Thursday, August 22, 2013

All in the Family

Some weeks ago, I received an e-mail from my niece in Texas who was requesting some family information. To paraphrase her: "Could you send me a copy of all the family ghost stories? I don't want to forget any of them." 

Out of context, that request could sound like half of a conversation between two crazy people. Seeing as how it pertains to my family, however, that is only partly true. We might be crazy. But the house I grew up in was haunted. What my niece was asking me to send her was a written account of the weird, freaky, and sometimes downright scary things that happened in that big old house on the north side of Chicago. For instance:

There was a very nice old lady in the living room. She liked to listen when my sister practiced the piano, kissed fevered little faces when we were home sick from school, and also was seen by a guest during one Thanksgiving celebration.

There was a not so very nice entity of sorts who permeated the entire house, from basement through attic, and mostly on the west side. Go figure. It wasn't always there, but when it turned up, everyone left in a hurry. No words were ever spoken. We simply evacuated to get away from the cold, almost hostile presence that would suddenly flood the room we were in. 

There was the routine haunting that started every night at 10:30 and ended every morning at 1:30. I would never have known about this except that in college I started pulling very late nights/all nighters and became aware of the shifting furniture in the next room and the rush of air that sometimes passed by like a hurried, cold caress.

There was a prankster that hid things and brought them back weeks later. Losing the Beatles album covers for three weeks was the worst, but at least they came back. The same cannot be said of my favorite suede fringed vest (hey, it was the late '60's) and some of my favorite books. 

And then there were the unseen children, the ones who played and called out and sang in our bedroom. 

Lots of people will not give credence to any of this but there were some physically strange things about my old house. For one thing, there were two rooms in the basement that were always kept locked. I think in all the 23 years I lived there, I only saw the inside of one of them once. I never saw the inside of the other. My mother told me they were "too dirty" to enter. But my mother and my aunt, who lived with us, were cleaning fanatics. What couldn't they get clean? The staircase going up to the attic had a bottom step that creaked any time someone used the stairs. My sister-in-law decided she couldn't stand it anymore and decided to fix it. That's when she discovered the compartment hidden away in the step itself. It was empty, but it made us wonder. Worst of all was the garage with the coach house apartment on the second floor. The staircase leading up to that apartment as well as the back room at the top of the stairs were bricked off. I never would have known that back room existed until a college friend who was studying architecture pointed out to me that we could see a window from outside the building, but not from inside. We could still gain access to that second floor by way of a trap door and a ladder, but I never knew until college that the space upstairs had been quite a bit larger before that additional brick wall was built.

I never researched that house, and now I'm curious about it. I've asked for information on how to learn more about it, but that would be almost a full-time job and I haven't got the luxury of chasing around the city and looking for old records. Not yet, anyway. Sometimes I wonder about it, but most of the time I just have memories that hang around in the background. Not enough to disturb me anymore, but certainly enough to influence all the fiction I write. 

Ghost story, anyone?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

From Scary Pictures to Scary Movies

Just for grins, today I decided to do a quick one-poll question at work. I'm new there, and I thought it might break the ice. It did. It may also have convinced my coworkers that they've allowed a real lunatic onto the staff, but at least I'm entertaining! And harmless.

The question was: What is the scariest movie you've ever seen? I did tell them all that it did not need to be a paranormal/supernatural movie, just something that scared them. Some of the answers surprised me.

The top contender was The Exorcist (that got my vote, too.) A very close second was Paranormal Activity. I think two people chose Paranormal Activity III and one person chose the first of the series, but I kind of put them together. The rest of the list:

Children of the Corn
Night of the Living Dead (the original b/w film)
Jeepers Creepers
The Grudge
The Omen
The Shining
The Blair Witch Project
Child's Play (while Chucky is creepy, my idea of a scary doll has a porcelain face and 19th C clothing)
Nightmare on Elm Street
The Call

The non-supernatural movies included Silence of the Lambs, The Usual Suspects, Manhunter, and even Snakes on a Plane! I'm sure that anyone reading this can come up with a host of other titles not brought up here. 

It was fascinating to watch my colleagues come up with their answers. Some of them could pop out a title without blinking an eye. Two of them decided to think about it and came back to me hours later. And a number of them told me "I don't watch scary movies." And then they would proceed to tell me the movie that was the last straw for them.

I have a few others besides The Exorcist, myself. The original version of The Haunting, also in black and white, with Julie Harris and Clair Bloom, scared the bejesus out of me when I was a kid. I actively avoided anything with zombies in it, and as an adult The Changeling (George C. Scott) still comes back to bother me from time to time.

If you're ever stuck for a topic of conversation, try asking someone this question. For some reason, it's really fun to talk about movies that traumatize us for weeks!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Scary Pictures

Last week, I mentioned that my sister was taking a road trip that would bring her to Little Big Horn, among other places, and that she will be taking pictures to see if she captures anything eerie in them, since the battlefield is consistently listed as one of the most haunted places in America.

That got me thinking about scary pictures in general. Sure, the photos that include unexplained orbs of light, shadows, transparent figures and the like are scary. They really are. But there is another kind.

Who out there doesn't really enjoy being in a room with pictures that date back to, oh, the 1800's or so? Raise your hands! I'd be jumping up and down with both arms waving. I have eaten in restaurants that insist on decorating with photographs of people who sat down before a camera maybe some time in 1866. Somewhere around there. They are usually family portraits, where everyone, including the baby in someone's lap, is downright somber. Their clothing is somber. Their body language is somber. And their eyes? Wow, I don't even want to think about that at the moment.

It's not so much the realization that everyone in that photograph is now dead and has been for years and years, although that definitely adds to the uneasiness I feel. I can't really explain it, except to say that I sometimes get that same uncomfortable sensation when I'm in an antique store. Sometimes even in museums. There's something truly eerie about gazing on the faces or possessions of people who are long gone. It's almost as if, well, maybe they're really not completely gone. Like something about them is still reaching out to touch the present. Or touch me.

The idea of all those serious folks in their Sunday best, probably six feet under in one cemetery or another, could be reaching out to touch me? That is the sort of thing that gives me the willies.

The TV show Supernatural got it right when they addressed the idea of a family photograph from the early 1900's having the spirit of a long-dead serial killer attached to it, a spirit that found a way to continue its favorite past-time. 

I know people who collect old pictures. I think that's about as attractive as collecting porcelain dolls (yikes!) and clowns of any kind (ditto!). I don't like insects all that much and I'm not happy when rodents leave their little collections of debris in my pantry from time to time, but at least I know what I'm up against. When it comes to those old photos? Who knows?