Friday, December 3, 2010

Exploring the Blue Ghost Tunnel

Two young men explore the Blue Ghost Tunnel in Ontario. You can find more info about the tunnel here and here. Also, they mention the Screaming Tunnel in the area. I found a folktale connected to it here. Now, I am really skeptical of the paranormal (And I'll throw a gauntlet down here and invite some comments: Orbs should never be taken seriously) -- but I still like a good ghost hunt. That's because I often think the purpose is the emotional experience that comes out of it. You don't really find ghosts. You find something in yourself. These guys are goofy and charming, and they really bring you along with them.

What happened in that tunnel between those two? What were they hearing? What's on that audio? I have my suspicions. Listen for yourself.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Grinch Leaves a Drunken Voicemail Message

Hey. It's me. Uh, Merry Christmas! I know you've got company with your mom's family, and the other Whos. I just wanted to call you and wish you the best. I know we haven't talked since last year. Since the relapse.

Look, I didn't want to talk long. I actually borrowed someone's cell phone, and -- yeah, Trudy I'm leaving the message now, okay? I'm talking right now, Trudy, just gimme a sec-- Oh. Whiskey and soda. Thanks.

Okay, I'm at a bar near O'Hare. I had a sales conference, and I was alone, and... things just got out of hand. I know I have no right to ask you to just go back the way we were, with me sledding down Mount Crumpit and flinging all your gifts back to you and the other Whos. Those days are gone. I understand that. Dr. Prendeman said that the reason I relapsed was that I was addicted to the rush of breaking into everyone's house, stealing Christmas, and then just... giving it all back. I wanted to be the hero. I did it again and again. Thirty four years in a row. And every time that you and the other Whos took me back, it just... It just reinforced my self-destructive thinking.

It's not that my heart is two sizes too small. It's that I have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But I'm working on that. I guess that's what I wanted you to know.

It's all part of the journey I'm on to figure out who I am. Not just a Grinch, who commits crimes to stop the pain inside him -- but as a person. I know you're not going to let me carve the roast beast this year. I accept that. You're all grown now, son, and you have a family of your own.

It would really help my personal growth to know that I could still somehow be in your life. And if you could make a statement to the judge about lifting that restraining order, it would be... (sniff)

It could be the best Christmas ever.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Ancient Haunted House Story

Continuing my musings about haunted houses, I decided to share this fragment from the Letters of Pliny the Younger, a lawyer and writer from Ancient Rome. It has a classic ghost story arc that has been used by writers for thousands of years. (You can find the entire collection at Project Gutenberg):

Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands.

The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the day time, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm, Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost.

However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, be was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so.

When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention.

The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but in order to keep calm and collected tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another.

Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him. The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters.

The bones being collected together were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
(Photo Above: Corpse found in Pompeii; taken by Roberto Rive ca 1873. From Wikimedia Commons.)

What Makes a Haunted House?

I am writing notes for a haunted house story. I started sketching out all the classic elements that make up these kinds of tales, both in film and in literature. What have I missed? I'd love to hear from the people who follow this blog.

Motivation. The author or producer always has to give us some compelling reason that the characters are spending the night in a scary or dangerous place. Why not leave as soon as the walls begin to seep blood and a severed head tells you you're going to die? If you have a truly great motivation, you can set it against a very scary place, and the tension makes for a good story.

Often the motivation is money. The rich man demands that people spend the night in his creepy house to qualify for an inheritance, as in the 1927 silent classic The Cat and the Canary. In a twist on that story, a dying millionaire offers a fee to people to study the paranormal and learn whether there is life after death in Richard Matheson's book Hell House (Matheson is more famous for his story I Am Legend, but I think Hell House is an excellent read). In The House on Haunted Hill, surviving the night becomes a contest with a massive prize. In Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the characters stay here in order to make some kind of breakthrough in research on ghosts. In all these cases the house is known to be haunted at the beginning. We expect things to go bump in the night. That's part of the deal, and the characters need a payoff at the end to keep them where they are.

But there are stories where the house is creepy, but it's not clear that it's actually dangerous. The writer or producer has to find a way to trap the characters when things get really nasty. Stephen King's Overlook Hotel is an excellent example. The stay at the hotel represents a good job and a second chance for the Torrance family. And as it becomes clear that the place is lethal, the snow begins to come down, cutting the family off. Which leads us to...

Isolation. At certain points the house becomes inaccessible. There is often some foreshadowing about this -- a caretaker at Hill House famously warn the party:
So there won't be anyone around if you need help... No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that... In the night. In the dark. The scene puts a little chill in the air early on.

Light and perception. The power goes out. The old owner bricked up all the windows. The house is cavernous and creates deep shadows. But this isn't just about safety, about something creeping up to you. A haunted house will also use its shadows and its dark corners to play around with your perception. HP Lovecraft knew that strange architecture could unsettle his readers. And Shirley Jackson often writes about how the layout of Hill House was mercilessly oppressive toward its victims.

The House’s Story. At some point we have to learn why this house is haunted. Or we think we do. The house’s story is layered, containing mysteries within mysteries. However, many of the most successful haunted house stories put a sizable portion of the house’s story in the first few pages or scenes. In Hell House and Hill House, we know all about the murders and other terrible crimes that make the house itself menacing. For stories when the haunting of the house is unknown, the phenomena begins to develop the character’s interest in exploring the story further. As they learn more, the ghosts up the ante. Sometimes it results in a terrible realization -- an awful crime or sin has been committed, such as in Poltergeist, when the father realizes his house has been built over a burial ground. I think telling us the backstory immediately is generally scarier. Even then though, you have to have the mystery within the mystery.

Secret Spaces. The hidden passages, walled-off rooms, and even attic crawlspaces of the house help the characters unlock its history. The burnt photograph in Paranormal Activity is an excellent example.

The Owner’s Story. The house is the main antagonist, but its history is entwined with that of its original owner, usually dead or missing. As characters learn about the house, they learn about this person. His presence hangs over the building, and as the characters battle to hang onto their sanity they are always wondering whether they are confronting the ghost of this person, now transformed into something even more dangerous than he was in life.

A Ticking Clock. Why do haunted house stories often signpost the date and time? Whether it's the creepy chimes of a grandfather clock, or the author introducing chapters with a datestamp, haunted houses keep track of the time. It's usually not a race against the clock, mind you-- in fact, we as the audience know that after a certain period of time the characters can go free, their job done. So it wouldn't seem like time would be menacing. And yet... on some level we know that the house will only make things worse as time elapses. We know that the characters can't possibly spend the night the rich old man demanded without a visit from the monster. So time is the enemy. Time brings us closer to the confrontation we know must happen.

The House Swallows You. The haunted house gets in the heads of the characters, sometimes corrupting them and turning them bad, as in the Amityville Horror or the Shining. Sometimes a house can literally absorb its occupants, like little Carol Ann sucked up into the TV. This and the ticking clock are really about the same thing, the haunted house is a reminder of what has been close to us the whole time, our whole lives: death. Isn't that what every haunted house story is about? The real fear isn't that the ghosts will come back. The real fear is that they will invite us in to be with them... forever.

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