Hi, Everyone! Happy Halloween!
Since this is the time of year to tell spooky stories, and as a bit of a balm to the skepticism festival we've had going here at True Ghost Stories through the summer months, I'm going to recount for you one of the oldest and perhaps the most common ghost story retold as true. Here's the version I first heard:
Two high-school boys drove to a dance in a neighboring town. Both young men were single, and were hoping to meet some nice girls. Well, they were there for several hours, and danced a few dances, but they didn't seem to be hitting it off with anyone. Finally, disappointed, they decided to go home.
As they were driving down a street not far from the dance hall, they spotted a young woman wearing a white party dress, walking alone by the side of the road. They pulled over and asked her if she needed help, and she told them she was walking home. Thinking she was only a young lady they had overlooked at the dance, they offered to give her a lift.
The grateful girl accepted their offer, and though the boy in the passenger seat offered to move to the back, she smiled and said she didn't mind sitting in back. She got in, and gave them directions to her mother's house. Although both boys tried to chat her up as they drove, she only gave quiet one-word answers, and they eventually just drove on in silence.
Before long they pulled up in front of the address the girl gave them, but when they turned around they found the back seat empty!
Not knowing what to think, but speculating wildly that she had somehow exited the car and made her way home alone, they went to the house's front door and knocked. An elderly woman answered. The boys described the girl and what had happened that night, and the woman began to sadly shake her head.
"I'm afraid the young lady you picked up tonight was my daughter," the woman told them. "Every year on this night she takes a ride to try to come home. You see, tonight is the anniversary of the night she died "
Have you heard that one? I'll bet you have, or something very similar to it. You may have even heard it about a town near where you live, or even that it happened to a "friend of a friend."
The earliest version is found in ancient Greek mythology, and though the car is a horse-drawn cart, the basic elements are the same. Over the centuries the story has spread around the world and to many different cultures, each with its own variation. In the Middle East, the hitchhiker is not a ghost but a wicked spirit, while among Hawaiian islanders she is the volcano goddess Pele, who rewards kind travelers who give her a lift. And the hitchhiker isn't always a young girl. Sometimes she is an old woman, or even someone famous (there is a story that truckers occasionally give a lift to a young man with sideburns on the road leading to Graceland.)
Some hitchhikers will impart prophetic statements to their startled drivers before disappearing. There have been stories over the years of these mysterious wanderers predicting everything from tragic accidents to the second coming of Christ. A surprising number are nuns. And every so often the driver will give the girl a jacket or sweater to wear that is later found on her grave.
Many, many of these stories have been collected in books of "true ghost stories," and it occasionally turns up in books and movies. Dickie Lee had a hit record in 1965 called "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" which retold the legend in song.
So this Halloween, when the time comes to tell each other ghost stories, be sure to break out your own version of The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
Also, if you're looking
for other stories to tell around the fireplace, or while you're
sorting through your haul of candy, be sure to check out this
website. It includes a lot of the classics, including some podcast
versions for your listening pleasure.
The age of spiritualism was the heyday for belief in spirits and psychic abilities, and though it is no longer fashionable to conduct séances at parties, the era does continue to influence the investigation and beliefs about supernatural matters. Indeed, many of the terms we use to talk about the afterlife and attempts to communicate with the dead, like medium, séance, and ectoplasm, come from the spiritualist movement. In a way, the movement never really went away. Though not as widespread, the techniques developed at that time are still used today, relatively unchanged.
Séances, of course, are still conducted, though more rarely, and usually only as one part of an investigation of a supposedly haunted location. Gone, however, are the elaborate theatrics, the music, voices, and apparitions that Houdini and his fellow magicians found so easy to debunk. Also gone is the spirit cabinet and the binding of the medium with ropes or scarves. Again, this is probably because modern observers are unimpressed with these things, being familiar with stage escapes.
Also of the past, and not especially missed, is the appearance of ectoplasm. Though dozens of mediums in the late-19th and early-20th centuries produced yards and yards of the stuff, the fact that a physical artifact must bear up to scientific examination (or, more often, not) made its appearance fall into disrepute.
But the basic elements of the séance remain the same: a group of like-minded people, led by a medium who, through a trance-state, purports to communicate with the dead. The Ouija board and automatic writing are still used, as are taps or raps in response to questions.
But what about the "celebrity" mediums of the past? Where are the Margerys or Fox Sisters of today? Well, thanks to mass media, today's "mediums" have fame beyond the wildest dreams of the spiritualists of yesteryear. Of course, that makes their challenges that much greater, also.
A few years ago, TV "psychics" John Edward and James Van Praagh hosted daily national television programmes where they would purport to communicate with the deceased loved ones of audience members. Although these shows were popular for a time, they also came under considerable examination and criticism by people with their own access to a wide audience. Edward, the more successful of the two, appeared on several national talk shows, but was also criticized in print, on websites (including that of James Randi,) and on the Penn and Teller show, B.S.
Also of particular note is so-called psychic Sylvia Browne. She is a frequent guest on the Larry King Show on CNN, and appears weekly as a guest on the daily U.S. talk show, The Montel Williams Show. On Montel, she often speaks to the families of people who have family members who are missing, and this is where she has aroused the most controversy. On a number of occasions, she spoke to families involved in fairly high-profile cases, telling them whether their loved ones were living or dead, and where they might be found, and it is here that she has opened herself to criticism when she is later found to be incorrect. For instance, she predicted the trapped miners in the Sago Mining disaster would be found, when in fact all but one perished. In 2003, she told the parents of kidnap victim Shawn Hornbeck that their son was dead. In January of 2007, he was found alive. Many similar stories can be found on the critical website, StopSylviaBrowne.com.
Critics of these psychics claim that they are engaged in the well-known practice of cold reading, discussed on this site in April, made all the more convincing through the editing of their programmes, while their followers claim that the things they are told could not possibly be guessed through random luck. I doubt either side will ever entirely convince the other, and this argument will last until definitive proof is found. But I give the last word to English mentalist Derren Brown, who performs a demonstration of an admitted cold reading on his programme. Watch carefully; if you had been his subject, would you have been fooled?
And that's it for
spiritualism, at least for awhile. Join me next month, when it's
back to abandoned houses, deserted roads, and things that go bump
in the night.
So far we've talked about the various techniques pioneered by the spiritualists for communication with the dead. But these were just elements of the centerpiece of the spiritualist movement: the séance.
A séance is basically a group gathering, usually led by a medium or other practitioner of spiritualism, where a series of rituals is used to contact the spirit world. The activities are highly formal, and often fairly amazing things seem to manifest. In the 1800s, it was very fashionable for people in society to host séances in their homes, bringing in a medium (and probably several "assistants") to put their guests in touch with the other side for an evening's entertainment.
The ritual of the séance became so codified, and so well known, that even today people who have never actually participated in one are probably familiar with the format through books and movies. But here are the basic elements:
A small group of like-minded practitioners gather together around a table. It is important that there be no "hostile influences" at work here. In other words, skeptics are not welcome. The room is dimly-lit, or, in some cases, completely dark. The participants then join hands or rest their fingertips on the table's edge, and then the business of communicating with the spirits begins.
This communication can be as simple as asking for a sign that the spirits are among them, and in a successful séance this is answered with a knock or rap, a movement in the room, or, more dramatically, with a disembodied voice. If a medium is in attendance, she may do automatic writing or use a Ouija board. Or she may channel spirits.
As the spiritualism movement progressed, mediums who could produce more consistent results were in higher demand. There was also pressure to produce more and more impressive effects. The sound of music, particularly a loved one's favorite song, could occur. Objects in the room might glow or levitate. A material identified by spiritualists as "ectoplasm" might manifest, drawn, it was claimed, out of the medium's spiritual essence. And sometimes a full-blown apparition would appear, moving among the participants and answering questions.
It was these sorts of mediums that Houdini and other skeptics took on. Since an especially theatrical and eye-popping séance could generate a sizable income for the medium who delivered it, there was obviously a strong incentive to help those results along through trickery. Houdini claimed that many events that occurred at séances could be easily produced through traditional stage magic, such as sleight of hand, and through the use of specially-constructed equipment, such as cabinets with hidden compartments.
Sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, considered the founders of the modern spiritualism movement in 1848, were the first to supposedly communicate with the dead by having the spirits create a rapping sound in response to questions. They had thousands of followers at the height of their popularity, but in later years examiners came to believe that the raps were produced by the sisters themselves by cracking their toe joints. The women died in poverty, shunned by their former friends.
A well-known medium of the late-1800s, Mina Crandon, who went by the stage name of "Margery," was personally investigated by Houdini, as well of a panel of scientists from "Scientific American" magazine. Although Margery produced many dramatic effects, including manifestation of ectoplasmic "limbs" and moving objects telekinetically (by the power of the mind) these did not hold up to skeptical inquiry. In the darkened room, one scientist felt a wooden rod, something like a knitting needle, that it seemed Margery was holding in her teeth and using to move objects on the table. Also, the ectoplasm always seemed to manifest in Margery's lap, and (not to be too graphic here) the scientists conjectured it was actually a material construct of some kind that Margery was able to conceal internally. Though she denied it, she also refused to undergo a medical examination or even to wear tights.
As the 19th century progressed, scientific advancements actually made it easier for fake mediums to create their hoaxes. Sound recording allowed them to create voices and music supposedly "out of thin air," when in actuality it was probably from a concealed record player. Advances in manufacturing led to materials that were softer and more flexible--- and easier to conceal.
And then there is the mysterious ectoplasm. Although most people are at least passingly familiar with it through the movie Ghostbusters, where it appeared as slimy mucus wherever ghosts appeared, it was actually not a substance known prior to the spiritualist movement. Some historians even say the concept was "invented" by the spiritualists. They certainly gave it a lot of attention, describing its appearance and qualities in their journals. They also claimed it was somehow created from the medium's own body and spirit and "extruded" from various body cavities. It was even frequently photographed. Unfortunately, in these photos, the ectoplasm emerging from the medium's nose or mouth resembles nothing as much as wet cheesecloth. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Séances are still performed today, although the more elaborate theatrics are mostly a thing of the past. Mediums are still hired to entertain at parties, but they tend to limit themselves to cold reading, automatic writing, and perhaps a bit of channeling, and advertise themselves as entertainers, not oracles. There are also a few stage magicians who incorporate elements of the Victorian séance into their acts, or perform private séance shows at homes and cabarets. Of course, these magicians make no claim of real psychic ability, instead emphasizing the theatrical and historical aspects.
Join us next month, when we look at some of the more famous "descendants" of Margery and the Fox sisters, who make a lucrative living getting in touch with "the other side."
Welcome back to our discussion of how con-artists fake their claims of supernatural abilites. Last month we discussed "cold reading," which is probably the most common trick used by fake psychics. This month we discuss the best known method for "talking to the other side," the séance.
The concept of the séance goes back to the 19th-century era of spiritualism, and basically involves a group of people, including one or more "mediums" or "spiritualists," who, through a series of ritualistic activities, purport to contact spirits and receive information. Generally these people gather in a dark room around a table, and the medium will use one or more particular means to contact the spirit world. We'll discuss a few of the better-known ones below.
Channeling is when a medium allows a spirit to take possession of his or her body, and speak through the medium's voice. These spirits can include those of people who have died, angels, extra-terrestrials, creatures of other dimensions, or even ancient gods. Sometimes this seems to be no more than the medium closing her eyes and speaking in a different voice or accent, or it can be as much as the medium giving herself over to a full possession, walking and acting like a completely different person.
Obviously, if you think about it, channeling is no more difficult for a clever actor to fake than a cold reading (and often the two are used in conjunction.)
Automatic Writing and Ouija Boards-
This is not necessarily done by a person who identifies as a medium. In fact, variations on these activities are often done as a party game. The Ouija Board is the brand name of a board and indicator marketed by Milton Bradley as a home game, but the general principle behind it goes back to the days of spiritualism. Basically it is a smooth wooden board with the letters of the alphabet on it, sometimes with "yes," "no," and numbers on it, too. A small pointer, known as a planchette, is placed on top of the board. This pointer has small feet with either felt or small wheels on the bottom, allowing it to slide around the board freely.
To operate it, two or more people place their fingertips very lightly on the planchette, and after a few moments the planchette will begin to slide around the board, seemingly of its own accord. Participants can then ask questions, and the planchette will move to the various letters to spell out the answers.
This can also be done on a small, smooth table with cards with the letters of the alphabet and words placed around the edge, and with an upturned wineglass used as the planchette. In this case, the participants will place their fingertips on the bottom of the glass and it will move around the table, spelling out answers to questions.
There is also a process called automatic writing or spirit writing. For this a person takes a pen and holds it very lightly to a paper, trying not to direct the pen consciously, but just letting it more around the page at random. After a few minutes, it sometimes happens that the pen starts writing out words or pictures, seemingly without conscious volition. Sometimes the effect is enhanced by having two or more people hold the pen simultaneously.
There have actually been writers and artists over the years who have used automatic writing to produce new works. Perhaps best known was Rev. William Stainton Moses, a minister whose Christian beliefs were fairly orthodox before he became involved with spiritualism in the late 1800s. Through automatic writing he wrote messages he believed came from a higher being. These writings promoted a much more liberal interpretation of the faith, to which Moses later converted. A woman named Rosemary Brown composed music automatically, although she was not a particularly accomplished musician. And a dentist named John B. Newbrough created the philosophical work Oahspe through "automatic typing," on the recently invented typewriter.
I have to admit, having used a Ouija Board and similar devices, as well as participated in automatic writing, that it definitely feels as though some outside force is influencing the movement. Sometimes it felt as though the planchette was almost being pulled from beneath my fingers. But people who study these things assure me that what is actually happening is that I and the person I am working with are subconsciously guiding the planchette ourselves. I'll have to take their word for it, but I will say that I wouldn't recommend ever giving money to do something that: 1)is easy to fake, and 2)can be easily done by amateurs at parties.
Of course, some mediums and séances produce even more dramatic evidence of supernatural activity, and we'll discuss those in next month's edition.
Last month, I started a series that looks at skeptics and critics of claims of the supernatural, and some of the tricks hoaxers use to fool people into thinking they are witnessing these events. This month, we'll look at what is perhaps the most commonly-used trick in the hoaxers repertoire-the "cold reading."
Cold reading is a technique used by a variety of con-artists to make the victim, or "mark," think that the con-artist has some sort of paranormal insight into events or feelings that the mark believes are private or concealed. Cold-reading often plays at least a part in a variety of scams, including fake psychics, fake fortune-tellers, and people who claim to speak with the dead. Yet skeptics claim that cold-reading is a skill almost anyone can learn, and that once people understand what it is and how it works, they are less likely to fall victims to such scams.
Cold-reading is basically a way to elicit information from a mark without his or her being aware that he is giving such information away. It requires the con-artist "reader" to be carefully observant of the mark, and also to subtly encourage the mark to reveal or confirm information unknowingly. First, the reader makes some educated guesses based on things he or she can observe about the mark. How old is the mark? Is he well-dressed? Is she wearing a wedding ring? He does the mark speak? Does he have an accent? Does she speak in the manner of a well-educated person?
From here, the reader makes some statements he claims to be receiving from a supernatural source. "I sense that you are married The spirits tell me you live far from the place where you were born," and so forth. Once the mark confirms this, either verbally or through non-verbal cues, such as nodding, the reader knows he has begun to convince the mark that he has special insight.
From here, the reader begins to offer statements that are probably true, based not only on observable clues, but also because they are true of most people. For instance, if the mark is old enough, the reader might say, "Your grandmother has passed on I sense there was pain surrounding her death." This isn't really a special insight, as most people over a certain age no longer have both grandmothers living, and what death does not have pain of some sort involved. Some readers will even be seemingly more specific, as in, "a person close to you died of a problem in the chest." But since that could refer to a great number of ailments, such as heart disease, lung disease, or a variety of accidents, it's really not much of a guess.
Or the reader could offer a statement that is true of most people in general, such as, "You are having concerns regarding money." The mark would take this as a true statement, but really, most people are concerned about their money. Or the reader will make a statement that seems to be specific, but is really vague and imprecise, such as, "You are usually a cheerful person, but have experienced times when you have been quite sad." This statement has two sides: one that flatters the mark by presenting a picture of himself he finds agreeable, "You are a cheerful person," followed up by a statement that is true of everyone, "you have experienced times when you have been quite sad." And truthfully, who hasn't experienced sadness?
Once the mark has given several confirmations to the reader, there is now a connection between them. The reader is learning the signals to look for when the mark confirms a guess. The mark also is starting to believe that the reader has specific insight. Now the reader starts making scattershot guesses, offering several possibilities at once. "I'm hearing from a relative, a close relative, a sibling a parent a grandparent, grand father? The name starts with B, or P, or D?" When the mark indicates the correct one, the reader emphasizes it-"D! The name starts with D!"-and then continues elaborating. "D Dave Dan Don..? Donald! It's Donald!"
The reader might even ask direct questions, and then "confirm" the answer: "Is your grandmother dead or alive?" If the mark confirms she has died, the reader immediately replies, "Yes, he says that your grandmother is with him!"
At this point, the mark is convinced that the reader is displaying a real connection to an unseen world, at which point the reader is free to make things up that the mark has no way to confirm or deny: "He wants to tell you he's watching over you, that he misses you. That he's happy where he is, that he is with family and loved ones who have also passed on."
Usually, someone who has been the victim of a cold reading remembers only the "hits" ("She knew my grandfather's name was Donald, and that he died of a heart attack!") and forgets the "misses." This is normal human nature, and something that the con-artist is counting on.
There is also a technique known as "Hot Reading," where a con-artist will obtain personal information about the mark ahead of time, such as through public records, going through personal items without the mark's knowledge, or other means, often illegal. Of course, this requires a certain amount of preparation ahead of time, and is more often used in elaborate, long-term scams for significant amounts of money. It's rare that the average person will encounter a reader using hot reading techniques, but it is something to be aware of.
Join me next month, for more on supernatural hoaxes!
Read more at the
Randi Educational Foundation.
Also, here is a guide
on how to do a cold reading.
From time to time, and more often of late, it seems, I will break out of our usual format to cast a skeptical eye on stories that come my way. I'll question a ghosthunter's methods, or disprove a legend with historical facts.
It isn't uncommon that when I do this, people will question me, asking why I am ruining a great story with boring facts. Don't I believe the stories I tell? Am I trying to ruin everyone's fun?
Well, let me answer that. To quote the poster in Fox Mulder's office: I Want to Believe. I want to hear ghosts tiptoeing through the halls of the old hotel I'm staying at, or see flying saucers swooping low over my town at night. I'd like to know for sure, as many "psychics" claim, that there is a beautiful afterlife where my late loved ones can observe me and know how much I miss them.
But I also know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, if someone claims to speak to the dead, he must produce knowledge that ONLY the dead person would know, as proof. If someone claims to see flying saucers, she must have a clear picture of one that bears up under examination by photography experts that can verify it is not a fake. Without this proof, it is only one person's word, and as we've seen in the past, one person can lie, misinterpret the facts, or even hallucinate.
There are a number of people out there who are considered professional skeptics, who take it upon themselves to examine evidence of the paranormal, and to debunk frauds or find logical explanations for the event if they can. One of the first great skeptics was Harry Houdini, who during his magical career would often visit psychic mediums and expose their trickery. It is said he undertook this personal crusade after the death of his mother. Houdini and his mother were very close, and since spiritualism was very popular at the time, Houdini visited a medium to try and make contact with her in the spirit world. By all accounts, the visit was less than satisfactory. For starters, the medium related messages from Houdini's mother in perfect English, a language she did not speak well (she was German by birth) and rarely used. Houdini also noted that many of the "supernatural effects" observed during the seance were created using the same techniques magicians used in their shows.
Afterwards, Houdini became something of a crusader against spiritualism. He exposed the seance secrets in his stage show, and visited mediums in disguise, often accompanied by reporters and policemen. He became a member of a committee supported by "Scientific American" magazine that offered a substantial cash prize to anyone who could offer proof of the supernatural, a prize that has never been claimed.
Not surprisingly, it is other stage magicians who have taken up the skeptic mantle. James "The Amazing" Randi is perhaps the most vocal. He is a founding member of CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) a noted skeptic organization, and also founded the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) which offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can substantiate claims of the paranormal. Randi frequently appears on TV and radio to issue this challenge personally to high-profile "psychics" such as Sylvia Brown and Uri Geller, but like the Scientific American prize, it has gone unclaimed. Randi also writes a weekly commentary on the JREF website ( http://www.randi.org/ ) and contributes to other skeptical websites and journals.
Only slightly less tenacious, but perhaps better known than Randi for their skeptical pursuits, is the performing duo of Penn & Teller. Penn is a good friend of Randi's, and considers him a mentor. Penn & Teller produce a TV series for Showtime cable called "Bulls---!" which investigates and debunks claims of the paranormal, as well as promoting critical thinking on a number of scientific and political issues. Penn also hosts a daily radio show that often brings on skeptics (including Randi) as guests.
Join me next month when I look at some of the most common forms of paranormal trickery, and how you can avoid being fooled.
Recently, I was listening to a show on NPR called "This American Life." It was the show's Halloween episode, and they started the episode by reading a letter that was written to the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921. The letter was from a doctor, and concerned the strange case of Mrs. H and her family.
It seems the family had recently moved into a large house with their servants. The house was in a bit of disrepair, and as electricity was still not universal, it was still lit with gaslights. Mrs. H noted that the house was distinguished by its quietness, but not for long.
At first the strange occurrences were small. Mrs. H related hearing footsteps in the room above her, thought she thought she was alone. She went upstairs to investigate, and in fact searched the whole floor, but found no one was there. Then she began hearing sounds at night, coming from a storeroom. There was loud pounding, as though furniture were being moved about, often followed by sighs and wails. When Mrs, H walked down the hallway, she had the distinct feeling of being followed, and of someone touching her hair and shoulders.
The four-year-old son in the family once came to his mother, asking who was calling his name. Mrs. H assured him there was no one, but he insisted upon hearing his name quite clearly.
The situation escalated. At night the family felt as though they were being held down in bed by unseen figures, or that the beds were shaking. Mrs. H told of feeling as though her bedclothes were being torn off her. She told of clearly seeing a man and woman sitting at the foot of her bed, and being unable to move.
The houseplants died. The children were affected by mysterious illnesses and lack of energy. Everyone in the house suffered from headaches.
Flash forward 90 years or so.
I'm watching Ghosthunters on the Sci-Fi channel (the reality series that follows The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS, on their investigations.) They are visiting a house a man has recently moved into at the request of the man's girlfriend. She is concerned that the man's personality seems markedly different in his house. He is severely depressed and irritable at home, but not at work or at her home.
The man has also been having unexplainable feelings of dread and anxiety, and has seen a figure at the foot of his basement stairs.
Now back to the 1920s.
Mrs. H's haunting experience might have continued, if not for a visit from her brother-in-law. He suggests they might be affected by poisonous gas, about which he has read a recent article. They investigate and discover that the house's boiler and lighting are emitting carbon monoxide (CO) fumes. The symptoms of CO poisoning include headache and fatigue, but also hallucinations. These hallucinations can be pretty extreme, including the feelings the family experienced of being touched or held down. And gaslights have been known to give off as much CO as a car's exhaust.
When the home's boiler and lighting are repaired, the "haunting" stops.
When TAPS investigated the man's home, they found he used his basement for his hobby: stripping and refinishing furniture. But not only was the basement not ventilated, the house's heating system carried the fumes from the chemicals he used throughout the house. And the symptoms of dangerous exposure to these chemicals? Depression, anxiety, irritability, and feelings of dread. In high concentrations, hallucinations may occur.
TAPS recommended a comprehensive exhaust system be installed to carry the chemical fume out of the basement, and soon the mysterious symptoms vanished.
I present both of these stories as an example of what paranormal investigators mean when they talk about "rational explanations." Too often, skeptics are dismissed by those who have experienced strange events first-hand. "I SAW the woman right in front of my eyes, and then she just disappeared," a haunting victim will say. "What could rationally explain that?"
But consider this: CO is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. It is produced by burning fuel, usually in quantities too small to be harmful, but simple malfunctions, often unnoticed, soon raise CO to dangerous levels. It is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America, killing more than 2000 people a year.
So before you call in a psychic to investigate the strange occurrences at your house, get a CO detector. The ghosts just might be trying to tell you something.
Hello, Ghosthunters, and Happy Holidays to you all,
'Round about this time each year, I and some of my fellow Creatures like to remind our friends that Christmas is the time in England for ghost stories, and that there is a long and celebrated literary tradition of the Holiday Ghost Story in English magazines and gazettes.
Of course, one of the most enduring and best-known Christmas stories (after the New Testament account of the birth of Christ, arguably THE best-known) is Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," which is, of course, a ghost story. The well-known story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his visit from three Christmas ghosts, not to mention that of his late business partner, has become part of the English-speaking world's collective culture.
The novel was published on Dec. 19, 1843 and garnered immediate success. Six thousand copies were sold in a week. The story was so popular that in his later years, Dickens gave regular readings of an abridged version throughout the Christmas season all over England. There have also been various film adaptations. The Internet Movie Database lists the earliest as an 11-minute silent from 1910, and over 30 other versions for TV and cinema. Added to that are the various TV specials (Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone, and Scrooge McDuck have all taken a turn as one Scrooge or another) and countless series episodes that reference the tale of redemption.
But more than just providing a popular entertainment, many folklorists and cultural historians credit the story's success with popularizing the celebration of the holiday, which by Dickens's time was little observed, partially from a general disapproval of most frivolous celebration after the Protestant reformation and in the Anglican church in particular.
A Christmas Carol not only revived interest in the holiday but also reinvented the celebration, placing less of an emphasis on the hedonistic excesses of the past and more on family togetherness, goodwill, and Christian charity.
Now, I have a confession: I have presented this little literary history in hopes that you and your family will begin your own Christmas tradition this year. Sometime this month, when everyone is feeling the Christmas spirit, pour out mugs of hot chocolate or cider, light a few candles or a fire in the fireplace, and reading the story aloud, maybe a chapter each night for several nights. If you don't already own a copy, Dover Thrift sells a version for only $1, or nice paperbacks can be had for a few dollars more. Or buy an illustrated version as a family gift. You can even download it for free at Project Gutenberg.
And God bless us, every one.
Last month, at The Halloween Opera, our friend D. E. Christman (an artist and DJ whose work can be found here: Grendel's Den) gave a talk on ghosts in America. He posited at the top of his talk that America has a greater preoccupation with ghosts and life after death than other countries. While I don't entirely agree, I do think that the beliefs about ghosts and spirits in America (and to an extent, England) are strongly shaped by the Spiritualist Movement.
Spiritualism, which enjoyed its greatest popularity from the 1840s to the 1920s, was a movement that sought to understand what happened to a person's spirit after death and to find a way to communicate with loved ones who had died. This communication was facilitated by "mediums" who held "séances" to make contact with the spirit world.
The movement enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among the well-to-do. Parties where a medium would be invited and hold a séance for all those present were commonplace. It was believed spirits would make contact through various means, including rapping noises, moving pointers towards letters to spell out words (the Ouija board is based on this method) or through "automatic writing," where a medium would appear to go into a trance and write words seemingly dictated by the spirits. Some mediums would simply claim to hear the spirits speaking to them while in a trance, and relay what was said.
As mediums became better known, the manifestations of the spirits became more impressive. Disembodied voices or musical instruments were heard. Lights or a substance called "ectoplasm" would appear. In the most dramatic circumstances, a spirit would show up looking very much like a living person.
The most famous medium, for a time, to summon these spirit appearances was an English woman named Florence Cook. She summoned the spirit of a girl named Katie King. Katie King was actually from a family of spirits first summoned by spiritualist named Jonathan Koons. Koons held many séances at his cabin in Ohio, where he and his guests talked to members of the King family, including the father John (who was said to be a pirate in life) and daughter Katie. After a while, the Kings began to appear at the séances of other mediums, which was not uncommon at the time.
Florence Cook began to "channel" Katie by entering a darkened, curtained area of the room separate from the rest of the séance and go into a trance state. After a few minutes "Katie" would appear and walk around the room, talk to guests, answer questions, and occasionally interact physically. At one séance, she even held a baby that had been brought along. She even had her picture taken.
Of course, when we compare photos of Katie and Florence today, the two girls look remarkably similar, but in the dim or nearly dark rooms where séances were conducted, attendees swore that the two looked nothing alike, or that Katie and Florence could both be seen at the same time.
Other spirits also became famous in the popular culture of the day, and would appear at different séances, like celebrities making the rounds at talk shows. Clubs formed to follow the appearances and utterances of one spirit or another, and some spirits dictated books that became best-sellers. Skilled mediums were in high demand and were well paid for their work.
Even Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of president Lincoln, was a true believer and attended many séances during her husband's years in the White House. And although historians deny that any séances were ever held at the Presidential mansion or that President Lincoln ever attended, there is some evidence that he at least indulged his wife in her beliefs.
Spiritualism lives on today with mediums like Sylvia Brown and John Edwards appearing on talk shows and appearing before sold-out crowds.
But this movement was not without its
critics. In fact, the greatest stage magician of all time, Harry
Houdini, was an outspoken critic of the movement, and devoted
much of his later career to debunking mediums. But more about
that next month. Until then, Ghosthunters
Now if I'd known,
They'd line up just to see him,
I'd've taken all my money,
And bought me a museum.
Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut
This past summer the fabulous treasures of one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs in history, Tutankhamen (or King Tut,) were again on tour for the first time in decades. They are at Chicago's Field Museum until January, and then they will be shown at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute until September 2007. The face of his golden sarcophagus is perhaps the most recognizable Egyptian antiquity in existence, and even people not particularly interested in ancient history could tell you at least a little bit about the "boy king."
He died mysteriously at age nineteen, rumored to have been murdered by his rivals in the royal family. He was mummified in the custom of his time and buried with a fortune in gold and bejeweled artifacts. His successors' attempts to have his name erased from history only served to protect this treasure until its discovery by Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon in 1922.
And then there's the curse, of course.
The ancient Egyptians had a very complex system of beliefs regarding death and the afterlife. The embalming techniques that created mummies took months to complete, and the bodies of the wealthy were buried in huge elaborate tombs (like the Pyramids) created to protect them from encroachers. There were traps and tricks, as well as heavy stone doors. And in some cases, curses were carved to frighten would-be thieves away. Some of the curses discovered on other Egyptian tombs threatened that those who defiled them would "die from hunger and thirst" (on a statue of Herihor, High Priest of Amun, Dyn. 20-21,) "shall have no heir" (inscription of Tuthmosis I, Dyn. 18,) "shall be miserable and persecuted" (tomb of Penniut, Dyn. 20,) or, my favorite, "A donkey shall violate him, a donkey shall violate his wife (Deir el-Bahri Graffito No. 11, Dyn. 20.)
In the late 1800s, there was something of an "Egyptian craze" in England. A number of tombs were discovered, and art and antiquities were in demand. There was a great deal of interest in the culture, and (as we saw in some of the articles on this page this past summer) the architecture style frequently influenced other buildings of the day, especially in cemeteries.
One archeologist, Howard Carter, believed he might be able to find the location of one undiscovered tomb, that of the little -known King Tutankhamen. Financed by Lord Carnarvon, he searched for it for five years without success. Carnarvon became impatient and called Carter back to England in 1922 to let him know he was calling off the search, but Carter managed to convince him to give him one more season.
Carter returned to Egypt with a pet canary, which caused great excitement among his Egyptian digging crew. They believed a yellow bird would bring good luck and lead them to the tomb. Perhaps they were right, because in November of that year, digging revealed a staircase leading down to a sealed doorway. The named carved on the door was Tutankhamen.
That night, when Carter arrived home, he was informed by a servant that his pet canary had been killed by a cobra (a snake that was sacred to the ancient Egyptians.) The servant feared that this was an omen. Because the bird led them to the tomb, it had been killed as a warning. Carter discounted the superstition and telegrammed Carnarvon about the find.
Carnarvon arrived in Egypt on November 26th, and went to the dig site just as Carter was making a hole in the sealed door. Carter leaned in with a candle to look around the interior. Behind him Lord Carnarvon asked, "Can you see anything?"
"Yes," Carter answered, "wonderful things."
The next day the tomb was opened, and contained an amazing collection of treasures, including Tutankhamen's stone sarcophagus, and three gold coffins, layered one inside the other. But there were rumors that a stone tablet with the curse "Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King" was found by Carter, and that he concealed it so as not to frighten his Egyptian workers. Carter denied this, not only at the time, but several times over the years as the rumor resurfaced.
But a few months after the opening of the tomb, tragedy began to fall on several of the people involved. Lord Carnarvon became ill and was rushed to a hospital in Cairo, where he died a few days later. The exact cause of death was not known, but it seemed be from a mosquito bite on his cheek that became infected. The story spread that when he died, a power failure darkened Cairo. And his son reported that at the moment at his estate in England, his favorite dog gave a horrible howl and dropped down dead.
To add to the mystery, when the mummy of Tutankhamen was finally unwrapped in 1925, he appeared to have a mark on his cheek in the exact spot as Carnarvon's infected mosquito bite.
But the "curse" did not stop there. Two of Carnarvon's relatives died of uunatural causes. Howard Carter's secretary, Richard Bethell, died young, and Bethell's father, Lord Westbury, committed suicide by jumping from a building. His suicide not read, "I really cannot stand any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here, so I am making my exit." Many have speculated on what those horrors might have been.
The yellow press of the day followed the path of the "curse" very closely, and by 1929 had connected eleven untimely deaths to the original discoverers of the tomb. By 1935, they had connected another ten.
But was there a rational explanation? In Carnarvon's strange case, modern Egyptologists believe his death may have been caused, or at least aggravated, by molds or other toxins that he had been exposed to upon the opening of the tomb. Scientists have found that some toxic fungus can survive for thousands of years in a tomb-like environment, and it's possible this contributed to Carnarvon's death. (It's also why modern archeologists wear protective gear when digging.)
And finally, there is the notable exception
to the supposed curse. Howard Carter, the man who actually discovered
the tomb and was the first to break the ancient seal, never believed
in a curse, and he lived to the relatively old age of 66.
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