Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Beyond & Back

Once you’ve seen a face melting in anguish, it stays with you -- especially when the face belongs to your friend. And he’s dead.

I witnessed this several years ago, and I can’t say that it was a pleasant reunion. Still, it did shake up whatever earthly, godless concepts I then held. Maybe I was hallucinating, but I’ve experienced some vivid hallucinations, and this was nothing like those.

My wife, kids and I were visiting an old friend of mine, Ginny, a wealthy older woman whose son I’d known in my teens, and who took me in for a time and made me part of her extended family. When he was 19, Ginny’s son Guy was accidentally shot in the pelvis with a .38 revolver. The hollow point bullet exploded and shredded his insides. He survived for a month before dying, and this sent Ginny into an emotional tailspin. Desperate to keep Guy around, she hired mediums, psychics and anyone else who told her they could talk to Guy’s spirit and keep it close by. I felt for Ginny, and tried to understand the pain that inspired her actions. But not for a second did I buy all the haunting stories I was being told, even though some came from Guy’s sister, Tami, who was, like me, extremely skeptical on this front.

Twenty years had passed since Guy’s death when my family entered Ginny’s house. The atmosphere felt strange. My then-two-year-old son was the first to sense this, and it hit him very hard. Giggling and smiling outside the house, he immediately became terrified once inside. My wife and I had never seen him act like this. We kept asking him what was wrong. He merely stared ahead, eyes frozen, lips quivering. He sobbed, and at times was short of breath. This went on for the better part of an hour. As the night went on, fear wore him down. He finally fell asleep in my wife’s arms.

For us, things sped up. The air felt electrified, a sensation I’d never before experienced. A sense of anger or rage was evident. Still, Ginny seemed calm. She was obviously used to this atmosphere, and I suppose it provided her some comfort. But my wife and I were getting antsy, and when Ginny offered us her bedroom for the night, we thanked her and retired, sleeping son in tow.

Upstairs, the sensations continued, but we talked about other matters, trying to keep our minds off what was becoming impossible to ignore. We slipped into Ginny’s large bed, our son tucked between us, turned out the light and fell quickly to sleep. I don’t know how long it was before the images hit me. Savage images. Images of people dying, moaning, crawling through a diseased landscape, flesh hanging on bone. Several faces decayed on the spot, Guy’s among them. The overall feeling was one of despair and severe anguish. It was horrific and stark, unlike anything I’d ever dreamt, assuming I was dreaming. Soon it became so unspeakable that I shot straight up in the dark, sweating, heart pounding. I turned to see my wife awake as well.

"Did you see that?" I asked.

"See what?"

I hurriedly filled her in, and while she hadn’t experienced any ghastly visions, she was suffering from extreme dread. The bedroom was filled with it. As ridiculous as it now seems, I felt no choice but to openly admonish Guy, who I assumed was responsible, and begged him to stop. Within a few minutes, the atmosphere lightened, the tension faded. I stayed awake for another hour, waiting for anything, before succumbing to a dreamless sleep.

Crazy? Tell me about it. If I hadn't witnessed it with my wife, I would've dismissed it as an aggressive fever dream (or try to, anyway). But I stand by it. And given the countless ghost stories I’ve encountered since moving to Michigan, my dead friend’s appearance was well within that spectral tradition.

One local guy I worked with told me of his time living near an Indian burial ground upstate, the area choked with angry spirits and energy. There are the runaway slaves who died in Michigan barns and basements before they could cross into Canada and to freedom, their residual agony left to haunt the living. A whole mythology exists about Michigan’s haunted lakes and lighthouses, the cries of drowning men still heard by those onshore.

I’ve never come across so much paranormal material as I have in this state, and this, added to my past experiences, has intensely piqued my interest in the topic.

The idea that the dead roam the Earth is nothing new. Every culture has its version of this, and in Western culture the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Proust are filled with varied images of the deceased. Paul Bowles wrote of an astral insight he experienced as a child, which so shook his concept of reason that he hurried to bury it. William Burroughs believed in different dimensions and explored various afterlife concepts. In his memoir, Alec Guinness recalled that upon meeting James Dean, a voice in his head told him that Dean would die in a car crash one week later, which he passed on to Dean, who laughed it off. Even non-believers like Stephen King have made creative and profitable use of the supernatural. Then there are all the horror-afterlife films and TV series that have explored every possible paranormal angle.

While I’ve enjoyed many of these ghostly treatments, I never took them seriously. Raised Catholic, I left the Church in my early teens, convinced there was no God, no spiritual realm, nothing save our active, at times overheated imaginations. The idea that life continued in some form after death frightened me. Would it never end? Were we to be conscious forever? Horrifying, I thought, and so I took comfort in atheism. Non-existence once the body failed was my Heaven. How could one be afraid of not being where one is not?

Influenced by sharper minds and merciless personalities, I became smug in my godlessness, and vicious when debating others on the subject. I’ve ripped apart gentle souls who believed in the Other Side, mocking their naiveté, their mental and emotional weakness. I could be quite a prick about it, actually. But, in time, contrary evidence began to emerge, and forced me to reconsider my hostile position.

My most recent paranormal encounter came a few months ago. A former neighbor, Wendy, had been telling me about an ongoing presence in her home. An older woman lived in the house next door to us before Wendy’s family did, and I rarely saw her. Nurses and some medical personnel came and went, so obviously the woman had health problems. To what degree I never knew. Then, over a series of days, her driveway and open garage began filling up with furniture, clothes, and other household items. The nurses stopped visiting. A moving van arrived to haul away the lot. Clearly, the woman had passed on.

Several months later, Wendy, her husband Kevin and their 2-year-old daughter Mikela, moved in. They were friendly and outgoing, and soon we got to know them fairly well. Then one night over wine, I asked them about the woman who lived there before them. Did they know anything about her? How she died? What was the house like when moving in?

Wendy wasn’t sure about the cause of the woman’s death, but she grinned and said, "I don’t think she ever left."

"How do you mean?"

Wendy explained that the first few nights in the new home were very active with spectral activity. None of it seemed hostile or malevolent, but according to Wendy it was consistent and very tangible, a feeling that perhaps several people were moving around them as if to let the new family know that they would not be alone. After this initial greeting, the activity ebbed and flowed but never fully waned. (Wendy and Kevin told me that one night, while watching TV, they both saw a white specter move through their kitchen before disappearing.) In time, Wendy’s daughter Mikela began seeing older women in her bedroom, and would describe their appearance without hesitation, right down to their pill box hats, the name of which Mikela didn’t know, but outlined in perfect detail.

Invisible friends, I thought. A child’s vivid imagination. Still, I recalled how immediately aware my son was of the dark energy in Ginny’s house, and I later read that younger children are more attuned to these vibrations as they have yet to develop a wall of denial and justification. Mikela’s experience wasn’t as harrowing as was my son’s (when I spoke to her about it, she never seemed frightened, taking it all in stride), but what if she did see something, or the traces of someone passed on? I decided to check this out for myself.

While researching a possible article about haunted Michigan sites, I got to know a local "ghost hunter," Charla, who spoke at length about her group's experiences (the majority of suspected "hauntings" they investigate turn out to be Earth-bound and easily explainable -- drafts, faulty wiring, chipmunks in the walls). She showed me the equipment the group uses and what each instrument does. After talking to Wendy, I phoned Charla and asked if I could borrow some of her equipment. She kindly said yes, and when I stopped by her office to pick up her electro-magnetic sensor and temperature gauge, she told me to stay clear of electrical outlets and appliances like a microwave or refrigerator. Any paranormal energy present would be masked by the waves emitted by those and other appliances. Charla advised me to keep an open mind, to be patient, and not to get too anxious should some kind of contact be made.

"Stay loose and have fun," she said.

That night, I arrived at Wendy and Kevin’s around 10:30 PM. I felt excited though very self-conscious, as though I should be wearing Ghostbusters garb. I really didn’t know what to expect, but the thought that I might encounter something from another dimension pushed me past any lingering doubts that remained in my mind.

Kevin, very laid back, smiled, as if he knew what was about to occur. While not as taken with the presence as was Wendy, Kevin had seen too much to deny what had become a given in their home. Wendy, on the other hand, was primed, and she suggested that some activity had already begun before my arrival. I took out the two pieces of equipment, along with a tape recorder with a newly-opened blank tape inside. I would keep the recorder running the entire time I measured for a presence, in the hope that I would capture some type of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Wendy suggested that we start in her bedroom upstairs, as that was the focal point for most of the activity.

I clicked on the temperature gauge; the room was a steady 70 degrees. The electro-magnetic sensor picked up some slight traces of energy, but nothing dramatic, and I assumed that perhaps a lamp or outlet was causing this. I set the tape recorder on the bed and got it running as Wendy talked about some of her experiences in the room. She said that while there were several manifestations of activity, the physical sense that someone was lying in bed next to her being one, the main action was a tapping sound that came out of her bedroom closet. My daughter, who baby-sits Mikela from time to time, told me about this -- that she’s walked through the upstairs hallway and heard loud tapping coming out of that room when only she and Mikela were in the house. I looked out the window next to the closet to see if there might be a tree branch that could be the source of the tapping. But only the narrow end of one branch could reach the house, and the sound it made as the wind pushed it was a high scratching one, not the strong, steady tapping and knocking I was told about.

I grabbed the tape recorder and placed it in front of the closet. Wendy and I left the room to see what the sensor could find in the hallway and down the staircase. As we moved downstairs the sensor’s needle spiked into the red field and stayed like that until we got to the corner of the living room.

"I’m getting something," I said excitedly. "What outlets or appliances are in this area?"

Kevin was sitting nearby. "Nothing really. One outlet, but that’s away from where you are right now."

"Well," I replied, "there’s definitely some energy here. Can you feel it?"

"Oh yeah," said Wendy with a big smile. "It’s all around me."

It was all around me as well. It appeared suddenly, and like the energy I’d felt years ago in Ginny’s house, it was strong and tangible, but there wasn’t any dread or feeling of terror. It felt like fingers were running up and down my arms, and the sensor’s needle was now buried, buzzing loudly.

"Man, this is wild!" I said. "It’s like several people are touching me. I can feel a definite presence. I don’t know what to say."

"Are you still skeptical?" asked Wendy.

"Yeah, maybe a little. I don’t know."

Just then I felt a jab in the back of my neck.

"YOW!" I yelled, spinning around to nothing. "I just got poked by something. I mean, I really felt that!"

The whole scene became very weird. To Wendy and Kevin, this was business as usual. Another haunted evening at home. For me, it rattled my mind and sense of earthly reason. And the electric stroking continued as the sensor buzzed on.

I pulled out the temperature gauge: 71 degrees. I walked toward Wendy with the gauge still on, and the room’s temperature in that short space suddenly dropped four degrees. Just like that.

"There’s a cold patch here," I said.

"Oh yeah," laughed Wendy. "We get those all the time."

All this continued for maybe 20 minutes, maybe more. It all seemed unreal, but at the risk of seeming insane, I swear it happened. I felt fatigued, as though a lot of energy had been drained from me. I sat on the edge of a chair and slumped over. The electric sensations ebbed, then disappeared. I turned on the sensor one last time to see if there was any trace. Nothing. Just five minutes before, that area of the room was alive with electrical activity. Now, quiet.

Wendy, Kevin and I talked about this for a few minutes, with me trying to get my head around it. Then I remembered that I’d left the tape recorder upstairs. I ran up, saw that the tape had run out, grabbed the recorder and went downstairs and said my goodnights.

When I arrived home, my daughter was awake and instantly quizzed me. I told her everything, which didn’t surprise her, knowing what she did about the house. She asked if she could listen to the tape for me.

"Sure," I replied. "Just grab me if you hear anything strange."

She plugged headphones into the tape player, sat on the couch and began to take notes. About five minutes later she ran into my office.

"Dad! You have to hear this!"

She cued up the tape and handed me the headphones.

"Listen real close, just as Wendy is talking."

I hit Play and cranked up the volume. Wendy is telling me a story when a little girl is heard giggling loudly.

"Was Mikela in the room with you guys?" my daughter asked.

"No. She was asleep, across the hall in her room with the door closed. She wasn’t anywhere near us."

"Well, who’s that laughing? It can’t be Wendy, and it definitely isn’t you."

I didn’t know. I rewound and listened to that section of the tape maybe a dozen times, and every time, there was a girl clearly giggling over us.

My daughter reclaimed the player, sat down and listened some more. I went to the fridge for a beer, which I downed quickly as I pondered the girl. That tape had been freshly unwrapped before use, so it couldn’t be an old recording seeping through. The girl’s pitch and tone was younger and much higher than Wendy’s, and besides, Wendy was completing a sentence when the giggling occurred. Again, I searched for some rational explanation, but it eluded me.

My daughter yelled for me again.

"What is it this time? Singing? Yodeling?"

"No," she said, "it’s that knocking I told you about."

By this point in the tape, Wendy and I had gone downstairs. The room was vacant. Crickets could be heard through the window screen when suddenly a THUMP THUMP came through, then another THUMP THUMP. It sounded like someone was pounding a wood floor right in front of the recorder, only the room was entirely carpeted.

"That’s the sound you heard when you were babysitting?"

"Yeah. It was creepy. I never go in that room."

The tape yielded no more sounds or surprises. But what it did capture, in addition to my direct experience earlier that night, further altered my thinking about the paranormal. I’m becoming more convinced that another realm exists, but what it is precisely I don’t think anyone can confidently say, at least without seeming in another dimension themselves.

At bottom, I remain skeptical, as should you. As Woody Allen put in "Hannah And Her Sisters," no one really knows what will happen when the final moment arrives, so we should enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Still, speculating on the mysteries of the beyond is part of the fun. And it’s why so many people will never give up the ghost.

Happy Halloween.