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What Was That?
Is the creep factor of Forest Park Cemetery about active spooks or overactive imaginations?
By Ann Morrow

In late summer 2002, an amateur photographer was driving down Pinewoods Avenue in Brunswick when he saw a black iron gateway anchored by granite columns. Assuming it was the entrance to an old estate or cemetery, he pulled over and walked around the spiked fence in search of statuary to take pictures of. Making his way in was slow going: The deserted grounds were choked by tree branches and dense bramble. At every step, thorny vines wrapped around his legs with unnatural tenacity. What appeared to be an ornate mausoleum lay just ahead, so he pushed onward. The tomb was in ruins, however, with rusted iron arches where the roof used to be. And the interior was marred by the talismans of satanic teen rituals: an upside-down cross painted on a wall, beer cans and candle stubs strewn among broken slabs of marble. Despite the warm weather, the air within was cold and still.

Behind the tomb he spotted a seraphim statue, but the angel’s neck ended in a jagged stump—she had been decapitated. The delicate carving of her flowing gown and feathered wings only made the beheading more disturbing. He began to feel that someone was watching him. And then he heard something move in the underbrush, something big. Decidedly creeped out, he made a hasty exit, with hands held in front of his face to avoid being gouged by twigs. “The Blair Witch woods have nothing on this place,” he remembers thinking.

Little did the unwary shutterbug know that he had just paid a visit to notorious Forest Park Cemetery, considered to be one of the most haunted sites in the state and, if local folklore is to be believed, a gateway to hell.

It wasn’t always so. Forest Park, as the name implies, was intended to be a parklike “garden of remembrance,” complete with fountains, footpaths and a glass pavilion. Construction began in 1897 and included the first above-ground receiving tomb in the country. Large enough to hold 122 corpses over the winter, the tomb had a domed skylight, a copper finial, and a $50,000 price tag. A cemetery chapel was in the works, but it was not to be: Exorbitant costs halted construction in 1900. A proposed trolley from Troy to Brunswick fell through, and plot sales faltered: In an era when visiting the dearly departed was a weekly activity, area residents preferred more convenient locales for their final resting places. By 1913, Forest Park was bankrupt. A second incorporation in the 1930s, by out-of-town investors, also went belly-up, and the site was abandoned. For many years a solitary old man tended to the barely hallowed grounds, but after he died, nature took over with a vengeance.

What the photographer didn’t see, on account of wildly overgrown five-leaf ivy, was an even more demonic desecration. Behind the headless angel, another stone seraphim, this one demurely seated with a laurel wreath, also had her head hacked off—along with a forearm and other parts of her anatomy. The wreath seems to hover eerily before her, held by a disembodied hand. The story goes that the first angel was beheaded by a crazed visitor who was convinced that she was watching his every move, and that the vandalism of the second angel was meant to outdo the depravity of the first.

With the advent of the automobile, the secluded cemetery became a popular parking spot, and rumors began to spread of a headless angel that bled at the neck. An influx of thrill seekers and ghost hunters followed, and reports were circulated of other paranormal events, such as a large, dark apparition hanging about the tomb and leaping away with superhuman agility at the approach of the living. A child’s screams were heard in broad daylight.

By the 1970s, the Troy Public Library was regularly getting requests for a copy of a Life magazine article titled “The 10 Scariest Places in America,” with Forest Park Cemetery listed at No. 3. Generations of local college students graduated with bravura tales of having spent the night in the presence of the Bleeding Headless Angel. A popular radio host organized a nighttime ghost tour for 65 listeners. And with the arrival of the Internet, the infamy of Forest Park caught on like Web-site wildfire. But is any of it true? Well, like most urban legends, it is and it isn’t.

“That poor angel is just leaking away down there,” says Sharon Zankel with cheerful sarcasm. Zankel, a board member of the Brunswick Historical Society and the town historian, is well acquainted with the cemetery’s reputation. In fact, she receives calls about it all year long, and from as far away as California. There isn’t a spooky rumor she hasn’t heard, and she has debriefed many a caller who was 100-percent certain of the frightening thing they’d witnessed in the cemetery. “People see what they want to see,” she explains. But isn’t it possible that where there’s smoke, there’s fire? A longtime resident of a nearby neighborhood, Zankel has conducted her own investigations, and deftly deflects all inquiries. For starters, that Life magazine article, to her knowledge, does not exist.

And according to a biologist Zankel met on the grounds, the “blood” on the angels is produced by a kind of moss that in humid weather will turn red if it’s rubbed—a fact that was authenticated by a botanist. From a patch of lichen, it seems, a fright tale was born. But what about the leaping apparition, another persistent phenomenon? “I’ve seen deer in there,” Zankel offers helpfully. Fair enough. But what about the screaming child? “Have you ever heard a wild turkey?” she asks in reply, and relates how on her very first foray into the cemetery, she and a cleanup crew of three friends were stopped in their tracks by a bloodcurdling shriek, followed by what sounded like a galloping horse heading straight for them. The specter, they realized with some embarrassment, was a startled turkey taking flight.

Alrighty then. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing at all. . . . “It’s gloomy, but not scary,” Zankel insists, and indeed, a recent visit confirmed that Forest Park is no longer the forbidding landscape it was a year ago. Dead trees that once loomed ominously are now reduced to neat piles of firewood, the thorny underbrush is cleared out, and the evil graffiti has been scrubbed almost to invisibility. Toppled tombstones and dying poplars are the only remainders of its malevolent atmosphere. And that otherworldly chill in the roofless tomb? It’s just your imagination.

Or is it? When informed that the watcher in the woods was undoubtedly a curious deer, the photographer vehemently disagrees. “That’s a creepy place,” he shoots back. “I wouldn’t go in there after dark for anything.”

Dead Men Walking
Now a fashionable entertainment icon, today’s vampire evolved from a less-sexy ancestor who existed to explain the seemingly unexplainable
By Jeff Brower

Can you describe a vampire? Of course you can. Pale, slender, aristocratic, stylish, a glimpse of fangs behind a seductive smile—all of us know what vampires look like.

So did our ancestors, but they would likely be baffled by the description above. Prior to the 19th Century, the common notion of a vampire was almost the exact opposite of our modern image.

The vampire of folklore is typically livid in complexion, not pale; bloated, not slender; more likely to be a vagabond than a count; dressed in a tattered shroud, not black satin; and as far from sexy as one can imagine.

Most important, to our ancestors the vampire was not an entertainment, but a very real threat—so real, in fact, that history is replete with accounts of vampire hunts, corroborated by public officials, in which villagers would search out the vampires in their churchyards, exhume them, and mutilate their bodies in a variety of gruesome ways, all in an attempt to save their loved ones from death at the hands of the dead.

Nearly every culture on Earth has had some version of the vampire myth. In ancient China, the vampire was a much-dreaded demon who inhabited a corpse, which would then develop long claws, become covered with greenish or white hair, and learn to fly. The Yugoslavian vampire was known to wear down his widow with his amorous attentions until she wasted away. The Malaysian Penanggalan was particularly horrific, a flying head with its stomach and entrails dangling beneath it like the tail of a kite. The world’s undead run the gamut from pranksters who are scarcely more fearsome than leprechauns to demigods such as the Indian Rakshasa, an insatiable predator who can take on virtually any repulsive form it pleases.

But the common traits we see in all vampire legends can best be examined by looking at the vampires of Eastern Europe, those closest to our modern conception, springing from the lands surrounding Transylvania.

From the Middle Ages until the 20th Century, Eastern Europe was the land of the vampire. There are a number of well-documented cases of “real” European vampires, and chroniclers have also collected countless anecdotal tales that match the documented cases in most important details.

One of the best-documented cases is that of Peter Plogojowitz, a Serbian peasant who died in 1725 in the village of Kisilova. Ten weeks after his death, nine more people in his village died of mysterious daylong illnesses, complaining on their deathbeds that Plogojowitz was tormenting them. The alarmed villagers concluded that Plogojowitz was a vampire and insisted to the imperial provisor and the local pastor that Peter be exhumed. With these two officials in attendance, the villagers dug up the suspected vampire and found that his body was fresh. His hair had grown; his pallid skin had peeled away to reveal a new, fresh skin; his body had no stench; his nails had fallen off to reveal fresh ones; and, most startling to the provisor, he had blood upon his lips. Seeing their suspicions confirmed, the villagers drove a stake through his chest, causing blood to flow from his mouth and ears. They then burned the corpse to ashes and left the hapless provisor to beg to his superiors that this desecration not be blamed on him, according to the provisor (as documented in M. Michael Ranft’s 1728 De masticatione mortuorum), but rather on “the rabble, who were beside themselves with fear.”

An even more spectacular case from 1732 is that of Arnod Paole, a Hungarian soldier who returned from foreign lands claiming he had survived a vampire attack. Arnod eventually died a mundane death by falling off a hay cart. A month later, people began to complain that he had returned from the dead, and soon four more people had died. The villagers concluded Paole was a vampire and exhumed him. They found him as they expected to: engorged, fresh blood upon his gaping blue lips, his skin peeling away to reveal new, ruddy growth. They drove a stake through him, according to a 1732 investigative report, Visum et Repertum (Seen and Discovered), by Johannes Fluchinger, “whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.”

The villagers then proceeded to drive stakes through Arnod’s four victims as well.

This was not the end of Arnod’s story. Six years later came another string of unexplained deaths, and the villagers surmised that Arnod and his vampire brood must have fed on cattle, and that the people who ate this tainted livestock had perpetuated Arnod’s curse. Again the villagers plundered their graveyard, and they found and destroyed no fewer than eleven vampires, all preserved as Arnod and Peter had been: well-fed; hair, skin and nails growing in the grave; and filled with fresh, liquid blood.

What should we make of these stories? Our ancestors were no more immune to overactive imagination than we are. But if we simply dismiss these accounts, we miss the most important lesson there is to learn from the mythology of vampires.

The common thread to the world’s vampire legends is how they end: with the discovery of a corpse that has not decayed as expected. The folklore tells us that it is remarkable—in fact, supernatural—that bodies are discovered that are limber, plump, and ruddy in complexion. The growth of new hair and skin, the lengthening of the teeth, the presence of uncongealed blood on the lips and in the coffin, the groans of the dead as they are moved or impaled—all of this is seen as proof of life within the grave.

But modern forensic pathologists can now tell us that all these traits are in fact variants on how bodies naturally decay. These details are hard on the squeamish, but illuminating. The plumpness of the vampire comes from the trapped gases of decay. These same gases can force blood to the lips of the corpse. The blood of people who die suddenly often reliquefies. Rigor mortis is a temporary condition. The growth of hair and teeth is an illusion that comes from the shrinking of the skin. The “fresh” skin that grows beneath the dead skin, and the “new” nails, are not fresh and new at all; they are simply deeper layers of the dermis that are exposed as outer layers slough off. Even the groans of the dead can be explained by the forcing of gases through the larynx of the corpse as it is handled by the vampire hunters.

Vampire legends, like most ancient religious beliefs, are early attempts at science. Faced with plagues and illnesses they could not explain, our ancestors concluded that invisible forces were at work. They were right, of course, but they had no way to know that viruses and bacteria were their enemies, not demons.

Still, the mind-boggling assortment of techniques our ancestors used to kill and repel vampires is evidence of a great deal of experimentation. The goals of old superstitions and the goal of modern science are the same: to cause practical improvements in the world by understanding the unseen mysteries around us.

Obviously, the hunt for vampires did nothing to cure plagues. Diseases run their course, and the disinterring of corpses continued until, by coincidence, the mysterious deaths ceased. But we can look at similar attempts at science through folklore and faith and find greater success. Many herbal treatments originated by witches are still in use now. Ancient Hebrew kosher laws, written in a time with no knowledge of contaminants like botulism, set a standard for food sanitation that is still admired today. Such successes can be understood only as early examples of the rigorous observations and searches for cause and effect that are the core of modern medical science.

Eventually, science advanced to the point where vampires were no longer needed to explain plagues. By 1812, when Lord Byron conceived the first English vampire story, few Europeans still blamed death on the undead. Stripped of his reality in the common man’s mind, the vampire became the tool of allegory.

Aptly enough, the vampire of fiction soon became locked in a formula that still revolved around the relationship between science and faith. The standard vampire plot, as exemplified in Stoker’s Dracula, involved rational people beset with unexplainable deaths. Soon an expert such as the famous Van Helsing reveals that the source of these deaths is a supernatural agent—the vampire. Much of the plot of these stories revolves around getting the protagonists to realize that they must abandon science and rely on ancient superstitions to destroy the evil in their midst.

Now such plots no longer thrill us. Today’s fiction treats vampirism as little more than a fashion statement. But we can still look back to the time when vampires were quite real to the average man, and ask ourselves whether our current religious beliefs will someday become as quaint and trivial as vampires now seem to us today.

This is Halloween, the time when we feel closest to the dreads that motivated our forefathers, and the time to enjoy the strangest of pleasures—the thrill of a good scare. So as you settle down to sleep tonight, take a moment to contemplate what your distant ancestors must have felt as they wound their way by torchlight into their graveyard, in search of the vampire that was killing friends and lovers. Picture the scene as they expose the corpse to the light of the moon, and see the fresh blood on its lips. And ask yourself whether you could steel yourself to do as they did, and hear the vampire groan as you impale it in its grave.

Jeff Brower is a professional sculptor with a lifelong interest in mythology and weird science.

Between the Slutty Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
From sexy to symbolic, Halloween indulges our desire to seduce with brilliant disguises
By Ashley Hahn

This year, instead of dusting off the same dreary costume, use Halloween as an opportunity to embody something you are decidedly not every other day of the year, put your creative mettle to the test and rise to the occasion by being spectacular.

Setting aside the obvious and traditional costumes, the options are endless: You could be “Captain Hooker,” the saucy pirate strumpet, armed with a hook, eye patch, and padded bra, or “Ribbed for Her Pleasure,” by encasing yourself in egg crate foam and sporting a skull cap. The sky may be the limit, but clever costumes frequently aim high to personify the abstract and the ideal.

“It’s kind of an alter-ego thing,” says Lois Myers, owner of Halloween Hall, a costume shop in Ballston Spa. She thinks women in particular can feel liberated by Halloween, because they know “nobody’s going to think I’m weird if I’m dressed in something revealing and sexy, because it’s Halloween. . . . I can be a wench or a French maid or a sexy firefighter.”

I have one friend who always tries to go home from Halloween parties with the slutty devil. There will always be one at the party, and it doesn’t matter who she is; he’s just hell-bent on winning over that Halloween archetype. Last year, I believe all he got was a hard time washing out the baby powder that tried to gray his hair, and a stiff neck from the couch.

But what is the overwhelming urge for women to dress up revealingly? Perhaps it’s because being just a regular nurse or housekeeper isn’t exciting enough—after all, regular people do that for a living. What’s fun about that? But being the object of someone’s fantasies through a vocation or symbolic representation makes a costume way more appealing.

To Myers, the answer is simple: Women want to feel pretty. “Very few women come in every year and make themselves ugly,”she says. “I can tell you from the thousands of people I see during the course of the year, I have only three or four women who want to be hideous.”

At the other end of the costume spectrum is dressing conceptually. I’ve seen people dressed as the wind, an idea, and love. This year some of my friends are dressing as their favorite fonts. To them, Times New Roman wears tweed and has no sense of humor; Chicago is a leftover of a bygone era, wearing black jeans and lacking self-esteem; and GenX Crumble is sooooo grunge. Is their costume nerdy? You bet. Is it original? Absolutely. And that’s where concept costumes win points.

Abstract costume ideas are an opportunity—as is the ridiculously skanky costume—to be an ideal version of something. It’s suddenly as though there are a bunch of Platonic forms gathered around the ol’ punchbowl instead of just your goofy chums.

Being a glittery pimp is decidedly boring (and most people don’t have the ride to pull it off anyway), and wearing oversized foam cowboy hats or chaps will never be cool. Part of the fun of dressing up is being silly, but it’s also your ability to feel comfortable in your newfound skin. That of course says nothing of the necessity to ensure you can pee, sit, consume and fit through doorways with ease. And always be wary of shaving body hair—and guys thinking of cross-dressing, I’m talking to you here—because you will wake up on Nov. 1 to last night’s horror hangover: the despair that comes with impulsively shaved legs or head and the ensuing itch, in addition to regular morning-after symptoms.

As with any outrageous outfit, how you carry yourself matters. No one wants to talk to the gray girl dressed as wind slumped against the wall, awkward because her clothes are all slanted in one direction and held out by wires, but everyone will want to talk to the tempestuous babe with blushing windswept cheeks who embodies the spirit of autumn gusts. Halloween is not a day to be half-assed.

I have a friend who insisted that owning a gorilla suit would dramatically improve his life. So, the fall after he graduated, he showed up at a Halloween party in our college town in a full gorilla suit to surprise his friends. Upon arrival he refused to speak to anyone except in grunts, which went on for so long that our friends started to doubt that it was actually him. Finally (after overheating), he ripped off his mask to reveal his identity to much groaning. (The night incidentally included an impromptu wrestling match, in character: the gorilla against “Walter” from The Big Lebowski.) The point: He chose a mediocre costume and took it to its extreme. (He went on to wear the gorilla suit—without the mask—during chilly winters in his drafty apartment.)

A few years ago, a friend of mine dressed up as the personal assistant to her best friend, as if the friend were actually a celebrity. The personal-assistant character she adopted tried to look chic but always stayed somewhat trashy, had a laminate badge with her picture and fake name (Rhonda Stacks), and dragged around a briefcase of supplies she thought our celebrity friend would need that night: lipstick, a flask, cigarettes, lighters, sunglasses. . . the supplies were endless. At the same party, another friend was a subcharacter from a subplot from Days of Our Lives, complete with memorized plot lines, who remained in character all night. Again, two unremarkable ideas (personal assistant and TV soap character) that were exceptional costumes because of the extent people were willing to go to carry them to fruition.

In spite of all of this, I’ve been invited to a Halloween party and have no costume. All of my ideas fall flat: I can’t be Debbie Harry because she’s way too hot and I can’t pout all night. Joan Jett wears too many bandannas and has too high of a spandex potential. If I were Annie Oakley, no one would know that I wasn’t just a cowgirl. And though I like powdered wigs, they require either a bustier or a tricornered hat to complete the look. For now, I’m leaning toward the hanging gardens of Babylon or Clio, the muse of history.

Regardless, the parties will be rife with people dressed as everything from rock stars and biblical prophets to sedimentary rocks and corporate profits—and of course, the obligatory slutty devil.

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