Season’s Readings…The Haunting of Hill House

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“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

So begins The Haunting of Hill House, one of Shirley Jackson’s more renown works.  And a piece of literature, if you are not familiar, let me kindly introduce you.

Throw some fresh pinewood on the fire, refill your mug with tea, and have a protein snack nearby…you won’t be leaving your chair for awhile once you begin this tale.

Eleanor Vance is a quiet, unassuming “good daughter” who has cared for her invalid mother for eleven years.  Endless bowls of soup, piles of soiled laundry, and fragments of guilt have permeated every facet of Eleanor’s world.  Losing her identity after her mother dies, she goes to live with her sister, and her family, which consists of a bratty niece and a condescending brother-in-law. But Eleanor has a secret.  And a driver’s license.

After being contacted by Dr. Montague, a psychologist who is researching the authenticity of a truly haunted house, she stealthy steals  borrows her sister’s car (a car she insists she paid half to purchase) and drives to a remote location outside of Boston.  Despite her mousey appearance and servant lifestyle, Eleanor has some strong psychic abilities and the last lines of a poem logged in her soul ( “Journeys end in lovers meeting).  Ultimately, she is sustained by these two characteristics and soon arrives at the gates of Hill House.

Looking at this arrival as a vacation, which she has never experienced, Eleanor throws herself whole heartedly into the experiment at hand.  She also meets her fellow paranormal partner, Theodora, an eccentric artist who shows both sweet and sadistic sides to her personality.  Luke Sewell, a family member of the home owner’s is there to provide insurance that the house is not being trashed, appears as a slightly entitled but hapless you man who alternately flirts with and disregards Eleanor.  And Dr. Montague’s introduction is much like the benevolent wizard who controls the players; nothing to dangerous…at first, lest they lose their powers too soon.

Over drinks in the parlor, Dr. Montague  conjures images of a house with well-intentions but a detestable fate. From the carriage crash that kills the lady of the house before she ever sets eyes upon its Gothic turrets to the two bickering sisters who fought over the gilded dishes.  And of course, the unpleasantness with the caretaker…

The house also appears to change shape as hallways extend to nothingness and doors lead to rooms previously unnoticed.  As Eleanor’s distortion grows, so does her sharpened skills and perceptions.  Who is Dr. Montague, really?  Can she trust Theodora, whom she had called “cousin?”  Could Luke be her one true love who has been waiting for her at the end of the journey?  What truly is lurking just outside in the garden? And who (or what) keeps writing chalk dust messages about her returning home?

Psychologically, the story races around dark corners and into hidden passageways, providing one of the most enjoyable rides in literary fiction.  Jackson was a master of deep, inner dialogue with a passion for the black side of humanity and plays it beautifully, even beyond the final sentence.

As preserved as coffin flowers, this story rings as true at it did over fifty years ago when first published. For a devilishly delightful and atmospheric read, look no further than this tale.

Bonus: The 1962 move version is also fantastic!

Until the next storm rolls in…

Monday Morning (or When my Psyche Became Completely Wrecked).

October 12, 2015, 9:15 a.m. I’m at work. My schedule has given me a bit of free time to read the morning news.  I log on and acknowledge the barrage of political quotes and hyperbole, scan football scores and upcoming baseball games (Go Royals!) and take note of what recycled dress Duchess Kate has worn.  And then I see it…

It’s a blurb, urging me to click on the link to get more information.  There seems to be a haunted house attraction in Tustin, California which is reportedly so scary, so disturbing, so intense that visitors must sign a waiver to get in.  No stranger to the strange, the creepy, and the disquieting I went straight to the story, eager to see what it could offer.  I’ve heard of haunted houses having not only waivers but defibrillators and EMTS at the ready, due to the number of cardiac arrests and labor inducing terror these attractions to thrill seekers. I’m also familiar with the backstories that many of these haunted houses which seem to range from abandoned asylums to mansions to Satanic places of worship.  You know, places you may go on vacation 😉

But I was instantly intrigued when I read the story of “The 17th Door”.  Visitors are invited to join the main character, a young woman named Paula, as she  journeys from high school graduation into her first year of college.  Paula has dealt with many traumatic issues in her life but has decided to start fresh and chase after her dream of being a doctor.  Sounds good, right? Maybe even, I don’t know…relatable?

But very quickly, Paula’s world dissolves into nightmarish scenes of bullying, eating disorders, hallucinations, and psychosis.  These, compounded with her anatomy and physiology classes, (re: dissection, re:blood, re: organs, re: vomit) conspire to create an overwhelming amount of stress and pressure on all five senses.  Indeed, the website states that all sights, sounds, and smells are real.  REAL, people!

There is even safety word for those visitors who can not handle the terrifying psychological assault. But guess what? That word only moves them along to the NEXT ROOM! Not out of the house, but just to the next hall of horrors.  And this attractions lasts for 30 minutes.  No one is getting out any time soon.

Then I watched the trailer.  And my psyche completely dissolved. I wanted to crawl into the corner and rock away under a blanket.  My friends would say I’m into some weird, creepy stuff and know I can handle alot.  But this..

I work with the college population on a daily basis. I see them come in to pursue their dreams and watch as the next four years shape who they are going to be as adults. Some soar and are ready to tackle the working world, never changing their strides. Some go along for awhile and are challenged by what they thought they had wanted to be, but make a hug decision in the middle of their junior year. And some are haunted by their demons they thought they had locked up before they left home.  The cold tentacles of self-hate, and self-harm, reach across the years and find their victims, tightening their grips so they can’t study.  So they can’t trust others, So they become isolated.  So they can invite the demons back in  to their new lives.  And they come to me to talk about their hallucinations, their paranoia, and their suicide attempts.

The 17th Door has the real potential to raise awareness about what some people endure as a result of trauma. This perhaps innovative approach could change they way in which the haunted house attraction does business as well, by continuing to tap into fears of such mundane tasks as going to class, going to work, or aging.  The major drawback of course is how traumatized those who enter the houses will continue to become, especially if they have lived through some of these traumas.

But, that of course, is what the waivers are for.

Check it out for yourself, if you dare…http://the17thdoor.com/

May the teapot be ever whistling and the storm clouds gathering where ever you are…

The Importance of Being Earnest…ly Skeptical

draculaIn the world of the “paranormally passionate”, there exists two hemispheres of thought: the believer and the doubter.  For the sake of playing up stereotypes, the believer intuitively knows every knock, whisper, and scent is proof of the existence of communication from the other side.  There are endless conversations with ghosts, encounters with elementals, and fights for souls.  Psychics are sought and tarot cards read and horoscopes consulted if there is a burning question about future love, finances, and career changes.  They don’t question production methods when watching any reality television show dedicated to investigators prowling around abandoned hospitals who manage to witness things *just* to the right or left of the screen.  Believers have devotion that is unflappable, even in the face of derision.  Which they face. Alot.

Skeptics, conversely, look at any unexplained event as less than ghostly. Rats in the walls? A crumbling foundation? Detached retinas? There is always a logical and reasonable explanation for creepy bangs, groans, and white floating orbs.  And yes, while they may enjoy getting an adrenaline rush from being scared, they don’t necessarily believe it is anything but what they have allowed themselves to experience. In other words, they put themselves in a weird, dark place and it would be logical that they would feel heightened awareness and overly sensitive to stimuli.  These folks only use the word “haunted” when describing the famous mansion at Disney World (or Land…their choice.)

But what about those who inhabit both worlds? The Mulder and Scully mashups who eagerly search for things that can’t be seen in the daylight but don’t really expect to find anything. Or those who have no innate psychic abilities but enjoy new age jewelry and have crystals in their homes because they are aesthetically pleasing.  Where do they fit in?

O.K., full disclosure.  I am a Ghost Adventures girl. I’ve watched every season and I’ve read both of Zak’s books and Nick’s as well.  Frankly, I like my paranormal investigators slightly socially awkward and highly reactive.  “Why?” you may ask. “These do not seem to be good reasons based on, well, anything.”

And that would be true.  Except…

It’s entertaining.

I’ve watched the show evolve and the cast change over the past ten seasons and rarely does my attention waver. It’s intriguing. But do I always buy what is happening?  Really?

No.

Do I like watching people my own age engaged in a career that they love?

Yes.

Can I appreciate their earnest attempts to prove they’ve encountered the paranormal.

Absolutely. Or I wouldn’t watch the show.  My screen time is pretty limited.

Personally, I’ve had encounters that I can’t explain. I’ve also had experiences that I wanted to make paranormal when it was pretty obvious that they could be easily debunked. But have I lost my interest in researching and going on ghost tours?  Not at all.

The fact that I am an open-minded skeptic only works to keep me motivated in my own journey.  Hearing other talk about what they have seen, heard, and/or felt,( and not just through their five senses, mind you) is endlessly appealing to me and I am honored when someone chooses to share a story.

But there are always questions in the back of my mind: was the air conditioning on? Is it a highly intensive area filled with electronics?  Was it a reflection from headlights?

When doing something that brings you joy, thrills, shivers, and bountiful bushels of curiosity, pursue it earnestly.  Bathe in it, breathe it in; welcome it to your life and make room for it on your couch. But always leave room for that little voice in your mind that sounds like “ehhhh” when things don’t ring true. It’s O.K., really. They can share a litter box.

Keep an open mind and I’ll see you when the next storm brews…

Why ‘Freak Show’ Was Better Than We Thought

With the recent release of American Horror Story’s teaser trailer for it’s fifth season, I got to thinking about “Freak Show”.  Widely and resoundedly panned as the worst season yet, critics and fans found this season lackluster, with elements of ridiculousness in the storylines and missed opportunities for viral memes (“ETHEL!!!!”).

I, however, have a slightly different take.  On the scale of fearfully terrifying characters, Twisty The Clown rates about a 1,000+.  I’m going to say that most viewers felt some sort of emotional reaction when he walked through the field to find the two young lovers.  The dead shark eyes. The sinister, grinning half mask.  The filthy costume. Shudder…

Visually, the show was a cotton candy confection. The vibrancy of colors, crinolines, and creep made for a cacophony of crazy that dazzled my senses.  Brilliant liberties were taken with the music, incorporating Nirvana and David Bowie into the age of Do-Wop.  It worked. It just did.

As for the cast, in the words of a dear friend of mine(blogger at Are You Finished Yet…please check her out), “everything Jessica Lange has done in her career has led up to this.”  Truth. She is perfect. Cold-blooded and hardcore. Just how I like my femi-villians. Kathy Bates?  Incomparable.  If you do nothing but base your opinion on her Baltimore dialect.  Angela Basset, Michael Chiklis, and of course, NPH.  What can you say about a PTSD ridden soldier who can’t be without his ‘Marjorie’?  Of course, they are illuminated by the workhouse cast that consist of Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, and Naomi Grossman who have each created indelible characters.

Which leads me to my point: why this season was actually better than we (collectively) thought. The introduction of characters who live on the fringe of society because of physical limitations and the casting of actors who live with these same limitations was important.  Watching at home, one may say to themselves, “I would never treat people with that much hate, ignorance, disrespect, etc. These are good people! Just look at their backstories! They just want to be loved and accepted.”

Oh, Murphy and Falchuk, you sly devils (pun intended). Look at you always inserting social issues into blood and gore. For me, this is actually the cornerstone of AHS. From women’s issues to taboo love to discrimination, these themes are tightly interwoven with the “shock and shlock” that draws ratings. Much like pureed squash blended into cheese quesadillas, morality and awareness has been slipped into our scripted tv shows before. But I think this is a fresh application that I don’t mind ingesting.

I can’t wait to see what checks in to AHS: Hotel. So many good things happen in October…

Until the next storm rolls in…

Come To the Dark But Leave With The Light

For the billions of Christians in the world, today is a dark day, filled with time for reflection on the sacrifice of Christ.  It is humbling and mournful, and the thought of one man offering his life for the sins of generations left unborn is staggering.  But a mere forty eight hours later, the skies are lightened and church doors swing open to reveal white lilies and flashes of pink, purple, yellow, and blue.  The music is joyful as the organs, violins, and drum sets echo the good news of Jesus’ triumph over death.

Caveat: As a Presbyterian, I am usually not one to pontificate on religious beliefs or matters.  But, also as a Presbyterian, Holy Week has always been sacred.  As we are taught to confess directly to God, this is a time that allows for some self-assessment, a good dose of self-discipline and a pinch of guilt. Then, in general, I feel pretty good until Palm Sunday rolls around the next year.

My point it this:  You Gotta Take the Dark With The Intent Of Getting Back Into The Light.  For instance, I spend the month of October reading books on hauntings, listening to the soundtrack of “Nightmare Before Christmas” ad nauseum, and watching anything with the word “ghost” in the title. Even Scooby Doo.

But by November 1st I am ready to put all of the paraphilia in the closet until next year.  I’ve gorged on dark thoughts and psychological distress and, much like when you eat to may circus peanuts, delicious in their orange squishiness, I need to take a break in order to develop at taste for them again. And besides, Christmas is coming! Just in time to binge on A Christmas Story… 

Too much of despair and fear can throw your life force off balance.  Yes, it’s fun to dabble in the dark and to dip your paintbrush into nightmarish colors.  But it’s important to balance it out with Springtime rain dances, strawberries, and pastels.  Yes. Pastels do matter.

And laughter matters, too.  The tale of Edgar Allan Poe’s life is very tragic, but I want to believe he could appreciate some levity.  And what happened to Rufus Sewell.

Until the next storm rolls in…

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The Psychology Of Fear

From the time that Troglodytes realized that caves and fire provided safety from saber-tooth tigers, they began to look for ways in which they could be scared within their protective confines. And so it has been through the ages, with first verbal, then written accounts of ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, Chupacabras , Bigfoot, and the nightmare departure of Zayn Malik from One Direction, that we as a race of people have chosen to elicit a rush of adrenaline.  Why doe we love to be scared?

The first ghost story was written by Pliny the Younger, sometime between 61-112 AD. The story centered around a traveler whom, when he stumbled upon an abandoned dwelling, was accosted by a spirit. The traveler listened( seriously, he just stood there and listened politely? Must be from the Midwest) as the spirit told him he had been unjustly murdered and buried hastily. If the traveler would unearth his remains, the spirit offered to tell the traveler where he had hidden a stash of treasures.  The traveler complied and became rich beyond his wildest dreams. The moral? Be polite and listen to stories and you will be rich.  Not always in cash, but in varying levels of knowledge. Which could land you on Jeopardy…which could make you rich.  But I digress…

Arguably, the Victorian age produced some of the best and most well-known authors of horror. Ranging from Poe to Stoker with a sprinkle of James, these stories continue to inspire, titillate, and terrify new generations of readers. What would sophomore English be without random cries of “Nevermore” ringing through the halls?  And if you have not read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, get your hands on a copy.  After you finish reading this, of course.

Wait…was the word “titillate” just used?  Guess I know how to target an audience.

*SPOILER ALERT*

Yes, fear and sex are simultaneous in their physiological responses.  Flushed skin, heavy breathing, sweating…on the surface, it’s hard to tell which is which.  Theoretically, people can get off on being scared.  And it’s why so many horror flicks portray women in lingerie running away from hatchet bearing psychopaths. Remember what happens to Glen (aka Johnny Depp) in “Nightmare on Elm Street?”  Or Laurie’s friends in Halloween? Or why Mrs. Voorhees did what she did?  It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?

To be clear, I am speaking of climate controlled, completely consensual scaring.  Not harming someone on purpose, like scaring them for no reason (telling them “The Walking Dead” has been cancelled) just because you think it’s funny. I mean, sometimes it . Like when it’s not happening to you.

Case in point:  Exhibit A, the video that is linked above.  Steve G goes into some crazy scary places, but he really hates spiders and bugs.  It’s fun to watch him freak out because it’s ironic.  I would not laugh at him. With him, yes, certainly ( and I HAVE!) But not at him. He used to be a cop.

Fear, like religious teachings and hairspray, is to be used responsibly.

Until darkness falls…