Listening to the Halloween edition of Free Talk Live today, while the host trots out some accounts of Ghost Hunters and their exploits in New York and New Jersey to laugh at.
I’d like to say up front that I am not a believer; but having had experiences with what most people refer to as spirits, experiences that I cannot explain, I can’t dismiss the possibility of the paranormal. (More on that in a bit)
Ghost Hunters is a weekly show on the SciFi channel, they are in their third season. The episode with the theater and an orb of light that was discussed and laughed about on air was one where (contrary to the jokes) they debunked any claims to paranormal activity. If I remember correctly, the owners were actually relieved that there wasn’t evidence of anything occurring. It wasn’t something they were comfortable with.
It became painfully clear early in the radio show that the subject of the paranormal did not fall on sympathetic ears, as anyone who called with experiences that they tried to explain, or factual data (in the form of EVP’s) that didn’t make normal sense were immediately attacked with questions like “why aren’t there any real scientists working on it” calling into question anything not done by licensed professionals (a very un-libertarian stance for a libertarian talkshow) as if gov’t approved professionals were the be all and end all on any subject. The scientific method can be followed by anyone, whether they are a scientist or not.
James Randi and his million dollar challenge came up several times. The Amazing Randi isn’t offering a million dollars just for proof of the supernatural, he’s offering a million dollars for reproducible proof. Since the phenomena in question cannot be reproduced at will, there is no way to make a claim for the million. Randi is a debunker, and he’s particularly vicious when he’s debunking. I wouldn’t volunteer to be subject to the type of ridicule that would follow such a claim, not for several million.
The Wife’s father could witch water wells. All the farmers in the area swore by him. When his partner wanted a well dug, he refused to rely on that ‘water witch’ rubbish and hired an engineer to drill his well. Several thousand dollars and several hundred feet later, they hit some rather poor and slow running water that the engineers said was the best they could do. After a few months, he gave up and asked Dad to try a hand at finding better water, which he did. About 15 feet away and 30 feet down. Better water than Dad had on his property. I never saw this occur myself, and Dad has been gone several years now. I would have advised him not to try for the million.
The problem with the supernatural or paranormal is that it doesn’t reproduce itself on demand so that peers can verify the existence of this or that phenomenon. Time and again as I watch Ghost Hunters or some other show dealing with these types of stories, I think to myself “well, that could have been faked” or “this is how that chair could have moved.”
It’s all too easy to be debunked, unless it happens to you.
In my years of service in the architectural field, I have spent innumerable nights in the office, working until late in the morning hours, most times all by myself. While I was generally downtown in some not-so-nice areas late at night, I was never really afraid. I’m not a large man, but I can run fast, and I do know some basic defense tactics.
When I took a job for a firm whose office was in one of the older buildings downtown, I never really thought much about the history of the place, or the particulars of it’s location, or what an impact that might have on my ability to work the late hours that are generally required of architects, but it had an impact none the less.
I was struck, at first, by how quaint the structure was. Nestled against the side of an old quarry, it was backed by an old carriage house that had been renovated into offices as well. After a few weeks of work I settled into my usual routine of staying late and cranking out the work after everyone else left. Gradually I noticed that everyone else tended to leave earlier than usual in the evening; earlier than usual for an architectural office.
After a week or so, I noticed that the place started to feel less quaint, and more threatening, especially at night. I kept hearing people walking, when I knew I was alone in the building. It really started to get weird though, after I traded places with another architect. She wanted to move to the tiny little cramped cubicle that I was in, and was willing to give up a double sized cube space in order to do it. I thought it strange that she would want the cramped space I was in, but jumped at the chance to spread out a bit in a larger space.
Slowly, over the course of the next 12 months, a spiralling series of experiences convinced me that I was either loosing my mind, or that there was something wrong with my environment, something I could not explain.
I began to feel like someone was watching me. It wasn’t all the time, that I could have explained. Weirdly enough it was right about 7:30 pm, pretty much every night. I dismissed it at first as having my back to the floor entrance (a dog-leg stair from the upper floor) but I could not figure out why it didn’t bother me until evening time.
There were windows all around, but it didn’t feel like there was anybody outside. No matter how many times I looked, I never did catch anyone peeping through the windows. Peeping would have been hard anyway. Technically we were on the second floor above the quarry floor, but the front entrance was on the floor above and opened onto the original street that bordered the quarry. The window in my cube tended not to reflect any light off of it, almost like it opened onto nothing (the opposing building wall that was no more than 10 feet away always seemed invisible at night) which was a bit disturbing on its own.
I can’t tell you the number of times I heard footsteps on the upper floor, or walking down the stairs, only to investigate and find no one there. Once, with another architect present, we listened as footsteps appeared to walk the length of the upper floor and go right through a wall on their way out to the street.
Then there was the crowding and the touching. I kept feeling someone leaning over the back of my chair, pushing me into the desk. I kept having to consciously push myself away from the keyboard so that my arms would quit cramping. Something kept touching me on the neck, like fingers brushing across my skin.
It got to the point that I would leave as soon as the eyes started watching at 7:30. If I didn’t leave then, and stayed until the presence was in the cube with me, then when I attempted to leave I would feel as if I was being pursued. All the lights on in a clearly vacant room, and I’m terrified that there is someone who intends me harm, right behind me. Try as I might, I could not shake the feeling.
It was all I could do to make myself walk calmly up the stairs and let myself out. There was frequently an inexplicable cold spot at the top of the stairs, where the warmest air in the building should have been. As soon as I had exited the building, the feeling went away. I’m standing on a dark street, next to a vacant lot that is several feet deep in overgrowth; a place where the homeless were known to congregate, and I feel safer there than in the building.
I began to feel like there were two buildings in the same place at night. One was finished in the clear varnished oak and carpet that I was familiar with; the other was painted dark, cut into small rooms with old fashioned panel doors. Dingy little apartments. I can’t explain why I began to see this juxtaposition in space, I can only say that I did.
Once, when I heard a loud thump on the floor behind me, I spun around to find, just for a second, someone or something standing behind me. There and then gone again. I caught the same figure out of the corner of my eye a few more times after that. Ragged coat. Hat pulled low. Dirty worn out boots. Watching a door in the dark hallway. Waiting for someone. Waiting for someone with violence in his heart.
I wish I could write a fitting climax to the story, but I can’t. I was let go from the firm not too long after that time, and I haven’t had any urge to go back.
I would say that this was “the god’s honest truth”, but I don’t believe in god. It is the truth, exactly as I remember it. I didn’t believe in ghosts. I don’t know what I believe now, but I know that I can’t explain what happened in that building in the evenings. I just know that I wouldn’t stay late at work in that place again, not even if you paid me.
Editor’s note. I rewrote a part of this in a 2014 piece,
Most of my desire to see something proved on the paranormal front has evaporated with time. The most likely explanation is that perceptions in these areas are simply flawed, and we tend to believe what our senses tell us even when they are wrong. The problem remains in trying to distinguish between your perceptual flaws and the real events occurring around you. It is not nearly as easy as debunkers think it is.
For instance. While updating this note for the 2020 move to the new website, it first occurred to me that it is entirely possible that the architect I worked for at the time (Tom Hatch) was trying to scare me out of the office in order to keep me from finishing the work I needed to complete. Work that he would have really rather not had me do since the air-tight documents that I consistently produced for my projects would keep him from altering the design during the construction process.
It never occurred to me that it would be the simplest thing to fuck with me through the windows I couldn’t see out of, or bang on the floor or the ceiling in order to scare me into leaving the office with everyone else. In the end he got what he wanted, both in the documents that I produced for that project, and in the finished project that he made conform to his original designs at a significant savings to the owner. At an equally significant cost to the contractor. I’m sure the contractor still made some money on that project. At least, I hope they did. I know that Hatch did.
I left during the construction process for that project, under direct pressure from him. He wanted me out of his way. I wouldn’t act as his spokesman on the project, but instead insisted on acting as the trustee for the client, trying to make sure that the real estate they would end up owning would be worth the money they spent building it. I don’t know that Tom Hatch ever took that into account. He always seemed to be at war with the contractors and the engineers on the project.
…and I, like the parentified child that I was, stepped in between the factions trying to make some arrangement that would be acceptable to everybody, never understanding that the power was in the hands of the architect, and that the architect was going to get what he wanted one way or the other.
Hatch owned that building. Gaining access to the floors above and below his offices in the building would have been child’s play for him. I wonder if he acted alone, or if some of the others sat around laughing at me behind my back while the pranks were going on without my noticing? Or am I just being paranoid now? Who knows. It is a more likely explanation that ghosts, I’ll tell you that much.