Guest Blogger Betsy discusses books on real hauntings
[Today’s blog comes to you from Betsy, of the wonderful blog A Rhinestone World. In addition to being a giant book nerd, she’s also a fabulous actress, and will be appearing in Circle Theatre’s upcoming production of “Kiss Me, Kate.” Which you should see. Because they’re a wonderful group.]
“Houses Are Not Haunted, We Are Haunted” – Dean Koontz
PEE-WEE: Large Marge sent me.
MAN IN DINER: Did you say Large Marge?
PEE-WEE: She just dropped me off.
MAN IN DINER: That’s impossible. She’s… It was ten years ago on a night just like tonight. Why, tonight’s the anniversary. Worst accident I ever seen.
PEE-WEE: But that means the Large Marge I was riding with was…
ALL: Her ghost!
– Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
I still have to watch the Large Marge scene through my hands. Scout’s honor.
Still, real life can be more horrifying than any fiction. A cat threw up on us in the middle of the night and our coffee pot exploded all over the kitchen soaking through both my rehearsal and audition bags. I also discovered I probably left a library book in a cab. This is all before we realized it was Monday. While coffee-stained character shoes may not be everyone’s worst nightmare, it stills sends a shiver up my spine. And that’s not even mentioning the hairball.
I am a strong soul, however, and both myself and my intrepid husband weathered the horrid start to a work week. That is because it could be worse. Our apartment could be located over a recently disturbed Indian burial ground, for example. Maybe the tortured soul of a sullied woman reaches out to us from another dimension. Or perhaps an unthinkable atrocity occurred in the old building, only to relive the terror each night as the clock hits 12. While I shudder to think about having the cat incident repeat itself, I breathe easier knowing the source.
When it comes to Horror in literature, some people love vampires. Others enjoy a nasty serial killer. Perhaps a monster or even an evil stepmother is another man’s cup of tea. I am a fan of ghosts. They are scary, yes, but they are also romantic, in a way. They have a sense of history, and they seem somehow, the most plausible which makes them, to me, the most scary. Local folklore all over the world is packed with the spiritual: thanks to Cabrini Green’s notorious Candy Man, and the likes of Bloody Mary, mirrors have always given me pause. Literature abounds with eerie apparitions: Wilde’s Sir Simon De Canterville, Irving’s Headless Horsemen, Dicken’s ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost, … Shakespeare, in particular, has a treasure trove of occultish figures. The theatre in general has a love affair with ghosts, both on and off the page. I will never forget rehearsing a show at a tiny black box theatre in the Roger’s Park neighborhood here in Chicago. The theatre has lingering elements of it’s former life as (I assume) an apartment. Once I shouted from the bathroom, “HEY! Why are all these chairs stacked up in the shower?” “To keep the ghost out,” a cast member casually replied. I’m sure my Don Knotts-style skedaddle was pretty fun to watch. I don’t know why a ghost would haunt a shower stall, but I wasn’t about to find out. A toilet was good enough for Moaning Myrtle. Let’s leave it at that.
But the fictional ghosts of literature and pulp fiction are not the first thing I reach for. What I dig is a “true haunting.” Looking up a picture of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall by myself in a dark apartment is enough to paralyze me with fear. Or at least make me incapable of going down to the basement to do laundry by myself. In that same spirit, no pun intended, do I immerse myself in books about “true hauntings.”
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson is the most famous of “real-life” haunting accounts. But it is not alone. Over the years, I’ve become a somewhat accidental connoisseur of true hauntings. I should say my belief in ghosts is dubious in daylight. I believe there are things we don’t understand, and people I consider wizened and practical have shared some rather interesting occurrences with me that I find fascinating. Yet, I’ve never really experienced a ghostly encounter myself. So I approach most true haunting books in a Capote-esque “non-fiction novel” sense. I believe something happened to these people, I just don’t know if I believe their explanation for it. Still, if it’s late at night and I’m alone reading it, I find them delightfully terrifying. The words “This is a true story” add an excellent punch to the scariness whether it is actually true or not.
What’s most interesting to me is that after reading many of these accounts, it’s The Amityville Horror that is one of the least believable. Still, a smashing good time all around. If you’re into that sort of thing, don’t avoid it.
True Haunting accounts typically involve a recent divorce, a bad marriage, a nasty teenager, construction or remodeling, or a relocation. I tend to take the bad marriage/recent divorce or remarriage stories with the biggest grain of salt. With all the empathy I can muster, sometimes it might be easier saying you are plagued by evil spirits from the beyond rather than admit your chosen spouse is an asshole. A lot of these stories come out of the 60’s and 70’s. Women’s roles were changing in the home, there was some civil unrest. The ones I take a little more seriously are happy families who move into a new-to-them home. Happy families don’t need the distraction of ghostly shenanigans, and frankly, may suffer social consequences by admitting to them in the first place. It adds a nice smack of authenticity.
The second True Haunting book I read was called Echoes of a Haunting by Clara M. Miller. I was a student at Archbold Middle School. I was reading Echoes of a Haunting at about 7:30 in the morning waiting for the first bell to ring. A friend of mine walked up to me and said, “Hi Betsy,” and I said, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The most benign greeting had sent me crawling the ropes. Fascinating, in that otherwise I had been rope-incapable. So, my 12-year-old self gives Echoes beyond 5 stars. Frankly I remember nothing but being terrified. I don’t remember a single plot point.
But here’s the thing, 9 times out of 10, these books aren’t dealing with ghosts. They are dealing with demons. And I don’t believe in demons. At least not the ghoulish creatures of folklore. Deep dark mental illness? You betcha. Still, terrifying in it’s own right. That which we call a rose…or whatever, you know? And indeed Echoes is really about a possession.
Moving along to high school, the third True Haunting book I read was called The Haunted: One Family’s Nightmare by Robert Curran. I was reading it at Thanksgiving, and even with our living room packed full of my family in the afternoon, I was still as jumpy as could be.
A lot of these stories have made their way onto episodes of the Discovery Channel series A Haunting, or into the investigatory hands of the TAPS team in the series Ghost Hunters. Some are frankly ridiculous. Still entertaining as all get out.
I’ve sifted through many a true tome and here are my thoughts on some other titles:
1. Night Stalks the Mansion by Harold Cameron and Constance Westbie. Night Stalks the Mansion reads like your veteran grandfather (who doesn’t buy into any of that ghost bullshit) is telling you the tale. And he’s reluctant. But he can’t come up with a better explanation. Harold Cameron, with the help of writer Constance Westbie, tells of his time spent with his family in an old unincorporated Philadelphia mansion. Originally published in 1978, you might have to roll your eyes at Mr. Cameron’s occasional jabs at women being silly about things, but somehow his mild misogyny makes you think this dude really felt he had to tell somebody what happened. Even if it means risking his reputation and bein’ silly like a lady.
2. The Bell Witch by Brett Monahan. Don’t let the title fool you. The Bell Witch is a ghost (and also served as inspiration for The Blair Witch Project.) Mr. Monohan (a horror fiction author, it must be noted) actually takes what could be an uproarious historical account and makes it, well, kind of boring. The thing about The Bell Witch is this: most assuredly, SOMETHING happened in Robertson County, Tennessee in 1818. Most accounts characterize it as a particularly vocal poltergeist. I think that it was a singularly ingenious local citizen who was having a high old time scaring the bejabbers out of the Robertson County hoy polloy. In one particularly boisterous episode the “Bell Witch” loudly calls the patriarch of the house an asshole. Frankly, it’s pretty funny. The Bell Witch, historically, occurs just before Spiritualism hit it’s hey day in the U.S. (a subject, if approached from the right angle, that is also pretty amusing. In 1847, for example, the Fox Sisters had thousands convinced they were communicating with the spirits by a series of knocks that they would interpret for onlookers. Eventually, they admitted they were just really good at crackin’ their toe knuckles. True story.) So read The Bell Witch not to be scared, but to witness a good old American practical joke from almost 200 years ago.
3. Grave’s End by Elaine Mercado. Ms. Mercardo is a Long Islander. So much so, that the book sort of reads like she’s telling you a gossipy story over coffee in her kitchen. (It’s hard not to read in dialect.) Except it’s not gossip. It’s about her. And also, her kitchen is a pretty terrifying place to be. Her story fits the aforementioned “bad marriage”/remodel blame game I mentioned. Still, it’s a quick read and nicely spooky.
4. Haunted America by Michael Norman and Beth Scott. The authors go state by state and relate one or two purportedly true stories from each locale. I’ve enjoyed reading the stories and then following up on the Internet to check out pictures and other people’s accounts. A goosebumpy good time. Also check their other title, Haunted Heartland.
Now for some titles I have yet to read, but feel inclined to let you know exist:
1. The Uninvited: The True Story of the Union Screaming House by Steven LaChance
2. Ghosts of the McBride House: A True Haunting by Cecelia Black
3. House of Spirits and Whispers: The True Story of a Haunted House by Annie Wilder
4. The Ghosts on 87th Lane: A True Story by M.L. Woelm
5. Haunted: The Incredible True Story of a Canadian Family’s Experience Living in a Haunted House (hell of a subtitle, no?) by Dorah L. Williams
6. The Myrtle’s Plantation: The True Story of America’s Most Haunted House by Frances Kermeen
7. You Can’t See Me, But I’m Here: A Haunting in Centrahoma by Jason Taylor
8. The Wall: A Horrifying True Story of a Haunting by Amelia Cotter
Of course nothing beats a late night “well I heard” session with your family and best friends and their ghost stories. My sisters and I have accompanied each other even to the bathroom after being scared witless by accounts of real ghosts. It’s that personal touch that (in the words of the play King Phycus) “gives one the heebie jeebs.”
I will leave you with this: it’s often your friend who seems the least likely to believe in anything remotely supernatural that has the best and most terrifying stories of them all. “For,” in the words of the masterful ghost story teller Charles Dickens, “who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?”
That’s ol’ Chuck’s way of saying, “Go ahead and stack some chairs in your shower.”