Friday, December 9, 2022

A Goodnight for a Ghost Story

“The story has held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should be essentially be…” 

Not the words of horror maestro Stephen King, or perhaps from the legendary Peter Straub, who unfortunately passed away last year. But another genius who was not recognize in his own time, Henry James. 

James was known for such works as ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and ‘the Wings of the Dove’ , he perfectly captured a time when ~ on Christmas eve there were no presents in sight and no merriment to be had, instead it was time for a ghost story.  

Acknowledged for his literary modernism, penned the novel The Turn of the Screw’ in 1898. In his later years, James wrote what motivated him to create such a story, and it was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. James wrote in a letter to A.C. Benson, son of Edward “Your Father repeated to me the few meager elements of a small and gruesome spectral story that had been told him years before and that he could only give the dimmest account of.” 

The telling of a ghost story one Christmas Eve became one of the classic ghost stories of the Victorian Age, of all time actually.

The strange fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, wrote his Christmas time horror story ‘The Festival’. In the story, a young man returns to his hometown seeking his birthright, and terrible fates await him. Lovecraft, set the scene, as only Lovecraft could do:

“It was the Yuletide that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.”

As Lovecraft’s protagonist makes his way through the ‘shallow, new-fallen snow’ … did the young man walk there, did he take a bus or a train? Lovecraft never said, but that is not important...

The town of Kingport, a fictional town, was inhabited only in Lovecraft’s mind, like Derry in King’s imagination. The town itself becomes a minor character in the story:

 “Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.”

In ‘The Festival’ there is an encounter by firelight that changes everything. 

All the world is familiar with Charles Dickens immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the story, the central character Ebinezeer Scrooge is visited by three specters, although Dickens used the word “haunted” by these apparitions, which is nearer to the truth. 

As the ghost’s paint pictures of Scrooge’s life in the past, present, and the future, he is struck by certain dread. In the final haunting, Scrooge witnesses the last of the spirits that is pointing to a lonely site: 

“A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place! The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.” 

In this tale, Scrooge makes amends saying:

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

Scrooge avoids his fate, a desolate early grave.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most ghostly tales you can tell at Christmas that has a happy ending. 

But there is no happy ending for The Turn of the Screw’:

“ … the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him-- it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

Happy Christmas everyone …. Time for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Spiritualism and Feminism

For the past few months, it has been my pleasure to be giving nighttime tours by lantern light at the beautiful Villa Montezuma in San Diego, CA.  At the end of the tour, we gather in the music room and I give a talk on what is Spiritualism. One of the points that I try to make is the importance of the women’s movement and Spiritualism and how they went hand-in-hand with each other during the Victorian time period into the 20th Century. The Fox sisters and their famous spirit communication in Hydesville, NY in 1848 will start a movement that is still going on today. Their alleged rappings from a spirit caused a sensation and people from all over came to witness them in action. This would only be the beginning.

Starting in the mid nineteenth century, sentiments were changing about mainstream religion and places such as upstate New York became an epicenter for alternative spirituality. Groups such as radical quakers, who believed that all were equal despite race or gender started to embrace facets of Spiritualism and these ideals will carry into other circles. 

As Spiritualism grew, women took to the forefront of the movement and séance circles and Spiritualism churches started to grow. Abolitionist and social activist Sojourner Truth, herself a freed slave, will embrace Spiritualism and will be the leader of a Quaker community known as Harmonia in 1857. Truth will be a great orator for the equality of both African Americans and Women’s rights during the mid to late 19th Century. The Civil War only made Spiritualism more attractive to many after the carnage of the war left great scars upon America. When Willie, the favorite son of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, passed away from typhoid in 1862, Mary started to hold seances in The White House in hopes of communicating with their son.

One of the most fascinating and controversial women of the movement was Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was a sideshow clairvoyant and through her oration skills and her business savvy, became the owner of the first woman-owned stock brokerage house as well as the first publishing house. Woodhull also ran for President of the United States in 1872. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass. Though this presidential run was more of a publicity stunt than an honest run for the White House, Woodhull held center stage in both Spiritualism camps and American politics. 

So, why are these women lost in obscurity? The answer may be found in the records of Spiritualism themselves. The Spiritualist movement had no leader and no true tenets or testaments of faith. There is no roster of followers and so there is no true number of how many followed this alternative spiritual movement. People interested in the history of the feminist movement may be familiar with Sojourner Truth and Victoria Woodhull but so many more are lost in the annals of time; the small voices that had a roar in the circle of Spiritualism and women’s rights. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Deep - a blend of history, magic and storytelling

Welcome to The Deep? The Deep is a mixture of bizarre magic and dark storytelling built around disasters on the water and the superstition of sailors. During The Deep we will commune with the dead using arcane artifacts and unlock secrets long forgotten as we make our way through time and space and make connections with those who have passed beyond the veil. Come with me, Charles Spratley, historian, paranormalist, and storyteller, as we plunge into The Deep.

Saturday, August 27 at 2:30pm

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum
600 Sampson Way (Berth 84, San Pedro, CA 90731

$59.95 includes presentation, admission to the wonderful museum, and very light refreshments

Please note: All sales are final. There are no refunds or exchanges, but you are free to give your spot to a friend if you are unable to attend

Monday, May 30, 2022

On Jinn

I would like to take a moment, my dear friends, to talk about the Jinn. I had the honor of doing a lecture at Chapman University a couple years back on the subject but I believe it is worth revisiting due to its immense subject matter, as well as it is a great platform for me to address how the rest of the world looks at the paranormal in general. 

Jinn are best known as an Arab or Islamic phenomenon even though it predates Islam by hundreds of years. The jinn is a spirit creature, not a ghost, and can possess great power. According to ancient beliefs, jinn are created by God. For as man was created by clay, jinn were born of smokeless fire, or the hot desert wind. Traditionally, there are five categories of jinn: Jann, Jinn, Shaitan, Ifrit, and Marid.  Jann and Jinn are sometimes interchangeable and is a collective term for various types of jinn. Jinn may be good or evil, except the Shaitan, which are always evil for they are the chief servants of Iblis (think of Iblis as the equivalent of Satan in Christianity). Marids are the most powerful of the jinn.  But not all jinn are evil, and some can be quite good. There are stories of jinn who become Jewish or even Christian and have human spouses and children. Some may even shape change with the most common shape being the snake and the least being the wolf.

The jinn are believed to haunt dark places and desolate locales in the desert. One would think that the Bedouins would be frightened of the jinn, but they are usually thought of as the most knowledgeable and the least afraid of these spirits of the air. One of the most well know jinn stories that I have come across involves the Queen or Mother of all jinn, Aisha Qandisha (there are many spellings for this, I chose one of the most common). She is viewed as the Lilith character in Morocco, giving birth to the jinn. Another famous story is the story of King Solomon from the Old Testament. Not only is it told in occult circles that Solomon used jinn to build his beautiful temple but that the beautiful queen of Sheba was half jinn and that Solomon laid a trap for her in hopes of seeking out her true identity. But the most well-known jinn is the one that most people are familiar with thanks to popular media, Pazuzu. Pazuzu was made famous by the movie the Exorcist, and portrayed as a demon in possession of a young woman. The problem is that Pazuzu isn’t a demon, he is a jinn. He struck terror in the hearts of the city dwellers of Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Uruk, Akkad as well as other cities in ancient Samaria over 6,000 years ago. Pazuzu is first mentioned by the Sumerians and is later identified in Assyrian and Babylonia mythology as the son of Hanpa. 

Another type of jinn which is well known in the West is the ghoul or ghoula. These jinn inhabit desolate places such as graveyards or abandoned cities and sustain themselves on human flesh. It is no wonder George Romero didn’t use the word zombie in his original Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Romero used the term ghoul, much more fitting than the shambling hordes that we see on movies and television today.

The stories of jinn have been around for thousands of years and permeate our literature and even our religious texts. Jinn take the place of ghosts in Arab society, and most likely a haunting is not that of a deceased person, but it is that of a jinn. Given the stories that I have heard over the years, I would cross the desert with respect and reverence, and beware the hot desert wind of the jinn.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Dark Angel

Every great once in a while, my regular studies and my pursuit of the strange and unusual collide, and this week has been very fortuitous. As many of you know, I am going back to school, working on an advanced degree in history, and I am putting together an academic paper on the history of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to cover this subject thoroughly you need to cover the early designers of rocketry, going back to before the Second World War, and one of the most brilliant, yet infamous, designers was John Whiteside Parsons, also known as Jack Parsons. Parsons and his friends of fellow scientists were students at Caltech in Pasadena, and in the late 1930s picked up the interesting moniker of “The Suicide Squad” due to the less-than-safe early chemical propulsion experiments they conducted. This forced them to go to the nearby canyon, the Arroyo Seco (remember this from a previous article), to conduct their work.  Their work became extremely successful and it was Parson’s designs that earned him and fellow scientists grants which helped them start up JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. 

So where does this become weird? What many do not know is Jack Parsons was the head of a lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an esoteric group of mystics that started in the 1920s under Aleister Crowley. For those of you, who are not familiar with occult studies, Crowley’s name may not ring a bell, but if you look him up, you will be surprised. Crowley was a very unusual man who was famous for his esoteric writings and studies in magick, particularly sex magick. Parsons joined the OTO in 1940 and was the head of their lodge by 1943, with the aid of Aleister Crowley, who wrote to him and gave him guidance.  If you want to know a different side of Parsons, here is an entry from the diary of Jane Wolfe, a silent film actress and disciple of Crowley:

Unknown to me, John Whiteside Parsons, a newcomer, began astral travels. This knowledge decided Regina [Kahl] to undertake similar work. All of which I learned after making my own decision. So the time must be propitious. Incidentally, I take Jack Parsons to be the child who "shall behold them all" (the mysteries hidden therein. [Liber al [vel Legis,] [Chapter] 1, 54-55). 26 years of age, 6'2”, vital, potentially bisexual at the very least, University of the State of California and Cal. Tech., now engaged in Cal. Tech. chemical laboratories developing "bigger and better" explosives for Uncle Sam. Travels under sealed orders from the government Writes poetry — "sensuous only," he says. Lover of music, which he seems to know thoroughly.

Okay, Parsons might be a little off his plane of axis, but I really haven’t gotten to the truly strange part of the story yet. Jack Parsons had an unusual house guest in 1946. A house guest by the name of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Parsons and Hubbard were known for throwing these large lavish parties that frowned upon by the older genteel folks of Millionaire’s Row, the street on which Parsons resided. Parsons and Hubbard supposedly worked on magick together in the Mojave Desert on something occultists refer to as the Babylon Project. Honestly, the more I read about their relationship, the more I am concerned about the veracity of the sources and feel that the writings are more propaganda or smear campaign on Parsons but more likely Hubbard. Hubbard will eventually run off with Parsons’ on again/off again girlfriend Sara E. Northrup (of the Northrup-Grumman aeronautics company) and they will marry in 1946. 

What happened to Parsons? In June, 1952, while working on an experiment in his home lab, an explosion went off, taking off part of his face and blowing an arm off. He was rushed to the hospital but later succumbed to his injuries. There were speculations about murder and suicide but nothing truly concrete. There was a syringe found on scene with morphine, raising suspicions that Parsons was narcotized. It was eventually ruled an accident. So, we close a chapter on the history of aviation and the Space Race with the brilliant, and disturbed, mind in rocketry, Jack Parsons. Occultist and founder of JPL, one of the greatest think tanks of scientists to this day. Hubbard? I don’t know…I think he wrote some books….

Friday, December 24, 2021

Colorado Street Bridge- Suicides and Alleged Hauntings

As I branch out of my usual norm of territory and start looking at unique locales to write and share about, I sometimes forget about places that are in our own backyard. Locations that are filled with unusual history, mystery and of course, the macabre. If one travels to LA, you may find yourself traveling through Pasadena, an old community with a flair for fine food, fantastic shopping, and of course the Rose Parade and Bowl game. But there is a darkness that surrounds this city, and that darkness comes in the form of a bridge. Not just any bridge, but a magnificent structure built in 1913 at the Princely sum of $235,000 and stretches almost 1,500 feet across the Arroyo Seco. It is a beautiful expanse of concrete and steel and speaks of a time long ago when architecture was both functional and aesthetically pleasing. But over the decades, it has acquired a different reputation, and a nickname, “Suicide Bridge”. The first suicide was Smith Osgood, a seventy-year-old resident of Huntington Park. Before leaping to his death, he slipped a note to a passerby that read

“Please telephone at once GG Wheat, undertaker, Huntington Park, to send for my body and prepare for its cremation. I am about to make the leap from your beautiful Colorado Street bridge. Farewell, beautiful Pasadena! I Loved you so well!”

By 1929, the Colorado Street was being called its new infamous moniker when its 25th victim, Mrs. Bessie G. Hayes jumped to her death. This was the year the city started looking at the issue of the suicides and even contemplated putting in nets to catch potential jumpers, but no action was taken. The turn of the decade and the Great Depression simply amplified the amounts of deaths. In 1933, there were nine jumpers, followed by ten in 1934. In 1935, there were 12. The cross section of people that took their life varied and people from all walks of life came to the Arroyo Seco to end it all. In all, it was believed that 79 people used the Colorado Street Bridge in the 1930s. Up to date, we are looking at around 150 suicides since its construction.

So why do people seek out this bridge, or any bridge for that matter? The finality of it all comes to mind. The commitment taken from the moment the feet leave the concrete. Is not that same commitment made with the pulling of a trigger or some other nefarious means? Is there something “romantic” in the lure of jumping off of a bridge such as the Colorado? Of course, somewhere along the line, someone had to attach a suicide story dating back to the 1890s in which a young Mexican girl leapt off into the canyon, thus creating a story not unlike that of a siren, luring people to this final destination. Another ghostly legend attributed to the bridge was during its construction, a worker fell from the bridge into a vat of cement and could not be rescued and so this hapless worker became the first victim of the concrete and steel expanse. That, though, is not entirely true. Charles Johnson, along with another worker, John Visco, fell when scaffolding they were on collapsed. Johnson, who fell into the vat of wet concrete was injured, but survived. Visco, sadly fell to his death and landed in the creek bed below. 

Is the famous bridge indeed haunted? Possibly, but just like any location that is linked with such notoriety, it carries its stories of specters as well. I spoke to one author who writes paranormal fiction and he commented of the intense energy that the bridge has underneath it due to the number of suicides. Another paranormal group wrote on their blog of recording EVPs of children talking and that of a woman whispering, “I’m sorry”, underneath the bridge and even stories of spectral buggies spotted in the canyon below. I myself has walked the bridge many times and can tell you that there is indeed something…interesting about the bridge. Several spirits have been reported walking the bridge, including a young man with wire rimmed glasses and a woman in flowing robes. These tales bring paranormal investigators from all over the Southern California area in hopes of gathering potential evidence for their files. 

As a final footnote, I wanted to share some statistics that you may find interesting before you become too awed with the amount of death surrounding the famous Pasadena landmark. My home town of San Diego has the famous Coronado bridge which spans the San Diego Bay. It was constructed in 1969 and has had over 400 jumpers. The Golden Gate Bridge, which was finished in 1937, has had over 1,600 suicides. The Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto, Canada, built in 1918 has had over 500. Pasadena may feel that they have a dark spot in history, but they are not alone, nor are they truly very special. 

Monday, November 1, 2021

Music to Die For

It is interesting how much music influences our mood. It makes us remember times gone by, loved ones that have passed, and of course sing along to as loud as you can, no matter how bad you sound. But can music make you want to die, and may it even lead to it? Perhaps. Originally composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress, in 1933, the original name for it was “Vége a világnak” or The World is Ending. László Jávor, a poet, penned his own lyrics to it to portray a protagonist that contemplates suicide after his lover’s death. This piece would become immortalized under the name of “Szomorú vasárnap” or Sad Sunday. It would be recorded in 1935.

In 1936, an English version of the song would be recorded by two different performers, but it would be Billie Holiday and her recording of it in 1941 that would make it famous as The Hungarian Suicide Song. A Time magazine article published in March 30, 1936 outlines the series of deaths that the song had on the public after its release. Several shot themselves while others jumped into the Danube clutching the sheet music to the song. 

I couldn’t find any references to people committing suicide due to the English version performed by Holiday but it was banned by the BBC for an extremely long time. Did the British fear the power of this emotionally depressing piece, or was it that it was published in 1941 and would be bad for morale during the war? Either way, Sad Sunday or Gloomy Sunday as it is also called, will go down in history as the song to die for. Oh yes, Rezső Seress? Committed suicide.

Sunday is gloomy,

My hours are slumberless

Dearest the shadows

I live with are numberless

Little white flowers

Will never awaken you

Not where the black coach of

Sorrow has taken you

Angels have no thought

Of ever returning you,

Would they be angry

If I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday,

With shadows I spend it all

My heart and I

Have decided to end it all

Soon there'll be candles

And prayers that are sad I know

Let them not weep

Let them know that I'm glad to go

Death is no dream

For in death I'm caressing you

With the last breath of my soul

I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday