Saturday, July 31, 2010

Ghost Story

I think it's time I recorded this for posterity.  Back when I was an actor, one of my first jobs was with a group called The Everyman Players.  Every summer, they performed an outdoor drama based on The Book of Job in a natural amphitheater outside of Pineville, Kentucky.  At some point there was talk of moving the play to San Antonio, Texas.  I forget why; I think there was some maneuvering going on by the local officials to use the amphitheater for something else.  In any event, the Junior League of San Antonio was considering bringing in "The Book of Job" as a classy alternative to the usual crop of summer "outdoor dramas," which generally focus on local history.  I guess they thought a nightly reenactment of the Battle of the Alamo was out of the question.

So one weekend, on their dime, we packed up our costumes, our makeup and ourselves and flew to San Antonio.  We put on the show for the potential investors and then attended the obligatory "enjoyed it!" after-party.  Then we were divided up among the Junior Leaguers who were putting us up in twos and threes for the night before getting us to the airport for the flight home the next morning.

Myself, a married couple, and another single woman were sent off with a Junior League member whose father had been ambassador to India under a recent Democratic president.  We were put up in an old carriage house that had been converted into a guest cottage.  There were three upstairs bedrooms that looked down into a living area over a central balcony -- the hole through which hay had been lowered from the hayloft down to the carriage stalls back in the old days.  You could now reach the hayloft by way of a beautiful cast iron spiral staircase which had been installed as part of the renovation.  We admired the beautiful architecture; then we had a last glass of wine with our hosts, and they bid us good night -- and on their way out, they told us not to worry about any noises we might hear during the night; it was just the ghost.

Excuse me?  Did you just say, "ghost?"

Oh, yeah, they said, but it's nothing to worry about.  In 1917, one of the female servants was in love with one of the stable boys.  He went off to fight in World War I and was killed in the trenches.  When she heard the news, she committed suicide in the carriage house and her ghost had been known to make the odd noise.  No big deal.


Our hosts went off to the main house, we went up the spiral staircase, and went to our individual rooms. Now, not to get all Dave Barry on you or anything, but I swear this is true:  Not fifteen minutes after turning off the lights, we began to hear footsteps going up and down the iron staircase.  Of course each of us assumed that it was one of us at first.  When it didn't stop, I called out asking that they keep it down and the chorus of "it wasn't me!" that followed really freaked us all out when we realized that none of us had been making the trips up and down the stairs.  We looked around, saw nothing, and went back to bed.

Things settled down and I had just fallen asleep when I heard the sounds of breaking glass coming from downstairs in the living area.  It sounded for all the world as though someone was in the kitchen deliberately throwing wine glasses and plates against the wall, one after another.  The breaking crockery was followed by loud sobbing.  Then the footsteps ran up the stairs again.  That's when the lights began turning on all by themselves.

By now the two women in our party were crying and the other guy was busy trying to calm his wife down.  I remember calling out something to the effect that I was sure that something was terribly upsetting you, whoever you are, but we had nothing to do with it.  "I am very, very sorry for your pain, but we have had a very long and terrible day ourselves," I said, "and we have to get up very early and do it all over again tomorrow.  Could you please, please, please let us get some sleep?"

There was a wall-mounted light over my bed that you could easily turn on or off while lying there.  I was quite alone in my room.  This light turned itself on for about as long as it takes to count to three, and then it turned itself off.  The carriage house was in complete darkness.  I heard the footsteps go down the staircase one last time, and then ... nothing.

The rest of the night passed without anything else happening.

We took a good look around the next morning.  There were no broken dishes or glasses.  Everything was exactly as we had left it the night before.  I took a look at the staircase to see if there was any way we could have been victimized by some kind of bizarre joke -- although why you would play such an elaborate and cruel joke on complete strangers escapes me.  There was no way the sound could have been made artificially on the staircase -- and there is no doubt in my mind that it was coming from the cast iron spiral staircase; I heard it distinctly enough to know the direction and even whether the footsteps were going up or down -- and there was nothing there.  No wires, no way to conceal any kind of a speaker.  I have been a sound designer and know a little bit about sound and special effects.  The cast iron was in a Victorian lace pattern and simply could not conceal any kind of speaker, at least not with the technology available to us in the 1970's.  The sound and lights could, I suppose, have been managed from some kind of control room elsewhere, but it was the staircase that clinched things for me:  I have to conclude that I was present at something which had no natural explanation.

We told our hosts about it the next morning.  They were quite surprised that the ghost was so active.  According to them, there hadn't been such a spectacular outburst from her in decades.  We had breakfast in the main house, met up with the rest of the troupe, and loaded up for the airport and the flight back to Kentucky.

The show never did make the move to San Antonio, nor did it stay in Pineville, Kentucky.  It wound up as part of our repertory and when we couldn't book a gig at a school for one of our children's plays, we tried to sell "Job" to a church group or synagogue to round out the tour.  We never heard from the San Antonio Junior League again, and I never found out any more about the haunted carriage house.  But everything happened that night exactly as I have described it.

As an atheist, I have no belief in the afterlife.  But I do believe that the energy we make in life can imprint itself on our surroundings if it is sufficiently intense.  And something happened that night which I have never been able to satisfactorily explain.

True story.


  1. I don't know if it is blog worthy. If it is already here point me to it, but I'd love to hear your path to atheism. A new term was introduced to me recently Ignostic with an "I" yes. I was raised Lutheran, but it never was a big deal. I went the obligatory teen atheistic, siting the weak traditional contradictions many people know. (those easily refuted by older wiser scholars) I realized I was more just anti Christian, pro anything that wasn't so doom heavy for all the fun stuff. sex drugs rock and roll. so my path to paganism was easy. Now I can not deny a sense of spirituality, nor the practical use of myth as outlined by Campbell. but as the debates for gay rights and Evolution rage in our streets and class rooms, i read deeper and while so far Paganism seems relatively dogma free, and willing to express it's weaknesses... atheism, or maybe Ignosticism looms on my practical horizon. As a magician there isn't much I've seen para-normally I can't explain. Nor with common sense science or psychology are many psychic events beyond practical sensibilities. And yet my nerd need for "fae magic" and my sci-fi need for wonder leave small doors of "what if" open that allow me to hold onto a smidge of but what about.... and so while keeping a firm grip on reality I tease the waters of the irrational, I like ceremony, I like ritual. I like that free falling sense of "magic"
    maybe it's no more then positive self talk wrapped in smoke and candles, but wish-craft....hmmm

  2. See the May entry "Atheism--My Path." It's not a Road to Damascus story -- no big revelation moment or sudden epiphany. It was just a short hop from not being able to accept Hell to finding no need for a God to explain existence.