Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Halloween Is All About Pretend...

...so can we just pretend I actually got this post around in time for Halloween? See, I really meant to post about my ghostly experiences on or before Halloween but the only thing scarier than supernatural phenomena is my schedule lately (lately--like the last, oh, seventeen years or so).

After I mentioned the haunted house thing a few posts ago, I realized that although I have talked about the few "haunted" moments I've experienced with lots of people over the years, I have never really written anything anywhere about them. Considering how much scribbling I've done (my journal alone, which I've kept since I was fifteen, is 53 spiral notebooks of various sizes), this seemed amazing to me. The more I thought about it, the more I could see two contradictory reasons why I had never written on the subject.

First is that I haven't really thought about the experiences as something special or extraordinary but more as something mundane and matter-of-fact. Just by virtue of the fact that they happened to me, boring old me, they've become commonplace, hardly worthy of my attention. Not beneath my attention as much as so "normal" as to be unlikely to attract it.

Second is that beneath the commonplace-it-happened-to-me-so-how-interesting-could-it-be exterior of the episodes is a whole lot of other stuff. The do you believe in ghosts question is really only the start. What are ghosts? Where are they from? Can you believe in spirits, ghosts, lost souls and still not be at all sure about an organized afterlife? How does reincarnation fit (or not) in with the existence of these beings? Is it possible to discuss any of this without using the word "entity" or otherwise making a complete ASS of myself?

I've learned that the more daunting a writing task seems the more likely I am to really learn something about myself. So, here I am rolling up my mental sleeves, and digging in. (Lucky you, you get to share the dirt.)

~~The Ghost of the Refrigerator

Given all my previous I'm-such-a-geek confessions, it shouldn't come as any surprise that I'm addicted to the show "Ghost Hunters" on the Sci-Fi Channel. The show follows the investigations of a group of paranormal researchers who call themselves TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). In the interest of ever finishing this post, I'll save my ode to Jason and Grant (the hilarious plumbers-by-day founders) for another time. It's only important to know that in the TAPS universe, "personal experience" is considered too subjective and rates extremely low on the scale of evidence. That's totally understandable. Eye-witness accounts are famously unreliable--even accounts of everyday, worldly events. When we're talking about the paranormal, about something not only unusual, but almost unimaginable, how much less reliable would our recollections be? If seeing is not believing--then surely hearing, smelling, and, worst of all, "feeling" should probably be discounted altogether.

All that having been said, I do know that something happened when I was sleeping on my grandmother's sofa when I was four. Okay, I admit, I was four, but I wasn't the average scared-of-the-dark four-year-old. I wasn't scared of much at all really. I was the tough little tomboy and that applied especially to physical challenges (which explains how it was that I ended up in the emergency room five times in nine months the following year). I was too unafraid for my own good. But on this particular night, I was terrified. I was shocked speechless, breathless, immobile.

I had gone to the drive-in that night with my parents, and I must've fallen asleep in the car on the way back to my grandmother's house because I don't remember being tucked in on the sofa. I woke up some time later to what sounded like the refrigerator doors opening. My grandmother had a refrigerator with side-by-side doors--the doors were packed full with bottles of dressing and jars of pickles that jiggled together when the doors were swung open, making a tinkling sound. There was a blast of frigid air and there at the end of the couch, seemingly hovering a few feet off the floor, was the image of a refrigerator and a man, who paid me no attention, was rooting around in there for something.

I tried to scream, but no sound came out and I was paralyzed there in a half-sitting position. I could see my sister, sound asleep on the loveseat across the room and it was as if she were a world away and not merely half a room away.

It was probably only a few seconds, surely no longer than a minute, but it seemed completely outside of time--not longer than it was, but happening in its own time, in a compartmentalized little universe.

When the refrigerator closed, the air pressure and temperature returned to normal and I ran, afraid to even look over my shoulder. I woke my parents and my mother listened to my story and comforted me with the standard "it was just a nightmare" assurance. She spread a blanket on the floor and told me I could sleep there.

I didn't sleep, at least not well. I knew it hadn't been a nightmare--I'd had nightmares before. I would, in fact, have a nightmare later that same night, when I was finally too exhausted to keep my eyes open anymore. I had no problem recognizing the difference between what happened in my head and what happened in front of my eyes. (The nightmare that night was disjointed and full of frightening images, but it didn't tie in in any directly recognizable way with the ghost thing. I didn't, for example, see the ghost over and over again in my dreams--then or ever.)

I was four and not afraid of the dark, but the daylight was nonetheless very welcome. I don't remember how much was made of my "nightmare" the next day. I do remember that over the course of the next few years, I would regale various friends with the story--never in front of the grown-ups--and eventually, I developed a sort of stand-up routine with it. "I've seen a ghost--a ghost of a refrigerator..." And I would go on to explain the fear, the paralysis, the cold gust of air, but all of it spoken in a "hey, isn't my life zany" way. It became the "Ghost of the Refrigerator Story." And truly, the refrigerator was the focal point of my retellings and eventually of my memory of the event. The man, in my mind, was an afterthought.

He stayed that way, too, until I was twelve and overheard my mother telling a friend of hers the story of that night. The mom's-eye view of that night had a twist that sent a chill up my spine, sped up my heart rate, set my neck hairs on end. I heard my mom say, "When she came to my room, she described my brother W perfectly." W was killed in a car-train accident in 1970, before my second birthday.

It set the whole thing in a different--somehow more significant and legitimate--light. At least for a couple of weeks. If Mom and I ever talked about it directly in any but the most superficial way, I can't remember it.

In the abstract, I've always believed in the possibility of ghosts, or at least "ghostly" activity. It seems plausible that there is more to the world than we can readily see and understand. But whenever I hear a specific "personal experience," I'm always extremely skeptical--even, maybe especially, when looking at my own experience. It makes no difference how reliable or upstanding the person telling the story is, it makes no difference that part of me firmly believes, knows really, that I have seen a ghost (of a refrigerator!) myself. In the abstract, ghosts are entirely possible--even probable. They're just a lot harder to believe in on a case-by-case, individual basis. This doesn't make much sense to me, but there it is.

~~The Homestead

My other two personal experiences are even more vague and open to interpretation, but in both cases there were other people present.

The summer I turned thirteen, we moved into what our family would come to refer to, always a little sheepishly, as "the haunted house." When we moved in, the stage was already set for otherworldly events. The place was built in 1789, served as an inn on the trail west, and we saw for ourselves the name scratched into a window pane--the name, according to the landlord, of a caretaker who had died there, stranded without supplies, in the winter of, I think, 1811. When Mom went to the post office to file our change of address, the man behind the counter said, "Oh you're moving into the haunted house."

Two and a half months later, when we started school, our first day on the bus was full of questions and the generous sharing of local myths, legends and rumors concerning the house. I remember there being a mini-debate over whether the blood and hair of the murdered girl welled up into the corner of the basement room every five years or only every ten years. As far as we were able to figure out, no murder had taken place at all--so that part at least was a figment of someone's imagination.

The house lent itself to hysteria, to the hebejebies, to the creepies. It was echoey (yeah, that's a word) and there was always the feeling that you were in a place of long, if not eventful, history. It wasn't so much the feeling of a "presence" as the presence of layer upon layer of experience, happenings kind of hovering in the air--a sort of subtle vibration. I was never really frightened by it. In fact, I remember feeling more at home there than I had in many of the other places we had lived. I felt embraced by the sense of history on both a conscious and a subconscious, more spiritual, level.

The first of the two things happened when friends of my parents, J and T and their two children were there for an overnight visit. We were all gathered around a campfire in the side yard--except for our youngest visitor, who was around a year old and asleep in the living room, just inside the front door.

At some point, T suddenly said, "Hey! Who turned the attic light on?"

A quick head count eliminated all the possibilities, except the sleeping toddler, who was not quite walking yet--had she been walking and able to manage two very full flights of stairs, she still couldn't have reached the light switch.

No one wanted to admit it, and I can't remember who first said it out loud (probably J; he was like that), but everyone finally agreed the light must've come on by itself. There are any number of rational explanations--ones involving electricity and circuits, the fallibility of mechanical things. But where's the fun in that?

I was volunteered to go in and sit with the baby, I guess to protect her from what- or whomever had turned on the light. Sacrificed to the ghosties yet again, I was too busy basking in the adults' confidence in me, and trying to be worthy of it, to be freaked out at the thought of hanging out with a spook. I don't remember being scared, just a little intrigued.

The other incident happened a little later that summer. It was just after sunrise one morning, probably in the neighborhood of six o'clock, and I was reading in bed. (That was the summer I read the "Wagons West" series by Dana Fuller Ross--I was obsessed, fell asleep reading them, woke up with my face in the book and picked up right where I left off.)

I was reading in bed when I heard this noise--a gigantic noise, the sound of rocks and dirt, like a landslide or a dump trunk spilling its load. It shook the house. I jumped out of bed and ran into the hall. At the top of the stairs, I saw Dad on the landing, standing on tiptoe, looking out the window with a look of shock and awe on his face. He turned when he heard me and I was momentarily distracted by the sight of him--his face half-shaved, still slathered in shaving cream, standing there in his undershirt and his tightie-whities and black dress socks with his mouth literally hanging open. I may have actually cackled--I mean come on!

He said, "Did you hear that?"

And I said, still struggling to keep a straight face, "Yeah, what was it?"

He said, "I thought maybe the kitchen had fallen off again," referring to the story we'd been told about part of the kitchen having collapsed in the early Seventies. "But it's still there. That was weird. Really weird."

We halfheartedly put forth a few theories--maybe the neighbor had a load of gravel delivered or maybe someone was doing construction down on the main road--but he had to get to work and I had to get back to Whip and Cathy and their westward journey. Of course, there was no load of gravel or nearby construction or heavy equipment anywhere for miles--so naturally, we just left it at "Damn, that was weird."

Sometime within the last few years, most likely around a campfire at my dad's house, the subject came up. Dad remembered it, but only vaguely (he did not, for example, remember that he was wearing only his socks, underwear and half a face full of shaving cream) and his assessment remained the same. "Damn, that was weird."

Weird is one thing, but haunted is another. Were either of these houses haunted? Both? Neither?

Maybe by next Halloween, I'll have an answer.

5 comments:

  1. OK, all your stories were really eerie. It is amazing to me that you remember so much from when you were four! I don't remember much of anything until I was school age. Is that weird?

    Anyway, if you watch a lot of these shows, like Medium, you know that experts in the paranormal say that some people are more receptive to seeing and connecting with spirits. So, I would say, if that is true you certainly are one of those people. I'm not sure if I believe in all of this, but experiences like yours sure make me wonder!

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  2. When my neighbor that lives in the house next door to us moved in a few years ago. The father-in-law of the previous owners died the day before the house went to closing. After the new neighbor, my current neighbor moved in, she had MANY experiences in her house where things just did not "feel" right. Things would happen and her dog would sit and bark at empty rooms and his hair on his back would raise up and he would bark and bark. My neighbor and her daughter both have told me of instances where strange things have happened. They were so concerned that my Pastor at the time came over and blessed the house. He did not know anything, we just asked if he could bless the house. I was with her when this happened. He walked all through the house and told her, I want to start here in the hallway, he said, "something just feels different in this part of your house." This is where the dog would spend a lot of time barking at nothing. After this the house has been free of scary things. My Pastor said that "Spirits" live around us, but we have to tell them that evil is not allowed here that is the purpose of the blessing. That if you want to remain in the house you do it without evil in the intentions. He also said that evil will thrive on conflict, seems that as her one daugher and son-in-law lived with her, (they fought a lot) the episodes got a lot worse and were scary in nature. My neighbor speaks of a time where she felt something sit on her bed and wake her and felt something take her breath away. This person is a VERY close friend of mine and very religious. She said all she knew to do was to say her prayers and she was released from this "thing" and she could breathe again.

    She is a lot like you in having a lot of experiences in life where she has dealt with ghosts. I do believe that some people are more in tune with that than others of us. I really wish I had the gift. Your experiences shadow a lot of what I have heard from my neighbor.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Great stories. I have a few stories like that, too!

    When I was young at an overnight camp, I woke up hearing the sound of a man's heavy footsteps slowly walking from one end of the cabin to the other (our beds were lined up facing out on either side). I knew a man wasn't supposed to be in there and I waited, paralyzed, for him to get to my bed. I heard the footsteps walk right up to my bed- and right on by- but never saw a thing! This was at about 3 in the morning and we were all 8 years old, so there was no way it was a prank.

    My husband and I spent the night alone in a haunted house. In fact, it was in a restored historic town off season, so we were the only people there at night within a several-mile radius. We walked through the house at night, jokingly listening for ghosts, but heard nothing- so eventually we went to bed- only to be woken by a non-stop racket that lasted all night long. Footsteps running up and down the stairs, banging, knocking, you name it. We went to bed not believing in ghosts and woke up- believing in ghosts!

    And my last (sorry about this book of a comment I'm writing!) is when we had dinner at a restaurant in an old Victorian house. I went to the ladies' room and had that feeling you get when someone is "hiding" in a stall- only there was no one in there. I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing up and sort of enjoyed the creepy "haunted" feeling- it was like nothing I'd ever experienced. I told Hubs about it when I came back to the table and later, we asked the waitress if there were any good ghost stories about the house.
    "Oh, not really," she said. "Except for the ladies room. None of the waitresses will go in there."
    Mwah ha ha ha ha!!!!

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  4. Mom's Sidekick11/12/05, 11:47 AM

    One of the things Mom and I have always agreed on was that the unknown is just that. We've both had experiences that can not be explained in conventional ways, but continue to think objectively.

    I'm not big on reality-TV or hype, but "Ghost Hunters" is entertaining. They tend to be critical of their experiences, much as Mom and I are.

    Can anyone imagine trying to explain Electro Magnetic Pulse to someone from a century ago? Black holes? Quantum mathmatics (some of which has become "standard")?

    The human race tends to believe their myths until disproven or a new one takes its place. What happens to us after death is the strongest example of that.

    I personally choose to believe that a person creates their own definition of the afterlife, knowingly or by indoctrination. It's not farfetched to me that some are just too damn stubborn to go quietly.

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  5. Thanks everyone for sharing your own experiences and insights.

    Steph--I don't think it's weird at all that you can't remember much before school age. In fact, I've always kind of thought I was the weird one. I think moving around probably has a lot to do with it--you meet new people and tell them about yourself, etc and through repetition things tend to stick in your brain. I also learned to read very early on (I was reading at four--I don't actually remember learning to read, just knowing how) and I think that contributes to it, too.

    Tawny--I actually feel like my experiences are pretty meager and often wish I had more of a "gift," or at the very least the ability to understand on more than a superficial level the things that have happened to/near me.

    As for the frightening experiences of your neighbor, we were probably fortunate that the feeling in the "haunted house" was not at all threatening.

    And as for my grandmother's house--I never felt comfortable there while I was growing up, but I have a strong feeling that has as much to do with the humans and their behavior as anything else. I was definitely not the only one to have unexplained or otherworldly experiences there, but they are a large and not entirely pleasant family and I sometimes think the "residue" of their constant nastiness to one another is to blame. If any house could use a blessing, it's that one.

    Lucinda--Thanks for sharing your experiences. Every hair I have stood on end when you were talking about the bathroom experience. I have kind of a phobia about public restrooms as it is and I can't think of anything scarier than getting that "feeling" when I'm in one. Scary, but cool too. Isn't it weird how much we enjoy bumping up against things we can't really explain?

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