fear that burns in a child’s imagination
We have driven an hour to the shuttered fall husk of Lake
George Village. It is pouring rain, and the two restless girls
in the backseat are eager for action. After a quick scrambling
with seat belts, hoods and zippers, we swing them, one by
one, over the raging rapids between car and curb. They splash
over the sidewalk like wide-eyed windup toys, whirling through
the rain toward our great Halloween adventure.
My husband and I are taking our nieces, 7 and 9, to the House
of Frankenstein Wax Museum, a kitschy house of horrors on
the main drag of the vacation village. The trip so far has
read like the infinite, unfurling scroll of some toga-clad
Halloween Herald—the girl’s chattering over one another about
ruby slippers and feathered headdresses, haunted houses, candy,
party and parades. Between the classic cries of “How much
longer?” and “Soooon?” the girls spend much of the ride pleading
for a preview, some gleaming token to appease their anticipation:
“Will there be vampires? Will there be werewolves? What do
they look like? What do they do?”
The House of Frankenstein is a retro attraction at its best:
Wending halls of B-movie monsters come to life in waxy dioramas.
My husband has been recalling his own childhood turns through
its eerie corridors and, from the looks of the lobby, we have
warped through decades to the wax house of his memory.
The desk attendant taps at the register and raises a finger
to indicate a yellow tin sign insisting that the place is
terrifying and no refunds will be given to the terrified.
We chuckle, hand over our admission, roll through the turnstile
and mount the stairs. Our junior counterparts—who have, until
this moment, delighted in talk of ghouls and gore—grow tentative
as we approach the entrance, and we pair off, small hands
twining around grown fingers.
I lean into the heavy door, and the 7-year-old hand tightens.
Two-by-two, we slip into the dim, wood-paneled hallway. A
light blinks in the first window and a prop ghost drops down
on a wire. A spooky soundtrack swells. The adventure has begun.
In a feat of synchronized panic, the girls hurl themselves
against us and claw their way to our hips. “Make it stop!”
cries one, as the other pounds her fists against my back with
screams of “I hate it!” and “Noooooooo. No, no, no. Nooooooooo!!!!”
But, as advertised, we “must finish this journey of terror.”
There is no turning back. We wrap ourselves around their trembling
frames and plunge deeper into the horror.
Behind a pane of glass, a dusty wax scientist shocks a blanketed
form; lights flash and a corpse jerks upright with the awkward
robotics of a generation past. Thunder crackles through the
speakers, and my tiny rider bores her head into my chest.
I hear my husband cooing to the 9-year-old, “You’re safe,
you’re safe. I’m right here. It’s just pretend.” The gentle
blanket of his voice mingles with the soft hands clasped around
my neck and I’m struck with a pang of guilt—for both the fear
I have inflicted and how deeply safe I feel.
We are, through adult eyes, whisking the girls through a dark
but innocuous hallway no more frightening than an outdated
summer camp, its wood paneling and industrial carpet basked
in the soft red light of frequent exit signs. But, in their
fear, the two have clamped their eyes shut, and despite our
pleadings, they will not open them.
In this moment, all they know are the electric howls piercing
the darkness and the fearsome creatures their minds have conjured
to explain them. My hand skims over fine hair as panicked
breathing quickens in my ear, and I remember this fear. It
is the all-consuming terror that can only spin from the mind
of a child. It is the product of a treacherous and exquisite
window of youth when the sense of fantasy outshines reality.
Their fear is tangible, fiery and electric. The tiny body
in my arms feels suddenly fragile and precious, a pure, burning
torch of imagination. I want each turn through the halls to
be the last. I want to burst, finally, into the light and
carry her out of this nightmare. I want to prove that she
is safe, that I would shield her from whatever the darkness
could muster. And yet, I don’t want to extinguish this fire.
But just as fear is inextricably woven with imagination, so
is wonder. And when, after what seems like endless turns through
the labyrinthine house of horrors, we tumble back into the
lobby, the fear melts almost instantaneously from their small
selves, and they turn eagerly to find out what we have in
We slap through the rain to the old-time arcade on the corner,
feed quarters into the wooden case of a mysterious fortune
teller who skims her frozen hand over a spread of cards and
spits out our futures, one after another. We shoot skee-ball
and sign our names for an electronic handwriting analysis—a
relic of the 1964 World’s Fair. On the ride home, we play
20 Questions and sing songs they’ve composed, setting off
a fit of giggles. “How long till we stop for dinner?” the
was it like? Were there werewolves?”
short on fright, the “ghost” photos of William H. Mumler offer
a hazy glimpse into 19th century Spiritualism
was a dark and rainy night at Olana, the Persian-style mansion
built by artist Frederic Church well over a century ago, deep
in Headless Horseman country. I was there for a nighttime
exhibition of Victorian spiritual photography (that is, pictures
of ghosts from the 1800s). I already knew a little about William
H. Mumler and his photographs of dead people (Abraham Lincoln’s
wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, among them). I knew Mumler had never
really been definitively discredited. At least, no one ever
explained how he could have forged the hazy images. So I went
half hoping that I would find some eerie insight, some proof
of a spiritual presence that couldn’t be explained by an acid
flashback. I also went because it’s Halloween and I wanted
to be frightened.
The “tour” began just after sunset and just as the rain began.
Eleven of us sat in a room facing a projector screen and Carri
Manchester, the director of education at Olana. The Mumler
photographs that I had hoped to see up close were, instead,
shown on slides, and Manchester gave an enthusiastic yet obviously
unrehearsed presentation on the significance of the Victorian
ghost. While not at all frightening, the presentation was
at least moderately informative.
According to Manchester, mass death and widespread destruction
wrought by the Civil War combined with a feeling of personal
disconnection brought about by the Industrial Revolution and
the rise of Darwinian science to produce a “perfect storm”
for the rise of the Spiritualism movement. Arriving on the
tail of the Second Great Awakening, that period of intense
religious revival in the early part of the 19th century, the
supernatural and superstitious became nearly as fashionable
as religion. For many, they were inseparable. President Lincoln’s
wife was performing séances in the White House, and mourning
for the dead had become so commercial that books could be
purchased if one needed instructions on how to do it correctly.
Written in 1853, “Spirit Rappings” was a popular song throughout
the divided states, comforting in its declaration that “old
friends are near” and “good spirits happy.”
Spiritualism actually began in western New York in the 1840s,
close to where Mormonism emerged not long before. Perhaps
due to its uniquely storied history or the beauty of its environs,
many in this region believed that it was possible to communicate
directly with God and/or other spiritual beings. The leap
to believing in communication with discarnate relatives and
loved ones was not a long one.
Manchester herself doesn’t claim to believe in anything otherworldly.
“I have never seen a ghost at Olana,” she said. “I’m a skeptic,
but I’m not a total unbeliever. I can assure you that if we
had found a ghost, we would have marketed the heck out of
it by now.”
The evening proceeded from the projector room out into the
cold and rainy night, where Manchester told us Victorian ghost
stories as we walked around the grounds. I want to blame these
45 uncomfortable minutes on the chilly rain and my reluctance
to dress appropriately for any situation, but I don’t believe
that’s the whole case (although I was offered someone’s
pants to quit my bitching). Manchester simply wasn’t a storyteller.
Her voice wasn’t loud enough for the group to hear as the
rain beat down on the leaves and her unpolished attempts to
personalize the stories caused her to stumble and collect
herself repeatedly as we sloshed through the dark. Mercifully,
we abandoned the woods after the first tale and took shelter
on the porch of the large mansion (we were never let in),
where we stood as Manchester amiably mangled “The Body Snatcher”
by Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Canterville Ghost”
by Oscar Wilde. Tired of shifting my weight, I finally
sat on the floor and watched an interesting shadow nearby
in hopes that it would do something scary. It didn’t. We wrapped
up the evening by making our very own spiritual photograph
using overexposed film. Freaky.
I still don’t know if ghosts exist or if they ever deign to
contact the living, but if there are any in New York State,
my money is on the Catskills. Next Halloween, maybe Olana
will get it together to do something truly spooktacular for
the season, something deserving of the history and lore of
the area. They have a lot to work with. And now they have
my $10. Which would have been admission to Paranormal Activity.
I hear that’s really scary.
haunted tour of downtown Albany proves we have more to fear
than we might think
say they’ve seen them weeping, holding each other in a small
boat—a man and his young son adrift on the Hudson. Some say
they’ve tried to lend the lost pair a hand, give them shelter
on their vessel, only to have them vanish into the fog. This,
they say, is the apparition of Henry Hudson and his son, left
by their own crew to die in the cold waters of the Hudson
Bay after a mutiny.
And, some say, on late nights, while walking on Dove Street,
they’ve seen a dapper gangster riddled with bullets gasping
and pleading for help.
As a matter of fact, this happened to a group of 10 unfortunates
the other night during the Aqua Ducks ghost tour.
The hapless travellers were contentedly listening to tour
guide Maeve McEneny describe the gruesome last moments of
notorious gangster John “Legs” Diamond when Diamond abruptly
appeared on the sidewalk, pleading, “I’m dead! Save me!” The
duck riders gasped and then giggled as Legs slid off the side
of the trolley. And then the ghosts of Dan O’Connell and Diamond’s
mistress, Kiki Roberts, were seen dashing away in the night.
Dare to take the Aqua Ducks ghost tour and you will learn
that there are lots of bodies buried under our feet, stashed
under the black pavement of Albany’s bumpy streets, encased
in the foundations of our government buildings and churches,
mouldering under the soft sod of the parks where children
You will also learn that, from time to time, these past inhabitants
of Albany turn up during excavations, or when stimulus money
and election-year busywork lead to major street renovations,
their physical remains suddenly unearthed. But there are other
ways these restless souls make their presence known—as cold
spots or ghostly apparitions, or by throwing themselves against
the Aqua Duck trolley you are riding in.
While ghost stories of famous men like Hudson and Diamond
offer lessons about the flawed aspirations of famous men,
the most poignant of McEneny’s ghost tales were those about
ordinary people. A mischievous ghost called Jason haunts the
basement of the education building on State Street. McEneny
said that employees approached her after previous ghost tours
to tell her the story. Jason, they say, was an Italian worker
who fell into the concrete foundation while it was being poured.
Instead of saving Jason, the foreman ordered the workers to
continue pouring. Jason is now said to pull needed files out
of cabinets and leave them in the open for those unfortunates
who are sent to fetch them from storage. Some report cold
spots and being chilled to the bone. Not having learned from
the tale of abusing the common worker, Education Department
employees, it is said, routinely avoid the ghostly presence
by sending interns who don’t know the story to retrieve files
and fend for themselves against the spirit.
As McEneny concluded this story, there was a bump against
the side of the trolley. The travelers all turned, hushed
with fear—and found themselves staring into the disintegrating
visages of terrible zombies lurching forward. One was cackling,
the other doing the robot.
Perhaps one of the most horrific spots in Albany is the state
Capitol, not only because of the recent behavior of the state
Senate’s living members, but also because of the tortured
souls that linger in the building long after death. As we
rumbled up State Street, McEneny recounted the story of the
painter William Morris Hunt, who worked for years creating
great murals on the assembly’s domed ceiling. With a change
of leadership, his work was left unfinished as funding for
his project was eliminated. It is said that the famous Hudson
River school artist was devastated, and that the disappointment
finally drove him to suicide. According to legend, Hunt’s
spirit still haunts the assembly chambers. Paranormal researchers
used their paranormal investigation equipment to capture someone
or something uttering the phrase “William Morris is behind
There is also the story of the lone guard lost during the
fire that ripped through the Capitol in 1911. His spirit is
said to haunt the fourth floor. Rumor has it, McEneny said,
that one assemblyman has the habit of canceling any meetings
scheduled for the fourth floor due to his run-ins with the
ghost. Is it possible the entire Senate chamber was haunted
by the guard’s spirit this summer, scaring away the entire
the dead (or the living) rest” is an important lesson Albany
clearly hasn’t learned. McEneny said the Capitol plaza project,
which, at the instigation of Gov. David Rockefeller, displaced
entire Albany neighborhoods in favor of white-columned monuments
to bureaucracy, has left the plaza haunted by those anguished
by the loss of their homes.
The city also has a habit of digging up graves to make way
for development. Washington Park used to be a cemetery, McEneny
explained. The bodies that were once interred there have been
exhumed and relocated several times over the years. McEneny
said her family was clued in to how this might be upsetting
the spirits when an apparition startled her mother one night.
Her mother told her husband about the appearance and, after
paging through a photo album, the apparition was identified
as Maeve’s great-great grandmother.
Maeve said it was inspiration from her father, noted historian
and Assemblyman Jack McEneny, that got her interested in telling
others about Albany’s haunted history. “It started with my
dad driving me around and telling me ghost stories,” McEneny
explained. She said it is her Irish Catholic background that
keeps her so interested in the afterlife. “The Catholic religion
is rooted in ghosts. The idea of purgatory and the belief
that some may not cross over into limbo is a very Irish concept.”
One can only wonder what kind of ghost stories this generation
of Albanians will pass down to their children. We can only
imagine what sort of supernatural havoc the construction of
the convention center will unleash on Albany.
hear the door slam and realize there’s nowhere left to run.
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you’ll ever see the sun.
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination
(girl!). But all the while, you hear the creature creeping
up behind. You’re out of time!—to catch WAMC’s second annual
Zombie Film Feast, that is. On Saturday, Albany’s celebration
of the undead began with a zombie walk (limp, hobble) down
Lark Street, culminating in a brain-eating contest and “Thriller”
dance off at the Linda. Needless to say, the sight of a couple
dozen zombies on Central Avenue caused more than a few passersby
to channel their inner MJ and break out in song. Best overheard
quote from a zombie (who had just tripped on a soda can):
“Whoa, I almost died . . . again.”
speaking of the King of Pop, you may have noticed our very
first interactive cover. (Who said print media couldn’t hold
a candle to Web 2.0? Get out your damn scissors.) It has come
to our attention that Michael Jackson is the likely winner
of this year’s most popular Halloween costume. We wholeheartedly
endorse the hype and encourage you to do the same. Send photos
of you and your friends, pets, children, or even strangers
wearing the mask to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will post
our favorites to our blog, metroland.typepad.com. . . . For
no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller.