Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Ghosts of Searcy State Mental Hospital

  
The first ghost story I ever wrote was about Searcy State Hospital in Mount Vernon, Alabama. When I was nothing more than a lowly graduate student, I did my internship there .I fell in love with it's history and it's white chipped walls. Everything about this old hospital spoke to me. Before I set foot on hospital grounds, my internship director, Dr. Kay Welsh, told our small group about Searcy's long and dark history. At the time, I was amazed that a place so steeped in history and tragedy could still be used as a psychiatric hospital.  It was even more remarkable because most of those who worked there and lived there every day were oblivious to it's history.  They seemed bored by the history and if you asked them about it, they seemed irritated that you would ever consider that relevant.

  Searcy State Hospital is located in Mt. Vernon, Alabama. Prior to being a state hospital the old hospital has a long and dark history that is very difficult to find, but easy to see upon casual observation. The hospital is encased in long, chipped, white walls that seem as old as anything in the United States. From outside these walls, you can see a battered watchtower that gives testament to the fact that the hospital is in the same location as a 300 year old fort. The fort bears witness to American history. It was originally a French fort and then a Spanish Fort. It switched hands during the Louisiana Purchase and became a US fort. After the US took possession of the fort it was converted to a military arsenal and became known as the Mount Vernon Arsenal.

The Arsenal switched hands again several times and was taken by the Confederates during the civil war only to be passed back over the United States again in 1862. From 1887 to 1894, The Arsenal became a Barracks and was used as a prison for the captured Apache people. The most famous of the Apache people to be held in these barracks was Geronimo. There is a door in the lobby of the old hospital that is labeled as the door to Geronimo's cell.   It is beautiful and intricate.  Sadly, history notes that Geronimo was not kept in a cell during his stay at Mt. Vernon.   He was allowed freedom to wander the barrack, so the door is just a lovely bit of folklore.  The infamous Aaron Burr was also held at this secluded prison at some point after his notorious gun fight.


In 1900, the Barracks were transformed once again and the prison became a mental hospital. Searcy hospital was built as the African American mental hospital in Alabama. Conditions in the hospital were beyond questionable and at one time there were over 2000 patients in the crowded hospital and all were seen by one psychiatrist. All patients were expected to work in the fields.  After I wrote my first story about Searcy, I learned more about the tragedies that took place here.  I got numerous emails from family members of former patients asking if I had any access to records.  Apparently, many African American families had family members taken from them, institutionalized here, and they were never seen or heard from again.  I had an elderly lady write me asking if I could find out what happened to her mother.  It broke my heart that I could not.  She said her mother had been sane but had offended a white woman. The white woman had took her mother before a judge and no one ever heard from her again.  The elderly lady just wanted to know where her mother was buried.   Searcy was a place of unspeakable sorrow.

The hospital was desegregated in 1969, but it’s history is all around it.  Searcy to me tells the story of the tragedies in mental health.  Mental Health's history is a history of stigma and bigotry.  It is a history of trying to forget people who are inconvenient and do away with those who are embarrassing or different.  In the 1960's, under the leadership of Thomas Szaz, a well meaning group worked towards deinstitutionalization and undoing the tragedies of the period when people could be locked up and forgotten.  Unfortunately, this didn't work well.  Deinstitutionalization quickly became an excuse to do away with all inpatient care and those that needed it have struggled to find it as it has become the tale of modern mental health care.  Searcy was closed for good in 2012.  Now, I work in outpatient psychiatric care and every day I have to tell people that really need more care that there is none available for them without a good amount of money.  The pendulum has swung the other direction.

A year ago, a well meaning writer called me for what I think was meant to be a gotcha moment.  She wanted to know if ghost story writers and collectors ever thought about the impact our stories have on mental health care.  I had written a book about Searcy State hospital called "Circe" and she believed a was profiting from the mentally ill. She said that we made things worse for the mentally ill by linking them to ghost stories and horror movies.  I laughed and told her about my internship at Searcy.  I told her about the ghosts that haunted the old buildings.  I told her about the forgotten patients that had been buried there.   I told her that the ghost stories could only help all of us remember that some things should not be buried, locked up or forgotten and that maybe the ghosts that haunt these places are there to remind us that we need to take better care of the mentally ill and treat them like people.   They are there to remind us of all the living mentally ill that we try to forget, cut funding for, and who now end up in jail or homeless.   Sometimes ghosts stay for a reason and telling ghost stories can help us remember those that might otherwise be forgotten.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Stone Throwing Poltergeists




Poltergeists have always fascinated me.  There are many theories about poltergeists.  In folklore, a poltergeist is the apparent manifestation of an imperceptible but noisy, disruptive or destructive entity.   Poltergeist means "noisy ghost" in German.  Poltergeist cases differ from regular hauntings in that they are particularly loud and often cause objects to move.  Physical harm to people is also possible in these cases.  One of the most interesting types of poltergeist activity was featured in my favorite novel by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hillhouse.  The stone-throwing poltergeists are rare and difficult for skeptics to explain. 

Stone-throwing poltergeist phenomena cases date back, at least, to 530 CE when it was recorded that Deacon, King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths’ physician, was besieged by stones. One of the more interesting cases of stone throwing poltergiest activity is the Grottendieck case. In 1903, a Dutch engineer living in Inodonesia, Grottendieck, awoke to a storm of rocks falling through the roof of his hut and hitting him in the head. Of course, this was concerning to Grottendieck who awoke a servant to help him figure out the origins of the rock storm. They explored the outside area around the hut and they found nothing that explained the rocks. Inside, the rocks continued to fall. They also began to change directions and started falling horizontally. Grottendieck was perplexed, but the serving boys was horrified and he ran away into the jungle.

No sooner had the boy fled than the rocks stopped falling. Grottendieck saved several of the stones and went to be. Grottendieck published a story on this incident in the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research. His hypothesis was that the stones had been sent by the ghost of his dead sister who was trying to communicate with him from beyond the grave. Many other researchers disagreed and believed that the rocks were a product of poltergeist activity brought on by the serving boy's subconscious mind. There was never any consensus on the cause of this strange case and people still conjecture as to what might have causes the strange falling stones.

In 1981, Ward End residents at Thornton Road told police they could not locate the source of stones being thrown that were causing significant damage to windows and roof tiles. The police were called in to investigate.  They staked the properties out and waited.  They stayed overnight.  They used cameras and recording devices, but despite all their work, they couldn't find any observable source for the rocks that continued to besiege Ward End.   Of course, they couldn't blame a poltergeist so they reported that the criminal must have used a long distance catapult. 

Like all other poltergeist activity, there is no consensus on what causes the stone throwing incidents in these cases.  Many believe that the stones are thrown by ghosts.  Others believe that the telekinetic powers of certain people in crisis cause these events.  Most believe that the rock throwing must be caused by some brilliant prankster who is capable of raining rocks on neighborhoods with handcrafted catapults'.  Whatever the cause, I imagine in must be terrifying to look out your window and see rocks raining from the sky.


Pere La Chaise

France is filled with beautiful, old places that whisper of ghost stories.  The French, in general, don't seem particularly superstitious.  In Ireland, I would stop and ask about ghost stories and I would find myself sitting for hours listening to so many tales I could hardly write them all down.  In France, I got looks like I had lobsters climbing out of my ears and I got the feeling most people thought I belonged in an institution.  My mother-in-law (From Brittany) would always shrivel her nose when I talked about ghosts and my friend Sonia (From "The Alps")treated me like I was half mad.  So, ghost stories are a little harder to find in France.  Despite the French skepticism, Pere Lachaise feels more haunting than any place I have ever been.  It is breath taxingly beautiful and its ghost stories are many.

The second most haunted place in France is the famous cementery, Pere La Chaise.   As far as I can tell, this necropolis is one of the most beautiful places on earth and the art lurking in the shadows of death in this strange museum put the art in the Louvre to shame.  Pere La Chaise is the most visited cementery in the world and is the final resting place of numerous famous people including Jim Morrison, Chopin, and Oscar Wilde.  The cementary is named for Louis the XIV's confessor.  Napoleon took the land and turned it into a cementery in 1804.   Since the ground wasn't properly consecrated, Catholics couldn't bury their dead at this beautiful necropolis and for many years the cemetery was small and forgotten.  At the end of 1804, only thirteen lonely graves decorated the cemetery.  The cemetery began  a marketing champagne shortly after this that was amazingly successful.  The graves of several famous people including Moliere were transferred to the cemetery and the rest of the dead followed in droves. Since that time the number of brilliant people buried there has grown over time turning a stroll through these hallowed grounds into a small history lesson.



It is not surprising that this cementary, filled with so many dead, is considered haunted.    The most popular story from Pere Lachaise is a tale of Jim Morrison's lonely ghost wandering the tombstones but other visitors report seeing spectral lights and phantoms.  There is even a children's movie called "The Ghosts of Pere-Lachaise".  The ghosts are so well known that they are appropriate for children.  This doesn't surprise me since Pere-Lachaise was my children's favorite place in Paris.  They loved running through the graves and exploring.



Friday, July 14, 2017

The Ghosts and Legends of the Cliffs of Moher


The Cliffs of Moher are resoundingly beautiful.  They are a stark and foreboding reminder of the power of nature and their juxtaposition against the stark landscape of Western Ireland can only be described as breathtaking.  But as you wander the wind torn landscape you can’t help but feel they are also deadly.   I felt this as clearly as I had ever felt the whisper of death as I walked on the cliffs last month. Looking down, I became profoundly aware that one misstep would lead to my death.   As I clutched my son’s hand, I was even more aware that he could fall and I would never see him again.  Without even knowing the Cliffs are haunted, I knew the cliffs were haunted.  I knew that over Ireland’s long and ancient history death must have been engraved in the history of the cliffs.  I wasn’t wrong.  Stories of sorrow and tragedy cling to the cliffs like they do to Golden Gate Bridge.  The cliffs have many ghosts and legends.

I found numerous stories of death surrounding the cliffs.  One story came from a young man who described the numerous suicides he has seen on the cliffs at Irish Central.  The young man had worked at the Cliffs of Moher and the years had shown him that many people go there to end their lives. He was particularly moved by a woman whose story he hear after he saw her body drifting in the tide in a red dress.

"I have reported down the years on some of the suicides at Moher. I have seen a couple of bodies away down below in the surf line after the events.
One sight that stays with me is that of a female body wearing a bright red dress, tossing and turning in heavy seas which prevented the rescuers from reaching her. I will never forget that sight.
Her story later emerged and it was almost standard for the scenario. She was a middle-aged Dubliner, with no mental or personal problems her family and friends were aware of, and she traveled down to Moher as a passenger on a coach tour.
She was missing when the party boarded the coach again after viewing the mighty cliffs and enjoying one of the most scenic vistas along the Wild Atlantic Way that has been so successful as a tourist attraction in recent years. There was no warning for anyone who traveled with her about her dread intentions."

EMG.com ranks The Cliffs of Moher as the tenth most deadly place in the world you can visit.  It is not surprising that the cliffs’ beauty have been inspiring myths and legends for millennia.  Since humankind first glimpsed the beauty of the cliff's tales have been told of them. 
  
At Hags Head, there is a tragic legend of a witch named Mal who fell in love with the hero Cuchulainn.  Apparently, love spells are useless, even in legends, and Mal’s love for Cuchulainn was unrequited and so she was doomed to follow Cuchulaiin through Ireland without any hope of gaining his love.  Mal chased her love to the Hag’s Head and there Cuchulainn leapt to a small island.  Mal was unable to follow him but tried and died at the feet of Hag’s Head.  According to legend, she was turned into the face of Hag’s Head to remind young lovers to avoid chasing foolish love.

Many mythic beings met their demise at The Cliffs of Moher.  At the Cliff of Foals, the mythic gods the Tuatha De Danann met their end.  The Tuatha De Dannann ruled Ireland for countless centuries and served as the inspiration for Tolkien’s Elves.  Sadly, Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and Christianity drove the old gods from Ireland.  Near Foal’s Head they transformed themselves into horses and hid in a cave near the cliffs.   After centuries they emerged from the cliffs and were blinded by the light and fell into the ocean.  The Cliff is still named for them. The Cliff of the Foals.
 
Another tale speaks of the lost city of Cill Stuifin.  The city sank when the king lost the golden key that opened the door to his castle.  It is said that you can see the city off of the coast every seven years.  If you keep site of it, you can walk to it, but if you turn away it will vanish in the mist.  
O’Brien Tower is one of the most notable man made structures on the cliffs.  O’Brien’s ghost is so famous that he is even featured in the local Halloween party. 

Many of the tales that surround the cliffs are legend, but you can’t help but wonder how many of those who have died at the feet of these deadly cliffs still make their home with the Tuatha De Dannan in the mists of the Cliffs of Moher.



Bibliography.
Cliffsofmoher.ie
IrishCentral.Com