Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Child Murders and a Haunted House, Dublin, Ireland

The following comes from the 1914 book True Irish Ghost Stories, which is now available online here.

The following strange and pathetic incident occurred in a well-known Square in the north side of the city. In or about a hundred years ago a young officer was ordered to Dublin, and took a house there for himself and his family. He sent on his wife and two children, intending to join them in the course of a few days. When the latter and the nurse arrived, they found only the old charwoman in the house, and she left shortly after their arrival. Finding that something was needed, the nurse went out to purchase it. On her return she asked the mother were the children all right, as she had seen two ghostly forms flit past her on the door-step! The mother answered that she believed they were, but on going up to the nursery they found both the children with their throats cut. The murderer was never brought to justice, and no motive was ever discovered for the crime. The unfortunate mother went mad, and it is said that an eerie feeling still clings to the house, while two little heads are sometimes seen at the window of the room where the deed was committed.

Commentary: Not a whole lot to add to this one. It's a fairly classic ghost story: evil deed done in the house, house now is haunted. I like it because of it's simplicity, and the fact that it contains a double horror (murder followed by haunting) makes it all the more effective.

I suggest checking out the book from which it came (follow the link up above), as it is worth the time. The language is a bit archaic, having been written as it was during the early 20th century, but even that lends a good deal of charm to the stories contained therein. One thing that I have noticed is that identifiable information is frequently left blank - the names of roads are crossed out, or people's names are not mentioned. I wonder whether this is due to the authors or publishers trying to protect the privacy of people mentioned within the book, or if it is due to the authors trying to provide unfalsifiable stories.

Sources: Published book

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Capitola Theatre, Capitola, CA

The Capitola Theatre in my current home of Capitola, California, is, unfortunately, no longer standing. Built in 1947 is a beachside movie theatre in the tourist area known as Capitola Village, the theatre was small, looked rather out-of-place, but was a local fixture for several decades. It became the second-run "cheap seats" theatre for the county, showing movies that had been out for several months as double-features at a discount price. This often resulted in very odd pairings, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark playing with the Neil Diamond vehicle The Jazz Singer or Modern Problems with Tron. The theatre closed as a movie venue in the mid-90s, but was saved from obsolescence by a group of local opera performers and enthusiasts who renovated it and used it for opera, live theatre, and the occasional cult movie (I remember seeing Raising Arizona at the theatre 'roundabouts 1999). After serving as a local performing arts establishment, the theatre again fell into disuse and was finally demolished in the first half of 2010.

Bit of a shame, really. For all of it's oddness, it was kind of a cool building.

And, of course, the theatre was said to be haunted.

The haunting manifestations are mostly of the audible, rather than the visible, variety. They are usually said to consist of the sounds of a crowd of people in the lobby or in the theatre after-hours. When investigated, naturally, there is nobody there. These stories are usually said to be reported by crews working on sets at night or in the mornings, and it is said that at least one of the construction workers who was performing renovations in the mid-90s walked off the job after hearing a crowd in the theatre, but seeing nobody present when he walked into the room. On another occasion, a woman working in the theatre took a phone call, which was intended for the theatre's seamstress. when she called up to the booth where the seamstress usually was, a woman's voice called back that she would accept the telephone call, but the woman who had initially taken the call was unsuccessful in transferring it. When she looked in the booth to see what the problem was, she found that the seamstress was not present.

Commentary: The Capitola theatre was a sort of non-landmark in Capitola. It was in the main tourist area which, by the 90s, had become very difficult to navigate during the summers, and parking was always a problem; it was located next to other buildings at the bottom of a cliff and less than 300 feet from the beach, meaning that it's architecture was not well-served by being near many things that might attract (or distract) one's eye; and it was one of many theatres within Santa Cruz county providing live theatre and oddball films. It was unique, it must be said, but it was a place that unfortunately faded into the background of a very active, busy community filled with unique buildings and eccentric artists.

I have commented before about the fact that it seems that every live theatre venue is said to be haunted. The same is not true of movie theatres - to be certain, there are movie theatres with ghostly reputations, but they seem to be less common than live theatre venues with resident spirits. Friends of mine who work in live theatre tell me that this has to do with a sense of tradition, a sense of fun among actors, and a tendency for many actors to be (for lack of a better word) over-dramatic and want to see wherever they are as special*.

In light of the disparity between haunted movie theatres and haunted live theatres, it is interesting to note that all of the ghost stories that I have been able to track down date to the mid-90s, and specifically cite set builders, renovation workers, seamstresses, and other people who would be present due to the conversion or use as an opera house/live theatre. It would appear that, in addition to being converted for use, the moviehouse also was initiated into the actor's tradition of ghost stories.

And, really, I wouldn't want it any other way.

*Though, one would think, that with the proliferation of "haunted" theatres, having the one that was ectoplasm-free would make your place special.

Sources: Santa Cruz Paranormal Research, Shadowlands (AKA the Illustrious Internet), Carpe Noctem, Cinema Treasures, KFRC

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Robert the Doll and the Artist House, Key West, Florida

The story of Robert the doll is confusing in no small part because there are many different tellings, all of them with mutually exclusive details. So, I have no doubt that there will be those who say that I have some of the details wrong, but I make no claim otherwise. It seems that everyone has some of the details wrong.

So, here it goes...

The story begins in the late 1890s, when the Otto family moved into a large house in Key West, Florida. The Ottos had a young son named Robert Eugene Otto. Among the large cast of servants serving the Otto household was a Jamaican woman who served as either the nurse or the nanny for young Robert. This woman fell afoul of Mrs. Otto, the reason why is unclear. Some say that it was inappropriate behavior with family members, others that the woman was caught engaged in a Voodoo ritual, but regardless, the woman was soon sent away from the home.

At some point before the Jamaican woman left, accounts differ on whether this was before or after she fell out with Mrs. Otto, she gave young Robert a gift of a doll (some versions claim that the doll contained a crystal made to hold the soul of the woman's deceased son). The doll, dressed in a sailors outfit and clutching a small stuffed lion of its own, soon became a favorite toy of the child's. Accounts differ on whether or not the boy went by his middle name before he received the doll, but it is clear that after he received the doll, which he named Robert, young Robert Eugene began simply going by the name 'Gene'. He is said to have taken the doll with him to all places, whether at play, at dinner, in bed, or on a trip away from the house. The two were inseparable, and the boy seemed very happy with the doll (It should be noted that some versions of the story reference Robert Eugene having had a sister who died around this point in time).

But, gradually, things began to change. People in the House began to hear Gene playing with the doll, only to have his voice change to a harsh and insistent tone when it was the "doll's voice", which was usually followed by Gene's own voice becoming pleading or frightened. Whenever anyone went to see what Gene was up to, they would find him in a room, cowering in a corner or against a wall, while Robert sat in a chair, on a ledge, or otherwise elevated and facing Gene. Around this time, many of Gene's other toys began to be damaged or mutilated, as if vandalized by a truculent Robert.

Still, Gene wouldn't allow himself to be separated from Robert.

Shortly thereafter, matters got worse. Rooms that nobody had been in were found trashed, clothes were shredded, other objects smashed, and each time Gene insisted that these had been the actions of Robert. Gene would wake up screaming in the night, and his parents would enter the room to see Gene in bed, furniture knocked over, and Gene insisting the "Robert did it!" It is said that the doll would sometimes emit a high-pitched giggle when others were around. And it is sometimes claimed that members of the household would see Robert move out of the corner of their eyes.

Eventually, the family had had enough. Mr. and Mrs. Otto put Robert in a box and placed him in the attic. There are two different versions of what happened after that. In one version, Robert was forgotten, and life went on in a bit more normal of a fashion. Gene left, established a reputation for himself as an artist, got married, and returned to the house after his parents death. At this point, he and his wife found Robert in the attic, and brought the doll downstairs as part of the decoration for their new home. In this version of the story, Robert was put into the Turret Room, which Gene was using as a studio.

In the other version of the story, Robert was not silent in the attic, but made a good deal of noise and created chaos until he was brought down. He was given back to Gene, who continued to live in the house, even after his parent's death, becoming an adult but retaining his attachment to and fear of the childhood toy. Gene maintained the Turret Room as a childhood bedroom, complete with children's decorations and toys, and had a place of honor, either on a special chair or the window sill, for Robert. Robert continued to mutilate other toys, and apparently to bully Gene, even as Gene became an adult. Gene eventually married (gender relations were, apparently, very different in the first half of the 20th century), but the marriage soon turned sour due to Gene's insistence on the doll accompanying him at all times, even being given a chair by the couple's bed at night. However, being the first half of the last century, having a spouse in a weird codependent relationship with a bullying toy was not grounds for divorce. Or so I am told.

Regardless, Gene and his wife Anne were living in the house as an adult, and Robert was present in the home during this time. The story holds that, during this period, children began to rush past the house, for fear of being spotted by or seeing Robert in the house's windows. It is claimed that neighbors would report seeing Robert change position in the window or even move from window-to-window within the house, and that visitors to the lower floors of the house could hear Robert walking in the upper floors of the house.

Gene died in the early 70s, and Anne, who had always loathed the doll, had it put in a box in the attic. The house was abandoned for a time. It was re-occupied a few years later by a couple who had a 10-year old daughter. On looking through the house, they found Robert in a box in an attic, and he soon became one of their daughter's toys. Again, a child found pleasure in playing with Robert for a time, but before long the girl began to wake up screaming in the night, claiming that Robert had moved around the room. She claimed to have been attacked by the doll, and more than thirty years later still claims that hse was physically assaulted by the doll, and believes that the doll wanted to kill her*.

The doll was once again put in the attic, and many stories hold that the doll could be heard walking at night.

Eventually, the doll was moved to the Fort East Martello Museum. It is now brought to the Key West Museum of Art and History (formerly known as the Old Post Office and Customs House) each year around Halloween. It has also featured at the paranormal convention TAPScon. People who have viewed the doll claim that the stuffed lion that it holds mysteriously changes the hand it is held in, and that to mock the doll or take its photograph without its permission will bring trouble. The trouble may include simple bad luck, or may involve being tormented by a small creature - about the size of the doll- that is only ever glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Permission to photograph may be obtained by asking the doll, and if it moves its head to the side, permission has been granted. The museum has letters from people asking Robert to life the curse, suggesting that not enough people know when to leave a freaky-ass doll alone.

The Otto house itself is said to have been tainted by the doll. Now known as the Artist House, a bed and breakfast, it serves visitors to Key West. Even without Robert present, mischief occurs, noises are heard, and people are made to feel uneasy. Local legend holds that you can still see Robert's face peering out the window of the Turret Room. Stories have also been told that the ghosts of both Gene and Anne have been spotted, and even interacted with, at the Artist House. This means that we have not only a haunted object, but a haunted house.

*I honestly never thought I'd have a reason to write "the doll wanted to kill her". Hobbies take you to some strange places.

Commentary: There are oh, so many things that make the story of Robert the Doll a wonderful gift to ghost story enthusiasts. First and foremost, it's a damn creepy story. It's scary, unnerving, and makes you think about the nightmare potential of the local toy store. It's a good story to tell when sitting around a fire at night, or on a late-night walk with friends. It is everything that an effective ghost story should be.

It is also much more.

Okay, first off, even if you don't believe in the supernatural, even if you don't buy that the doll was haunted or possessed, you still have the story of a child who was disturbed enough that his imaginary friend became an imaginary bully and tormentor. This story includes both the typical bullying behavior from the doll alter-ego, and includes the destruction of property and potentially other violent acts perpetrated by the child against himself. This is the stuff of horror without any supernatural elements. Add to that the fact that, in at least one version of the story, the child never quite grows up, becoming something of a cross between a child and a man, and clinging to a toy that is both a comfort and a curse. Stephen King could have had a field day with this one*. And, really, how could this reading of the situation not be there, what with the doll even being named after the boy?

If you do believe in the supernatural, then you have a situation where either something initially sweet became corrupted and evil, or where something malevolent arrived in the guise of an innocent toy and showed it's evil intent only after worming its way into a child's life.

Either way, it's the stuff of nightmares.

And then you have all of the weird layers of subtext that appear in different versions of the story. For example, it's difficult not to see variations of the story in which Gene refuses to give up the doll even as he grows into adulthood as stories about the anxiety of growing up and leaving childhood behind, as well as the realization that childhood wasn't as ideal as people tend to think it was.

Variations of the story focus on the woman who made the doll and gave it to Gene, making a good deal of her origins on the Caribbean islands. It is often claimed that she was proficient with Voodoo, and that she was dismissed from the household after being caught in the act of a Voodoo ritual. Versions of the story that focus on this "Voodoo angle" come in two flavors, both of them interesting: 1) those that play up the "dark menace" of Voodoo, and these are typically steeped in a more subtle version of the racism of the early 20th century - focusing on the alien and exotic nature of the woman and her religion; and 2) those that focus on the power imbalance between the servant and Mrs. Otto and indicate that the firing of the servant was more a case of racial prejudice and religious intolerance. The former are "old fashioned" in the sense that they reflect the residues of attitudes towards rae and religion left over from a bygone era, the latter are more modern variations.

And, of course, Robert the Doll has become a tourist attraction in Key West, so it is little surprise that the story has been spread and celebrated by local business.

*And if he does, please pay royalties to Matthew "Sluggo" Armstrong.**

**Yeah, it's a lame joke, but whatchya' gonna' do?

Video Special:

Sources: Wikipedia, Squidoo, Haunted America Tours,, The Artist House website, Suite 101, The Illustrious Internet, Paranormal News Central

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mary King's Close, Edinburgh, Scotland

A "close" is a narrow street, usually surrounded by high buildings. Mary King's Close, in Scotland, was one such street, surrounded by tenement houses, and once the main shopping street in the city of Edinburgh. The street is said to be named after Mary King, who owned a stall selling items such as lace goods, but this story is probably apocryphal. Being a medieval street, sanitation was poor, with the contents of night soil buckets and bedpans being emptied into the street in the mornings, and being a narrow street, quarters were tight. Although the bubonic plague was the most virulent disease to spread through this region, it's a fair bet that diseases such as cholera and dysentery claimed more than a few lives.

Photo from

It is said that in the mid-17th century, when the bubonic plague was laying waste to Edinburgh, Mary King's Close was sealed up in order to stop the plague-ridden from getting out. The story goes that, after a year, the close was re-opened and over 600 bodies pulled out, cut up by the local butchers, and disposed of in a mass grave (but see the commentary below).

In the 19th century, a new City Chambers was constructed in this area, using lower levels of the original buildings as foundations. The result was that Mary King's Close literally went underground, buried beneath the new buildings, but still accessible. The close, as well as other connected closes, was were shut off from the public and not accessible for much of the 20th century, but was re-opened again early this century. Now, guided tours are available, and both ghost story enthusiasts and history buffs go both to see a place that is both creepy, and a well-preserved example of a 17th century street.

Mary King's Close has since gained a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in Scotland. People report seeing shadowy figures, strange smells, and noises with no apparent source. Other sightings include the apparitions of people walking through the close and, interestingly, headless animals.

One particular spirit said to haunt the close is that of a 10-year old girl named Annie. She is said to inhabit one room within a house on the close, and those visiting the room report feeling her presence, hearing her voice, or in some cases even seeing her. Visitors often leave toys and candies in the room as offerings to Annie.

Photo from

Rumor holds that the ceilings in some of the rooms are made of the ash remains of plague victims - this sounds like B.S. to me, but I will look into it to see if I can find any confirming evidence. Until such time as I can find any information, I would assume that this isn't true.

One family is said to have had a larger amount of trouble than others with the ghosts of the close, and that is the Colthearts, who lived in the Close during the 17th century.

Legend holds that the Colthearts, having decided that the tales of hauntings were nonsense, moved in to the Close and set up their home. Mr. Coltheart was a legal advisor, and the location provided some benefits for him. One night, while reading to her husband (who was sick - raise your hand if you think that it might have had something to do with the raw sewage in the streets), Mrs. Coltheart looked up to see the disembodies head of a scraggly-haired old man staring at her. Mrs. Coltheart fainted, in the manner of all good 17th century middle-close stereotypes.

Some days later, Mr. Coltheart saw it as well, although there is no word as to whether or not he fainted. And after that, Mr. Coltheart was awakened by the spectral head at night. After waking up his wife (no doubt while saying that 17th century equivalent of "dude, check it out!"), he lit a candle and began to pray. This didn't do much good, because not only did the head not vanish, but a second one, this of a child, appeared, as did a disembodied arm (because the heads really needed a hand*). After a time, the various body parts vanished, accompanied by a load groaning noise.

Some years later, one of Mr. Coltheart's clients is said to have awoken to the sight of Mr. Coltheart, shrouded in mist, hovering above the client's bed. The next morning he headed to the Coltheart's house only to discover that Mr. Coltheart had died during the night.

*Thank you, I'll be here all week, tip your waitresses!

Commentary: This is a near-perfect ghost story. A buried street, ghosts from pestilence, and a city so afraid of plague that it sealed some of its own inhabitants away and let them die slowly and painfully (add to this that it is often mentioned that the doomed were primarily Catholics). The street is haunted, and the spirit of an innocent child is trapped in the dark amongst more sinister spirits.

When you hear a ghost story so perfect, you have reason to suspect that there is something more going on than simply a scary story. To get at that, we have to get into the actual history of Mary King's Close.

The common story holds that Mary Kings Close was especially hard hit by plague, and that it was bricked off, trapping the inhabitants inside and letting them die horribly, in order to stop the spread of the plague. The truth is that the close was never bricked up, and there is no verifiable information that indicates that it was any harder hit by the plague than any other part of Edinburgh. It died, slowly, as the economic and social realities of Edinburgh changed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some limited access and use was still allowed as late as the early 20th century.

The close went underground quite literally in the first half of the 19th century, when city government buildings were constructed over it, using the lower levels of the local buildings as foundations. This resulted both in making the place rather eerie, and in effectively removing is from view as a normal street. It is likely that the stories of the haunting of the close began, or at least became particularly popular, around this time. The inclusion of details regarding the bricking up of people and the poor treatment of their remains may come from the class system, and corresponding class animosity, that was prominent in 19th century Europe.

Since the end of the 20th century, the close has become a tourist attraction, with much of the focus of the advertising campaign on the ghost stories. Although much is made about the historical and archaeological research done on the area, this seems to come second to the money-making power of supernatural tourism.

I would provide a bit more discussion of my own, but I think that The BS Historian pretty much hits the nail on the head:

So I think what we have here is an interesting survival of a piece of folklore – the original ghost story was an emotionally powerful way of retelling the old myth that the mysterious mostly-abandoned Close was a) the result of the authorities’ disdain for common people and b) haunted as a result. And the MKC attraction perpetuates it despite the fact that their tours were designed specifically to debunk the myths of the Close, and even cites that research to enhance the “truthiness” of the story. As a money-making (though not for profit) company, it’s easy to see why they would retain such a great piece of marketing. Sex may sell, but so do ghosts! Even my misinformed tour guide later made noises to the effect that the Annie story’s veracity didn’t really matter – it was just an exemplar for the sort of short, brutish, poverty and disease-ridden lives that a majority of people in Edinburgh/Scotland’s history have suffered. And a way to raise money (see also here) for ill young children at an Edinburgh hospital. Needless to say, it also maintains the attraction of the place to a wider range of visitor types and therefore helps keep the funds coming in. Periodic ghost “sightings” and other press and media work must help keep heads above water too. But do these ends justify the means? Does misrepresenting facts of history and of science justify the money it brings in? Are we content to prostitute unique pieces of built and cultural heritage in order to help keep them going? I suspect the answer is “yes”, but we don’t all have to like it, and we should try for better.

Sources: Wikipedia,, Stuck On Scotland, the B.S. Historian,,,

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Alexandra Hospital, Singapore

Singapore, a former British colony, was part of the Pacific Theatre during WWII. In February 1942, the British 1st Malaya Infantry Brigade retreated from Japanese forces, using Alexandra Military Hospital as an escape route. Machine guns were set up in the hospital to cover the retreat. A lieutenant sent under white flag to surrender all non-combatants was killed, and the hospital raided. Japanese soldiers reportedly killed 250 people, comprised of hospital patients and staff, and reportedly removed other patients and staff and lacked them in a bungalow, with some of them removed and shot the next day.

The Japanese soldiers claimed that Indian soldiers (the Malaya infantry had soldiers from Asia) had opened fire on them from the hospital grounds. Patients who had been left alive during the initial raid were reportedly left alone for 3 days without food or water, many of them dying.

Although it is tempting to use this episode to dismiss all Japanese soldiers as barbaric, it should be noted that similar things happened with other nationalities in other locations (indeed, some of the atrocities committed on both the Russian and German sides of the European eastern front made this hospital raid look downright tame). And the Japanese general in charge of operations, Tomoyuki Yamashita, was so shocked by the actions of his soldiers that he had the officer responsible and many soldiers executed for their role, and he personally went to apologize to the surviving patients, even making the point of personally opening food cans and feeding them.

Given this history, it's no surprise that the hospital has a reputation for being haunted. The haunting is said to take the form of creepy feelings, and some apparitions of people, presumably former patients, seen in the building. One person's account, posted on-line (ahhh, the illustrious internet) claims that the apparitions can interact with the living.

A man who claims to have psychic powers took his son to the hospital for a dental appointment, and claimed to have caught a photo of the ghost of a dead soldier looking out the window.

Photo claimed to contain an image of a dead soldier. It looks like a blotchy reflection to me. From

Strangely, for a place that many English-language websites tout as one of the most haunted places in Singapore, there is little information regarding other hauntings.

Commentary: There are two things that I find interesting about this story. One is that many English-language websites have this hospital on lists of "Most Haunted Places in Singapore", and yet actual information regarding the symptoms of the haunting are scarce. The "Soldier Photo", a few message-board accounts of over-the-top ghost sightings, and frequent references to a "creepy feeling" are all that I was able to find. Now, Singapore has four official languages: English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay, and if I could speak one of the other three (and some folks would say that I can't even manage English), then I might be able to find more information. But I can't, so there you go.

At any rate, this seems to be a case where many of the English-speaking, non-Singaporean ghost story enthusiasts, such as myself, chose this as a "most haunted place" not because it is clearly more haunted than anywhere else in Singapore, but because, due to the building's WII-era history, it's a place that seems like it should be haunted and it's more likely to be known to non-Asian history and trivia buffs than many other places in Singapore. So, it may be that it's simply the allegedly haunted place that English-speaking enthusiasts will have heard of, rather than being one that is deserving of a "most haunted" title.

However, if anyone can read stories written in other languages and can show me that there are more phenomenon said to occur at the hospital than I know of, I will be more than happy to revise this entry.

The second thing that I find interesting is a non-ghost (but nonetheless rather strange) story associated with this hospital. Every place that I have read about this hospital, there has been mention of a book that contained the names of all people killed during the massacre at the hospital. The book's whereabouts are currently unknown. I don't know why, but the missing book feels eerie to me, even though I don't know that it ever actually existed, and if it did, it's entirely possible that it was simply mis-placed.

Sources: Infopedia, Singapore Seen,, The Illustrious Internet

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Haunted House in North Dakota

A co-worker of mine told me about a woman who he used to work with had the following experience during her childhood in North Dakota:

Every night, as she was in bed, she would hear whispers, as if they were trying to talk with her. The voices seemed to be trying to get her attention as she was trying to go to sleep. She was never able to quite make out what they were saying, but they were unmistakably human voices.

In this house, objects would also turn up missing only to appear again later. For example, her mother had bought her a pair of shoes for a dance recital, and one of the shoes went missing before the recital. She grabbed an old pair of shoes and left the new shoe in her room. On returning home from the recital, both of the shoes were sitting next to each other in the living room. On another occasion, a sweater went missing, and she went to the laundry room to look for it. On returning upstairs, she found the sweater folded in her drawer.

She was constantly afraid, but never got the impression that the force was evil or malicious. It just seemed to want her attention.

Commentary: Okay, I love these sorts of accounts. After he told me about his friend's experience, my co-worker asked what I thought. I explained that her experiences were very much classic "haunted house" experiences - they were eerie, but there was no clear "story" to them, they were just things that happened. Importantly, none of the events seem designed to creep out or frighten the story's audience, which makes them even scarier.

In his book Supersense, psychologist Bruce Hood describes elements that make religious stories memorable. Drawing from the Bible, he points to stories such as Jesus turning water into wine or feeding the hungry with a small amount of fish and bread. In each case, he points to the fact that the setting of the stories is mundane, and the miracle, while important, is small and easily understood by the reader, and importantly falls close-enough to "the possible" that it doesn't strain the credulity of someone hearing the story. In this way, he argues, these religious stories make their point, and are easily remembered and pondered by the audience, leading them to be particularly moving and important.

I think something similar may be at work in ghost stories such as this one. The story takes place in the most mundane of places - someone's home - and the symptoms of the haunting are not the high-pyrotechnics of many a Hollywood ghost tale, but rather are events that all of us can relate to and understand. Importantly, the symptoms of the haunting, while alleged to be un-natural, fall close enough to the mundane that we don't call the credibility of the person telling us of the events into question. This makes them more believable, and therefore more effective, and scarier.

Sources: Personal Account

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Church at Finney and Westwood, Salida, CA

I grew up in the small town of Salida, California. This story is once of the ghost stories that comes from my childhood.

At the corner of Finney and Westwood in Salida, there once stood a church. Now it is a parking lot and a large warehouse building for Salida Union school. But when I was a kid, it was an old church, the once-white paint now peeling and grey. The grass was patchy and sick looking. The interior lights were rarely seen turned on, though, as it was next to our school, we had little reason to see the church on Sundays when one would expect the lights to be turned on.

The church was surrounded by a grove of trees that that shed their leaves in the winter and looked like gnarled claws on trunks for a large portion of the year. Though the trees blossomed and were quite beautiful in the spring, this was not the image that stayed with us, we always thought of the church as being surrounded by evil leafless clawed trees, more creature than plant and malicious to the root.

We kids knew that the church was haunted. Some thought it was a Satanic church, others that it was an abandoned church on which evil had fallen, others that it was a church that had been abandoned and taken over by evil cultists, and others that it was a Christian church, but one built and pastored by an evil clergyman who was more interested in his own power than in religion (we were too young to understand or articulate it, but even as children we were aware of the corrupting nature of power, and it showed in many of the stories that we told each other). Our parents would assure us, usually while rolling their eyes, that the church was simply a building that had fallen into disrepair. But we knew better, we knew that it was haunted by something evil and corrupting.

The symptoms of the haunting, as far as my sisters and I ever felt them, were a vague sense of unease when walking by the church, and the occasional sense of being watched when near it. When one of us was feeling particularly brave, we might run up and touch the building, ensuring us both bragging rights and the (usually brief-lived) admiration of our siblings. Other kids told of tales they had heard - all of them second-hand of course - of sinister things inside the church. There were supposedly Satanic symbols near the altar, there was a painting of Satan that would kill anyone unwise enough to stare at it for more than 1 minute, and some stories said that the painting would leave the wall and float about the building of its own accord.

Of course, nobody ever entered the building to find out if these tales were true. No doubt we would have said that to do such a thing was foolish - suicidal even. But the truth is that this was part of our shared childhood folklore, and whether or not it we ever confirmed any of it was quite beside the point.

Commentary: As I said at the end of the story, this was part of our childhood folklore. We were frightened by the story, yes, but also thrilled by it. None of us ever looked for any evidence of the story - we never tried to get inside to church, we never inquired with people to find out if the church was still in use, and we never dared challenge someone who had come up with a new detail to the story. Whether or not it was true was beside the point. Walking close enough to touch the church was a test of bravery, and trading stories about the church was a favorite pastime.

When I was around 11 or 12, the church was renovated. The trees and lawn were tamed by gardeners, the white paint replaced with a fresh layer, and the doors were oftne left open on warm days, allowing members of the community to see inside the church. I don't know whether the church had ever been abandoned, but it had certainly not had the life that it would obtain during my teenage years. I never knew the pastor well, the church re-opened after my church-going years had ended, but I did know him at least in passing, and he always seemed to be a decent fellow and someone who was as concerned about his community as about his own church.

I don't know when the church was finally abandoned for good and torn down. It occured some time after I left Salida to go to college. By that time, it was no longer a terrifying edifece that harbored menacing spirits. It had become a part of the community. I wonder what the children in the area tell ghost stories about now.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

London Bridge, Lake Havasu, Arizona

Strange as it may seem, London Bridge (or at least, A London Bridge) is in Arizona. In the 1960s, it became clear that London Bridge was no longer structurally sound - increased vehicle traffic (and heavier vehicles) and an expansion of the bridge itself proved too much for the foundations, which had begun sinking into the Thames. Rather than simply demolish the bridge, the London government decided to auction it off. It was purchased by Robert McCulloch, who intended to use it as the centerpiece to a housing development and tourist attraction at the artificial Lake Havasu. A new London bridge was built in London, and the old one was moved (sort of, see the commentary below) to Arizona.

Ghostly happenings were reported as early as the bridge's opening ceremony. According to some witnesses, a pair of people, man and woman, dressed in Victorian clothing were seen walking along the bridge. One witness said that she had assumed that the two were actors hired to take part in the festivities, only to find out later that no such actors had been hired or requested. Since then, people in Victorian garb have been occasionally reported on the bridge, and those who report them claim that the apparitions vanish as soon as the witness tries to approach them.

Two other apparitions occasionally reported include a British police officer in the well-known "bobby" uniform who appears to be on patrol, and a woman in a black dress sometimes seen on the bridge at night.

Visitors to the bridge have also reported having been pushed by invisible forces, and witnessed glowing globes moving along the bridge. EVP enthusiasts* claim to have captured ghostly voices while on and near the bridge.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

*Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) is the term given to voices found on tape recordings that are said to come from spirits. These voices are said to be audible on the recordings, but not to have been heard at all during the process of making the recoding. The problem is that there are numerous ways that commercially available recorders can record voices (tape recorders are notorious for picking up and recording radio signals not audible to the person making the recording, for just one common example), and add to that that most EVP aficionados hold that you need to have white noise in the background, and you have a setting custom-made for false voices via pareidolia.

Commentary: Robert McColloch is one of the few people on the planet who has managed to elevate knick-nack collecting to literally monumental levels. When the sale of London Bridge was announced, he made the purchase and had the materials from the dismantled bridge delivered to the location of Lake Havasu City, his planned retirement community in the Mojave Desert. A reinforced concrete bridge was constructed in the shape of the 19th century London Bridge, and the masonry from London bridge pains-takingly arranged on the concrete bridge's exterior to replicate the appearance of the bridge that had stood on the Thames. So, technically, this is not the same London Bridge that stood in London, but is a new bridge clad in material from the original bridge.

The bridge connected an artificial island in the artificial lake to the city, and on the island stood "the English Village" - a mock village with an open-air mall, hedge maze, and museum (much of the "village"* has fallen into disrepair). For the record, having been both to England and to the Mojave Desert within the same month, I can think of no stranger juxtaposition than a mock English village in the Mojave.

That people have reported ghosts here should come as no surprise. London Bridge itself is among the most recognizable bridge names in the world (even if people frequently confuse it with Tower Bridge) due both to sharing it's name with one of the world's largest cities and the nursery rhyme "London Bridge is Falling Down." Within the United States, mention of London tends to conjure up images of Victorian London - the world of Dickens, and also of Arthur Conan Doyle - and so it is only fitting that the ghosts that people claim to see here also appear to date to this period of history. Alongside this image of London, most of us Americans view it as a busy, exciting city, and so the idea of people being bumped out of the way by the spirit of a Victorian commuter is also very much in keeping with the images that this bridge conjures in the American imagination.

Also, let's face it, having London Bridge in the middle of Arizona is going to create some weird cognitive dissonance in pretty much anyone, and is a situation that is literally begging for a ghost story.

Incidentally, I am a lover of B-movies, so one of my favorite facts about this bridge is the fact that it was the subject of a really cheeseball 80's horror movie starring David Hasselhoff. The movie, titled alternately Terror at London Bridge, Bridge Across Time, and Jack the Ripper in Arizona (and directed by a fellow with the marvelous name of E.W. Swackhamer) concerns the spirit of Jack the Ripper escaping from the brick within London Bridge in which it had been imprisoned, and only David Hasselhoff can stop the murderous ghost! The movie was just as good as it sounds, but it's a fun way to kill a Saturday afternoon nonetheless.

*I have an urge to visit this place and ask everyone where #6 lives.

Video Special: And because I love you all so very much, here's a chunk of cheesy goodness:

Sources:, Prairie Ghosts,, Haunted Bridges, Wikipedia

Saturday, September 4, 2010

London Bridge, England

This account is about the London Bridge site in London. I have to be specific, because the current London Bridge is not the one that stood there during the 19th century. That bridge that was bought by a developer and moved to an artificial lake in Arizona (no, seriously, it was, some stories are just too weird to not be true), and it is also said to be haunted. So, understand that I am talking about the London Bridge site that is in London, and not the bridge in Arizona. Okay? Okay.

Oh, and one other thing. Many folks confuse London Bridge with Tower Bridge. This is Tower Bridge:

This is London Bridge:

Photo from

Alright, now on with the creepiness...

London Bridge crosses the Thames to the east of the Tower of London. A bridge has been in roughly this spot since 46 AD, when the Romans built the first wooden bridge near this location. That bridge was destroyed, and another built. That bridge eventually collapsed, requiring another wooden bridge to be built, which also eventually collapsed, which required another to be built, and so on and so forth - just go listen to the old nursery rhyme to figure out the rest. A stone bridge was constructed during the Medieval period, and this bridge not only allow transport across the river, but also held houses, shops, and a church dedicated to St. Thomas Becket on it's span. That bridge was replaced in the 1830s, and the 19th century bridge (which was the one sent to Arizona) was replaced in the 1970s.

During the Medieval period, and through the Renaissance, the heads of those convicted of treason were placed on spikes on the gates of the bridge. This includes numerous famous individuals (such as Sir Thomas Moore and William Wallace) as well as lesser-known offenders. Given the Medieval standards of jurisprudence, it's open to debate just how many of the executed were truly guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. It is unsurprising that ghost stories have been attached to this location.

It has been said that sounds of screams and crying come from the vicinity of the bridge. Sometimes these sounds are attributed to the spirits of a group of Jewish refugees. In 1290, the Jews of England were expelled - similar events occurred throughout Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, whether formal decrees pushing the Jewish population out of a country or violent pogroms that terrorized the Jewish population. A ship containing Jews expelled from England sank on the river Thames, drowning those aboard.

Another story for the origin of the screams and cries is that it comes from the spirits of the people who had been executed on the bridge and had their heads placed on spikes on the bridge's gates.

A few portions of the medieval bridge still stand. One is a portion of a wall on the south side of the Thames. It's not much to look at, but there is a story that people sometimes see a Roman soldier standing near it (why a Roman soldier would be near the remains of a wall that came 1,000 years after he died is open to question), and people sometimes report seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of the eye.

Naturally, many of the photographs taken of the bridge have the ever-present "orbs" and streaks of light, said by many enthusiasts to be spirit energy. Likewise, apparitions of people from many periods in time are said to be seen crossing or near the bridge.

Underneath the bridge's south footings are a series of tunnels, long disused. These tunnels were bought recently to build a facility called "The London Bridge Experience" which is described by The Londonist as:

Part museum, part CGI scare-fest, the LBE will take visitors on a historical tour of the 2000 year-old crossing, and down into previously disused catacombs beneath the bridge.

While working on the facility, workers uncovered a pit filled with human skeletons. It didn't take archaeologists long to work out that this was a plague pit (pretty much what it sounds like, a pit where plague victim's bodies were tossed for mass burial). After the plague pit was found, workers reported that strange things began to occur. Light bulbs would explode without any identifiable cause, tools began to disappear, and workers reported a general sense of being watched as well as the sounds of footsteps when nobody was present to produce the sound. After the initial discovery, even more skeletons were found, and workers reported that the initial manifestations increased and they began seeing strange figures out of the corners of their eyes, and shadowy figures were seen in the tunnels. It may be worth noting that some of the skeletons had holes in their skulls, possibly indicating an end from violence rather than disease.

The London Bridge Experience has become known as one of the top "fright attractions" in the U.K., with it's CGI baddies and animatronic beasts entertaining and shocking visitors. For those craving something a bit more, the company running the attraction allows groups to stay overnight to experience the paranormal. They even note on their website that overnight visitors might encounter two ghosts known as Emily and the Shadow Man, though no description of these two is given.

Commentary: There are alot of really fascinating things about the ghost stories surrounding this landmark. Let's start with just the basic history.

As noted above, the first London Bridge was constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. It was a pontoon bridge that was soon replaced by a piled bridge. This bridge was destroyed by Queen Boudicca in 60 A.D. After Boudicca was defeated, another bridge was built by the Romans. When the Romans left, the bridge fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed (or was pulled down - the history is unclear). Another bridge may have been built at some point after that but before the late 10th century. In the late 10th century, a Saxon king named Aethelred made use of a bridge at this location, and epic poems of the time indicate that this bridge was destroyed in 1014, though whether this is true or poetic license is not known. A Saxon bridge is recorded as having been at this location in 1016. After the Normans conquered England, they either built another bridge in this location or made use of the existing one, which was destroyed in 1091 by, of all things, a tornado (welcome to London, Oklahoma). The bridge was rebuilt again, and this time destroyed by fire in 1136. Really, you'd think that people would catch on that maybe the River Gods didn't want a bridge at this spot, no wonder the damn thing ended up haunted.

In the late 12th century, it was proposed that the wooden bridge (which had been partially rebuilt after 1136) be replaced by a stone structure. This was likely a move to support the pilgrimage to Canterbury (where the shrine to St. Thomas Becket was), which used the bridge, as well as a desire to have a more stable bridge and a monument of sorts. In the center of the new masonry bridge, a cathedral to St. Thomas Becket was constructed, providing a stopping point (and place to collect revenue in the form of tithes and offerings) from the Canterbury pilgrims. This bridge also had draw bridges and gates to allow for better defense of both sides of the river from invading armies (as well as to protect the facilities on the bridge). In 1209, King John allowed houses and shops to be built on the bridge as a way of raising revenue. However, this also resulted in many obstructions and distractions on the bridge, which slowed traffic and led to many people relying on the ferries and water taxis rather than using the bridge.

...and residents of my state think that Caltrans is guilty of bad planning...

Drawing of Medieval London Bridge

Although the bridge was built of stone, the houses and shops were made of wood, and the bridge was prone to fires, and several thousand lives were lost in fires from the 12th through the 18th centuries. In the mid-18th century, an act of parliament allowed for the removal of all houses and shops, as well as other modifications to the bridge, all of which was carried out by 1762. However, the bridge was still too narrow for the growing city, was an obstruction to river traffic, and was falling apart - as one might expect a 600-year old structure to do.

In 1799, a competition for designs for a new bridge was held. The engineer John Rennie won, and his five-arched stone bridge was adopted as the new design. The new bridge was built near the old bridge (which continued in use until it was demolished in 1831). The new bridge (which would eventually become known as the "old" bridge) was widened in the early 20th century, and this widening placed too much weight on its foundations, which began to sink into the river bottom. The bridge was placed on the market and bought by an American real-estate developer named Robert McColloch, who moved it to Lake Havasu, Arizona as a centerpiece for a real-estate development*. I'm not sure which is stranger, the London Tornado, or the fact that London Bridge ended up in Arizona.

The current London Bridge was completed in 1972, and has served as one of the busiest bridges in London. It has also had it's share of misfortune, such as a collision by the warship HMS Jupiter in 1984, but continues to serve nonetheless. It has distinctive red lights that were put in place in 2004. These lights were placed on many bridges within London as part of a Remembrance Day celebration event, but were left on London Bridge alone.

As to the ghost stories, let's start with the bridge. There are many events that occurred on the bridge to which the screams and cries could be attributed: numerous attacks, fires, executed traitors, and so on. And yet these cries are often attributed to the sinking of the Jewish refugee vessel. I find this interesting, as it may represent a manifestation of a national guilty conscience being expressed through folklore. It may be an acknowledgement that England committed a great wrong in expelling Jewish citizens, and the notion that this sin is permanently etched on a prominent part of the English landscape is interesting. Alternatively, it may simply be that, due to the religious and political nature of the Jewish expulsion, this is simply the most visible historic event in which numerous people died, even though a larger number of people died in at least one of the fires on the bridge. Either way, that many attribute the phantom sounds of agony to the sunken ship suggests a place of raw nerves in the English historical psyche.

Naturally, other people attribute these sounds to the spirits of executed people whose heads were placed on the bridge. This is probably a culturally safer place to put the blame for the sounds. However, when one considers both that at least a portion of the people convicted were likely not actually traitors (it was common for Medieval rulers to execute rivals both real and perceived as traitors), and others (such as Thomas Moore) are considered heroic by modern people, this is also a potentially culturally fraught subject. It may not have the sting of anti-semitism, but political oppression isn't exactly seen as classy behavior by modern people.

The appearance of apparitions from many periods of history on the bridge provides a classic type of ghost story. While I have little to say about this detail, I will say that I really like it. The appearance of the Roman soldier and the indistinct apparitions near the remaining Medieval wall is also classic, but I have little to say about them other than that I really enjoy these details.

The orbs and streaks of light in photographs are another story. The origins of these types of features on photographs are well known, and they are simply artifacts of the photographic equipment (and occasionally of careless camera operators). While it is common to hear paranormal enthusiasts claim that certain types of light streaks or orbs "can not have been caused by anything natural", close investigation of these claims routinely proves these claims false. Basically, if your evidence of a haunting is a weird light streak or an orb, you don't actually have any evidence at all. In fact, it's worth noting that orbs have become the spirit photo du jour in large part because general public knowledge of modern technology allows people to recognize false photos for the frauds that they are, preventing more impressive "spirit phots" from being accepted. It's similar to the way in which the rather more specific spirit mediums of the 19th and 20th century gave way to people such as Jon Edward, who appears to be playing charades with the spirits, given the vague and often silly things that he spouts during readings.

Okay, let's get on to the catacombs beneath the southern portion of the bridge. These were apparently built for storage, but have long been unused. During the construction of the London Bridge Experience, they were renovated, and it was in 2007 that the first skeletons from the plague pit were found. Although most of us think of "the plague" as meaning bubonic plague, there were many periods of deadly, communicable disease sweeping through Europe, all of which were referred to as "plague". This particular plague pit appears to date to the Black Plague of the 17th century, which was in fact bubonic. Reports of the time indicate that deaths were occurring at such a high rate there wasn't time for proper burials or even funeral rights**. Mass graves and anonymous burial were the order of the day.

On my other blog, I once wrote about the tendency that people in the United States have to blame alleged hauntings on "Indian burial grounds. In that entry, I asked what people in Europe blamed hauntings on. In researching London's plague pits for this entry, I got my answer. These pits are found throughout London, and are often associated with haunted places (and a few allegedly haunted places appear to be blamed on plague pits even when there is no evidence that one is nearby).

The stories associated with the plague pit opening are fantastic. This is the sort of stuff that great ghost lore is made of. What is interesting to me, however, is that, in reading the various media accounts of these hauntings, everyone mentioned the phenomena described by the London Experience personnel, but nobody ever mentioned the fact that these guys were building what is essentially a haunted house attraction, and these sorts of stories are good for business. Whether or not construction personnel experienced anything, I am sure that the management was more than happy to find real burials during construction - it's free advertising of the best kind for this sort of attraction. Regardless, it's also a good story, and a great entry into the already busy ghost story lore of London.

*There is an urban legend that McColloch thought that he was buying Tower Bridge. This is, in fact, not true. Records indicate that he knew precisely which bridge he was buying. Nonetheless, the story continues to be told.

**Interesting bit of information: These plagues had been sweeping Europe for centuries, due in large part to the close proximity of people and atrocious sanitation in cities and towns. Some anthropologists and historians think that these waves of plague in the cities and towns may have prepared the immune systems of the people of Europe, Africa, and Asia for general and regular attacks by pathogens, as well as resulted in the proliferation of strains of disease. This may explain why the Europeans entering the Americas were relatively unharmed by disease, while the native peoples were laid waste by viruses and bacterias.

Special Videos: The Londonist spends the night in the catacombs.

Sources: The Londonist, BBC, blog, Wikipedia, The Illustrious Internet, DayVisits, London Bridge Experience Official Website, and the ever-reliable (and highly entertaining) guide of the London Walks Ghost Tour.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Ghost Train of Bostian Bridge, North Carolina

East of Statesville, North Carolina, sits the Bostian Bridge. On the night of August 27, 1891, a train headed to Asheville from Salisbury derailed and plummeted to the ravine below. Thirty people are recorded as having died in the crash, and many more were injured.

Local legend holds that the wreck plays out every year on the anniversary of the wreck, at 3 AM. Stories are told of people hearing the horrific sounds of the crash, the twisting of metal, screams, and the crash as the train hits bottom. Some people report being approached by a man in a 19th century railroad uniform asking for the time so that he can set his watch. This spectre is usually thought to be the spirit of the baggage master, who was among the 30 killed in the crash.

Outside of the crash itself, the railroad crossing guard arms are said to sometimes descend without reason, a sign that the phantom train is on the tracks.

Commentary: Bridges and train tracks are both magnets for ghost stories, and so it is only fitting that we have a story that involves both. Unlike many ghost stories, this one focuses on a train crash that really did happen, which makes it even more interesting.

One of the hallmarks of this sort of story is the replaying of the wreck at a given time and place - in this case, on the wreck's anniversary at 3 AM (they're punctual buggers, these ghosts). This provides an opportunity for legend tripping, but unlike most other such opportunities, which arrive on a frequent if unpredictable schedule, this one only comes once a year, giving it a special feel. Which, really, is kinda' cool.

It's also worth noting that the annual ghostly visitation occurs at 3 AM. While my own experience is that ghost stories rarely claim that events occur according to a particular schedule, there is a popular folkloric belief that 3 AM is among the more active times for ghosts and demons.

As for the "crossing guards mysteriously closing" angle - which appears to happen from time-to-time and not on a fixed schedule - I grew up around train tracks. I can tell you from experience that the crossing guards close without a train on a regular basis. Sometimes it's intentional, testing equipment and whatnot, and sometimes it's due to equipment malfunction.

Back to the legend tripping aspect. Normally, legend tripping provides a safe way for people to experience a bit of a thrill. In this case, the legend tripping recently proved rather dangerous in and of itself. On August 27, 2010, a group of ghost hunters visited the bridge in order to witness the annual replaying of the events. The group of twelve headed out onto the bridge, and learned the hard way that the bridge is still in active use by the railroad.

When a very real train appeared on the track, ten of the ghost hunters managed to make it back to the safety, one was pushed off by one of her fellows and dropped 30 to 40 feet, sustaining injuries. And one was hit by the train and killed.

To the degree that any good comes of this, it is that it may serve as a reminder to other curiosity seekers to be mindful of where they are going, and be aware that there may be many real-world dangers that they need to protect against.

Sources: CNN, Local News Station, Haunted, N.C. Ghost Guide, Internet

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Haunting on 13th Street, Modesto, CA

I once again turn to the well, I go back to an article from an October, 2007, edition of the Modesto Bee (the newspaper of Modesto, CA and the surrounding area). The newspaper, like many regional newspapers, asked it's readers to submit their own personal stories of the supernatural int he run-up to Halloween. There were some really nice stories in there, including this one from a woman named Kim Meu. I'd paraphrase, but it seems better to just give a direct quote from the article:

Kim Meu of Modesto was a young single mother working the night shift when a ghost routed her from her rented home.

“About seven years ago, I used to live at a house on 13th Street in Modesto. Every night I would have dreams, seeing a dead cat, a skeleton in the back yard and a dead baby in the basement. During the day while I was asleep, I would hear male voices telling me to get out of this house.

“And when I used to sit up using my computer, I heard noises like someone was coughing or a little boy saying, ‘Mama.’ But I never thought anything of it.

“Until one day, after a year of living in the house, at about noon or 1 p.m. — I was working night shift — and my little boy was about 2 years old. He woke up and said, ‘Mommy, I want to watch TV.’ I was fully awake. I walked him to the living room and turned on a cartoon for him.

“I stood there with him and watched cartoons, then all of a sudden I felt something like a finger scratched me across my shoulder. I turned around really slow and my heart raced to about 150 beats per minute at the time, and there was nobody (there).

“I ran to the door to grab my son, milk and the diaper bag. I was in my pajamas (and went) straight to my mom’s house. I came back home a week later with my mom and sisters and never stayed there alone anymore. I moved out a month later.”

Commentary: This one is a good, old-fashioned ghost story. Notice that it has many of the elements that are included in the Amityville haunting but without going completely over-the-top as Amityville did. It's all very low-key: weird dreams, hearing voices, and feeling physical contact when nobody is there.

Is the story true? Well, I see no reason to doubt that Ms. Meu is stating her recollections honestly. Did things happen quite as she remembers? Who knows? As described in the entry on Shadow People, there are so many different ways that both our perceptions and memories can be affected that it's not posible to say with any authority what happened to Ms. Meu. And several internet searches failed to find any more stories about 13th Street.

But as a story, this is fantastic. The imagery of the dreams (especially the skeleton in the back yard and the dead baby in the basement) gives snatches of story that hint at bad deeds in the house's past. Coupled with the sound of a kid's voice during waking hours, this really hits the "creep out" button.

Whether you believe it or not, this is the sort of story that can keep you up at night, twitching every time you hear an unfamiliar noise.

Sources: Newspaper

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Shadow People

We all know the feeling - you are minding your own business, perhaps you are doing some housecleaning, perhaps you are out for a walk, perhaps you're driving home after a long day, and you see something out of the corner of your eye. Something black, moving, and seemingly intelligent. It's just there for a split second, a shadowy form, human in shape, but with no distinguishable features other than it's dark hue. You turn to get a better look, and it is gone. Perhaps you have a feeling of fear or dread on seeing it. Regardless, you know that, whatever it is, it isn't good.

Some people claim to have seen more than just the split-second image in their peripheral vision. Stories abound of people seeing figures that look like living, 3-dimensional shadows. Sometimes these figures appear to be following or attempting to interact with the witness, at other times they appear to simply be passive observers. On occasion, they even appear to be trying to do harm. Although typically they are solid black with no distinguishable features, there are some that appear to have red, glowing eyes.

Although sometimes seen during the day, these strange creatures are typically spotted at night. Often, the witness feels a sense of fear or dread upon seeing them, and often there is a strong sense that these creatures are here to do damage to us or our world.

Commentary: This one is a bit of a departure from the stories that I normally post in that it's more a phenomenon than a specific story. I had tried to find a specific story that could be tied to a particular time and/or place, but always found Shadow People were either shoe-horned into existing stories about haunted places, or were simply mentioned as "a weird thing happened to me" stories without the location being relevant and often not even mentioned.

Still, even if it breaks the mold a bit, I wanted to find a way to include Shadow People on this site because they are rapidly becoming an important piece of our ghost story folklore, and I find the stories really damn creepy. Really, I find few things more shiver-inducing than walking down a dark road while listening to someone talk about their encounters with Shadow People.

That being said, I don't actually believe in Shadow People. Not in the least. So, what do I think is going on? Well, this quote from's entry on Shadow People provides some useful information:

Those who are experiencing and studying the shadow people phenomenon say that these entities almost always used to be seen out of the corner of the eye and very briefly. But more and more, people are beginning to see them straight on and for longer periods of time. Some experiencers testify that they have even seen eyes, usually red, on these shadow beings.

As does this one from the Shadow People Archives:

Sometimes it appears as the mere silhouette of a person, usually male, but generally lacking any other characteristics of gender. However, in no way does the description end there. There are “hatted” shadow beings, hooded shadows, cloaked ones, and solid or wispy, smoky types. Some are seen only from the waist up. Others clearly have legs that are seen fleeing from their observers. They dart into corners, through walls, into closets, or behind television sets, bushes, and buildings. Sometimes they simply fade into the dark recesses of the night. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the many different types of shadow people that enter our world…except that they are “intensely dark.” But even then, there are exceptions.

So, for quite some time, reports seem to have been of vague shadowy images viewed out of the corner of the eye, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of dread. Over time, however, people have begun describing seeing more intense encounters. The descriptions of these entities are extremely varied, but are beginning to become standardized into a few typological categories.

Let's take this one apart, shall we. And let's start with the nature of vision and memory.

Our eyes have large blind spots, and we are constantly unconsciously scanning in order to make out what is in the world surrounding us. Since we can't look at everything at once, our brain has to fill in the gaps between scans of an area by supplementing the image with information that has either already been gathered, or else tries to fill-in-the-blanks with semi-related information. Most of the time, this works so seamlessly that we don't notice it, but sometimes it doesn't, and we will see things - just for a split second - that shouldn't be there. It's a common phenomenon, and it happens to all of us. This pretty easily accounts for the majority of "black shapes that were there until I turned to look at them" whether people label them "Shadow People" or not*.

The accompanying feelings of fear and dread can also be explained naturally. It's startling when we see something moving where we thought that there was nothing, thus fear is generated. There are also more than a few different things that can mis-fire in the brain of a perfectly normal, sane person that can result in hallucinations and/or feelings of dread, see this article in Science Now for an example.

Many encounters with Shadow People, much like many ghostly encounters in general, occur while a person is in bed, either about to fall asleep or waking up from sleep. Again, knowing a bit about how our brains work (and how our bodies prepare for and revive from sleep) explains most of these cases. As described in this journal paper, it is perfectly normal for people to experience hallucinations - with vision, sound, and even emotion - in the period surrounding sleep. It's common for someone to insist "I know that I was awake" when this is pointed out - but the truth is that we often can't consciously tell when we are completely awake (and therefore not prone to sleep-related hallucinations) and when we are not completely awake. Add to this the fact that it is very common for people to dream that they have woken up and experienced something, and it can be difficult to figure out what actually occurred and what did not (I have had such experiences myself). So, again, a common line of evidence doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny.

Now, let's look at memory. Most people think of memory as functioning more-or-less like a computer's hard drive: data is coded, and then retrieved more-or-less intact when we need it. Turns out, that this isn't even vaguely how memory works (see here, and here). Memory is a much more active process, and we are, in essence, re-creating a memory each time that we call it up and usually end up either adding things to it or taking things away from it, the end result being that memories that we don't think about too often are more accurate than memories that we think about frequently.

It gets worse, though. In addition to our brains monkeying around with our memories every time we recall them, experiments have demonstrated that we are prone to having false memories implanted by simple suggestion. Some of these false memories can even become extremely vivid - to the point that the person with the false memories will remain convinced that the event actually occurred even after the method by which the memory was created has been explained.

And remember, these problems with memory apply to perfectly healthy, normal, honest, and sane people. This is not pathological, it's just the way that our brains work.

When you add our weird way of handling vision to the way in which our brains handle memories, it begins to seem pretty likely that many, probably most, cases of Shadow People in which the witness truly believes what they saw can be cracked up to oddities of human vision combined with the cludginess of human memory. Add to this the fact that, with the Internet, people can easily come across other people's stories, and you can see how a memory of one thing can begin, over time, to conform to a "group consensus" memory. This common social phenomenon would pretty easily explain why the variation in Shadow People stories seems to be shrinking, people are remembering more intense encounters, and a few specific "types" of shadow people are becoming the norm.

What about the other examples of people seeing Shadow People? Can I explain all of them?

Well, it's really not necessary. There are many, many different ways that the stories can come about - from honest misperception to people intentionally making stories up, and when you throw in a small number of people who actually are suffering from some mental pathology the mix gets pretty thoroughly screwy - and so you simply have to accept that there are probably many different origins for many different stories. You can find the root cause of individual stories, and probably find patterns that allow you to explain a wide variety of stories (such as what is described above), but there's always going to be at least one or two stories that don't fit that explanation, and so you'll have to figure out what happened in those cases. Hell, some people may even have seen something truly strange, but it's hard to separate the signal from the noise.

This, of course, hasn't stopped a large number of crackpots from developing a large number of psuedo-scientific explanations. If you type "Shadow People" into Google, you will be inundated with talk of "extra-dimensional beings", time travellers, and so on. All of the people talk of these things as if they are completely reasonable, without ever stopping to consider what terms such as "extra-dimensional" even mean**. Essentially, people interested in Shadow People have begun spinning explanations of this phenomenon without A) stopping to figure out if there is even a phenomenon needing explanation, and B) stopping to figure out if their explanations even make sense or are even vaguely plausible using the concepts to which they themselves are appealing. And so, we get some rather long treatises on the nature of something that may not actually exist using explanations that are cobbled together from pop-culture misunderstandings of physics and mathematics.

...and people wonder why I just stick to the stories and don't get into the research.

*I have had a recent experience with this myself. Not long back, I was driving home from southern California. It was late at night, and I was tired and had been driving for five hours straight. Off to my left, I saw a massive shape, a large 4-legged creature that was completely black, come chargin towards me. I swerved (thankfully there was nobody else on the road near me) to escape, and a split second later realized that my eyes and brain, in their fatigued state, had translated the movement of the trees and the black nightime sky into an image of a pure-black beast rushing towards me.

**Hint - it's a term that comes from mathematics and is applied to physics via that route. The way that Shadow People enthusiasts use the term doesn't actually make a lick of sense and owes far more to comic books than to physics.

Sources: Science Now, Podcast, Shadow People Archives,, Journal Article (on hallucinations in normal, sane people), Wikipedia, Radio Show (warning, this one is pretty damn crazy)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paganini's Phantom Violin

Niccolo Paganini was such an influential and flamboyant violinist that even a century and a half after his death I heard him referred to frequently as I learned to play rock guitar music. His technical mastery of the instrument was the stuff of legends, inspiring musicians proficient on stringed instruments to push themselves for greater and greater degrees of virtuosity in their playing. Paganini's playing and ability to put on a great show was so well known that even a century later it would serve as the inspiration of his musical descendants when rock and roll guitar playing became a highly technical form of performance in the 1970s. Guitarists ranging from Yngwie Malmsteen to Eddie Van Halen to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani all owe a debt to this early master of highly proficient stage showmanship.

Paganini's biography is a mix of the self-destructive superstar story that we tend to think only belongs in the post-1950s music scene with elements of pure invention that were either developed to denounce him, or that were promoted by him because they were good for business.

Paganini was born in Genoa, Italy in 1782. The strange course of his life was probably set early on when he suffered from measles and was thought dead*. Placed in a burial shroud, he was nearly buried, but was discovered to be alive at the last minute. In time, it would come to be rumored that his mother had been assured by an angel that her son would become the greatest violinist in the world, while another rumor held that his mother had made a pact with Satan to ensure her son's greatness.

Paganini's first violin teacher was his father, a man with a reputation for strictness and harshness towards his son. From there, he was taught by Giovanni Servetto and Giacomo Costa and showed such talent that he was composing his own impressive pieces of music as early as the age of eight. He continued to progress under ever-greater teachers. Those who doubt that an angel or demon assured Paganini's mother of his greatness often claim that it was during his teenage years that Paganini himself made a pact with Satan to ensure his status as a great violinist.

Leaving his home, Paganini soon discovered that he could make a living for himself as a concert violinist, and he abandoned his father, who had become increasingly harsh towards his son. He soon found himself in a position very much like a modern rock star - money was available, as were drink and willing women. He cultivated a distinctive appearance, with shoulder-length hair, a gaunt body, and frequent black suits, he is said to have been frightening to behold. He Became a compulsive gambler, and only stopped gambling when he nearly lost a valuable violin that a friend had given him as a gift. He seduced women whenever possible, though there is evidence that he spent time living with a noble woman with whom he had fallen in love (and during this time he vanished for a period of four years).

Although people continued to pay to see him play, they also began to spread stories about him. In addition to the claims of his or his mother's pact with Satan, a story that he was the son of a demon began to circulate, and at least one concert-goer claimed to have seen Satan helping Paganini play. It's been claimed that people would cross themselves when they saw Paganini in the streets, and that men in London would poke him with their canes to determine whether he was real or supernatural (I'm guessing that these were handy paranormal-detection canes...they just don't make 'em like they used to). Needless to say, just as rumors of Satanic influence helped KISS and Ozzy Osbourne, they were of great financial benefit to Paganini as well. He may or may not have encouraged these types of stories, but he certainly benefited from them.

Paganini finally died in 1840, at the age of 57. Either because of the controversies that surrounded him in life or because he refused last rites before death, the church refused to allow his body to be buried on consecrated ground. The body was temporarily interred in an abandoned leper house (or, according to some accounts, his family's basement or even an olive oil factory), where passing fishermen claim to have heard the sounds of a violin playing, moving Paganini's story out of the realm of flamboyant showman and celebrity and into the realm of the ghost story. His body was later moved Parma, where some stories hold that the violin music was still heard until he was buried in the Parma cemetery two years later. In 1926, his remains were moved to his native Genoa.

*I often hear people dismiss measles as a harmless childhood disease, usually because they take issue with medicines used to prevent or treat measles, but the truth of the matter is that it can be deadly.

Commentary: I have known about Paganini for over twenty years, and I have still never been able to get over just how much his life and career might have served as the blueprint for those of so many 20th century musicians. The claims of Satanic influence would show up with 70s and 80s metal and continue today with Marylin Manson. The story of having made pact with Satan to gain a literally supernatural ability on his chosen instrument was later used by the great Bluesman Robert Johnson (who specifically added that he had met the Devil at a crossroads). His taste for fast living, womanizing, and gambling would also figure heavily in the stories of so many of the 20th centuries music superstars.

The story of his phantom music playing at his first burial-place is interesting for two reasons. The first is that the reasons given for the treatment of his remains vary, and may reflect either the politics or the religion of his day. Sometimes it is said that he was refused proper burial at first because he had led a life of sin (what with the gambling and womanizing), sometimes it is said that he was refused proper burial because of his rumored pact with Satan, and sometimes it is said that he was refused burial because he had refused last rites.

The most likely explanation is that either he was refused proper burial because he had refused last rites (reportedly because he thought that he wasn't yet dying), or that this was used as a technicality to deny burial to a figure who had generated a good deal of controversy. Of course, most of the less-researched (and more sensationalistic) sources hold that he was refused burial because of his alleged demonic ties, but this seems a little far-fetched (though it does make for a great story).

The other interesting thing about the phantom music is that it appears to be symbolic of Paganini not being at rest. It is said that the music played when he had not been buried in consecrated ground, wherever that may have been (next to a factory, in a leper house, in his family's basement, etc.), and that the music was mournful. The music is not reputed to be heard after the body has been moved to a "proper" place of burial. In this sense, it seems to be indicative of the religion of the time, with Paganini suffering until his remains are treated correctly and buried in ground consecrated by the Roman Catholic church.

I wish I could have provided more information on Paganini, he was a fascinating character, but for the purposes of this site, it seemed necessary to provide enough information to give the necessary flavor before cutting to the ghost story and supernatural elements. But I encourage you to follow the links below and learn more about him. Trust me, you'll be glad that you did.

Sources: BBC Website, Guitarra Magazine,, Suite 101, Time Magazine, Internet

John Muir School/Youth Center, Modesto, CA

On Morris avenue in Modesto, CA is a building that has served as an elementary school and a youth center for nearly six decades before being damaged in a fire. Built in 1923, the building originally served as the John Muir Elementary School (and can boast as one of it's pupils a young George Lucas), and was later the John Muir Youth Center.

Local legend holds that people working in the basement of the old school building often hear the sounds of voices and dozens (or even hundreds) of feet pounding the floors overhead, as if children are running to or from class. Some sources even claim that this happens between 2:30 and 3:00 PM, the time when the children would have been let out of class for the day. Running upstairs to see what is going on, the workers always find the place empty.

In the obligatory "true ghost story" article that appeared in the 2007 edition of the Modesto Bee, someone claiming to be a city worker (but wishing their name to be withheld) claims that this very thing happened to her.

Commentary: In ghost hunter and paranormal enthusiast circles, this is what would be labelled as a "residual haunting", a more-or-less prosaic replaying of events that is creepy not in it's content, but in that it is happening without a clear source.

Despite having grown up in the area, I am not familiar with this particular building (I lived far enough away in the boonies that a youth Center on Morris Avenue would have been about as useful to me as a youth center on Mars). The first thing that I wonder on hearing the story is what the conditions in the basement are like. I have been in basements where the sound and vibration of a truck passing by outside sounds a lot like people running in the building overhead, and the echoes of people walking by outside sounds like people talking in the building above. Having had those experiences, I immediately wonder if something similar was happening in the John Muir building.

Another thing I would wonder is whether the stories were passed on by city workers who used them to freak out their more gullible co-workers. I have worked with people who do such things before, so it's not much of a stretch for me to imagine that happening as well.

Sources: Internet, Newspaper, Local Folklore