Monday, May 25, 2015

Demons vs. Ghosts

Earlier in his writing career, Stephen King released a nonfiction book titled Danse Macabre that analyzed, explained, and ultimately celebrated the horror story. He even divided horror stories into three subcategories: The Vampire, the Werewolf, and The Thing Without a Name (p 61 of the 1982 Berkley Paperback edition). After reading this, Jim and I spent some time naming off horror movies and deciding which subcategory owned each of them. 

But King deliberately left out the entire subcategory of ghosts, simply stating that "The archetype of the ghost is, after all, the Mississippi of supernatural fiction..." (ibid, p 61). Seeing as how Mr. King has written two of my all-time favorite ghost stories, The Shining and Bag of Bones, he should know. And I agree with him for the reasons he states. (If you want to know those, go peruse Danse Macabre. It's an amazing work.)

So now I am going to steal a little bit of the great man's model of analysis and divide ghost stories into two areas, not because I think they are both in that particular sub-genre, but because they always seem to be placed together: ghost stories, and tales of demons/demonic possession.

Ghost stories are my true romance. I read all the ghost stories I can find, from juvenile fiction to the adult stuff written by King and other writers like Noel Hynd. Ghost stories are my cup of tea. You all know about me and my ghost tours and my paranormal reality shows. But here is where that division starts to rear its supernatural head. I watch The Haunted Collector. I tend to avoid Paranormal State. Why? Because the latter focuses a great deal on cases of demonic possession. I avoid those like the plague. I read and saw The Exorcist when I was young and impressionable (both were released in the early '70's, so I'm giving away my age, here) and I was so traumatized by them that I do not find stories of possession enjoyable. Anyone remember The Entity? My, that was a fun one wasn't it? I still freak out if I think about it too much. 

My nephew, Dash, talked me into watching The Conjuring and I did, taking the precaution of watching it in broad daylight with Jim, whether he wanted to see it or not. And that movie was disturbing. I have yet to see Dash's latest recommendation, The Taking of Deborah Logan (Guess what, folks, she doesn't have Alzheimer's after all!). I don't think I'm quite recovered from The Conjuring yet.

My good friend, esteemed paranormal mystery writer Terri Reid, has recently wandered into demon territory and I both applaud her and await her next book with my heart in my throat. There is no doubt that I will read it. There is doubt that I will handle it very well. I have a solid Catholic background. Demons worry me.

So as I wrestle my way through plot lines and story ideas for gifted Cassie Valentine and equally gifted -but totally reluctant- Michael Penfield, I am shying away from things that include any kind of demonic possession. I do not choose to dance with the devil, in pale moonlight or anywhere else. My house coming alive from time to time as I labor over my stories is enough without throwing nonhuman entities of pure evil into the mix, thanks.

I don't know if any of you reading this will agree with me. Probably most people wander from ghost stories to demons and back again without so much as batting an eyelash, and I admire that. I'm a coward! However, I admit that I over recent years I have found a fun coping strategy for things that frighten me too much. Here's a picture of them - enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2015


Some years back when I worked at my first job in health care, I decided to start an unofficial survey, and spent my occasional free moments asking my coworkers to name the most annoying song on the radio that they could think of. It didn't need to be current; it just needed to be the one song they could not switch off of quick enough. The answers, as you can imagine, were all over the map, but all of them had merit! I had a physical therapist mention "Muskrat Love" and proceed to make little rodent sounds. Then there was the certified athletic trainer who wouldn't give up the name of her choice because she knew everyone would start singing it. When she finally said it out loud, she was right. The song was "Mickey." One of the doctors said, "You know that real annoying one about knowing what boys want?" I said, "The one by The Waitresses"?  And he said "Yes!" Apart from the office, a professional musician I know simply answered the question with "Where do I start?"

Unofficial surveys are fun. You never know what you'll get. At the last health care job I worked at, I spent occasional free moments asking my coworkers for the scariest movie ever. That was as much fun as the song survey. I got multiple hits on things like "The Exorcist" and "Paranormal Activity" (any one of them). My personal winner is the original "The Haunting," an older black and white adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Filmed without much in terms of special effects, the entire weight of the horror is carried in pure acting, dialogue, and body language. An amazing movie and one that I believe really didn't need to be remade in color, but that's a whole different topic.

But on to other kinds of scary stuff. "I don't like wind chimes because they attract ghosts."  "I don't like being in the bathroom by myself because I'm scared of the ghosts." My grandson: Say goodnight to the boy. Me: What boy? My grandson: The one by the rocking horse...  "Who's the little girl staring in through the window?" "There was this young guy sitting cross-legged on the floor, but I could see through him." 

These are all statements that have been said to me by the young and very young. All of them were enough to bring up the hairs on my neck. All of them were stated factually without any kind of buildup or drama. I think that's what made them so frightening - the matter-of-factness of the child speaking. They don't even doubt what they see. They just tell you about it, bless their totally non-skeptical little hearts. As I always say, kids and the paranormal are one of the scariest mixes possible.

Remembering all of these examples of frightening statements from the young, I decided that it's probably time for me to continue with my survey taking.

I want to pick up with a survey that I started years ago and I will let you all know results as I go along. It's a very basic question when it comes to scary stuff, and goes like this: What is the paranormal thing that would scare you the most if it happened? Mine is looking up and seeing someone in the mirror behind me. Just the idea is enough to make me uneasy when I wash my face. A writer I met way back when Saving Jake had just been released told me that his is the glimpse of two dark spots in the place where the bottom of the door does not quite meet the threshold: two dark spots that would indicate someone standing just outside the door, even though you know no one could possibly be there. I think he had that happen to him, and it was still bothering him when we talked.

Like that writer, people who have answered this question for me frequently refer to something that has already happened to them: getting a phone call from someone who is dead, hearing the familiar sounds of a loved one puttering around in another room before remembering that the loved one has already passed on; seeing something form in the shadows just beyond the foot of the bed. I can't wait to hear what people have to tell me.

And speaking of shadows, there was something that turned up outside the powder room door the other night - but that's a different blog entry.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Quiet Ghosts of Gatlinburg

Black Bear Ecology and Colonization in Eastern KY

My family and I recently spent a week in Tennessee, high up in the Smoky Mountains in the town of Gatlinburg. It is a truly beautiful place, filled with hilly roads, more trees than can be imagined, and a lot of wildlife. Bears, for instance. It is also a place that has a long history. The first white settler to choose Gatlinburg as the place to settle down did so in 1781. And of course, long, long before he ever even heard of the place, the Cherokee had been there hunting in the woods and fishing the many rivers and creeks. 

With that kind of history come ghosts. Gatlinburg has its share. Jim and I took a ghost tour, as we always do when we go somewhere new, and this two-hour walking tour started at the TGIF in downtown and wandered along River Road, the quieter street that parallels the main street in town.

Our guide told us stories of Cherokee ghosts, many of them children who had died when smallpox came to the area with the white settlers. He talked about the Cherokee burial ground that was just on the other side of the river, and how when the earth was excavated only a handful of bones were found: not enough to make the grounds official and halt development until the site had been studied by anthropologists, archeologists, and/or historians, but enough to mark the place where the native people had given their dead back to the earth. And enough so that there are still quite a few Cherokee spirits roaming the area.

We were encouraged to take pictures: apparently participants on this walk have captured the image of a Native American brave fishing down on the river, or a full-body apparition -not sure of the gender- outside a small cabin-like home that is nestled among the newer hotels and restaurants of the town. My husband and I took pictures and were advised to download them to the computer so that we could see images and orbs more clearly. In fact, some of the orbs captured on film have faces in them, when the zoom feature is used for viewing.

If you go to Gatlinburg, know that the Gatlinburg Inn and the Mysterious Mansion attraction are actively haunted. In the Mansion, watch out for something that will grasp at your ankle or your leg. There are also two young girls that play in one of the rooms on the second floor. The Gatlinburg Inn has its own mysteries, not the least because the last original owner, who passed away in 2011, ran the place up until she died in the same manner it had been run in 1937. (Cash deposits, no credit cards, no one past security at the entrance without their name on the list.)

But despite all of this, despite the fact that we toured on a rainy night and had the sites of so many hauntings pointed out and explained to us, despite the occasional brushes of cold air against my face, or the feeling that we were suddenly not alone, I have to say that the ghosts of Gatlinburg that we may have run into were extremely peaceful. I never once had the nasty, need-to-get-out-of-here feeling on that tour that I have had just going to eat at The Hideaway Restaurant here in Illinois, or even in the house I grew up in, for petesake.  Whatever haunts Gatlinburg seems to be at peace and contented with the way things happened for them, and the way things are going. And actually, that was rather nice. It felt rather like the Alamo, where I had expected all sorts of creepy feelings and yet felt nothing but peace and calm; I believe the people that died at the Alamo died believing in their cause and thus were able to go on afterward.

Gatlinburg feels the same way. Maybe the spirits that do come back, do so to revisit the high and shadowy mountains and the sweet-scented forests, just for old times' sake. Makes sense to me.

Monday, May 4, 2015


One of the concepts that turns up quite a bit in tales of the paranormal is that of the portal, an entryway between our world and the spirit world. Or maybe an entryway between two dimensions.

Portals are the places where ghosts can pass through onto our plane of existence, and all the different things that can be portals are the things that tend to freak me out at when I'm alone at night and the house is not behaving itself.

Mirrors - This is probably the most frequently mentioned portal, and anyone who has never been apprehensive at the thought of glancing in a mirror and seeing someone standing just behind deserves a hearty handshake. I can't tell you how many times I have been reluctant to raise my head from the bathroom sink after rinsing cleanser off my face to towel off in the mirror - simply because I had a feeling I might see someone else reflected in that mirror besides me. In the Victorian era, mirrors were covered when someone died in the house so that the soul would not get trapped there. I suppose the mentality was along the lines of "We love you, Aunt Lily, but we don't want you hanging around the house when you're already dead." Can't say I blame them. A reflection in the mirror was thought to be akin to seeing your own soul, so I suppose there is a logic to this. I think our current culture has incorporated the uneasiness associated with mirrors but forgotten the reasoning behind it. 

Quija Boards - When my kids were younger, I told them that one of my standing rules, without any kind of negotiation allowed, was no ouija boards in the house. EVER. This is not only related to The Exorcist, but also to my own creepy experience with one back when I was in sixth grade. The ouija board has been featured on some of my paranormal reality shows as a way that supernatural entities can gain entry to a house, so I always figure better safe than sorry. We might know how to let these things in: getting them to go away again is something entirely different.

Cameras/pictures - On some levels, I can understand why certain groups of indigenous people do not allow themselves to be photographed. For one thing, the first pictures back in the day were flat-out scary. (If you don't believe me, check out "Creepiest Pictures Ever" or search "Memento Mori". All related to my last post.) But for another, there is something kind of magical and other-worldly about capturing someone's likeness at a specific place and time. Also, there is always the chance that something else is going to show up in that picture. Even before photography was invented, formal painted portraits took on unsettling aspects. I figure there's a reason Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray. When I was a kid, there was a hall  of portraits in Chicago's Art Institute that always freaked me out. Probably because the last picture mounted on the far wall was one of Salome and John the Baptist's head on a platter. I don't know why that was included in this particular grouping, but there it was. Never failed to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, especially after walking past a hall lined with portraits of 16th and 17th century nobles and clergymen peering down at me. Yikes. It still makes me feel shivery.

Doorways/windows - No surprise that actual entry points into a house could also be entry points for something else. When my grandson was a baby, he had a thing about windows. I called what he was seeing "The Window People." He was all of five months? six months? when he developed a particular routine if we set him in his baby chair facing our picture window. First he would look out the window. Then he would laugh and clap and respond as if someone was playing with him. And then his face would crumple and he would start to cry -and not just a sad cry, but an all-out wailing like he had just been pinched. I would have said coincidence if it only happened twice or maybe three times. But it happened repeatedly for weeks. We stopped having him face out the window, and for a while, I stopped looking out the window myself. Who knows what the heck was standing out there, tormenting my little guy?

Actual Places - Up to this point, I've only talked about particular objects. But I also feel there are places on this planet where things can come and go. We always think of a house being haunted, or a structure. But what about places where nothing has been built, but people report seeing and feeling things? I believe there are places on this planet that are spiritually regenerating: the sites of beauty like the Atlantic coast in New England or the Pacific coast all along the western-most states, or maybe a beach in Hawaii at sunset, or my own beloved Door County. All of these places have a good feel to them, a peaceful and sometimes energizing atmosphere. But I have also run into places where I needed to leave, and immediately. A particular beach in one of the north suburbs of Chicago comes to mind. Sometimes a desolate road, or a section of woods that just feels "off." If there are healthy places on this earth, why wouldn't there be unhealthy ones?

As Aldous Huxley put it, "There are things known, and things unknown, and in between there are the doors of perception." Hmmm. I wonder what doors he wandered through to compel him to write that?