Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Shadows? Flickering candles? Moving statues? I must be in church!

What's the scariest place you knew when you were a kid? Some people will say the dentist's office, or the doctor's office, or the principal's office, or maybe the corner you had to pass on your way home where all the bigger, meaner kids hung out. I admit all of those places had their particular terrors, but probably one of the scariest places I knew when I was a kid was none other than the church I attended.

Before anyone starts questioning how I could be frightened in a house of worship, let me explain. I grew up on the North Side of Chicago and belonged to a Catholic parish that had a huge, old church. And I mean HUGE and OLD. The church was built in the very early 1900's (or was that late 1800's?) and was fashioned after a cathedral in Italy, so it had a cathedral-high ceiling, a row of statues down each side wall, three confessionals built conveniently into the shadows, three or four different stations for votive candles with kneelers in front of them, and an altar space that was probably the size of my current house. There was a first balcony in case the enormous first floor was packed to capacity, which happened for Midnight Mass at Christmas as well as the services during Holy Week, and above that was the second balcony where the pipe organ and the choir lived. And Lent, leading up to Holy Week, was the scariest time of all.

Why? Because by tradition, every statue in the church was covered in purple cloth, head to toe. Try sitting in a shadowy church with approximately twelve to eighteen statues, all life-sized, completely covered in purple. Sure, I knew that underneath this covering was the benevolent statue of St. Joseph, and under that one was the loving statue of Mary. On the other hand, cover them all in purple and all bets are off. If you stared at any one of them long enough, you were sure to see movement under that cloth. Maybe just a head turning slightly? Or a hand raising a little bit higher, just enough to tweak the cloth? Or a weight shift that would make the entire purple shroud twitch? And that was what those purple covers looked exactly like: shrouds.

So there I would sit in the church during Lent, doing my best to focus on the Mass and keeping watch on every statue out of the corner of my eye. There! I know that moved! I saw it! And the cloth is
still moving...

Yeah, the church could be pretty frightening. I knew it for sure when I went up to the second balcony with a friend of mine who was learning to play the pipe organ and needed to practice after school. We were the only ones in that cavernous, dark, shrouded-statue space and while her practice went great, no one ever could explain to us how it should happen that when she and I were going down the old wooden staircase on our way out of the building, that organ should suddenly start to play itself in the dark. Even though we had switched it off. Even though no one else was there.

That church scared the daylights out of me, but you know what? When I go into the bright, light-filled modern churches out here in the suburbs of Chicago, I find myself thinking that it just doesn't feel the same without all the dark corners and the shadowy side aisles. And none of them ever seem to have a pipe organ.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Can't You Just Meet Me in the Living Room?

A chill blows across the back of your neck. The hair on your scalp stands up. Goose bumps rise of their own accord down your arms as you glance uneasily over your shoulder. Anyone who has ever felt a PRESENCE crowding into a room that is cool, dark, and previously empty is familiar with this creepy, crawly sensation. And here's how it can only get worse.

What is the one room where we value our privacy more than any other? Easy question, right? The bathroom. No one wants to feel invaded while brushing teeth, standing under a glorious spray of hot water, or toweling a wet head of hair. Bathroom time is alone time when we are under no other scrutiny but our own. Being joined by something otherworldly during toiletry time goes beyond unnerving.

Does anyone besides me have that occasional reluctance to look in the mirror after rinsing off your face and toweling dry? I have a certain instinctual fear that one night, I will look into the mirror and see not only my own face, but the face of someone else. Someone standing just behind me. Someone who won't actually be there when I whirl around.

Does anyone besides me have that slight moment of hesitation before turning the bathroom doorknob and stepping into the hall, utterly clueless about who –or what– might be lurking on the other side of the door, waiting silently for me to come face to dead face?

Hauntings in bathrooms have been featured in scary stories, from the nasty scene in the old movie "The Legend of Hell House" to the particularly disturbing bathtub ghoul in the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King's The Shining.

Even ghost tours include haunted bathrooms. The Chicago area boasts more than one pub with a problem bathroom. Or if historic sites are more your cup of tea, I dare you (triple dog dare you!) to check out the Ladies Room in the Visitors' Center at Fort Riley, Kansas.

Bathroom hauntings are particularly disturbing because of the element of vulnerability. Completely undressed and dripping wet are not how most of us would choose to confront something truly scary.

Perhaps I come by my bathroom anxiety honestly. The bathroom in my childhood home was so disturbed that one of my best gal pals never spent the night at my house again after one attempt at it. "It was like someone was following me around the whole time," she complained. "Especially in the bathroom."

I guess if I could ask one question of those denizens on the other side of the veil, it might be "Couldn't you haunt me anywhere else than the bathroom? A little privacy, please."

So hey, happy showering tonight! And if you don't believe in ghosts, well, Alfred Hitchcock has you covered in the movie "Psycho."