The Horrifying Hexham Heads
A heady column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
It’s 1971, and you’re a kid growing up in a small town in England. Digging around in the garden with your brother, you’ve found a pair of small stone heads. They look ancient, and now strange things seem to be happening around your house. Have you found two cursed Celtic artefacts, perhaps? Or did you just dig up an elaborate hoax?
Either way, these Hexham heads have come out of fertile story-telling ground.
I. The Story
The Hexham Heads were first dug up in 1971 in the small town of Hexham, England, by young brothers Colin and Leslie Robson1. Small, about the size of a tennis ball, and made from stone, these were obviously something important. They resembled crudely carved heads; one masculine, the other feminine. Later, people would say the feminine one resembled a witch.
The Robson kids took them inside their house, after which strange, poltergeist-style phenomena began—the heads moved when no one was looking, while bottles threw themselves at walls without anyone touching them. The strangest occurrence happened, however, to the Robson’s neighbours in their shared, semi-detached house. The matriarch, Nelly, claimed to have seen a half-man, half-sheep creature lurking about!
At this point, sufficiently spooked, the Robson’s got rid of the Heads by giving them to Anne Ross, an expert in Celtic artefacts and mysticism. This moved the strange phenomena to Ross’ house, and she woke up to a half-wolf, half-man creature thumping around her house. A similar, werewolf-like creature was witnessed a few days later by Ross’ daughter too when she returned home from school. In addition to this monstrous presence, Ross also experienced cold spots, doors opening spontaneously, and occasionally glimpsed a dark figure out of the corner of her eye.
Knowing about the Robson family’s experiences, Ross believed the Heads were the cause, and she was likely right—the strange phenomena stopped as soon as she removed the artefacts from her house2.
II. The Truth?
Of course, we could end the story there and say the Heads are locked up tight—safe but awaiting the freedom to haunt again. But the rest of the story is a little more sobering (except for a little twist at the end!).
But let’s start with what you might already be wondering—is this all a hoax? Well, perhaps not intentionally. At this point, the Heads were getting national attention, and a man named Desmond Craigie came forward to say he made the Heads as a present to his daughter. He used to live in what was now the Robson’s house in 1956, less than twenty years before. Now, Craigie created replicas to demonstrate his claim, but these weren’t satisfactorily similar—though whether that’s because it was two decades later or because he was lying is unknown.
What we do know is that the University of Newcastle’s Professor Dearman analysed the Heads and concluded they were artificially moulded rather than carved3. The Heads weren’t ancient artefacts after all.
Does modern science agree? Do we know any more than we did over forty years ago? Well, I can’t tell you. As with all good spooky stories, there’s a last-minute twist—after being passed around between experts for a number of years, the Heads were given to… a man. Who was he? What did he do with the Heads? We don’t know.
He and the Hexham Heads just disappeared.
Using the Hexham Heads in Your Game
So, now you know the story, how can you use it in your game?
Well, if we take the Hexham Heads as genuine cursed artefacts, how about a good old-fashioned haunting? Someone finds or digs up the Heads, and now it’s a race against time before the monstrous spirit inside them manifests fully on our plane of existence.
The questions to ask are:
What exactly is the half-animal, half-man creature that haunts the Heads? Is it a primal deity, a spiritual manifestation of lycanthropy, or something more demonic?
Is the spirit a danger by itself, or does it need to possess a hapless victim to do its dirty work?
In a modern, investigative game like Monster of the Week, a hapless victim might have the Head, with stories of hauntings or violence triggering PC interest. In a fantasy game like D&D, the PCs might find the Heads themselves as treasure in a forsaken grave or tomb. If they then take it to an inn or home base, it might lead to a murder mystery as they try to determine which friendly NPC is now secretly possessed. Either way, they’ll need to work out that the Heads are ultimately at fault, or they’ll just be delaying the inevitable when they first slay the spirit and/or its host.
For an example of the Heads might work, try this!
Hexham Head (Cursed Item)
A small stone object resembling a crudely carved human head. If kept inside a house or dwelling:
1d4-1 nights after arriving, poltergeist activity begins. The Head may begin to move around, perhaps hoping to conceal itself.
1d4 more nights after that, a half-beast, half-man spirit begins to manifest. Inhabitants of the house may glimpse a dark spirit out of the corner of their eye during the day or see it fully manifest during the night. Neighbours might even experience paranormal phenomena too. The spirit remains incorporeal, however.
4 nights after that, the beast spirit possesses a suitable host and begins to influence their behaviour—likely towards violence. The Head craves blood, and it’s only a matter of time before it gets it. An exorcism or banishment ritual is still possible at this stage.
4 nights after that, the host physically transforms to resemble the beast spirit and their soul is fully corrupted. After sufficient blood sacrifice, they take the Head and bury it to recharge its cursed power through contact with the earth, ready for the cycle to begin anew.
And that’s it for the Hexham Heads!
Thanks for reading; Mythoi will be back again soon with another piece of fantastical folklore!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever been cursed by an artefact in a game?
~ A.C. Luke
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Ferrol, Stuart. "In Search of the Hexham Heads, Part One". Fortean Times, no. 294, November 2012.
Bord, Janet; and Colin Bord. Modern Mysteries of Britain. Diamond Books, 1991.