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Vampires! Ghouls! Candidates!

The presidential election as a haunted hayride

By Josh Potter

Something special always happens this time of year. After a protracted season of debate and deliberation, we get to choose from a host of characters representing all walks of life (and death) whom we want to dress up as for Halloween. Every four years, though, something truly extraordinary happens to the citizens of our nation: With the holiday and the election less than a week apart, major-party candidates (and the occasional Ralph Nader) become viable costume options. Halloween provides the perfect forum for voters to make light of the political passion play while simultaneously rocktobering the vote. In return, the election season gives Halloween the chance to be halfway relevant.

This, it seems, has been a banner election cycle for the Halloween analogy. With a zombie-like candidate, rabid rallies, self-mutilating supporters, a six-figure costume to conceal its VP nomination’s reptilian identity, smear campaigns that assign the tag “terrorist” to the listing for a mask of its challenger, and a platform that relies on dread, fear and misinformation, the Republican ticket has been riding the holiday spirit straight to its grave. Obama is burying McCain in the polls, but if there’s one thing we have learned from both scary movies and the democratic pro cess, it’s that no one is safe until the sun comes up. I have never met anyone who’s taken part in a Gallup poll, so when I heard that Scary Harry’s Haunted Hayride at the Double M Western store in Ballston Spa included a political debate where guests were asked to support their candidate to the death, I knew this would be the best election projection I could find.

My guide’s name was Evil and my driver’s name was Bill. Evil wore a long black robe and spoke through a toy megaphone that distorted her voice. Bill wore jeans and drove the tractor, which was dubbed Unforgiven. I’d been led through the busy main way by Leo, the event’s organizer, who stopped from time to time to give orders to his blood-drenched constituents. This, he told me with a gleam in his eye, was the best year yet. Thousands came through on a nightly basis, and the hayride’s political component drove visitors absolutely wild. When asked which candidate revelers tended to prefer, he said I’d just have to wait and see.

There’s a saying in some circles that I haven’t heard get much play during this election: As the girl scouts go, so goes the nation. Lucky for me, the wagon was filled with 20 to 30 girl scouts. The tractor lurched forward, and with a scream we were off.

A hooded sentry stood guard over the entrance to the underworld, where, he warned us in the torchlight, only the most maniacal demons presided. If we survived, we would find new appreciation for our meager existence. If not, we would be lost in the darkness forever.

Like the primary season, the hayride began with gleeful anticipation. When zombies emerged to suck out our brains, the girl scouts squealed and huddled, like pandering politicos, to the center of the wagon. Black-lit limbs dangled from a haunted sawmill where the deranged miller tried to court a human sacrifice. When no candidate was proffered from our party, the voyage continued. Vampires emerged from a smoking hearse, cowboys attempted to rob us of our gold, and the headless horseman himself followed the wagon on his snorting steed.

But by the time we’d entered Haddonfield (Michael Myers’ hometown), it was like that dull period at the beginning of the general election where each party has its nomination (the girls had decided whom their human sacrifice would be, if it came to this) and its platform (that the whole thing is really more farce than fright).

My butt was sore and my feet were cold when the podium came into view. Evil announced that we were approaching the scariest place in the entire underworld. Barack Obama and John McCain were locked in eternal debate. In front of a big American flag, the two rubber-masked candidates waved to the passing wagon. When McCain threw an elbow to Obama’s chest, knocking him to the ground, the girl scouts booed. From the floor, Obama tugged McCain’s ankle until he tumbled from the podium. A unanimous cheer rose from the wagon, and as Obama stood and waved in his grinning mask, a chant of “O-bam-a!” broke out among everyone, even Evil herself.

And so it was decided; but like those final excruciating weeks after the final presidential debate, where every competent, conscionable voter has already decided and yet campaigning continues, we had several stops to make before the hayride was over. If a haunted hayride can stand as the best folksy barometer of how the nation might vote on election day, then this particular hayride was wise to hedge its bets. Before one may exit Scary Harry’s underworld, they must first de-wagon and find their way through the Redneck’s Revenge trailer park maze. Now, maybe I’m reading too far into this political analogy, and in so doing confirming every Republican allegation of “elitism,” but when a particular slack-jawed yokel warned me to get off his lawn before he popped my eyes out and “stuck ‘em on a shish-kee-bawb stick,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of McCain’s domestic agenda.

The girl scouts’ vote may keep momentum moving in Obama’s direction, but whether or not we’ll survive to see morning will be determined not on Oct. 31, but rather on Nov. 4.

Ghost Trusters

With instruments and meters and abiding faith in the spirit world, paranormal investigators try to communicate with the dead

By Chet Hardin


I’m thinking about the ghost of my grand father, who haunted my childhood home until I was 11 years old. When I was 11, I stopped believing in him, and he stopped haunting me, but he never stopped haunting my mother; to this day she still sees him in the shadowy corners of her Victorian farmhouse or when she wakes up sweating from a nightmare. She still feels him, too. When she is watching late-night TV. When it is quiet and dark and my sisters are asleep in the next room. To my mother, her father’s ghost, like Heaven and Hell, is real.

I discarded my beliefs in ghosts and goblins and fairies and make-believe like trifles along a hard-packed trail of epiphanies and disappointments, yet I held on to my grandfather’s ghost as long as I could rationalize the failing logic. Out of my sense of family mythology, out of my devotion to my mother and grandmother, I tried to keep alive—in the creeks and snaps of a house in slow-motion collapse—a deeply loved patriarch who died before I was born. His afterlife became the focal point of my family’s religion, and to give up on that was to give up on my mother’s faith. I gave up on gods not long after.

There is a wire hanging from the old, unused pulley system, and we are gathered around it, watching it not move. It is the instrument that Rob McDonough and his fellow paranormal investigators—ghost hunters—have chosen as the means for communicating with the dead. They are members of the Northern New York Paranormal Research Society, conducting an investigation in the abandoned third floor of the Irish Mist restaurant in Troy.

McDonough is reading from a notebook, speaking directly to the spirit that he thinks he has found hidden in the ephemera of the dusty air, asking the spirit to give them a sign, to not be afraid, to move the wire. Telling it or him or her that we aren’t here as enemies, but as friends, and kin.

“I know that you are afraid,” he says. His voice is hushed and serious, stern but respectful. And full of belief.

It is early in the investigation, but well after midnight. McDonough and the others have worked themselves into a state that shares a similar appearance to religious revelry, and this is their ceremony. They are supplicants with meters to read heat signatures, temperature changes, humidity fluctuations, and electromagnetic fields. They have rigged infrared cameras and audio recorders throughout this floor and the abandoned fourth floor. They are determined to capture paranormal clues with rudimentary tools that measure basic environmental changes, as that is the limit of their science.

“I felt something,” one says, as nothing brushes against him. Another one feels a chill, and everyone, even me, shivers and scans the near blackness. McDonough continues reading his questions. We all wait, expecting that someone, somewhere, in some other form that we can’t see is now trying to reach out to us. Is wandering among us.

But the wire never moves.

“We are all looking for proof of the other side,” McDonough says. “Right now, there is not an exact science that proves that it is there, but that is one of our goals.”

McDonough goes on to tell me that there is a story that he won’t tell me. It is his moment of awakening to the paranormal. Then he says, he will tell me this: Don’t be afraid if a spirit touches you, physically. Don’t be afraid if it hits you, or throws a rock at you. He has been punched, he says, by a ghost many times.

But he doesn’t want to go into the details—until 20 minutes have gone by, and he is back by my side. He tells me that he began believing in ghosts after his father died, and anyway he doesn’t want to talk about it. He stops talking. He is cataleptic for so long, I blink. And then he asks, innocently enough that I smile, if we can “go off the record?” He tells me a story that is as disconcerting and frightening as any horror film, acted out as a lonely auteur in front of his terrified audience, which, for him, were his teenage daughters and wife.

“I went through eight months of hell,” he says, back on the record. “Hell. On a daily basis. I had something bad happen to me that no one could help me with. I went to several priests, and no one could help me. I had several questions . . . I even started drinking.”

“I had a CAT scan done, I had an MRI done, I had a spinal tap done. I had every blood test you can think of done, every cancer test that you can think of.” He was 36. “My ex-wife thought that the symptoms of what was happening to me was a sign of brain cancer, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with me.”

“I am an Irish Catholic, you either go to Heaven or you go to Hell. It is horrifying. My whole belief system got shattered. If you are here, and you are dead, why are you here? If you aren’t in Heaven or Hell, then why are you here? Why? Why?”

No wonder, I think, that he needs these infrared cameras and doodads, humidity detectors and the scientific jargon, and the community of fellow paranormal investigators who put value in quantifying their shivers. It is to ballast his sanity. It is to explain an unknown terror that has paralyzed his faith. I understand this, laying your belief in an afterlife on the myths of the unknown thing that goes bump in the night. I came to terms with my dead patriarch mythology 20 years ago. McDonough is still trying to come to terms with his.

Scary Thoughts

Halloween can be a night of magic and mayhem, but are our fears draining the value from this ancient celebration?

By Kathryn Geurin

The customs of Halloween celebration have been shaped over miles and millennia, but its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain remain familiar today. The ancient Gaels believed that on Oct. 31, the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurred, and the dead became a danger to the living. Samhain festivals were an attempt to appease the dead with bonfires and offerings left on doorsteps. Masks and costumes were worn to mislead, mock, or mollify the spirits. Halloween, in all its shifting incarnations, has always been a night when communities came together to stand against their fears—and overcome them.

So why has Halloween become a night when our collective fears send us swaddling our children and skittering inside?

Warnings about the dangers of Halloween abound. Parents are cautioned: Halloween is haunted by kidnappers and pedophiles; candy is laced with poison, packed with pills and pins and razor blades; those smiling pumpkin pails contain high levels of lead; costumes burst into flames. Nationwide, schools—even towns—are banning Halloween, because it’s just too dangerous. Fliers and Web sites suggest that the safest place to celebrate is inside, at the home of someone you know. “Be sure to do a search for the addresses of all the sex offenders in your area,” reminds one. Another warns against the perils of Halloween decorating and insists that flameless, battery-powered votives should be used in Jack o’ Lanterns to prevent candle fires.

Over and over and over again, the terrible word stranger looms above parents and children like a scythe.

Twenty-eight and barely two weeks married, with no kids of my own, I feel much too young to be writing of Halloween with an air of nostalgia. But the world, it seems, can change around us faster than we’re prepared to change ourselves.

When I was little, we’d suit up in our homemade costumes, hit the sidewalks with our pumpkin pails and pillow cases, and venture up the stoops of friends and neighbors who greeted us, usually, by name. One wizened old woman (whom we had, once, theorized might be a witch, since she rarely came out of her storybook brick-and-stone house) would usher us in out of the cold, and warm us up with hot cider and fresh popcorn balls. The air on every stoop was thick with the sweet, earthy smell of scorched pumpkin, as the candles slowly baked the Jack o’ Lantern roofs.

I was an only child with a hyperactive imagination. I could find magic in a mud puddle and an imminent threat to my life in a goldfish. I was struck in equal measure by overwhelming awe and overwhelming fear. So, needless to say, I was the perfect audience for novel Halloween scares. Every year the town fire department threw a Halloween party, complete with treat bags and a haunted house. To this day, I vividly remember screaming in terror when a shadowy ghoul reached out at me from the dark corner of the haunted corridor. I stood paralyzed and crying, this pretend world whirling around me, until an arm reached out and pulled me along. When I felt that familiar fatherly grip, the strong hand on my shoulder, the scratchy sweater wool against my cheek, things swirled back into perspective, and I braved the rest of the tunnel by his side. He made me feel safe, and strong enough to push aside my fear.

I was sure, in the dark, that it was my father. But when we emerged into the light of the firehouse, I didn’t recognize the face smiling down at me. “See, you’re OK,” he said, and with a pat on the back, he sent me, fully recovered, back into the throng of kids and music and candy.

A stranger.

That’s what Halloween has always been about. About community. About protection. About learning to face your fears. And sure, about dressing up, and candy, and imagination. It’s fun, it’s silly, and it’s deeply important.

Life is scary. There is danger out there, and there is fear lurking in each of us. We can try to protect our children from danger. If they’re heading out trick-or-treating, go with them; bring flashlights. Teach them to be safe around fire. Teach them that not everyone is good.

But teach them that most people are.

We can protect our children from danger. But we can’t protect them from fear. And we shouldn’t. The things that frighten them in the big, bad, grown-up world likely won’t be haunted-house monsters and killer goldfish, but it’s those childhood fears that prepare them to face whatever frights the future hurls at them. And hiding them inside with people they already know, on Halloween or any other night, isn’t going to prepare them for much at all.

And as for our grown-up fears that kids are in perpetual danger? University of Delaware sociology professor Joel Best has plowed through more than 50 years of evidence searching for instances of children being poisoned or injured by Halloween candy. He found one. A boy was poisoned by his own father, who later told the police he thought he’d never be caught “because strangers poison Halloween candy all the time.”

Strangers. That scary word. But is the problem that strangers are a danger to our children, or is the problem that our neighbors have become strangers? Perhaps if we made the trek up those steps, knocked on those doors, and met each other with the giddy honesty of a 5-year-old in a chicken suit, the world would seem a little less scary.

And I, for one, still love the smell of candle-scorched pumpkin. Twenty-eight Jack o’ Lanterns under my belt, and I’ve never once burst into flames.

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