Haunting — The old fashioned way
Many years ago, in the days of my misspent youth, I toiled for four years at California State University, Long Beach, as a theater major. As such, I of course spent most of my time on and around the department’s two stages. What with the vicissitudes of costume fittings, lighting adjustments, and walking on saying, “What ho!” twenty or thirty times until the director was satisfied, I often found myself in the building quite late at night, which led to a discovery — theaters are damned creepy places. They are, in fact, haunted. (The clunks and thumps and creaks and pops I heard were not from causes as mundane as the huge building setting or from the big glass windows cooling and contracting after the heat of the day — absolutely not.)
On reflection, I have come to think that all places, of any sort, fall somewhere on a supernatural sliding scale — always, sometimes, or never haunted. Indeed, this realization has led to a family game that my children and I often play — naming a place and stating its haunted status and, in case the others disagree, making a persuasive argument for your position. I know it sounds like an odd way to pass the time, but you get tired of Yahtzee after a while.
What are the factors that influence the likelihood of a place being haunted? If we’re talking about buildings, then function is very important, especially if the structure has any intrinsic relation to death or the supernatural. Thus it is far easier for a funeral home or church or morgue to be haunted than it is for a factory that exists for the purpose of extruding plastic into molds for Star Wars toys. (Now if two or three workers should fall into a vat of molten plastic, well, their co-workers might get a little uneasy walking around the isolated areas of the building alone at night. Just how uneasy would have to be determined by several other factors.)
The age of the structure has to be taken into account too; it’s more likely that an old place will be haunted than a new one, for obvious reasons. Size also comes into play; I think ghosts feel more comfortable in large spaces than in cramped ones. Large spaces are more conducive to perspective distortions and echoes, both things that spirits delight in.
I believe that places that have large numbers of anonymous people constantly moving through them are more prone to spectral visitations, though I’m not sure exactly why. It helps if such places remain active at night, even if traffic is reduced. (In fact, the reduced traffic may even help coax the ghosts out from wherever they are when they’re off the clock.) Aesthetic considerations and architectural elements are also important — it’s somewhat easier for a beautiful gothic-style cathedral to be haunted than for a modernist steel-and-glass-box chapel to be, even if they’re the same size and were built at the same time, and a multi-story building attracts spirits more than a one story structure does. (Staircases are an irresistible lure for showing off those hard-earned floating and gliding skills.)
There are many more elements to consider, of course — coming up with your own is part of the fun, and there are no hard-and-fast boundaries that can’t be leaped over by a little imagination, as in the China Meiville story “The Ball Room,” which is set in the children’s play area of a haunted IKEA store.
My own tribe has decided that theaters, churches (and some churches meet in theaters — ooooo!), mortuaries, hospitals, libraries, large hotels, and older department stores are always haunted. Amusement parks, large or small, are veritable ghost magnets. I would also assert that subways, train stations, bus terminals, and airports are always haunted, though this has proven to be a contentious view. Roadside rest areas on long, lonely stretches of highway? No thanks – I’ll hold it until we get to the next town…
Never haunted? Any payday advance store or chain haircut place. (By that I mean a haircut place that’s part of a regional or national chain, not a place where they cut your hair with a chainsaw – under certain circumstances, I could easily imagine a place like that being haunted.) Any establishment in a strip mall is sure to be ectoplasmically shunned. Dentists’ offices, minor-league ball parks, KFC franchises — nary a whisper from the other side do they get.
Of course always and never are the easy parts of the game. It’s the sometimes portion where ingenuity and fine judgment are most called for. I think gas stations, bowling alleys and car washes (not the do-it-yourself kind) are sometimes haunted. Major sports stadiums may be haunted, though the chance is lessened if they are named for a corporate sponsor. (San Diego’s Qulacomm Stadium had a better chance for visitations from beyond when it was named after Jack Murphy.) Large office buildings may be haunted. (Age and function come into play here.) It is possible for schools to be haunted. Normally I would say that Walmarts are never haunted, but I have to put them in the sometimes category because of all the times that I’ve felt dead while I was standing in line there.
It’s really a surprisingly fun and intellectually stimulating way to pass the time (the ghost game, not standing in line at Walmart.) Give it a try and see if you don’t agree. If you do, spare a thought for the great Fritz Leiber and his 1941 story, “Smoke Ghost,” which played an important part in moving ghosts and hauntings from the pastoral past into the urban present, from the then and there to the here and now. Leiber (who also wrote one of the finest theatrical supernatural stories, “Four Ghosts in Hamlet”) wouldn’t see anything incongruous in a haunted bus terminal or skating rink, and neither should you.
Always? Sometimes? Never? You should be so lucky… mwa-ha-ha-ha….
Thomas Parker’s last article for us was A State of Suspension: Iain Banks’ The Bridge