Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we are going to visit…nowhere.
No, really. Because when you stand at the center of a crossroads, that’s exactly where you are. Which road are you on? What direction are you going? And there’s no path forward that doesn’t pass over some kind of border.
Crossroads are contradictory, and in folklore, that makes them very powerful. They’re “thin places,” meaning the border you cross may not only be physical, but metaphysical. It certainly makes dying or being buried at a crossroads quite a fearsome fate…
For one thing, it would be super noisy! Because you can meet all kinds of interesting characters at a crossroads. Step on over here and take a look:
It’s said spirits are confused by crossroads, so if you’ve got someone you’d never like to see again, alive or dead, you might want to have them pass on inside of a trap. Criminals were often said to be hanged at crossroads for this purpose. In fact, many free-wandering souls are thought to get stuck at the crossroads too, so it might be like a supernatural taxi stand, with psychopomps (I love that word) waiting upon the newly or nearly departed, ready to conduct them wherever they’re meant to go.
A couple of deadly writing prompts:
A fate worse than death. So what happens to the petty criminals or innocents who are hanged? They’d be trapped forever with the souls of the deranged and deadly. (And what is that, if not Hell?) Not to mention that crossroads crowding could become an issue if you’ve got years of souls piling up. A villain could cause chaos in this world and the next by letting them loose.
Pomp and circumstance. What would it be like to hang out at a crossroads with other psychopomps, waiting for your next rider? Would you chat about work? Swap stories of the scariest passengers ever? Maybe the psychopomps drive great black hearses or horse-drawn coaches, or perhaps the roads are rivers, with boatmen awaiting the new arrivals.
Sometimes the crossroads are a wrong place/wrong time situation for unsuspecting travelers. For example, you might run into a shadowy figure who begs a favor: turns out this soul needs transport to holy ground to find rest. And they will absolutely haunt you until you comply. But other souls are doomed to wander forever, and some traditions advise leaving offerings for the dead at crossroads, because then spirits traveling on either road will come across them.
Some spirited writing prompts:
The lonely road. What if the tables were turned on the tale, and a lonely traveler actually liked having a ghost haunt them? They’d be in no hurry to conduct the soul to holy ground if they wanted someone to chat with. Or a living person with nefarious purpose might attempt to find a lost soul at a crossroads, and force them to serve their will.
An offer you can’t refuse. Offerings for spirits could have many different purposes: food for the weary, letters from home, warnings or directions, love notes, or requests. What kind of questions might the living ask? And what happens when a spirit comes across an offering meant for someone else?
Some of those who wander are indeed lost. It’s said that people practicing astral projection, aka an out-of-body-experience, sometimes stray too far and can’t find their way back to their bodies. It is especially dangerous for an astrally projected soul to come upon a crossroads, because it’s so easy to get trapped there.
There are also… Other Things at the crossroads, which might make you wish you were only dreaming. A traveler might encounter mysterious floating lanterns, the sound of phantom hoofbeats, or a procession of fairies. (And we don’t mean the Disney kind.) Alternatively, some stories say it might be possible to escape the clutches of fairies or evil spirits at a crossroads, due to the holy symbol of the cross weakening their power.
A couple of dreamy prompts:
Lost and gone forever. So what happens to the body that’s left behind when its soul gets stuck on the astral plane? Is it like being in a coma? Is it like death? Or might the body go on functioning, speaking and eating and aging, with no soul inside? Perhaps observers would suspect something had changed— a lack of personality or passion, or the body might be unable to recognize loved ones. Would a body without a soul turn to evil? Could Something Else swoop in and occupy it?
We kiss in a shadow. We’re going to go romance with this prompt: what if someone fell in love with a spirit or fairy? The crossroads are a border between this world and other worlds, so it would be a place— perhaps the only place— the lovers could meet. It could be a forbidden romance, with both sides disapproving, or a compromise between good and bad (with either one of them being the evil one). What happens when the human eventually dies?
It’s said that under certain circumstances, you can hear the names of those doomed to die being whispered at a crossroads. Halloween night is good for this, as is Christmas and New Year’s. Of course, it would be quite a risk to hang out at a crossroads at such powerful moments.
Unless, of course, you’re a professional. Necromancers regularly speak with spirits, both good and very, very evil. Necromancers often conduct their rituals at crossroads, because spirits congregate there, and they’re easily trapped in the intersection. Run-of-the-mill ghosts may foretell the future or spill secrets. Truly evil spirits, like demons, can grant wishes. If you’re brave enough to ask.
Some secretive prompts:
There’s a man going round taking names. People like to wonder what they’d do if they knew their own death was coming, especially if it was unexpected. Imagine a healthy young person hearing their name whispered at the crossroads on Halloween, and realizing it would likely be an accident that would kill them— or murder. How would they handle that knowledge? Would they stay in and avoid all risk? Run away and live as a hermit? What if they heard the name of a loved one along with their own?
The $64,000 question. What if, as a necromancer, you have what seems to be an unanswerable question? Maybe you have asked every spirit you can summon, good or evil, and have never gotten an answer. The question could be something huge like “What is the meaning of life?”, or smaller but important: “Where is my dad’s will?”. Or maybe the necromancer is looking for simple historical information. Imagine asking “What happened to D.B. Cooper?” and you just keep getting spirits who have no idea. Nobody was in the Pacific Northwest at the right time, nobody knows anything about skydiving except maybe Joe, who died in a skydiving accident, but that kinda disqualifies him as an expert. And as for asking demons, well— when they don’t know an answer they’re likely to say something like “Oh, yeah, I know Dan, he’s still in the woods ‘cause he married Bigfoot.”
Old Scratch. Satan. The Adversary. Although he’s not super adversarial at a crossroads, the legends say. In fact, Old Nick is eager to make a deal: just ask Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson (no relation), who were both said to have sold their souls at a crossroads for their incredible musical talent. In fact, Faust himself met the the Prince of Darkness at a crossroads, and made a deal for unlimited knowledge. There’s just one problem, of course. Human beings only live so long, and Hell is forever. Of course, not all sold souls end up Down Below: some are said to linger at crossroads, trying to warn other would-be bargainers that the Devil always wins.
We’ll finish out with a couple of devilish writing prompts:
A single day of eternity. Why does the Devil want souls in the first place? Does he take pleasure in suffering? Or is he just lonely? Or bored? A story could feature the Devil as a sympathetic creature who just wants somebody to play Mario Kart with. In fact, in some folklore, the Devil plays a bargainer’s instrument himself before bestowing his gift. Maybe the guy wants to start a band.
Runs like clockwork. Where does the Devil get the talent he sells? Maybe it’s the same talent every time, harvested from a soul who’s died and passed to the next hopeful bargainer. Wouldn’t it be fun if there was a whole steampunk-style system for transferring talent from one soul to another via jazzed-up (literally) musical instruments?
Thanks so much for spending your Weird Wednesday here— be sure you follow the right road home.
If you like folklore and fairy tales, feel free to check out Clamour and Mischief, which contains my story “Branwen and the Three Ravens”: The creepy adventures of a woman seeking to free her brothers from a curse.
You can also read my free story Two Branches: A mother searches for her son while caring for the changeling left in his place.
Sources & further reading:
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. “Crossroads.” The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Facts on File, 1992. On Goodreads