Southern Spirits: The Plate-Eye


dogThe Plate-Eye is a type of disembodied spirit of one who have been murdered and which are known for its shape-shifting powers. They are characterized by their large glowing eyes which are said to be as “big as a plate and blood red.”  Another curious characteristic of a Plate-Eye is that there is usually something off or wrong about whatever form they assume. For example, a Plate-Eye taking the form of a dog may appear to have been run over by a vehicle.

Plate-Eyes were prevalent just after the Civil War, but their roots likely go back farther than that. Southern lore dictates that during the war, wealthy slave-owners, worried about losing their fortunes, buried their treasure in dark woods or marshy swamps. To protect their treasures until they could reclaim it, the vicious slave-owners would behead a slave (probably the one who dug the hole) and bury it as a warning to anyone who would attempt to steal their treasure. It was a common belief among many of the slaves that one’s spirit dwelt in the head, and so soon arose tales of a haint (ghost) that harassed people who came near the site of their death.

During the Great Depression, the United States Government commissioned the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) in an effort to aid unemployed writers and fund their work. Over a period of two years from the mid 1930’s Genevieve W. Chandler, interviewed over 100 individuals in the South Carolina Low Country as part of the FWP. In May of 1936 Genevieve interviewed Addie Knox, a Gullah woman, who describes her encounter with a Plate-Eye. Similar to the Hyatt material, the story is written semi-phonetically and can be somewhat difficult to read.

Addie Knox describes how while walking home one evening around dusk she passes by a graveyard and enters into the dark woods nearby. At one point she comes upon a fallen cypress tree blocking her path on top of which a bull frog is sitting. Addie explains that she sees the frog turn into a series of animals that get progressively larger including a cooter (turtle), and a black cat. Addie strikes the Plate-Eye with a stick several times and runs away as the Plate-Eye chases after her getting bigger and bigger. She is finally able to get away from the dreaded spirit by showing no fear and trusting in God.

According to the Gullah, the Plate-Eye cannot abide foul odors (a trait that they also assign to the Boo-Hag) and so to ward against it people would often carry a mixture of equal parts gun-powder and sulfur in a small burlap sack with them to ward the Plate-Eye away.

So the next time you’re traveling down some lonely back road in the dark of the evening and see some poor animal in distress think twice before you draw too close because you might find yourself face to face with the dreaded Plate-Eye!

–Carolina Dean

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