Thursday, January 31, 2019

Would You Visit Alcatraz?

The Travel Channel in my area has been marathon-showing episodes of The Dead Files, my all-time favorite paranormal reality show. This has allowed me to catch up on Steve-and-Amy adventures that I haven’t seen before, and last week, the network ran an episode about Alcatraz.


While I know prisons are a reality of life, I struggle to read or watch anything having to do with them. I don’t watch movies that are set in prisons—if I do, it’s usually only once. I avoid documentaries and news stories about them like the plague. Even when one of my favorite TV shows does a story about a prison (a character going undercover at one, for instance) I have a hard time sitting through it. I think I must have died in a prison in a past life. Or maybe several past lives. I know I want nothing to do with them now.

Of course, being places of sadness, anger, despair, and abject misery, most deserted prisons are infamous for being haunted. Some of them are included on ghost tours. Some of them are ghost tours all on their own. The haunted Old City Jail in Charleston, SC comes to mind, for those who might like to spend several hours in a dark and disturbed prison. And then there’s Alcatraz. Alcatraz is like the mother of all haunted prisons. If you want to find a most-definitely haunted incarceration site, this is it. 

Someone contacted The Dead Files about having a paranormal experience there that haunts him to this day, and it was off to the races for entire gang. Steve DiSchiavi even commented how he couldn’t wait to see the place, being a retired homicide cop. (Another reason I could never be on the police force: close proximity to jails and prisons.)

This was also the most famous—and I’ll bet largest—place the DF crew has ever visited. Anyone who watches the show knows that they usually work with couples or families whose homes are malevolently disturbed. Sometimes they may take on the occasional small business, like a bar/restaurant or even an inn or hotel. But for the most part, they confine themselves to privately-owned locations. Amy usually knows nothing in advance about any place she is being brought to “walk through." But in this case, as Matt Anderson (Amy’s intrepid videographer) pointed out, she obviously knew they were going to Alcatraz. He still did his own customary walk-through ahead of her entrance, to cover or conceal historical displays and photographs that are scattered throughout the location. (Wonder what his job’s like??)

Except for that unusual foreknowledge on Amy’s part, she and Steve approached this case like every investigation they do. She walked through the most disturbed areas with Matt and their equally unshakable camera crew to report what she felt and saw. And she described dead prisoners, experiences living people had felt within those walls, cruel and vile acts committed by both felons and prison guards, and at least one gruesome death. Steve did thorough research, even interviewing on-camera an ex-guard, an ex-prisoner, and an ex-corrections officer whose job was to help transport convicts from the mainland to Alcatraz Island. None of it was pretty.

Obviously, Alcatraz is too big a site filled with too much negativity to be cleansed out by an entire army of mediums, Reiki masters, chaos magicians, priests, ministers, Wiccans, Voodoo practitioners, and Shamans. Well, maybe an entire army might do it. But that wasn’t the point of this show. The man who had called for the investigation wanted to know that he was safe, that whatever he encountered in Alcatraz was not following him around. Amy reassured him that the entity who grabbed and threatened him (and continues to poke and touch other visitors to this day) was stuck within the prison and was unable to leave it. Their client was more than relieved.

Alcatraz is huge and dark. In its past, it was used to imprison “the worst of the worst”: convicts who murdered, assaulted, and otherwise preyed upon fellow inmates at other institutions and were therefore moved to this maximum-security prison. Amy described the place as “full of anguish.” I think it’s full of a lot of other things besides, and none of it is good.

I will not be going to Alcatraz.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Not Exactly Phase One

Remember in the original Poltergeist movie how the family house was so disturbed (to put it mildly) because it was built in the subdivision’s “Phase One,” a former cemetery where the developers "only moved the headstones"? (And I hope I didn’t spoil the movie for anyone. I don’t think so, but apologize if I did.)

I have sometimes wondered what was on our property before it was “property.” I know there was a farm here years ago. Our front easement is blessed with a row of about seventeen Osage orange (hedge apple) trees that were the original boundary marker for the farm that was here. I call them my sentinels: those trees are so hard that I know we’re safe from any out-of-control vehicle that could come careening toward my house, whether it be two-person coupe or a truck of some sort. Those trees are like granite and would never allow anything past them.

But before our place was part of a farm, I keep wondering, what was here before?

Recently, my friend and fellow writer Terri Reid wrote about beings called “elementals” on her page. You can check that out if you look up Terri Reid Freaky Friday Jan18, 2019. It is a fascinating article and also very informative. And all while I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “Yup.” I have a feeling my yard is filled with such beings.

The people who lived in the house before us were members of The Morton Arboretum here in Illinois, an enormous, amazing garden center/outdoor museum. They loved trees and when we bought this house, they had blessed the property with both a ginkgo and a tulip tree in the front, two or three dogwoods plus a Norway maple around the house, a magnolia, and several ornamental crab apple trees. They also grew so many hostas that the lady of the house became known in the neighborhood as “The Hosta Queen.” They knew what they wanted and the yard was beautiful because of their efforts.

Accordingly, if you believe in this sort of thing, trees and other plants come with nature spirits. And whether or not you believe in this sort of thing, I think most of us that have been out in nature, especially the wilds of nature, have at least felt their presence, especially at night. You’re never really alone, out in those woods, and I’m not talking about animals.

My yard is no exception. We’re hardly the wilds, but we do certainly have our share of trees. When we first moved in, we had twenty-seven trees on our property that dropped leaves in the fall and believe me, our collection of raked leaves could have provided enough compost for several farms, or so it seemed. That tree count didn’t even include the evergreens that also live in our yard. In fact, we have so many trees that our raised vegetable garden seems arbitrarily placed just northwest of our patio door. But it isn’t, because that’s the only patch of yard that gets enough sunshine during the summer to sustain a garden. Everything else is under shade.

And so our yard feels very crowded to me. I don’t know what all is out there, and I certainly don’t see them. But I can feel them. When I go out into my yard, doesn’t matter what time of day or night, I feel observed and also marginally, perhaps only cautiously, accepted. I don’t know if anyone ever came to our yard and went crazy injuring plants and possibly trees at some point. I find that hard to believe, there was so much healthy greenery in place when we moved here. But still, whatever is in our yards, hanging around our trees and plants, (maybe herding them, if you like Tolkien’s ents), gives off a very protective, almost defensive vibe, and are not necessarily always welcoming to me.

Most people would say I was crazy. Or, if feeling, charitable, they might say I was overly-imaginative. But there are times I see things just out of the corner of my eye. Hearing something might be more difficult because there is always so much noise in an urban area. But I know what I feel, and I know I’m not alone when I'm out in my yard.

I’m happy that my trees and plants are being well cared-for, but I wish I felt like I had a better rapport with whoever or whatever is out there. I read somewhere, once, that native Hawaiians will ask permission to enter the outdoors, making sure that the spirits who are outside will permit their presence before they set foot out of the house.

Maybe I should consider doing likewise.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reading and Writing About Ghosts

I probably read at least four true ghost story books a year, sometimes (a lot) more, and sometimes less, depending on what I can find. I've been reading this material for so long that it can be difficult to find books with stories that I don't already know. For that reason, I now look for collections of tales shared by those who have experienced something paranormal, since those stories will be new to me.

Lately, though, I've been struggling to get through my beloved books, and I've been trying to figure out why. I think I might have an idea. If you have ever read any true ghost stories, you will know that they center around a place or an incident -- or even series of incidents-- that happened to someone. The story will include all the details that can make your hair stand on end or give you chills. That's the fun part! I think what's been on my mind is that most of these stories don't have any kind of resolution. Most of the time, no one ever finds out why this is happening. Why does this particular ghost haunt this place? Or person? Why does it disturb one special room, or do one specific action every night at ten o'clock? The details are always fascinating, but there are never, or rarely, any kind of explanation behind the haunting.

I think that may be why I write what I do: it lets me gather all the untidy and unexplained bits together and resolve them into one nice coherent story. By the time a reader finishes one of my books, if she or he doesn't understand the story behind the ghost, then I haven't done my job. 

I am currently reading a book of shared ghost stories that was put out by podcasters Tony and Jenny Brueski. Their podcast is called Real Ghost Stories Online and is centered around supernatural experiences that are called in by listeners. And the stories are both fascinating and frightening. But of course, for the majority of the tales, there is no explanation that can be shared. People move into houses and start experiencing unworldly occurrences, and who knows why that is happening?

The Dead Files, my favorite reality paranormal TV show, usually resolves the story, or at least a great deal of it, by the end. So did The Haunting of... with medium Kim Russo. And so did The Haunted Collector. Those shows are always at the top of my list and I think it's because they usually had some sort of conclusion. Don't get me wrong, though. I do still enjoy stories that investigate but do not present an explanation for what is going on in a haunted place. I liked Ghost Hunters and Celebrity Ghost Stories. I like Ghostly Encounters. And on a lighter note, I totally loved The Lowe Files! Those are sort of like "The-Journey-is-The-Point" kind of narratives and are fun in their own right. But I think that the ones that also have an explanation hit a different note with me, and so I go from "That was fun!" to "That was fun and really, really satisfying!" Since we're talking about the supernatural here, even I admit that sounds ridiculous, but there it is.

And so I guess I write my own stories so that there is a known beginning, middle, and end to the main haunting in my novel. (I qualify that because the ghost stories that my characters tell on Thursday night are closer to reality and frequently have no explanation.) But the novels I write will include a resolution to the ghost story. Cassie Valentine and Michael Penfield make sure of that.

And I guess that's the beauty of fiction. It lets me resolve, tidy, satisfy, and complete the story so that everyone goes away with a sense of completion. Unfortunately, life just isn't quite like that.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Do You Believe?

I once talked to a woman who told me that she had seen a leprechaun. She was from Scotland and was visiting Ireland when this happened. She said that she had just finished touring a particular site, although I can't remember if it was a castle or an historic home, and saw a leprechaun standing at the side of the path. She thought it was one of the most adorable little statues she had ever seen, but wondered why it was wearing a blue suit instead of the iconic green one that proper Irish leprechauns wear. And as she stood there staring at it, wondering about its clothing, it walked away and disappeared into the nearby underbrush. This woman was in healthcare. She did years of arduous and scientific study to achieve her position, and she was neither flighty nor prone to hallucinations. But she saw a leprechaun. And I believe her.

I believe there are all sorts of wonders on this planet that we don't know anything about, but sometimes are allowed to get a glimpse. And I feel sorry for all of those people who unhesitatingly snap that such things do not exist and that anyone who sees or experiences something like this is mistaken or crazy or both.

Someone once said to me rather wistfully that he wished he could expand his mind enough to shift his perspective, or something along those lines. I figured he meant he wished he could find it in himself to open up to things that were unexplained. I gather that means that he can't; that he has a knee-jerk response to anything out of the everyday that puts a kabosh on him being able to accept that it could be true. And I think that's amazingly sad. I would struggle to put a cap on my thinking like that. I must be like the Ghostbusters - "ready to believe." Maybe I'm super-gullible, but no one's ever sold me snake oil. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I don't think so. My degree was also heavily based in science. 

Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Of course, if you have a brain like Einstein's, you can say something like that and no one is going to call you a fool. At least, not to your face. But maybe he was on to something?

Because of what I do and where I tend to go, I usually am around people who believe what I believe, or are at least open-minded to the idea that leprechauns and other little people, Bigfoot and other types of creatures, ghosts and other sorts of paranormal beings, all exist. When I meet someone who can't even admit the possibility, I find it fascinating as much as I find it to be sad. Did they grow up in a family where talk about these kinds of things was squashed immediately? Did something happen to disillusion them so badly that any thing that can't be seen, touched, or otherwise tangibly experienced can't exist? Were they lied to so badly and repeatedly that they can't take someone else's word for it, even if that someone is a practicing dentist? (I knew a dentist who saw Bigfoot while out in Oregon.)

My father was a doctor and as hard-core a skeptic as you could find. I think he figured I was a little mad, but I always got good grades at school so that was okay. One day I asked him if he thought spontaneous human combustion was possible. I had just run into the concept and was freaking out internally at the thought. He asked me what it was and when I told him, he just said, "I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often" because medically speaking, it made sense to him. OH NO! That didn't ease my anxieties at all. On the other hand, it made me think he was a lot cooler than I had previously thought.

I'm not sure where skepticism comes from. It's almost like a skeptic is too afraid to try believing in something. Maybe they don't want others to think they're silly or unrealistic. Maybe they once believed in something that turned out not to be true, so they don't want to get fooled again. Maybe they don't want to appear too gullible, I don't know. I also don't know where my willingness to believe almost anything might exist comes from. Maybe I'm silly and unrealistic? But the view from behind my eyes allows a breadth and depth to my worldly landscape that is just so much more fun! So I guess I'd rather be flighty and silly than serious and so down-to-earth that I can't buy into the weird stuff. Besides, believing in all this is kind of part of my job description.

So how about you? Do you believe?

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Brain Finds Stories for Idle Minds

I remember posting previously that when I’m not actively working on a book, my brain will start to come up with stories that play out while I dream. Since I’m currently between tales, I had one of those dreams the other night.

As with most dreams that fade after waking, the details are a bit fuzzy. But there are some things I remember clearly. For one thing, I dreamed I was spending time with a friend from my high school days. We were in town for someone’s wedding. Now, this particular friend happens to be gifted in that peculiar way that so many of my friends seem to be. In fact, there are times that she is flat-out scary. If I were to tell her that she ran the gamut from “psychic” to “psycho” she’d just laugh at me and probably agree.

So in my dream, she and I had gone for a jog. This is not something we’ve ever done, but it is in line with something we would have done at one point. And while we were running, she…disappeared. I mean, she simply vanished. She was about three strides ahead of me one moment, and the next she was nowhere to be found. My dream-self looked for her: checking ahead to see if she’d gone into sprint mode; looking down the next alley (we were city jogging in my dream) to see if she’d turned a corner; glancing behind to see if I had somehow passed her. But no, she wasn’t anywhere around me.

Then the scene completely switched and I was alone, in bed for the night. Something had awakened me from sleep and in the brief second from deep sleep to full wakefulness, I realized there was someone else in the room. Someone no longer of this world, so to speak. I was aware of it and it was aware of me. So I did what any normal person would do: I pulled the blankets up over my head and willed it to go away. It didn’t want to be ignored. I could hear it moving around on the other side of the bed, shifting things, knocking against the closet door, rustling alongside the mattress as if it were walking right up against the blankets. At one point, it even turned on the light and I could see brightness through the covers over my face, but I ignored that and at last, after a few more bangings and rustlings, it went away.

And all while this was going on, my dream-self was aware that I was dreaming and also aware that something in my real bedroom was making real noise and also flashed a light. The light can be explained, even in the real, wide-awake world. We charge our phones on a night-table that’s up against the wall and every time my husband gets an e-mail, which is frequently—even in the middle of the night, his phone screen lights up like a Hollywood premiere, so I imagine that is what I was seeing, whether awake or asleep. The noises, however, stand on their own.

I’m not surprised I would dream about a wedding even if it stayed in the background. That’s coming up in a future story. And I’m not really surprised I would dream about a nocturnal visitor from beyond the grave. They’re on my mind all the time anyway. I assume this is just my writing brain telling me to get out of holiday mode and get on with it, already. Lord knows the house has been telling me the same thing.

Scenes and dialogue have been coming to me so I guess I’d better make a start very soon. Otherwise the dreams will keep coming. And I can’t even talk about my last waking dream this morning…