If Obama's a socialist, why are we broke?
By Eileen Jones
Now that whole tourist industries are built on the raucous ghosts infesting private homes, public buildings, and townships built over Indian burial grounds, I feel pretty bitter about my own family’s failure to cash in. We had occult phenomena before it was cool.
Before TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State would come to investigate your personal haunting, before every Rust Belt hick town had a ghost tour, before hotels catering to the spook-seeking crowd sprang up all over the map, we lived in one of those little colonial burgs up the Niagara River that’s riddled with spectral visitants. And our home was the epicenter, a phantasmic Studio 54. Well, it was either our house or the Sweeneys’, or maybe the Vickers’ place at the other end of town. Anyway, let’s just say we didn’t need to add any decorations at Halloween to win Creepiest House on the Block Award.
Before I get into details, let me make it clear that my family doesn’t believe in ghosts, and if you’d seen as many ghosts as we have, you wouldn’t believe in them either. Fucking unreliable, is what they are. You can’t count on them for anything. They’re all neurotic as hell, skulking around in the shadows, refusing to come out and state their business plainly. And rude? Don’t even get me started. Nobody ever taught a ghost it’s impolite to stare. They’ll stand right there and stare at you for half-an-hour at a time, sometimes when you’re taking a shower.
One time a ghost started dropping in on my brother in his room at night—well, we weren’t sure if he was a ghost or a demon—whatever he was, he had red-hair and a sardonic smile, which seemed suggestive—anyway, he was rude. When he’d come by he wouldn’t look in politely through the door or the window, according to accepted paranormal practice. No, he’d lean right in through the wall, head, shoulders, and everything, and grin. It was way out of line.
Back then, ghosts in public buildings might acquire a certain local glamour, but ghosts in a private home were considered shameful. You tended to hush them up, like the ex-con in the family, or the strange aunt who knitted violently but never spoke except in muttered curses. So we didn’t tell anyone our house was a sort of ghostly Grand Central Station. We had a dismal entity that paced up the hall every night—not up and down, just up. He, she, or it would plod up the hall over and over again, which gets monotonous, but on the bright side, it puts you to sleep after a while.
We had a ghost who stared out the window at you when you were in the back yard, a ghost who hung around in my sister’s closet scraping the hangers back and forth as if obsessing over what to wear next day, a ghost exuding deleterious magnetism in the basement when you tried to do laundry, and on one memorable occasion, a red-eyed ghost that stared in through the dining room window at the cowering family. Once we even had a visit from our recently deceased dog.
Today we’d know exactly what to do about all this: Call TAPS and get Jason and Grant to come over to videotape everything and test for EMFs and EVPs so we could be on Ghost Hunters and enjoy the envy of the nation for our Grade-A uncanny manifestations. Or maybe get our story featured on the Discovery Channel’s series A Haunting, which can be a big showbiz break. There’s a movie out in theaters now called A Haunting in Connecticut, based on the same-named TV-doc that was such a hit Discovery has run it approximately ten-million times. Think of the royalties!
But guess what’s happened in our house in recent years, after we’d established ourselves as an express portal to and from the netherworld? Nothing. Every one of those damned ghosts has cleared out or gone to radio-silence. Not a peep out of them now that it might do us some good. Nothing paces up the hall, or stares in or out of the windows, or sticks his head through the wall and grins. I had a glimmer of hope once during a family reunion when, in the middle of a quiet, breezeless night, my bedroom door suddenly burst open, as if propelled by an invisible hand. But no terrifying wraith stood there pointing at me, intoning “Get out!”
It’s disappointing, is what it is. Because the Rust Belt is up to its ass in the occult. It might be the area’s number one natural resource. This is important now that hard times have hit everywhere and each battered community has to dig deep to find something it can sell. Our steel and coal may not be hot sellers anymore, but man, we’ve got some serious supernatural action going on. Of course, entrepreneurial types are cashing in. Now I go back to visit and I can take a ghost tour of my own hometown. Pretty funny, some of the stories they tell, because they’re almost all imported or made-up. If the tour-guide accidentally tells a local one, he gets all the details wrong. My brother and sister took the tour once and just stood in the back snickering.
The guide told one about the old inn on Main Street, a famous place in the 1800s, Charles Dickens slept there and so on. It was a quaint tale of star-crossed love and an unavenged murder and an obsessed spirit seeking justice, all that sort of boilerplate ghost story crap. But my brother had known a guy who actually worked there as a security guard for several months, back when the place couldn’t keep any of its night crew for more than a few days. The security guard, a large, stoic young man, could handle the sounds of walking around and furniture moving in the empty upper floors of the building every night. Then the group conversations started, and even those he could endure, because he couldn’t quite tell what the invisible chatterers were saying. But after a while, the screaming commenced up there, and he’d had it. Left one night and never went back. He was embarrassed to admit it, but would tell the story if drunk enough.
If we weren’t such purists about it, we could just make up a bunch of boilerplate stories, too. But somehow over the years we’ve gotten snobbish about our hauntings and feel above that sort of thing. Fakes annoy us. And speaking of fakes, you ever been to Lily Dale? That’s the town full of mediums in Western New York about an hour south of Buffalo. They’ve been pioneers at the ghost-tourism trade for a hundred-thirty years, ever since the 19th century Spiritualist movement gripped the country with a mania for table-rapping and disgusting displays of excreted ectoplasm.
God knows how the town survived in the intervening decades, before this recent medium-mad, pro-poltergeist revival. Lily Dale now does a booming business every summer, introducing clients to their long-dead relatives. Seriously, it’s SRO out at “The Stump” in the woods where they channel spirits, and a gullible crowd shows up apparently willing to swallow anything. You see a lot of lame psychic guesswork pulled out there. “Is there someone here today who knows a man that’s passed over, by the name of…John? And he died of something that afflicted him in the…bodily area?” That kind of thing.
But mixed in amongst the fakes are a few hair-raising old ladies who can describe your dead Uncle Keith down to the missing third finger and the addiction to Wild Turkey, and then they tell you he’s standing right behind you gesticulating wildly, trying to warn you not to buy that yellow house because it’s built on the old nuclear waste dump, which turns out to be true. Gives you a nasty shock, but it’s value for the money.
Lily Dale led the charge, but there’s plenty of chump-cash to go around the Rust Belt. Every run-down, asbestos-shingled shack and boarded-up public building and shithole blue-collar town that hasn’t had a break in the recession since Jimmy Carter was president has the opportunity to pull in ghost-tourists from all over the world. Books get written, hotels get stayed at, tours get conducted, all based on how harried by ghosts you can persuasively claim to be.
And blue-collar ghost stories are the best! All that desperation, I mean. If a working class family can score a house, their goal is to hang to this one precious asset by their fingernails. They’re not leaving unless the devil himself puts in an appearance. Which occasionally happens, but not often. Mere poltergeists? Ha! Rich people with poltergeists move. Poor people stay and blame it on the noisy plumping as long as they possibly can. This makes for long, escalating, event-filled tales of encounters with the Other Side that have an edge of sweaty horror no polite English-castle-haunting can ever provide.
So all you Rust Belters out there who are old school, still feeling shy about your ghosts because you don’t want the neighbors to suspect—get over it. That’s money in the bank nowadays, if you can get the ghosts to cooperate. (Which is harder than it looks on TV. When nothing’s happening on TV ghost shows, somebody has to pretend to be possessed just to fill in the awkward pauses.)
You may not think your little penny-ante apparitions are worth much, but believe me, the ordinary, homely tales of your familial experiences with the occult have a real impact on the uninitiated. My grandmother once told me that when she stayed up late sewing she’d often get visits from an elderly gent who’d crossed over. He’d sit opposite her while she worked and was pleasant company other than the fact that he didn’t appear to have any eyes in his eye-sockets. “That’s how you could tell he was dead,” she explained.
Later on, in college, I repeated that story to friends and they all took it really big.
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