Friday, October 24, 2014

Ghost Stories

     I’m pretty much a skeptic across the board—I don’t really believe in the supernatural in any capacity.  This might seem incongruous with my love of horror fiction and horror movies.  Or maybe not.  I’m guessing there are few people who think that vampires, werewolves, zombies, and masked, near-immortal killers, etc., actually exist.  Reading or viewing frightening yet unreal subject matter is a nice escape, and a fun (for some), safe, way to scare yourself in an entertaining way.
     However, despite my strong doubts, I still do like scary, allegedly true stories.  Especially about ghosts.  I used to be very frightened by any ghost characters, almost including the Boo-Berry cereal ghost, and as an adult I still get a thrill from them.  Telling stories around a campfire, or, even once, in the attic of an abandoned, dilapidated house, is still my idea of a good time.  Even if it is more like an appreciation of the tales as folklore.
     So, with this disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to relay my one and only personal spooky story, followed by a few from friends.  Mine was over a decade ago.  A friend and coworker of mine, who I’ll call Greg (because that’s his name) was employed at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA as a tour guide.  Eastern State ceased functioning as an active prison in 1970, but it’s been declared a National Landmark, and is open for tours.  Greg took us on the usual tour one Saturday afternoon, which was great.  I highly recommend Eastern State as a tourist destination.  It was the first real penitentiary in the U.S., and was initially designed upon the Quaker idea of forcing prisoners to take stock of their lives, repent, and become law-abiding citizens.  This meant every single prisoner was given his own solitary confinement cell, and, aside from a Bible and a brief daily trip outside his cell to a walled in yard affixed to the cell, had no diversions.  No visitors, no mail, no conversation, for however many years the sentence was.  The guards even wore socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps as they walked down the corridors outside.  Obviously, solitary confinement is now reserved for an extreme punishment, but the designers thought they were being kind.  Who knows how many relatively minor thieves, etc., were driven mad by this?
     Architecturally it’s pretty cool, tool.  One of the cell blocks is laid out like a giant wheel, with the central hub being where the guards stayed, and each prison wing as a spoke, so guards could spin around and see every section fairly quickly.  After over crowding became an issue, and perhaps, people realized how terrible solitary confinement was, Eastern State eventually became like a regular prison in 1913, up until its closing in 1970.  It had its famous convicts—Willie Sutton served there, and escaped temporarily in a tunnel.  Al Capone did too, and his cell is preserved.  It’s very reminiscent of the scene in “Goodfellas” depicting how relatively posh high Mob guys had it inside, with more room, gourmet food and drink, etc.  Eastern State has a weird location, too—initially it was on the outskirts of the city, but over time Philadelphia grew out and around it, so you have the giant stone walls of a massive prison just sitting in the middle of a city neighborhood.  Anyway, to sum up, and cut this a little shorter, I think Eastern State is a worthwhile visit for many reasons.
     Back to my story.  Greg had a set of keys to Eastern State, and said he’d spent the night there a couple of times.  As it got closer to Halloween we were intrigued.  Finally, one Saturday eight of us went to Philadelphia, had an awesome Italian dinner, and then
went over to the prison to camp out.  Some of us were more into the spooky vibe than others, but we were all excited.  I wanted to try to creep myself out but setting up my sleeping bag in an isolated cell by myself, etc.
     Alas, there was a snag.  It quickly became apparent that an official ghost chasing group had rented the place for the night.  Obviously, since we hadn’t paid, we weren’t supposed to be there.  Greg was in a bind, so as a compromise, he snuck us into the Administration Building near the front of the prison.  Even this was atmospheric and cool—a giant tower to climb; abandoned, paint-flaked rooms; and deserted ominous stone hallways.  When we were finally ready to call it a night, seven of us stayed in one room at the end of the hallway, while one guy stayed in a nearby room closer to the single, long stairwell to the second floor.  Greg, Herb, and myself were still awake, talking quietly, when it happened.  Slow, plodding, fairly loud footsteps, coming up the staircase.  After we confirmed that all of us had heard it, I rushed down the hallway and stood at the top of the stairs, and shown a flashlight down it.  Nothing to see, or hear further.  No eerie cold spots, or inexplicable feelings of terror, etc.  I recall noting that the one guy on his own (Hi Scott) was still in his room sleeping, so there we are—I can’t explain the footsteps.  About fifteen minutes later all hell broke loose.  We heard more footsteps coming up the stairs, but these were made by obvious sources—the ghost chasers and another tour guide found us in our “bedroom.”  The employee noted Greg, and said they’d talk later.  They left, and after a couple of hours of sleep, we packed up and left, too.  This story has a bad ending, as  the following Monday Greg was fired.  It was just bad luck—any other weekend no one would have known.
     Now, I’m certainly not claiming this is proof of anything.  I’m pretty sure Scott was accounted for, and wasn’t making the footstep sounds (possibly by going up the spiral staircase that went to the tower roof), but I’m not 100%.  Or, the ghost chasers were about—maybe they were walking around somewhere nearby, and we heard the echoes.  We were drinking, so there’s that, too.  I don’t think any of us were drunk, but “half in the bag” or “buzzed” is probably accurate.  But, like I said, I couldn’t explain the noises at the time, and it was fun in a mildly disturbing way.
     My next story is second hand.  When I think about it, I should be a prime candidate for experiencing ghost activity.  I’ve exhumed hundreds of graves, and, I’ve stayed in hundreds (thousands?) of hotel rooms in my long archaeological career.  Because people dying in hotel rooms is, I understand, a fairly common phenomenon.  Clearly, being by yourself, away from home, in a sometimes dingy room, can be depressing, so suicides probably make up a fair bit of the deaths.  Plus, things like heart attacks, overdoses, and strokes aren’t unusual, either.  Just looking at the numbers, the odds seem pretty strong that a room I stayed in must have been the scene of a death at least once or twice.  But still, nothing unexplainably weird so far.
     Anyway, my friend Dave was staying in a room, in a regular, random hotel.  His room had an adjoining door to his next door neighbor’s room.  (Something which I try my hardest to avoid.  Thin walls are problematic enough in some hotels, for noise disturbances.  But an adjoining door sometimes makes it seem like you’re in the room with them.  Which is especially awkward when there’s amorous activity going on.  (And doubly so when you know the neighboring room is occupied by only one person!))  After a while Dave started to hear his neighbors messing around with the adjoining door, and being noisy in general.  Whispering, children’s laughter, rattling of the adjoining door’s knob, knocking, that type of thing.  When this wouldn’t stop he called the front desk to complain.  The employee was sympathetic, but said they didn’t know what was happening, as the room wasn’t being rented out.  The noises continued.  Finally Dave went down to the lobby, and had the employee come back with him.  They opened up the door to his neighbor’s room, and the employee was correct—the room was empty, and showed zero signs of any recent human presence.
     And one more hotel story.  This tale was relayed to me about twenty years ago, so my grasp of the details is more tenuous.  A crew was staying in a fairly crappy hotel in Maryland.  The crew started noticing things that were “off.”  Noises, feelings of being watched, stuff like that.  Then they discovered that the hotel was built upon the site of a Civil War amputated limbs cemetery.  (Because in those primitive medical days, amputation was distressingly frequent.)  Most dramatically, my friend Laura one night felt an invisible someone sit down on the bed next to her, and even saw the depression form on the bed underneath “nothing.”  At some other point the spirit became more active, and pulled the bed covers off of her.  (Again, hazy on the details, but I’m guessing she immediately (and understandably) switched rooms.)
     This does raise some interesting questions.  Mainly, why?  Aren’t ghosts normally situated where their bodies died, or a place they frequented?  I didn’t think, say, a disembodied arm could haunt somebody, and how, since it presumably wouldn’t have a consciousness, soul, etc..  I guess maybe a bunch of guys died during the amputations, maybe nearby, and that’s the explanation.  But part of me is oddly amused at the thought of a ghostly body part clumsily roaming around a room, like “Thing” from “The Addams Family.”  Or where does it end?  Will a tuft of hair from my first haircut as a baby haunt the area around my baby book, and will the wisdom tooth I kept someday terrorize a later occupant of my room?  (I kind of want to think so.)
     In that vein, the house of another friend (Hi Leon!) just after college allegedly had a spirit in the attic.  Only, if it existed, it was either incredibly weak, or incredibly lame.  Its sole “haunting” consisted of turning on the attic light by itself.  (And now I’m picturing some ghost flipping the switch on and giggling maniacally, thinking, “That’ll show ‘em!” or, “Get ready to pay an extra three cents for your electric bill this month, puny mortals!”)  Really, when I heard this story (aside from thinking that the tenants just forgot and left the light on occasionally, maybe while tipsy, or that there was a simple wiring problem) I felt bad for the ghost.  I mean, c’mon man, at least put a little more time and thought in your efforts to scare us.
     One final spooky account, in a different way.  My friend Keith was making the interminable drive back home on the East Coast from his college in Colorado.  He was doing so in a run down van.  It was going really well for a while.  He and his friend were having some really good conversations along the way.  Really deep, significant stuff—Keith said he felt like he was getting to know his friend in an unusually rewarding way.  Finally, about three hours from home, Keith had a startling revelation.  He was by himself.  The van had a faulty exhaust system, and he hallucinated his friend’s presence, and the good talks.  He wanted to continue, being relatively close, so he drove the rest of the way with the windows all wide open.  (And then hopefully brought the van to a garage ASAP.)  I know there’s no ghost, but I find this story terrifying.  I can only imagine how disturbing this realization must have been, like some “Fight Club” style scenario.  (Not to mention, this meant a severely mentally hampered person drove a van for hundreds or thousands of miles, posing an extreme danger to himself and other motorists.)
     Anyway, that’s it.  Feel free to share any of our ghost stories, in shortened form I guess, in the comments.  I always love a good one.  Also, just as a reminder, the link to the Coffin Hop is:


  1. Hey, Paul! It's been a while. I hope the season finds you well, and well taken care of. Thanks for sharing the ghostly tales, as A.F. put it. I love to hear of other people experiencing ghostly things - I'm just glad it's not me. It's bad enough that I get up for work every weekday at 3:15 am - if you recall the Amityville Horror mythology. ;)
    Happy Hopping!


  2. Hi James--nice to see you again, and hope you're also doing well. Ghost stories are fun, and part of me kind of wants to be scared by more, even personal ones. And I do recall the Amityville time detail. I actually worked with a woman who's like 4th cousins of the guy who slaughtered his entire family, the DeFeos.

    1. Wow! Really? Small world, indeed.
      I swear when I get up at 3:15 am it has only to do with the alarm waking me, and nothing to do with a banging boathouse door, the dog barking or a marching band performing down in the living room. ;)