Thursday, November 29, 2018

Museum Displays - And Then Some

Anyone who has ever felt just the slightest tingle of uneasiness while touring a museum, raise your hand. Okay, let's talk about that.

While I was at the Psychic and Paranormal Expo with my fellow writer (and ghost hunter) Sylvia Shults, I asked her what was on her bucket list of places to investigate. After all, I had just put up a blog post about my own bucket list so I was curious about hers. To my surprise, she named two local Chicago museums: The Museum of Science and Industry, and The Field Museum of Natural History.
I've been to both but had a membership to the Field for some years, so I'm more familiar with that one. 

The Museum of Science and Industry houses a coal mine that can be toured, a German U-boat from WWII, and an old train car. All three of them have been noted as at least disturbed, if not all the way haunted. Having visited both the coal mine and the U-boat, I can understand why. 

But the Field Museum, at least to me, would win a hands down contest between the two for "Eeriest Public Place Frequented by Visitors and Tourists." The Field not only has extensive fossil collections -hey, it has Sue, the most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found, as well as its new Titanosaurus that dwarfs pretty much everything else on the first floor,- it also has a large Egyptian display in the basement, and halls and halls filled with the personal belongings of various groups of indigenous people from all the populated continents. With dioramas.

I am fascinated by those displays. I always have been. As a kid I loved to look at the beaded buffalo garments from the Plains nations here in North America, or the utensils and weapons from different peoples in Africa. As I grew more educated, I began to wonder how early collectors got their hands on so many of these items which were surely prized by the people who had made them. And as I started paying more attention to atmosphere, or ambiance, or whatever the correct term may be, I began to feel things through the display glass. I wondered about the woman who had painstakingly beaded that buffalo hide, or the man who had wielded that cruel-looking cudgel. And I wondered what became of all of them, that their possessions should end up on display in a city so far away from where they had lived.

Now, when Jim and I take the grandkids to the museum, we tour through those displays so that the children can look at all of these artifacts the way we had once done. But we never linger. Jim and I both feel a bit of uneasiness there, and my sensitive grandchildren either pick up on that, or are experiencing their own feelings of...what? Disturbance? Edginess? Maybe even lingering residual anger or grief? As goofy as it may sound, I get the sense that everything in those cases may be displayed sensibly -even scientifically- but despite the glass that encompasses them, there is still an energy or an aura emanating from them that hearkens back to their places, and people, of origin.

I had an English professor who traveled extensively through the Outback in Australia and she told me one time that when you were exploring various locations with your guide, and were told that certain places were not to be walked through casually or even entered at all, you paid attention. She said that you could feel something in those places, something that didn't lend itself to touching or measuring or examination, but that was there nonetheless.

One time when Jim and I, along with my sister and her husband, took a tour through an ancient archeological site in New Mexico, the guide told us that where we stood had once been a place of worship. He was careful to greet whatever spirits resided there on our behalf, and also to thank them for allowing us to have visited when it was time to leave. He was serious. And the space itself was rife with an undercurrent of energy or force. Whatever was there, it felt sentient.

During Jim's studies in Native American culture, we met a woman who sold art, jewelry, and blankets from the Southwest nations. She also sold kachina dolls, figures representing different deities from the Hopi culture. Her particular figures stood twelve to fourteen inches in height and were clothed in proper traditional regalia. We admired them and talked to her about her store, and offhandedly she mentioned that when she closed her shop at night and put the dolls back into their glass cabinets, that she never shut the doors on those cabinets.

We were surprised. "Aren't you worried about people breaking in and stealing them?" I asked.

"Not really," was her reply. "And closing them in like that is a mistake." She went on to mention that the energy in the dolls, even though they were reproductions, was enough to have shattered glass. From the inside of the cases. "After that happened, I don't close the doors anymore," she said. "And I no longer have that kind of problem."

So I guess I can understand my friend wanting to investigate the Field Museum. Something is present in and around those display cases. I can't tell you why the glass has never shattered in those museum displays. Although to tell you the truth, I also can't tell you for a fact that it has never happened.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Should a Cowardly Ghost Fanatic Have a Bucket List?

Everybody knows about bucket lists. I don't actually have one pertaining to my life in general, but I have a two-item list pertaining to all things weird and supernatural. You'd think they would be visits to haunted sites, right? Uh, no, actually, they're not.

Even though I read and write about ghosts constantly, I do not have a list of haunted places that I feel a driving need to see. For one thing, some of the most haunted places on the planet include mental institutions, prisons, and places where something really bad happened. Let's go over that list.

1. Mental institutions. Think Transallegheny Lunatic Asylum, purportedly one of the most haunted places in the country. People lived in abject misery there, were tortured in place of actual treatment, and then died, only to be buried on the grounds of this nightmare facility. I doubt very much that anyone or anything haunting the place is going to be either chipper or welcoming. I have a hard enough time with the "neutral" types that walk through my house. Do I really want to run into the spirit of someone who was unwell and then tormented for the rest of his or her life? I don't think so.

2. Prisons. Think either Alcatraz or the haunted Old Charleston Jail in South Carolina. Like their brethren in the mental institutions, these people were also incarcerated and treated very badly. Some of them, in Charleston, were executed there. So what we would have are beings who were probably pretty dark and disturbed to begin with, who then went on to live their lives in a pretty dark and disturbed place. And again, some of those lives ended very badly. I know I don't want to run into a deceased murderer who is still hacked-off at the world and likely to take that out on anyone who passes by. No thank you.

3. Places where something really bad happened. My friend, writer and ghost hunter Sylvia Shults not only spends a lot of time hanging out in the abandoned Peoria Mental Hospital (she wrote a book about it called Fractured Spirits) and doing paranormal investigations got herself. She also got over to the Lizzie Borden House to investigate there. She was so excited when she told me about it. I was so serious when I told her she was crazy. I've heard some of the audiotapes from that night. YIKES. Interestingly, the Lizzie Borden House is a bed and breakfast. You can pay to spend the night there. Someone would have to pay me to spend the night there. There's also the Villisca Ax Murder House in Iowa in case someone in the Midwest is really jones-ing for a site that involved grisly murder. And that murder was never solved so I doubt that any spirit around the entire area is very peaceful. Having been on several ghost tours in Chicago, I've been to the location of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and also to the alley where John Dillinger met his demise. Neither place is remarkable on casual inspection, but I wouldn't hang around there after dark for several reasons, and at least one of them is the paranormal aspect of those sites.

My friend Terri Reid and I took a ghost tour once and she was disappointed that "nothing happened." I think that was her way of saying that the haunted places we went to were less active than her own house. That's one difference between Terri and me: I like listening to the history and the ghost stories about a haunted place. She wants to experience things first-hand. I always think no, no, stories alone are good. Stories are enough for me. She might actually prefer an investigation, and considering what her house is like, I guess her idea of paranormal has a much higher threshold than mine.

So what two places would a cowardly ghost fanatic have on her bucket list? 

1. The International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. I think it was the first of its kind, although when I researched "cryptozoology museum" other listings popped up in Maryland, North Carolina, and London. There was even a "cryptozoology-museum-near-me" option. Wow! I think my list just got longer!

2. Ghost lights. I write that without a specific place in mind because I don't care if I go to Marfa, Texas, Brown Mountain in North Carolina, or up near Paulding, Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. I'd just like to see actual ghost lights. Once.

I guess I wouldn't mind seeing a Sasquatch out in the Pacific Northwest, either, And maybe the Mothman Museum. So there are tentative third and fourth items.

There's the bucket list of a ghost fanatic who is not in a hurry to see another ghost. None of these have anything to do with hauntings, unless the ghost lights do. But all of them have to do with the weird. I can handle that.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Talk About Imposter Syndrome

Some of us suffer from imposter syndrome, that feeling that despite how well a job we might be doing, we have anxiety that sooner or later someone will expose us as frauds.

My husband, who has been an engineer for almost his entire adult life, has passed several qualifying state and national board-type tests, and has gotten to the point where he is no doubt an expert in his field (he has people dropping in to see him all day long to ask questions on just about everything he deals with) still has his moments of self-doubt.

My own work area is writing about ghosts. As I type those words, even I have to laugh out loud. Seriously? Writing about ghosts? Nonetheless, when I do my annual book signing, or run into someone who knows what I write about, or when a reader contacts me by email, I am frequently told about personal experiences and asked for comments or even suggestions. Sometimes I can help. But frequently, OOPS, sorry, I don't have an answer. I'm not a medium or a psychic, just an off-the-wall fanatic of sorts.

But nothing makes me feel more like an imposter than my own grandson. This kid can flat-out see the dead, and we live in a fairly active house. I think he's gotten pretty good at ignoring things, but there are rooms he doesn't like after dark and he doesn't like the dark itself. I totally understand that: I'm a bit afraid of the dark, myself. So he sleeps with a nightlight, and frequently falls asleep with his bedside lamp on, leaving it to the grown-ups to turn it off for him when we go to bed ourselves.

After all that, it should come as no surprise to anyone that when he says to me "I'm scared," a little bit of a chill goes up my spine. And he's been doing that a lot at bedtime. It got so bad a few weeks ago that we had Jim, student of Native American wisdom, smudge the house. That helped, and our little guy's room felt much lighter for a few days. But it's gradually starting to get that, oh, stuffy, slightly-crowded feeling again. Jim himself said that what he did probably worked for all of twenty-four hours. It wasn't quite that short a period, but it was short.

I think part of the problem is that my grandson has sight. Just like his mother. I think they're both sensitive to everything around them, possibly attract passers-by, and unfortunately, their bedrooms are right next to each other. Holy lights-to-attract moths (or the dead), Batman!

He got up out of bed last night and came  into the living room where Jim was watching TV and I was finishing up some odds and ends, and announced that he was afraid. I took him back to his room and we sat and read a little bit out of a Pokemon book. And then we talked. I always ask him what he's afraid of and he always answers with that universal kid reply: "I don't know." But I think he does know and doesn't want to talk about it. A big hint is that he says he never blows his nose in the dark because he's afraid the noise he makes will be heard and "they'll come after" him. That's not a great thing to hear your grandson say just before everyone goes to bed.

So last night we talked things over. In the end, as always, I reminded him that his bedroom is his own space and that he has the right to tell anyone and everyone to go away and leave him alone. He always looks at me very doubtfully when I say that. I know from personal experience that the dead can be pretty persistent. I sometimes wonder if lacking a physical body somehow makes them forget about things like boundaries and personal space. Whatever the problem is, I finally told him last night that he should start owning his space and that if he has to be a badass to do it, then so be it. Grandma using the word "badass" was good for a laugh and that made both of us feel better.

But I know he's still uneasy, and frankly, so am I. It's not a comfortable feeling to have perfect strangers wandering through your house, whether alive or dead. I wish I knew better ways to teach him to arm himself. When I go to the Expo this year (next week, if you can make it to Davenport, Iowa!) I will start asking other people- with more expertise- for advice.

I'm such an imposter.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Thanatophobia -Or, Random Thoughts from a Writer of Ghost Stories

 Thanatophobia: fear/phobia of death.

Today is the first day of November, and where I am sitting, the sky is gray and cloud-covered, the trees are somewhere between blazing with color, though a bit dulled by lack of sun, and being totally leafless. I'm grateful yesterday was sunny for the kids running around the neighborhood in their wildly colorful costumes, but by comparison, today looks very bleak.

And that's okay. For someone who writes about the paranormal, today is a treasure trove. It's the time of year when shorter hours of daylight and longer hours of darkness give rise to ideas about ghosts, feelings of uneasiness, and a general tendency toward the brooding mood of autumn sliding inevitably into winter.

This is also the time of year when mortality shoves itself into my face. Do you know that feeling? I write about being visited by the dead. There are times I wonder if, when I myself am among the dead, I'm going to go visit people who are still alive. Will I pop in to see how my grandkids are sleeping through the night? Will I visit my adult children to see how they're holding up with such grown-up concerns like mortgages, car payments, college costs, and retirement savings? I sometimes wonder if, when I'm on the other side of the veil, I will still be able to visit my beloved Door County or even have the ability to will myself to Ireland and Greece and other places around the globe I would love to revisit or see for the first time.

There are times I wonder if music will still matter to me, or if I will be able to pop into a movie theater and see the stories that are being filmed after I've stopped buying tickets and a bucket of popcorn. Someone very close to me passed on before the last Harry Potter movie hit the big screen, and I've often wondered if he didn't find his way into a theater to see how everything turned out.

And books! What magical stories will be delighting readers when I've stopped hitting my local library? As they say, So many books, so little time.

I suppose this particular posting must seem maudlin and depressing. It's not meant to be. When one spends a lot of time writing about the dead (and maybe how they died), one cannot help reflecting upon mortality and how much time is left to wander this planet while still alive and breathing.

I once read that all writers (quite a sweeping generalization, but I know it applies to me!) are hypochondriacs. Because that is true for me, I sometimes wonder if I don't have some kind of vile disease wending its way through one or more of my internal systems, looking for a place to lodge and fester and eventually choke the life out of my body. Since this does not seem to be happening, at least not yet, I continue to write my stories and try to find ways to reach out and entertain what readers I have. But every time I get a strange pain in my side, or a suspicious headache, or cramping sensations in my muscles, that little thrill of anxiety shoots through me even as the pain is already subsiding. I wouldn't say I'm totally terrified of death. I'm not, actually, although I admit I hope to die in a really peaceful way. So I don't think that I actually have true thanatophobia.

In the end, death itself doesn't worry me a great deal. But all the goodbyes? That's another story.