Let’s take it back, wayyyy back…back to Ancient Egypt! On Episode 16 Carrie’s telling us the story of King Tutankhamun, aka Tut, the boy king of Ancient Egypt. But even more interesting than the story of his life is that of the discovery of his tomb...
Let’s take it back, wayyyy back…back to Ancient Egypt!
On Episode 16 Carrie’s telling us the story of King Tutankhamun, aka Tut, the boy king of Ancient Egypt. But even more interesting than the story of his life is that of the discovery of his tomb and mummified remains in 1922—and the alleged curse that descended upon the excavation team after they cracked open his crypt.
Was there really an Ancient Egyptian curse on Tut’s tomb, one that promised “death on swift wings” to anyone disturbing the young pharaoh’s eternal slumber? How many people died mysteriously enough to attribute it to a curse? And did people REALLY used to grind up mummies to make…medicine?
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[THE MUMMY trailer clip]
So Sean, earlier this year - pre pandemic, even - we both got really into a Great Course on Audible about Ancient Egypt.
Yes, so this Great Course - which you can of course enjoy for free at our link at www.audibletrial.com/aintitscary - is presented by Bob Brier, who is one of the world’s premier Egyptologists and coincidentally works out of my college alma mater. I had been heartbroken I had never been able to fit his Egyptology course into my courseload back in school, but this felt like a second chance. And I think it reignited both of our interests in Ancient Egypt!
As a kid I was obsessed with mummies. Because I was a freaking weirdo. Everything about mummies and Ancient Egyptian mythology was SO COOL. I learned my name in hieroglyphics, devoured anything about the subject. And, of course, became fascinated with King Tut.
There was a bit of an Egyptology resurgence in the 90s due to movies like The Mummy coming out, and that coincided perfectly with my initial era of interest. Of course, with that interest came my additional interest with the paranormal...and that all came together in the subject that REALLY caught my attention: the curse of King Tut’s tomb. Our Patreon backers voted for me to cover something paranormal this week, and hell, this is certainly under that banner.
Today, Sean, I will be discussing Tut’s curse, and I’ll mention some of the history behind it and even a few other instances of purported mummy curses. Hopefully the act of discussion doesn’t make us prone to a curse, like saying “Macbeth” in a theater. But I guess we’ll find out! It’s the last days of 2020 and anything is possible.
Let’s start with a little backstory on our boy Tut. Tutankhamun was born Tutankhaten, name to be changed later, circa 1342 BC to Akhenaten, the current pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom. We’ll call him Tut for ease in this episode. The identity of his mother is a bit mysterious, but could very well be the famous Queen Nefertiti. He married his sister Ankhesenamun, which wasn’t unusual for the Egyptian pharaohs, and ascended as king around age 8 or 9. He reigned for about 9 years, with his vizier - the title Jafar had in Aladdin, if you remember - taking on most of the decision-making for the boy king. In fact, there is rumor that the vizier, Ay, had Tut murdered...which is another story for another day, and is also the subject of a Bob Brier book, so I definitely want to dig into that sometime. Tut and his queen had 2 stillborn children, which may have been a result of their incestual relationship or, again, murder by Ay. It’s been hypothesized over the years that Tut had various health issues due to tests run on his mummy, which may have range from Marfan’s syndrome, gynecomastia, X-linked intellectual disability syndrome, and other possible health conditions including cleft hard palate, scoliosis, club foot, bone necrosis, and malaria, among others. It’s possible he had all or most of these problems, not least of which, again, because his entire family engaged in dynastic incest to “preserve” the blood line. Which, of course, tends to fuck the bloodline right up, but I guess they didn’t know that at the time.
So, maybe Tut was murdered around age 18. Or, possibly more likely - we’ll find out when we do an episode on it - he died of one or a combination of his medical conditions. There are no surviving records of the circumstances of Tut’s death. Making it a bit more suspicious, Ay married Tut’s widowed queen (and sister) post death and ascended to the throne himself, which as evidenced by a secret letter Ankhesenamun wrote to the king of the Hittites, was against her will. However, the prince that the Hittite king dispatched to Egypt to marry her “mysteriously” disappeared, perhaps just another of Ay’s victims. Nonetheless, Tut was dead, the 18th Dynasty was over, and Ay became king.
Considering Tut’s status as pharaoh, he was buried in an unusually small tomb. This may have been because his death occurred unexpectedly, and he was kind of unceremoniously shoved into a tomb meant for someone else before the usual grander royal tomb was complete. In olden times the tomb looked to have been robbed more than once, but based on the items taken, which included less valuable things like perishable oils and perfumes, the robberies likely took place closer to the initial burial and the robbers never made it into the deeper tomb where the real good stuff was kept. The location of the tomb was eventually lost because it was buried by debris from subsequent tombs and workers’ houses built over the entrance.
That brings us to the 1900s, and the alleged curse. There’s a bit of history to go into here, as well. Since it’s weird and fun, I’m going to elaborate on it a bit. Perhaps I can dive in a little more in a minisode, if there’s interest from our Patreon backers!
There was a bit of “mummy fever” back in Europe throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. It was truly a contemporary obsession. The mystical power of mummies really transfixed people back then as much as they do today. Mummies were used in medicine for a couple of centuries, y’know, back when we had no freaking clue what we were doing. This was referred to as ‘Mumia’. Basically, discoveries of mummies were so common during these times that people were just grinding them up and using the powder paste as a remedy for wounds, fractures, or even in a superstitious drink to ward off disease or evil. This was so popular that a market popped up in the manufacture and sale of fraudulent mummies, aka mumia falsa. Use of mummia started to wane in the 18th century when we were learning more about medicine, but there was a popular pigment called “mummy brown” used in painting and decorating until the early 20th century with a decline in the supply of available mummies. You can find authentic mummy brown in paintings like Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Martin Drolling’s Interior of a Kitchen, and others.
Post-medicinal and painting usage, people became really obsessed with mummy unwrappings. Yes, people were into unboxing events, even then. These unwrappings would happen at parties or even public theaters to see what goodies were inside. Then, we had the Napoleonic Wars, which saw the modern beginning of true Egyptology. When Napoleon conquered Egypt, the information up to this time was given by unprofessional sources, like sea captains and missionaries. Tombs had been discovered and plundered, for sure - see the abundant use of mummies we just discussed - but there wasn’t a ton of true understanding. Hieroglyphs hadn’t even been deciphered yet. But Napoleon wanted to change that. Whatever perspective you have of him, he was a smart dude, and a history nerd. He brought all kinds of artists, historians, scientists, and more along with him on a trip to Egypt to really understand the surroundings and the history. They published their findings, and it was the first time the West had seen Egypt accurately depicted. They also brought back collections, and artifacts, and captured the minds of those in France and beyond. Egyptomania truly began.
After the Rosetta Stone was found and hieroglyphics were finally translated, excavation began in earnest. Unless I’m mistaken, the treasures found in the tombs were either fully or in part allowed to go back to the countries of those who found them, and were in high demand for exhibition. So everyone was diving in, especially for the prestigious finding credit. The bust of Nefertiti, which is a famous art piece, was found by a German archaeological company, and taken to Berlin for display.
This all queues us up for the discovery of Tut’s tomb, and the main part of our story. Because we have to start with, why were they there in the first place? Did they know who they were looking for? We’ll dive in after the break.
In 1912, the Valley of the Kings was considered “exhausted”, meaning there was nothing else to find. However, some disagreed with this assertion. Lord Carnarvon, an English Earl, had begun to spend his winters in Egypt in 1903 and thus became an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist, buying up a lot of antiquities for his collection back in England. Carnarvon had money to burn, so he also began financially sponsoring tomb excavations. In 1914 he received the concession - or exclusive permission - to dig in the Valley of the Kings, hiring British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter to head up the work. They dug for years in a systematic search of the Valley for any tombs missed previously, concentrating on that of King Tut, whose full tomb they felt had still not yet been discovered. Despite World War 1 interrupting, they kept going until 1922, when Carnarvon decided it would be the final year he would continue funding the exploration. Maybe this decision prodded the universe into delivering, because late that year they found a curious stone, which ended up being the top of a flight of steps cut into the bedrock. The steps were dug out to reveal a doorway covered with hieroglyphics and the name of Tutankhamun. The king had been found.
Now, according to my research, the writings on the tomb door DID NOT include an actual written curse against any of those who disturbed Tut’s tomb. It’s pretty popular lore that there was some such seal on the tomb, but it doesn’t look like it. I’ll go into why this became “fact” later.
So, Carter sent for Carnarvon back in England, because he didn’t want to open the tomb without him present. He arrived at the dig site on November 23rd along with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, who happens to be the namesake and inspiration for the character of Evelyn in the 1999 Mummy film. Excavation continued and there was some concern, because it was discovered that the door had been breached and resealed on at least 2 occasions, and that a robbers’ tunnel had existed and had been filled in long ago. They didn’t want all the good stuff to already be gone, you know? Eventually they reached another door at the end of a tunnel, where they made a hole to look inside. Carter was the first to take a peek, and Carnarvon asked “Can you see anything?” To which Carter famously replied “Yes, wonderful things.” And wonderful they were. There was gold everywhere he could look, and he caught glimpses of statues and strange animals. The tomb was officially “opened” on November 29th, 1922, and the excavation team worked through to December 27th, when the first item was removed. Finally, on February 16 1923, the burial chamber was opened, soon followed by the opening of the sarcophagus. Some disagreements with the Egyptian government and yada yada yada later, and the last objects were removed from the tomb on November 10 1930, 8 years after the initial discovery.
It’s hard to overstate the incredible value of what Carter and co. discovered. Though Tut wasn’t an especially important king, given his short reign, his tomb was the only royal burial ever found intact in modern times. Egyptologists learned a ton from this tomb, because all of the pieces were there. Not to mention there was tons of gold, jewelry, paintings, furniture, and more, the most famous item being the golden funeral mask of King Tut - it’s the image we all think of when we think of Ancient Egypt, along with the pyramids. It’s iconic.
So, why the curse? If there wasn’t truly a seal proclaiming doom unto those who entered the tomb, why is there a legend about it? Well, the concept of a curse on a mummy’s tomb goes as far back to the Arab peoples of 1st century AD in Egypt, who believed that a mummy could come to life and attack anyone who broke into a pharaoh's tomb. Sound familiar? Because the language wasn’t well known, this became a common misunderstanding, mostly because there was no one to correct it. Even as far back as the 16th century written legends surrounding mummy curses abounded, like after the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, when the Holy League defeated the Turkish fleet. This unexpected defeat created the rumor that the Turks had been doomed by having a mummy aboard one of their ships - a kind of rumor that ALSO circulated as recently as the sinking of the Titanic. So this idea was floating around in the ether as they opened the tomb...and then, Carnarvon suddenly died.
In late March 1923, Carnarvon suffered a severe mosquito bite, which he later slashed accidentally while shaving. Freaking OW. The cut bite became infected, which resulted in blood poisoning that progressed to pneumonia. He died on April 5th, and the frenzy began. Remember when I mentioned that it became lore that the tomb had a written curse on it? That’s because that very thing was reported by many newspapers as fact, especially after Carnarvon’s death. Why? Seems to be jealousy, actually. Carnarvon only gave The Times exclusive access to the excavation. This meant a lot of other newspapers were angered at their lack of access, because the story was extremely popular with the public. So they just started making shit up. One newspaper even claimed that the following curse HAD been written in hieroglyphs by the entrance to the tomb: “They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by wings of death.” There is no record, however, of this phrase anywhere on the report of Tut’s tomb, and no obvious reason why it would’ve been covered up if it did indeed exist. Yet another reporter expanded on a real inscription on a statue of Anubis to create their written curse. The original text on the statue was, “It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased.” Then the reporter just DECIDED to add to this, “and I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the Royal King who lives forever.” Glad we have more trustworthiness in our news nowadays! Uh, right, Sean?
On 29 August 1980, Richard Adamson (a military policeman who spent seven years actually sleeping in the tomb to guard it) allegedly told the Daily Mail that the curse had been proposed by a journalist at the time of excavation and the archaeologists had not done anything to prevent the story being publicised as it meant fewer disturbances for them in their work (and made tomb robbery less likely).
Whatever the case, Carnarvon’s seemingly random death ignited a curse firestorm, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself even suggesting that Carnarvon’s death had been caused by “elementals created by Tutankhamun’s priests to quart the royal tomb.”
So who else was supposedly victim to the curse? Let’s go down the list.
Apparently the REAL first victim, even before Lord Carnarvon himself, was Carnarvon’s pet canary. Unfortunately this birdie was eaten by a cobra who had slithered its way into Carnarvon’s apartments on the very day the tomb was opened. The cobra is symbolic to the Egyptian Monarchy and it is believed, in the supernatural sense, that the Royal Cobra was released in Carter's home as a symbol of how the King strikes his enemies. This is what began local rumors that a curse had been released, even before the Lord’s untimely death.
Speaking of Carnarvon’s pets, it’s widely rumored that his dog, Susie, who had remained on his estate in England, apparently let out a mournful howl at the moment of his death and promptly died herself. While the dog did die on that date, it’s unknown how legit the claims of the “actual time of death” howl were.
Oh, and also also speaking of Carnarvon’s death, at the time of his passing there was a widespread blackout in Cairo. Yes, this is true, and was definitely fuel for the legend...but it seems that blackouts were apparently pretty common in Cairo at the time.
Howard Carter’s friend, Sir Bruce Ingham, saw his home burn down. Carter had given Ingham a paperweight made of a mummified hand (not Tut’s) with its wrist wearing a scarab bracelet apparently reading, “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water, and pestilence.” When he tried to rebuild, his home was again destroyed, this time by a flood. Though, I dunno, curse, don’t shoot the paperweight-haver here, it’s not his fault the tomb was found.
Then George Jay Gould, a visitor to the tomb, died in the French Riviera on May 16th after developing a fever following his visit.
British archaeologist Hugh Evelyn-White visited the tomb and may have helped excavate the site. He hung himself in 1924, but not before supposedly writing, allegedly in his own blood, “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear.”
Then AC Mace, a member of Carter’s excavation team, died in 1928 from arsenic poisoning.
Theeeeen Captain Honorable Richard Bethell, Carter’s secretary, died in 1929 as a victim of a suspected smothering, which, what?? Soon afterward, the local Nottingham Post wrote, "The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored." So again, fires.
Howard Carter himself died over a decade later on March 2nd 1939, though some have still attributed his death from lymphoma to the curse, as he was still relatively young, 64. In his book "An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural," noted skeptic and investigator James Randi wrote that "the average duration of life for ... those who should have suffered the ancient curse was more than twenty-three years after the 'curse' was supposed to become effective.” Indeed, within the first 12 years, only 8 of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened had died. Lady Evelyn, one of the first people to enter the tomb, lived for a further 57 years after the excavation and died in 1980. But keep in mind, those are just those who were present at the start - many of those claimed to be affected by Tut’s curse were just later visitors or otherwise related to the excavation or excavators in some way. Take Sir Archibald Douglas Reid: a radiologist, he just x-rayed Tut before the mummy was given to museum authorities, got sick the next day, and died 3 days later.
Apparently the curse also extended to those related to the find but not present in any way around it. Some have attributed the 1966 car accident death of Mohammad Ibrahim, director-general of Egypt’s department of Antiquities, to the curse. Ibrahim had been arguing against sending some of the artifacts from the tomb to Paris for an exhibition. Shortly after changing his mind, he was killed. His successor, Gamal Mehrez, gloated “I’m living proof it was all a coincidence”. He died 4 weeks later of circulatory collapse at the age of 52, the day Tut’s golden funeral mask was packed for shipping to London for an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery. Maybe the curse marks anniversaries, too?
Carnarvon’s son said in 1977 that while he “neither believed in the curse or disbelieved it”, he would “not accept a million pounds to enter the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.”
The curse was even the subject of an early-80s lawsuit! Lieutenant George LaBrash was the guard for an exhibit of treasures from Tut’s tomb at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park when he suffered a stroke. LaBrash sued San Francisco’s Retirement Board after 24 years with the police department for an $18,400 disability payment due to being cursed by Tut, but the Superior Court judge presiding dismissed the suit, writing that if anything, by guarding the remains, LaBrash had protected them from desecration and, yknow, if curses are real, would’ve been doing the opposite of what Tut would’ve found to be cursable.
Some have gone so far as to posit that there is a sort of curse on Tut’s tomb, but it’s rather....medical. In 2002 French scientist Sylvain Gandon suggested that Carnarvon’s death could have been caused by an infection by something like anthrax, spores of which could have been present in the tomb as it had caused the fifth and sixth plagues of Egypt. Or maybe it was a deadly fungus that had made its home in the tomb. Or hookworms? Or maybe contact with a poison found in decor in the tomb like arsenic or mercury? All of these options seem rather wonky.
According to the book The Curse of King Tut by William W Lace, one of the most recent accounts of the Curse striking may have occurred in 2006. A team of radiologists were studying Tut’s mummy when they began to encounter all sorts of issues. Dr. Ashraf Selim of the Kasr Eleini Teaching Hospital stated, “While performing the CT scan, we had several strange occurrences. The electricity suddenly went out, the CT scanner could not be started and a team member became ill. If we weren’t scientists, we might have become believers in the Curse of the Pharaohs.”
Speaking of scientists, Dr. Mark Nelson at Monash University in Australia did an actual study in 2002 of, well, the curse. He listed 44 people, all European or American, who were in Egypt at the time of the tomb’s discovery. 25 had been exposed at some point to the tomb or the mummy directly and 11 had not been exposed. I dunno about the rest of them, but I digress. No significant difference in the life span of the two groups was found, with the average age of death in both groups over 70 years. Nelson wrote, “An Egyptian archaeological dig in the 1920s was inhabited by interesting characters and it was this and the circumstances of the archaeological find of the modern age that has kept the myth of the mummy’s curse in the public eye. I found no evidence for its existence. Perhaps finally it, like the tragic boy king Tutankhamun, may be put to rest.”
So that wraps up our discussion of the Tut-specific curse. But he’s not the only Egyptian mummy to have a reported curse on his tomb and remains! Let’s quickly chat about a few.
Now, I said that Tut’s tomb had no curse sealed on it, which was true. That doesn’t mean they never were written on tombs, though. They most frequently did occur on or in the private tombs of the Old Kingdom era. Ankhtifi, who was basically an Egyptian governor in the 9th-10th dynasty, had a warning in his tomb stating: “any ruler who shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin, may Hemen not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit.” Another tomb around the same era contained the inscription, “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb, impure, there will be judgment, an end shall be made for him, I shall seize his neck like a bird, I shall cast the fear of myself on him.”
Curses post-Old Kingdom are less common though somehow more severe than that, with one example cited by current archaeologist and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass as reading, “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.” However, I’m unsure if he’s just giving the gist of general curses, or this is from an actual tomb he discovered.
Speaking of Hawass, as a young archaeologist he had to transport several artifacts from the Greco-Roman site of Kom Abu Billo. That day his cousin died, his uncle died on its first anniversary, and on the third anniversary, his aunt died. Years later when he excavated the tombs of the builders of the pyramids at Giza, he encountered this curse: "All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it may the crocodile be against them in water, and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion on land." Though not superstitious, he decided not to disturb the mummies in the pyramid. However, he later was involved in the removal of two child mummies from Bahariya Oasis to a museum, and reported he was haunted by those children in his dreams. The dreams did not stop until the mummy of the father was reunited with the children’s mummies in the museum. This led him to conclude that mummies should not be displayed, though it was a lesser evil than allowing the general public into the tombs and damaging them over time. Hawass also recorded an incident of a sick young boy who loved Ancient Egypt and was subject to a "miracle" cure in the Egyptian Museum when he looked into the eyes of the mummy of King Ahmose I, so that’s kinda fun. The opposite of a curse! The Mummy’s Miracle!
The idea of mummies reanimating from the dead have been around forever, since at least, as I mentioned, 1st century AD. The idea has existed in literature for a long time too, with Little Women writer Louisa May Alcott possibly being the first to use a fully-formed mummy’s curse plot in her 1869 story Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse, a piece of fiction rediscovered in the 1990s. The idea of a mummy curse made it onto film just 10 years after the discovery of Tut’s tomb, which really puts time into perspective, with 1932’s Universal horror classic The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as the ancient Egyptian mummy Imhotep. Since then we’ve had sequels, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Hammer Films versions of the stories, the remake series starring Brendan Fraser, and the ill-fated Tom Cruise reboot in 2017. We’ve even had one of our favorite songs, the heartbreakingly beautiful “The Curse” by Josh Ritter, which tells of a reanimated mummy and a different kind of mummy’s curse.
The concept of the mummy rising from the dead has entranced audiences and storytellers for centuries, and if I were to psychoanalyze a bit, it’s likely because as time has gone on, we become more and more removed from the dead - the actual corpse of a person. But a mummy is more than an artifact, it’s an existing BODY of someone where you can usually still see the pieces of humanity in it, the face and limbs and features and all that. It forces us to reckon with death right there with us, and I think that subconsciously makes us as humans pull away into fantasy. Because if a mummy can come back to life, maybe death isn’t the end after all...and, of course, “the end” is what many of us are afraid of.
So what do you think, Sean? Do you believe in King Tut’s curse?
It’s time for some Prime & Punishment.
This story won’t be very fun, but as a podcast that covers about ⅓ true crime it felt incorrect to skip over it, so here it is - on Christmas Day, a bomb detonated inside an RV parked in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. 3 people were injured and dozens of buildings were damaged, but luckily, the only death was the alleged suicide bomber himself - Anthony Quinn Warner.
Officers responding to reports of gunshots in the area at 6am found a parked camper van outside of an AT&T facility broadcasting a warning message to leave the area. The van also broadcast the hit 1964 song “Downtown” by singer Petula Clark. Here’s a little bit of that.
Yeah so that’s fucking chilling in context. A few minutes later around 6:30 AM the van exploded, knocking one officer off their feet with the force. Despite the destruction caused by the bombing no one but Warner, inside of the RV during the detonation, was killed. Tony Warner was identified through tips from the public and later confirmed by DNA. Warner had apparently put his affairs in order this past month, quitting his job and transferring ownership to his home to a Los Angeles woman. Warner’s only previous run-in with authorities was in 1978 when he served two years of probation for felony drug possession. He had no obvious political ideology according to neighbors, with one longtime neighbor stating, “If it was him, he didn’t want anybody hurt. But if that’s the case, what other message is there? If indeed it was him, I just, I don’t know. They have to figure out some kind of motive.” Another neighbor chatted with Warner as he stood at his mailbox on December 21st and said Warner told him "Oh, yeah, Nashville and the world is never going to forget me." The neighbor didn’t really think anything of the remark he didn't think much of the remark and thought Warner only meant that "something good" was going to happen for him. He said he was "speechless" later when he read that authorities had identified Warner as the suspected bomber, and "Nothing about this guy raised any red flags. He was just quiet.”
This is definitely a strange one. I feel weird attaching a Prime recommendation to this, so for now, we’ll just be sure to keep you updated.
That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. You can support the show by supporting our sponsors, and becoming a patron at www.patreon.com/aintitscary. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts...we’ll be forever grateful.
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See you next Thursday!
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