Thursday, January 31, 2008

Haunted Hotels

What is it like to spend the night in a haunted hotel?
I can't say my experience was typical, but it might be.

It wasn't something I planned. It was an accident. We were tired. We had already had a full day sightseeing in Cornwall. It was dinner time. We only meant to stop long enough to visit the little museum honoring Daphne du Maurier and take a photo or two of Jamaica Inn as we drove through Bodmin Moor and then look for a hotel in the next major town.

I had read some of du Maurier's novels and seen the two movies inspired by the inn: Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 version of Jamaica Inn, starring Maureen O'Hara and the 1982 version starring Jane Seymour. The museum had already closed for the day, but to our great surprise, we discovered that Jamaica Inn is a working hotel. Rather than drive on, we inquired as to whether there were rooms available.

At the reception desk an earnest young man seemed apologetic that the cost was so high, perhaps sympathetic to the dollar's low value against the pound. He said the price was less if we didn't want the breakfast. Jamaica Inn is in the middle of a moor, a pretty isolated location. We assured him we would want the breakfast and the price was no more than we had paid at other hotels on our trip through Cornwall.

I was fatigued from all the walking we had done that day and had been hanging back letting my husband and our traveling companion, Mary, take the lead on the negotiations. I knew the hotel was quite old and I entered the conversation by asking, "What are the rooms like?"

"Oh, very nice," he assured me.

"Nice new? or Nice old?" I asked.

That's when he got this funny glint in his eyes. He turned to a coworker who had just come down the hall and said, "I'm going to put them in rooms 3 and 4." *cue spooky music*

After the paperwork was done, he lead us through the restaurant, behind the bar, through another door and up some stairs into the original part of the inn. As we walked down the hall, he asked me, "Are you in the single?

"No, I said," I'm in the double," and pointed back to my friend, "She's in the single." Did I sense disappointment on his part, a joke gone astray? Perhaps just my overactive imagination. We turned the corner and came to two doors facing each other across a short hall. He put a key in the lock of Room 4 on the right, knocked on the door, and then turned the key and opened it.

"Warning the ghosts," I asked? He smiled without answering and repeated the ritual for Room 3 across the hall. As he showed us around the rooms, he told us that the original parrot from the Jamaica Inn sign grew too old to stay in the hotel and now resides with him and his wife across the road in the village where apparently it adores his wife and despises him.

The bedrooms were small as one would expect in an ancient building, but adequate, with slanting floors, antique side tables or trunks, beautiful beds (ours was a 4-poster), and surprisingly large modern baths. At the time we stayed there (April 2006), they had recently completed major renovations which included modern, beautifully-tiled bathrooms, and a new wing, built to match, at least in look, the original inn. The reception area, copies an older structure which was torn down, even to copying the slant in the roof. You can see the dip in the roof  in the photo above, as well as the new wing beyond.

We went downstairs and had a marvelous dinner in the Smugglers Bar restaurant, which was busy with customers, and must enjoy a good reputation in the area. It occupies the ground floor of the original inn with the bedrooms up above and has all the low beams, wooden benches, antiques and cozy fireplaces one would want.

After dinner, as we sat on the bed and read, my husband informed me that according to the brochures, Room 3, the one across the hall, the single where our friend Mary was to sleep was reportedly the most haunted room in the inn. This left us with a slight problem: tell her or not tell her? I finally reasoned that there was a good chance nothing at all might happen, and if she knew the room was haunted, she might find it difficult sleeping, so we decided to keep it to ourselves and assume that all would turn out for the best.

As we snuggled into the bed, the rain storm that had been approaching began in earnest, and there was much banging (from what I never figured out), and doors rattling from gusts of wind and changes in air pressure, but no ghost walked through our walls and we heard no ghostly horses or wagons from ancient smuggler ghosts in the inn's yard outside the window.

I woke several times that night, but was so tired from our day's labors that each time I fell quickly back  to sleep; in fact I would have been hard pressed to stay awake, ghosts or no. I woke once and thought about getting up and going to the bathroom, which was just a few short steps away, but decided that I would rather wait until daylight than leave the perceived safety of the four-poster bed and my husband's side. The truth: I was much too chicken to put a foot out of the bed!

At breakfast, we were anxious to ask Mary about her night in Room 3, but all she would say was she heard some strange noises and pulled the covers up over her head. Whether or not the man in the tri-cornered hat that has been seen walking through the wall of Room 3 made an appearance, we shall never know. After breakfast, Mary and I wandered around the inn taking photos, enjoying the ambience of the place. We visited the smuggler's museum, which is quite interesting, with a section dedicated to Daphne du Maurier and to the novel Jamaica Inn. My husband thought we would never leave the gift shop, but we did. From there we drove out to Bodmin Moor and climbed Rough Tor, but that's another story.

So, my final assessment?  What do I think of staying in a haunted hotels? My experience was invigorating. I would do it again in a heartbeat. We didn't capture any spirits on film. The most we can claim are some odd banging noises and the sensation for me that someone sat down next to me on the bed while I was filing my nails. What I am sure of is that at Jamaica Inn, the food is excellent, the beds are comfy, the bathrooms modern (always a plus), and the atmosphere compelling.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Truth, the Whole Truth and the Relatively Real Truth

Every time I look into one of these metaphysical topics, I run into Einstein and his views and I always find myself agreeing with him. I promise I'm trying to be objective and look at other people's ideas, too, but he believed that reality, the real world, exists outside of and apart from the independent observer, even as he stated that each of us observes and experiences reality differently depending on our motion, as in standing still vs. speeding train or speed of light. Others say that truth is a construct, a communal agreement agreed upon by all parties, up for interpretation or negotiation. Ooh, the truth is what we make it? That's a tough one for me to swallow. It goes against my grain.

So, what about that search for truth? Is it necessary? Are there many truths? Can you have yours and me have mine and both of us be equally right? Did the elk bump into my son as my son perceives, or did my son bump into the elk as the elk would have it? Well, that probably doesn't matter. As Sancho Panza says, "whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock, it's going to be bad for the pitcher." *smile*

Frankly, I find people who have decided what the truth is and are looking merely to prove they are right tiresome, don't you? What if the truth is a complete surprise? Can you give up your preconceived point of view and embrace it? Change may be a constant, but it is also a constant irritant. We prefer the womb, the original nest, where everything was known and predictable and comfortable.

Whatever the truth is, I have this conviction that it is our obligation to seek it and find it and not accept any shiny fool's gold version of truth, however appealing.  Painful truths, unexpected truths, delightful truths, our lives are full of each, and then there are the mysterious undetermined truths like what are ghosts and can we determine whether they are real or the imaginary constructs of troubled minds.

I'm a mystery fan; enjoy reading them and watching them, and we all know the great detective is the one who refuses to settle for the easy, convenient truth, who rules nothing out, who examines all possibilities with as much objectivity as he or she can, and in the end, we sigh with relief, because the truth is finally out. In the game of hide and seek with truth, we are the seekers; we must always be the seekers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Certain Slant of Light

The novel by Laura Whitcomb,
not the poem by Emily Dickinson

This is the best ghost story I have ever read. I stumbled onto this book by first-time novelist, Laura Whitcomb, and couldn't put it down. I loaned it to a mature 8th grader, and she finished it and loaned it to her next door neighbor, all in the course of a weekend. From there it went to a fellow teacher. Within a week, four readers had devoured this story.

It's a ghost story, but it's also a love story: the story of two ghosts who meet and fall in love and how they free not only themselves, but two living teenagers from their own individual versions of hell.

Helen, who has been a ghost for 130 years has only been able to keep herself from being dragged into a watery hell by attaching herself to various living hosts through the years. She is lonely, but resigned to her circumstances, until she is startled by a teenage boy, a student in the English class of her current host, looking directly at her.

This is how she meets James, a spirit who has been wandering around near his former home since his death in World War I. He shows her how to take over the body of classmate, whose spirit has departed, leaving a living shell behind. They are able to be together for a while, but struggle to deal with the issues left behind and the demands of the very different families of the young people whose bodies they now inhabit. Ms. Whitcomb writes beautifully and compellingly of their love and attraction to each other and of the issues that must be settled for them to be together.

I rose and began to flow slowly away. I could feel the flutter as I passed through James––he had put out his arm, pretending to stretch, as I was leaving. We were as close to touching as one spirit and mortal could for a moment. I started to imagine putting my arms around him but was stopped suddenly by a wall of cold blocking me. Blinded, I reached up and felt wet mud, the slime of a leaking dirt cellar or the bottom of a grave. I had let Mr. Brown leave me behind. I pushed against the coldness, and it gave way in messy pieces, the chill now running down over me like rain on my face. I had no voice with which to call out. I dug through the mud, hearing students laugh, buses, trash can lids rattling. I felt cement under my feet and then the darkness was pierced with white. I was sitting in the back seat of Mr. Brown's car, the sun blinding me in the rearview window.

One reason I liked this story and why I'm writing about it here is how well and genuinely the author addressed the issue of why Helen and James had been trapped as ghosts. This remains a mystery until the last few pages of the novel, but in the end, you understand that any of us could have been similarly ensnared. This novel has a lot to say about the issues of free will, self-determination, the nature of hell and the possibility of redemption. I won't tell you how the story ends, but I can tell you that you'd better have a full box tissue handy!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Spirited Ghosts or Ghostly Spirits?

What is the difference between a ghost and a spirit? You can click on the title above to go to the Wikipedia entry for a formal discussion of the terms and the languages and traditions, the etymology of the words, but what really matters is how people use them today.

For most people a ghost is something you see. According to Wikipedia, "the term ghost has been replaced by apparition in parapsychology, because the word ghost is deemed insufficiently precise." This makes sense to me as well. Apparition, from the same root as appear. A ghost, then is what someone might see, an apparition, an image.

So, what is a spirit? Are all ghosts spirits? I don't think so. As I have mentioned in the previous post (New Year, Time Slipping), some ghosts are apparitions seen as part of a residual haunting, but incapable of interaction. They are just images of what once was. They do not possess a spirit. The spirits of the persons involved have passed on.

But sometimes the spirit is present and capable of appearing or speaking or even manipulating objects and energies. This is also referred to as an intelligent haunting. Some people may experience a visit from a loved one who has passed, but others may wander into the territory of a hostile spirit, and this can be unsettling and even harmful. The spirit may or may not be visible (a ghost), but these spirits are just as real as that which animates each of us. As you think and therefore you are, so it goes for the disembodied spirit. It is from these spirits that investigators are occasionally able to get answers to questions in the form of EVP's (Electronic Voice Phenonmenon). (*Note: it's also possible that an EVP may be part of a residual haunting.) Some spirits may also interact with investigators by lowering or raising room temperature or causing a higher energy reading on an EMF (ElectroMagnetic Field) meter.

So, we call upon the friendly spirits to be with us, hope that the spirit of a loved one may join us from time to time, but after seeing an apparition on the stairs, we will likely turn pale and declare, "I think I saw a ghost!"