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Interview Ghosts before Writing Insensitive Haunted House Stories

I believe that if a writer wants to represent a person from another background they must experience that person’s plight firsthand. Just as a method actor might move into a drug den to better understand addiction so too must the writer. They must live without electricity or running water to portray colonial villagers. They must glue their eyes shut in order to properly portray the blind.

If you want to write about a delinquent who undergoes a perversion treatment, you should inject yourself with toxins whenever you get turned on. If you want to write about a convict who pleas insanity to get out of a felony, you better get yourself put into a facility that offers lobotomies. If you want to write about a salesmen who metamorphizes into an insect you better strap on a pair of antenna and develop a taste for rotten meat.

And if you want to write a ghost story you better prepared to die for your art.

APPROACHING HAUNTINGS WITH UNDERSTANDING

When I set out to write about a haunted house I wanted to cast off the negative stereotypes that plague the genre. Most enchanted establishments aren’t gauntlets full of deathtraps, most of their residents aren’t averse to hosting, and most of their guests don’t find their hair turning white overnight.

Spirits are portrayed as these portrait-stretching chandelier-shifting armor-inhabiting menaces, because too many of their stories are told from a pulse-centric perspective. I set out to change all that by sitting down with some of these marginalized manifestations myself.

PHANTASM OUTREACH

I spent a pretty penny on an authentic Victorian waistcoat with long pigtail coat skirts. I eased it out of the box, draped it across my ironing board, and took a pair sheers to the hem with the reckless abandon of a toddler cutting out a snowflake. Then I slipped into a ruffled shirt, tight pantaloons, and tasseled boots, all of which were in the appropriate shade of grey.

I smeared baby powder across my brow and blue blush down my cheeks. I drew faint teeth across my muzzle. I brushed out a white wig until I achieved the right volume and secured it with handkerchief.

Then came the chains.

With an assortment of padlocks and skeleton keys dangling from my ensemble I practiced my spirit shuffle. Ghosts have always had a light footed swagger that I’ve so admired. I spent hours on the treadmill watching myself in the mirror.

When I was certain I’d mastered my footing I ventured out to the Reinhold estate. The Reinhold estate sat on a cliffside overlooking what was supposed to be the town of Clensington. “A Penitent God-fearing Community.” Or so the WELCOME sign read on the way up the dirt trail.

Zachariah Reinhold built his estate under the presumption that it would be the mayor’s residence once the rest of the town had settled in. The problem was Zachariah wasn’t good at networking and the townsfolk never came.

One night Zachariah called his wife Florence and nine children into the dining hall where they took communion. He had laced the wine with strychnine. It was decades before their skeletons were discovered by urban explorers. They were still sitting at the table in their Sunday bests. The property has since been abandoned, left to the crows and the vines.

Raccoons scurried into the shadows as I staggered into the entrance hall. When thunder rattled through the windows and I was certain the mansion had accepted me as one of its inhabitance.

It was time to meet the Reinholds, to ascend the master staircase and start a dialogue. I went up the steps in a series of herky jerky motions, as a sign of respect toward the residents. One of my chains got caught on a cherub carving at the foot of the railing and jerked me back down. I rolled end over end until I slid across the floor. Then a bird’s nest landed upon my cap, and the eggs ran down my face.

The Reinholds weren’t embracing me as the ally I’d wanted them to see. I wandered through the west wing, zigzagging through the trees that had sprouted through the floorboards, trying desperately to address the spirits in their native dialect, “WhoooOOOooo aaaAAAaaa whoooOOOooo.” But I couldn’t get a dialogue going.

My chains got caught on a coat of arms.

I tried to pry them free without realizing one the padlocks had gotten wedged under my collar. It tore through my waistcoat all the way down through my trousers, leaving me with nothing but the neckerchief wrapped around my head. Then I crashed through the floor and landed in the dilapidated cellar.

It wasn’t until I’d crawled my way back out onto the lawn that I realized it wasn’t my place to go moaning through those cobweb stricken hallways. It was my place to listen.

AN ESOTERIC EPIPHANY

Here I was thinking I was embracing ghost culture, but I was really just appropriating it. Each footfall I’d taken into the Reinhold estate drove them further and further from the realm of the living. These disparaged deities didn’t want anything to do with me.

I was a “breather” flaunting my mortality for all to see. Worse still, the material I’d gathered would only reinforce the toxic stereotypes I was trying to challenge.

REVISING MY APPROACH

I had rethink my presentation before I went back to the house again. I needed to make it clear that I was an apparition advocate, not some thrill seeking, ghost-hunting, tragedy tourist. I needed show the spirits that I was a safe person, not a performative spiritualist who’d go reaching for the sage at the first temporal disturbance.

The first thing I had to change was my problematic outfit. While it was true to the period it was geared toward Zachariah Reinhold, the patriarch of the household, when it was Florence, the matriarch, I should’ve been dressing to impress.

It took forever to find a Victorian nightgown, tights, and slippers that fit me, but once they arrived I splattered them with motor oil. I lathered my biceps in grey body paint and drew lines down my veins in blue eyeshadow, until my arms looked like sculpted marble.

Then came the long black wig.

I hit the Stairmaster hands-first, with my palms on the peddles, and refined my crawling motion in the mirror.

I was almost ready, but I had to perfect my ghostly vernacular or my in intentions would remain unclear. “WhoooOOOooo aaaAAAaaa whoooOOOooo.” Was not a suitable greeting. I had to evoke a lower register, like the gurgle of a mother whose strychnine exposure lead to slow and painful raspatory failure.

PHANTASM OUTREACH PHASE 2

In no time I was back in the Reinhold estate at the foot of the master staircase ready to have another go at meeting the residents. I crawled, foot over shoulder, one step at time. Erosion had warped the wood’s dimension and the effort proved more challenging than it on the Stairmaster. Still, I let out a long low gurgle. Groaning with a wig seeping into my throat proved challenging, as did crawling in oil based body paint, but I managed.

I stood at the head of the stairs and attempted to stretch a knot in my back without breaking character. When I turned toward the hall I saw Florence Reinhold staring at me from around the corner. Her straight black hair hung in front of her face, just as mine did. Her head was bent at a right angle and her ear was grazing the ceiling. Her feet were pointed downward. She was floating.

I was relieved to find I wasn’t filled with an overwhelming urge to slide down the railing and dive into my two-seater smart car. Instead I merely bowed.

When Florence gurgled her head shook like a maraca. I took the intonation to mean. “What are you doing here?”

I explained that I was an author and that I was there to listen and learn so that I might share her unique experience with the world.

Florence sunk her long nails into the baseboard until a crack shot across the woodwork, ceiling tiles rained down, and burst into powder all around me. Florence gurgled. That gurgle became a moan as her jaw clicked free of its hinges one by one. When her jaw sunk down to her chest that moan had grown into a howl. It rippled through the wallpaper, sent cracks through the windows, and shook the estate to its very foundations. Then her jaw retracted, clicked back into her face, and she floated off into the dark recesses of hallway.

I took that long protracted moan as Florence’s blessing and you have her to thank for what you are reading.

Ghost Illustration by Bryan Politte

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