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Fright Factories

The fear that burns in a child’s imagination

By Kathryn Geurin

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 store next.

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 chorus begins.

“What was it like? Were there werewolves?”

Shadows Of History

While short on fright, the “ghost” photos of William H. Mumler offer a hazy glimpse into 19th century Spiritualism

By Ali Hibbs

It 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.

Ghosts Among Us

A haunted tour of downtown Albany proves we have more to fear than we might think

By David King

Sailors 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 play.

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 the door.”

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 Senate?

“Let 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.

Thriller Night

You 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.”

 

 

 

 

And, 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 editorial@metroland.net, and we will post our favorites to our blog, metroland.typepad.com. . . . For no mere mortal can resist the evil of the thriller.


 


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