t result in her father’s demise in 1977, one can’t help but to wonder whether or not these sinister spores might not have exacerbated their conditions and possibly cut years from their lives.
In May of 1976, the “gentleman’s” magazine, Cavalier, published a short story by a young author named Stephen King entitled: “Weeds." The story -- which would eventually be adapted as one of the segments in “Creepshow” known as "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" -- concerned a rustic, New Hampshire farmer named Jordy Verrill who stumbles across a smoldering meteorite on his property and believes that it will cure all of his financial woes.
As one might predict, this celestial windfall proves to be more than this backwater farmer bargained for when -- after accidentally touching the cosmic hot rock -- his finger, and everything else it comes into contact with, begins to grow a verdant, mold-like substance that devours all it touches.
In this story, Verrill and his home are consumed by this ravenous organism and -- with a radio weather forecaster proclaiming that a much needed rain storm is on its way -- we are left to assume that this is the same fate that will befall the rest of the Earth within weeks, if not sooner. It is at this point that the half-human Verrill (who looks rather like an anthropomorphic cactus plant) takes his own life.
While the concept of a meteorite wreaking havoc within the vicinity of its terrestrial crash site is clearly inspired by such motion pictures as “The Blob,” as well as stories like H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal "The Colour Out of Space," it seems equally obvious that the idea of an incessantly spreading mold-like organism was likely derived from accounts of this real life event.
I must admit that during the course oh research for this article, I have found no official confirmation that King was inspired by (or even aware of) the Norman’s harrowing 1961 ordeal, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that as a youngster the legendary horror author stumbled across this account either in Edwards book or some random news clipping and it percolated in the back of his extraordinary imagination until he gave birth to “Weeds” in 1976.
Whether or not “The Plague of Mold” influenced King, it remains a terrifying cautionary tale about how -- even with all of our advances as a species in creating antiseptic sterilizers, powerful bleaches and germ killing cleaners -- mother nature is still in charge.
It’s frankly terrifying to imagine that in the midst of the 20th Century a family was rendered homeless (and perhaps even had their lives shortened) by a primeval spore of unknown origin that quite simply stole their lives away from them in the flash of an eye...
I think I’m going to go scrub the dishes now.