Thursday, July 26, 2012

In the Spirit of Education

There is currently a new ghost series on TV, this one called "School Spirits." I was wondering when someone was going to get around to covering haunted colleges since there seem to be so many of them. I was also wondering WHY there are so many of them.  In my 12 feet or so of shelf space devoted to ghost stories and haunted locations, I would guess there are almost as many collegiate hauntings described as there are castles and churches.

Personally, I once spent a retreat on a college campus in what was a disturbed, if not disturbing, dormitory. The room was perfectly fine: desk with lamp, bed, closet space, even a sink. The atmosphere in the room itself, however, was both watchful and waiting. I didn't sleep much there, those two nights. The hall outside the room was even worse. There was no bathroom attached to the bedroom and anyone needing to shower or use the facility had a long walk to get to it. The best part was creeping, speed-walking, or outright running past the back of the building's chapel, full of wonderful shadows that mercifully stayed put when I zipped through them en route to the lavatory. Whoever designed the path we used to answer the call of nature had a warped sense of humor.

Even my high school had some issues. The school was built in two parts: an older section that had been the original school, and the newer add-on that came about as enrollment increased. The older section, with its wrought-iron fence and gothic design (all-girls' Catholic high school) should have been the scary part, but it wasn't. The new side of the school with its modern tiling and squared-off rooms was the area that filled itself with unexplained noises and shufflings when students stayed late for extra-curricular activities like sports or rehearsals. 

And all of this leads me back to my original question. Why are places of education so frequently haunted? Do that many students commit suicide? Were there murders on campus in days gone by that have since been forgotten? Or is it just that the buildings soak up all of the adolescent and post-adolescent emotion and anguish that goes hand-in-hand with scholastic rites of passage, replaying those feelings for those sensitive enough to notice them?

I don't know the answer to this. All I know is that I have been to some scary buildings in my time and quite a few of them involve education.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Late Thoughts on the Late, Great Richard Crowe

When we stopped subscribing to a printed newspaper, I realized I was going to lose touch with local news. But it still came as a bit of a shock when I learned, over a month late, that one of my favorite Chicago icons, Richard Crowe, had passed away June 6, 2012.

For anyone not from the immediate area, Richard Crowe was the very first Chicago ghost entrepreneur. He started doing Chicago Supernatural Tours back in 1973 and I must admit I took my first tour with him a year later. At that time, the idea of getting on a bus for a four-hour ride while the man at the front regaled us with stories of ghosts related to Chicago's frequently bloody past as we toured the city was mind-boggling. This was a grown-up doing a bus tour for no other reason than to share ghost stories. I was on board in more ways than one.

My second tour with Mr. Crowe was years later, and by then he offered the option of a midnight ghost story cruise. My younger daughter and her best friend accompanied my husband and me as we gazed at Chicago buildings from the river and the lake, and heard tales of what went on in these particular haunts. Ghost stories told under dark Chicago skies in an open boat are weirdly atmospheric. And a lot of fun. 

A few years ago, my daughter and I took what would be, sadly, our last tour with our favorite guide. By now, Mr. Crowe had added eateries and late-night shopping to his tour as we stopped at favorite locales like The Billygoat Tavern and Chinatown. I won a prize on that tour for knowing that Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby.

Recently, I heard that some folks actually left his tours mid-route because they were disappointed. I've always wondered if they expected him to conjure up a spirit while he was speaking. Having been on ghost tours in different locations, including York, England, I can guarantee that no ghost-tour guide promises a supernatural experience. They do, however, offer a wealth of local history and usually quite a bit of entertainment. Rumor has it that Stephen King himself took a Richard Crowe ghost tour.

I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Crowe on those tours. I also met him at a signing where he autographed a copy of his book Chicago's Street Guide to the Supernatural for me. He was a friendly, warm giant of a man with a great voice for telling tales and a dry sense of humor. His love of his home town was evident in every story he told. And I doubt that any historical haunting in the Second City got by him. How fitting it is that he is buried in Resurrection Cemetery, home to Resurrection Mary, one of Chicago's most famous spirits and a mainstay of Chicago Supernatural Tours.

I will miss Mr. Crowe's annual Halloween visits on both radio and television talk shows, and his interviews with various newspapers. But I'm glad I had the chance to have met and talked with him. He's an integral part of the fabric that weaves my writing career together.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Just Passing Through

I grew up in a haunted house, so I know what that feels like. I knew what places in the house were always disturbed or disturbing, I knew what time the "nightly haunt" would start and stop, I knew when that one particular thing entered the room and it was time to leave. In other words, at my old house, despite being unknown, the haunting was a known quantity. (Love those paranormal oxymorons!)

The house I live in now is another matter. It's not haunted. It's more like Grand Central Station. Let me backtrack. Some years ago, a woman I know who is a very talented card reader, mentioned the fact that sometimes, spirits or entities may just "pass through" one's house. It's a concept that has always stuck with me, and it goes a long way in explaining some of the things around here. Some people may say it's all in my head anyhow, but I don't think so. And I'm not the only one who feels these things.

Sometimes our doorbell rings, for no reason. Sometimes our dog would go to the front door and bark his deepest, hackles raised, ears at full-mast, full-throated bark at something we never saw. Sometimes I hear someone walking down my hall even though I know I'm home alone. One time, our home-alone younger daughter came home to find the place ablaze with lights, including the garage, at one o'clock in the morning, even though she was the only one in residence at the time. And I'm not even going to detail what my four-year old grandson comes up with around here. As I type this, I just heard something shift out there in the living room, which is around the corner and down the hall from my office. Love that, when I'm home alone.

In my most recent manuscript, the one I'm about to revise, I have a character who observes that reading about ghosts, or talking about them, tends to attract them. "Like it or not," she says, "they'll all come to you."

Maybe it's not such a surprise I wrote that particular scenario in this house. Maybe I should have that character add that even though spirits might be attracted, maybe they're also just passing through.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday, USA!

Finding a way to incorporate ghosts into the celebration of our country's birthday can be a stretch, even for someone like me. I was going to do a piece about all the ghosts from that period that haunt Philadelphia, and according to Dennis William Hauck's Haunted Places (The National Directory), there are quite a lot of them, from a headless Revolutionary War soldier who gallops down Allen's Lane with his severed head next to his saddle to the consortium of spirits who haunt General Wayne Inn. There are a lot of other haunted locations in between. And we probably don't even need to discuss how many historical figures are apparently running rampant in Washington, D.C. long after the end of their living years.

But maybe just for today, I'll write about the 4th of July instead. I asked my husband what he thinks of when I say "4th of July" and his response was "fireworks." We have some standing traditions that no one even questions anymore when it comes to the 4th: fireworks, barbecues, apple pie, watermelon. I think my favorite is fireworks.

My family takes a trip north to Door County and enjoys the fireworks display at Gills Rock, a village at the tip of the peninsula. The Gills Rock fireworks show has become more and more popular over the years, and includes a band, food and drinnk vendors, and the venerated tradition of parking your lawn chair or blanket in the parking lot or along the dock hours before the show will be held, because Gills Rock's fireworks are done over the water, fired off from a barge that is the property of a long-established family.

When the sun goes down over Green Bay and the first rocket shoots up, something like a sigh of both expectation and contentment runs through the crowd. Showers of blue and silver, white and red, orange and green light up the night sky, and when the weather is particularly clear, we can see answering cascades of fiery colored sparks from towns far across the water.

The display doesn't last much longer than half an hour, if even that. For a fireworks fiend like me, there is no such thing as a 4th of July fireworks show going on too long. But for those thirty minutes or so, everyone sitting there in the summer night is united in good cheer and cameraderie, slapping at mosquitoes, letting the little ones nestle in our laps, oooh-ing each new explosion of light and applauding like mad at the finale. Celebrations don't get much better than that.

Happy Birthday, USA.