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  • May 2nd, 2012

Confessions of a Failed Ghost Hunter

                I’m unsure what pee wadding is, but “The Uninvited,” a 1940s movie with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, scared it out of me when my voice was still soprano and scary movies tended to make me want to crawl under the seat with the wads of discarded Juicy Fruit.

                Not long ago once again I saw “The Uninvited” on television with Milland and Hussey haunted  by a pair of ghosts on the foggy English moors.  As an aging skeptic, alone in my basement, I felt the hair rise on my neck and I went to bed and pulled the covers over my head.  It was classic old time scary film.  There was no bucket of blood in glorious Technicolor; it was black and white.  There were no aliens popping out of the plumbing; just cold spots where it should be warm, and a pervasive sense of menace that grabbed a little boy by his imagination and….well, there went the pee wadding.

                I’m a great fan of television’s “Ghost Hunters,” but find their glimpses of shadow figures, always when the camera is pointed the wrong way, to be more theater than substance.  If I had a buck for every time a character exclaims “What the hell was that!” I’d be subject to the Buffet rule and could hang around with Mitt Romney and sneer at the great unwashed. 

                I have a personal involvement with the other big spook-looking television show, “Ghost Adventures.”  I was at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the day before they were to tape a show there which (predictably) plowed up disembodied voices and other paranormal goodies that always sound to me like they’re using Thomas Edison’s prototype sound machines instead of sophisticated modern audio equipment—a wall of static with virtually inaudible mutterings that probably are stray electrons caroming around the innards of the recorder.

                I talked to one of their sound technicians who was stringing wires up and down the hall like someone decorating for Christmas, and he told me about a haunted closet, the door of which was said to open and shut without visible aid.  I went in to the closet and shut the door and, there in the dark, I challenged those on the Other Side to goose me or whatever manifestation they cared to manifest.   After five minutes of silence and mustiness I concluded that if that closet contained any kind of afterlife it was mildew.

                So….I don’t believe in ghosts.  And yet there were those fresh batteries that unaccountably went dead….  As a child brought up on Saturday matinees with various on-screen hunks like Count Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster, I developed a healthy belief in the paranormal.

             Real ghosts lurked in the closet or in the basement and no one my age would dare go near a graveyard after dark.  And then I grew up and stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and ghosts.  The local graveyard, once a place of drymouth fear, became a favored place for parking with one’s sweetheart.  It was quiet there and affection flowered with no interruptions from folks you could see through.

                By middle age the only ghost I believed in was the fading image of my 401k, but then there were those batteries that went dead.  It happened during a “psychic investigation” in a huge old antebellum mansion, abandoned and nearly gone to ruin.  Over the decades one inhabitant had committed suicide in an upstairs bedroom.  The place went through the trauma of the American Civil War.  There was reputed to be a slave burial ground near the house.  Everything reeked of the supernatural.  The dank, cavernous cellar was spooky enough to frighten Stephen King in the daytime, let alone at night.

                If ever a place deserved to be haunted it was this one.  A friend had invited a pair of self-proclaimed psychics to investigate the old mansion.  So my wife Marty and I joined them to spend as much of the night there as we could stand.

                 Because the house was being renovated there was no electricity or heat and it was November, which meant it was cold and dark both inside and outside.  Any of the famed “cold spots” that supposedly signal the presence of spirits would have been masked by the overall and quite natural chill.

                The psychics, who were about as strange as the phenomena they were pursuing, claimed to sense all sorts of ghostly presences.  “Ooooh!  There’s someone on the staircase!”  I saw nothing.  “Look!  Ectoplasmic mist!”  I saw no mist and suspected it was condensation on the camera lens or maybe my breath.  I felt cold, but nothing else, no psychic tickles.  Oh, yes, and bored.  The psychics took many digital photos which showed “orbs” over which they exclaimed excitedly.  Orbs are little balls of light that show up on film or a digital image and could be (and probably are) dust motes or flying insects or camera light leaks—all earthly phenomena, nothing supernatural or paranormal. 

                I thought it moderately odd that one or two orbs remained in one spot, at a landing on the curved staircase.  Dust floats and it was too cold for bugs to fly.  “I get the feeling there’s a little boy sitting there,” said one of the psychics.  I got the feeling my toes were about to turn blue and fall off.  If it was a little boy, why didn’t he look like a little boy, not a 40-watt light bulb?  But what do I know about spirit manifestation?

                Then there were those batteries!  I had brought two Marantz professional quality tape recorders, equipped with batteries fresh out of the package.  They should have been good for several hours of recording “electronic voice phenomena,” those whispers from the Other Side that we don’t normally hear.  Theoretically you get home and just after you are recorded saying, “Well, there’s nothing here,” a hollow voice quite clearly says, “Let’s do lunch.”

                I set one recorder on an upstairs landing, near the bedroom where the suicide happened; the other halfway down the stairs where the ghostly little boy shone his orbly light.  When I checked the recorders an hour or so after I turned them on…both were dead, batteries drained.  According to the folks on the “Ghost Hunters” show, “entities” can drain energy from sources such as batteries to gain strength so they can manifest themselves, open or close doors, knock, rattle chains or cause folks to exclaim “What the hell was that!” 

                Nobody manifested or rattled—I just had dead batteries with no explanation.  As much as I wanted to believe the resident spooks had stolen my juice, I couldn’t lay it to anything other than coincidence, cold weather, defective batteries or sheer bad luck.

                The little boy orb?  I’d have been more convinced if I’d seen a diaphanous little kid sitting on the stairs giving me a ghostly grin.  The psychics were thrilled by all the activity which I didn’t share.  I was haunted only by a vicious cold that I caught in the dank mansion.  Maybe I’m ghost-immune.  Somr friends have had paranormal experiences.  For example a fellow instructor at a writing workshop said she stayed in one of the college dorms alone one night and was visited by a benign ghost.  “There was a feeling of peace,” she said.  Of course it could have been the sherry she was nipping.

                I stayed by myself in the same dorm, perhaps the same room, a couple of times by myself and was visited by nothing, not even a mouse.  A niece, in another college dorm room, felt an invisible presence holding her down for a terrifying few moments.  Dorm rooms seem to attract either spirits or stories about them.  Perhaps I’m just not tuned into the specters of academia.  The only presence I ever felt in my college dorm room was the astral projection of the housemother, looking for forbidden beer—but maybe that was paranoia.

                Only once have I felt uneasy in a building and that was in the Marland Mansion, the opulent residence of early oil baron E.W. Marland in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  The mansion, today owned by the town and open for tours, features a ballroom with a gold leaf ceiling that cost $80,000 when it was fashioned, and a pair of Watford crystal chandeliers whose original price tag was $30,000. The grounds had five lakes, an artist’s studio and a formal garden that required the services of 85 gardeners.

                But the Marland family’s personal life was the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Marland’s first wife, Mary Virginia, was childless, so the couple adopted a niece and nephew of Mrs. Marland, George, 12 years old and Lydie, two years younger.  Naturally, the blood family was delighted to have the proverbial rich uncle give the kids everything—their father was a pushcart peddler, a long way from an oil magnate.  It wasn’t long before Marland and Lydie were inseparable.  He doted on his adopted daughter and she on him.  In the careful words of a Marland Mansion tour guide, “They grew closer.”  How much closer can only be speculated on, but the rest of the story sounds like a scenario for a Faulknerian novel of Southern decadence.

                E.W. moved Lydie’s bedroom next to his.  His wife took a bedroom far removed in the Grand Home, then became ill with cancer, finally became more reclusive and morose and took to the bottle and drugs.  She died in 1926 without seeing the Mansion complete.  Two years later Marland had Lydie’s adoption rescinded “for good and personal reasons” and he married her.  He was 53 and she was 28.  Years later, a woman named Mrs. E.L. Cloyd, claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Marland and Lydie, born in 1927, before their marriage.  Evidence indicates the claim was true, but Mrs. Cloyd didn’t press it.

                  There is a huge painting in the mansion of Lydie, a very pretty woman…which features a dark snake at her feet.  The snake is unexplained, but symbolists could have a field day.  Not surprisingly wall sconces are decorated with devil heads and ironwork in the stair railings contains jackal heads.

                There are more eerie incidents in the life of Lydie and E.W., and I felt a chill in that austere monument to vanished lucre that had nothing to do with the pioneer air conditioning system.  Maybe it was the cold echo of Marland’s presence or the chill spirit of Lydie…or maybe it was the air conditioning after all.  And maybe I’m with ghosts like poet Gillette Burgess was with purple cows: “I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one….”  Ditto ghosts for Joel Vance.

-30-

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