08/1/14

Ghost Touring

The wind blows down the city street and strangers huddle together against the dark. In front of them a storyteller spins a tale that’s almost unbelievable. As they walk through the parks and residences, alleyways and historic markers, the stories keep coming. The group leans in eager to hear. Scared or bored, their feet hurting or their hearts pounded, they have in common: ghosts.

I go on a ghost tour whenever I get the chance. On a regular tour, I’m the girl who asks if there have been any ghost stories. I tell myself I’m not obsessed, that ghost stories are some of the best stories around. They feature strong emotions, and deep dark moments. Most ghost tours share a few tropes if not entire stories. There’s almost always a bride, killed on her wedding day, and haunting in her wedding dress. In Philadelphia and Alexandria, VA she burned to death. In Savannah she died of greed, poisoned by embalming fluid in the dress stolen from her sister’s corpse. Typically a child ghost makes an appearance, sometimes bringing friends, usually playing or laughing in a way that should be cute but comes out as creepy.

Ghost tours used to be hard to find. My first Savannah ghost tour was conducted by a private guide. At $60 for the afternoon, she worked out to be cheaper than most, and more friendly. The last time I went back the city offered haunted carriage rides, pirate tours, haunted walking tours, and a ghost tour every night. With so much competition picking the right ghost tour becomes a tough choice. I’d suggest a tour lead by someone with a background in history or literature. Despite their very sensational website, Grim Philly tours were all written by a history professor and are given by history students. They were also the only tour I’ve been on that took us to specialists along the way.

A guide from the Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, who only tells stories about those graves, took over our tour for half an hour.

A guide from the Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, who only tells stories about those graves, took over our tour for half an hour.

Guides can be serious or eager, occasionally dressed in costume. Lord Chaz leads tours in the French Quarter of New Orleans wearing a vintage mortician’s suit and top hat. His tour didn’t offer any stories I hadn’t heard before, but it was the only one I’ve been on where my tour guide got arrested. Guides take their work very seriously, and may have even published a book of ghost stories (available for purchase at the end of the tour). It’s considered poor form to correct them, even when you know they left out a part of the story. Similarly, if your guide holds up a poorly rendered photograph that ‘proves’ ghosts, don’t heckle.

Glowing ghost orbs, or proof that I’m not a professional photographer

Glowing ghost orbs, or proof that I’m not a professional photographer

Ghost tours tend to focus on ghosts, but a few stories may slip in that are only ‘spooky’. In Charleston it was a failed love affair by Edgar Allen Poe. We sat on library steps in the moonlight, hearing about the inspiration for his Annabelle Lee poem – a very real woman he wasn’t allowed to court. Other options include historic buildings, markers of historic events, or criminal proceedings.

This building is the ‘twin’ the ‘Zuul’ building from Ghostbusters. Spooky! Or not.

This building is the ‘twin’ the ‘Zuul’ building from Ghostbusters. Spooky! Or not.

Adults don’t get to ask someone ‘tell me a story’. We read books, but that’s only close to the experience of a hearing someone spin a tale. If you’re lucky your family sits around a table telling stories. If you’re not, try a ghost tour. They might not be 100% true, or faithfully accurate, but they’re always a memorable time.

07/15/14

Eastern State Penitentiary

On 4th of July I celebrated freedom by visiting the world’s first penitentiary, Easter State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, PA. Unlike modern prisons, Eastern State was designed to make a man penitent. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. They weren’t allowed to talk and could only read the Bible or do manual labor, such as shoe repair, to pass the time.

The heavy doors drown out any sound, in hopes of enforcing total and complete silence.

The heavy doors drown out any sound, in hopes of enforcing total and complete silence.

It was an odd mix of torture and luxury – ESP had central heat and running water before the White House did. Every cell had a sky light. At the same time, if you were caught trying to talk you’d be gagged with a horrible metal apparatus. Established in 1829 and left to ruin in 1971 ESP makes for some fabulous photographs.

The door out of a cell block

The door out of a cell block

In October it houses one of the scariest haunted house attractions in the US. I deliberately planned my trip for a time when that wouldn’t be in place. I’m not sure I can support the idea of a place of real horror being turned into an attraction. I like a good scare as much as the next girl, but it seems disrespectful to ignore the decades of very real suffering in search of a good time.

A barber’s chair that should’ve been in the barber’s shop. I suspect it was left in a random cell after Halloween.

A barber’s chair that should’ve been in the barber’s shop. I suspect it was left in a random cell after Halloween.

 

The ruins each that mix of good and bad. A red cross marked the door to the hospital,  a place that was famous for offering new and innovative treatment.

The door way to the prison hospital.

The door way to the prison hospital.

Psychologists worked hard to get inmates to a healthier place. At the same time, physicians worked to cure cancer and treat heart attacks, no aliment was left unaddressed. The prison even employed its own dentist.  But it’s hard to imagine that everyone worked to for the betterment of all.

Death row, part of the newer section of the prison.

Death row, part of the newer section of the prison.

There are a lot of ways to torture a man. By the 70s ESP had stopped strapping them into chairs or gagging them. Instead they built the new wings of the prison to be endless, curving rows of cells.

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I’ve never really thought about prisons, how they were or how they should be. ESP forces the question, but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.

04/15/14

Abandoned Insane Aslyum – Spring

Last fall a group of friends invited me to run a 5k. It’s not too far away, they said, with barely suppressed grins. Just a nice run in the woods, they told me, their words covering barely concealed laughter. I knew to expect something but I never guessed the race would go through the grounds of an abandoned insane asylum.  Even before the whistle blew, I knew I’d be back with my camera for research.

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A fairly recent bio-hazard face mask rests on the lawn in front of the aged wooden door.

 

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A sign warns there’s video surveillance of the rusting hand rail and crumbling steps.

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The entrance to the laundry facilities, thankfully there wasn’t a load of laundry still waiting.

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A broken mirror reflects broken windows

 

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Twelve foot high arching fence, because even the most dangerous patients deserve to see the sun.

Established in 1773 the old brick buildings gave off a sense of contemplative neglect. While the front of property showcases a brand new mental health facility, in the back acres the past lingers with crumbling steps, shattered windows, and broken refuse. Rat traps and a long slithering black snake were the only remaining residents.

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A moment after I took this photo of the machinery the black snake sleepily slithered away.

And then there was a building, a place perfect for Night Vale, a curved bubble of white plastic. The only occupied building, hidden in the back, it gave off a quiet hissing noise. You couldn’t see workers, just hear them, voices bleeding through plastic as they talked about chemicals….

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Signs told me it’s a pool, but I think I’m going to make it a covert research facility or the site of an alien landing. I’ll definitely add a few ghosts to the place.